When the dark aura of a cold and misty night gasped its last breath before surrendering to the faint illuminations of the awakening sun, a tall and dark figure walked through the nodding wheat fields to reach a solitary palm gently swaying in the chilly breeze of an early winter morn. Barring only a white loin cloth and a traditional thin cotton towel wrapped around his head, he wore nothing else to fend against the elements. His lithe and leathery body did not seem to mind. After offering a silent prayer to the Monkey God, he ascended the living monolith.
Using two harnesses of jute ropes, one around his waist and the other around his ankles, he slithered upwards like a squirrel on a sprinting spree. Reaching the canopy, he leaned backwards, locking himself in mid-air. Then he unfastened five round earthen pots from around his waist and tied them on the tree trunk. Taking out a thin and worn iron sickle, tucked behind his back, he made precise cuts on the flowers of the old palm just above the pots. After a few seconds, glistening golden nectar trickled out of the gashes into the chubby earthen cauldrons. Chabila Rai climbed down and laid a grass mat below the swaying tree to set up his open-air palm wine outlet for the village day drinkers while his pots slowly filled away in the oscillating canopy high above.
With the ban on alcohol in the state of Bihar in India in April 2016, there was a glimmer of hope that the majority of poor men who squandered away their daily wages on getting high and abusing the women and children at their homes, would rectify their lives to a great extent. Many believed that more than social reform, it was a political manoeuvre by the Government to secure the votes of the womenfolk. While legal businesses of manufacturing, selling and serving alcohol vanished, many illegal enterprises sprung up to cater to the drunkards of the state. Those with money and guts could seek out these nefarious sources to get high but the poorest of village folks with lesser means and gusto relied on palm tree tappers like Chabila for their daily quota of organic high.
“Is the spirit ready my man,” enquired his first customer for the day. The chubby little man came and sat in front of Chabila just after a few hours since the tapper had hung his first batch of pots on the palm canopy above his head. “Half an hour more of fermentation in the sun, and it will be ready Baru’bhai,” replied Chabila and continued tidying the place. Soon a considerable conglomeration of ten drunkards huddled around Chabila at the base of the solitary palm tree in the middle of the nodding wheat fields waiting to get high.
Palm wine or Toddy was a poor man’s drink, popular in various parts of Africa, the Caribbean, South America, and South Asia, where it was known by names such as lagmi, sodavi, mimbo, tuaka, tope, toutou, doka, tuba, arak, ballo, bandji, mnazi, karewe, lagbi, nira, dhoaraa, omulunga, demangi, emu, oguro, tombo, segero, kalou, poyo, ubusulu, ra, kallu, pombe, kache, lagmi, kaleve and others. In Bangladesh, Nepal, and the six Indian states of Assam, Bengal, Bihar, Maharashtra, Odisha, and Uttar Pradesh in India it was known as Tari or Tadi.
“There you go Baru’bhai, my first pot of the day reserved for my best customer,” said Chabila and passed a warm pot of Tadi to the plump man, who had been nodding impatiently for the past few hours, waiting for the palm juice to ferment into alcohol under the mellow winter sun. “Gulp, gulp, gulp, ahh… nothing like a refreshing pot of Tadi to begin the day with,” satisfactorily grinned the pot-bellied drunkard bringing down the oversized earthen chalice from his dripping chin, very similar to the attics of an infant sucking from his mama’s tits.
“You tap the best Tadi Chabila bhai, hic, hic… I pray to Lord Hanuman to continue blessing you with your climbing skills, hic, hic…,” stuttered Ramdeo, another of his regulars. “Stop with this nonsensical blabber Ramdeo. Do you wish to curse me with climbing palm trees for the rest of my life? Is this a life worth living, climbing the tall palms every day to help good-for-nothing drunkards like you get high,” angrily shouted Chabila? Some of the drunkards agreed while few others promoted the benefits of palm tree climbing, to keep Chabila motivated to provide them with their daily quota of natural hootch. Soon the drunkards fell into a great debate and kept on talking nonsense, while Chabila sulked in a corner, unable to even dream of an alternate way of life.
As the dawning sun arched from the wooded horizon to the top of the swinging palm, around fifteen pots of watered-down and a secret powder mixed Tadi were benevolently consumed by the group of poor drunkards. By twelve o’clock in the afternoon, after three trips to the canopy, while all of Chabila’s pots lay dry, most of the talkative drunkards lay snoring here and there scattered around the golden wheat field, unconsciously waiting for their howling wives and pestering children to come and resuscitate them back to the morbid realities of their mundane rural lives.
That day in the night, back in his rickety bamboo and palm leaf shanty, Chabila cursed his wife Luxmi for serving only smoky white rice and a blob of salt. Two of his twin daughters, Chumki and Chutki, consumed the meal without making a sound, lest their father’s anger found its way to them. After everyone ate, Luxmi had what was left over. Clearly, palm tapping was not that lucrative, and the poor family faced the financial crunch that came with it.
“You know Luxmi when I was a child, I thought that climbing was my greatest gift. I felt that Lord Hanuman had blessed me with this unique talent. It made me feel like a superhero. Now, after all these years, I have come to realise that it’s not a boon but a curse,” sighed Chabila lying on the palm grass mat on the cold earthen floor of their mud abode. “Don’t fret so much dear. At least it helps to provide food,” consoled Luxmi as she caressed her poor husband’s thinning forehead with her toiled and bony fingers.
“The girls have to be taken out of school. Though their education is free, thanks to the Government, it does not put food on the plate. It would be better if they worked as farm labourers. At least they could earn something, and we could perhaps save a little to get them married off in a few years. Tomorrow I will go to the school and cancel their enrolment,” regretfully blabbered Chabila in the darkness, pushing away his wife’s caressing hands.
“There’s a function at the school tomorrow. They are installing a statue of Lord Hanuman. The girls are all excited about it. Please do not break their heart. At least let them attend the function,” pleaded Luxmi to her husband and surrendered to the silence of the night.
That night in his dreams, Chabila saw Lord Hanuman leap over the flames on the rooftops of burning Lanka. The vision felt so real and the heat of the flames so intense that Chabila startled and woke up from his sleep drenched in perspiration. Unable to decipher what the vision meant he could not sleep anymore, tossing and turning, mumbling, and complaining to the divine simian for disrupting his slumber.
Early in the morning the next day when Chabila stepped out of his hut, he felt very uneasy, something was just not right. He thought, “it must be one of those cursed days when everything would go wrong.” As the day progressed Chabila catered to the drunkards of the golden wheat fields and by noon all the din and excitement of the morn fell silent as the dipsomaniacs lay snoring on their hungry bellies and hardened backs.
Then at a distance, something caught the tapper’s eyes. A column of grey smoke gradually swelling into an alarming black cloud in the far sky. Kicking Baru, Ramdeo and a few of his slumbering customers back to consciousness, Chabila and his patrons dashed towards the black and orange fiery mushroom spreading against the backdrop of the turquoise winter sky.
Within minutes they were in front of the three-storey village school, which was recently refurbished from the old and donated mansion of a rich landlord, who had willed the property to be converted into a school and died. A score of people stood speechless in front of the building as the first-floor sputtered raging flames fuelled by a burning inferno from inside. Apparently, an inexperienced helper, while trying to light a gas stove had done something wrong and the downstairs kitchen where a feast was being prepared for the installation ceremony of Lord Hanuman’s statue caught fire. Finally, someone took the initiative and the crowd breaking away from their freeze of horror dashed to pass pots, pans and buckets of water to subdue the raging wood and concrete pier.
“Few children are still trapped on the terrace,” came a shrieking cry from amidst the panicked crowd and everyone looked towards the sky. There on the north parapet, they saw five children huddled and screaming clinging on to dear life.
Without giving a second thought, Chabila dashed towards the tall palm that swayed on the north face of the charring edifice, a few feet away from the flames that were spreading fast in an insatiable quest to devour anything that lay on its path.
It was as if the Monkey God had possessed the climber himself. Everyone saw Chabila sprint across the greens on his four and zip up the wobbling palm. Within minutes he was on the tree canopy, a few feet from the parapet. That day everyone witnessed the humble palm tapper of an unknown Indian village transform into Lord hanuman himself as he took an unbelievable leap of faith from the nodding palm across a wall of flame, with a line of jute tied around his waist anchored to the swaying tree of the Arecaceae family, to land on the parapet where five little children loudly prayed to the diving Maruti to save their lives.
With the Wind God, Pavan or Marut, father of Lord Hanuman on his side the flames somehow swirled sideways and downwards instead of reaching up to devour Chabila’s line across the palm tree and the school parapet. Chabila saw both of his daughters amongst the five. Deciding to take them last given their history of tolerance and obedience, one by one Chabila took the other three children across the ropes, lowering them back to the safe embrace of the villagers on the ground.
At last, Chabila tied both of his daughters clinging to his torso. He had to take them across in one shot as the raging flames below were just minutes from devouring his jute lifeline. Halfway across the line, the flame did its thing, and the rope broke burning away and detaching from the parapet. The father and his two daughters clumped as one fell from the canopy cutting through the flames and dangled halfway from the sky. The rope held itself anchored to the treetop. Somehow, as if through some divine intervention the flames parted just right with a gust of wind creating a straight pathway downwards, and Chabila descended the tree with his daughters just moments before the gash in the fire closed and engulfed the palm.
Everyone dashed and lifted Chabila high above the ground. The tapper floated on scores of human hands. The crowd cheered and bellowed praises to the Wind and the Monkey Gods. The climber radiated in his moment of heroic triumph. After hours of burning, an old and ramshackle fire engine finally arrived to douse whatever remained of the giant wood and concrete pier.
For the next few days, there was much talk about Chabila’s heroism. About him being possessed by Lord Hanuman and blessed by the wind God himself. Some Government minister even came to the village and garlanded him on a podium. The fire department gave him an honorary certificate for performing a selfless act in face of great danger. Influential people used his momentary glory to get personal mileage.
As the days turned to weeks and the weeks to months soon a year was over. Gradually everyone nearly forgot about Chabila’s heroism, seldom did anyone speak about the incident. Though the school was rebuilt, Chabila had taken his daughters out. They now laboured on the same wheat fields, where their father tapped on the occasional palm here and there catering to the village drunkards. Though not much had changed, and poverty secured a tighter grip, the climber was happy and convinced that his climbing skill was a divine gift and not a cursed bane.
Copyright © 2022 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. Some characters, incidents, places, and facts may be real while some fictitious. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at firstname.lastname@example.org or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
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Dear Chris, thank you so much. Appreciation really makes my day. So glad that you liked this little story of mine.