Thursday, 17 November 2011

The Demigod's nemesis

It was late. Too late for a seven year old to be up anyways.

The cold winter night was crisp and the stars in the sky bright.
The fire by which I was sitting glowed bright and the smell of wild boar cooking in yogurt, whole red chillies and spices wafted through
the air.The beer in the men’s mugs was chilled and the shami-kebabs in their plates so succulent that biting into them was like biting into ripe grapes.

However I wasn’t in the least bit interested in the food. "The gang" had just gotten back from the hunt. The bag for the day was a wild boar, a sambar and a couple of hare.
The "gang" was actually a group of friends brought together by their love of the outdoors and the shikar. In addition to the hunters, there were gun bearers, drivers, 'shikaris' or trackers/hunters. I always looked forward to these post hunt bonfire dinners and listen with rapt attention to their tales.
But today I wasn’t even paying attention to the hunt stories about the yardage of the shots taken
and the stalk or the spread of antlers or poundage of the boar.
I knew that an old shikari who had retired many years ago from Grandfathers service had accompanied them today 'for old times’ sake' and it was him who was keeping my mind diverted away from the stories and the food. Currently he was busy caping and butchering the sambar in the backyard and wouldn’t be available for another hour.

He was Deva, the demigod.
Demigod by name.
Demigod in looks
Demigod in strength
Demigod in courage
Demigod by reputation.
We kids had heard so many stories of his superhuman strength and courage that we only uttered his name with utter reverence. I had known him through many stories about him and wanted to see firsthand if he
actually was a Deva, a demigod.

Being as patient as a seven year old can be, I whiled away time remembering all the stories I had heard about his strength.
At the age of eight he walked from his village to the castle 20 miles away and fascinated by the 'balls' kept near the cannon carried one of them back with him so he could play with them. When he found that it was actually a cannon balls (weighing 30-40 pounds), scared, if discovered, he would be punished, he ran back 20 miles to return them.

When Grandfather shot a tiger in a valley, he singlehandedly carried it on his shoulders, carried it a few mile climbed two hills all the way to the road there the jeep was parked.

Once, asked to scout for wild boar, he left at dawn on a bicycle and returned by dusk to report an area that held monsters...130 km away! On an old rickety bike on potholed back roads in 1960's India!

He was the first to offer to track a wounded big cat through high grass.

I had watched hard times/street fighter as I had heard the "gang" remark that Charles Bronson had a physique like Deva. (In the sixties Arnie and sly were yet to make their mark). And how when one watched him chop wood, which he could do by the wagonload, one could see the muscles rippling and one could use him to study human anatomy.

Well today I was finally going to see him in person.
"Deva is here, hokum-Sire", announced a servant, "he has finished his
work and wants to know if he may be excused."
Stepped forward a man initially only a shadow in the darkness. As he approached the fire, the shadow started to take a form. 6'2" with a straight back he was bare-chested and his body glistened in the
firelight with the beads of perspiration brought on by butchering the sambar. He still retained a six pack and the still muscular shoulders tapered down to a narrow waist. The aquiline nose, the handsome face; the eyes radiant in the reflected firelight, seemed to be on fire themselves. Only his white hair and weather-beaten skin and the creased face belied his years. But the creases, crow’s feet gave him a regal look and a character that looking at countless portraits of kings and emperors and nobility across the world, I have scarcely encountered. 65 springs he had seen and yet he stood tall and taut. His fair skin bronzed by 65 summer suns was made of gold in the reflected firelight.
Yes Deva was a demigod all right.
As the demigod bowed with folded hands to greet us, even at that young age I was aware of the irony fate had put him on the other side of the campfire.  

“You have grown sire”, he said to me his voice a deep baritone. Soon you will be old enough to shoot tigers yourself. You will be a great shikari.

“Will you accompany me Deva?” I asked.
“I’m an old man sire and not as strong as I once was but if that’s what you wish.
“Deva I hear you aren’t scared of anything, that you can follow wounded man-eaters, you can wrestle wild boars and you aren’t even scared of stepping into the haunted enchanted forests at night”.      “Yes sire nothing scares me. Whatever is to be seen in the forests and life, I have seen and faced. Charging tigers, wounded leopards, poisonous cobras, accursed haunted ruins, the banyan tree which houses the 'churail', the Indian banshee.”
“What about the dark Deva, are you scared of the dark? And spiders and lizards?” the 8 year old
in me enquired.
“No sire”, he humoured me with a smile. “Not even the darkness or the spiders.

“Well he isn’t scared of anything......except one thing...isn’t that right Deva?” Chuckled the gang.

“Oh that, please don’t remind me of that sire”, Said Deva.
Right then, there was a sudden metamorphosis in Deva. His eyes opened wide, mouth went dry, and hands were trembling. Was it the dancing firelight or did he suddenly develop a stoop? Was it just the shadows or did the eyes really lose their fire? The face got more wrinkled and weary. He was a demigod no more; just a scared old man.
The years of reverence shattered in a single moment. Deva, scared!!!
But then a sudden curiosity got hold of me. What can scare a demigod?
A wounded elephant, a charging gaur, the Indian bison? What is it Deva what could possibly scare you?


The year is 1960. North India. India is yet to be industrialised.
The forests haven’t been razed yet, the rivers not yet poisoned. The
tiger is still the king of the forest and the streams still clear, their water potable and teeming with fish and inhabited with thousands of waterfowl.
Man has yet to walk on the moon and let alone the internet, even the
television is unheard of in most of India. People still enjoy simpler things in life like hunting fishing and the outdoors.

Its a lazy day in an undisclosed location in north western India.
There is a gurgling stream meandering through deciduous woodlands and meadows. On its banks is a tree with one branch overhanging the river. Two friends, members of the gang are sitting on the branch, fishing lines in hand the tree giving them shade and the height protecting them from the swarms of ants, bugs and the hot ground beneath. Nearby is the shikarcamp with the food cooking and various members performing their chores.

Enters a young shikari, jet black hair slicked back. Beautifully tanned fair complexion, muscles rippling with the strength of the youth, broad shoulders, thick chest, and posture like he’s just swallowed a

tree trunk. The handsome face with the aquiline nose is smiling. He had left at dawn to look for tracks of a leopard and on his way back decided to bring the gift of fresh honey for his employer. He has been running for a mile but the movement of his chest, mouth and nostrils do not testify to the fact since they are hardly moving. The noble face, the broad forehead, the big eyes, the physique, the lion-gait somehow still look attractive despite the simple dirty clothes and the bare feet.
Yes this is Deva the demigod in his prime.

Sire, he says with folded hands, I’ve brought you fresh wild honey, the ambrosia fit for gods.
Thanks Deva, said grandfather, we'll eat it for dessert. Speaking of food, can you check if the cheetal- the axis deer is cooked and is tender.

Deva walks back to the burning fire and the cooker but is puzzled by the cooking vessel. It’s like a round box with the lid sealed shut. There is a long projection to one side which supposedly looks like a gripping handle and a small protuberance on top whose purpose he cant fathom. Too proud to admit he has been foxed, the demigod decides to observe the strange contraption. After all this looks nothing like the saucepans that millions of households in India cooked in.
If the demigod had received an education, he could have deciphered the markings on the contraption: Prestige pressure cookers.

Deva looks intently at the contraption wondering how to open it. Suddenly there is a hissing noise and hot liquid hits his face. Deva has heard of spitting cobras but surely one can’t be hidden inside the
contraption. No this liquid is just steam- and smells of the wonderful spices. Surely this is steam from the venison cooking inside. But the question still remains; how does one open the darn thing?        The demigod is again jolted by another hissing whistle. He is a forest man not yet touched by technology. His mind is simple, not used to applying principles of physics to understand gadgets. He can’t think with this hissing-whistling happening every minute.

Deva walks back to the overhanging bough. "I’m sorry sire, I’m unable to open the vessel".
"It's quite simple", says grandfather, not realising that Deva hasn’t even released all the steam "one needs to unhook the lid handle with the pan handle and then twist it"

"Aah, I get it now" says Deva and walks back to the fire. He unhooks the clip and tries to twist the handle.
It doesn’t budge.

Back he walks. “Sire, it’s still not opening.
"Tch, tch Deva", S.B, affectionately called cancer by friends in the
gang, says "you can kick the ground and create a lake but you can’t open a mere pressure cooker lid! Put your back into it."

This, Deva understands. All his life he has worked believing the axiom that one can achieve the most difficult goals by the strength of one’s back and the sweat of one’s brow. So again he approaches the beast which is hissing a warning to stay away. This entices Deva. He has always courted danger.
The mighty hands strong as vices grip the two handles and pull.

The demigod is puzzled. This thing is stronger than it looks. Something is not right. He will go and show his masters. So Deva carries the 5 litre prestige pressure cooker to the tree but this time

he notices other staff of the shikar camp has followed him. They are all amused that the mighty Deva is unable to open a mighty pressure cooker. No one dare mock him but those stares and smiles do the job.

The demigod is touched to the quick. He is too proud to admit that he can’t accomplish a task that a mere cook can and that this small contraption is stronger than him. He will open this damn hissing beast right in front of the whole camp’s eyes, masters included.

By then a few servants and cooks have realised that he hasn’t released the pressure but decide to watch on as a joke knowing fully well that the pressure generated inside the cooker is so high that no man can overcome. The lid will stay shut.

But this is Deva the demi-god. He takes a deep breath, clenches his teeth and pulls. The handle is now bending but the lid still doesn’t budge.
People have begun to snigger.
The demigod holds a cloth to protect his hands from heat and now pulls and pushes with all his might invoking the name of Mighty Lord Hanuman, patron god of strength. The eyes close, the face reddens, the mighty muscles bulge the veins in them and neck standing out like cords. The back muscles spread out like the hood of a cobra, the neck muscles swell to almost touch the ear. Deva now utters a guttural sound. The primeval sound of strength, of superhuman effort that  transcends not only language and race but species and life itself.

There is a loud bang. The demigod can’t see. It’s all red. The people around him are screaming. Then the pain hits him. Has he burst a vein? Had a haemorrhage? Is this how he is going to die, checking if the venison is tender enough?

That fantastic show of strength by the demigod has overcome hundreds of pounds of pressure. The pressure cooker opens. Not just opens but the sudden pressure difference practically causes an explosion. He is scalded by superheated steam. Boiling oil in his eyes. Everyone in the
diameter of 10 feet is scalded. Spicy liquid in eyes, hot oil and steam burning soft skin and the robust Indian spices driven under high pressure into the wounds.
Only the gang is spared. Saved less by the height of the tree and more
by the boots and clothing they wear but still get their hands burnt.
The pieces of venison are strewn about everywhere on the ground in
dirt not fit for eating. Some pieces of meat have been driven on the branches of the tree
wedged into the bark have to be salvaged. Honey is used to dress the burns.
The camp sleeps hungry; 14 pieces of meat shared amongst the gang.

Nevertheless, he is glad to be alive.


Everyone by the campfire was laughing by the time the story finished but Deva was actually shaking recounting the story.

Is it true, I wondered that a demigod is scared of 'this'? As if to answer my question, the pressure cooker cooking the wild boar nearby whistles and Deva jumps in the air, startled.
He bowed quickly and beat a hasty retreat, his eyes never leaving the dreaded cooker.

I was told He never stepped near a pressure cooker till the day he died.
The demi god had met his nemesis.

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