Sunday, 29 July 2007

BIG ONE and 'BELT' CHACKO - concluding part

In the morning when Chacko was ready to leave, Carlson opened two boxes of cartridges. He test fired one from each lot and handed over the rest along with the gun to Chacko. He also presented him a headlamp and an ammunition belt.

Before they parted the white man said, “Remember, Big One doesn’t know the power and range of this rifle.”

Chacko returned to Kadep alone. On arrival he went straight to the vicarage and had the gun blessed. Carlson was a Protestant and therefore his gun had to be purified before a Catholic could use it. Then he entered the old church. The smell of incense from morning mass still lingered inside. He presented the weapon and accessories at St. Anthony's altar and knelt for a long time before the statue of the dark robed saint. He took out a silver piece shaped like a crocodile, which Mariam had given, and deposited in the box for offerings.

That very night Big One made his presence known. He razed to ground Janaki's fence on the canal side. The woman ran away screaming. By the time Chacko reached the scene the crocodile was gone. He rebuilt the structure and waited beside it with the rifle for several nights. Big One did not come. But when the hunter gave up the watch the beast demolished the fence again.

Chacko started going out on the lake at nights in a canoe. It was a calculated risk. Salinity in the backwater increased sharply during summer and there was an abundance of fluorescent planktons. In the dark any disturbance would make the water sparkle because of the micro organisms. It was easy to locate and identify objects that moved. But there was an element of risk. If the crocodile floated log-like during slack tide, the telltale signs would be absent. The venture turned out to be futile anyway, and was abandoned.

The hunter changed tactics. Late at night he would wait invitingly near one of the several mangrove forests by the shore or by a canal or on the embankments that protected the rice fields but nothing happened. He wondered why Big One didn’t strike. Was the crocodile trying to wear him out or waiting for the rains? He knew that as time passed his efficiency and alertness would wane.

Days crawled by.

The konna trees bloomed ushering in Vishu, the New Year that the Hindus celebrated. It fell in mid-April. Clusters of small yellow flowers hung from gray, leafless branches covering entire trees like splash of sunshine. But there was no brightness in Chacko’s heart. He was lonely. There was no one to talk to. People appeared to be avoiding him.

The hunter evolved a new plan. After dark he would tie a live goat to a mango tree by the lakeside and wait at a vantage point on the branches.

After two uneventful nights of this routine, Ali the hunter from across the lake came to see him again. The Martini Henry fascinated the visitor. No body in that locality had seen a weapon like that. The two hunters talked at length about Carlson, the training at Windermere Estate, and about Chacko's efforts to track down the crocodile.

"Don't waste your sleep," Ali said, as he was about to depart. "Since there is fluorescence in the water Big One won't come at night. It's likely to be a daytime attack."

Chacko smiled sheepishly.

He walked behind the Muslim till the edge of the courtyard as the man was leaving. "Perhaps," he stuttered, "we can team up now?"

Ali turned around and gave him a long look. "Sorry," he said. "You make too many mistakes."

Chacko stood all alone watching the man walk away.

Every morning and at bedtime Chacko used to say a cursory prayer out of habit, standing before a picture of St. Anthony. That night also he mumbled, "Please take care of us," and lay down.

Soon the saint was smiling at him. The scene lap dissolved to show a coconut grove with patches of drying grass. In the background was a cluster of trees. The sun was bright. A golden colored snake, about a foot long and very thin, shimmered on the ground. It had a small hood. The minuscule emerald eyes were watching him.

The hunter woke up. He spent a long time trying to interpret the dream. The serpents that the Hindus worshipped, he knew, were supposed to be tiny golden reptiles. The belief was that humans could see them only if they wished to be seen. What was one of them doing in the vision that he had?

Next day the answer came to him. He remembered one morning at Windermere. Carlson was sitting at his office table with the GTS map before him. Chacko stood beside.

"Tell me about these woods," the sahib said pointing to the marked areas on the map.

"They are sacred groves," Chacko replied. "The Hindus venerate the serpent sculptures in them."

“How big are they?”

“Most of them are small. Less than half an acre.”

"This one by the western shore?"

Chacko explained that it was the largest and the most important woods on the island. It was spread over two acres. The trees and the undergrowth were very dense. The canal that went past Janaki's house was its southern boundary. The lakeside was fringed with mangroves.

Carlson had left it at that. Now the hint seemed clear to Chacko. He started walking by the grove every day around noon, passing very close to its edge. He was well aware that Big One’s foray would be unannounced, like death. His only hope was natures’ warning system – the rustle of the undergrowth if there was any movement in the grove.

Big One was there on the fifth day, for sure. Chacko heard the roar and stopped. A moment later he cursed aloud. The sudden realization that a Christian entering the sacred abode of the serpent gods or any one shooting into it would offend the Hindus, was a crushing blow. As the man walked away with slouched shoulders Big One bellowed repeatedly.

The hunter adapted a new routine. He started roaming the island extensively during daylight. Because of the ammunition belt that he wore constantly, people began referring to him as 'Belt' Chacko. Friends and relatives seemed to distance themselves as though contact with him might endanger them. He carried on nevertheless, inspecting the ponds and the canals, walking over the dykes and by the lake shore, and sometimes even venturing into the mangrove forests. By sunset it was back to the emptiness of the house.

Now there was a new phenomenon - nightmares. They occurred with alarming frequency. The theme was always the same and the scenes passed in slow motion with great clarity - Big One tossing little Mathai in his mouth and swallowing him feet first and the child screaming.

At that point Chacko would wake up sweating and shivering.

"Are you sick?" the priest asked when the hunter appeared before him one morning with a week's growth of beard and disheveled hair.

Chacko shook his head negatively. “I need money,” he bumbled. “I'm going back to Windermere.”

The vicar studied him carefully. "There's no man," he said perceptively,” who has not known fear."

"Carlson sahib," Chacko continued, ignoring what the father had said, "offered me a job. I'll repay you from my salary."

The priest was silent for a while. Then he said, "Running away doesn't solve problems."

“Big One won’t bother me in the hills.”

“Wrong. He’ll haunt you throughout your life.”

“At least,” Chacko said defensively, “my son would be safe.”

“And when he grows up, he’ll know that his father ran away from a crocodile.”

The hunter was silent.

The priest opened a drawer of his table, took out some money and gave Chacko. He put both hands on the man's shoulders, gripping firmly. "Go if you must," he said looking deep into Chacko's eyes. "Only what God has willed can happen. I'll pray for you."

The hunter hurried home and after packing, shaved and bathed. He sat on the black steel trunk that he was taking along. The bullets, ammunition belt and the headlamp were placed inside the game bag that Carlson had given.

Suddenly he remembered the bottle Janaki had presented while he was guarding her fence, saying, "This is a unique brew." He had buried it in a sack of paddy to keep the liquor warm, planning to give it to Luka. He retrieved the bottle and placed it also in the bag.

There was plenty of time. The afternoon boat was only at five o' clock. Once he boarded the vessel he would be safe. Only the priest knew that he was leaving. Perhaps Big One as well, like the last time. But if the beast repeated that performance the rifle would be the answer. Then he realized that there was another possible scenario. The monster could quietly slip in close to the boat under water and get on board and in the ensuing melee a safe shot would be difficult.

Chacko started sweating.

He looked at St. Anthony's picture. He took it off the wall, came back and sat on the luggage. The saint would not only offer protection but also be a symbolic link to Kadep. He kissed the picture of the Miracle Worker and inserted it inside the bag and in the process, touched the bottle.

He pulled it out after a moment of hesitation, removed the stopper made of dry coconut husk with his teeth and took a long swig. He kept on drinking.

"The son of Mathai is dead," he shouted abruptly. “The great crocodile hunter is finished.”

He flung the empty bottle aside and lay down. There were no dreams, no nightmares. The hollow tranquility was shattered by loud sounds at the front door.

Chacko jumped up, snatched the rifle and backed against the wall, trembling.

"Chacko," some one called from outside.

He composed himself and opened the door. The priest stepped in and said, "I came to check. You didn't take the boat yesterday."

"I must have overslept."

"Yes," the priest said. "By more than twenty-four hours. It's nearing four o'clock."

After the visitor left, Chacko plucked two tender coconuts from a dwarf palm beside the house. He ate the kernels, drank the water and went back to sleep.

Life revived after hours. Fear was still there, like the original sin. There was, too, a sense of submission that fate could not be altered.

It was back to the rounds.

One afternoon, Chacko stopped by the lake shore a few hundred yards south of the jetty, where a retaining wall of granite blocks was built up to land level. He leaned against a coconut palm near the edge, resting the rifle by his side.

His eyes surveyed the backwaters.

It was a peaceful scene. The sky was a clear blue canopy over the expanse of the lake. Low tide had set in. There was hardly any breeze. Far to Chacko's right, a passenger boat was approaching on its way to Cochin. Ahead of it was a country craft. To the left, at some distance, a bale of hay was floating near the shore. The water was clear along the embankment. Any movement there could be easily noticed. Behind him was a coconut grove and beyond that the bazaar. A couple of mynas were picking grasshoppers. Crows that perched on the palms were silent. A kingfisher dived to catch its prey and flew away. The tattoo of a woodpecker came from somewhere in the distance.

No sign of any crocodile was visible.

Yet, for no apparent reason, Chacko was uneasy. Minutes passed. There were still no danger signals but the premonition persisted. He looked for birds resting on the water surface. Normally that meant a floating piece of wood or a crocodile below. Instinct warned him to move away and he straightened up. His heart pounded. He started sweating profusely.

The motorboat was close now, the noise of its engine clearly audible. The country craft trailed far behind. The hay had drifted near the retaining wall, directly in front of Chacko.

In a flash it came to the hunter's mind the bale was floating against the tide!

Chacko dived sideways holding the gun firmly, and rolled away. He heard a loud, slapping sound and knew that the crocodile had struck at the spot where he had been leaning moments ago. An earsplitting bellow from Big One followed.

The battle cry!

Chacko began rising to his knees, releasing the safety-catch of the rifle. The scene before him was blood chilling. The mammoth monster was out of the water, rushing at him with wide-open jaws.

For a moment Chacko was unnerved but recovered quickly. The beast was only a few feet away when he pulled the trigger. The roar of the gun and that of the crocodile merged. There were frantic cries from birds flying away in panic. In the background was the chugging of the boat's motor. Passengers were shouting excitedly.

Big One kept on coming.

Still holding the weapon, the hunter turned his face aside and put out his left hand in feeble defense.

After that there was darkness.

Many hours later Chacko opened his eyes. There was excruciating pain in his ribcage. Slowly he became aware of the smell of alcohol and of medicinal herbs. When the haziness lifted he realized that he was lying on a table in the meat shop. The priest, the butcher and the local medicine man were beside him. He saw too the stump of his left arm neatly tied with smoked, green banana leaves.

"Big One," the priest volunteered, "is dead."

Chacko closed his eyes.

Ends.

1 comment:

Gomez said...

brilliant writing and an excellent story... yes it is movie material as well... even with my very limited imagination I have just visualised a most beautiful movie... scene by scene...

your stories are quite addictive... got to get back to work... ny way today is weekend... and I feel so happy...

Regards

Roshan Gomez