Art by Senan O’Connor
Yes, he’d heard the sound, distant: a light jingle, yet distinct- like a whisper in his ear.
Manav turned, peeling his skin from the floor’s stickiness. His sweat, mixed with grime collected on cement, served as a film of slow-drying adhesive. Sitting up, he listened.
The jingle became urgent, persistent.
“Can’t you hear?”
Manav looked around. A whiff of warm air tickled his nape, a springy coil of his long hair brushed against his ear.
The noise grew louder, more piercing.
“Are you so deaf that you couldn’t locate the source of a sound?”
Manav stood up, groped for the switch, and flipped on the light. He gazed at his wife, asleep on a single bed. Her face looked gloomy, her closed eyes sort of sunken. For the past few days, she hadn’t been eating as much as she’d like to. Their only daughter, a teenager, slept by her side. She seemed to have lost weight.
Within a few days, food would be hard to come by.
“Can’t you see, even in light?”
Manav’s eyes fell on his chilanga, hanging from a nail on the wall. Those anklets, made of red cloth with small bells studded on them, embellished his feet when he performed as an oracle in the sacred groves that housed small temples of various deities.
“Wear us on your ankles.”
The voice felt cold, menacing. Manav walked gingerly towards the wall and retrieved the anklets. His body shivered a little at the metallic touch of the bells on his fingers when he fitted the ornament to his ankles, for the first time in about a month.
“We can’t bear this idleness,” the anklets spoke in unison. “These months are our season, and you’ve no care in this world that the theyyams are waiting. Those deities, you know their ire; they’ll unleash their wrath on you and your generations to come.”
Perspiration broke on Manav’s forehead. “But I’m helpless. The disease is catching up fast and the city has been locked down. I’m not even allowed to go out.”
“I don’t know, it’s got something to do with last year.” He wished his wife were awake. She’d be remembering the name. Having studied till Grade-12, she was smarter than him, though he would never acknowledge it.
“Don’t try to shield your laziness with the excuse of a disease.”
“I’m not lying.” If he knew how to operate his wife’s smartphone, he could have shown them the proof: scenes unfolding everyday in the city, the state, the nation, and across the world. “It’s like a calamity; maybe the end of Kali Yuga, this era of evil. The world is coming to its doom.”
“We don’t care when the world comes to an end. We just want to dance with our deities, get their blessings. So, take us to a Kavu, where we can get some fresh air, meet our God, and rid ourselves of the restlessness that’s killing us. After all, it’s only for three or four months that we get the chance, when it’s the theyyam season. The rest of the time, we’re rotting here without complaining.”
“Don’t speak to me like the masters,” Manav shouted. “You talk about entertainment? These four months mean my sustenance. I spend the remaining time job hunting. Do you have any idea what it means to me, not being able to perform?” People offered money to the oracles, as a tribute to the gods for the predictions they made, answers to mounting concerns: the construction of a house, the marriage of a daughter, the education of a son, the cure of a disease…
Over and above the payment he received from the kavu, the additional money helped him to barely sail through the off-season months. Now, with the temples shut down, the gods wouldn’t venture outside. Even as he contemplated the days ahead, Manav felt a tight clasp inside his guts. He barely had 500 rupees with him now. With no work, a bleak, dark future stared at him.
“What masters?” The anklets’ question shook him out of his reverie.
Manav walked towards the door. The anklets kept jingling. “The rich people, they have stockpiled everything they want and more. Nothing bothers them.”
“Well, we do see your problem. You appear to be in real trouble.”
“You know,” Manav said, taking a deep breath. “I’d planned to sell five cents from this property, so that we can repair the house. Now, with no materials and workers in supply, what’d we do?” The property was in his wife’s name. But, the anklets had no business of knowing it. In fact, despite being handsome, he’d married an average-looking scrawny girl, just because she’d inherited thirty cents of land from her father. Now, the sale deed wouldn’t work out. They’d have to spend the oncoming monsoon season under a leaking roof.
The anklets fell silent.
Manav walked towards a coconut palm at the border of the fencing. Parting the thick growth of foliage, he picked up a bottle of desi arrack, an illicit brew. The bootlegger had charged him five-hundred rupees for half-litre, double what he paid for a pint of rum under normal circumstances. But conditions were not normal, and that son of a bitch would make some money before the pandemic ended. Or the world did. What the fuck would he do with the money if the latter were the case, Manav wondered. He uncorked the bottle.
“Oh,” the anklets cooed together. “So, this was what brought you outside?”
Manav took a long swig of the liquor and shook his head before he spoke. “You know, it brings an anguished man relief, rouses his spirits. Otherwise, he’d go crazy.” He knew the money meant a lot. It’d fetch their groceries for a week, if barely. But he’d heard that the state and central governments would supply some essential food items for the poor, so that part of the worry was taken care of. They’d at least have something to eat.
“Yeah,” the anklets said. “We’d heard you many times, when the spirit overwhelmed you; we’d also heard your wife too, when spirits took control of her.”
“Those spirits that possess her…” Manav emptied the bottle in a single go, and shook his head again. “Those are evil ones. Then… then she becomes a demon, a woman in control.”
The anklets giggled.
Manav took an involuntary step, then another.
The anklets jingled; the sound urgent, persistent. “Let’s dance.”
Manav felt his head spin. “Yes, let… us…”
Suddenly, he spun around with the practiced grace of a ballerina, and stomped his feet on the ground. “Let’s perform: the thandava.”
“Yeah,” the anklets cooed in unison.
The samhara thandava, the dance of death, began.
“To the annihilation…” the oracle chanted, “of all evil, the end of all diseases.”
The anklets jingled in tandem.
The danse macabre lasted till the first orange streaks of a blooming sun tainted the far horizon. Manav continued to spin, and then collapsed to the ground, his head reeling.
“Are you alright?”
Manav tried to open his eyes. A foggy image danced before him. Smirking, he raised his upper torso and held his palms together in salutation.
“Father, it’s me.” Laughter, pure and innocent. Like the sounds of a gleeful stream, flowing in joyous abandon, its waves lapping against shining rocks…
Manav rubbed both his eyes with the back of his hands. The films of haze, clouding his vision, slowly dispersed. Leaning forward on his arms, he vomited onto the bushes lining their front yard.
A pungent aroma hit his nostrils. No, it wasn’t the stench of frothing frustration that he’d just disgorged. It was a savory odor, like the scent his wife carried on their wedding night, when he snaked onto her naked skin for the first time. She’d never again smelled the same.
“Oh father, you’ll spoil my tomatoes.”
Manav stared into the bushes and saw the tomato plants; about a dozen of them bearing tiny red fruits, crowding their stems like bunches of rubies.
“Cherry tomatoes,” his daughter said. “I planted them a few weeks ago. You know, those sell at 200 rupees a kilo in the market.”
“Really?” He didn’t hide his surprise.
Beyond the tomato plants he locked eyes on a large strip of unused land. Clusters of weeds were thriving in its fertile soil.