Hello, Hari are you there? Can you hear me kanna? Narendar’s voice was laden with anxiety and fear. The telephone connection was breaking up and intermittent.
“Dad, I am busy now. Can’t hear you properly. Dad! Will call back later," Hari spoke rushed in a linear tone. He disconnected the call, but was not sure if his father had heard him.
My mother would try to put me to sleep, but since it was hardly ten feet away from the furnace, I would feel as if fire was pervading all my body.
Narendar was irritated and equally concerned if he had really spoken to his son or with someone else. He tried Hari’s phone again. The line indulged in a medley of short beeps which further frustrated Narendar.
The phone rang again.
“I think you should take the call," Mani advised a hesitant Hari. Both of them had stepped out of a mall and were getting into an auto. Hari had bought some T shirts for Mani.
“Dad, I told you that I am busy!" Hari raised his voice.
“Sorry kanna, was a little worried. Good to hear your voice. Are you eating okay? Is your health fine?" Narendar sounded relieved on hearing his son’s voice. His son was not in any catastrophic danger like what he had dreamt the earlier night.
“Appa, I am busy now. Yes, yes I am alright. I will call back later," and disconnected the call again.
Narendar stared at the phone for over a minute. Hari’s rudeness did affect him, but soon a wide smile appeared, on realizing that his son was indeed safe.
“Maybe he was doing a class project, and there was lots of noise too," he wondered, “My son is fine and that is all that matters."
“He just doesn’t get it you know? He tends to panic if I don’t pick up his calls. He has to keep calling. For him, all calls need to be answered and it does not matter if you are busy or engaged in something else," Hari was irritated.
Mani remained silent but looked outside through the windshield.
“Would it be okay if I take a small detour, just till the end of the road? I need to settle some bills," the auto driver requested in a coarse voice and turned his back sideways to get the consent of Hari and Mani. “It should not take more than five minutes."
“Of course, please go ahead," Mani replied in Tamil.
The auto driver was an elderly person with a white skull cap and a neatly trimmed beard that gave clues to his faith. His dark-brown freckled skin and wrinkly face made him look old and weary. Surprisingly his white shirt was well pressed and spotless in spite of Chennai’s humidity and heat.
“Heat has been killing the past couple of days. My penis burns, I am not able to even pass urine," the driver continued in coarse Tamil.
Mani and Hari exchanged surprised looks.
“Aiyya, I come from Dharmapuri and sun can be more cruel there. I can really understand what you should be going through," Mani shared his concern.
“When I was eight, my mother and I used to work in a brick-kiln. So, we would make bricks all day and had to guard the furnace from hooligans and other miscreants. My mother would try to put me to sleep, but since it was hardly ten feet away from the furnace, I would feel as if fire was pervading all my body. When I tried to pee, I felt, exactly like you. It was uncomfortably painful," Mani sounded agitated.
Hari looked at them with a blank expression. While Mani remembered his difficult years growing up, Hari rewound his mind map to the day when his body burned too.
It was in Chennai again. He had come to Anju’s house that morning from Bangalore. He was studying in the sixth grade then. Anju had taken Hari and other cousins to the beach. It was a warm Chennai Sunday, and lazing on a breezy beach in the evening seemed liked a good idea. Hari always looked forward to coming to Anju and especially to the beach. Hari had had a traumatic evening the earlier day; HE had paid a visit. HIS visits had become regular now ever since Hari’s father took up the promotion as the national sales manager that made Narendar constantly travel around the country. Hari cried silently at nights. His mother, though caring and affectionate, was battling her own demons. She suffered from depression and was never emotionally available. When Hari tried telling her indirectly, she would dismiss him and attribute the pain and burning sensation in the anus to his fondness for mangoes.
The beach had always enthralled Hari. It was windy and not so crowded. Hari and three other cousins jumped and ran towards the water, knocking off their flip flops towards Anju and their parents. He loved to run bare foot on the beach. He used to be chubbier earlier and Anju loved the way his rolly-polly body moved as he ran and jumped on the sand. Anju and the others had a tough time controlling the kids and as soon as they reached close to the water, all wanted to take a plunge. Hari had forgotten about the frightful incident from the last evening. Children easily forget their pains, make compromises and move on. He wanted to make the best of his time on the beach, sand, friends, water and Anju. He loved her immensely, but never found the courage to share his suffering even with her.
I really like how Mani is able to express his past and sufferings with absolutely no fear. I will never be able to share my past with anyone.
All the kids quickly removed their T-shirts, shorts and trousers at trail blazing speeds. Hari was the first to remove his shirt. He mocked at his second cousin who fell while trying to removing his left hand from the tee. But Hari suddenly stopped abruptly. He did not remove his denim trousers. He did not venture into the water.
“There was so much bleeding from behind, that my underwear was soaked in blood. HE penetrated rough and hurt me really bad the last evening, but the jumping and running may have increased the bleeding. It burned and I felt angry for being helpless," Hari remembered.
The auto passed through the Mylapore Kapaleeswar Temple tank. All the three of them looked left, towards the gopuram and a moisture laden gentle breeze caressed them like a balm to their parched faces.
“Is everything ok with you Hari? You have been very quiet," Mani inquired and gently placed his arm around his shoulders. Mani’s concern brought a sheepish smile on Hari’s face and he nodded sideways to imply that everything was fine. Both the boys shared friendly glances.
“Do you know who donated the land for this temple tank?" the old Muslim driver posed a question.
“The land for the construction of the Kapaleeswarar Temple tank was donated by the Nawabs of Arcot. Even today on the 10th day of Mohurram, Hindu brothers allow us to use the waters of the tank," the driver brimmed with pride.
“Aiyaa, why do Muslims beat themselves with swords and whips till they bleed, during Moharrum?" enquired Mani. “I always thought how much it might pain and burn, and why are they inflicting so much pain on themselves."
“Thank you for asking boys, the 10th day of the month of Moharram is the day of Ashoora, a day of mourning for all Muslims. It is a ritual to mourn the brutal murder of Hussein Ali, who was the grandson of Prophet ‘sall All"hu ʿalay-hi wa-sallam’. He sacrificed his life for the Prophet’s sake; he stands as a role model for all Muslims. Thus, they keep Islam before even their life," the driver got excited and emotional.
“As a mark of remembrance and commemoration we mourn, the passionate among us, hurt themselves with chains and swords, enduring all the burning and suffering," he said proudly.
“Aiyaa, do you have children?" Mani asked.
“Would your sons participate in the mourning and hurt themselves?" Mani asked courteously.
“Not the first one, but the second boy is very pious."
“How does his mother feel when he hurts himself with chains, while blood oozes out from the cuts and wounds?"
The old man remained silent.
“When I used to make bricks in the day, my hands would turn red with boils. It burned and pained like hell. My father has never once asked how it felt, even for the short time he was in touch with us. After several months I got used to it, it did not hurt as it did the first few times. But my mother would cry every day after putting me to sleep. She thought she was clever in hiding her emotions, but I would peep through the torn bed sheet," Mani chuckled while a tear drop danced at the corner of his eyes.
Hari placed his hands on Mani’s thighs and tried to comfort him.
“I am fine Hari."
“I agree with you. Amina, my wife would be strong in front of all of us, but she would cry when she was alone," the driver joined in.
A water lorry travelling in front of them braked suddenly. The driver brought the auto to a screeching halt and the front headlights kissed the rear bumper of the lorry. Water gushed from the open tanker and drenched the front windshield of the auto. The auto driver was also partially wet with the sudden downpour. The old man exploded with fierce local Chennai expletives. After a brief duel the logjam was cleared and the journey resumed.
The ride now moved at a snail’s pace due to a funeral procession that crowded up the road ahead and blocked the traffic.
“I really like how Mani is able to express his past and sufferings with absolutely no fear. I will never be able to share my past with anyone. I have never shared it even with Anju. I like him. Hope I can share mine with him someday. Does he like me?" Hari voiced his wishes in his head and looked sideways towards Mani, while cleverly avoiding his eyes.
“Sir, what is the meaning of what’s written on this board," the driver pointed to a tailor shop and its sign board read ‘Gayman Tailors’. “I have seen this tailor shop in this neighbourhood for over twenty years and when I asked my second son, if he would like to stitch his trousers here, he burst out laughing."
Mani and Hari were shocked at the question, while Hari initially froze, he recovered, “Gay means both happiness and a person who is homosexual. But there is nothing to laugh about it," and looked at Mani for his approval.
After an initial clumsy laugh the driver continued, “I am such an idiot, my second son is very smart. He has just finished college."
“Is he planning to study further?" Mani enquired.
“He is now working in marketing. Selling computer parts, but he wants to study, maybe later, I don’t know."
“One day around lunch time, it was a really hot day and he had just joined. I wanted to know how he was doing. I was concerned if he had eaten on time, you know?"
“As soon as I called, he said, ‘Baba, I was just about to call you. It has been a hard day under the sun. I am already very burned out. But I imagined how you have managed to do this every day for the past twenty thirty years’.." and before he could complete the old man started crying. He stopped the auto next to a road side tea shop. Without asking the permission of his passengers, he went towards the shop, bought a bottle of water, splashed it on his face and drank some.
The driver and his passengers continued their ride silently remembering the loved ones back home.
“Dad, sorry… was a little preoccupied. Call you soon. Miss you," Hari messaged his father.