When Lokhinder’s eyes fluttered open that morning, the world seemed darker than usual. Lying still on his back, for a second, he wondered if it was still night time. Had he woken up earlier than usual?
Just then, as if to dispel all his doubts, a rooster crowed somewhere. But even this crowing did not sound like it did on other days. The bird’s declaration of dawn seemed to lack its usual conviction.
Lokhinder shuffled a little on the cot. He was starting to feel a strange heaviness weighing down on him. It must be the air, he thought. Whatever it was, it didn’t allow him to savour the first few moments of the day in bed. He had to get up now.
As he jerked up and moved to take his legs off the cot, he became aware of that familiar throbbing ache in his right leg. It had already started to rise up from the ankle. Lokhinder knew that the pain would soon intensify and consume most of his leg. It did not come too often, this ache, but each time it did, it was accompanied by something else – something external – that Lokhinder could not recall right away.
With some effort, he got out of bed and headed to the river to wash himself. The water was cool for a summer’s day. Evidently, the river was yet to notice that it was morning already. Can’t blame her when the sun plays truant.
Lokhinder changed into his printed lungi with some effort. The region around his right ankle was now throbbing and the weight of the cold air was making it worse. He should have brought his shirt along. The air was making him shiver.
As he turned to walk back homewards, Lokhinder halted for a moment. It was not so dark anymore, but the world was still very grey. The colour of the air was so ashen that the palest of wildflowers were visible against it. Lokhinder could vividly see every hue, every shape, every creature’s movement in this light. Aches and poor light notwithstanding, this was the day to get his job done, he decided.
All set for the day, he started out for the forest. He had an assignment today. A teer- dhonuk (bow and arrow) set would have to be crafted. This was the best time to set out and gather the wood for it. It helped that his mother was still asleep. Were she up, she would have insisted on sending someone with him. She would not have allowed her son to negotiate the deadly and almighty forest all by himself. What if a thorn pricked him? What if he bit a poisonous fruit? What if the forest air possessed him or gave him a flu?
Even then, Lokhinder’s wife would have surfaced and handled the situation with elan. She would have calmed her mother-in-law down and caught hold of a fellow bored enough to accompany her husband. She would certainly have made sure he went to the forest though. As things stood, there was no need for any of that. Like every other day, Lokhinder did not see Somwaari this morning.
Somwaari led a busy life supervising the local leg of a government-sponsored handloom silk production project. It was her project coordinator’s child who wanted the toy teer-dhonuk. Somwaari had been finding favour with her bosses and she didn’t want to change that.
Normally, even she did not encourage the kind of adventures her husband liked to have. The no-nonsense Somwaari always liked to avoid landing in a soup. So Lokhinder’s movements were restricted to Budho’s bidi stall and the dhenki beyond their backyard.
His destiny had been determined a few years after his birth. He was three when it became clear he wouldn’t walk the way other bipeds do. There was nothing visibly wrong with his right leg. It just didn’t work the way you’d expect it to. He would need constant attention, even protection, while performing the most basic of actions. As a child, he would get stuck in painful positions just trying to sit down with his legs folded. Going to the riverside alone could make him skid in the mud and fall straight into the water. And, of course, he’d never learnt to swim. When he was born there was a possibility that he would be given one of the names common in the community—Dhanai, Salkhan, Sunil, maybe. But the name bestowed on him was the majestic-sounding Lokhinder.
From that moment on, his destiny began to trace that of his mythical namesake, the hapless Lokhinder of the legends who remained weighed down by a curse in life and death. On the night of his wedding with Behula, the legendary Lokhinder died of a snake-bite. Knowing this disaster had to be the handiwork of the potent and spiteful local goddess, Ma Manasa, Behula set sail with her dead husband on a raft towards Heaven. She purchased his life with a promise to convert her father-in-law’s line into worshippers of Ma Manasa. The tale ended with Lokhinder coming back to life. But that was not the point. Lokhinder was the dead man floating on a raft as two women wrangled over his fate. In life as in legend, his very existence was a function of the extraordinary women in his life.
As he limped towards the forest, Lokhinder wondered when he would ever do something—anything—for himself. Something meaningful. Something big. All of Somwaari’s achievements always stared him in the face. There were certificates for good professional performance that she hung on the walls of the house in the manner of government offices. There was an ever-increasing pile of printed synthetic sarees. The markers of her success were everywhere in the house.
Sometimes, they were inescapable even outside the house. Lokhinder paused to take a good look at the structure that stood a few paces to his right. It was a longish mud shed with a low thatched roof. It had a pair of windows which offered a glimpse of the metal shelves stacked with mulberry leaves. On days when the sun was shining, the metal glistened through the tiny gap of the windows. This was Somwaari in the forest. The shed was her ticket to a whole new plane of success. It housed the germs for what would surely be her crowning success – the silkworms for her first overseas consignment of silk. Nothing about that shed or its contents was allowed to go wrong. Because with the silk, Somwaari intended to travel too. She was determined not to remain stuck here in the village. She never said any of this, but Lokhinder knew.
Lokhinder resumed walking and did not stop till he reached a spot where there was a clump of twigs just right for the teer-dhonuk. The throb in his leg had by now crept up to his calves, so he could not sit on his haunches as he would have preferred to. He pushed the clump with a few swift steps towards the trunk of a mango tree. Leaning against the trunk, he used his left foot to pick up the twigs. He was in luck. The longest among them was smooth and sturdy enough to be made into the dhonuk. It was a neem twig though, and just for a second, Lokhinder felt what a waste it would be to turn something so useful into a toy. But then he smiled. It was probably best to use something harmless like this for a child.
Lokhinder leaned back against the trunk and looked up at the sky. It was getting very dark and it was sure to rain. Yet, every leaf stood still. His eyes remained on the grey sky even as he ran his fingers over the neem twig, savouring its smoothness. What a beautiful twig.
And what beautiful fingers, thought Lokhinder, as he returned his gaze to them caressing the twig. He had fingers like those of women, everyone would say. Yes, he did, and he liked that. They were the reason he was trusted with delicate tasks like carving toys and painting the outer walls of huts with just a stripe of rice paste. Delicate and useless. Beautiful and unimportant. Lokhinder drew in a deep breath and prepared to return. As he took his first step back, a shooting pain darted through his afflicted leg. The very next moment it started to pour.
He limped as hurriedly as he could. The raindrops were large and sharp and they pierced him like needles on his back and legs. There was no way he could reach home now. So he headed to the shed where the silkworms were, lugging the twigs inside his shirt. The shed always contained a plastic sheet to deal with the vagaries of the weather. Lokhinder swiftly covered the top of the shed with it. He then sat down on the mud-plastered floor of the shed and began to wait for the rain to abate. Very soon, he fell asleep.
When he woke up, it was still raining. There was no way of knowing how early or late it was.
After a few hours of waiting, Lokhinder knew it was very late. It grew dark outside and he had to use the twigs he had collected, his lighter and the scrap of newspaper covering his set of bidis to light a fire inside the shed.
Only after the fire was lit did it strike Lokhinder that his leg wasn’t hurting any more. In fact, it hadn’t hurt ever since it started to rain. It all started to come back to him now. This was exactly how his right leg had developed an ache during the Tusu before the last. On that occasion, it had rained for over two days at a stretch. Like this one, that too was an untimely downpour.
Relieved that the pain was gone for now and having nothing else to do, Lokhinder sat down to recount the things that had gone wrong that Tusu. Budho’s wife had come down with a fever and narrowly missed being declared a witch. The idol of Tusu Ma that had been brought from Tatanagar had lost one of its weapons on the way. The worst that had happened to Lokhinder was that his mother’s pithas weren’t as good as usual because the flour had moistened.
But this time, Lokhinder thought, he was completely at sea. Nobody would come to his rescue now because it was raining torrentially. This was one of those rare moments when he missed the pampering he received from his mother. He had never been stranded like this before. He felt sorry for himself as the rain fell noisily upon the shed and a damp smell assaulted his senses. He looked around at the only companions he had—the silkworms in their cocoons. Suddenly it struck him that there was someone else who stood to suffer even more than he did now. For once, Somwaari was far less in control of her life than he had ever been.
If it was indeed going to rain for the next two days, she would be in deep trouble. The worms would leave their cocoons only under the severe gaze of the sun. This part of the process was scheduled to have been completed by the day after tomorrow. Then the weaving would have started and gone on for a week. Ten days was all Somwaari had to deliver on her end of the job. If she did not stick to that deadline, the delay would get transmitted along the supply chain and the consignment would reach the client way behind schedule. Her group might never get another foreign order and she might lose the post of project supervisor.
There was only one thing to be done to avert that eventuality. Lokhinder would have to persuade the worms to leave their cocoons. He had done it earlier for sport. On the day this shed was ceremoniously inaugurated by the project coordinator, Lokhinder had walked in as one of the stragglers with Somwaari’s group. When the speeches were being delivered, he had gone quietly to the back of the shed and peered among the leaves. A few silkworms had already wrapped themselves in their cocoons. Lokhinder was fascinated by the woolly texture of them. He instinctively picked one up to see what it felt like and held it between his fingers. He couldn’t help running his fingers on it in every direction. And then, a little brownish insect began to creep out from it when he was least expecting it. Awestruck, Lokhinder put the cocoon back among the leaves and watched the moth step out onto the green. Then in the blink of an eye, it was gone.
He was all set to move on to a second cocoon, but then he had thought better to look around. Sure enough, Somwaari had had her stern gaze fixed on him. She had seen everything. He had made a quick exit. This time, he could play on.
Lokhinder vaguely knew that the ability to make a silkworm leave its cocoon was not exactly normal. He could do it because his fingers were far from normal. They were soft, slender, and long, altogether inappropriate for a dumpy chap with a limp. He had done this once before. There was no reason why he couldn’t do it again, now that his chief obstructor was nowhere in sight.
With that thought, he set to work. He picked up each cocoon and pressed it this way and that till the creature inside wriggled out, leaving behind its contribution to Somwaari’s work. Lokhinder found out soon enough that not every silkworm was as pliable as the first one he had pulled out of its cocoon. They were like children, some needing a little coaxing, some a violent rap or two.
He became conscious of the passage of time only when he felt hungry. Going out shirtless, he plucked as many berries and collected as many fallen mangoes as he could. Back in the shed, he wiped himself with his shirt and spread it out on the floor to dry. As the buzz of insects replaced birdsong, he stepped out to retrieve pigeons from hollows in trees. He roasted them inside the shed after making a fire with stones and twigs. Raw mangoes helped make up for the lack of salt. When his eyes began to droop, he fell asleep. Lokhinder’s work continued as did the rain, unabated, for three days and three nights.
On the fourth day since he had left home, Lokhinder woke up to the chirping of birds. The sun was up in the sky now that its work had been completed by Lokhinder. In the past three days, 73,416 silkworms had wriggled out of Lokhinder’s hands onto the forest floor.
Lokhinder pushed himself out of his half-asleep state, folded up the canvas sheet and headed home. On the way, he met the party that had been sent out to search for him. In reply to all their queries, he simply said that he had been sleeping for three days and nights.
When Lokhinder reached home, he found his mother waiting in the courtyard. She was gazing, with eyes open wide, at the spectacle of her son coming back unscathed after spending three days and nights in the forest. It was a miracle, she thought, and simply thanked the deities for it. Somwaari was lighting the coals in a corner of the courtyard. On his arrival she sighed, too distraught to inquire after the teer-dhonuk.
Lokhinder did not relate to her the greater miracle that he had wrought. It would be too much for her to believe that the man lying on the cot inside had broken the curse of his name and defeated the destiny that his mythical namesake had never managed to escape.
Shritama Bose is a journalist based in Mumbai. She has an undergraduate degree in English from the erstwhile Presidency College, Kolkata. She is currently pursuing an MA in English from the Indira Gandhi National Open University. She also translates Bangla fiction into Hindi and has a bilingual podcast on short stories.