Camphor

Ram was a genius. In fifth grade, when math was only arithmetic, he used to figure out weird ways of doing math. He could just tell the answers without doing any calculations. Sometimes he even didn’t know the calculations. He said it saved his ink, prepared from berries, leaves, lampblack, and I doubted some kind of blood. It always spilled out on his front shirt pocket drawing maps on his white shirt and black skin. He was black, not dark or blackish, black as black in skin color is defined. He was even called Kalia, with meant Blackman. But that’s because there were other Rams. There were other Kalias too, who were equally black, or relatively darker than their other siblings and who had someone else staking claim on their names. Of course, this embarrassed and angered them. Sometimes mothers fought vehemently against such names. Despite their best efforts, the names stuck. Mainly because all mothers could do was tire themselves out with a tirade of invectives. But Kalia was still a good name, better than pressed-nosed, ugly, frog-eater etc. In eastern Orissa, Kalia was the name of Lord Jagannath of Puri temple. And in the west, that was Ram’s chief argument. “I am Lord Jagannath. You guys are mere humans. The way I see it, you are like the worms crawling beneath my feet”. The umbrage we felt was worse. So Ram would win, surviving from our combined attack, sometime bruised even, he would smile. He always smiled. He smiled so much, people thought he was stupid. But that reasoning didn’t calm some who felt offended. It was strange, the same smile which was so familiar and funny to friends could be weird and offensive to others. For example, the English teacher rebuked him, “it is the nature you people”. We felt that was an unfair casteist abuse, and planned to beat him up. He had a problem with language though. He stammered. Although living at least a couple of months in summer with his parents in Bilaspur familiarized him with Hindi and schooling back in the village under grandparents’ care gave him unrestricted freedom to watch Hindi movies of all certification, he never got the story. Instead, he would meticulously recount the fight sequences complete with simulated sound. When we fought, within ourselves, using the same knowledge that Ram imparted, it was not the fight rather the after-fight-debate that settled the scores. Just like chess. Ram played chess very well. In the cool shades of papaya and moringa trees in his gradmother’s garden, or in the abandoned Rice mills in scorching sun, we played. But an objective zerosum game like chess was open to interpretation very lifelike. “It doesn’t matter if you won, who had the best run”, he would ask folding up the board. For his poor attention to language, he had awesome handwriting, in both English and Oriya. He also had learnt to put his signature like adults. Fifth grade girls valued handwriting a lot, as if, that was a clue to your academic brilliance, your carefulness, your success. As if, that would make you a good father. But Ram never thought about that. He already had a girlfriend. Well, almost.

One night he called.

Hey, I am getting married – he said, but he didn’t invite – you remember fifth grade, we climbed up their wall and I showed her to you. She was bathing near their pucca well just right then, so I pushed you off the wall?

Yes, I remembered that. In a fit of anger, I had told him, he liked her only because she was the only fair skinned girl around his house.

If I wanted a fair girl, I could have married one – he reminded me again – but I wanted her. All these years, I only wanted her. No, remember this! You get what you really want. Your heart is immune to your lies.

He hung up.

“Ram got married,” I told Vishu couple of years later.

“Which Ram?” he asked. Vishu was wearing a lungi which was folded just above his knees. The pod-like four inch cut mark below his knee was from a fight he and Ram had years before. Not a real fight, a simulation of one from the movies Ram watched. He hid it from his parents wearing the only pair of full pants for a month. A towel tied his lungi and his overflowing shirt together. His shirt was open at the chest, just like school days, but not for style anymore. He didn’t remember Kalia. Was it such a generic name?

“I don’t know anyone. I didn’t get invited. Big men, you guys are now. Yash came, years after to village. Didn’t drop by. And you? Am I a memory warehouse?”

“He married Sagri,” I probed, “How come you don’t know? You had a crush on her too. Don’t you remember how afraid you were of her brother?”

Vishu lifted the axe languidly, very unlike a farmer. Later I would know, he wasn’t really a farmer, he worked for some one else since fifth grade. I would be told that after dropping out, he herded cattle. That, by the time we were in high school, he had graduated to bigger things. Now, he could do anything. But anything he was ordered.

“It’s been a couple of years,” his eyes squeezed. “You know what a criminal his brother was. He eloped with a married woman ten years older than him. That too, one of them.” He had his axe pointed east, towards the influential caste of the village, where he was going to find work.

“One Sunday after that, some of her students found her floating in the pond. Her black-marble body battered and bruised all over.”

On his shoulder, his axe hung. His comrade’s arm. Its sharp edge shined uselessly in the morning sun. Arms from my shoulder drooped like prop roots from a dead banyan tree.

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