By Priscilla Jolly
The faint morning light brought out the layer of dust that enveloped the bizarre menagerie- the rather unhealthily pink colored lobes of a plastic brain, an eyeball which stared at no one in particular, a detached ear (something akin to the one which the artist sliced off), a plastic duck with a gaping hole in the middle and a whole lot of grotesquely-colored animals with glassy eyes. Remnants of those days when the hall was teeming with children who gazed at this now forgotten collection in wonder. A camel, tethered to a tree which had stayed rooted for too long, reduced to a bag of bones held together by a stretch of dirty ochre with grey splotches, stared painfully at the shelf – an act of acceptance of the shelf life that its demise might produce for itself. The goats tethered to the window greeted the morning with a series of cacophonous bleats, waking Kahn. He sat up on his mattress on the floor and stretched his arms out with a big yawn that opened a passageway to his innards, if anyone were interested in looking. He stood up and slipped on a shirt that was next to the bed and pulled the front door open which whimpered, making the animals turn in the direction of this unexpected noise. The odor of small, shiny balls of goat shit hit him.
Kahn turned back, on hearing feeble bleats from the inside. He watched Muskaan, the lamb, wrapped up in a piece of blanket trying to prop herself up. “Aaah! Muskaan, meri jaan! You’re up! But we stay inside for bit more time. Very cold outside. We’ll wait for the sun to come up!” he crooned in her ears. When she seemed to be at ease again, he set her down on the mattress. He tackled the task of washing himself, including his tangled mane which he refused to trim. By the time he emerged from his wash like some primordial god with matted hair adorned by water drops clinging to the sliver shards, the sun was out. Kahn gathered a small tumbler and went out. He sat on his haunches beside the ewe that had just given birth and milked her. When he had enough for his morning drink, he went in, fetched Muskaan and set her down near the mother. Muskaan started to suckle greedily. Kahn, meanwhile, mixed the milk with the local arrack and drank it in one gulp. The drink was the jolt that pushed his body into action every day.
“Aieeeoooooo, aieeeeeooooooooo-it hurts! It hurts!” shrieked one being made to sit on cold floor. Bums being tortured by the cold stone. Reluctance to sit finally overcome, everyone settled with their slates and pencils. They read Persian with Kahn, and some rudimentary math. If someone were to ask why learn Persian in a country where people do not even speak the language, they would just shrug their shoulders, throwing their hair back that had already started browning from the lack of adequate nutrition. They formed letters and words on their slates while Kahn looked on. He peered over the shoulder of the boy who was most the promising of the lot, Hari. He formed the curves and slants of the letters painstakingly, reminding Kahn of his own boyhood days. Once they filled their slate with the portion that had been assigned for the day, Kahn moved on to oral recitation. He recited Ghalib to them, closing his eyes, the recitation being the only opportunity for him to go back to a time that he sometimes doubted to have existed in his life at all. After the recitation, when Kahn opened his eyes, when it seemed that his eyes would melt at the slightest sight of beauty that he had seen in the verse, his brown eyes would often stop on Hari’s face. He made the boys commit the verses to memory and recite them later. It was Hari’s recitation that affected him in ways that he could not imagine – the boy’s voice opened up the inaccessible corners of his mind.
After the lesson the boys went out, fetched their playmates from colony and played with the animals that were once a part of a school that Kahn’s father ran. The smaller ones played on the green and yellow slide with wheees, whoooos and other quirky articulations of delight. Kahn watched as they played. On one side a marriage ceremony was in progress. The bride was a small girl dressed only in a shirt now the color of the dirt that caked it. What’s a bride without a dress? The children had fashioned a train for her from the white plastic wrap that someone had abandoned near the slum. She walked in beauty, taking her steps gingerly, with the plastic trailing behind her. A true bride of the grotesque. The procession led her to Kahn’s house, where they stopped in front of Muskaan. While the bride played with Muskaan, throwing her plastic train aside, Hari – who was leading the procession – stepped up and asked “O dear sir, time has come to give this child away. What bride price will you give us? Would you part with your lamb?” Kahn shook his head. “No bride price, no wedding,” Hari announced flatly. He broke from the group and joined the one pretending to be a bandit brotherhood. The paper strips of the train were being to put to use to make armbands. The children fashioned headbands and took up sticks that could rival Excalibur because of the sheer sincerity with which they cried and charged towards Kahn’s house. The bandits circled around the goats. Kahn watched and then whistled. Time to disperse.
The second half of Kahn’s day involved invoking the supernatural on unsuspecting and fearful common folk. He went inside, fashioned a turban around his head with a piece of black cloth, lined his eyes with kohl and went looking for the rest of the paraphernalia involved in transforming himself into a fakir. A copper plate with a chalice which held burning frankincense. A black turban and his beard dyed to a fiery orange with mehendi. A fan made of peacock feathers. And eyes that could affect people so much. Kahn slung a cloth bag across his shoulders. Before leaving, he sought the camel’s blessing (0r the spirit within the camel), entrusted Muskaan to Hari and walked off in search of those who were in need of a little extraterrestrial boost in their lives. These folk didn’t require any further convincing that Kahn was genuine after having laid their eyes on him. A towering man dressed in black, his eyes drilling into you while he wafted the wisps of incense that curl around him towards the awed average person. All those who lived near him kept him at a distance because of the rumors that surrounded him. In his younger days Kahn was notorious for his temper. He allegedly beat a man to pulp (who croaked later) because he poked Kahn with a stick while he was taking his afternoon siesta. The men still talked about it – how Kahn was sleeping with the sunlight reflected on his bald shiny head and how the mad man brushed his head with a stalk of bougainvillea. Kahn tried pushing the branch away in his sleep, but the man refused to give up. When Kahn woke up he wouldn’t stop beating the man. He sank his bare fists into the man’s face and his chest, making him a mass of red pulp. They had to literally peel him off the guy. The people, however, also talked about Kahn’s affection for children. He never refused requests from mothers; he warded off the evil eye from babies with a swirl of his peacock fan. The colony folk were aware of this and so they sent their children to him.
Kahn walked in the sun that burned mercilessly, with the kind of heat that feels fiery on your skin without making you sweat. As he passed the colony a woman’s voice, slightly quivering, called out to him. “Kahn sahib!” Kahn turned and looked around and saw no one. He was about to leave when the voice called out again. A woman emerged from her hiding place behind the tree with folded hands. “Kahn sahib, you have to help me.” She looked around herself like an animal about to be hunted down and aware of the fact. “Tell me, woman! What’s the matter?”
“My babies!” she sobbed, “my babies don’t live! I lose them all while they are still inside – a lot of blood – but no pain. And I’m worried sick for my child Hari.”
Kahn stiffened when he heard the name Hari. “Hari?”
“He’s not keeping well – gets sick all the time – fighting with me and his father – I don’t have the heart to see him getting beaten by my husband – my husband’s taken to drink and movies – spends all money on that! Comes home drunk and acts out scenes from the movie that he saw! Them movies don’t bring no food! I just don’t know!”