by Sunil Rao
On the night before the journey to the city with his father, Satya lay on his mat, straining to catch the whispers of his mother and his father across the cramped room.
His mother said, “Act like a grown man and talk to the boy.” “What do you mean by that, woman?” “You don’t speak to him much. You talk to me about him.” “Do you mean to teach me how to behave before my own son?” Satya held his breath, afraid that if any air escaped, the whole journey might vanish like a dream. After a minute, his mother said, “Just be sure you take the boy to the palace.” There was silence. Satya wanted to cry out, Yes, , the palace! Instead, he pulled his sheet tightly around him. The wind blew, and the papaya tree outside the window scraped its leaves together. Satya closed his eyes, then opened them, closed them, and opened them once again, willing the sun to creep through the window and caress him with its soft warmth. But he knew that daylight was far away, for he could still taste on his lips the sugary his mother had prepared to send him to sleep with sweet dreams.
The journey from the village to the city was a blur of impressions—the bicycle wobbling along the pock marked river path, Satya tucked into the handlebars; the puffing and choking of the train engine at the bottom of the hill near the bull temple stop, steam billowing into the sky; the swaying train car, filled with the odors of sweat, chewing tobacco and curry; one mist shrouded field after another through the window; the wobbling bullock cart, scent of sweet hay, a labyrinth of foul smelling roads, a dark alley, a wooden door under a crumbling concrete verandah.
A man’s fleshy cheeks appeared in the doorway—, his father called him. His breath reeked of sour Horlicks. A woman’s face squeezed in behind him. Her lipless smile and sharp edged teeth made Satya think of a wolf.
“,” said, grinning at his father, “This is my no-good sister, .” looked at like she would devour him, then down at Satya. “What a sweet little boy! Come here, !” She fell towards him, her cold fingers pinching his cheeks.
The following morning, Satya, and made their way along One Thousand and One Feet Road, looking for a spot to set up their make-shift barber shop. The two men carried two wooden chairs, a large cardboard box, and a mirror. Satya carried a smaller box full of supplies.
The street was lined with the most majestic buildings Satya had ever seen. The pillars, arches, buttresses, domes and spires flashed against the burning blue sky.
“This is it!” cried.
Satya and his father followed gaze. He was staring at a crowd that was pushing their way into the crescent shaped Globe Theatre through a set of large glass doors. Above them was a large canopy that announced in large red letters: Pygmalion.
Two young ticket hawkers stood under the canopy, holding up tickets between long, bony fingers. “Tickets here!” they cried. “Mid-day show is sold out! Fifty rupees lower floor, sixty rupees balcony!”
grinned and rubbed his thumb and forefinger together. “English movies means English money!”
They set up the two folding chairs and a cardboard box draped with a red cloth, upon which they set four bottles of oil—, almond, sandalwood, and .
Soon after, removed his flute from his jute bag and placed it to his lips. Within moments, the moviegoers had stopped in spite of themselves, enchanted by the lilting, aching melody. Satya beamed at his father. Whenever his father played the flute, Satya thought, he was a different person, and what he could not do with words, he could do with the sound of that flute.
Seeing the captive audience, grinned, drew his shoulders back like a bow, and sent out his -coated voice into the afternoon heat:
“The oils I use have magic One touch of my hand on your head Your burdens will dissolve...”
“!” cried out, interrupting his song. He waved at a short, round man, whose glossy brown pate gleamed in the sun. “How about a cure for baldness? Special oil, , fresh from the hill . Guaranteed, 40 days, you will see growth.”
looked questioningly at , who flashed him a wink.
“Forty days!” the man said.
shrugged. “This is best quality, . If you want best results, you have to be patient.”
Business was scarce that first day. But his father, whose lips had tasted the bamboo of the flute so much of the day, was in a light and carefree mood. “,” announced as they packed up for the evening, “You go on home without us. I’m taking the boy to the palace to see the lights.” Satya wanted to shout and leap into the air, but he clamped his jaws and held his feet in check. No sense in ruffling his father’s feathers. At twilight, Satya and stood outside the main gate of the palace. Vendors roamed among the crowd outside the gate, crying, “Cashews, peanuts, banana chips, almonds, time pass, time pass!” The sound of reed-pipes and the oily smell of onion filled the air.
The lights flashed on at seven, every bit as magnificent as his mother had promised. From the darkness, thousands of bulbs carved out the elegant domes, turrets, and arches. Soon, a watery rhythm added to the splendor. An old man sat against a low, white-washed wall under a tall lamp just outside the main gate, his gnarled hands caressing the leather top of a . Perched on his shoulder was a small parrot.
Satya moved closer, and as he did, the parrot fixed its gaze on him. Satya had seen a few parrots in his lifetime. They had all been brightly colored—wondrous blends of green, red, blue and yellow. This one was not much to look at. He was a beggar parrot. His throat was a pale yellow, his breast a coarse green, and his back was spotted and buff colored, like dead, dried up leaves. But he had wonderful eyes—small pulsing black pupils encased in yellow halos—and a mischievously hooked beak. “! You stink!” the parrot cried, fixing its small black eyes on Satya. Satya laughed. “Oy! Where are your manners?” the man said, craning his neck and frowning at the bird. “What do you say to the boy?” The man puckered his lips and made soft kissing sounds. “What a pretty girl!” the parrot said. The old man shrugged his shoulders. “Close enough, no?” he said to Satya. “Take that as an apology.” Several children pressed in closer from the small crowd, and the parrot grew excited. He began to scream, laugh, shriek, curse, and flirt, squawking out seductive phrases, such as “ ... my tasty little jackfruit.”
“Let me hold it!” one of the children cried. “Not if you want all of your fingers!” the old man said. Satya outlasted the other children. He could not remove his eyes from the bird, and he had nearly forgotten where he was and what he was there for, when he felt a presence behind his back. He turned to see his father, an amused smile about his lips.
“,” said the parrot, “Hail to our Lord and Master!” chuckled softly. The old man clucked and held up his index finger. The bird obligingly perched himself upon it. “This is a most venerable bird,” the old man said. “More than sixty years old.” “It looks its age,” said. The old man nodded sadly. “Much as I do,” he said. “Its feathers turn course and fall out, as do my hair and teeth! But I think the bird will outlast me. Then who will care for it?” His eyes widened and he turned to Satya, giving him an intense pleading look. “How much?” said. Satya looked up at his father in astonishment, his heart beating fast. The old man did not look surprised, but rather, relieved. “This is a very intelligent bird. But I’ll let it go for ten rupees. An extra two rupees, I’ll give you his house.” He pointed to the tin cage on the ground next to him.
looked down at Satya. “Son, do you want the bird?”
Satya’s face burned with desire. “Yes, ,” he said quietly. His father turned to the old man. “Seven rupees, for both the bird and the cage.”
The old man grimaced, then grunted in agreement.
When they returned to one room house in Galli late in the evening, laughing and singing, sister, , was standing at the door, her eyes fixed on , her face pale and powdery, her lips a blazing orange. laughed loudly when he saw her, but was soon silenced by her glare. squeezed past her in the doorway with averted eyes.
When saw the bird perched on Satya’s shoulder, her lips curled in disgust. She turned to . “Do you plan to keep the stupid creature in the house?”
“It’s not a stupid creature!” Satya cried. Then he gasped. “, we didn’t ask what he is called!”
licked the oil absent mindedly from his plate, and looked up at the parrot. “Why not name him ? It fits him. And he was shouting it when he came in the door.
“Then perhaps the bird is not so stupid after all,” said. “It’s about time you bathed.”
“If you want him to talk better than that, you have to respect him,” said. He looked thoughtfully at the bird for a few moments, and then said, “Call him Kama, after Kamadeva, the god of love. Kamadeva’s vehicle was a parrot, very much like this one, I am sure.”
beamed and clasped her hands to her lips. “Genius, ! It must be Kamadeva Himself who blesses you with such good ideas!”
released one of his trademark resounding belches. “Someone, please, bring in the shit cart.”
Satya tenderly stroked the bird’s face with his index finger. “Kama,’ he said. “How about a bit of banana?”
It wasn’t long before Satya and Kama—or, , as he soon came to be called out of affection—were inseparable. Except when putting him to sleep at night, there was no need for the tin cage. spent all his time either perched haughtily on Satya’s shoulders, or with his claws curled tightly around Satya’s index finger, as if his life depended on it.
Over the next few evenings of , Satya coaxed the parrot to say new words and phrases. , who thought he might make an added attraction at their makeshift shop outside the theatre, prompted Satya to teach him a few words that might be good for business.
did not disappoint. Whenever a customer approached, if Satya clicked his tongue once, the bird would say, “ Swami!”; if Satya clicked twice, he flapped his wings vigorously, and cried out, “, hail to our lord and master!” Satya rewarded each success with a bit of mango or chili. Customers brought him sweets, which Satya ate gladly on behalf.
Buoyed by the presence by their little mascot, the barbers’ business picked up as the days went by. Satya sat the patrons in the chair, tied the white cloth around their necks, and collected the fee at the end. In between, he watched his father and work. stubby fingers pressed coarsely into the various necks and scalps, while his father’s elegant hands slid omnisciently onto the skin, gliding, kneading, caressing, seducing vapors from the naked scalps. Satya felt a surge of pride. While it was who drew in business with his charm and siren-like voice, his father was, without a doubt, the better masseur. By the end of most evenings, they had earned more than one hundred rupees.
On the seventh day of the festival, caught the bus to Mangalore, his home town, to visit his brother. Satya and his father accompanied him to the terminal on One Thousand and One Feet Road.
Just before boarded the crowded bus at the terminal, he placed a hand on shoulder.
“Go home, ,” he said. “Business is not so good the last day or so. And the boy misses his mother.”
busied himself digging through his gunny sack and fingering the bottles of oil inside. “The boy and I will finish off the festival.”
looked down at Satya sadly, and shrugged. “Well,” he said, “I know, a barber’s life is not easy. Let him dig for gold where he may!” He tousled Satya’s hair, then let himself be carried up by a crowd, squeezing through the half open door of the bus.
Over the last three days of , business dwindled. flute and antics still drew customers, but they did not come close to their earnings of the previous days. The festival ended with no announcement from that they were going home. They continued setting up each day in front of the theatre, catering to a handful of customers.
All the while, grew more and more agitated. Once, while shaving a customer, his hand slipped.
“Oy!” the customer cried, his hand going instinctively to the small cut below his throat. For the moment, came back to himself, and he appeased the customer with an extra-long head massage.
Satya desperately missed his mother, but given his father’s mood, he did not raise the subject. He tried to teach new phrases, even bribing him with extra , but the parrot too, was out of sorts. His eyes darted this way and that, and he pecked at his feathers with a vengeance. On one occasion, he took a healthy nip at a little boy’s thumb and drew blood.
It had become habit to disappear from time to time. He would tell Satya that he needed a break from the crowd, that he had a headache, that he needed a walk, or that he had some business to attend to. One afternoon, when all the shops had closed and all the streets were particularly quiet, announced that he was going to wander around for a time to see if he could find a more lucrative spot. “I won’t be more than a couple of hours,” he said. “Don’t wander off.”
He had not returned by the time customers began lining up for the five o’clock show. Satya was bored and hungry. He looked at , who was perched in his cage, staring back at him expectantly. The thought occurred to Satya to remove the parrot from his cage—maybe the parrot would say something entertaining.
Free of the cage, clinging to Satya’s shoulder, the bird began to chat at random. A few of the moviegoers took notice, but haphazard responses to Satya’s prompts drew only fleeting interest from the crowd.
Satya took a tiny banana from his bag. He ate half and fed the rest to . “Oota! !” the parrot cried when it had swallowed the fruit.
“Oota? Still hungry?” Satya said.
His stomach rumbled. He remembered there were still some chapatti’s at house from the previous night. When dusk fell and his father had still not returned, Satya’s hunger edged out his fear of punishment if he left his spot. He hid the wooden chairs and the cardboard box in a crevice between a row of bushes and a side wall of the theatre. But his departure was hampered by . Each time Satya tried to push him through the square door of the cage, the parrot squawked and latched on to the edge of the door with his talons. Eventually, Satya gave up and placed on his shoulder, carrying the empty cage in one hand. He made his way back toward Galli, the parrot crying “!” the entire way home.
The door to the house was shut. Muffled sounds came from within. Satya pushed the door open. There was a gasp. was lying on the ground against the far wall, curled up next to a man under a brown shawl. hair, which she always wore in two caterpillar-like braids, now hung down in a dark swath that covered the man’s face.
“! !” screech pierced the dim silence of the room.
lifted her head and brushed the hair from her face. “Foul, filthy boy!” she snarled.
Satya’s father jumped to his feet, holding his dhoti protectively in front of his waist. His eyes burned. His throat swelled. He clutched his hair in one fist and raised the palm of his other hand outward as if imparting a blessing. In a raw, but calm voice, he said, “Get out of my sight.”
By dark, Satya found himself outside the gates of the palace. Crowds of people meandered in the courtyard, and the hawkers, despite the late hour, vigorously pushed their incense, peanuts, colored bangles, sweets, and soda. The lights, which had bestowed upon the palace a marvelous combination of delicacy and grandeur only a few days ago, now appeared harsh and garish.
sat restlessly on Satya’s shoulder. He flapped his wings constantly, and every few moments he let out a string of incoherent phrases: “Yes, sir. No, sir. ! ! Danger!” A group of children surrounded Satya. They laughed delightedly at the parrot’s illogical tirades, stretching their eager fingers upward in competition to pet him: “Let me! No me! I’ll be gentle!”
But Satya was in no mood to entertain. “Come too close, he’ll lop your finger off,” he said.
He began to walk away from the gate, but he sensed the children still behind him. He whirled around. "Let me be!" He gave them his most vicious scowl, and they scurried away.
"Attention! Hail to our Lord ..."
"Oh, shut up, damned bird!" Satya flicked the parrot under the beak. went silent.
Satya left the palace grounds and walked briskly along the low wall that led away from the gate. Before long, he began to find silence harder to bear than his nonsensical chatter. He raised his thumb behind his shoulder to caress the parrot and felt a sharp prick.
"!" Satya cried, drawing his hand away. A thin stream of blood trickled down from the crest of his thumb. He looked back at , but the bird had buried its head beneath its wings, either pecking at an insect or hiding from the wrath of its master.
Just then, a thin, tremulous voice warbled out from the dimly lit road. Under the street lamp a short distance ahead, a man sat hunched against the wall.
" ," he said, holding out his palm as Satya approached. "A few alms for me, please."
flapped his wings. "!" he cried, "! You Stink!" It was the old man who had sold his father the parrot. “You!” Satya cried.
He squatted in front of the old man. For a moment, he was transfixed by the beads of sweat that sat motionless on the man’s face, trapped in the furrows between the lines on his skin, giving it a sickly, moist shine.
“ ," the old man repeated feebly, breaking the spell.
On an impulse, Satya yanked from his shoulder. The parrot’s stubborn claws tore his shirt. He held out the struggling bird in a vise-like grip.
"See here, ! Have a look at your bird.”
The old man leaned forward to get a closer look. He squinted at the bird, then looked up at Satya with vacant eyes.
“Who are you? I don't know you," he said. Satya could smell his hot, acrid breath. “Just take the bird, . He's useless. And he makes me do bad things."
The old man’s sunken eyes regarded him blankly for a moment. And then, they widened, glowing with recognition.
"My bird!” he cried. “Give me back my bird!” Satya gripped the bird tighter. Suddenly he wanted the bird more than anything. “My father paid you five rupees. The bird is mine!” The old man reached out a bony hand. There came a loud squawk. “!” flapped his wings, lifting just off of Satya’s shoulder. One sharp claw shot out. The old man cried out, covering one eye with his hand.
Satya thrust the parrot back on his shoulder and took off running down the road. He could hear the old man’s cries pursuing him for a good while.
He came to a section of the road where the street lamps had burnt out. He turned down a dark, narrow, malodorous lane. He walked cautiously, avoiding rubble, garbage, and a litter of stray kittens that lay sprawled out in the gutter. A huge pile of stones and bricks in the middle of the road blocked his way. He sat down against the pile and closed his eyes. A child whimpered from an open door nearby. Then came a low gurgle in his right ear. He turned his head and was surprised to see still perched on his shoulder. The parrot eyed him greedily. The devotion that Satya had always seen in those small, black eyes had been transformed into a ruthless resolve. Try all you want, you won't be rid of me, the eyes seemed to say.
An icy wind of rage chilled his bones.
sensed something ominous. His head retracted, and one eye, red and watery, widened. "! Danger!" he cried.
Satya watched his hand dart up like a snake and grab the parrot by the throat. His nails bit into the feathers like fangs. He raised his hand, closed his eyes, and with all his might, flung the bird against the brick pile.
It did not surprise Satya when he found the house in Galli all but empty. Three pots lay stacked against the wall next to the parrot's tin cage. had been utterly silent the entire way home, and this time, he did not object when Satya had opened the cage door and placed him inside.
Not long after, the parrot began hopping up and down inside the cage. He appeared alert and well, except that when he tried to flap his wings, only one obliged. The other moved in small, wounded jerks. Kneeling in front of the cage, Satya felt a compulsion to get the parrot to speak. He had a handful of green in his pocket. He offered a few from his hand, but the bird refused to eat until the lay unmolested on the floor of the cage. No amount of cajoling could prompt the parrot to make a sound. Eventually, overcome by exhaustion, Satya stretched himself out on the earth floor.
He woke with a start. Ash gray light poured in through the window. Something moved behind him. He spun around and saw a shadow blink against the back wall. He lay back down and forced himself to smile. Only my imagination. But no sooner had he closed his eyes than they thrust open again at the sound of a nervous chortle and a frenzied rustle. hopped about anxiously in his cage. Satya's eyes swept the ground. They fell upon a tiny creature inching its way towards the tin bars. It was slender in shape, with long ravenous pincers and a crooked, segmented tail. At the tip, a stinger hooked up cruelly. The creature moved slowly along the earth floor, pincers opening and closing.
Scorpion! He leapt to his feet and grabbed one of the pots against the wall. Crouching low to the ground, he raised the pot over the scorpion—now just a hair’s length from the cage—and brought the open end down upon it. The pot struck the ground with a metallic clang. "Lights out!" cried the parrot.
Satya scraped the pot across the earth floor, pushing it out the door and into the street. A few paces from the house, he lifted it and saw that the scorpion had vanished. Satya went back in the house, and when he was sure that the scorpion had not returned inside, he squatted in front of the parrot's cage.
"Dear ," he said. "I knew you'd speak. I knew you'd forgive me." He took a few more and held it out before the parrot's beak, but only stared back at him blankly.
The train stopped unexpectedly at , a village on the east bank of the river . It had been motionless now for a good two hours. Day had just broken, and nearly everyone in the crowded compartment was still asleep. There was only the sound of heavy breath, and the occasional snort and clearing of throat. Satya tried to sleep, but sleep lay nowhere near him.
He had not been able to get himself to go back to his village—not yet. He could not face his mother. He would not be able to explain to her what had happened to his father. He had hopped aboard a third class car of the midnight train to Mangalore, with the idea that his father might have followed there. After all, her brother, , had gone there only days earlier. Satya would bring his father home. How he would find him, what he would say to him – these were things that had not occurred to him. He looked down at the parrot's cage on the wooden bench. held his beak to the cage floor and jerked his head this way and that, as if searching for a lost key. From time to time, he flapped his good wing, dancing from one end of the cage to the other. But he had said nothing since the night before, when, in an unguarded moment, he had broken his self-imposed silence. The anger he had earlier felt toward the parrot began to fill him again. “So,” he said, his voice barely above a whisper, “You want to be free of me, is that it?” He noticed the thin branch of a Tamarind tree protruding a few inches between the open bars of the window. He opened the door of the tin cage and held it up against the edge of the branch. The parrot didn't move.
"! Away with you!”
The car jolted and began to creep forward. Satya pulled the parrot from the cage, and stood up on the seat. He reached out the window and let the parrot go. flapped his broken wing and grabbed the receding Tamarind branch with his claws. Within moments, the parrot had faded into a blur of color against the drab brown of the countryside.
Satya curled up against the window and closed his eyes. The gentle rocking of the train sent him swooning. Bright colors flashed before his eyes. He felt a rough, damp surface beneath him and saw vast lakes of shadow swirling all around. Above him hung dark, green canopies that appeared to be giant leaves, and dangling, brown pods the length of two beds. He knew at once with an unaccountable certainty that he was on a branch of the Tamarind tree. He surveyed the path ahead of him. The knobs and scars along the branch seemed like jagged rocks; the morning dew in the sunlight, like glittering ponds. He felt weightless. Something impossibly large loomed in front of him. He looked up and saw a monstrous creature with large, bottomless eyes that gleamed like orbs. Was it cruelty or fear he saw in them? And then, just in front of him, he saw a pair of rapacious pincers, opening and closing with menacing purpose. Hot fluid rushed along his narrow back, and something arched up behind him—a tail? Satya was overcome by a predatory thrill.
The large creature before him had become a terrifying harmony of spectral radiance, and yet, at the same time, it seemed to cower at his approach. It opened a giant, curved beak, and released a thunderous roar: "WOOOP! DANGER!"
Satya gasped but felt no intake of breath. The world began to blur and fade into darkness. "!" he cried.
He opened his eyes. A woman sitting across from him eyed him curiously. The red on her forehead had melted from a perfect circle into an amoeba shaped blotch. The large man next to him, reeking of whiskey and chewing tobacco, cuffed him harshly with the back of his hand.
"Quiet, you rascal!”
The train began to pick up speed. Satya leapt to his feet and ran to the door. He pulled it open and closed his eyes against the rush of brown and green below him. Then he jumped.
He tumbled about in the tall grass. When he had steadied himself, he ran back about a furlong along the tracks until he came to the tamarind tree. He gazed up into the branches, but there was no sign of the parrot anywhere.
"!" he cried. He grasped the trunk with both hands and hoisted himself up until his head emerged above the lower branches.
He looked around, but still, no parrot.
After a time, he let himself down the tree slowly. He sat back against the trunk. He gazed out at the mustard fields that stretched out into the horizon. The caboose of the train disappeared into a shimmer in the distance, and the faint ring in the tracks faded into memory. From somewhere in the branches above, he thought he heard the high, nasal call of a bird.