The dappled shade under the mango trees triggered two very conflicting emotions. Firstly, it signalled the possibility of juicy fruit. Secondly it signalled fear - he was somewhere he ought not to be, and must therefore, be very careful. The dry leaves from the trees threatened to crunch underfoot. The problem with leaves crunching wasn't so much as giving his existence away; a regular crunch-crunch meant he wouldn't be able to hear others approaching. He had long mastered the art of walking in spurts, with dragging motion, continually listening for any approaching footsteps.
The boy looked scrawny, sun-burnt and gloriously unkempt. His shirt was obviously too large for him, needing a good wash, and his shorts had a fair bit of mending work done. He looked typical for a boy of seven, but for the scar across his forehead. He crouched at the base of a tree, one among the long rows in the grove, listening, while trying to decide where to move next. It was already late in the summer, most of the harvesting had already been done. But he always found fruit - one just had to know where to look for them. Making up his mind, he moved stealthily across a number of rows, making his way away from the big mansion of people that owned the grove. While he walked he scanned the tops of the trees, looking not for fruit, but for signs that someone may have climbed it. Broken twigs, crushed leaves, the clear scrape of the ladder along the trunk - these weren't the trees he was looking for. He knew he just had to be patient, and careful.
He froze, when he spotted the figure in the tree, looking at him. His first reaction was to start running home - but that meant running toward the figure in the tree. He didn't want to be caught, but he would have a better chance if he knew what he was running from. The figure was already climbing down, so he crouched and waited, and watched in surprise as a young boy, about his age, dropped out of the tree.
The boys stared at each other sizing the other up. Almost by instinct, they moved within earshot of each other and stopped - neither wanting to be the first to speak. The new kid must live in the big house at the other end of the grove. His clothes were new, almost shiny. And he had shoes, that he could climb trees in. But well, he did crunch a lot of leaves when he walked. But he was shorter - not by much - but enough by young boy standards.
It was the newcomer that broke the impasse, nodded satisfied, as if this had been his plan all along.
"Do you want to see a huge dead bird in the woods? I am going to poke it with a stick. Mom says I shouldn't, but I am going through anyway. You can come along, if you wish, or else I can go all by myself."
A dead bird wasn't something new, the boy thought to himself, he had seen plenty of those. But he never remembered a huge one, or wanting to poke one. May not be a bad idea after all. The mangoes wouldn't go anywhere today, he could find one tomorrow. He nodded, following the newcomer.
"My father says, he might have shot the bird on his hunting trips. Collie never found it. Collie is my dog. He always goes with my dad on his hunting trips. What is your name?"
"Samu? That is a strange name. My name is Devdan. I am named after my mother's grandfather. He had died before I was even born. You are untouchable aren't you?"
The word brought out a familiar sense of dread, almost making him wish he bolted when he first had the chance. However, it was the nonchalant way the newcomer - Devdan - said it that lessened the impact. Before he could answer, Devdan continue speaking. He followed, half listening to Devdan chatter, while still keeping an ear out for the sounds of anyone approaching. Thankfully the way to the woods did not lead towards the big house.
"Mom says I shouldn't even look at untouchables. Dad never agrees with her. She utters curses under her breath, but I am not supposed to repeat those. So I don't do anything she asks me to. Mom says you are evil, are you?"
"I don't think so either," Devdan continued. "But I don't want to touch you though. If I touch you, I will also get your disease, and the scar on your forehead. You better take me seriously. You are not going to touch me are you?"
Samu shook his head, still thinking if the huge bird justified this walk. He was close enough to his own village, now. He could slink away and run off without Devdan even knowing. But how huge was the bird, really? He felt he had to find that out.
They walked on in the high afternoon sun, passing through patches of shrubs and small trees before emerging into a glade, by a pond. The grass wasn't too tall, and a few rocks were the only features visible. And there they saw it, beside a largish rock by the water lay the bird. It was huge, taller than either boy, with long legs and an equally long neck. One wing lay open and the other seemed broken as it lay sprawled starkly visible against the green grass.
True to his word, Devdan was already busy snapping himself a staff of sorts, to poke the dead bird. Samu was drawn by the wing - it looked so delicate, with the white feathers, almost as large as the coconut leaves they had on the roof of their hut in the village. Could he pick some feathers and take them home. Would mom let him make a roof out of the feathers.
There were small ants that had already started to make trails to the carcass. As always they seemed to always make their way to the eyes first. And there was no smell - nothing at all - which meant the bird hadn't been dead long. How did Devdan know about it? He raised his head to ask, but was rendered speechless by the look of frozen horror on the shorter boy's face.
He heard the swish of the cane before he felt it crack across his ear and cheek. As he tried to turn, the second strike caught him square on his jaw and the third across his back as he tumbled to the ground. Almost by instinct he quickly rolled himself foetal position, mumbling "I am sorry. I will not do that again.". The cane came down repeatedly, on his arms, his back and legs, as Samu rolled on the grass, trying to get away mumbling apologies again and again. Abruptly, the blows stopped. He could hear the laboured breathing of the man behind him. Devdan hadn't moved from where he stood rooted, bawling how it was not Samu's fault. Samu could taste a bit of blood from the inside of his cheek, but otherwise it did not seem to be too bad. Now he just had to find a way to run home. Still on the ground, he cracked an eye open.
There were two men. The one closest to him holding a cane was still winded from his effort in swinging it. The second man behind stood, with his legs apart and arms crossed, not looking at him, instead glaring at Devdan, who still sobbed.
"What did your mother teach you about untouchables?" the man asked Devdan.
"I am sorry father. He did not touch me. I told him not to. He did not, I promise. I will not come here again. I promise, dada."
"Your mother also said something about not talking to one. Wait till she hears of this." Devdan's father replied.
"B-B-But..." the sobbing started anew.
"Go home, and wait for me," Turning to the man with the cane, "Take him to the Magistrate. Make sure you tell him we found him near our drinking water. Careful, don't touch the filthy creature. I don't employ anyone who has lost his soul." Without another glance backwards, he left.
The man with the cane put it away and produced a length of rope. He rolled one end of it into a noose, and threw it at Samu, grunting. Samu slipped his hands through the noose, and held his hands up so that the tug on the rope would tighten the noose around him. The man turned and yanked Samu to his feet. Samu followed stumbling, tears still rolling in his eyes, his right ear and cheek still smarting, on the long march to the Magistrate.
Samu had never been to the town center. The grove was as far as his adventures had led him. Some men from the village worked in the town, and nothing they said compared to the wonders. The markets were filled with food and clothes and riches. The tall buildings, and an actual water fountain. Samu ignored the burn of rope around his wrists, or the wanton tugs on the rope that almost sent him to his knees. He even ignored the looks of curiosity in the eyes of the townspeople, that turned to immediate disgust as soon as they saw his face. What astonished him the most were the children. They were everywhere, playing on the street, peeping from the windows, some staring at him openly. He has known but three children in his entire village, one was just a baby and the other had already started to tag along with his father for work.
Eventually they reached a building, that Samu imagined must have been the biggest in the world. It was four stories tall, with a huge black gate, with flowers and birds - one that looked exactly like the dead bird in the woods. He was so consumed in his wonder, that he almost forgot his predicament till the man tied him to the post by the gate and proceeded into the building after warning him to stay put. The fatigue of the day suddenly washed over him, the adventure in the grove, the thrashing and the long march into town. He sat down in the dirt, holding his injured hands in front of him as a crowd began to gather around.
The man with the cane emerged a while later, accompanied by another shorter man with a white hair and a receding hairline. Samu, automatically realized it was time for him to stand up. The shorter man stood by the large gates, staring down his nose at Samu, as if looking at something very disagreeable.
"He seems very young. I have never seen this one before."
"It must have been before your time, Your Honor," the man with the cane replied.
"Yes, they seem to grow up like the plague, don't they?", then raising his voice he addressed the crowd. "This untouchable was found by the water pond of the Goumar family, threatening their very son with his disease. For the crime of coming into town property unannounced, for harming a child and most importantly for putting the lives of the entire plantation at risk - the entire village shall not get access to the village well for a week."
Turning to Sam, he lowered his voice, "Should I ever catch you in the town again, tell them I will not hesitate to have you put out without compensation."
The sharp pull on his rope, and the shooting pain from his raw wrists brought tears to his eyes. He did not understand much that was said, but knew the most important part - a week without water. His mother, his uncle, his entire village would suffer. The shame washed over him as his legs gave way and he collapsed on the road. He barely remembered the walk back to his village, or the number of times he fell. He only barely remembered seeing the look of astonishment on his mothers face, her familiar scent, the overwhelming sense of disgrace and the uncontrollable sobbing before he fell into a troubled sleep.
When he woke up, he first felt the throb on his wrists and, surprisingly, his chafed knees. They had already been washed and bandaged, and the smell of broth filled the one room of his house. His mother was sitting by the doorstep, her eyes red, talking to his uncle. Seeing him wake up, she hurried over to the pot to spoon some broth into a bowl for him.
"Here, sit up now. Eat something, you haven't had anything all day."
"How are your wrists, Samu?" asked his uncle. "I put some salve, and they should heal right up."
Samu nodded. "Mom, I am sorry, they said no water for a week mom. I didn't know..."
"Shh. Quiet now. I know. Eat your food, first."
"I will, but I never spoke to Devdan. I never touched the water. I just wanted mangoes."
With that the tears came right back along with the whole story. Mom sat silently by, listening, occasionally choking back a cry and wiping a tear. When Samu came to the part about being dragged to the town and back, his uncle muttered "Animals,". But otherwise, there was no further comment and eventually his sobs subsided as the account wound down. He realised he was hungry, and picked up his bowl to eat the surprisingly cold broth.
"A whole week for that?" his uncle broke the silence.
"We are the damned. Be happy for what you have." his mother replied. "Who are we to question them. Be happy we can go back after a week. Be happy he is back."
"Be happy? After all this you still expect me to be happy? How can you not think this was unfair?"
"What is unfair is what we did to deserve this punishment. Why blame the townspeople, when we know we were born this way?"
"How can you say that as his mother? Where is Samu's fault in this?"
"That he went into the grove for mangoes. He knows they are forbidden, don't you Samu?"
"But he never did get any mangoes now, did he? How can you be so hard on the boy? Do you not see the injustice of it? Samu's father would have at least said something about it."
"And where did that leave him? Where did that leave us..." mom, hung her head in the fashion she always did when she spoke about his father.
His uncle seemed to be lost in thought for a few moments, then he turned to his mother "I think it is time he knew."
Mom's eyes flashed. "He knows nothing. He is not old enough."
"After today, he is old enough. He should know why, and he should know what happened to his father."
"I am not telling him" his mom replied adamantly.
"What happened to father?" Samu asked, his heart beating quicker.
Samu had asked this question a number of times before, but his mother had been stubborn in her refusal to talk about it. He had only barely understood the idea of a father, not having other children to play with or compare notes with. It was only during the village festivals, that he sorely missed having one. Over time, Samu had substituted his own idea of a man that could change everything for them. He imagined his father was the owner of a large house, like the one at the end of the grove. That he would one day show up and suddenly change everything for him, the condition of his hut, and that of his mother. Part of him wanted to know the truth, but he was also scared that his father may not be the one to save him. There may be no house or grove or mangoes.
"I will get to that. But we need to start with a story first - the story of our origins. You will not normally be told the story till you are older, but I think it is time.". His mother pulled him towards herself and warmly held him as his uncle continued.
"When men died on earth, God gave them a new life based on how good your were in your last one. If you lived a good life, you were born into a priest or even a king. If you were bad, you were born as a dog. But men that have been paricularly evil, are born with a curse. They are born as untouchables."
Samu felt his mothers arms tighten around him, as he felt a sinking feeling in his stomach.
"That is our shame," his uncle continued. "And that is why we are cursed from birth. We have more than one life to atone for our sins; we have for ever. Unlike all of God's creatures, we never get sick and never die. We are untouchables for ever - even dying is a sin - by someone's hand or our own."
Evil? Samu did not feel evil. Well, he had been stealing mangoes all summer. And he had not always listened to his mother. Or the time he didn't tell his mother about the hole in the roof. Or the time... there seemed to be so many instances now that he thought about it.
"So we never fall ill? Ever?" His uncle shook his head. "But isn't that good?"
"Falling ill," his mother spoke up next to him. "Is a sign that God cares about you. It is a sign that you are part of the world. It means you are natural."
"But what if everyone did not fall ill ever?" Samu turned to her. For a moment no one spoke. His mother seemed not interested in speaking anymore, so his uncle replied.
"Your father used to say that."
"What happened to my father?"
"Your father was a good man, a lucky man. He was different, your father. Always wanting to change things. Always questioning the curse. Forever suggesting that we should be living a different life. I don't think he ever accepted that there was a reason we were put on this earth with the curse. No one knows why he never stopped challenging that.
"As I said, your father was a good man, different but good." his uncle continued. "The village council and your dad never saw eye to eye on anything. No one from the village was even allowed to speak with them. And when your mother was pregnant with you, they refused to offer substitution. So your father offered himself."
Samu blinked at his uncle in the flickering lantern light. "Substitution?"
His uncle looked like he would have preferred not to answer the question. Nevertheless, he pressed on "You see Samu, there is only so much space on this land for sinners. When a new one among us is born, we have to give someone up. Otherwise, there would be no end to us, would there? The substitution, was when one of the older residents in the village who would give themselves up to the townspeople. They would sacrifice themselves, so that a new child was allowed in the village."
"My father is dead?"
"Yes Samu. But it was a good thing he did, giving up his life for his own son. The council was impressed enough that they allowed us to talk to your mother again."
Samu felt deflated. His father wouldn't be able to save him. And he just learnt that he had been a bad person, and was different from everyone else. He didn't feel different from everyone. Was he so different from Devdan? Wasn't falling sick a bad thing? So then not falling sick must be good. It made little sense to him. But he was tired, and his eyes felt heavy. He turned to hug his mother and let sleep wash over him again.
It was a week later when they came. There were three men, and weren't dressed like the townspeople. Instead they were dressed in the uniform of the King's guard. Their armour had been polished to an impossible shine. They wore their swords on their hips and carried a spear across their chest. The tall plumage on their helmets stood tall in the still morning air. As was customary, they never entered the village, but stood quietly outside till the five elders were roused and sent to speak with them. Samu no longer had his bandages, but he still had to limp on one foot because of the scraped knee. He made his way with the crowd and stood a respectable distance behind the elders, who stood a respectable distance away from the soldiers. When the soldiers spoke they had to shout and the words were clearly heard across the crowd.
"Hear thee, hear thee, hear thee all! The boy that spoke to the Goumar family is further charged with making the child, mother and servants of the house sick. He is charged with poisoning their water pond and trying to pass on his disease to their only boy. He is further charged with causing failure of the late season crop, by walking through the fields without leave. Hand over the boy, by orders of the town Magistrate, without restitution."
Samu turned, as if to run, but hands grabbed his shoulder and arms. He tried to struggle, but found himself being pushed towards the soldiers. The elders were all staring at him, some looked angry, others looked sorry.
"Mother! Mother! Mom!" Samu screamed. As the soldier threw a chain with shackles to one of the elders, who snapped them around his ankle.
"Samu!" he heard his mother cry, away in the distance, held back by others. His uncle stood closer, immobile.
"I didn't do it mother." Samu cried. "I am not evil. I didn't touch anything."
Two of the soldiers now held their spears in hand. The third one took the free end of the chain and turned back to begin the long walk back into town.
"I know, I know. It was the bird. It was the big dead bird. I never touched the water."
The elders did not seem to care. His mother and uncle were too far away, and she was wailing too loudly to hear him. The faces in the crowd stared back at him, uncomprehending.
"It wasn't me. It was the giant bird." Samu said softly as he felt the pull on his ankle and began to walk.
-- The End --
April 18, 2010: First published version.
July 29, 2010: Updated formatting.