Opinion

Literature: Part I: Mangoes and Monkey Business

Satendra Nandan is Fiji’s leading writer. This is a short story from his collection of Fijian stories, Ashes and Waves, to be published next year. This is Part One of
16 Nov 2016 11:00
Literature: Part I: Mangoes and Monkey Business
Satendra Nandan

Satendra Nandan is Fiji’s leading writer. This is a short story from his collection of Fijian stories, Ashes and Waves, to be published next year. This is Part One of a two-part series which will be published tomorrow.

The sharpening of the knife was unmistakable. It had acquired a deadly rhythm. And the cold, shining edge of the dark steel had a dreadful reputation: a murder weapon for slitting throats and chopping off goats’ heads.

The old man was used to it; he heard it every morning during the cane harvesting season. He was grateful for the grating sound: his son was awake.

His sight had dimmed but his mind was still alive, restless and rippling like the waves of the seven seas, the black waters through which he had travelled almost a century ago.

Around this time, every morning now memories floated like dust in the strayed rays of a sun setting in some ancient sky. He’d feel overwhelmed but held on to the sound of his son’s cane knife against the iron file.

He lay on his plaas, made up of dried cane leaves sown into the mattress of a few CSR sacks, a native mat on top, and his warm, black blanket. Black, he felt, was an accommodating colour; it hid the dirt, the saliva and diffused the occasional smell. But it reminded him of Ravana during Ramlila. (re-enactment of the life of Rama)

As the rhythm of the filing grew fainter, the old man made the effort to get out of his bed, open the dilapidated door of his bure, walk a few steps leaning on his lathi (fighting stick in Indian sub-continent), to sit on a rough-hewn wooden structure under the mango tree. Kallu, the dog, lay dozing under it waiting for the morning to chase chickens scrambling for worms amongst the rotting mangoes.

It was neither dark nor light. A couple of bats flew from the tree disturbed by the thuck, thuck, of a stick. Several bat-eaten mangoes lay on the early morning earth. The old man winced in pain to see such lovely fruits wasted by bats. So much is wasted in this land – a wasteland. In his village, Sultanpur, nothing was wasted; every bit of food came from the gods and mother earth, so he was taught, as a little boy, by his mother and often he remembered that.

How could he forget that grove of about a dozen mango trees owned by the zamindar (landowner, especially one who leases land to farmers) with a handlebar moustache. Ravana’s moustache reminded him of the landlord on whose four-acre farm they dwelt – his father, mother, a sister and himself. And the daily journey along the little unforgettable path to the well to fetch water was an excuse; indeed he went to play lachidari with his older sister, Rani, and steal a few mangoes in the predawn darkness.

‘Mother’, he breathed, then shuttered the window of his memory by closing his left eye. But the taste of those stolen mangoes: delicious, juicy and sugar sweet; the character of the fibre that made you suck the mango stone till it shone like a piece of bone.

Then that fatal dawn: it was winter, the land shrouded in the morning mist, and who would have imagined the zamindar to be up that early. As he picked up the third mango, the voice had boomed: ‘Arre, launda, aamwa choruaat hai, Saasura! (Stealing mangoes, you rascal!)’

The movement of the stick close to his young head, gliding past his left ear like a whiplash. He dropped the third mango and ran and ran leaving his little, familiar road on to a bigger one, feeling the footfalls of the zamindar so close until he ran into a well-dressed man with a sun helmet, an arakathi – a recruiting agent during the girmit season.

With a mango in his pocket, he held the little finger of the man as he was taken into an iron train – huge and ugly but dark and strong like Ravana.

And as the train moved the little boy’s right hand clasped the mango tightly, his fingernails piercing it; and there was the delicious fragrance, in a steely cage full of strangers, travellers with undefined destinies, uncertain destinations.

As the train snaked its way past the bruise-like village, puffing black smoke in the shadow of which the village dissolved, the boy saw, for the last time, the little, unforgettable path that led from his hut to the well into the lonely orchard.

*

Shiva, his son, a sugarcane farmer, was getting ready to go and harvest four tonnes of cane to be loaded on to the trucks for the CSR Company’s mills at Lautoka. Harvesting began early in the morning, before it got hot and then the hornets stung viciously. Besides, in the coolness of the tropical morning one could do much more work. When the sun rose across the sky, like the white overseer striding across the cane fields, burning blindly, it was impossible to do much.

So Shiva began early every day, seven days a week. Life on the farm had a ritualistic monotony. His father had done it for fifty years for the CSR Company, mai-baap, mother-father of all labourers.

The old man was bent by the work but not broken in faith. Indeed his spirit had strengthened like a ploughshare in the furnace. And he was proud of his son, the owner now of ten acres of native land. It was his farm and it was larger than his parents could ever have got from their zamindar in their distant village across many seas.

Every morning, for six months of the harvesting season, Shiva would get up around 4am, rush to the well, perform his ablutions, never turning his back towards the rising sun, wash his face with warm water from the well and return noiselessly to his tin shed. His wife, Rampati, would have packed a dozen rotis, at least two curries, several chillies, and bowls of dahl and yogurt into a large, enamel sispaan.

He loved the parathas, dripping with homemade ghee and the dark masala of the curries with a handful of mango pickle. The sispaan would then be kept near the cane knife with a large bowl of red tea. Rampati would then lie down alone, in her lehenga, on the timber bed staring at the corrugated iron ceiling while her husband got ready to be one of the finest cane cutters in the district.

Around 5am he’d leave his home, the little rugged track leading to the feeder road below the hill. He’d walk briskly with the sispaan in one hand and the cane-knife in the other. As he reached the field, Sultan Ali would give him his ‘taas’: rows and rows of sturdy green sugarcane to be mowed down. Sultan, Shiva knew, had one weakness: he was a recent convert from another district and to show him respect, Shiva would greet him warmly: ‘Salaam walukum, hatmaan!’

Sultan would mumble something unintelligible, almost inaudible. The greeting didn’t come naturally to his tongue used to ‘Ram Ram, Sita Ram’. And the short, plastic Sultan had begun claiming his ancestry from the Pathans. But it ensured Shiva the best patch to harvest.

Then around 6am Sardar Ramasami, a nagonchi, would arrive accompanied by a red-faced Mr Reid, the coolumber. Reid Sahib never got off his horse but bellowed a few instructions as his well-groomed brown horse trotted between two rows of harvested cane. As he paused, the cane-cutters would lift their sweaty hats and shout ‘Salaam, Sahib!’

The Australian overseer would look pleased as the men resumed their harvesting while Ramasami took the coolumber to his home for a breakfast of goat curry, mango chutney and parathas.

Before the meal a basin full of freshly squeezed yaqona was consumed.

But men and boughs break…

*

The old man looked up at the mango tree loaded with half-ripened mangoes. A local tree planted by his wife Anarkali soon after Shiva was born. The mango tree had become such a symbol of this bountiful land. The sun had not yet emerged from behind the Sabeto hills; a few hens were scratching the yard for early worms; Kallu lay dozing in the warmth of another dawn.

He heard his son draw the bucket of water from the well and gargle, getting rid of last night’s yaqona poison. And then he knew Shiva would stand erect and breathe ‘Oum’ fifty-six times; it was the holy mantra, but the real reason was that it brought up the stale wind from his innards. It was refreshing.

The strong young man came up from the well, the old man mumbled gently, ‘Arre, Shivnanan, my beard’s grown bigger.’

Shiva was surprised to see his old father sitting under the mango tree, a wraith in half light.

‘Bappa, kal, tomorrow. Cutting five tonnes today. Getting extra truck.’

Why the old man never learnt to shave was a mystery to him and initially he felt irritated whenever he had to shave his father. But slowly, shaving his father’s face began to give him a certain closeness. To lather his white rubble of a beard with carbolic soap, to use slightly warm water, then to turn and twist the old man’s head, gave him a joyous sensation. Father and son, sitting together for a while, had acquired a special, indefinable meaning for him. He had looked into his father’s eyes, touched his wrinkled skin. And sometimes in the piece of the broken mirror his face and his father’s merged in a single image.

The old man sat quietly, a stubborn streak rising within him. ‘You promised last week, Shivnanan,’ he reminded him and coughed noisily.

His son went into the tin kitchen and came out with his sispaan, knife and the bowl of red tea. He sat on the three steps that connected his house to the ground. With the first loud sip of steaming tea, he glanced at his father’s grizzled beard growing like a sugarcane ratoon.

He got up, walked to the old man and said, ‘Acha, Bappa, shave you first.’

The old man gave him a smile, a toothless grin. Kallu stirred half asleep. The sun’s warm rays broke over the hills and slanted into the mango leaves: it was always so golden, so beautiful, how could people not worship it? There was no monotony ever in the dawn breaking over the blue hills and green fields. The old man bowed his head naturally and muttered: Oum Tat Sat – Thou Art That.

As his son went back into his tin house to get the shaving paraphernalia, the old man remembered how Hanuman, so the legend went, was so hungry one morning that his mother had scolded him to go and eat the first fruit he saw. And he had seen the rising sun, red and golden, a pomegranate perhaps, and had swallowed it. There was darkness everywhere. Only his mother’s pleadings had made him release the sun.

The story always amused the old man: the hunger of children can be so strong and his eyes twitched every time he remembered his own hungry days.

Shiva brought a bowl of warm water, a piece of carbolic soap, a Gillette machine, an empty glass and two rather rusty looking bluish blades. He also clasped tightly in his left hand a jagged piece from a broken mirror. He sat on the ground and asked his father to come and sit opposite him, warning him not to impale his buttocks on the broken piece of glass.

The old man got off the wooden bench-like structure, moved a few paces and sat near his son, as if he was sitting at some important ceremony. He sat still, watching the movements of his son with deep fascination.

Shivnanan put a bit of spit in the glass and began rubbing one of the blades against the smooth wide edge of the tumbler. After about five minutes of intense rubbing, like Aladdin’s lamp, the blade glinted in the dawn. He fitted the blade into the small silver machine. Then with his right hand he wetted the old man’s wizened face and rubbed soap all over it.

‘Sit still, Bappa, or the soap will go into your eyes!’ he scolded his old father whenever the old man blinked. Soon his face was covered in a thick lather, his large nostrils blocked by white foam. His son’s nostrils were slightly flared too.

‘Wokay, sitting still, Bappa,’ warned his son, holding the shaving machine close to the old man’s left cheek.

‘Me sitting not running!’ the old man retaliated, emboldened by his son’s closeness.

Shivnanan placed the broken mirror against a stone to reflect the old man’s half face, and began shaving: gently pressing the machine against the ageing skin. It cut a furrow in the thick lather and the old man’s brown skin began to gleam. One stroke to the left, one to the right; there was a shape, a structure, a rhythm in his son’s art.

The old man was happy; he wanted to talk. But his son was bent on giving his father a fine shave without any interruptions. His father, though, was used to the old style: talking to his jehajibhais – shipmates – as they shaved each other. It was a time of conversation, for sharing gossip and news about relatives and friends. They had no mirrors then and each man, in a sense, mirrored the other.

*

The gossip was mainly about women: there were so few girmit women and their elopement was a common theme. And Anarkali, too, on that dark cyclonic night. He remembered the sheets of rain across their faces as they walked across flooded fields of paddy. When they had reached his newly thatched bure, the woman in her thirties had taken off her wet clothes and stood naked with her wet hair as he lit the hurricane lantern. Water on a woman’s nakedness makes her so beautiful, he recalled, so accepting like a stream. Ah, and those breasts like mangoes.

Shiva, their son, was conceived that night. The old man felt a rising tenderness in his crinkled loins and heard his son’s distant thunder: ‘Don’t shake, Bappa!’

The old man glanced at the mirror, saw part of his bald skull reflected, then his nose and finally his shaven, shining face. His son had finished shaving him, wiped his nose with a rag, and lifted the mirror to him:

‘Kaise lage hai, how does it look?’ he asked, pleased with his handiwork. The old man nodded, holding the mirror with both hands.

‘Acha, rushing now,’ said his son as he bundled the shaving equipment in the rag. The old man sat motionless, under the tree.

Then he saw his son dash out of the tin house in long, proud strides, as sure of himself as a cane-knife.

*

Mangoes, the Indian mangoes of his village, were so much sweeter. How he and his sister would lie under the starry sky, against the mud-walls of their frail thatched huts and eat those stolen mangoes, sucking the juice out of every fibrous strand. Then they would watch the sky and the scudding clouds.

‘Show me, Hanuman with the hill?’ his sister would yell, as the clouds changed shape.

‘Show me a herd of elephants?’ he would shout as the stars twinkled and vanished behind the clouds.

How fast the moon travels, they thought. Suddenly all was gone. With two mangoes in his pockets he had left Sultanpur, never to return.

This world, ten thousand miles and a million memories away, under a savage sky, and an absent moon, was brutal and had taken its toll. Women and yaqona and back-breaking work. Often he sang in Bhojpuri:

I’m an old man raging at the wind,

A shipwrecked soul, waving at the waves…

In a world where repression was routine, he had grown from a young boy to an old man. So he had grown dreaming of a lost world, living on an alien shore.

The local bats had ruined so many mangoes and yet they clung to the tree like barnacles on a wrecked ship. Perhaps hanging upside down, they had another view of the world. In any case they were blinded by light.

It is better to suffer evil than to do it.

His eyes caught a few more lying in the dewy grass pecked by a couple of hens; the sun had not risen above the hills and he saw his mother’s nose ring glisten in the rays. Then the old man caressed his shaven face, smelling of soap, and felt his heart with his right hand.

His mother’s words came tumbling as mangoes in a dust storm. She loved telling little stories as he and his sister lay on either side of her, blinking at the stars on Indian summer nights.

The old man again put his left palm on his heart instinctively. It had become a gesture of reassurance, remembrance of familiar things, memory of a mother. Distant eyes searched for solid objects – a stone, a fallen faggot on the sun-shrivelled ground as the predawn darkness disappeared. He felt a bit drowsy as the fresh breeze brushed against his shaven cheeks, warming the crevices on his face. The deep grey, trimmed moustache bristled.

The heart will break again and again and the mind shall be restless forever wandering amongst ruins. The story came hurtling from the spaces in his life, like a flock of birds flying in an indifferent sky:

The monkey had grown up on the mango tree. How often he had told the fable to his son Shiva. The moral was always emphasised: do not make the crocodile your enemy if you dwell on the river’s bank. The little pond by the mango orchard in his mud-walled village had become a lake, now enlarged into a river by distance and dislocation.

The monkey, he’d tell his son sitting on his lap, lived in the mango tree which grew by the river, sometimes Jamuna, sometimes Ganga. The important detail for the man was the huge tree with lots of glowing mangoes.

‘How big was the tree, Bappa?’ young Shiva would ask playing with his father’s greying beard.

‘Very biggest,’ his father would reply, opening his eyes to convey the terror in a tree. The boy would huddle in the warmth of his father’s chest wondering if the monkey was really Hanuman’s son.

The mango tree was abundantly fruitful and leafy throughout the year. There are places in India which have no seasons, no bats. The monkey lived alone. One day, in the heat of the midday sun, he saw a black, scraggy something rise on the water’s surface in the shade of the tree.

First the monkey thought it was a rotting log, then he realised it was a crocodile come to cool itself in the shade. The monkey dropped the mango he was eating into the water. The crocodile gulped it with a snap of its long jaws. It grinned. The monkey dropped another, and another. By the end of the afternoon, the crocodile had his fill of mangoes.

It came under the tree every day to be fed by this stranger.

One day the crocodile asked for some mangoes to take home to his wife.

Until then the monkey had thought the crocodile was alone like himself. He felt a bit sad and gave him a couple of mangoes to take home for his wife. The crocodile was touched. The monkey began sending his gifts of mangoes every day.

The crocodile’s wife, too, developed a taste for mangoes.

One night after dinner, just before love-making, she said to her husband; ‘If the mango is so sweet, can you imagine how sweet his heart would be?’

‘Whose?’ the crocodile asked, half asleep.

‘The monkey’s. On the mango tree!’ his wife answered, sidling closer to him.

For a moment the crocodile was aghast, shocked. He couldn’t believe his ears.

‘What are you suggesting, madam?’ he asked.

‘Well, invite him home for dinner one evening. Then we’ll eat his heart’, she replied seductively, twisting her tail into his.

The crocodile told her to shut up. The monkey was his best friend. There was deep trust between them. This would be biswasghat, treachery, of the lowest kind.

But before he could say more, his wife had taken him in her armless embrace and the seed of betrayal was planted in the act of loving. The wife shed a lot of crocodile tears after their orgasmic intimacy.

The next day the crocodile didn’t go to his friend. The following day he arrived a bit late. The monkey was ecstatic when he saw his friend breathing heavily under the tree.

‘I missed you yesterday,’ said the monkey. ‘I hope you are feeling well, my friend?’ he enquired with genuine concern.

The crocodile didn’t lift his eyes. ‘Well, I was busy preparing for a special feast tomorrow with the chief crocodile. My wife wants you to come, too.’

The monkey was delighted, his heart beating with gratitude. No one had ever invited him to dinner before. He must brush his tail neatly. He even dropped a few extra mangoes for the crocodile to take home for the guests tomorrow night. The crocodile left early, floating on the surface of the water, with a heavy heart.

The next afternoon his friend arrived and the monkey jumped on its back and the crocodile swam towards his home. The monkey was enjoying the ride but his friend was unusually quiet.

As the first lights twinkled on the distant edge of the other shore, the monkey asked:

‘What’s the matter, my friend? You are not happy I’m coming home to dinner. I won’t eat too much,’ he said, laughing in anticipation.

The crocodile stopped swimming, and for the first time in two days he looked into the little monkey’s bright, glittering eyes. The monkey saw tears in his friend’s eyes.

‘Why are you looking so terribly tearful, my friend?’

Said the sad, gullible crocodile:

Your fate is sealed, the betrayal vile,

Today will be your journey’s end

Tonight I’ve lost my dearest friend.

My wife shall relish your heart

An after-dinner mint, before you depart;

The mangoes you eat are so sweet,

Sweeter, she thinks, is your heart’s meat.

That’s the reason for my mute sorrow

You shan’t see the sun ever tomorrow!

 

The monkey laughed, hiding his shock.

‘My dear, dear friend,’ he said, ‘there’s no need to weep for that. Indeed I feel sorry for you and your wife. Giving a heart is a small gift. But, alas, I’ve left my heart on the mango tree, on the topmost branch. Take me back quickly and I’ll bring my heart as a gift for your wife, and your chief guest. It will be sweet indeed!’

The crocodile swung back. In a few moments he had brought the monkey to the mango tree. The monkey jumped off his thick hide to swing on to a branch and then climbed to the top of the tree.

He never looked back.

As the darkness swelled upon the deep, it dawned on the crocodile: truth is what you know and do not know.

He never returned, nor rose to the surface again.

The old man didn’t stir as the sun poured its life on all living things, stones and fallen mangoes.

Feedback:  jyotip@fijisun.com.fj

 



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