The Hangman's Daughter
I was contemplating suicide when I saw a stranger seated on the opposite chair watching me curiously. “Son, what are you planning?” He asked rather paternally.
I was annoyed at the sudden intrusion. “Who’re you? How did you get in?”
He smiled sympathetically. “I’m God, the Almighty,” He replied, straightening up. He ignored the second part of my question.
God? I looked at him hard. He did resemble to the Lord whose pictures we had in our prayer room but without crown or the jewellery. He had a strange aura about him. He appeared compassionate and supportive. Would God present Himself before a man? Why should He? I was confused.
“So you’re God,” I said rather sceptically. “Glad to have met you. But where have you been all these days? You didn’t appear when I needed you most.”
“Son, I’ve been with you since birth, but you didn’t recognize my presence. I live in the heart of all human beings, and try to steer them away when they do something wrong and appreciate when they do something good. Wise men call it inner voice; others say consciousness, but most people ignore my existence. I have now manifested myself because I find you’re about to do a grave mistake, and would not listen to what I try to communicate.”
I squirmed at His accusation, but pretending to be unconcerned, I ventured. “If so, I’d like to ask you something.” If he were God as he claimed, he might have answers for all my troubles.
“Go ahead. Shoot,” God encouraged.
“My whole life had been a surfeit of failures. Whatever I touched turned to charcoal, not gold, mind you, and I’ve been making myself a laughing stock. Look at my brothers and sisters; they are well off and contented. Why me alone?”
God laughed heartily for a few seconds, and then became serious. “Son that’s your karma or what we call samskara. If you had done anything good in your previous births, your life would have been a pleasant one. If you had done some heinous things in your past lives or had bad samskaras, a difficult time certainly awaited you here. That is the laws of nature. Every action, every thought goes into building good or bad samskaras. In your case, it was a mixture of both. Moreover, you were born on October 15, and your zodiac sign happened to be Libra. You would have noticed that all Librans generally weighs the pros and cons in the scales and lose the opportunities that come their way.”
“How true!” I agreed.
“Don’t relate your life with others. Always think of persons who don’t have anything: food, clothes, shelter, family, health, wealth and things like that. Compared to them, your life has been moderately satisfying though you don’t acknowledge it. Tell me your story right from your childhood days without omitting coma, colon or semicolon, and I’ll show you where you’ve gone wrong and where you did right.”
Thus, I began narrating my story:
As a child, I had always seen my mother with a new born on her lap. Once I asked my mother why she had been regularly bringing a fresh child from the hospital, and she told me that they were my offspring. At that time, I could not comprehend its real meaning. She also added that my father loved to have many children so that when we grew up we would form our own teams and would let out steams in a football field or hockey arena, thus staying away from frustrating troubles at home.
That was of course a noble idea. By the time the house was filled with nine little ruffians always fighting one another, the government in independent India on finding more population than the food resources propagated the idea of family planning. We would have suffered heavily if they had put all those couple having more than two children behind bars. In those days, television had not encroached the drawing rooms, and the radio, which was the only media connecting to the outside world, had fixed broadcasting time. There was not much scope for entertainment in the tea estate where my father worked except act as referee during our brotherly bouts and generously awarding penalties for foul play in the form of solid knocks on our heads with the handle of his umbrella. The climate in The Nilgiris was generally freezing, and yet my parents decided to hoist a white flag atop their house and surrender to the government’s decision. It put a sad full stop to some of the future’s outstanding personalities who would have perhaps raised India’s esteem in the field of medicine, engineering, science, physics, mathematics or such other subjects. Alas! We were limited to six males and three female members, and were constrained to enroll cousins and neighbourhood boys to make up a football team. The girls formed their own lacklustre ring-throwing squads, and mostly played indoor.
Our childhood days were largely uneventful. Except one elder brother and our younger sister, all excelled in studies. The headmaster of a local school where my younger sister Lalita studied was a regular visitor at our house. I remember the first time he came to see my father a few weeks after the final exam.
“Your daughter is weak in mathematics,” he complained as soon as he took a chair.
“Is it so? I will get her special tuition in mathematics,” Father offered.
“She’s also weak in social studies, languages…”
Father gave up. He deduced the reason for the headmaster’s house visit.
“Dear, get a packet of tea for the head master,” father called out to our mother who was busy in the kitchen.
Mother brought a one-kilogram packet of tea dust which father ceremoniously handed over it to the headmaster. After exchanging pleasantries, the head master quickly left.
Lalita got promotion to the next class.
The next year, the head master appeared about the same time.
“Dear, the head master has come. Get two packets of tea for him,” father called out without giving the headmaster the opportunity to belittle our dear sister.
Soon the head master left with two packets of tea dust.
The magic tea packet assured Lalita’s promotion to the higher class.
This went on for a few years, and the quantity of tea increased from packets to bags and sacks, depending upon the class Lalita had been studying. However, when the Board exam came, no Board member came to our house to receive the coveted tea bags.
Naturally, Lalita scored poor marks in most subjects, but got an enormous egg in mathematics. The minimum pass mark was 35 in each subject, and she got an aggregate of 36. Excellent attempt, my brother Anandu complimented.
Father observed that if we desired Lalita to pass matriculation, he would have to offer the entire tea estate to the Board members. Unfortunately, the tea estate belonged to an English company, and so he had to put a final full stop to Lalita’s further education since she had learned all the basic things she needed to know to lead a homely life.
It was many years after that we knew why Lalita could not study well. She had vision problem, which no one had noticed until diagnosed by an ophthalmologist. If she had complained about it earlier, perhaps she would have become a doctor or an educationalist, mother lamented.
“Limit your story to yourself,” God interrupted.
Well, failure had always been in my blood. Not that I failed in all classes; I was moderately intelligent. However, when confronting a situation, I would try to see it from all angles, right, left, top and bottom, and by the time I settled to a firm conclusion, the opportunity would have vanished or somebody would have hijacked it. My friends called me a silly ass, blockhead, damn fool, budhoo, coward… and so many other titles because I floundered hopelessly in all my transactions due to the wavering characteristics of my birth star.
In those days, I was the leader of the boys in our locality and the most sought after personality in the neighbourhood. Ripe mangoes were our foible, and sometimes, the stones strayed from its intended trajectory and fell on windowpanes. Made of glass, these panes might have shattered, and made loud noise. A natural calamity you would agree, and should have been dismissed as children’s pranks or unintentional crime and forgiven forthwith. However, some people always waited for my appearance on the road on my way to or from the school to teach me a lesson. I had the ability to vanish into thin air in a matter of seconds. However, on some days when this trick failed, they twisted my right ear like a key to open to wisdom, or some gentle thrash on my bottom to express their neighbourly affection. This love sign would remain on my buttocks for two-three days.
When I grew up and promoted to Class V, I left my impishness behind, and became serious. My priorities were re-scheduled. Girls topped the list. I was then nine years old. When the school re-opened, a cute girl by name Shobana caught my fancy. She was a petite, little girl with a round face and sporting a miniature ponytail but, sadly, she was in the next division.
This little darling with ponytail and all stole my heart at the very first sight and I decided to focus my first love towards this girl. Yet I had some reservation (Ah, blame it on my stars.) Unfortunately, she was the daughter of our great head master.
Unfortunately for me; not for her.
The head master was a huge man about six feet two inches tall with muscle all over his body, a stern martinet who, however, walked softly like a cat, hiding a long thick cane in his shirtsleeve which he would fish out at opportune moment. The cane was specially imported from UK with the words ‘Made in England’ engraved on it in reverse mode for some practical purpose.
My elder brother Jayan, to whom I confided everything minus the name of the girl, gave me thumbs up signal and bade me to go ahead. He said he would stand by me in hot or cold. I trusted my brother because he was well read, and could recite English poems with ease.
Even after three months of my silent wooing when I could not make any headway with Shobana I decided to consult my brother again. I bought a half packet of cigarette with ten paise and presented it to my brother. He grabbed it as though he had not seen a cigarette before and lit one.
“What’s your problem, young brother?”
He was a year older than I was, and we were studying in the same class; yet he behaved as though smoking cigarette was precocious and manly. I told him my woes and he called me a damn fool. I think it was my brother, who first called me a fool.
“You love the hangman’s daughter?” He looked petrified.
“Yes, of course.”
“Sweet snakes!” said he. “You couldn’t have found a better place for trouble.”
The headmaster had a nickname Hangman. He earned it for the way he meted out a punishment known as ‘death penalty’. Whenever he saw an errant boy, he would pick him up by the heels with one hand; keep him dangling upside down while thrashing the boy’s bottom a number of times with his infamous old cane. It would leave imprints of the words ‘Made in England’’ on the buttocks for many days, which most parents found quite insulting. We would have loved to witness the headmaster treating a puckish girl, but there we drew a blank.
“Love does not invite trouble,” I argued. “Otherwise no man would love a girl.”
“But you’re not a man. You are just a boy. Love and boy do not go together. If you are very confident, it is your funeral. Don’t tell me I have not warned you,” my brother said resignedly. “How’s her attitude towards you?” he queried.
“She smiles whenever she sees me,” I said.
“That is because you have a long nose,” he snickered. “Let that not worry you. You can always explain that you got it when your nose remained static while your face retreated.”
I was not amused. I had not consulted him to listen to these crude jokes.
“Forget the wit. If she smiles, that’s a positive sign,” he said like a man of wisdom. “Why don’t you go and declare your love to her like they do in movies?”
“Point-blank?” I shivered at the mere mention of it.
“Why not? She won’t hit you with her umbrella if you just ask her for her note book.”
“Why a note book?” I demanded cautiously.
“Blockhead, you have no imagination,” he complained. “When you return the book, you could place a letter in it.” He explained.
I turned pale. My brother was insistent. He said it was the best way to let her know my feelings.
I did not know how to write a leave letter, not to speak of love letter. “Don’t worry, I will help you,” my brother offered.
I spent another ten paise for cigarettes.
He composed a first-class love letter. Some of the words really bowled me over. When I questioned he admitted that he had plagiarized entire paragraphs and lines from various pulp novels, and from Krishna-Leela, Ramayana and Mahabharata but the net result was an outstanding epistle. I gave it to our maternal aunt for editing and correction. She lamented that she had not received such an impressive love letter when she was young. She made a few changes here and there, added a few lines and returned it to me. Oh sure, when crisis occurred our family stood together.
“Give it to her first thing in the morning, and see how love blossoms,” my brother advised. I was excited.
The next morning I met Shobana outside the library. Actually, I had been waiting outside for more than half-an-hour just to see her. She was all rose and honey. She gave me an entrancing smile. The coast was clear. No one else was around. A god sent opportunity. But the mere idea of speaking to her turned me icy. My teeth clattered. I knew that soon somebody might come up to disturb this serene atmosphere. It was now or never.
“Sho…banana, no, Sho…bana,” I called. My voice came like a whisper.
She stopped, and looked at me quizzically.
“Would… would you give me that note book?” I managed to say.
“This is a library book,” she said, bemused. “I’m going to return it.”
My scenario had failed. I had not anticipated that. The whole rehearsal for these dialogues had been in vain. Now I had to find words from my own repertory. My brother had not coached me what to say when such mishap happened. What a dilemma.
“Give me that book, then,” I blurted out.
She gave me the book. I did not bother to look at its title. Instead, I fished out the letter from my pocket in an elaborate pretence, placed it in the book and returned it gallantly. She stood there, stupefied. Having no other business to transact, I adjourned our meeting, and walked away triumphantly.
I had done what no other boy had dared to do: given a love letter to the head master’s daughter. Then it struck me: Suppose it landed in the hands of the hangman?
I shuddered with fright. He would certainly hang me in a meat hook.
The first and second periods went off peacefully. Then the interval came.
In the third period, when the school peon came to our class with a chit, I saw dark clouds of trouble brewing somewhere in the horizon. “Vijay,” our class teacher looked at me and said, “Our headmaster desires to see you.”
A lightening passed through me. The class fell silent. When the hangman desired to see someone meant death penalty. I knew the whole class was looking at me as I walked out slowly towards the gallows. I fervently prayed to all known Gods that our head master would have a sudden heart attack, or the old rooftop of his room fell on his baldhead and plastered him to the floor or such other miraculous activities, but Gods were not on my side.
The head master was speaking to the office assistant as I entered his room. He looked up through his thick spectacles and thundered: “Stand outside. I will call you shortly.”
I went out dejectedly and sat down on a rickety wooden bench. Time ticked away sluggishly. I looked at the long, vacant veranda. There was nothing interesting to behold. I glanced at the dull ceiling laced with cobwebs. A spider must be waiting somewhere expectantly for a prey to fall into its web. I realised sadly that I had fallen into a love-web, and the spider was getting ready to tear me to pieces.
I wished I had the power to become invisible.
Presently, I saw the assistant coming out, and heard the head master’s rasping voice asking me to enter.
Somewhere I heard the beating of drums. My heart was no longer a silent spectator.
The head master looked as sore as a gumboil. He opened the drawer and pulled out a piece of paper. I recognized it. My fears assumed protean forms. I felt a tremor running through my body. In the Richter scale, it would have measured at least five. I looked at him the way a sheep would at the butcher, and that I suppose made him thaw a little.
“How do you write the letter ‘L’?”
Ha. I let out a sigh of relief: this was only an English education class.
I wrote it readily on the blotter.
“Hmm,” he growled. “It looks all right, but the hook below deceived me,” he admitted pleasantly. “I thought you had written ‘red hips’. Ha ha ha.”
I smiled wanly, and wondered whether I should tell him that my brother had written this letter. However, I decided against it. Why give credit to my brother unnecessarily?
“What’s the spelling of Beautiful eyes?” came question number 2.
I spelt it. “B-u, no, B-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l-l I-c-e.”
“W-r-o-n-g,” I answered meekly.
“Don’t pull that old gag.” He roared.
I shuddered. Would he ask me to write those words a hundred times?
All of a sudden, his demeanour changed, and he thawed a little. “How do you hope to pass the exam, if you don’t try to improve your English? Your letter is full of grammatical and spelling mistakes.”
I remained silent. To tell you the truth, I felt like a damn fool. However, I was very relieved. I had imagined he would hang me up by the heels, remove my trousers and give me clear imprints of his famous cane, but here he was, treating me paternally.
“Let me see your right hand, son,” he said.
I liked his calling me ‘son’. It meant he had accepted me as his future son-in-law. I was overjoyed.
I showed my right palm. Perhaps he knew palmistry as well, and wished to read my future – whether I would make a suitable match for his beloved daughter.
I was beginning to weave my dreams into exquisite patterns when without any formal notice his infamous cane appeared in his hand, and very lovingly, it kissed my palm rather forcefully six times. It sent a thousand bulbs exploding in my head. Stars and asterisks flew around my hand.
“Son,” he called me softly. He was so sweet that it brought tears in my eyes. I looked at him through my tears. “Does it hurt?”
I nodded my head. My palm really burnt.
“If it leaves blisters, use warm water for massaging,” he advised paternally.
Tears tasted salty. I tried not to cry.
“Write hundred times the word Beautiful and show me tomorrow morning before entering your class.”
I could not stop from whimpering.
As I was going out, he called me again. “And son,” he said very politely, “keep your nasty hands off my daughter if you wish to have every bone in your body in its right position. Understand?”
Before he changed his mind and start breaking my bones one by one, I ran out without looking back.
I had heard that love meant pain, loss of sleep, loss of appetite and loss of concentration, but never imagined it would be so painful until then.
Wiping the tears, I put up a deadpan face, as I re-entered the class.
God did not make any comment.