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Monday, July 13, 2020

Short Story: Sunday Rat by Chatura Rao

Mooshaka is bored stiff, listening non-stop to prayers of devotees and needs a break. What does the deity Orange do for his favourite Holy Rat? Read this charming story to find out.

Updated: October 12, 2018 1:53:24 pm
Stories are fun!

Mooshaka is bored stiff, listening non-stop to prayers of devotees and needs a break. What does the deity Orange do for his favourite Holy Rat? Read this charming story to find out.

The rat stood stiff as a statue in the middle of the crowd that jostled to reach him. He was a huge silver fellow with standing up ears and a collar around his neck, also in silver, all beautifully carved with flowers and birds. ‘Like that makes up for having to act like a statue day in and day out,’ Mooshaka silently grumbled. ‘And then there is that business of Wishes. Here it comes now!’

The first devotee of the evening elbowed her way through the crowd. She leaned over his back, putting her great weight across him as she shut his right ear with her plump right palm and whispered loudly in his left: ‘I want my daughter to marry that Navani boy. Make sure it comes through properly. And we cannot afford a destination wedding, so mind that—’

‘Move over aunty, you’ve had your turn!’ a young man nudged impatiently.

‘Okay, okay. Young people these days always in a hurry,’ aunty grumbled, waddling towards Orange’s sanctum. Orange was the main deity of this temple. However, Mooshaka, the silver rat, was just as popular.

‘Holy Rat, India has to reach the Super Eight of the Saucer Cup,’ the young man said. ‘I’ve bet 20,000 rupees on this. Please make it happen.’

He sauntered over to fold his hands before Orange. Orange was hard of hearing and only the rat could squeak in a frequency that Orange would understand. So every night as Mooshaka bore his master back to Mount Kailash to sleep beside his divine parents, the divine rat had the long and tiring task of conveying the devotees’ wishes to his master. A master who was often incredulous.

‘WHAT?! The Navani boy! O Shiva, father-in-heaven, why would anybody want to marry their daughter to that pot-bellied wart?!’ Orange would exclaim. ‘Not that a big belly is bad or anything,’ he would mutter, lovingly patting his own.

‘And India reach the Supersix? Super What? Supereight? That isn’t even as good as Supersix! Anyway, even if Superman played cricket for India the team would not reach the Super Eight! How am I supposed to grant impossible wishes? Just the other day, a man asked me to grant him a grandson. The man has neither a son nor a daughter to begin with. Ha!’

Mooshaka would shrug and simply carry on listing the devotees’ wishes. He hated them. The devotees had no sense and were greedy and …and their armpits often smelt like soggy socks when they leaned over! Still Orange insisted on hearing all their wishes and even tried to grant about half of them.

All Mooshaka wanted was a break. Conveying the wishes was one thing. The other (worse) thing was that his master was getting almost too fat to carry over the cold clouds to the distant peaks of Mount Kailash. Orange would have to hire a camel soon if he didn’t stop pigging out on the laddoos every night.

Mooshaka wanted to take no more requests, just run away to where nobody recognised his divine squeaking powers and silver carved collar. He just wanted, for once in his life, to enjoy life as an ordinary guy.

‘I won’t.’ One Saturday Mooshaka crouched under a bench in the empty temple after closing hours. ‘I simply won’t. I’m on strike. Dukaan band.’

He was a rat of few words, and Orange who actually really loved him, immediately sat down to negotiate slave rights. ‘Hmmph,’ he blew through his elephant trunk. ‘You want to take a holiday. But where will you go?’

‘Send me somewhere fun.’

‘Kulu Manali for white water rafting? Auli for skiing?’

Mooshaka shook his head: ‘Where do the devotees go on Sunday?’

‘The shopping malls.’

‘What are they called?’

‘Infinite mall, In Orbit mall, I forget the rest …’ Orange said, racking his memory, but he just couldn’t recall more because he was poor at names the way he was hard of hearing.

‘Send me to In Orbit mall. I would like to go into orbit for a day. Should be divine,’ Mooshaka said dreamily.

Orange almost pointed out that Mount Kailash touched the stars and was divine, but he was a kind god and of course, granter of wishes, so he just nodded. ‘Tomorrow you will be transformed into a human being and will find yourself at the entrance of In Orbit mall. Good night.’

Orange whistled sharply. A camel appeared before them swimming a few inches above the ground, his legs waving slowly, hump quivering, mouth contentedly chewing the cud. Before Mooshaka could be properly stunned, could properly realise that Orange could actually read his mind, the rotund god boarded the camel’s back. The camel’s eyes widened at the weight.

He looked despairingly at Mooshaka, beast-of-burden to beast-of-burden, who smiled slightly and waved, ‘See you!’ Orange sunk his heels into the camel’s back, yanked at the reigns and called ‘Hurrrr.’ Then Orange and the camel disappeared.

Mooshaka awoke the next day to find himself standing on the long, shiny steps of the In Orbit mall. Someone was holding him by the hand.

Someone taller than him and fatter too. It was the plump aunty who visited the temple every Tuesday! Mooshaka looked down at himself. He was a very short boy, about eleven years old, and he was plump. He had a twitchy long nose and a bit of a moustache. His teeth were protruding, though he wore braces to correct them.

Mooshaka looked down. Red shoes, blue pants and a white shirt with a buttoned-up collar that had designs of flowers and birds. A collar, even here. His heart sank. ‘Oh Orange, why can’t I be free on my one holiday?’ The top buttons of the tight collar promptly popped off and free he was!

‘Come, come, my dear grandson,’ the aunty said, yanking him up the steps. ‘Let’s have fun in our usual Sunday way.’

‘Our usual way?’ Mooshaka ventured timidly.

‘Yes, dumb chokro!’ aunty exclaimed. ‘Eat eat eat. Play play play. How can you forget our favorite motto?’

‘Eat and play? Yes, of course I remember,’ said Mooshaka leaping up the stairs in excitement. He dragged the huffing-puffing aunty behind him. ‘I had forgotten on account of studying so hard all week!’

‘Studying? You?’ Aunty gasped with laughter. ‘That’ll be the day!’

They took the elevator to the second floor which was the food section. Here aunty suggested Mooshaka have a pizza, while she ate chaat. The rat-boy nodded eagerly, his plump chin bobbing.

He was hungry for his breakfast, which was usually upma or poha at the temple.

But when the pizza came, Mooshaka was transported—you guessed it—to high heaven. He was a rat who had never tasted cheese! Never ever.

The pizza was covered with thick, warm, stringy cheese. Mooshaka ate it quickly and asked for one more, but aunty, who was his grandmother in this scenario, just would not buy him another. She said that he had diabetes, and that strange word rung a bell.

Three Tuesdays ago at the temple, aunty had whispered in Mooshaka’s ear that her grandson, Jignes, had juvenile diabetes and to please make him well. ‘So that is who I am!’ Mooshaka realised. ‘Jignes.’

Well, who cared about the fellow and his problems? Mooshaka was on his first holiday in 2000 years and he wanted cheese! ‘Gimme more!’ Mooshaka shouted in his mind, knowing not to say it to aunty. So, indicating that he had to visit the washroom, Jignes-Mooshaka slipped into the kitchen of Pizza Palace. He scurried about in rat fashion, knees bent, his hands hooked in front of his chest, nose thrust forward sniffing. He did not notice how the cooks stopped to stare at him like he was crazy.

And then he came upon it: a fourteen-inch pizza with layers and layers of cheese melting on it, still warm from the oven.

Outside in the restaurant of Pizza Palace, aunty was starting to worry. Where was her grandson? It had been ten minutes since he’d said he had to go to the Men’s Room. That too he had indicated by pointing to a place roughly below his tummy and then had trickled a glass of water on the floor. Really! Jignes’ communication skills were going from bad to worse. ‘I will just have to take this up with Rupa,’ she said huffily to herself, Rupa being Jignes’ mother. ‘She does nothing but go to kitty parties all day.

What will become of the boy? He is not fit for human company!’

Dhaam dhoom! Pisk-Posk! Clang BANG!

Sounds of battle from the kitchen interrupted her thoughts as well as the happy munching of other pizza eaters. ‘Su che …?’ Aunty started to say in her native language, but was shut up by an awful sight at the kitchen door.

Jignes, on seeing the cheesy pizza, had rushed towards it. In his path were two cooks, one with a plate of chopped capsicum and the other with a big bowl of pasta sauce. Jignes barged straight through. The chef at the other end of the kitchen, who had been keeping a suspicious eye on Jignes, walked into a steel tray of spaghetti, which slipped into a pile on the floor and made a waiter (also busy staring at the boy nosing around the kitchen) slip and fall against another, who fell against another, until all the kitchen help had gone down like skittles in a bowling alley.

As the pile of moaning and cursing cooks dusted themselves off and tried to get up, Jignes passed among them like a young god passing through the muck of the world. He picked up the pizza of his dreams and messily gobbled half by the time he reached the kitchen door.

The sight that greeted his grandmother’s eyes was that of plump, diabetic Jignes pigging out on layers and layers of crusty, forbidden cheese. ‘O! Orange! Save my grandson from his madness!’ Aunty cried.

Orange, who was at this moment reclining on his temple throne eating a huge modak after his huge mid-day meal, heard her prayer. You do remember that he was hard of hearing and needed Mooshaka to convey his devotees’ requests?

Perhaps he had been fooling himself all those years, for he heard her quite clearly. Uttering a few magic words which sounded like ‘Clang BANG’ to the uninitiated (and unimaginative), he transformed Mooshaka into …Zweeep Vion VIONN! Mooshaka was at the bike racing video game. He had become Tejasvini, the video game whiz kid. Teju was a chewing gum addict too, so she was not interested in eating anything at the food court.

She was instead busy winning game after game. Until Mooshaka became her. Then Teju suddenly assumed a posture like a jungle rat caught in the headlights of a car, and froze at the video game controls. Her onscreen bike went out of control and crashed into the railing of the race track, throwing the driver off and beginning to catch fire.

‘Come on, Teju!’ ‘What’s the matter with you?!’ Teju’s cousins Sunil and Misha screamed.

Mooshaka-Teju came to her senses. She wildly pressed the controls until she saw her screen self run for the fallen bike, right it and jump on.

Then Mooshaka-Teju raced it better than the real Teju. Even better, because being a divine rat, she always knew what was going to happen next. She knew when the blue bike would swerve into her path and she knew when the yellow bike rider would pick up speed and catch up with her to kick her bike down. So she did not allow these pre-designed moves. She beat the video game, thrashed it, winning one race after another, losing no points at all. A crowd gathered around Mooshaka-Teju, her hair flying out behind her as she attacked the game board at a crazy speed.

Then the video game monitor suddenly went blank and the machine began to wail loudly, like a monster baby crying.

All the kids around her and at the other games jumped in horror at the sound of the machine giving up the fight. The wail sounded like an enemy plane was going to bomb the gaming centre, and parents came up to Teju, gave her stern, suspicious looks, and dragged their kids away.

The gaming manager was there in a moment, his fingers stuffed into his ears.

‘What are you DOING? You cannot upset my machine this way! I will lose my contract with the mall if the machines wail like this.’

‘But I won,’ Teju said calmly. There was a short silence as the Manager unplugged the sick and sad machine. ‘Fair enough,’ he admitted. ‘Choose your prize from all those at the counter. Take anything you want. We’ve never had such a good player here before, so pick the best and biggest prize. But after that, LEAVE!’

Mooshaka-Teju sauntered over to the prize counter and picked the biggest thing there was.

It was a red and pink teddy bear, about four feet tall. ‘For my dear friend, Orange,’ Mooshaka said to himself. ‘To play with, when nobody is about!’

Meanwhile Orange, who was giving himself a ghee-massage on the legs with his trunk, sighed. It had been four hours since he had seen his best friend and he sure missed him. ‘Do you want to come back now, Moo?’ Orange asked Mooshaka.

He spoke in his mind, of course. Mooshaka heard it, of course.

The divine rat understood Orange’s loneliness. Besides, the Mall was becoming more crowded and noisy by the minute and Mooshaka’s head was beginning to spin with the bright lights and children running this way and that. The adults were no better, constantly screaming and chasing after food and things and their kids.

They bumped Mooshaka with their elbows and big shopping bags. He was used to a bit more respect and reverence and thought longingly of the quiet at the temple, which would certainly be closed at this hour for the god’s and the priests’ afternoon nap.

‘Yes,’ Mooshaka whispered. ‘I want to return home.’

The next instant Mooshaka reappeared in the silver rat statue within the temple. Frozen in his old pose, Mooshaka showed his surprise at being back so suddenly, only with the slightest twitch of his whiskers.

Orange raised a soothing eyebrow at him. ‘Every Sunday,’ he promised his faithful rat with that one gesture, ‘I will send you Into Orbit. You can go in the disguise you choose and spend two hours eating what you will.’ Mooshaka flashed him a happy little grin. Then he pushed his silver tongue out a bit at a time, so no human would notice, and calmly licked off the bits of cheese that were still stuck to his whiskers.

The next Sunday and for every Sunday ever after, Mooshaka returned to the mall for his rendezvous with cheese. He went in the form of a small rat, no aunties attached. This was so he could explore the delights of the mall’s kitchens in peace. Soon he was sampling cake, cotton candy, hot dogs, idli, samosa, kachori, Chinese fried noodles and all manner of eatables. But his favourite food of all time remained the double cheese pizza.

Occasionally, he transformed himself into a kid in the video game section so he could stun everybody with his speed and skill. The priests at the temple often wondered where all the stuffed toys were coming from, but Orange absolutely loved them. He used them as pillows and footrests and belly-rests. If he was in a rough mood, he sometimes punched the toys or kicked them like footballs. Often he tickled Mooshaka’s tiny ears and paws with the smaller furry toys, to make him laugh.

On Sunday evenings, both Orange and Mooshaka would contentedly burp their way up to Mount Kailash. In silence, because as Mooshaka reminded the garrulous Orange, on Sunday, even god rests.

(Excerpted with permission from the book Flipped—Funny / Scary Stories, published by HarperCollins India)

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