Saturday, December 1, 2012

Outcaste

The young Brahmin (who will remain unnamed because the narrator of this story has a rather limited imagination) had long since given up the profession of his caste. He had by nature a weakness of mind which prevented him from undergoing the rigour of his fellowmen. While the other students of his class stood erect chanting their mantras like a row of sunflowers, he flitted about. He would recite the mantra correct thrice, before his eyes caught sight of a distant cloud that looked like his grandfather's snuff box. The fourth chant of the mantra would have his brain thinking about how his grandfather would shake his head the moment he took the snuff... like the dog across his street would when it was sprayed with water. The fifth chant, he would smile thinking of the dog running in circles trying to catch his tail. The fifth chant would never happen because he would be lost thinking of how that little girl in the red dress with almond eyes would laugh clapping her hands seeing the dog across the street.

So, it was not long before he was thrown out of school. Now, if he had been born in into one of those rich Brahmin families, he would have found life easy; because after all a Brahmin recited mantras to earn money and if you already had money, there was no need for mantras or scriptures. But a poor orphan Brahmin who could not tell mantras, recite the scriptures made no money. So, our poor hero had to find some profession to earn his keep.

So, following the slew of cliches that have haunted this story so far, our poor dumb hero had only one redeeming quality in him. That was his physical strength. He could run a mile, drink a pot full of kanji and carry a heavy load. So, he took up wood cutting. Everyday, he would go deep into the forest, where sunlight treads softly and gurgling streams would gather under the shade of trees to gossip. There, he would chop down four branches from a single tree, never the same tree everyday. He would then loll about till the sun turned a dusky orange. In the evening, he would gather his wood, carry it on his head and sit in the market. And all his wood would be sold soon, because after all, it was wood cut by a Brahmin, a poor dumb Brahmin, but a Brahmin nevertheless and so must be pure.

Thus his life went on till one day when he came to the market from the jungle, there was a huge commotion. He soon found that it was all thanks to some bearded saint or guru who had arrived to deliver a sermon. He seemed a popular one, this guru, for the market was crowded with people of all walks. Sweetmeat vendors and buttermilk vendors had quickly setup stalls to sell their wares to the wisdom hungry, salvation thirsty crowd. Among all of them, stood our hero, neither hungry (for he had eaten three raw mangoes in the forest) nor thirsty (for he had drunk muddy stream water to counter the sour taste of the mangoes).

And the guru spoke.

'It is knowledge and knowledge alone that can save us! For without knowledge we are as beasts. Can a dog ever attain salvation? Can a pig ever see God? We alone are blessed with the boon of knowledge. And this boon we've received after countless births, countless toils. From grass to worm to snake to monkey, we have become man. And after being born a hundred times as man, we are born as Brahmins. Brahmin! The keeper of the knowledge! The protector of the flame! It is Brahmins who pass the scriptures from generation to generation like how the rest pass their seed. It is Brahmins who after countless births have earned the right to this gift. '

Pause.

'And yet, what do we do? Do we take the three ritual baths everyday? Do we chant our mantras everyday? Do we repent our sins form this and past births? Do we meet other Brahmins and debate scriptures? Do we keep the traditions of our forefathers alive? Do we lead the same life that they led? Do we sanctify our homes, our bodies by separating the impure and allowing only the pure? '

Pause.

'No! How can we, when we have to eat, to drink, to make merry? How can we when we must sing songs, earn money, eat food and enjoy our life? Idle pleasures! We are all caught in the web of desire. But will desire save us? Will our ambition lead us to God? How can we expect to stand in front of God, if we have not kept our traditions alive?'

By this time, our hero slowly walked away. He had no pleasant clothes, no perfumes, no pleasures in his life. But he suddenly felt guilty. For he had left the scriptures, never chanted his mantras and had not for a minute in all his life thought of God. And all his life, he had only used his sacred thread for scratching his back. What a waste! What a big sinner he was!

He walked home down a bleary unfamiliar path of his tears. It looked like all the flowers of joy that he had gathered during those idle summer afternoons were now infested with venom. The muddy stream water that he shared with the deer, the strong smelling fish that he caught and ate once in a while, the lusty gaze that he let linger on that lovely girl across the street...all these ignorant moments of pleasure, now pressed against his heart as sin. He could not sleep, eat or do anything. The scriptures, the traditions, they seemed to hover over his head like ghosts of his conscience constantly hounding him.

And the poor boy! He did not even know enough scriptures or traditions or mantras to know what to do now. And no one would accept him as a disciple because his incompetence was well known (and after all, your reputation as a teacher would fall if you taught an incompetent Brahmin. That would send away the rest of the students and with them your earnings!).

He thought long and decided there was only one way. God after all must be merciful and must grant him some leniency if he at least tried. He pulled out a half torn leaf of scripture that he had preserved from his younger days and started chanting a mantra from it. Days and nights he chanted it with steadfast devotion, piety and repentance. His wavering mind fluttered here and there; now running in the forest; now swimming in the stream; now dancing with that lovely girl with big eyes and so on. It hurt for now as he chanted the mantra, he could see how his mind ran like a wanton woman. He cried when he could not chant for more than 10 minutes. But he started again.

Outside, the world went on its own way. People eating, sleeping, making love, making money, chasing dreams and so on. Even the guru who gave the sermon slept on a deerskin every night, woke up, had his breakfast after his ritual bath, took an afternoon nap while being fanned by his disciples, woke up again to give his sermon, ate fruits and then went to sleep again. Everybody was living, while our poor orphan was dying chanting his mantra every second.

Then one afternoon, when the sun was high in the sky, it sent one ray of golden light pouring down the hut of the orphan. The poor boy already exhausted from hunger, wilted under the searing heat of the summer sun. His lips parched, his stomach grumbling, he could go no longer. He prayed fervently to God to forgive him once more; for once, just this once, he was going back to the jungle to eat some fruit (No more fish for him!).

With an unsteady gait, eyes that often led him astray and a pulsating forehead, he slowly found his way back to the forest. But the time he reached the mango tree, he was crawling on his knees. He looked up. The fruit seemed to hang from the very skies. He almost passed out seeing there was no hope of reaching the fruit.

Just then a cool breeze blew heralding the arrival of dusk. The leaves rustled softly. The boy's forehead stopped pulsating briefly, his head cooling as the breeze caressed his sweat. He dropped to the ground, his own salty sweat running to his lips. As he tasted the salt, his lips touched the cool verdant grass of the forest. In one blind moment, out of sheer hunger, the boy bit a mouthful of grass and chewed it. It was sweet, earthy and bitter. Above all, it brought strength to his body.

A few more cuds of grass later, he slowly stood up. With trembling hands, he picked up a stone and mustered enough strength to throw it at the fruit above. With the fifth attempt, one of the fruits feel below. He grabbed it as if it were God himself and ate it.

A few hours passed. The boy was asleep now, under the shade of the tree, his hunger sated by the fruit, his thirst quenched by the muddy stream. The evening sun now kissed his cheeks with his orange rays.

By night, the Brahmin boy reached home. He removed the roof of his hut and sat a long time looking at the stars, his mouth chewing a blade of grass, his mind chewing the events of the day.

When it became dawn, he tore of his sacred thread, flung it to dust. He sang his first song ever.

What do I search for when nothing is lost?
How do I get free when my chains are but wings?
A thousand scriptures cannot drive away
the darkness in my hut.
But a single ray of dawn and it is light everywhere.


And then, he never spoke again.