The Redemption

The Redemption

Chapter 1
Staying Alive

Ek pyaar ka nagma hai, Maujon ki ravaani hai
Zindagi aur kuch bhi nahi, Teri meri kahani hai 

The sun-scorched, emitting heat like a sizzling yolk on a frying pan. The star was seeking vengeance for having to play peek-a-boo for the last 4 months. It was getting mightier by the hour, threatening to incinerate everything in sight. It was unusually hot 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 like him, who had the 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,” the chowkidar said, after blowing his annoying whistle to break his trance.

The act came to an abrupt halt.

The man stood protesting, however, his pleas were falling on deaf ears.

I was intrigued by him and had 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. I am asking them to go back,” he replied.

“Chowkidarji, I have some work with this man. I am taking them both to my room.

 “Yeh, le lo. This is 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 pointing to my balcony. 

“I will pay you 500 rupees for your time,” I quickly 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 cool water and food, 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. His long matted hair was worn 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 8 and 10 kilograms.

After they had their fill, I tried to make some light conversation. I wanted some background information on him, his profession, and his psyche to bring out 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. This is 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 displayed on my wall and explained how live models were are used for painting.

“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,” he said.

 “Can you tell me more about yourself? Why you are 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 what we do. We are destined to 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 – one Abstract and one 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 5 minutes?” I asked. 

I wanted to wind up with him before I got back on the call with my mom.  It hardly took 2 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 was lost in deep thought. I shook him out of his reverie and paid him the promised amount. 

“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,” I said. 

“Sure,” he said, as he accepted the money and left.

My instincts told me that he was a proud man and that he 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 song 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 who was lost in her thoughts. 

“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,” he thought. 

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 shanty.  Kaka’s wife of six years was in labor. The grunts and groans from inside the hut had escalated to loud heart-wrenching screams and suddenly everything went quiet. A clear, 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 surely 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 thought.

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. This is not less than a fortune. This can be yours if you give me your silence and your cooperation. 

“This is my son and that is what you will announce 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 witnessed. 

The birth of Punnu was announced half an hour later and the family celebrated the birth of their son, their heir. Kaka was soon announced as 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 her 3 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 of her 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. Boys played with cars or with stones and mud. Girls played with dolls. Punnu was often seen playing 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 magnetic tape stuck inside it. He managed to salvage a small portion of the tape. When he inserted the tape and 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. This 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. This made Raju protective of her. Raju and Punnu soon became 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. Bewildered the duo approached the elders. A midwife was called to examine 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 sacred whip.

 “You have to pacify the goddess. You know the norms. Punnu will have to be given away as a “Jogin”. Prepare her for the ceremony. Day after tomorrow is a good day,” the elders declared.

That night  Punnu met Raju.

“Now I know why I played with dolls. He hid my gender, but I was always a girl. My choices, my mannerisms were there for all to see, but my father chose to ignore it all. He subject 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 it all, but I was too young to understand. Your father paid the midwife and bought 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.

“If you want to do something for me, help me. 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. This is worse than getting whipped,” Punnu said, crying uncontrollably.

“I will. Wait for me,” said Raju.

Raju left early the next morning. Punnu was miserable the whole day. Familiar faces appeared like 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 powered by hope and they were 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 a seat in the unreserved compartment of the Hussain Sagar Express and drifted off to sleep in dire exhaustion. It was much 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 not satiated. 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 and handed them to Punnu through the window and went back 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. He paid the vendor and rushed towards the compartment, by then the train had picked up speed. He ran as fast as he could, but the train 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 shanty. 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 route of the train, stopped at each village, performed at every street hoping to find you. 

“Punnu, You are in my heart, in my every heartbeat. I even 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.

“Punnu it has been many years. My only wish is to see you once before I die,” Raju thought.

Whack! Whack! Whack! Went his whip. This was his penance, this was 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 whipping himself, Raju had shrugged it off as an offering to his God. Lachi knew there was something more and also that it was futile to pursue, so she let it be.

Chapter 5
Peace

The next day

I researched on the “Potraj’s” last evening. There was not much information on Wikipedia, but there were a few articles that 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 when mom called. I switched to video mode and showed her the 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 pm. Raju was expected any time.

The bell rang and so did my phone. Mom offered to open the door.

She let Raju in.

“Raju! Didn’t you recognize me?

“ It’s me.  Punnu.

“ I was shocked when my son showed me your portrait. I couldn’t stop myself. I had to see you.”

“Punnu?” Raju was dumbfounded.  

“I was inconsolable after you couldn’t board the train. Remember the couple who gave us food? I told them everything. They took me along with them. They gave me love, got me educated, gave me a life. I married their son. I am very happy. Thanks to you.” 

I finished my call and headed to the door. Raju was dazed. 

“Rajuji, I see you have met my mom. Chaliye, let’s finish the pending work,” I said.

He fumbled, composed himself, then folded his hands and greeted mom.

“Namaste, Glad to meet you,” he said.

We went to my room. As I started to paint, I noted a stark difference in him.  The torment in his eyes was gone, it was replaced with peace.

My phone rang.

Ek pyaar ka nagma hai, Maujon ki ravaani hai
Zindagi aur kuch bhi nahi, Teri meri kahani hai 
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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 is found in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Gujarat, Daman, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra in India. 

In Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, it is believed that Pothuraju is 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 important festivals but unfortunately, they are 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, are also permitted to become Pothuraju’s during Bonalu.

In Maharashtra, they are a fast vanishing Tribe and they worship Goddess “Kadak Lakshmi”. Even as late as 2012, the Potraj community in Pune were living 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 got to know 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 and so an idol of the goddess was installed in Hyderabad after the battalion returned. The festival is 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 flood and the disease was controlled. 

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 carrying the offering of rice, milk, and jaggery. The head Pothuraju belongs to the Posini family who hold this position since 1908. 

Jogin
The Jogin system is an age-old practice where young girls are married off 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 is in existence along the Telangana–Karnataka border even today. 

Image credit: ArtStation
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