Growing up in the 1980s and the 1990s in rural north Karnataka, I developed a sense of quiet observation that the pace and the size — the slowness and the smallness, to be precise — of life there inspired. This quietude that houses within it a now-dark-now-satirical sense of humour was buttressed by my grandfather’s stories that gave kings and queens, talking animals, and wish-granting goddesses a wide berth. My grandfather, a great raconteur, was the epitome of deadpan irreverence. No one was spared his caricaturing tongue in the tales he told my sister and me.
He had a whole category dedicated to one over-enthusiastic school headmaster in his repertoire. There was one about the headmaster and the “ex-military-man”. Having just arrived in that area, the headmaster had run into the village idiot, who liked to go on solo parades around town, singing patriotic songs, and taking him to be an ex-military-man had invited him to address his students and instill the feeling of patriotism in their young bosoms. Tall and ramrod straight — the idiot, not the headmaster… well, he too, perhaps, but that’s irrelevant — he wore a stiffly starched kurta which made him look very distinguished. But the fact that he was going “left-right-left” and “dainaaaay-mud!” all by himself in the middle of the day on a dusty lane dotted with dung cakes ought to have dampened his sartorial distinction somewhat.
But the headmaster entertained none of this commonsensical doubt when the alternative was rhythmic love for the motherland. The supposed military man had willingly agreed to visit his school to do the needful. On the day of the great speech, the students began hooting and laughing at the guest as they knew him only too well. The headmaster had to beat the students into silence and apologise to his guest for their bad behaviour. The guest then nodded solemnly and proceeded to give them a cricket “running commentary” instead of a chest-thumping speech.
“And then?” I asked, not convinced that the story had ended.
“And then? And then they lived happily ever after,” he concluded.
Then, there was the story of the dove in the flag. The headmaster, being a talkies enthusiast, had wanted to bring the colour of cinematic symbolism to our dull rural life. The day before one Independence Day, he sent a student belonging to the Bedar caste (of hunters) to get him a dove. He had forgotten to tell him what it was for. The boy returned with two plump-breasted pigeons felled by his catapult. The headmaster struck his forehead at the boy’s single-minded gastronomic proclivity. He chided him for being a shameless glutton and asked him to go back and get him a live bird to be set free in the morning. “It has to be white,” he insisted.
“What happened to the dead pigeons?” I’m not sure if it was my sister or I who asked this question.
“He threw them away.”
“No. The boy took them home and cooked them,” I said, surprisingly contrarian for a vegetarian child in a vegetarian household.
“Yes,” my grandfather conceded after a short pause. “His mother made a spicy curry of them,” he said, adding masala to my demand before proceeding with the story.
The boy went out again striking his forehead (toc toc toc ala Obelix). But he did deliver the live dove. The bird was tied up in the Tricolour in the evening to be hoisted the next morning to the grandeur of drum beats.
“What if it got hungry at night?” I remember intervening at this point.
“They put some grains for it in there,” he assured me.
“What if it got thirsty?” my sister didn’t want to be left out of the animal rights game.
“They put a bowl of water in there too”.
“Wouldn’t it fall down with a clang when the flag was unfurled?” I was the what-what girl of the family. I ran and got the heavy brass bowl in which my grandmother drowned weevils when she cleaned rice. If that was the kind of bowl used, it would cause serious damage to any head it fell on, I reminded him.
“Someone would get up there in the night and remove the bowl when the dove slept.”
Before anyone could ask more questions, my grandfather hurried on with the story.
“The whoreson (cuss words — endearments really — are syntactically idiosyncratic of our language) headmaster in bright white khadi made a ‘Gandhi-Nehru speech’ the next morning and self-importantly grabbed the rope on the pole and tugged at it. He was smiling at the thought of getting a marigold shower on his head followed by a white dove taking to the skies audibly beating its wings in slo-mo. But his glorious dream ended when a dead bird and a few crumpled flowers covered in bird-poop fell on his head with a thump. In a second, the tongue that had only just sung the praises of the freedom movement held forth on the sexual morals of the mother of the boy who had been given the job of ‘securely’ tying the bird in the flag.”
By then, my sister who was sniffling softly at the death of the two pigeons began bawling loudly. “Why did the bird have to die? I don’t want it to die,” she cried.
“No, no… it was only asleep and couldn’t wake up in time to fly…” my grandfather tried salvaging the situation when I raised my hand and stopped him.
“No.” I was quite self-assured for all of my 10 years. “The bird was suffering from a painful disease and was in great agony. Death was a blessing. It came as a relief,” I said firmly.
My sister stopped her crying and wiped her eyes to gape at me. My grandfather gave me a long, steady look of surprised respect with a hint of — what seemed like — fear. He went on to regale us with an appendix to the story in which the students pelt the headmaster with half-eaten raw guavas, and brought the atmosphere back to one of a grandfather telling slapstick stories to his granddaughters from that of a morbid discourse on euthanasia.
It’s been a couple of dozen years since then and my grandfather has gone on to live in a black-and-white portrait on the wall of my parent’s home. My quiet resolution in the face of a story that was too sad to be funny has stayed with me. The smallness of the town of my childhood remains, even as cement and sugar factories crowd it. Its quaintness is, perhaps, just an untenable construct of my memory. There is much patriotic fervour in the malls and the melee of the city I now live in. Independence Day came and went again, and we shall all live happily ever after.
Maithreyi Karnoor is a writer and translator in Bengaluru