A simple quarrel between neighbors over borrowing a household item turns into a matter of pride. A master plan was crafted to carry out the act. Some spiced up things were said and done. Only this time revenge was a dish better served hot.
Chapter One: The Spooky Prank
“They will burn in hell. Dogs will feast on their dead body. They will not have anybody to carry their family name……..”, the eerie sound of venom-laced curses was enough to gather a decent crowd. Yeah, this was my neighborhood. The clock ticked to 6 in the morning and most people in villages are accustomed of leaving the bed by this time. An old lady cursing someone was a common sight. They always find a reason to practice their vocabulary and enhance it. Those words were mostly heart-piercing and could even force corpses to shut their ears under the deeply dug grave. However, sometimes out of sheer anger came out some funny stuff. For an instance, I remember once a lady shouting, “Usko kya lagta hai wo Sher ki biwi hai… Agar wo Sher ki biwi hai to main…. main bhi Sherni ki biwi hu”.(What does she think she is? If she thinks she is wife of a lion, then I….well I am wife of a lioness). Yeah, beat that. After that only if you were there to see the satisfaction on her proud face. She had no clue about what she had just said but she liked it, a lot.
Anyways, coming back to this fateful morning, I woke up because of the excessive noise and dragged myself to see what was going on. On my way, the sound of curses became clearer as I walked towards the crowd. I was now sure that it was curtsy of Moti Maa. It had to be her. She was the uncrowned queen of curses. There were others too but none could match her expertise in this field. She was the source of all old and new curses. Other women/aunties were nice to her most of the times. They respected her and this respect mostly came out of fear. But one way or another, someone somewhere would find herself in Moti Maa’s crosshairs and would get crushed by her. Being the alpha female, she dominated this game. Hence, other women/aunties came up with a plan. Now, Moti Maa’s opponents would team up against her before going into war. This strategy clearly worked and after tasting defeat a couple of times, Moti Maa started to lose her shine. Going up against two or more opponents at a time seemed like an uphill task. But come a single combat and she would come out all guns blazing. Her speed was fearsome. Now, she was deadlier than ever. She started using these combats as an opportunity to upgrade herself. She had her eyes on a different prize now.
As common as it was in our village, no one wanted to start the day by cursing others, not even Moti Maa. But this morning, not only did she break that rule but also she was furious. She was using the latest weapons from her arsenal. For people new to the craft of cursing, it was time to watch and learn. I had never seen Moti Maa cursing someone so early in the day. Something big had happened.
“What happened Moti Maa? What got you started so early today.” Someone from the crowd inquired and almost unsurprisingly it was Jitu Chacha. Jitu Chacha was in his late thirties and unlike most of his friends, he was still lingering in the village. It’s not that he did not head out to make a living but for some reason, he would come back within weeks. A lot of his friends tried to get him employed in their respective work cities but he wouldn’t stick to the job and came back without even informing his friends, forget about informing the employers. His father was a priest and his elder brother worked in Mumbai. He liked doing nothing. However every afternoon after having lunch he would come to the place where all senior citizens and retired people used to gather to play cards and discuss politics. He was too young to get into this elite club but he had nothing else to do. Besides, Moti Maa would also be present there as this place was just in front of her house and like Jitu Chacha she too had nothing else to kill time.
Jitu Chaha and Moti Maa shared a different chemistry. He enjoyed annoying her every now and then. He would do something to provoke her and the whole neighborhood had heard things which would ideally make your ears bleed. From stealing diyas from her porch on Diwali to spitting the red paan juice on her clean clay walls, everything was done with a single purpose. To get Moti Maa into the act. I have even heard that Jitu Chacha along with some of his friends went to her Mango garden and hid nearby. Moti Maa was guarding the mangoes and jackfruit there. They hid and pelted stones on trees to startle her but unlike any other lady she held her ground and retaliated with some nasty curses. Then Jitu Chacha and his friends drafted another strategy and waited until the darkness fell. Then they hid behind a bush and started crying loudly making spooky noises altogether. It was a more than a gentle breeze and the squeaking sound of bamboo shoots caressing which added background score into the act. This was almost a perfect horror movie scene. She still held it together but it sure shook her a bit as she moved towards the fat mango tree trunk and rested her back against it. She was completely alert but still wasn’t ready to concede her ground. Just when all the effort looked like going in vein came the masterstroke from the team. They improvised and a couple of the better mimics among them started laughing like toddlers while others continued with crying. That was it. All these factors combined together were enough to scare her to the bones. This was too much to handle even for a tough nut like Moti Maa. She walked out chanting Hanuman Chalisa as loud and fast as she could. She didn’t even bother to get a hold of the 4×4 sheet made of old plastic cement bag covers which she carried with her to the mango garden to sit or lay down sometimes. This was a huge sacrifice made by her under the circumstances. The gang succeeded in scaring her off and celebrated their success. They gorged on a few mangoes and struck down a couple of jack fruits. Jitu Chacha though made sure that they do not do too much damage which would cost the poor lady dearly. The purpose was to have a little fun by scaring Moti Maa and nothing else. Next day when she noticed two big jack fruits missing along with some mango peels scattered in her garden, it was another couple days of horrific experience for the neighborhood.
There were others too who liked annoying Moti Maa but they were no match for Jitu Chacha’s creativity. However, interestingly whenever Moti Maa needed any sort of help, Jitu Chacha would be there. Occasionally, he used to bring fruits and sweets for Moti Maa, which his father received from pujas and prayers. Anything which required paperwork or any item which she needed and wasn’t available in the village shops, she would turn to Jitu Chacha and he never refused to help.
So coming back to this day, there was a big thing that had happened. A witchcraft had taken place right on the front porch of Moti Maa’s single room clay house. A wicked craft which was considered as deadly as a death spell. It was believed to be done when someone wanted the death of a particular person or any member of a particular family. I wanted a sneak peak and after some effort, I could lay my eyes upon the crime scene. What I saw wasn’t actually scary but the way people were talking it looked pretty serious. There was a winter gourd bisected from top to bottom. On the freshly cut surface there were some human figures carved out with the help of Vermilion and by the looks, it was evident that the person who made those drawings, had no chance of a career in the field Arts. Using the same material some figures were sketched on the floor to make it appear ghostly. To add to the drama there were some bindis and a complete set of cheap Lac bangles kept alongside the winter gourd. Now, this was pretty bad for any housewife in the Village and Moti Maa couldn’t be blamed this time around. Almost everyone was condemning the act.
No one wanted to touch any of that, not even those who took pride in being called well educated around the neighborhood and were often seen harassing children’s by asking to read multiplication tables or spell out words. There sure was reasoning made available by these visionaries but the bracket of action kept looking for an initiator to open its account. Jitu Chacha looked a bit serious than usual self and took the initiative to help Moti Maa in clearing the mess out of her. They carefully collected the pieces of winter gourd, the Lac bangles, bindis and put it in a plastic bag. The Vermillion carvings were erased by applying some cow dung mixed with soil. The plastic bag with untouchable objects in it were to be buried underground for which Jitu Chacha was digging in the backyard.
I couldn’t keep my eyes off it the plastic bag. The tiny mirrors integrated on the Lac bangles kept peeping through the transparent plastic bag. I felt nostalgic. Oh God! I had seen it somewhere. I have seen these exact Lac bangles before. I had seen someone buying it from the village temple campus on last Sunday. Oh, I remember who it was. But how can… this can’t be.
I must be wrong.
Chapter Two: The Master Plan
Village lifestyle is really different from the city life. To make it simple let me say that usually, everyone in a typical Indian village works in morning shifts. People wake up by 6 am and get on with their daily work right from the word go. I am sure that villagers are used to following a stricter routine than a city guy. Maybe, because you will never see a villager sit down to prepare a routine and then make another plan to follow that. It comes naturally to them like many other things. This routine leaves them with plenty of time post lunch. So people like to gather around in the neighborhood during their free time, no malls or cafeteria you know. Talking about the other alternative i.e. Television, the consistency in power cuts ensure that they do not get addicted to any TV show.
As expected, more people turned up this afternoon near Moti Maa’s house. A plan had to be laid down to nullify the effects of the witchcraft. Everyone tossed in their suggestions but oddly Moti Maa kept mum. At last, it was decided that a small Puja will be offered to God SatyaNarayan followed by a feast to one Brahmin. Getting the Puja done was easy even though any known Pandit like Jitu Chacha’s father wouldn’t agree for this. These hotshots had restricted their services to happy occasions like marriages. Anyway getting a Pandit wasn’t a problem; this opportunity was seized by a rising young Pandit who wished to join the elite league at some point of his preaching career. The problem was getting a Brahmin to eat in such an arrangement. People were cautious, they believed that whoever eats as a Brahmin may inflict the curse on him and his family. Also the fact that Moti Maa was hosting the feast, didn’t help. There were two obvious reasons. One, Moti Maa had too few people to invite as a Brahmin for being you know, Moti Maa. Other, in a poor household like Moti Maa’s, you do not expect too many delicacies. Otherwise, for a good course of the meal, the risk of inflicting this curse would have been deemed worthy by a few.
After exercising all her chances Moti Maa turned to Jitu Chacha. Jitu Chacha was obviously the last option for her. Him being a member of the reputed Pandit family, Moti was under the impression that his family would be more cautious than others. I was there when Moti Maa told Jitu Chacha that she had run out of options and he was her last shot. Jitu Chacha seemed reluctant initially but soon agreed. Moti Maa was smiling for the first time in days. Right before she left, Jitu Chacha shouted,”Make sure you prepare brinjal fries otherwise, I won’t turn up for the feast.” Moti Maa nodded but didn’t look back. It wasn’t too fancy of a demand, she had a crop of Brinjals in her backyard and then it struck me. The clue from the objects used in the witchcraft which I ignored due to lack of a logical connection. I had just found the connection. The blurry image of the temple campus suddenly became clearer. Oh my God! It was Jitu Chacha.
I wasn’t sure of it but I had heard that Jitu Chacha had a quarrel with Moti Maa. I didn’t pay much attention as fights between them were as common as people eating rice for lunch here. However, for some reason, this fight seemed fishy. I remember that brinjal had to do something with this fight. At that time, it seemed like another one of Jitu Chacha’s innovations to bother Moti Maa but now I think the recent events can very well be a plan to get back at Moti Maa. But why go to such lengths just to bother a person. I had to dig into it.
You can get all the information you want, you just need to know which strings to pull and I knew just the strings. I had put on my thinking socks and started analyzing my options. Did not take much time. Turned out, for all situations I had only one source of information, my sister and her gang. They used to meet at one another place every evening to gossip [she will beat me to death for this] and luckily today they were going to meet at our house. In the evening when my sister’s gang arrived at our place, I made a hasty trip to villages market and brought Samosa, the best thing to get a conversation going during evening meets. They appreciated the move and honored me with a temporary membership of their club. Sensing the right time I pitched in the topic and man the information started zip bombing my storage capacity. Though I was able to mine the real data from the huge pile of information. The outcome made perfect sense and dots connected automatically. I was as sure as a person can be but this was a serious allegation. Besides I had no solid proof. Everything would look like a cooked up story and could do more harm than good. I had given up the idea of exposing the culprit but the curious side of me wanted to know for sure.
The smoke from Puja hawan was still lingering in the Moti Maa’s courtyard. The walls made of rice straw and branches of a bamboo tree had become old. The originally golden colored straw had become dark gray. The constant exposure to sunlight and rain made it decay faster. These walls were like a synonym of Moti Maa as if it showed her the reflection and compensated for the absence of a mirror in the household. Straw from these walls had started falling from the places where support from bamboo branches was less, leaving behind big holes. From one of these holes, I saw that the Brahman Bhojan had already begun.
Jitu Chacha was sitting on the veranda and had started eating slowly while Moti Maa was still near the clay hearth. She gave me Charanamrit and Prasad offered to Gods in Puja. I sat cross-legged on the floor and started eating the Prasad, a mixture of wheat flour and sugar. As expected, Jitu Chacha did not have too many items on his plate. The red low-quality rice, fairly average Daal along with a potato curry and some fries. This feast doesn’t seem that bad to me right now but back then I was glad that I wasn’t invited. We were talking and Moti Maa came up with the pre-ordered dish, round sliced brinjal covered in gram flour with a hint of salt, red chilly powder and churned garlic, mildly fried in mustard oil till the covering became reddish brown. Moti Maa had thrown everything into it. Maybe a medium of showing the gratitude. The aroma filled area and then my nostrils. I had to push the sudden secretion of saliva down my throat. It was hard for me to concentrate on anything else but I did notice a big smile on Jitu Chacha’s face when the brinjal fries were served. I somehow withdrew my eyes from the plate and managed to stay there until the end of the feast. Jitu Chacha praised Moti Maa for the feast (all credit to brinjal fries I’m sure). Moti Maa offered him the customary Janeu and betel nuts to complete the feast.
We walked off together from Moti Maa’s house. As soon as we cleared the vicinity I fired the cannon.
“I know what you did?”
“Did what?” the reply came as a reflexive action.
“I saw you buying those stuff from Temple campus.”
“What are you talking about kiddo?”, another template reply from him.
I did not ask anything else. It seemed rhetorical to me. Instead, I kept looking at him even though he was keen on breaking the eye contact.
Moti Maa had grown brinjals in her small backyard. The crop had come good and everyone had their eyes on it. Moti Maa already had a couple of episodes featured on it. I don’t know if Jitu Chacha overestimated Moti Maa’s friendship or underestimated her fondness for homegrown brinjals. On a not so fine day for him, after having a good chat with Moti Maa he mentioned his longing to gorge on some crisp and spicy brinjal fries and if she could give him a couple of brinjals from her backyard. This made Moti Maa erupt like a volcano and she said some harsh words for Jitu Chacha and his family. She never liked his father anyway, maybe that factor contributed here. Jitu Chacha had left the scene without saying anything.
He crafted a master plan. On Sunday, he purchased the items required for an out of fashion but effective witchcraft. He was smart enough to foresee that people will suggest a Puja to nullify the effect of the witchery and a Puja is incomplete without feeding at least one Brahmin. He took a bit of risk as Moti Maa could have invited any Brahmin for the feast but as he expected Moti Maa had a hard time finding one. At last, when she came to him with the invite he cleverly slipped in the request for brinjal fries. One way or the other, he was going to get his fries.
“How did you know that no one else will agree for the feast?”, I had a genuine doubt.
“No one in the village has guts to ignore the effects of a witchcraft. Even I wouldn’t have agreed if I wasn’t the one performing it. I was the only person completely aware that the craft was fake.”, It made sense.
“Don’t you think this time you took it too far?” I asked.
“Yeah, but that’s where the fun lies.” He winked.
“Don’t tell anyone about this?” He stroked my hair and left perfectly combed hair undone.
“I won’t but don’t do it again, the hair thing?” I shouted so that he could hear it loud and clear.
Chapter Three: Moti Maa
A few years later, Jitu Chacha got married and had to move to one of the cities to earn his livelihood. Back in the village, Moti Maa had slowed down but occasional sessions were still in place. She was now completely alone but she once had a family of three. She had a son and a daughter. Her daughter ran off at the age of Fourteen and never returned. Her son used to take care of Zamindar’s cattle. One day he fell from a buffalo and got dragged for a few Kilometers. He had been paralyzed ever since. Moti Maa took some money from the Zamindar to get him treated but it was never enough. A fully grown son became a burden for an aging Moti Maa. The neighbors started complaining about the smell. A shelter was made out of Flabellifer leaves under a Bael tree nearby Mango gardens. Her son was outcasted to live there for the rest of his life. It added to the agony of Moti Maa. She now had to prepare meals and walk roughly around a kilometer to her son. Every day at least three round trips. Jitu Chacha was in his early adulthood and his opinion was completely ignored. We were playing in Mango garden when we saw a fire break out under the Bael tree. All kids ran towards it but by the time aid arrived it was all over. Dry Flabellifer leaves were perfect fuel for the fire. I couldn’t sleep well for many nights. I guess no one could. For kids, we had seen a person being burnt alive. For adults, they had killed a person due to intolerance. For Moti Maa, She had lost her last known family member. She sometimes wished that her son had died rather than living this way but even death wasn’t kind to her son. Gods can really be stone hearted sometimes.
Taking advantage of Jitu Chacha’s absence, the Zamindar started pressurizing Moti Maa for loan repayment. They knew she couldn’t possibly repay and soon captured her Mango gardens. She took this to Gram Panchayat but the Zamindar had his friends there. The verdict was in favor of the Zamindar. Moti Maa lost her favorite place to spend her remaining days. This act left her half dead. People started seeing her less and less by every passing day. She wouldn’t come out much now. People still enjoyed provoking her and she knew it. So she contained herself, not everyone was like Jitu Chacha. They did not care to reach her or ask her whereabouts.
Jitu Chacha had come back to the village after two years. He had a son now. The Zamindar had captured whatever was left of Moti Maa’s property in the name of loan repayment. Jitu Chacha was shocked on hearing this and the fact that no one stood by Moti Maa. He asked his mother, why wasn’t he informed about all of this. His mother told him that she wanted to inform but Moti Maa made her promise not to. Moti had said, “He has finally settled down. Life has begun for him, mine is almost over. Besides, what will I do with the property? I have no successor.”
Everyone in the neighborhood chipped in to arrange a proper funeral of Moti Maa. Jitu Chacha took responsibility for all other expenses. On the Thirteenth day of the funeral, a Hundred and Eleven Brahmins were invited to the feast. The irony was evident. No one offered any help when she was alive and now a variety of delicacies had been arranged for the feast on her name. All kinds of delicacies, a fine quality of Basmati Rice, Daal fried with clarified butter, Papad, three different curries, curd and crispy brinjal fries.