The Redemption

Lakshmi Menon posted under Short Stories Sonata on 2021-10-13

Chapter 1 Staying Alive

Ek pyaar ka nagma hai, Maujon ki ravaani hai Zindagi aur kuch bhi nahi, Teri meri kahani hai  The scorching sun emitted heat like a yolk sizzling on a frying pan. The star was seeking vengeance for having to play peek-a-boo for the last four months. It was getting mightier by the hour, threatening to incinerate everything in sight. It was scalding for October. None dared to venture out that blazing afternoon. The streets wore a deserted look; even the strays thought it wise to stay put. But there were a few who had Hobson's choice. I, a student of Fine Arts, was in my room scanning for an original subject to paint for my assignment when I heard them on the streets. Twang! Twang! Chun! Chun!  He was dancing on the almost molten tar roads with bare feet, followed by a petite woman playing the drums. He matched her beats which gradually grew to an allegro. He was dancing in delirium as though he was possessed. Then began a brazen display of self-torture; he started flagellating himself! Whack! Whack! Went his whip to the Twang! Twang! of her drum beats. I cringed. Even from across the street, I could make out that the whip was searing through his skin. But that did not deter him from finishing the task at hand. Unfortunately for him, the chowkidar of my building ran up to him and asked him to stop.  "Jaoo yahan se." He continued blowing his annoying whistle until the act came to an abrupt halt. The man stood protesting; however, his pleas fell on deaf ears. He was intriguing. I found the elusive subject for my assignment. I was not going to let him get shooed away. I quickly darted towards the trio and intervened. “Chowkidarji, Kya baat hai?” "Oh, it's nothing, Sahib; these two are causing a disturbance." "Chowkidarji, I have some work with this man. I am taking them both to my room. Yeh, le lo, for your cooperation," I said, handing him two notes of one hundred rupees before he could protest. He gave me a quizzical look, took the money, and moved aside. "Bhaiya, I am an artist; I am intrigued by your art. I want you to be the subject of my painting. Do you mind coming over to my house right there," I said to the man, pointing to my balcony.  "I will pay you 500 rupees for your time," I added. He had a quick word with the woman and nodded his affirmation. After making necessary entries in the visitor book, we went to my room.  I noticed the bewildered look on their faces when they entered the room. They settled on the floor, near the door. The woman lowered a brass plate adorning her head and placed it on the floor with reverence. It had a photo of a goddess. I offered them some food and water, which they readily accepted.  It was then that I had a good look at him. He was in his mid-forties, dressed in a long red skirt fastened at his waist with a belt decorated with bells. His torso was coated with turmeric. A garland of marigold and another of lemons graced his chest. His face was painted with vermillion, his forehead with turmeric, and a big red dot was right in the middle of it. He wore his long matted hair in a bun at the top of his head. His ghungharoos protested when he shifted his leg to sit comfortably. His Kohl-lined eyes met mine, and they spoke volumes, screaming of torment. My eyes wandered to the object which had caught my attention - a coir whip weighing anywhere between eight and ten kilograms. After they had their fill, I tried to make some light conversation. I wanted some background information for a realistic portrayal in my painting.  "I am Ravi. I am an artist, just like you. I paint, you dance," I said, trying to make him comfortable. "Sahib, I am Raju, and this is Lachi, my wife. For the first time, someone has treated us with respect. We are used to being shooed away," he said poignantly. I pointed to some of the paintings on my wall and explained how people modeled for illustration. "I don't know anything about paintings. I am here because the money is great. On a good day, we make around two hundred rupees, and you have offered us five hundred."  "Can you tell me more about yourself? Why are you out on such a hot day, punishing yourself like this?" I asked him, coming to the point. "We belong to the "Potraj" community. This is our destiny. We whip ourselves and beg for alms in return," he replied matter-of-factly.  He wouldn't divulge anything else. I could sense some hesitation; I did not expect him to open up to me, a stranger, just like that. I decided to read up on the "Potraj's" and silently thanked Google. My assignment required me to paint the same subject in two versions - Abstract and Portrait. I set up my canvas' and spent the next two hours sketching and painting. Though he was patient, his wife was getting restless. I decided to take a break and call him back the next day. Just then, my phone rang.  Ek pyaar ka nagma hai, Maujon ki ravaani hai Zindagi aur kuch bhi nahi, Teri meri kahani hai  It was my mother calling to check on me. "Hello, mom! Yes, mom, I am fine. How about you? I finally found an interesting subject for my assignment. I will tell you all about it later. Mom, can I call you back in five minutes?"  I wanted to wind up with him before I got back on the call with my mom. It hardly took two minutes, but I could sense he was anxious.  “Kya hua Bhaiya? Sab theek?” I asked him. "That song!!" he said.  "Oh! That's my favorite song, and I love it because it reminds me of my mom. It is her favorite too!" I said, willingly sharing personal information, hoping to get a lot more in return. Something changed in his demeanor after that; I couldn't lay my finger on it. The song appeared to have opened floodgates of memories in him. He got lost in deep thought. I shook him out of his reverie, paid him the promised amount, and asked, "Can you come back tomorrow at the same time, around 2.00 p.m. ? I have very little time to finish my assignment, and there is a lot of work to be done. I will pay you another five hundred." "Sure," he said as he accepted the money and left. My instincts told me that he was a proud man and agreed to return only because of that song.

Chapter 2 Memories

Kuch paa kar khona hai, Kuch kho kar paana hai Jeevan ka matalab toh, Aana aur jaana hai Do pal ke jeevan me, Ek umr churani hai Zindagi aur kuch bhi nahi, Teri Meri Kahani hai.

Raju was extremely nostalgic after listening to the ring tone. The song, his song, he had heard after ages. The piece ruffled memories, those which gnawed him in his dreams, those which he wanted to forget and still couldn't, those which he shared with no one, not even his wife. He glanced at Lachi. She is thinking about the hearty dinner she will get to eat, so she wouldn't mind if I get drunk today. I need all the alcohol I can get.  Later that night, vivid dreams troubled him. He relived his childhood. He recollected the song and his life which replicated the lyrics of the song. 40 years ago A six-year-old was being trained to wield the whip. Although the whip was lighter than the one held by his father, each stroke that landed on him gave him excruciating pain. His back had some red scars and some blue ones. When the whip came in contact with already raw wounds, he screamed in agony. Tears were rolling down his cheeks, but the trainer, his father, was relentless.  "Raju, this is your destiny. You are a Potraj! I started when I was six and so will you. Soon your body will adapt, and your soft, tender skin will become firm. The pain will recede. Then we will move to a thicker whip till finally, your skin becomes hard enough to bear it all." The next day Kaka, Raju's neighbor, was pacing anxiously outside his hut. Kaka's wife of six years was in labor. The grunts and groans from inside the shanty had escalated to loud, heart-wrenching screams, and suddenly, everything went quiet. An unmistakable, loud wail pierced the silence.  "It is a girl," the midwife announced from inside, and Kaka's face fell.  Oh no! Not again. The goddess is undoubtedly angry with me. I begged and prayed, even offered a thousand rupees to the village deity, but she chose to ignore me. Now I have four girls to feed! How am I going to arrange for their dowry? What about my heir. I have to do something. He decided to stick with the only solution which came to his mind. He rushed inside and handed some money to the midwife. "This is all I have accumulated to date. It can be yours if you give me your silence and your cooperation. You will announce the birth of my son when the elders return in a while," he said.  Raju stood witnessing this conversation; however, his naïve mind couldn't fathom the gravity of what he had seen.  Half an hour later, the family celebrated the birth of Punnu, their son, their heir. A few days later, Kaka became the chief Potraj of the local temple. Life moved on. Punnu was growing up fast. Her parents ensured that their secret remained a secret. Four pregnancies in six years had made her mother weak. She stayed at home for herself and Punnu. Malnutrition and disease took away three children, one after the other.  When Punnu turned six, her training began. Punnu's screams were a lot different from the others. Not only did they last longer, but they also never subsided. The other boys were slowly adapting; however, Punnu's wounds never seemed to heal.  Punnu's mother was already a wreck, having lost three children. Watching Punnu flog herself every day made her lose her mental balance. Caught in her trap of lies and deceit, she died a slow, painful death.  Time flew. The children in the settlement grew up not knowing what a school was. They played from dawn to dusk; the boys with cars, stones, and mud, and the girls with dolls. Punnu played with the girls and their dolls.  Sometimes the children would wander to the nearby dump looking for food, broken toys, and rags. During one such treasure hunt, the kids found an old tape recorder. Raju figured out that there was a cassette with a jumbled tape stuck inside it. He managed to salvage a small portion of the audiotape. When he switched on the tape recorder, a song boomed through it. Ek pyaar ka nagma hai, Maujon ki ravaani hai Zindagi aur kuch bhi nahi, Teri meri kahani hai  The children listened to the song every afternoon. It was Rajus's favorite song and Punnu's too. She picked up the lyrics very soon and often sang in her melodious voice.  Punnu grew up with an identity crisis believing that she was a boy who liked girly stuff. Unlike the other boys, she liked to sing and draw. They used to ridicule Punnu for her choices. Raju became protective of her. Raju and Punnu were inseparable. "Best friends," they would call themselves despite the age gap between them. Once, when she was 10, she mentioned to Raju that she was different down there. He simply shrugged it off.

Chapter 3 Twist of Fate

Tu dhaar hai nadiya ki, Main tera kinara hoon Tu mera sahara hai, Main tera sahara hoon Aakhon me samandar hai, Aashaoon ka pani hai Zindagi aur kuch bhi nahi, Teri meri kahani hai When Raju was eighteen and Punnu twelve, they went for their first performance together. Punnu hated the job, but she enjoyed Raju's company. It was during this performance that all hell broke loose. The whip was searing Punnu's shoulders and her back, but she was bleeding from below. The flow didn't stop even after she pressed cloth between her legs. Confused, the duo approached the elders. A midwife examined Punnu, and her father's secret was finally busted. Punnu was shocked but relieved; her choices did not feel quirky anymore. She was no longer required to move around bare-chested, whipping herself under the harsh sun.  Kaka was summoned and chastised. "Potraj is an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. He is the protector of the village deity. We are his followers. The festival of Bonalu held every year to worship Goddess Mahakali cannot be held without us. Our whip is sacred; it cleanses people of their diseases. People line up to be whipped by us. You have defied the holy whip. "You have to appease the goddess. You know the norms. Punnu will become a "Jogin." Prepare her for the ceremony. As per the charts, the day after tomorrow is ideal," the elders declared. That night Punnu met Raju. "Now I know why I played with dolls. My father hid my gender, but I was always a girl. My choices, my mannerisms were there for all to see, but he chose to ignore it all. He subjected me to torture because he wanted to be the chief. Remember I told you once that I was different down there," she said, tears streaming down her face. "Punnu, I am equally responsible. I was there that day; I saw him bribing the midwife. I was too young to understand. He paid for her silence," Raju said, recollecting that night. They sat with their backs to each other, absorbing the raw truth that stared at them.  "I swear to you, Punnu, I will correct the wrong done to you," Raju said, after what seemed like ages. "Help me, Raju. I don't want to be a Jogin. I will be wedded to the God, deflowered by the priest, and later offered to the village. It is worse than getting whipped," Punnu said, crying uncontrollably. "I will. Wait for me." Raju left early the following day. Punnu was miserable. In familiar faces, she saw lecherous vultures waiting to pounce on her.   Raju hadn't returned by nightfall. Punnu couldn't sleep that night.  Way past midnight, she heard someone call her name. She quickly tip-toed out of her house, not wanting to wake her father. It was Raju. "Punnu, I have got two tickets for the early morning train to Hyderabad. From there we can take a train to Pune. A few of our people live there. I have enough money for the trip, and I have this, the whip. The Lord will take care of me, and I will take care of you. Come on, hurry up," he said.  Punnu needed no convincing. The two of them left quietly, shielded by the darkness of the night. Their escape to Hyderabad was uneventful, and they managed to board the train to Pune without any hiccups. Life seemed to have taken a turn for the better. They had escaped and were on their way to start a better life. They were hopeful and happy. Raju and Punnu had each other. They needed nothing more.

Chapter 4 The Storm

Toofan ko aana hai, Aakar chale jaana hai Badal hai yeh kuch pal ka, Chhakar dhal jaana hai Parchaiyan rah jaati, Reh jaati nishaani hai Zindagi aur kuch bhi nahi, Teri meri kahani hai. Raju and Punnu huddled on their reserved seats in the Hussain Sagar Express and drifted off to sleep in dire exhaustion. Later, when they woke up, they realized that they had gone without food for 24 hours. A couple seated next to them offered them some food, which they accepted. However, their hunger was still unsatiated. Raju decided to step out at one of the halts to buy some food. "Punnu, I am going to buy some food and water; I will be back soon," he said.  Punnu moved to the window to watch him. Raju quickly picked up the food parcels, handed them to Punnu through the window, and returned to get water. The train jumped to a slow start. "Raju, hurry! The train is moving!" Punnu yelled. Raju turned to see the moving train. In his anxiety, he dropped his money, adding to the delay. After paying the vendor, Raju rushed towards the compartment. The train had picked up speed. He ran as fast as he could, but it was too fast for him. He stumbled and fell. "Punnu" he yelled in panic. Punnu rushed to the nearest exit and put her hand out.  "Raju," she screamed, but it was too late. Raju was left behind.

* * *

"Punnu," Raju yelled and woke up with a start. He was sweating profusely. His heart was thumping. He quickly got up and went out of his hut. He knew he would not be able to sleep anymore.  Punnu, Where are you? I have been trying to locate you for years. I have moved from place to place along the train route, stopped at each village, performed at every street, hoping to find you. I considered giving up my life, but I couldn't die. I cannot live either; guilt eats me up. I am alive because I know you are. My heart says that you are fine and doing well. My only wish is to see you once before I die. Whack! Whack! Whack! Went his whip. It was his penance and his redemption. Lachi heard her husband. She was used to this; It was a regular feature in her marriage. When she first inquired about this strange behavior of waking up at odd hours and flogging himself, Raju had shrugged it off as an offering to his God. Lachi knew there was something more and that it was futile to pursue, so she let it be.

Chapter 5 Peace

Last evening I researched on the "Potraj's." There was not much information on Wikipedia, but a few articles gave me an insight into their life and lifestyle. I started working on the portrait version. A younger Raju stared back at me; the facial features needed finishing. I took a break only when mom called. I switched to video mode and showed her my painting. She was stumped. This morning I had a pleasant surprise. Mom flew down. She said she missed me and couldn't hold herself back. That's my mom. She loves me to the moon. It was 2.00 p.m. Raju would be here any moment. The bell rang, and so did my phone. Mom offered to open the door. I went to my room to take the call.

* * *

"Is sir not here? He is expecting me," Raju said. "Raju! Didn't you recognize me? It's me. Punnu." Raju's eyes opened wide in recognition. Punnu? Of course, it is her. She has those brown eyes unlike any other. I would have known if I had observed. She has grown up into a beautiful lady. "I was shocked when my son showed me your portrait. I couldn't stop myself. I had to see you." Finally, God heard my prayers. She looks happy. She is married; she has a son. Now I can die peacefully. "I was inconsolable after you couldn't board the train. Remember the couple who gave us food? They tried to help. They spoke to the TC. He told us that the station master would inform us if they could locate you. They took me along with them, hoping to hand me over to you. But when there was no news of you, they let me stay, gave me love, got me educated, and gave me a life. I married their son. I am happy, thanks to you."  "Raju...have you forgotten me? Say something." How I wish I could hold her close to me, but that time is long gone. I won't let the past affect her present.  "Punnu? Who Punnu? You probably mistook me for someone else."

* * *

I finished my call and headed to the door. Raju appeared dazed.  Did I interrupt a conversation? "Rajuji, I see you have met my mom." He fumbled, composed himself, and greeted mom with folded hands, "Namasteji, glad to meet you." Mom looked perplexed. She greeted him and moved away. Chaliye, let's finish the pending work," I said. We went to my room. As I started to paint, I observed a stark difference. Raju's eyes looked peaceful. The torment in them was gone. My phone rang. Ek pyaar ka nagma hai, Maujon ki ravaani hai Zindagi aur kuch bhi nahi, Teri meri kahani hai 

* * *

GLOSSARY: Chowkidar – Watchman Sahib - Sir Jaoo Yahan Se – Go away from here. Kya baat hain – What is the matter? Yeh le lo – Take this. Ghungharoos- Ankle bells Kya hua Bhaiya – What's the matter, brother? Sab Theek – Everything alright? Chaliye – Come. AUTHOR'S NOTE: Potraj: The "Potraj" or "Pothuraju" are people who worship the God "Pothuraju," who is considered an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. The Potraj community resides in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Gujarat, Daman, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra in India.  In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the Pothuraju is believed to be the brother of all village deities and has about 100 sisters. He always walks ahead of their procession with a whip in hand to protect them. People dress up as Pothuraju during festivals and lead processions of local goddesses, dancing for hours to please the goddess. People of North Arcot, Chittoor, and Vellore believe that Lord Pothuraju is the brother-in-law of the Pandavas.  In the villages of rural Telangana, the Pothuraju's are invited for all major festivals, but unfortunately, they get paid in only liquor. In Hyderabad and Secunderabad, the community has progressed, and people are engaged in other gainful professions and hold good positions. They transform to Pothuraju only during the festival of Bonalu. Of late, others outside the lineage also become Pothuraju's during Bonalu. In Maharashtra, they are a fast vanishing Tribe, and they worship Goddess Kadak Lakshmi. As late as 2012, the Potraj community in Pune lived in dire conditions, in temporary homes near sewage canals, without schooling for their children. An initiative by Dr. Sathe and Sane Guruji Primary School ensured that the first batch of 12 students went to school. Even today, the community believes in the goddess they worship, and there are reports that they have refused to take the Covid Vaccination because their goddess has asked them not to. – Source Indian Express, Pune, April 29, 2021.  Bonalu The festival of Bonalu is held annually in the month of Ashad (June-July) in Telangana, dedicated to Goddess Mahakali. The festival originated in the 18th century when a plague broke out in 1813. Just before this, a military battalion from Hyderabad was deployed to Ujjain. When they learned about the epidemic in the twin cities, they prayed to the Goddess Mahakali in the Ujjain. It is believed that the goddess destroyed the disease. An idol of the goddess was installed in Hyderabad after the battalion returned. The festival has been held since then. Some others believe that there was a flood and an outbreak of cholera in 1908. When people prayed to the Goddess Mahankali, she thwarted the surge and controlled the disease.  The festivities of Bonalu begin at Golconda Fort and are held on four Sundays in various parts of the city. The head Pothuraju of the Lal Darwaza Simhavahini Mahankali temple leads the festivities by dancing in front of the women carrying the Bonam – pots having the offering of rice, milk, and jaggery. The chief Pothuraju belongs to the Posini family, who have held this position since 1908.  Jogin.  The Jogin system is an age-old practice where young girls are married to the local village deity as a part of a religious belief. People believe that the ritual will please the gods, who will, in turn, improve their lives. The Jogins cater to the sexual needs of the temple priests, village headmen, and later all men in the village. They do not have the option to refuse.  Though banned in 1988 by the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh Government, the system exists along the Telangana–Karnataka border even today.  Image credit: ArtStation   Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!