the-south-asian.com February 2003
FEBRUARY 2003 Contents
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'KNOCK AT EVERY ALIEN DOOR'
RUM - RUM
He appeared frequently at the base looking more pitiful than any urchin I had seen, somehow different from the other Indian children who loitered about hopeful of some baksheesh or at least a Band-Aid for an imaginary wound. He stood apart, frail and dirty, his large head with the wizened look of an old man rather than that of a child. But it was his eyes, like two dark mirrors reflecting all he saw that were his most impressive feature. They resembled those of some animal held at bay.
When we asked his name, he always put his hands together in the familiar namaskar and said, "Rum Rum." To this day, I think he was saying Ram Ram, a greeting that literally means "God God," but it came out distinctly as "Rum Rum." And to our repeated inquiries for clarification, he consistently replied, "Rum Rum." It was clear that he knew few English words, much less than the other children who had developed a working vocabulary to communicate with G.I. Joe. To most of our questions he responded with a blank stare, and to avoid further frustration we took to calling him Rum Rum as he followed us around to the point of nuisance. Never asking for anything, he took whatever was given to him with a kind of passive appreciation, from candy bars to Band-Aids for what I believe were self-inflicted cuts.
Rum Rum had a way of suddenly appearing after days of absence, during which I always felt a kind of wistful hope for his return despite his nuisance, much as one misses the customary presence of a pet.
His only enemy was Sgt. Baker who, distrusting all Indians, took a particular dislike to Rum Rum. "That's the dirtiest wog I've ever seen. Stinks like hell. More like some animal than a human. If I ever get my hands on him I'm gonna put him in the shower and wash some of that crud off." With tongue and teeth he moved the ever-present cigar to the other side of his mouth. "I'll bet he ain't had a bath in his whole life. Probably thinks he's sacred as cow dung."
It was true that Rum Rum's body odor was a fact to be reckoned with, but most of us accepted it as we did other odors that sometimes assaulted our olfactory senses in India. Yet Sgt. Baker's threat was very real to Rum Rum, and surely accounted for some of his unexpected absences. When he did appear it was with caution and a keen look-out for the menacing sergeant, giving a wide berth to his presence at all times. He was a wily nine year old who, in spite of his limited English, understood quite well the language of human behaviour. Another trait that set Rum Rum apart from the other children was his apparent lack of fear of any animal life. I once saw him scoop up a poison beetle that was about to be crushed under a soldier's foot. He put the creature on the back of his hand and let it crawl the length of his arm to his shoulder, all the while enjoying the spectacle of his fearless performance before his astonished onlookers.
On another occasion as I was leaving the base on pass, I saw Rum Rum standing with a small gathering of soldiers just outside the gate. With rapt attention, he watched one of the traveling fakirs who frequently appeared to pick up a few annas for a cobra act. Weeks would go by, and then one after the other they would appear, always with a wicker basket containing three cobras. I took it to be of some magical significance that the number was always three.
Having seen the act many times, I started to move on but lingered a moment to speak to Rum Rum, who was watching the performance as intently as if he were seeing it for the first time.
The fakir, his bony frame in that impossible Indian squat with kneecaps at ear level, was rhythmically swaying his fist before the open basket. Soon the head of a small cobra appeared and, like liquid spilling from a pot, slithered on to the ground before his master. The fakir moved closer, occasionally giving the ground a quick pat before the snake's head. Nothing happened until, suddenly, the head rose and arched itself into the regal hood that placed man and reptile in eye-to-eye confrontation. The fist continued its metronome motion as the hooded snake remained still, except for an occasional flicker of its string-like tongue.
All this tense confrontation was prologue to the climax that came a moment later when the fakir, leaning forward with his face to the ground, allowed the snake to strike over his shoulder. This rite was repeated two or three times for the appreciative crowd.
While this was going on I noticed that Rum Rum had moved toward the wicker basket where, with one fearless and hasty hand, he grabbed an escaping cobra that was slithering away in the dust.
"Watch out. Rum Rum," I shouted. "Don't be a fool."
Rum Rum turned a grinning face to me as he held the dangling snake a moment, and then ceremoniously dropped it into the wicker basket. With the practiced assurance of a fakir himself, he slowly placed the lid on the basket.
"No fangs," the fakir said, grinning up at me, having finished his act as he pointed toward the basket. "No fangs. Sahib."
A statement that proved to be untrue when, weeks later, a young American Lieutenant, eager to try out his new camera, foolishly ventured a close-up of a cobra belonging to the same fakir and was bitten on the hand. Only yards from the hospital, we rushed him there where a frantic search for the never-used anti-venom was begun and fortunately found in time to save him. For five days, though, there was some concern whether he would make it as he lay in delirium with an arm swollen twice its normal size.
That dramatic event ran like a ripple through the base, and forever changed the status of the visiting fakirs. They were forbidden near the American base, and if found, like the pack of howling jackals that often prowled the night, were driven away by the Gurkha guards.
Only once after that did I see, in a park in Calcutta, the fakir and cobra act. This time it was a class act, as portrayed in Kiplingesque literature. The fakir had a flute.
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