Madari and his Animals
By Nandita Bose
I am Madari – a street performer. My artists are Bandari the female monkey, Leru the puppy with a clipped ear, Peku the precocious parrot, but my star performer is Sapu, the snake. This story started many many years ago from the night of the great storm when the mighty river swelled and swallowed up everything in its path. I found myself floating on a raft of banana stalks. Who had put me there? My mother? Maybe. There I was at dusk floating fast with the tide. A log with desperate animals clinging on rushed past me only to get sucked by a swirling eddy. Suddenly out of nowhere, these four creatures scrambled on to my lifeboat. I did not try to push them off – it was nice to have company. So at that very point of crisis, we all became friends. We remained friends when the raft crashed against the mangrove roots, and the river ran on leaving us behind.
Singing and performing were in my blood. My parents and their parents were all performers moving from place to place – never in one place. So to survive, it was natural for me to guide my new friends to the nearest village where the temple courtyard became our first stage. Days, months and then some years passed. In due course, we made it to the nearest town and regaled the residents – the government babus, the patients at the doctor’s clinic, the uniformed men at the police camp and of course the little children.
The tricks were the same, but the people never tired of laughing. Leru would howl like a wolf, Peku would scramble on to his back while Bandari would hop, skip and jump ahead. Sapu meanwhile remained coiled around my neck covered by a striped gamcha, a traditional cotton towel. In the final scene, Sapu would make a sudden appearance hissing and threatening as he clambered on to the back of Bandari, coaxing her to jump onto the back of the dog. It always resulted in claps and coins.
So we survived making hay while the sun was shining. In due course, I found a wife – Lakshmi who looked after us and also added colour to the show with her twirling swirling colourful ghagras (traditional dresses). At the end of the day, she was always there – ready with a hot meal for all of us. The trouble began when she became angry at breaking camp after every fortnight or so. This constant travelling did not suit her, and one day she packed her bag and took a boat back to her own village on the opposite bank of the river where the forest hugged the roaring river.
And so I lived with my four friends carefree but not happy. Lakshmi had taken away happiness with her. I missed her and missed her. But the show had to go on for we were always hungry. Then one day thunder struck – not from above but from the police outpost. We were hauled up to the police station, and the fat daroga, the police chief, said that a new law had been passed. Cruelty towards animals would not be tolerated. I could not understand, but daroga was not bothered about my understanding or not. He started to take away my friends – the animals.
It was, however, no easy task for him. Leru, the dog, was the first to sense that something was wrong. She snarled and bared her teeth when daroga put out his hand towards the coloured string of beads around the dog’s neck from which dangled a bell. Immediately the policeman brandished his stick. This made Peku the parrot furious. She flew at the policeman, missed his eyes but pecked his nose and squawked up flapping her wings to the top branch of a banyan tree. From her vantage point, she continued screaming while calling out to her winged friends. The crows joined the chorus. The cacophony unnerved the daroga whose nose had started to bleed.
Meanwhile, Leru slowly began to back off as Bandari the monkey joined the attack by giving the fat fellow a smack before joining Peku in the branches. But another policeman sneaked up with a lasso trying to catch the dog that was running towards the river howling hysterically. The din made Sapu my snake wake up from underneath my gamcha. She slithered out with a hiss startling the police force who now thought it best to retreat inside their hideout perhaps to fetch their guns.
I thought this was the best time to run away – no point in arguing with the law. I ran and ran well beyond the town until it was dusk. Tired and hungry, I rested beside the river after taking a dip. If only Lakshmi was here. She was so clever. She would have found a solution. I asked the waves on the river to take my message to her.
“Oh! Lakshmi! It is evening. Come and take care of me. I too am tired of moving and moving. I want a home. If you come back, I promise to send down roots like the banyan.”
As dusk turned into night, another longing overwhelmed me. I began to miss my friends. The missing turned into a pain in my heart. I have never ever spent a night without them – without the cold touch of Sapu round my neck, the squawking sound of Peku, the feel of the cold nose of Leru nuzzling me and the feel of Bandari on my head trying to pick the itching nits for her pre-dinner snacks. I closed my eyes and did something I have always done. I prayed. I prayed to the river.
As I closed my eyes, the darkness enveloped me. Then to my surprise, somebody teased me with a raucous squawk from a near branch. Simultaneously I felt cold coils around my neck as a soft furry creature licked my face while with a thump, the monkey jumped on my head. Oh, what joy! Somehow they had found me thanks to the keen sense of smell of Leru and piercing eyes of the parrot.
Now I was faced with a twofold problem – the police and hunger. Of the two, the former seemed more dangerous. So we held on to the stomach rumblings and at the first sight of dawn decided to hitch a ride to the other shore. A boatman whom we had often regaled with our tricks gladly obliged us. We made it to the opposite bank where the jungle was thick and protective.
Here there was no dearth of food – rats for Leru and Sapu while fruits kept Peku, Bandari and me happy. This way a few days passed. I managed to change the menu with a fish or two. But where to find some sort of shelter? The rainy season was approaching, and it was urgent to find a den. Wandering thus, we came to a tumbledown temple nearing a giant banyan. There were broken clay pots and marks of vermillion and haldi (turmeric) on some stones. It meant we were nearing a village.
I settled down to rest below the banyan dreaming of steaming rice and hot chappatis. Suddenly it all seemed real, for there before me on a banyan leaf like an offering to the god was not only rice but also a vegetable curry mixed with some crab meat. A smell of wild rose and jasmine hit my nostrils as my ears picked up a familiar tinkle. Lakshmi? Could it be? Her familiar giggle made me sit up to see our friends give her a warm bounding welcome; at least three of them did for Sapu was too lazy to hiss out of my gamcha. But he did not object to Lakshmi sharing my shoulder with him.
After a week of idyll, reality dawned when Lakshmi said there was no rice or flour; she needed some clothes and above all her stock of salt was running low. I did not know what to say. What could I do? Go back to the town? There arose before me the faces of the police and separation from my four friends. While I sat glumly below the banyan, strangely enough, Lakshmi was unperturbed. She was busy pulling out a dinghy that I had not noticed hitherto. It was kept hidden below the tree where the water gushing in with the tide had formed a pool that was being constantly drained and replenished. Onto the boat she was piling some sacks bursting with goodness knows what. When the work was done, she sat down for a meal with me, gave the animals their share and then asked me to follow her on to the sturdy vessel.
Lakshmi’s timing of boarding was perfect. We set off with the coming of the tide. I was too dumbfounded to ask her anything but let my soul free with the songs she threw to the wind – songs of Madaris that roamed the land from forest to towns and from hills to plains. It was dusk when we anchored. I remained on the boat with the animals as she swiftly mounted the steps of the ghat (steps up the bank) and disappeared around a bend. Soon she returned with some men and women in tow. They took the full sacks, returned empty ones and even gave her money.
What was Lakshmi about? The next day I refused to move until she told me. Lakshmi pulled her long plait in front and began to play with it while coyly looking at me in a teasing manner.
“My lord, we are going to take the forest to the other shore and scatter its gold to the hungry people out there who are waiting to pick up the sounds and smell of the jungle. Bear with me, my beloved husband.”
What was there in the sacks? Lakshmi smiled mischievously as she took my hand, asking me to follow her to the market. Here she bought all that we needed, including some ready to eat delicacies from the local eatery. Apparently, she was a familiar figure, and many greeted her. Suddenly the lights went off. There was a groan all round. It seemed that current failure was getting worse and worse with each passing day.
A feeling of freedom suddenly overtook Lakshmi. As we made our way back to the boat, she began to suddenly sing and dance bringing to the townsfolk the vibrations of the forest and the river in flood. With no electricity, the people paused to listen and soon gathered round her, spellbound as if by magic. The animals joined in step with her. Dancing, she spread out her pallu, the loose end of her sari, as some threw coins. A crowd had gathered, and in it, I saw the face of a familiar policeman. I wanted to run, but Lakshmi winked at me and pressed my hand and held me back.
Lakshmi completed the dance and then did something that made me miss a beat. She beckoned to the police fellow like an old friend. He was accompanied by a little girl – his daughter. With a peevish smile, he came forward with an empty sack. I noticed there was still one sack remaining under the planks. It was for the police fellow.
My eyes bulged in astonishment as Lakshmi took up the oars. However, she did not keep me any further in suspense. She asked me to pick up and smell one of the empty sacks. It stank! It contained leftovers from the concoction of organic fertilizer that Lakshmi made in the dugout hole of her backyard. Her ingredients were varied, from rotting leaves to dung of animals and rotting carcasses of jungle denizens that the crows and vultures had spared. The mood of the world had changed. People now chanted the mantra of organic and natural fertilizers. And the songs and dances? The folks were now hungry for live shows recounting ancient tales woven by the threads of modern times – a heady broth of the good, bad, beautiful and ugly.- Total nr. of readings: 1,175 Copyright © The author  All Rights Reserved. This story may not be reproduced without the express written permission of the author except for personal use.
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