Nanaji Rao

Nanaji Rao,

stocky and grim faced,

was the first watchman

the Company hired.

Not a common man was he, but

the descendant of a warlike clan

settled here centuries earlier.

Even his language was antiquated:

cut off from the mainstream

hundreds of years back,

it had preserved its old habits,

and now sounded quaint and archaic.

 

When the Company was started in 1964,

this area was a wilderness of thorn and scrub.

The Old Madras Road connecting the city to the colony

was a threadbare tar track, notoriously unsafe at night.

When the ground was cleared for a colony

of industrial lots, housing blocks, playgrounds,

orchards, dispensaries, recreation clubs,

guest houses, and co-operative stores,

the brushwood gave tough resistance.

The snakes were the hardest to wipe out.

Coming in all sizes and varieties,

from the deadly king cobra, twelve feet long,

to puny, harmless ones, the colour of grass.

Every bush seemed to contain one.

Nanaji was an expert at handling them.

A famous "snake charmer" before becoming

our watchman, it seems, he had saved

many lives with his ­mantras­ and potions.

Of indeterminate age, medium height,

imposing build, and with a head as round

and closely cropped as a dry, brown coconut,

Nanaji sat, massive and inscrutable,

on a stone bench, guarding our gates.

 

 

Once, I watched him cure a patient.

This thin, unshaven, dirt-poor farmer

Had been bitten by a cobra two hours earlier.

Now unconscious, he had swollen fang-marks

on his left forearm.  Tightening a cotton band

almost to the bone just above the bite,

Nanaji proceeded to open the glistening blade

of his knife--at this point, the women

sucked in their breaths, turned aside--and

quickly slit the flesh, reopening the wound.

When bled a little, the patient stirred

but swayed from side to side, still delirious.

"The poison has intoxicated him," a busybody opined;

"I'll sober him immediately," retorted Nanaji.

Pouring some dark liquid into an earless cup,

he pinched the patient's nose, forcing the potion

down his throat, while we awaited the outcome.

Suddenly, the man convulsed and threw up violently.

They had turned his face sideways into the bushes,

but I caught a glimpse of his vomit:  bluish-green,

half a litre of it trickled into the roadside gutter.

Finally, Nanaji produced a white pill,

the size of a small coin, but quite thick.

Tying this to the wound, he muttered:

"See how this sucks out the remaining venom."

After a while, the patient, though ashen-faced,

had visibly recovered.  An appreciative hubbub

spread through the wonder-struck crowd.

The patient's family, to say the least,

was ecstatic.  The brother now began talking

about compensations and rewards, but,

with a quick gesture, Nanaji motioned "later":

he knew that nothing detracts more from a show

than money-changing; thus he deftly postponed

the transaction.  As the man mounted the bullock-cart

amidst his smiling relatives, I noticed that

the magic pill at his wound, had turned to blue.

Sending his son home with the medicines,

Nanaji resumed his seat on the stone, once again

our watchman.

                    When I sat beside him

after school, he sometimes narrated stories

of strange herbs and minerals, rare medicines,

mysterious concoctions, and miraculous cures,

which I lapped up greedily, almost

believing every word.

 

                           During the winter,

Nanaji lit fires by the gate with wood shavings,

sitting all night on the stone seat, warming himself.

One such night, my window was rapped unexpectedly.

"Requesting your esteemed self to partake in

my humble meal," it was Nanaji announcing solemnly.

Though the invitation was an hour after my dinner,

I said that I was honored and delightedly accepted.

Stealing out of the house, I sat with him by the fire

waiting for his tiffin carrier.  The three tiered,

stainless steel container was filled with ­chappatis­,

steaming cauliflower curry and mutton ­biryani­.

We feasted like soldiers of yore, flouting etiquette,

dipping both hands into the spicy curry and scented rice,

smacking our lips to savour the seasonings,

until my nose watered and tears came into my eyes.

 

Many years later,

I no longer played with watchmen,

but went to an upper class college far away.

I heard that Nanaji Rao's stock had decreased.

He was seen no longer at the main gates,

having been transferred to guard the orchards

from monkeys and urchins from neighbouring villages.

The Company had built a new, full-fledged hospital

in place of the old, cowshed of a dispensary,

and the snakes had all been exterminated.

When I returned that vacation,

I was told that Nanaji had left.

Apparently, he had been caught

napping once or twice on night duty,

and, although nobody knew his real age,

because he was surely more than fifty-eight,

he had been superannuated.

Seeing the look of dismay on my face,

my informant assured me

that he drew "a handsome pension"

and was well-provided for.

 

One day, I saw an old man

in traditional dress, sitting at the gate.

Accustomed to seeing him only in uniform,

I hardly recognized that it was Nanaji Rao.

He probably had a similar difficulty

because he stared a long while

before exclaiming how much I had changed!

He had come to visit, he explained,

And when he smiled, I noticed

that he had no teeth left.

We passed some moments in a strained silence,

then awkwardly took leave,

and went our separate ways.

Our worlds, so different, had converged once,

never to overlap again.

 

Nanaji Rao,

scion of a warlike race,

was the last of his kind.

In these changed times,

he found no worthy successor

for his art of curing snake bites.

His children married locally;

his grandchildren never learned his garbled tongue.

In the oblivion of some remote village

he now lives or dies,

perhaps remembered today,

only by his erstwhile patients.

 


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  Copyright © 2005 - Makarand Paranjape