Wednesday, May 2, 2012
By Rajesh Sharma
Gachcoo must have died. He had to. The henna on his white head, the gold rings on his great flappy ears, the paint brush moustache, the crow's feet nesting like a river's delta beside eyes old as the seas – nothing would have stood between him and the hand of death. His back had curved like an autumn leaf so that when he walked he looked like a curled dry leaf carried by an unsuspecting beetle stuck underneath. But that was years later – when, away from my eyes, the old man had aged after a long spell of agelessness that had lasted almost as long as my childhood.
How did he get that crisp-hard-crinkling nuts-and-jaggery name though he never sold gachak? No one will perhaps ever find out. He, his world, his memories all have disintegrated. What remains is like fiction, a figure drawn by a flight of birds in the late spring sky, a sheer contingency against the void. Yes, he did coo – huskily, in accents smoked with memories of other landscapes now tucked away beyond borders inked with blood in 1947. His profile suggested a falcon's, yet he was more of a cooing dove when he spoke to us children. He was the one big adult none of us feared. 'Gachcoo!' we'd shout, and his blue-grey eyes beamed. The smile hid under the paint brushes.
He was a tall pathan who had, for no reason it seemed, made the small town of Hoshiarpur in eastern Punjab his home. Perhaps he had lost his way. Perhaps he had forgotten the way back to the north west. Perhaps some association with the town tied him down. A dead wife, maybe. That he had had a wife we knew for sure: his daughter accompanied him sometimes and stood beside his rehri. She was a tall dry-haired girl with sad eyes and a silence she never broke, even when surrounded by chirping little girls and loud-mouthed nosy boys.
Gachcoo always wore salwar-kameez tailored out of a generous length of cloth with folds as numerous as wrinkles on his temples. Did we like him because he looked like a lovely toy the size of a monster with an undersized head and an indulgent gaze? Or did we like him because he was a kind of magician?
He sold choorans and chutneys and golis and imli. His real jadoo was the satranga chooran, the seven-hued sour-sweet powder which he dispensed after conducting a whole elaborate ritual. Obviously, not everybody could afford this costly pinch of a feast; only once in a while a child had the means to enjoy this luxury. But the moment an order had been placed, all mouths around the rehri would shut up and begin to water. He would take the coin, examine it closely, lift his kameez a little, and send his long arm and large hand to deposit it in some obscure interior pocket of one of his probably several vests. All other transactions put on hold, he would proceed with the great ritual like the priest of some ancient temple.
He would take out a small and square colored paper, spread it on the patrhi before him, and begin to turn open the lid of one of the many jars of churan. With a brass baby spoon he would lift a measured quantity of the first churan and slowly unload it like a miniature hill on the paper, leaving the centre vacant. Then he would reflect, mumble something to himself as if consulting another magician invisible to us, open another jar (not ever the next), pick the churan of another shade, and drop another hill around the paper's empty centre. One after another, seven hills would arise, each of a different nuance and colour. Now he would take a little round brass dabbi out of a glass-and-wood box, open it with demonstrated effort, dig out a small wet something – a kind of moisture-laden powder, a rain-flavoured stickiness – and deposit it in the central empty space.
He would, then, close his eyes, mutter a few syllables under his suddenly agitated forest of moustache, open the eyes, lift a bronze bell – his insignia – that was as large as his hand, and swing it ringing in three circles over the seven hills. Meanwhile his other hand would have been searching for the box of matchsticks. The bell back in its place, he would light a matchstick, resume the mantras, and lower the flame slowly over the moist centre amidst the seven hills.
The centre would catch fire with a little hissing explosion.
This would be the moment we'd be waiting for, the moment in which we invested our great rare coins, the moment of sacrifice in which the the yajaman and the spectators felt equally gratified.
The next moment the fire would be gone and he would be wrapping up the seven hills in an angular packet to be handed to the proud buyer, who would walk away opening the packet and licking the fallen hills and the scars of the blaze under the gaze of so many craving eyes.
One day when the school attendant forgot to ring the bell to announce recess, a boy picked up Gachcoo's bell and kept on shaking it by its pony tail of motley rags until the teachers looked at their watches and moved their heads just enough to tell the students to go.
On holidays, we saw his rehri parked near a small garbage dump in a street near our school. We did not know where exactly he lived, but he must have lived under one of the falling roofs among a cluster of houses slowly turning to ruins.
When we left school at the end of five long years, we left him too. Now we had moved on to high school. Returning to him would have meant we had not grown up. We had grown bigger than his magic, bigger than our need for it, maturer than our attachment to him. He became like his rehri, his rehri became like any other rehri – a dying flicker in a corner of memory's eye.
(From the forthcoming issue of South Asian Ensemble)