“ Is THIS what I have to undergo in the name of vacation ? ”, Anu almost let out a scream.
“ But it was you who wanted a different kind of holiday…..hitchhiking and all that”, I chuckled.
“ Yes, I did…but to take the most difficult of all routes and traveling through God forsaken places like this is just too much…”.
She just wouldn’t be pacified. And there was no reason why she shouldn’t be angry. It was hardly a few seconds of stoppage at this hardly-visible-in-the–map station and there were more than twenty people trying to squeeze out through one single rickety door of our train coach. We didn’t have to ‘get down,’ we were forcefully vomited out of the train by the ‘force of the masses’. And as if to prove that mishaps were a part of our baggage, the first step that Anu placed was on a banana peel – carefully patterned like a wild-flower-in-bloom on the platform floor. And it was with sheer luck that her anti-gravity motion was arrested midway by many rustic hands, which were only too eager to help a ‘memsahib from the city’! She had no option other than to mutter a small, “Thanks, I am okay” , to avoid being the center-piece in this dingy but hardly-there rural railway station.
“ And now where ? “, my wife demanded to know.
“ There should be a bus-stand somewhere near…if we get a bus to the nearby city…”, I trailed off, trying to look for the way to the bus-stand. But all my eyes could see were women with their oily hair and coarse silver ornaments, men with black pigs and ill-fed goats, women selling corn-cobs and a lonely tea-stall.
As I tried to look further away, trying to discover the bus-stand or atleast an auto-stand I realized it had suddenly become too dark for a summer-evening. I chanced to look up into the sky – it was hazy-grey in colour and the sun was already hiding behind a thick veil of a dark clouds. My instinct told me that an unruly storm and rain was on its way. The tall trees lacing the station premises were already swaying quite violently. I turned to look at Anu. She looked pale.
“ Storm ?” she barely managed to whisper her question.
I knew she was anxious. There seemed a sudden increase in movement around us. Women sellers were winding up their wares, men were taking hurried steps to the nearby shelter – almost dragging their unwilling pets along and unruly children were being pushed to a secure place by their mothers. By then blobs of water had begun to fall from above – in slow rhythmic pattern. I searched desperately for that one nook which can shelter us for the time being. It was then that I discovered him. He was making his way out of the station, holding the hand of a boy of around thirteen-fourteen.
In all the mad frenzy that was happening around us he would have gone unnoticed- had it not been for his strange looks – his copper coloured hair and pale brown eyes. Amidst the browns and muted blacks he was definitely an odd one!
“Nalo?”, I questioned myself, bewildered…He was a few feet away from me and I could now see him quite clearly. Yes, ofcourse he WAS Nalo.
“ Nalo”, I screamed out loud. “Naaaloooooo”, I screamed out again – this time louder.
He heard my voice – at least I thought so – for he turned around to look at me. He looked straight into my eyes. I waved at him. He stared blankly at me and then turned back and walked away. As the rain drops entrapped me with their incessant fall I felt dejected, hurt and angry. Just how could he ignore me like that ? Just because…….
The first time we saw Nalo was amidst a shrub in the garden of our ancestral home. It was the first time and the last time we were visiting our ancestral house. Father was getting a transfer to Sri Lanka and in a sudden surge of ‘high-voltage’ emotion for his ‘own people’ and ‘country men’ he decided that we must pay a visit to his village.
“Not more than five days”, my mother told us – me and my brother Rohit.
It was more like convincing herself than us, for we were looking forward to see the ‘land-lordish mansion’ and ‘weapons belonging to the pre-British era’ – things that were often repeated by father. It was only when we landed there did we discover that the ancestral house more resembled an ill-assembled cake, broken and damaged at every corner, than a mansion and that the weapons included a rusted knife with a silver handle and a rifle whose only remains was a longish metal pipe.
So within an hour of reaching there and after a sumptuous meal when Rohit and I were already feeling the pangs of boredom set in, one of our uncles decided to take us on a guided tour of the family garden which looked more like an abandoned battle-field than a garden. It was there that we discovered Nalo. His pale brown eyes staring from behind the bush almost threw us off. In the fading light his copper hair looked frightening.
“Don’t worry. That’s Nalo”, our uncle introduced us.
He turned to look at father and whispered, “Remember Rani ? Batuk’s sister ? That girl who ran away with a guy from Uttar Pradesh? He is Rani’s son. Rani and her husband both died –leaving Nalo alone. He now stays with Batuk….”.
Father nodded his head and said, “Ah, so he is Rani’s son? But how come he has such a strange look?”.
“ One of his forefathers must have been some lonely visitor from Spain – may be…”, our uncle replied in a hushed tone and a mischievous grin. Father looked embarrassed.
But that was how we came to know about Nalo. And for the next few days he became an integral part of our lives. He was timid, would hardly speak but had strange tricks and games up his sleeve. He would take a small stick and retrieve a struggling insect from the spider’s web with utmost care so as to save the insect and not damage the spider’s web at the same time. He took us to his secret chamber – a dilapidated room of an abandoned school building. There he introduced us to his strange pets. There was a glass-jar with a piece of cloth tied to its mouth.- a roving, fat, green caterpillar devoured lime leaves within it.
“Another two days and then she will stop eating leaves and then turn into a brown pupa. And a few days after that a beautiful butterfly will come out – black with white and yellow spots”, he explained.
There was an old squirrel whose hind legs were badly damaged and had no option other than to stay in a broken cage built by Nalo and nibble on the fruits and nuts that he would bring along. There was also a hole in a corner of the room– a deep hole that he claimed to be his pet rat’s den! We did not believe that part of the story and neither got a proof of it for the next few days.
He was the one who got for us everything that was forbidden and warned against – berry pickles, tamarind paste with salt and chilly powder, rejected, worm-infested potatoes roasted in open fire…He would tuck the items under his loose shirt and keep the supply line on. His innocent face hardly gave away the secret of our reluctance to eat during the lunch time!
On the third day we decided to go to a fair in the adjoining village. Three of us had barely crossed the limits of our village when dark clouds hovered precariously over us. Within seconds it began to rain mercilessly. Three of us huddled under an old Banyan tree, watching the wrath of nature unleash.
“Uh, this looks horrible….What if it keeps pouring like this for many hours and we are stranded here?”, I was afraid.
“No problem….our uncle will come by a boat and rescue us”, Rohit chuckled. He was always the more daring among the two of us.
Nalo looked up to the sky and said, “ Don’t worry…this rain will stop in another two minutes…I can see the God of Sunshine take out his bow and arrow…he will destroy the black clouds…”.
God of Sunshine ? Rohit and I were bewildered….Nowhere in the near vicinity was any mortal soul, leave alone a God with his bow and arrow!
“ Ah,there, there he is…” , Nalo pointed out to a series of white clouds, playing hide-n-seek with the black rain clouds. Young that we were, we too tried to visualize the outlines of an imaginary God in the restless mass of clouds.
“Do you see him?”, he asked. “Uh..well…yes..why not….I can see him…strong arms, broad shoulders..”, I let my imagination run wild.
“Me too”, Rohit joined me. “ I can see his crown too”, my brother added more fuel to my imagination.
“ And now, within a few minutes, there would be sunlight”, Nalo said, almost in a trance.
I am still not sure how it happened but it did. Within minutes the rain stopped and a reluctant sun began to peep from behind the clouds. Rohit and I clapped in joy.
“And there you see his bow”, Nalo’s finger pointed to the horizon. The visual that appeared has been the most lasting picture of my hometown ever. In the distant horizon appeared a rainbow – a bright seven-colored one. The tall palm trees, the thatched houses faraway stood as a dark silhouette against the brightness of the rainbow. It was a visual treat I couldn’t forget in a long time!
The five days of fun and Nalo would have remained etched in our memory forever had it not been for the penultimate day when the disaster happened. We were sitting near the pond. Nalo was sitting with a can of wriggling worms, of which he was trying to hook one to the fishing rod. I was almost half-dead at the sight while he was doing his duty with alarming calmness. Just near the edges was an almost-uprooted palm tree which had bent towards the pond – so much so that it resembled a wooden pole.
Rohit was trying to walk atop the horizontal trunk, maintaining his balance at the same time. I was about to warn him about a probable accident when he actually slipped and fell into the deep waters below. Ploop! It was just a small sound but to me it sounded like a death knell. He didn’t know how to swim, neither did I! Both Nalo and I took a few seconds to realize what had happened; then panic took over me.
“ Nalo, jump…jump Nalo…save him”, I screamed my lungs out. Nalo simply stared wide-eyed at the pond. I had seen him swim earlier and I knew he was a good swimmer so I kept on coaxing him to jump into the pond but he just wouldn’t budge. As he stood there, dazed, I frantically tried to locate my brother in the pond. At one point I saw him struggling and at the other moment everything went silent – there was no sign of him.
I ran, ran and ran with all my energy and came back with my uncle, father and many more known and unknown faces. Nalo was still standing there – immobile. As my uncles and others retrieved the senseless body of Rohit I turned to look at Nalo. Holding him by his collars I slapped him hard.
“ Why didn’t you ? Why, why, why ?” . I shook him violently but he wouldn’t answer.
“Coward mouse! If something happens to my brother I will kill you”, I screamed at him. He remained silent. He simply stared at the waters.
We had to cut short our visit. Rohit was taken to the city hospital where he recovered in two days. But we never returned, nor talked about our ancestral village. We never met Nalo again!
“Imagine, he has kept the fire of revenge burning for so long!”, I nursed my ego.
“May be he was not Nalo afterall”, Anu tried to reason.
“Ofcourse he was”.
“ Perhaps he didn’t recognize you…that is more possible you see. You were hardly fourteen then…you are twenty nine now”, she laughed out loud.
“He did. I am sure he did. I even called out his name. I waved at him. He looked at me but simply did not acknowledge my presence”. I was in no mood to buy her argument.
“Are you by any chance talking about Nalini Master?”, a voice croaked from behind. I looked around, trying to discover the owner of the voice. Rain had almost stopped and there were two or three more people, apart from both of us, taking refuge in the tea-stall. A face with stained teeth smiling at us convinced me that he was indeed the speaker. The tea stall owner!
“ Nalini Master…is he the one you are talking about ? That man with copper hair? Someone long back had told me that his pet name was Nalo”, he repeated his question.
Obviously he was overhearing us all this while! Nalini ? I tried to rummage through my box of memories. Oh yes, indeed, Nalo’s good name was definitely Nalini ..…Nalini Kumar something…..a surname I just could not recall. Infact we had made fun of his girlish name!
I ordered two glasses of tea. The tea stall owner passed our glasses from his seat. With a blackish tinge and with droplets of leftover raindrops falling in it, it hardly looked inviting but I knew that that was the only way by which I could extract more information from the tea stall owner. He understood my cue.
“He is very popular here…people worship him like God”, he smiled.
“Why?” , Anu too became curious by now.
With an added member to the audience he was definitely delighted. He left his seat and came and stood near us.
“ Nalini Master came to our village as a teacher in the high school about five years back. Those days no master coming from outside the village would stay beyond a month or so”. He took a pause, looked around and then added in a lower tone, “You must be wondering why….I am sure you would be able to recall that these areas were once strongly under the influence of terrorists. They would just drop in at the school and take away young boys for training – to be terrorists. No one could object. If any one dared to protest…..”, he trailed off, leaving the unsaid words to our imagination.
“Yes, yes…all the masters from outside used to wind up within a month. No boys or girls could ever pass the secondary exams those days..”, an unknown voice spoke. One among the customers had already helped himself into our group discussion. The tea stall owner gave an annoyed look to his customer and continued with the rest of his story.
“ But little did anyone know that the timid-looking, soft-spoken Nalini Master had so much fire in his belly. As he taught the boys, he also told them about the need to be strong and resist all that is wrong. Like every other time the terrorists went to the school again. All the other masters ran away but it was our brave Nalini Master who locked all the bigger children inside a class-room and stood rock-solid near the main door. Don’t know the exact details but the terrorists went away empty handed….That was not all….he took the matter up to the highest level in the government. Security forces were deployed in the area….many arrangements were made…Young boys began resisting the lure and fear of joining the terrorists…Lot of development has happened in the last few years and everything has happened because of Nalini Master”.
“ But all this came with a cost”, the unwanted customer spoke yet again. “ The terrorists exploded a powerful bomb outside the school gate before leaving….poor Nalini Master bore the brunt. The impact so powerful that he nearly lost his vision and hearing. He can barely see or hear now…only when you are very, very close he can see or hear you…that is why he always goes around with the support of his students.”, he concluded.
“ But that has not stopped him from carrying on with his good work…Don’t know about his parents…someone told me that long ago, when Master was very young, they both had died…It seems they were all traveling by a boat to some temple when the boat capsized and his parents drowned in front of his eyes…thankfully some one managed to save him…Today if they had been alive they would have been so proud of their son!…He is such a brave man! ”, the tea-stall owner finished his saga. His eyes had already welled up. Then, as if on an afterthought he added, “ Sir, Iam sure he didn’t see you…or even hear you either….you really need to be very, very close to him….He must have looked at you just as an instinct…”.
I didn’t want to hear any further, I didn’t want to meet his eyes either. I didn’t want him or Anu to see my tears. I looked farther away – where the vast fields met the sky. Rain had stopped altogether and white clouds were over-powering the black ones….the sun was peeping from behind the clouds. Amidst the tufts of white clouds I could clearly figure out the outlines of a God with his bow and arrow – the God of Sunshine. Only this time he resembled very much like Nalo!
Image Courtesy: Pixabay