As I begin clicking pictures, the children surround me. A storm of laughter and shrieks soon builds up. My shirt sleeves are tugged from every side. One boy with oily hair and starry eyes keeps grabbing my trouser leg. None of them have ever seen a camera that instantly throws up the image. I am unprepared for this explosion of innocence and glee.
“Come to my house, Uncle”, invites the tallest of the girls with red ribbons.
“What’s your name, Uncle?” asks another boy whose shorts are too large for his small hips.
“Take my picture”, says a little girl whose smile is sweeter than the sweetest sugarcane.
I try to speak but can manage only a few words, mumblings really; it matters not a whit for the children. They are so thrilled by my camera and my bewilderment. I go towards the periphery of the village where all the cattle will gather. The children follow or lead, skipping and running, weaving eccentric circles around me. When we reach the spot, a large depression surrounded by scraggly bush and shapeless rocks, the children desert me and scramble up a massive boulder. There they sit and chatter loudly. The sky darkens.
I join the handful of men who are waiting for the cattle. A priest is arranging some bananas and joss sticks near two conical mounds of earth—one is taller. “Katumbarayya”, says the priest. “They are the gods, two brothers, who protect all cattle on earth.” There comes a faint drumming in the distance.
“They are coming, they are coming”, shout the children on top of the boulder. They are dancing silhouettes in the failing light and I feel pangs of envy and loneliness. First comes the drummer who stations himself near the boulder. Then the colourfully decorated bulls led by their owners. Men and beasts descend the short incline into the depression. The animals, unused to the loud and dark atmosphere, snort and shake and weave, dragging the men this way and that. I try to ration out my pictures because the battery in my camera is failing. In the blackness all around, the animals are like phantoms waiting to explode. The priest begins his prayer rituals and anoints the bulls with sacred water and vermilion powder over face and limbs. The entire region echoes the drumming and for some moments I am transported to another world, a world where earthly matters cease to matter.
“Uncle, they will jump the fire on the street. Let’s go there soon”, a girl screams from the boulder. I can’t see her face but I obey. I run back to the street that is half a kilometer away. Behind me the children follow, screaming and laughing, and I sense their happiness at this adult who will do whatever they bid. The street is barricaded by bunches of dry bramble every 50 metres and two boys are positioned beside each barricade, lit torches in their hands.
The sounds of running hooves reach us. The boys light the bramble and flames leap in the night air in eager tongues. Smoke studded with embers weaves an inimitable tapestry in all directions. The hooves are closer and from the darkness beyond a man and his bull materialise with all the slow fade-in of special effects. The bull stops. The man tugs. The bull is powerful. The man doesn’t give up. The animal jerks its head. The man is dragged to one side. Another man joins in the pulling and together they succeed in making the animal leap over the flames. More bulls follow and by the time the fifth or sixth bull arrives, the wall of fire is comfortably low and easily crossable. I scamper to the next wall of fire and the drama repeats with even more people surrounding us. My camera doesn’t work but my mind registers every bull, face, and flame.
I see Ghansiddaih and he sees me. We exchange nods and somehow he and I understand that these moments are better enjoyed silently. I have to get to the bus terminus quickly; the last bus for Bangalore leaves in half an hour. A hand tugs at my trouser. It’s the small boy with oily hair and shining eyes. “When are you coming again, Uncle?” he asks. I look up: the sky is a few tiny diamonds embedded in black velvet. I pat the boy’s back several times. “Soon”, I say, grateful for the surrounding darkness.
In the distance an auto rickshaw waits. I totter towards it. My feet and thighs feel wooden; I have walked a lot today. My body badly needs a wash. And my hair is all ruffled up by the wind and smoke. But in my head several things jostle for supremacy—boulders and children, restaurants and temples, celebrations and fires. It takes me several hours to understand that life is a river that surges on, unmindful of its constituents, unmindful of those who dither at their individual fires.
Ramesh Avadhani lives in Bangalore and writes for a few magazines in Australia, USA, and Europe. He loves wild life and long walks
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