Sania was extremely popular with me. I know popular word should not be used in such a narrow context. In order to be popular one needs applause of many. But in that tender age of ten or twelve you don’t look around for seeing other’s reactions and responses to declare someone as your most favourite or as the most popular. Someone made you feel good by always smiling at you or obliged you by telling a story that regaled you or made you shake with laughter or by making funny faces and expressions that delighted you and you are not long before declaring him as your favourite or as the most popular. Sania was such a person to me. He was only to be rivaled by Padu as my favourite for popularity and charm later on in my life. But about Padu, may his cheerful soul rest in peace in heaven, later. I have set out to dedicate this page to Sania only.

Perhaps Sania was born on a Saturday and named after the god Sani (Saturn)like millions in India born on that day of the week. He was a landless labourer of my village, but he used to do tenant farming on others’ farms, especially on one of my late grand uncle’s farm. As my grand aunt was living alone after the marriages of her three daughters, it was Sania who used to run errands and do the odd jobs for her besides looking after her farming . The route to her house passed by our house. So It was en route to her house we used to meet Sania. We mean myself, one or two of my brothers and my father who used to teach us on the veranda outside of our house. At first it was my father who brought this humorous aspect of Sania to our notice by asking a particular question to Sania. It was my father’s pet question to Sania. I remember him asking this particular question to Sania for possibly more than ten times at intervals. But such was Sania’s story telling ability, such was his facial expressions, his tender and sensitive voice, his gestures by hand that though we knew his reply by heart after the first few times, yet we found it extremely entertaining on each occasion.
My father would ask, interrupting his teaching, “Sania, tell us how did your and your friend Krishna’s meeting with the Raja of Nilgiri pass ?” Then Sania would regale us with laughter describing how amidst the surrounding courtiers these two village ragamuffins, whom the Raja had sent for bringing some roots of some herbs easily available at our village possibly for medicinal purposes, and how as soon as they thought that they had gotten the Raja’s attention to them, they were into courtesying and deep bowing only to find that the Raja had chosen that precise moment for looking at some other thing. This drama went on repeating for many times and on each occasion Sania would out of frustration utter under his breath these words audible to himself and Krishna only, “shoot the bastard’. As this Raja was a tyrant, extremely unpopular and used to employ people without paying any wages, took away the things and belongings of people without paying anything , Sania’s jibes at him, though uttered inaudibly, never failed to send us into peals of laughter. I would never forget his facial expressions and gestures illustrating it all as if the whole episode was taking place before our eyes. We didn’t have television then, not even a radio set in the whole village till Manoranjan’s wife brought one with her as dowry. But that was another story by itself, if possible we may come to know about that some other time.

Sania was fulfilling a deep need of ours, the need to entertain ourselves. I think my writing this story, even in this age of plethora of entertainment, some would even say surfeit of entertainment, is my humble attempt at carrying forward this tradition, this catering to the need for entertaining ourselves. Our lives are so poised in precarious positions, based on such shaky foundations, life always finding itself in the jaws of death, diseases, disruptions and destructions that a little laughter, a little humor is what we always crave for to cope with the uncertainties, the tremblings and totterings our lives too often are fraught with. Sanias and Padus of this world then become relevant to us. Their humor and cheerfulness give us the feeling that somewhere jest for life and living could be found as the fountain was still flowing in and through them. The fountain may be lying deeply buried in us too under the debris of despair and fear.

On a midday noon in summer I slipped out of my house to grand aunt’s house nearby where I heard Sania talking. I thought he liked me, so without any ado, on seeing him seated relaxed on a bamboo and rope cot, I straightaway requested him to tell me a story. I never treated him as a laborer but as a very lovable man, sometimes to the consternation and confusion of my parents . He had a son named Ramakant who was reading two classes above me, though not without considerable financial difficulties. That was another consideration for me, he was a friend’s father too. He acceded to my request readily. For the next hour I became his sole audience, but all his charming smiles, hand gestures and everything at appropriate places were there for my enjoyment. His voice was as tender, compassionate , joyful yet with an undercurrent of pathos and sensitivity as ever. I know of no other man who could modulate his voice so well from deep joy to deep pathos within the span of a sentence or two. No wonder he was a very good actor in the village theatre group which used to put up at least one new play annually for the villagers’ entertainment. It was as if I was seeing everything in the story before my eyes. The unforgettable story ran like this; I don’t yet know what was his source.
In a jungle there was a fox and a rabbit. As usual this fox too was cunning. One day he approached the rabbit and proposed that they be friends. The rabbit was at first a little hesitant and apprehensive but ultimately prevailed upon by the fox’s persuasions. So they roamed the jungle in unison. One day as they were roaming in the jungle, they saw a man coming with some heavy things laden in large pots hanging on ropes from each end of a pole slung on his shoulder. The fox said, “ Dear friend, I know what is there inside those pots. That man carries the best quality cheese for the wedding of the king’s daughter. If you would only do what I tell you to do then the whole of those cheese should be ours . We could eat those to our heart’s fill.” Hearing this the rabbit was sufficiently tantalized. He asked to know about the plan. The fox replied, ” You have only to run ahead of the cheese bearer, at first quite slowly only to arouse his interest to catch you or kill you for his dinner. When his interest is sufficiently aroused seeing a slow, lethargic and easy catch, he will certainly let down his load, leaving them then and there and taking out the pole out of his load will go for a chase after you. When he will be near, you will increase your speed just sufficiently to keep him behind but not too much for him to lose interest in you. In this way you will take him far away from his pots of cheese only to enable me to hide them away at a safe place for us to finish them off later to our heart’s content”.

The rabbit readily agreed and did his part as per the fox’s plan and the plan was fully successful as the man chased after him with the pole in hand leaving his wares behind. At the end of the hour, after being completely exhausted from the man’s rugged determined effort to hunt him down, as the rabbit found his friend fox, he saw to his dismay and disbelief that the pots have been licked clean and dry by the crafty fox. In fact the fox was burping along contentedly after such a bellyful feast instead of answering to any of his questions. This galled the rabbit to no end. He thought he had put his life at stake for the things which the crafty fox enjoyed without doing or risking anything. This was unbearable. He thought he would have to teach the fox a lesson.

A few days after, the rabbit was found sitting under a tree on which a creeper wound around with its most itch-causing, ripe tamarind like fruits hanging down in plenty from each of its stems. Sometime later the fox reached there searching for the rabbit and finding the rabbit underneath the tree asked, “Dear friend, why are you sitting down here so silently, while I have been searching for you throughout the forest ? Tell me what is the matter with you?”
To this the rabbit silently put a finger before his mouth and said in a very low tone, “Shsh , don’t speak so loudly. Now I have been employed by the king to guard his pickle tree. The ripe tamarind like fruits you see hanging overhead are actually Raja’s favorite pickles. None is permitted to taste or take them away. I am employed just to see that no pilferages of these tasty pickles take place”

Now the interest of the fox in these most itchy, poisonous fruits touted as the Raja’s tasty pickles was so aroused that he was willing to obey anything the rabbit might lay as his condition for letting him eat some of those. He begged the rabbit to allow him to eat some. The rabbit, in a conspiratorially whispering tone said, ” O.k. friend, if you are found out eating these precious pickles I would be the first to be beheaded. But as you are so hellbent on eating some I have to think a way out. Let us do one thing. While I am looking out if anybody is approaching us or watching us, you pick just one or two and finish eating very quickly. But remember just one or two, I am going out watching.”
The fox’s joy knew no bound. Instead of picking one or two he grabbed as much as he could and ate them all quickly. In fact the rabbit’s admonition acted on him as invitation for more of the same. But soon the itchy poisonous fruits had their effects and the fox just rolled and rolled on the forest floor screaming in pain. The rabbit returned just then and laughed to his heart’s content at the plight of the fox. He reminded the fox that it was his revenge on him for the dirty trick he had played that day by consuming all the cheese.

The fox survived the agonizing pain but the drubbing he received from a mere rabbit was rankling him to no end. He devised a plan. On a sunny morning in the winter, he found a large crocodile sunning himself on the river bank. The crocodile seemed to have been deeply asleep. The fox without making any sound, approached the crocodile from behind and sat silently by his tail. Hours passed. The rabbit, after finding the fox nowhere searched the whole jungle and at last found him sitting alone beside a mysterious looking large object. He approached the fox and asked, ” Dear friend, why are you sitting here by yourself ? Why are you so silent ? What is this object lying before you ?”

Now it was the turn of the fox to be conspitorial and secretive. He replied in whispers, “ First you lower your voice as low as possible. Only talk in whispers. This object lying yonder is the begul or the whistle of the king. When the king is to make an announcement to the people he blows this whistle from the other end and it produces the mighty sound we sometimes hear. I have been engaged to keep a constant watch over it, so that nobody else has a chance to blow it. Only the king has the prerogative to blow it.”

The rabbit’s curiosity to examine this unique instrument and go for a blow into it from the other end was now at its peak. He begged the fox to let him blow it just for once and he promised he would do all his biddings thereafter.
The fox at last agreed and instructed him to go to the other end of the whistle and blow forcefully into its mouth. As the rabbit did exactly as instructed the crocodile woke up to find his meal inside his mouth. He had the rabbit as his breakfast of the day within seconds.

The fox was now satisfied. He had had his revenge. He had had the last laugh.
Sania ended the story here and excused himself for his lunch and I returned home dazed, mystified and delighted by the unique story teller that he was, though sad at the sorry end of the rabbit. I was, as it were, charmed and spell bound by his story telling, his humor and his modulation of voices as the story demanded from time to time for enactment before my eyes.

Sania is dead now for many years. The man who could regale me to laughter so easily, who had such an expressive face and voice, who never told me about his poverty unless I quizzed him much to know a little about that, had every reason that could easily have turned him into a cry baby, someone who too frequently and too easily fell into recounting his woes and agonies of life at the slightest pretext to get others’ sympathies and ears. He didn’t have a decimal of land in a village which was solely agrarian in economy. So he fed his family by selling his labour and time on other peoples’ lands. He was illiterate but he could hold his own against any educated youth. He somehow knew the value of education, so only he, out of many other labourers like him in my village, got his sons educated in the village school, in spite of much financial difficulties. Ramakant, my friend and his eldest son as a result of his vision would later become a teacher and thus be able to pull his family out of the vortex of poverty. I would say that was a remarkable tribute to the sunny, cheerful nature of Sania, whom grinding poverty could not finish off as one of its victims.

Sania’s wife, the mother to his one daughter and three sons, was unlike Sania a shy, completely homely woman who very rarely went out of her orbit, which was her home, a small hut. On one such rare occasion, she was at our home for a few days to earn a little wage to supplement her family income. She was separating chaffs from rice by winnowing after the rice was milled at a holler. I was a boy of twelve then. I had bought a small bioscope then and used to show my prized possession to anyone that came my way. When I showed that to Sania’s wife, she stopped winnowing to hold the instrument and when I instructed her to close one eye and peer into it through the glass with the other eye and as she did that I went on changing the slides one after the other and I don’t know even to this day which one of us was more surprised or pleased. Because with each change of slide she used to make such faces out of wonder and amazement and sometimes uttering those Ahas! like expressions that I had never seen in anyone. I had thought that day that my investment of all my savings on that instrument was actually paid off by her unforgettable expressions of awe and wonder. She was such a simple and uncomplicated soul that my heart became torn when she died shortly thereafter when she was just forty. Sania thus got widowed at forty five and Ramakant, my friend and his three siblings became motherless.
As I write about Sania, Padu and others I am constantly haunted with one thought. If people like Sania, his wife, Manoranjan’s wife(the most beautiful one of our village) who brought the first radio set to our village as her dowry and just two years afterwards committed suicide, Padu and many many others who have left such indelible memories in me, are dead now since long ago, then what am I ? What is my status? Am I not a collection of memories in others’ mind also? Or do I have an independent existence outside of the thousands of memories in my mind and others’ mind? Sometimes I am at a loss to know who is living and who is dead. Such abrupt has been the passing from one state to another by many dearly loved ones ! About one thing, however, I am certain that life is ever perilously poised in the jaws of death. At any moment those jaws may snap shut and from the state of living I will become only memories in the mind of some for some time and then life will find its inexorable ways to wipe clean off those memories too from the minds of those who harbor them. But even now when custom hasn’t deadened or made stale, nor life’s inexorable process of erasing them completely hasn’t been completed, the memories like that of Sania or Padu, that defied to be cowed down by poverty, their smiling faces refused to be mowed down as they lost their life partners in their prime, some like Padu who maintained their sanity, charming smile when one after another of their family members passed into the jaws of death before their eyes, I am frequently visited by their memories. Am I trying to cull a lesson or a moral out of their lives and their stories ? No, they were life’s embodiments or finding its ways to enact its drama. It happened such that finding themselves in the thick and thin of a hard life, they tried to cope with it the way that came easily to them; by being more humane, more compassionate and kind and an unaccountable cheerfulness that has no reason to be there in their lives. Life in the jaws of death and yet mindful of only the task at hand and the joy that can be seized now. Though they worked for some time as laborers in my father’s farm, I take this opportunity to bow deeply in appreciation and admiration of their immortal souls and sweet memories.

Advertisements