Trial by Fire
The mother-in-law, deaf when it suited her, advised, “Give the characters names. The children must learn pronunciation.”
The mother transferred handfuls of grain from the rice-bin to the winnow and began again, “There was once a brave dog called Paaraa.”
“Haw!” The mother-in-law’s hand rose to her mouth in shock, “It is blasphemous to use the Chief’s name like this! Comparing him to a dog?!”
“Brave dog,” the mother retorted. “I will teach the children only what is good for them.” She turned to the children and said, “Now children, ‘Paaraa’ means ‘supreme one’. Repeat his name, Paa-raa.”
“Paa-raa,” parroted the older one.
The younger child ran his toy cart to and fro in the field created by his splayed legs on the floor.
The mother deftly picked off the stones among the grains. “Paaraa had a wife called…”
“Bitch,” the mother-in-law added. “A female dog is called a bitch, not a wife.”
The mother turned to her. “Would you rather tell the story yourself?”
“Speak a little louder, dear. What did you say?”
The mother turned to the younger child and said, “If you don’t repeat the names, I won’t tell you about the monkeys in the story. Now say Mai-yaa?”
“Mai-yaa,” chirped the younger one impatiently. “So, what did the monkeys do?”
“The monkeys come later. Now listen to the story, little one” said the mother. “One day, when Paaaraa and Mayya roamed the vast forest, Mayya sniffed the air and began to yelp. She smelled juicy meat nearby and her mouth began to water.”
“What meat was it?” asked the older child.
“It was venison,” said the mother. “Paaraa…”
“Mother, what is ‘venni-shun’?”
“Venison is deer meat,” added the mother-in-law. “Just like the meat of a goat is called mutton.”
“Mat-tan. Mat-tan. Mat-tan,” chanted the younger one banging his cart on the floor.
“Did Paaraa go looking for the v-venison?” asked the older one.
“Yes, he did,” said the mother. She transferred the grains to a rice pot, added a handful of lentils, and poured water to cover the grains.
“Meanwhile, Mayya was terrified of being alone in the forest. She decided to go in search of Paaraa.” She sat back on her haunches and continued. “Suddenly, her legs got entangled in a bird-hunter’s net! Mayya tried to free herself. She growled and barked, and growled and barked. But Paaraa had gone too far away to hear her.”
“Then what happened?” asked the older child.
“Did the monkeys pull Mayya’s tail?” asked the little one.
“No, no. Before that, comes the bird-hunter, Dasagriva. Say the name—Da-sa-gree-vaa,” said the mother, adding diced vegetables and salt to the pot.
“Greeva, greeva, greeva” said the younger one.
“No, no.” She laughed. “Dasa is ‘ten’, greeva means ‘neck’ or ‘voice’. Dasagriva was a hunter who could mimic many types of birdsong. He used his gift of voice to lure and entrap birds.”
“Da-sa-gree-vaa,” said the children in unison.
“Good! Dasagriva, the hunter returned to the trap he had set to catch birds. But instead, he found Mayya entangled in it.”
“What did he do?” asked the older one, leaning forward.
“He was furious! He shouted – ‘Now what will I give my woman to cook? You have ruined everything.’ He tied up Mayya’s legs, bound her muzzle, slung her easily over his back and took her away.”
“Then what happened?” asked the younger one.
Dusk. Two women. One combs the hair of the other, running her fingers from scalp to tip to ease the knots of the previous night to make way for new ones. A skinny river parts the black tresses. A strand from one riverbank has crossed over. The comber weaves the old strand with new ones to create an intricate braid.
The other holds a mirror and tries to match an image she has been taught to emulate. She assumes a coy sidelong glance, arches her back, tilts her head and uses the mirror to see herself as others would, running their eyes down the exposed line of flesh, starting from her chin and moving down to the base of her throat along a smooth plateau that led to the foothills of her cleavage.
The comber speaks, “Business will be as usual, only the timings will change. We will be busy until evening. Then, they will be off for the temple sermon and the trial by fire.”
“Who is to undergo the trial?”
“Didn’t you know? The Chief’s wife.”
“But I thought he loved her! He attacked the neighbouring province and rescued her from its Chief.”
“Ever since the Chief brought her back, it has bothered him a great deal that she lived with a stranger for a whole month. He believes she may have succumbed to the demon’s charm.”
“Does it matter?”
“I suppose it doesn’t. The Chief will not take her word for it?”
“The Chief will have nothing to do with her. He has absolved himself of any sin in this regard and has named the priest as the arbiter. It is the priest who has decreed that she should walk on burning coal at the festival tonight.”
“What’s the catch? We do it every year at the festival of the Mother Goddess. It is not impossible.”
“She is not one of us, remember? We know how to do it and we have enough practice doing it year after year ever since we attained puberty. Besides, she will be draped in one of our sarees so the other firewalkers don’t take offence.”
“So politically correct.”
“Wait. There’s more. The proof of her chastity is unblemished soles after she walks on burning embers.”
“Until she was abducted, she had never stepped barefoot on unpaved ground. There were always servants to scrape her feet every day, and mounts and dolis that her indulgent husband provided. Apparently, she has returned with cracks and blisters on her soles.”
“In short, it is a ploy by the priest and the Chief to label her unchaste.”
“If she had to undertake a whore’s ritual to prove her chastity, is she not labelled already? Unless her feet emerge miraculously unblemished after the trial, her fate is sealed,” sighs the comber, who now loosens her plait and swaps places with the other.
The priest emerged from the water, offering silent prayers to the setting sun. He noticed the ripples radiating from him like a liquid halo, gently caressing the water lilies that floated an arm’s length away.
Decades of performing worship in a dingy little temple sanctum filled with camphor fumes had darkened his skin. He smiled as he thought of the scrubbing his wife gave him every day using oil, soap nut powder, and coconut husk to scour away his tainted complexion. Then, he remembered this morning’s argument.
But what was he to do? He was bound by loyalty to the Chief, who was also the patron of the temple. Even if the Chief’s wife was chaste, her husband thought otherwise. The Chief had placed the decision in his hands. The priest was, after all, the custodian of morality and champion of dharma in the village.
A truant wind blew ripples of its own in the water, intersecting the ones he had created. It disturbed him, this visual discord. He turned away and stepped on to the bank. Gathering his upper cloth, he wiped himself off and strode eastward back to the village.
Following his decision of a trial by fire, many women of the village had been vocal in their support for the Chief’s wife. This hadn’t happened even back in the day when the Chief had decreed that all mirrors in the village be destroyed. The Chief’s justification was that the women were spending more time adorning themselves like whores when they ought to be nurturing their families. The women had accepted the decree back then. What was different now?
This very morning, his wife, an otherwise mild-mannered woman, had bemoaned the sin he was about to commit, of tainting an innocent woman. She feared that it would hover over him and by extension, their family, for generations to come. It had shocked him to hear her express an opinion contrary to his dharma. She had retorted that it was her dharma to alert him to the consequences of his actions.
But he would not back down. The time was set for midnight and he would find some way to ensure that the trial by fire would go off without disruption. The sermon preceding the ceremony was the key. He believed in the power of persuasion, of using logic and emotion in the right measure, of the power of words.
His wife did it all the time, teaching the children morals in the guise of stories and songs. The people of the village were, after all, like children to him, lost and wading through the swamp of Evil. They needed to be guided by hand to reach the firm path of Good.
At the cusp of time and space, when day meets night and untilled land meets village, the priest stopped suddenly. He was a man of modest height, but the setting sun behind him lengthened his shadow on the ground ahead of him.
The solution was startling in its simplicity.
He would narrate a story tonight. Only, he would do it in verse and set it to music so it would be sung for years to come. He would create a myth, a larger-than-life story that mirrored the situation in the village. He would create gods and demons out of mere men. He would pit virtue against vice. Hero against Villain. White against Black. It would be inevitable for Good to triumph over Evil. The story of a hero bound by duty to his people would overshadow the story of the wife.
“Then what happened?” asked the younger one.
“After days of planning and gathering support, Paaraa decided to attack Dasagriva and rescue Mayya,” said the mother, stirring the pot. “He crept into Dasagriva’s house through a gap in the fence. He heard loud snores.”
“Like this? Korrrr-Korrrr. Korrrr-Korrrr,” said the little one, casting a sidelong glance at his grandmother.
“That’s right,” the mother laughed. “Now listen to what the monkeys did. They trooped silently into position on the neighbouring rooftops waiting for a signal. Paaraa stood in the courtyard and let out a long warning howl.”
“Like this?” asked the little one, “Awwwwoooooo!”
“Good! You sound exactly like he did! Mayya heard it and barked with joy.”
“Did the hunter wake up?” asked the older child.
“Dasagriva awoke with a start. He picked up his axe and stepped into the courtyard with his brothers and sons and warned Paaraa – ‘I know why you are here! Leave! Or else I will hack you down with this axe that I sharpened only this morning!’ ”
“Then what happened? What did the monkeys do?” asked the younger one.
“Paaraa bared his teeth, picked up one forepaw and extended it, then brought it down on the ground in front of him. At this signal, the monkeys descended on the hunter’s men. They began to pull at the clothes of the men, yanked the plaits of the women and upturned everything in sight.”
“What did Paaraa do? Did he kill Dasagriva?” asked the older one.
“While the monkeys caused confusion, Paaraa faced the hunter. With a loud cry, Dasagriva lifted his axe, but Paaraa was quick. He jumped and moved swiftly behind Dasagriva, clamped his teeth on his calf and bit hard. Dasagriva cried out in pain, but enraged, brought down the axe. Paaraa released his jaw hold and moved just in time to avoid the descending axe. Dasagriva touched his bleeding calf and roared – ‘I will never give her back! Not after this!’.”
“Did Dasagriva kill Paaraa?” asked the older one.
“No, no, dear one. Good always wins over evil. The brave dog and the hunter circled each other. Suddenly, one of the monkeys pulled at the long plait of Dasagriva’s wife. Her cry distracted him. Then, Paaraa leapt in the air and attacked the hunter’s throat. Dasagriva fell to the floor, badly injured.”
The mother-in-law asked, “What happened to the bitch?”
The mother, her eyes smarting from the spices she had dropped into the oil for seasoning, continued, “Paaraa stepped away from Dasagriva’s writhing form and went in search of his wife. Mayya, meanwhile, finally snapped off the binding rope that she had been gnawing at for days. She became free. Paaraa and Mayya bounded towards each other and frisked happily in the moonlit courtyard.”
“And they lived happily ever after?” asked the younger one.
The mother-in-law leaned forward, now listening with all the attention of a censor.
“Yes, little one,” said the mother, “That is how the story ends.”
Looking into the water pot, the mother branded her forehead and the parting in her hair. A few specks of vermillion fell into the water and floated on the surface.