Opinion

PART II: 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 Two of
17 Nov 2016 11:00
PART II: MANGOES AND MONKEY BUSINESS
The fable of the Crocodile and the monkey.

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 Two of a two-part series which was published yesterday.

 

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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