The Foxy Howl

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I

The Sacred Sound

It was the height of winter in the plains of Bengal – the last day of the month of Pous. Farmer Harihar had arranged everything for the puja – the special rituals to mark the season; on this rare occasion, only the farmers could be priests –  not the Brahmins. From dawn, the womenfolk were busy decorating the place with intricate patterns using rice-paste. In the yard, wiped clean with a mixture of clay and cow-dung, was placed the maikhuta – a bamboo pole tied with sukurbira – the first sheaf of paddy that had been collected just before harvesting. With it was tied khet-kurani or the last sheaf collected at the close of the season. It had been carefully kept underneath the slated roof of the hut. All was ready for the rituals. On four banana leaves were arranged one of each kind of winter vegetables and fruits. Some were busy in the kitchen feeding dry sticks into the fire to cook sweet dishes made from rice and molasses – delicious pithas.

Anxiously Harihar was waiting for a special auspicious sound without which the puja could not start. It was the bark of the fox. He had to hear the howl of the fox! Harihar sitting cross-legged on the floor remained still and quiet on his reed mat straining his ears for the sacred sound of the fox as his ancestors had done for hundreds of years.

Not afar a dangly teen was up to his tricks again. Nishi, a Brahmin orphan had been adopted by Harihar. To the best of his ability, Harihar had tried to bring him up as a good Brahmin. But Nishi wanted to become a horbola, a ventriloquist like Harihar, his guardian. This skill at village fairs had brought in ready cash for Harihar. Sometimes Harihar had even been gone to the big city during the lean months. The tales of the distant place had fascinated Nishi.

Tonight Nishi mimed the voice of the fox to confuse Harihar. The teen did not want to wait any longer on an empty stomach but tuck into the festive menu. But Harihar was no fool. He knew the fox intimately – as well as he knew his ward. He waited patiently with eyes closed for the fox to howl. It would bring good luck round the year. True! The fox chased his chickens but now with the harvest over there was very little cover for the little animal. Harihar smiled to himself at the irony of the situation – praying for his enemy’s conservation!

But Shialu the fox, hiding in a hole of the tree refused to howl. Kaga the sacred white crow coaxed him but Shialu stubbornly refused.

“First Kaga, you must show me a bigger den and then I will howl with glee. My mate the vixen Shilli will soon give birth. We just cannot remain in this tight squeeze.”

Shialu, however, was right in his fears. Even this hole was a temporary shelter. It belonged to Khatash the civet cat who had crossed the river during low tide and made it to the opposite shore to try his luck. If he failed then Khatash would come back and reclaim his right. What to do?

Pechu the holy owl well versed in the law had no doubts on this score. Perched on a nearby branch alert and sharp Pechu tweeted clearly.

“Finders keepers! Finders keepers! Occupation is nine-tenths of the law.”

But Shialu was not assured. There was no arguing with the fangs of the civet cat, Khatash. Kaga would have to find a permanent solution for the vixen’s time was nearing.

“Alright – you howl now and I will take you to the broken steps by the river that leads down to a secret chamber.”

Shialu shivered. What if that hole was already occupied? Kaga reassured the fox that when he Kaga the White Crow of Rama and Pechu the holy Owl of the Goddess Lakshmi gave the promise he must bow his head and have faith and trust. Shialu suddenly felt a hidden warm embrace removing his fears. He howled. Thrice he howled. The conch shell and the bells began to ring out loud and clear breaking the silence of the winter night. The women folk rolled their tongues in ulu-dhani to announce the magical hour – the auspicious moment of the lagna.

II

Smiling Temple

Meanwhile, below the tree, another drama was being played out. Rats and mice in a long line were coming out from nowhere making a beeline for the shallow point of the river. The tide had receded leaving behind a muddy path that the rodents could easily cross using the bridge of water hyacinths. Their target was the opposite shore where the bank was dotted with forsaken houses. To the forest denizens it was a bonanza – a festival pie they all wanted to dip in. The banyan was giving the lead breaking through the concrete housing complexes, shaking its inviting branches to birds and mammals to share the blessings and take over what Man had left behind.

Meanwhile Shapu the snake behind a thick bush was watching the progress of the rats, ready to pounce on the weak and old. But there was more to it than just hunger. Winter was approaching and Shapu wanted a secret place to rest and meditate. The rats were familiar with the underground world of tunnels and holes. This was a good opportunity to find out from where they were coming out. Unknown to Shapu, Pechu was observing his slithering movement.

The search of the snake was not in vain. He found the exit point of the rodents and slithered through the mouth of an ancient drain shaped in the form of the mythological sea creature – the Makar. Shapu found himself in the courtyard of an underground temple traces of which was covered by the hands of Time – mud, clay and thick foliage. In the courtyard was the massive figure of the elephant god Ganesh strangled in the embrace of a banyan,  while behind it in a was a Shiva-linga – a conical upright piece of stone. Shapu quickly coiled around the linga of god Shiva ready for a long rest but not before he had relayed the picture of the inside to the crow and owl.

Pechu and Kaga found that the only exit-entry point was the makar-shaped face of the drain at the river’s end, but it was too narrow for the foxes to manage. Pechu took in the situation and ordered the rats to make the hole larger for the foxes to enter. He threatened them that if they disobeyed his sacred command he would set all the night-owls on the rat procession and decimate them. But the soil was too rocky for the rodents to make progress. So now they tried the other end and was partly successful. Pechu peered in and relayed the scene to Kaga.

“Yes the opening has been made but there was another problem – sitting right in front is a huge statue – let me see – it’s Ganesha the elephant god! Alas, it occupies most of the space struggling with the embrace of banyan branches. It must be removed.” The rats gnawed into the banyan tendrils but even then the situation remained impossible.

III

Man:

After discussions, the triumvirate decided that Man must be lured in to address the problem. Pechu came up with a suggestion.

“Shapu says that the eyes of Ganesha are sparkling. I have noticed that Man is drawn like a magnet to sparkles. If …”

“Good!” Kaga cawed excitedly. “We will have to try and get that naughty boy interested – he lives down the bend of the river where the farmland meets the forest.”

Pechu chipped in “But how? How can you get the boy interested? He mimes our voice but he does not understand us. He makes fun of us.”

Shapu now hissed, “I will make fun of him now. He has used me to frighten the old man who looks after him. I was once an honoured guest in that house. I was the sacred vastu snake but the old man’s ward, this yokel Nishi spread the rumour that I hiss around frightening everybody. The pranks of this boy made me leave the shelter of mankind and go seeking …”

“Okay! Okay!” Pechu was impatient with the whining. “What is your plan?”

“I will slither out and strike Nishi.”

“How will this help us?”

“You just watch.”

It was dawn when Shapu slithered out of the temple. Shapu swiftly crossed the distance avoiding the open tracks for fear of eagles. Kaga and Pechu had assured him of protection but Shapu disdained their advice; he too was great by his own right. He was the garland of the god Shiva.

Shapu knew the layout of the house, for until the other day he was the revered sacred residential snake that guarded the property for generations. But all those beliefs had vanished and replaced by sticks and curses. Shapu entered the room where Nishi was snoring. With a hiss, the reptile struck his ankles! Unfolding his hood he saw the boy wake up, scream and faint. Others came rushing with sticks and shovels. Shapu led them on – neither vanishing from their view nor allowing even a single blade of grass to touch his scales. At the entry point to the temple courtyard, he suddenly reared, swayed majestically and slithered down the cavity. Enraged at this throw of challenge many among the crowd became determined to reach the snake. They cautiously peered into the dark opening they had never seen before; some rushed with lamps.

Then! What they saw filled them with awe. A statue of Lord Ganesha smiled at them from the dark – its two eyes shining bright. The news about the shining eyes got around. Nishi was one of the first to react “Eyes? These are nothing but two shining diamonds – an ancient statue!”

When the shock of the new-find was over Nishi became restless – he must steal the statue before others tried.  . He dreamt of selling the antique in the big city and …Questions about managing alone the show by himself now cropped up. Should Nishi take the help of another? But the ‘another’ would want his share. Finally, on the night of amavasya when there was no moon, Nishi decided to try it out alone.

Initially, the going was easy. Even the owl seemed to have dozed off and made no sound. With the help of a shovel, the youth pushed himself down the hole easily for the earth was soft. Reaching out he grasped the Elephant image and began to drag it towards him. It required some effort but Nishi was a strong lad. Slowly he managed to pull it forward. Nishi was overjoyed. Trying to catch his breath and recover his strength Nishi stayed put for some time. But suddenly intuitively he felt uneasy. Something was wrong somewhere. Why were not the crows announcing the hours of the night – the prahars? Nishi felt something soft firmly twining itself around his waist. It was something warm and big. It took some time him to realize that the trunk of a huge elephant was pulling him away from the image. He fainted.

Since then the image of Lord Ganesha replete with sparkling jewels remained seated at the mouth of the secret temple protected by elephants who took turns to keep up the vigil. Shapu sometimes took over charge of it. The foxes multiplied. Kaga and Pechu waited for new instructions in the form of smoke signals from their Guru the Sage who sat below a tree in a far off land.

And Nishi? He survived the ordeal to return to the city with tales of the dark forest trying to lure in tourists. But the river guarded the secret. Only the diehard devotees could make it when the rainy season was over when the waters ran low and the foxes howled for the farmer.

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