tika for Jung Bahadur
The director and the journalist met by chance in the bar of the Press Club. It was Tuesday evening, a quiet time. The usually crowded bar which was so noisy that, it was said by a local wit, you had to shout to hear yourself think, was almost deserted. The journalist was drinking rum and Coke. The director was drinking plain soda, but he hoped it looked like a vodka and tonic. He did not like alcohol, which did not suit him. But he wasn’t sure if it was advisable to let people know this. He wouldn’t want anyone to think he was other than what he was: a hard-bitten media warhorse. Everyone who was anyone in the media drank. Everyone knew that.
Haven’t seen you for a while; where’ve you been? asked the journalist. Up in the mountains, out there, said the director. He motioned with his hand, a slight swivelling of the wrist to encompass a dimension beyond the bar, the city, their known world. The journalist understood the mudra, had often used it himself. It conveyed a wealth of meaning, recreating in a single, small movement a vast otherness, a trackless desolation into which professionals like him — and the director, too, he conceded — had to go from time to time in the hope of coming back with something interesting to write about. Or to screen, he acknowledged, as the director offered him a drink.
Got a good story then? asked the journalist, since the other was buying. A great story, the best, and biggest, said the director, taking a sip of soda, miming a grimace to suggest the strength of the drink. Bloody blowhard, thought the journalist. So tell it to me then, he said. The bugger was buying, after all.
So the director told the journalist the story. Or at least, as much of the story as he knew. The journalist hoped the director would get him another drink when he’d finished his story. Though he suspected that what the director was drinking was just soda water. He wondered, not for the first time, if the fellow was gay.
Jung Bahadur stared into the black muzzle aimed point blank at him and felt more terrified than ever before in his life. The paralysing fear was worse than when he had run up that hill in a far country, straight towards the machine gun nest in a hail of fire that sucked the breath from his lungs, men twisting and falling around him, the earth erupting in clouds of smoke and dust, a high-pitched scream which a distant part of his mind recognised as his own drowning out the stutter of the gun as his upraised knife cleaved the sun in two. He’d reached the top unscathed and killed all four of the soldiers manning the post. That got him the medal, the big one. And the legend of Jung Bahadur, the warrior who could not die, was born. He’d been nineteen at the time.
Now, 37 years later, staring into the barrel pointing at him, he tried to recapture that moment, to remember how he had overcome his fear. But his body seemed to be made of stone, refusing to accept the mind’s command. He looked into the depths of the black circle and saw, faintly, as on the side of a bubble, a tiny reflection of himself.
Jeez, I think he’s gone and frozen up on us, said the TV cameraman. The director, a thin young man in jeans, a light meter around his neck like a medallion, came around the cameraman and knelt beside Jung Bahadur. Here, he said, holding out a pack of Marlboros. Have a smoke, take your time, he said. He lit Jung Bahadur’s cigarette, then his own.
They had about two hours of daylight left, the director figured. Enough time to finish the interview with the old geezer, do a quick wraparound of the village, a snappy summary, and then out of here tomorrow, after the finale, the annual tika ceremony in the morning. He could hardly wait. He looked at the straggle of stone and tile houses, cast like random rocks on the slope. The narrow terraces cut into the hillside sprouted a sparse growth of some unidentifiable crop. The director could not begin to guess what it might be. Beyond, the snow peaks burned rose and gold in the slanting sun. The director shivered slightly in the cooling air. This place gave him the heebie-jeebies. Imagine being born and growing up in a hole like this. He shivered again. But, Christ. What a story, what a story.
In the morning they’d interviewed the woman. Her stone house, no different from any other in the hamlet, was at the opposite end of the cluster from that of the old man. An ironic point which should be worked into the script, thought the director. Expecting them, she was bathed and ready, the sindoor red in the parting of her hair. She looks almost virginal, the director thought, and made a mental note to add that to the script. On a small altar were the images of the two deities special to the village. The god of death and the goddess of love, after whom the woman herself was named, Tara Devi. Two bowls held red sindoor paste and rice grains for the yearly tika ceremony. For this was a special day, when the god sought a tika and the blessings of the goddess. A reconciliation of love and death: the two great polarities of the human condition. Love and death. It sounded like the title of a Woody Allen movie. Should he, in the script, change it to the yin and yang of the human condition? The director wasn’t sure. There were many things he wasn’t sure of, and knowing this made him even more unsure of himself. But of one thing he was sure. What a story this was, he kept repeating to himself. As he had ever since he’d stumbled upon a tucked-away newspaper report about a remote mountain community which eked out a hardscrabble subsistence by supplying the outside world with these two commodities: Love and death. Women for brothels, and mercenary soldiers for far-flung wars. What a story. The director couldn’t believe no one had thought of making a film on it before.
Camera rolling, he’d said, as Tara Devi had begun to talk into it, telling it who she was, and why, and how it had all come about. Or almost all.
She’d been very good, the director thought, stubbing out his cigarette as he squatted beside Jung Bahadur. She’d been a natural. No nervousness, no loss for words, no freezing up or fidgets. She’d looked straight into camera and had told her story, not in her mountain dialect but in the lingua franca of the plains. Her childhood, growing up in the village. The endless backbreaking work to make the earth yield a bitter mouthful, never enough to banish hunger.
As a young girl, she had fallen in love, been betrothed. But the man she was to marry died in a climbing accident. She had mourned him for six months. Then she’d left the village, the only world she knew, which had become unreal as a dream. When she woke from her dream she found herself in a strange and distant city by the sea. On the city’s streets — so many, many people, she could not have imagined that the whole of the earth could have so many people — she met strangers who could speak her language. They had taken her to the house of women where she stayed and worked for many years. She was lucky. It was a good house, run well, and she was kept safe. Not like those less fortunate who, finding no house to take them in, had to make their livelihood on the streets, always fearful of the sudden blow, the slash of a knife, worse. She carefully hoarded the money she made. And made a vow. That one day she would return to her village, and would help any of the young women who wanted to seek whatever fortune they could find in the cities of the plain. She could guide them, steer them, keep them from harm. She had been true to her vow, and was now almost as revered in the village as the goddess of whom she was the priestess, the goddess of love.
When you left, when you came back, in all these years since, have you, did you, ever feel a sense of, well, you know, shame, the director had asked. For the first time, a flutter of emotion — Was it scorn? Amusement? — passed over Tara Devi’s handsome features, too strong to be called beautiful. The director felt less sure of himself than ever, and wondered what had possessed him to ask the question. He wasn’t sure. Shame? said Tara Devi. What shame is there but that which a man brings with him when he comes to a woman and tries to leave his shame behind with her? The shame, she said, if any, is yours, not mine. Unable to look her in the face, the director had ducked behind the camera. It was a good frame. The morning light through the window was strong, good for contrast. There were some things he knew, some things he was sure of.
Now he touched Jung Bahadur on the shoulder. Shall we try it again, Daju? he said. The old soldier nodded. Yes, he said. I’m ready now. Let it begin.
But where had it really begun? Where and when was the real beginning, the beginning that Jung Bahadur did not speak of now, as he told his story, by rote, to the camera. When I was 17 a man came to the village, a man from these same mountains, but who’d been away for many years in a far-off land, said Jung Bahadur. The man had come to the village in search of young men to recruit as soldiers, to fight wherever there were battles to be fought. Jung Bahadur had been the only one from his village to volunteer. He had been accepted and had gone away with the man, to be trained to be a soldier.
He had proved to be good at it. The discipline of the parade ground, the precision of the arms drill had come naturally to him, with the ease of a rifle bolt sliding smoothly forward, snicking into place over the loaded chamber. His training over, he’d been sent overseas, together with the other troops, all young men from the mountains like himself. There had been a war, in a country whose name Jung Bahadur could no longer remember, or even remember if he’d ever known it. There had been so many countries, so many wars.
Jung Bahadur had seen men die, blood and guts and brains spilling out of their bodies like grain from a burst sack. Many of them wore the same uniform as he did, others wore a different uniform and Jung Bahadur had killed them. Death had come easily to him, a talent that grew with practice. Then had come the day on the hill, men falling around him in a scythed harvest of flesh and bone and tissue, the blood mist blinding his eyes as he ran upwards, ears deafened by the pounding thunder of his heart over which rose the thin scream of his rage and hate and fear, still miraculously alive, still running, till he got to the top and the curved blade of the knife slashed in a glittering arc, barely pausing as it cut off the wrist of the officer with a pistol in his hand, slicing the throat of the second, ripping open the bellies of the third and fourth, and, completing its cycle, burying itself haft-deep in the neck of the first, still looking in puzzlement at his severed arm. Coming up, his men, the survivors, had found him kneeling in the gun pit in the midst of the charnel as though in homage to what he had done. They couldn’t kill me, he said. They’d given him the medal for that, the big one, this one here, said Jung Bahadur, touching one of the rows of medals he’d put on for the camera. That had been the beginning, hadn’t it? Or had that been the end?
Or had the beginning, the real beginning been Kesan. Kesan, tall and slim and laughing, so utterly the opposite of himself, his best friend, closer to him than a brother. They’d grown up together. Playing with other children on the terraced fields, but happiest when alone together, exploring the ravines and gorges in the hillsides, plunging into icy rivulets to see who could hold his breath longest under the burningly frigid water. Inseparable companions till that high summer afternoon which changed everything.
Who was it who had first noticed Tara, Kesan or he? Jung Bahadur didn’t know. All that he knew was that, almost without realising it, he had begun to watch her. And so had Kesan. She’d always been there, of course, one of the younger children in the village, anonymous in a melee of scuffed arms and legs and tears and giggles, disdained by Kesan and Jung Bahadur, older, the leaders of the pack.
There was no specific moment, no particular day when Jung Bahadur found himself looking at Tara. He turned his head away, but after a while, the next day, or perhaps the week after, his eyes would turn to her again. He looked at her and couldn’t take his gaze away. His skin burned, his stomach was ice. Tara, he said, but not out loud, the word stuck like a pebble in his throat.
Jug Suraiya, best-known as a humour writer and satirist, is Style Editor of ‘The Times of India’. He lives in Delhi