Prose | Shalim M Hussain

 The World’s First Crow
- A Folktale from the Chars, adapted and retold.

'Landscape with food chain' by Bill Angus

This is how it happened.

Long long ago, there was a very old woman, so old that she remembered how the earth cracked and split after the earthquake and the river spat out hot water and half-cooked fish. 

She was so old that she remembered a world before potatoes, rice and turmeric. Then turmeric came and oh how she loved turmeric! Her hands were dry and flaky and in the winter, when the lines on her palm opened up, if you looked closely you could see deep within the crevasses remnants of the first batch of turmeric that ever grew. If you looked even closer, you would find rice, ground chillies, ground pepper, ground jackfruit seeds; for the old woman was always grinding: grinding rice, grinding fish, grinding salt and sand and when the great famine struck, she ground grass seeds into bread. Her hair was jute, her bones were jute sticks and her teeth gravestones.

This old woman had had many children and many more daughters but they all died except one. Her husband’s grave was lost in the river but some say that the waters carried his left foot’s big toe to the National Highway No 37;  when the road was built, the contractor covered it with cheap concrete and tarmac and the old man’s toe was not happy. Oh no, it was not happy! During the day, the traffic was heavy and at night, when the toe wanted to rest, Punjab-bodies came rushing through the dark all jingly and jangly, their fumes smelling of chicken and the poor toe’s sleep was broken. Like all cranky old toes, it turned mischievous and sometimes, just on a whim, it split the road into two and the unassuming driver, if his luck had run out, took the illusory road and plunged headfirst into the river. Anyway, what was I saying? Yes, so this old woman and her husband when he had all his toes intact, had had many children and many more daughters but they all died. Every summer the old woman fed her children prodigious amounts of bottle gourd: bottle gourd with fish, bottle gourd with meat, bottle gourd with eggs, plain bottle gourd, fried bottle gourd, boiled bottle gourd, bottle gourd leaves, bottle gourd flowers and yet when the nameless disease came, all her bottle gourd magic did squat and the children died. Only one son survived but he was more bird than man.

‘I laid an egg,’ the old woman used to say; ‘The egg hatched and out jumped a pigeon.’ Much like a bird, the son hopped from one relative to another, staying until their grain and love dried up and then flying to a new home. The villagers were polite, extremely polite, so they didn’t give him dirty nicknames but simply called him a Vadaima or aimless wanderer and the woman whose name they had all forgotten, they called Vadaiamma or the mother of the aimless wanderer. 

‘Did you know this woman? Where did she live, here in our village?’

No! you little rascal, I am not so old. Where was she from… let me think… Marisakandi maybe or was it Kasumara? Well, it doesn’t matter, does it? Simply know that she was a very old woman with a tongue punctured by years of chewing betel nuts and wits sharp as the point of a boroi thorn. Okay, so one evening this old woman was in her kitchen frying teler pitha with her daughter-in-law. They had begun in the evening, as everyone does, pounding rice in the dheki, sieving fine flour from the moilka and by the time the old woman had begun mixing water into the rice flour, it got dark. The daughter-in-law turned to the Vadaiamma and said, ‘Mother, I am tired. Can you carry on while I get some sleep?’

The mother-in-law spat through the window. ‘Hussy,’ she said, ‘what is it with you young women- not yet maghrib and you are already tired!’

And the daughter-in-law said, ‘Mother... you know… it was painful and… my stomach…’
The mother-in-law was busy kneading dough, her thoughts already on the pithas. Besides, once this silly girl had made up her mind, there was little she could do to convince her otherwise, so she said, ‘Okay my daughter. Spread a banana leaf on the floor and sleep here.’ It was a mid-summer evening and the rain hadn’t stopped since last night. The roof of the main house had caved in last month when a ripe jackfruit from the neighbour’s tree crashed through the aluminum, tore itself open on the jute stick ceiling and plopped on the flooded floor with the fragrance of heaven. Besides, her oaf of a son was away. Before he left, she had heard him tell his wife, ‘Adori, I will return after the rains with a boat full of sweets,’ but the old woman knew that all he would bring after a month away from his wife was a ravenous hunger. In the meantime, the two women had to always remain in the same house. What if the dreadful jackfruit branch fell when the wife was in the house all alone? Her son, the villagers and everyone who had an opinion would say that she had climbed the tree in the middle of the night and hacked the branch herself. 

‘Is this how your story is going to be? Where’s the crow?’

Oh, okay. You have no patience, boy! Anyway, so the daughter-in-law spread a banana leaf on the floor and within a minute, she was fast asleep. The old woman laid her patha on the ground, cleaned the hil, dropped wet moilka on the patha and as she had done all her life, started grinding. She added some dried cardamom seeds, some sugar, some milk and continued grinding.
All this while, the thing was sitting atop the betel nut tree, watching the scene closely. As soon as the daughter-in-law fell asleep, he grabbed a strand of air, whispered something and flung it at the sleeping woman. The string entered the wife’s head through her left ear and suddenly she was a gypsy girl, the Vadaima was a prince and they were running through the kohua grass singing ‘Beder meye Joshna.’ The thing then collected his skin around his waist and jumped from the tree. A betel leaf tore when he crouched and his body was so light that he and the leaf glided to the ground with the same speed, lightness and ease.

But this thing was a new thing. He hadn’t learnt that old women’s skins get more transparent with age, their eardrums get tighter, their noses wilt like medusa leaves when a new smell touches them and their hearts become dry and hard like the soles of their feet. He didn’t know that the old woman was listening closely, that though the rain was falling hard and fast, she could feel him on the betel nut tree, smell his fishy smell, and hear each drop of saliva form in his mouth every time a cardamom or a clove cracked in the mortar. The thing didn’t know that the old woman was waiting for him and that the old woman was ready.

So when he fell to the ground with the lightness of an air bubble breaking on the tongue of a snake, the old woman’s ears thudded and she said, ‘Kera goe? kera goe?’ (Who’s there? Who’s there?).
 And the thing was so surprised that he blurted, ‘Nothing mother, just the feet of rats chasing nuts down the roof.’

‘And who are you?’

‘Mother, I am a lonely hungry traveler.’

Oh, but the old woman had heard too many stories of lonely travelers: she had heard of them sitting on the riverside with a lantern at their knee and an umbrella over their heads and hailing boatmen, ‘Give me a ride, O naiyya.’ And when the naiyya paddled his boat into deep water, the traveler told a sad sad story and the naiyya suddenly knew that his life was meaningless and jumped into the river. She had also seen lonely travelers: she had seen them hiding behind bushes, their lungis growing heavier at the crotch, she had seen them whistling from behind the sweet shop, throwing clods of earth from the sky, dragging their chains on the mud, unless of course you carried a piece of iron in your clothes because lonely travelers are scared of iron. So the old woman said,

‘And what do you want lonely traveler? We are two helpless women under a broken roof. We have no place for you to stay.’ And she looked at her daughter-in-law and thought, poor girl let her sleep. I must fight the thing on my own. And she waited for the thing to reply.
And reply he did, with words like tengra fish slipping from your grasp. ‘Mother,’ he said, ‘I am hungry. Can you give me two pithas?’

The fire before the old woman was glowing, the oil was boiling and the small round pitha in it was turning. She poured some more dough into the oil, let the hissing hide the shiver in her voice and said, ‘Yes son. We have enough for the two of us. Get inside the hut; let me lay a pira for you.’
But the thing knew that though he might camouflage his voice, he couldn’t hide his ugliness. His skin was white as the sun, his body not fully formed and the only thing about him that remotely resembled a human being was its right hand. 

‘I am scared!’

Arre, it’s just a story and I am sure you will love the ending. So, this is what the thing said. He said,
‘Mother, it is written in the holy books, “I forbid you to enter their rooms, I forbid you to look at them at all. If one wants to take something from them, one should do so without looking at them. If one wants to ask a woman for something, the same has to be done from behind a screen.” I crave your pithas but who am I to break the laws our ancestors have set in stone? So I say mother, let me put my hand through a hole in the wall and you can pass the pitha to me.’
The old woman waited, boy, she waited. She waited as the thing slowly put its hand through the kitchen window, she waited as the claws, almost human nails but not quite, passed from darkness to light, she waited until the palm, folded over and over like an onion slipped through and when the palm cupped, she jumped. She jumped as if twenty years had suddenly been taken from her. She took a long handled ladle, scooped boiling oil and poured it right into the thing’s hand. 

‘And then? And then?’

And then what? Oil burnt through the thing’s skin, entered his veins and travelled all through his body. He puckered his lips in pain and as his body was not yet formed, his mouth turned into a long thick funnel and then solidified into a beak. The old woman stood on her old, arthritic legs and cursed him,

‘You will never be a traveler of the night. You will be a lonely traveler of the day which will never accept you, you will never have the heart to hunt or the decency to beg but will shamelessly pluck food from the hands of children, you will scavenge in dirt heaps and dumps, you will be chased, beaten, cursed. Your voice, now as light as an eel’s tail on water will be rough like a cow’s tongue and forever and ever more I, Vadaiamma will chase you.’

The thing thrashed on the ground. Mud and rain ran through his skin and coloured him grey. He breathed deeply and a section of the sky entered his lungs. The hole it left behind burned with a soft ungodly radiance, thus becoming the first moon. In utter pain he shriveled and as he flapped his hands, they turned into wings. Then he gathered his wings and flew to the top of the betel nut tree. There he cringed and cried and finally, the daughter-in-law woke up.

‘Mother,’ she said, ‘What is that terrible noise? It sounds like someone in pain.’

‘Take no notice, girl,’ said the mother-in-law and went back to frying  pithas.

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