It was in the still of an afternoon in the stark heat of a June summer somewhere in Rural Rajasthan. A remote village sat among the sand dunes, panting the heat away like a dog with its dry tongue rolled out after a wild chase. The sun shone with all its might on the mud huts transforming them into a tandoor while baking their clay exteriors, hard and crusty. The summer afternoon wore on mercilessly. A few mothers called out after a handful of children who had ventured out in the heat to play: “You’ ll all be charred at this hour,” they cautioned. The chagrin of children followed as they were led into their homes and then all was quiet. The sound of stillness only to be intermittently broken by the rhythmic drone of insects.
Suddenly, the Quiet was pierced by a woman’ s plaintive moan that resonated eerily in the tranquillity. A woman at childbirth. The shrieks and moans of the new mother followed by the sound of spluttering and crying. “It’s twins!”, the midwife exclaimed. Two babies were born that day. They both came into the world together as brothers kicking and screaming with all the strength of babies. And then a terrified gasp from the midwife. Both the babies were malformed.
He would come at Dusk. The strange man with a hunch. When the sun and the moon would become visible in the evening sky at right about the same time and when the first of the stars appeared. He came with the sound of the flute playing. A forlorn song accompanied his arrival. The children loved him. Although there was nothing about him to love. Certainly nothing in his appearance. In fact, if one would have seen him for the very first time, one would have winced in sheer disgust and discomfort. If not both, then at least, discomfort. For he was a creature crafted by nature or by the hand of God, as though, to spite mankind. He walked with a limp and was bent over with a magnificent hunch. Like a lone camel in two legs limping across the desert. But the strangest thing was his wretched face. A face contorted into a constant maniacal grin as though nature was simply not done with punishing him for a crime from a past life. Indeed, he was a complete wretch of a man. Oh, but how the children loved him. They would stop their play and joyfully run in his direction to meet him, calling out to him. “Chacha, Chacha! You’re here!” And he sure was evening after evening without fail. He knew they anticipated his coming. So he would come to their favourite tree and rest his belongings beneath it. He would then squat, beckoning the children with a lop-sided grin. To tell them tales by twilight. And such tales they were. Of Magic and Wonder. Of Good overcoming Evil. Stories that almost always ended with a moral.
“Yes, Good always overcomes Evil,” he would say. “No matter how far you may run and hide, Good will always catch up with you.. and overthrow you! So children. Do remind yourselves to be good!”, he would conclude each time. The children would giggle and clap their hands in gleeful pleasure. Such was his allure.
The parents of the children, too, found themselves drawn to him, this tramp and his queer tales. So they would join in with their brood and sit in a carelessly formed arc around him to listen with rapt attention. Such relief and respite after their long arduous days of toiling in the sun.
“Who are you and where do you come from?”, they asked, one day, full of curiosity. He smiled at their inquisitiveness and began his story. “I come from a village across the desert. When I was still a child, we used to work in a circus. My twin brother and I. We were the Freaks among the clowns, the Curios of Nature that both delighted and disgusted the folks who flocked to see us. Such was our plight if you care to imagine. Brought forth into a world with congenital malformations, we lived a life of trial and trepidation abandoned by our own parents. We lived with our maternal grandmother who was moved enough to care for us despite her ageing frailty.”
The villagers with their children sat in reverent silence. Ruminating what he had just told them, his pitiful story, they waited for him with bated breath to continue. “Then what happened to your brother? You say you had one?”, suddenly asked one of the villagers. The rest of them sat stupefied at this revelation. Almost startled out of their rightful minds at having to imagine not one but two mirror-images of him.
His expression saddened and he continued in a hoarse voice. “About ten years ago, in the cold of winter, a fire erupted in the circus. In the maddening chaos of that fateful night, I lost him. That’s when I ran away. From the awful memory of my old life and the indescribable tragedy,” he finished with a sigh. The villagers took in a sharp breath collectively and murmured among themselves. The children sat blinking without a word. Dusk was being swallowed up by the advancing night. A cold burst of desert draught blew in and jolted them out of their senses. They rose languidly and ushered their offspring like herd back to their homes. The children too did n’t seem to complain at all. For that particular story had n’t ended with a good old moral like the rest of his famed fables. It was going to be a long night for them, full of tossing and turning in their dreams.
The strange man sat by himself underneath the night sky. Then he proceeded to light himself a beedie. The glowing cinders from his beedie flickered like fireflies in the dark. His face twisted into his signature lopsided smile as he looked towards the vast empty expanse of the desert.
“No matter how far apart, my dear brother… I still carry you in my heart.”
An old woman sat by the well on midday in winter. She had come to haul water for that day’s worth of work. Now as she rested her tired limbs, stretching them out before her, she sighed in visceral pleasure as the warmth of the sun seeped into her old bones. Just then two pairs of legs came waddling towards her. “Nani, Nani… here you are! We have been looking all over the place for you!”, panted the twins in unison, as twins usually do. “Oh, I am so sorry. I almost forgot, my dear children. Come, let me help prepare your lunches in time! But first, drag me up to my feet, you two!” Two pairs of clumsy little hands clasped hers tight and brought her to her feet amidst loud bursts of guffaws. Then they waddled home happily behind her, singing a children’s rhyme in chorus.
They were a happy little family. She had adopted them as her very own. Despite her frail age and failing health. From the children’s very own parents when they had labelled them as “Monsters” and wanted to abandon them the day they were born. “They are such a delight in spite of their shortcomings and my progeny to survive after me,” she would tell the villagers. The villagers had only stared back in disbelief. So they lived with her, the twins. Deformed and loved. As they grew in stature and skill, they did menial errands to help support their kind grandmother.
Then one breezy summer day they stood, mouths agape, in front of the circus. The travelling circus had pitched its tent in their village and as the two young boys stood transfixed at the sight, the circus owner had looked at THEM shaking his head in amazement. That very day he had decided to hire them as the “Best Part of his Show”. “For who could have ever seen such a sight!”, he had later reasoned with their grandmother. And he was right. As word grew, masses thronged to catch a glimpse of them. After the parade of the elephants, they would walk in centre stage, waddling together. The audience would gasp and applaud.
After one such Sold Out show, one night, the brothers sat quietly next to the caged animals.
It had been over a year of their newfound success. But the air was grim between the two of them.
“I’m quite tired of this kind of life,” said one to the other.
“How do you mean?” replied the other, just a little startled.
“I am honestly tired of being an aberration of nature. Earning a living by provoking laughter from men.”
“Then what do you propose we do? Sure, the world is tickled by our misfortune but as long as we get our bellies filled..”
“Oh, but there’s so much more to this existence..! Do you want to go through this life trudging along, carrying the burden of this deformity all your life?”
“Well, we don’t really have a choice now, do we?”
“Actually, we do. I have been thinking. There are surgeries for these kinds of defects in big cities and if we only had the right amount of money, we could save ourselves from this hellhole of a life”.
“Right. But let me remind you. We would never have this kind of money, to begin with!”
“Yes, we could. We need only to rob our circus owner and flee without getting caught. I even know where he keeps his wads of wealth.”
A lopsided grin. And a chuckle.
A week later, a fire broke out in the middle of the night. The tongue of flames licked up the circus tent. The hapless workers ran for their lives. The caged animals cried after them. The circus owner sheltering himself from the flames ran out from the fiery chaos and turning back shook his head in incredulity. Then as though remembering something, he dashed in the direction of his burning chambers. He found what he was looking for. His large brass box, only now its top pulled back revealing it to be empty. “My hard-earned money… it’s gone!”, he shrieked.
Just then he looked up to see a blazing pillar fall upon him. He died amost instantly.
Far in the distance in the light of the moon, two twin figures scampered for their lives.
One of the twins was alight.
The man with the hunch sat remembering his reprehensible past.
The full moon had risen high and painted the desert a silverwhite in its luminiscence.
“It was a night just like this one,” he recalled. A night he would never forget. The night of tragic events that were foreplanned well ahead of time. One did n’t quite easily forget such things.
He rose at length and collecting the dry fallen branches underneath the tree, started to build a fire. He picked up a small burning twig. As he held onto it, his mind compelled him to remember.
He closed his eyes. As deplorable memory brought back things to mind.
How they had emptied their master’s brass box and stashed the money into a wornout sack.
How his fingers had shaken as he had thrown a lit matchstick onto the kerosene drenched animal fodder.
How, while escaping, he had plunged his beloved brother into the smouldering flames.
And how at last, his twin ablaze and screaming beside him, he had dragged them both to safety.
Before plunging them both into a large vessel of water to douse out the flames.
He let out a sigh. He had broken into a cold sweat. It had taken him all of his strength and might that night. It had been so very close. But the desire within him for a better way of life spurred him on. “Or else I too would n’t be here, tonight”, he whispered to himself.
He reached into the sling bag that he carried and brought out a crumpled old newspaper. He unfolded it gingerly. This was a priceless treasure. There in the glimmer of light by the fire, he saw it. A decade-old photograph on the cover page. Of the two of them. The day of his successful mammoth surgery that lasted the doctors a full eighteen hours. There were two photographs taken that day. Before and after surgery. One with his twin, one without.
“India’s Conjoined Twins Successfully Separated”, screamed the headlines. “However, one of the twins before surgery succumbed to secondary infections after his month-long battle post-second-degree burns…”, continued the article. A picture of the two of them lying side by side. Their last photograph together. Two brothers joined together at the heart. Born as “ Thoracopagus” or “Monsters” as their mother had screamed at their birth before drifting into unconsciousness.
He caressed the photograph as one does when grieving an unexpected loss of someone close.
He spoke at length looking down at his brother. “We shared one heart. Then how could you not sacrifice yourself for one of your own? I know I would have. But now I live; I will not let your sacrifice be in vain.” He bent down and kissed the image.
“Why, you will beat and throb in me for as long as I live! I now carry you in my heart, whether together or apart. You’re with me. For always. ”
He stood up and briskly stamped out the fire before him. The orange red embers cast an ominous glow upon his repulsive face. He smiled into the dying embers, a lopsided malignant smile.
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