By Srilatha Rajagopal
There was a new king in the jungle. And a hushed expectation from all the animals. A little bit of fear – of the unknown, a lot of excitement.
The hyena family seemed giddy with joy—the word on the tree was they had met the new king in private. The monkeys didn’t care. The deer seemed resigned. The zebras worried. The elephants held a private meeting.
I pause from reading to Anjali and wonder about the style of the book and if this is really meant to be a children’s book. Ram had picked it up during his recent business trip—a collection of Panchatantra stories, ancient Indian stories of wit and cunning in the animal kingdom that always have a moral message and a lesson at the end. This particular collection is an interpretation by a modern author.
“Mom, don’t stop!” Anjali prompts me impatiently.
Ram hovers in the doorway.
“Still up, honeybee?”
“Daddy, come read me the next chapter, please?” she pleads, using her big brown eyes for all their worth. Knowing Ram’s weakness where she is concerned, I shake my head. It is way past her bedtime. Ram says he will join me after he tucks her in.
I watch him as he tucks her in. Tender, sweet, funny. I turn quickly and leave the room. I think back to a typical night when I was growing up.
My mom would put all four of us to bed by eight, after giving us dinner. Dinner was a euphemism for what we got on most nights, it was just rice and watery yogurt with a piece of lime pickle. I was too young to question her when she said she wasn’t hungry and just drank a glass of buttermilk several nights a week. These resplendent meals were usually accompanied by a story—Cinderella, Beauty and the Beast, or stories from an old, dog-eared copy of Panchatantra tales.
I fell in love with the stories, especially the Panchatantra stories, and would often imagine myself in a land surrounded by talking animals, my favorite ones being the Lion And The Clever Rabbit.
These and other stories that I made up sustained me through the wretched middle school years when the difference between other normal families and ours became glaring and the only way to survive was to pretend ours was normal too. And that meant making up stories about how funny my dad was, and how he played with us every day, and bought us everything we wanted. When a friend asked pointedly and with all the innocent cruelty of a thirteen year old, “If that’s the case, why do you have holes in your shoes?” I simply stopped talking to her.
Slowly other friends realized I was not like them. I got so tangled up in my lies about my family it was just easier to escape into my books. The animals didn’t question me about my family or my clothes. There was always plenty of food in this jungle and I never had to go hungry.
I pretend to be asleep when Ram joins me. I dream about rabbits getting drunk and painting their toenails in blood.
The next night, Anjali doesn’t forget. She asks me to continue The Lion And the Rabbit. I do, with misgivings.
After the meeting with the new king, the Magnificent One, the animals are quiet. They huddle among themselves. To volunteer someone everyday as lunch? This is new. But he is the King! How does one say no to a king? There are heated discussions on the wrongness of this, but in the end, most are resigned to their fate.
“Well that involves some organizing, doesn’t it?” wonders the wise owl.
“We need to make a list, first. We need to arrange for reminders every morning so the assigned family doesn’t forget. There is so much to do!”
The owl looks pointedly at the pigeons sitting near by.
The pigeons avoid looking at him in the eye and twitter nervously.
Their leader grumbles: “This is one message I would rather not deliver.”
The monkeys are talking among themselves. The monkeys in this forest are a strange lot. They stay aloof, and mostly observe.
Some are planning a secret escape to another jungle nearby which is supposedly safer—there is not much food or water available, but at least they will live. But every one of them stays clear of the hyenas and the vultures—the only ones in the jungle who seem happy with this plan.
And so it begins. The rest of the animals watch as one of them goes everyday at noon to the Magnificent One’s den. They watch with a sickening sense of relief and dread. Relief it’s not them today, and dread that it could be the next day.
I stop. Anjali is fascinated by this story and doesn’t want me to stop. I am still uncomfortable with the tone of this book and really don’t know how much of the adult emotions she understands. What was the author thinking? Maybe this is adult fiction. The story I remember from my childhood is more innocent, more black and white, and without all the underlying adult emotions of cynicism and satire that this one seems to be dripping with.
I tell Anjali we will finish it the following day and tuck her in. I have a sudden and urgent need to hear my mother’s voice and dial home. No answer. I call my sister, who lives close to my parents. She tells me that mom is with her after he beat her again last night. She had taken her to the doctor. Nothing serious, she assures me. She just has a cut on the lip, which should heal quickly. She didn’t need stitches.
I am amazed at how my sister reported this as if she was telling me what she ate for lunch. I go to bed, with impotent rage. And think of all the nights when I used to plot to rescue my mother from him.
It was bad if he came home making a big noise, but the nights when he was quiet—those were another story. On those nights, I smelled coconut water as soon as he entered. That’s what he told me when I asked him what that smell was on his breath. (I later recognize this smell during my first encounter with whiskey, as an adult, in America.) My mom would serve his dinner, food she had kept aside for him, depriving even her children. Most days, he found a reason to throw the plate in her face. The vegetable didn’t have enough salt, or too much salt; the food wasn’t enough. Oh the irony! “The food is crap!” “It’s never enough!”
The throwing of the plate was usually followed by verbal and physical insults. Maybe if she didn’t spend all her time with the music teacher down the street, she would have time to cook a decent meal for her husband. Maybe if she was smart enough to go out and get a job. Maybe if she wasn’t so dark. Maybe if she was more educated. Maybe if she had come with a bigger dowry. The list of her shortcomings was like Hanuman, the monkey God’s tail. It just grew and grew. If only she could set fire to it like Hanuman did when he destroyed the demon king Ravana’s palace!
Most days she took it all quietly so as not to wake us up, but there were days when she lost it and cried out as he yanked her hair or beat her with a ladle. I witnessed all this through a little hole in my blanket as I tried to be very, very still, all my plans to rescue her out the window with the first crack of palm against my mother’s beautiful skin.
There is a big commotion in the rabbit family. The littlest of them is apparently not happy with the voluntary lunch program that the Magnificent One has imposed on his kingdom. She wants to fight it. And almost gets laughed out of the jungle. But then, she gets their attention when she shows them the well. And convinces them of her plan to take down the Magnificent One.
Anjali doesn’t want me to stop at this most interesting point in the story but I cannot continue today. I put her to bed and rush out. There is something gnawing at the back of my head – something that I can’t quite grasp, something elusive—like the remnants of a dream one wakes up with, and desperately tries to remember, holding on to the flimsiest of threads.
I wake up with a tiny sprout of an idea that grows into a tree by the time I see Ram off to work. I stop at the library after I drop off Anjali at her school. After a few hours of research, I have it. I stop at the drugstore and pick it up. I say to the pharmacist that it is for killing some pesky insects. He cautions me to be careful around children and pets, as it has absolutely no odor.
I reach home to the sound of the phone ringing. It is my sister from Hyderabad. I ask her about my mother. She says she’s still the same. Any qualms I have about the “plan” are immediately crushed. I chat with my sister about my upcoming trip to India, and hang up.
The animals rejoice. The little rabbit sits astride the elephant as the rest of the animals cheer and follow them around the forest in a joyful procession. Even the monkeys participate.
This is what had happened: On the day the little rabbit was to be the Magnificent One’s lunch, she had gone to him and told him of another one, bigger, stronger and boasting that HE was the king of the jungle. The foolish lion had roared with rage, and dared the rabbit to take him to this villain. The rabbit had led him to the well, and made him look. The “Magnificent One” had become enraged at the reflection roaring back at him and jumped in.
Anjali claps her hand, dancing atop her very own personal elephant, Ram, as they go around the room. I am glad that story is done. I need to talk to Ram about the kind of books he brings home for his daughter.
That summer, I go to India as planned. There has always been an unspoken code of conduct with him where I am concerned. I was the untouchable one, even when I was a little girl. He didn’t beat me like he did my sisters. He would look at my eyes, and for some reason, back off, knocking off any furniture in his impotent rage. The silent cat and mouse game continues and he mostly avoids me during my stay. I hear him asking my mother about me when he thinks I am not listening. I take great pleasure in walking in on these sessions, just to see him looking red-faced and flee the room, stuttering incoherently about a chore he has to finish.
I try one more time, begging my mother to leave him and to come live with me.
“Let him rot here, ma! He doesn’t deserve you.”
She smiles indulgently as at a child who doesn’t understand you can’t touch the moon just by leaping high.
“No, Maya Kutti, (she hasn’t called me that in ages) he is really not as bad as he used to be. See, he even got me medicine for this bruise.”
I am so frustrated I want to scream. How do you reason with a woman who forgives her abuser because he gets her medicine for the bruise he causes in the first place?
My decision is made. If my rabbit won’t do it willingly, I have to trick her into it. I give her the powder and tell her it’s a special multi-vitamin supplement for him. I tell her not to tell him it’s from me, as surely he will reject it then. Then, I tell her how to use it. Add a teaspoon to his food, and only to his food every evening. I tell her she is not to eat it at any cost as it will make her blood sugar high (she is diabetic). My innocent, naïve rabbit believes me, and is happy that her daughter is trying to mend fences with her husband. I watch as she puts it in his food for a week before I leave to go back home.
I cry all the way back on the 15-hour flight back home and wait for the phone call.
Copyright 2019 Rajagopal