Bhobai tells a story
By Nitoo Das
Prologue: It is best not to look at the crow now. With its five-fingered blast of wing, it can summon you into the geometric trickery of trident, cross, and circle. And then, there is no escape. It is best not to look at the crow because this story is not about it. This story is about a man and it took place some time ago. Do not ask me when because I will be unable to answer truthfully. Let me clarify further. This story is about me and in those days, I was a man. Not too tall, dark-limbed, wiry. A man who was called Bhobai by everyone who knew him. Some people say my name was Bhobendro, but I do not remember anybody ever calling me by that name. So, Bhobai I was, all through my life.
From the time I was a child, I was taught the craft of my parents. They painted gods, birds, suns, trees heavy with fruit, colourful brides and much more on mud-wet walls. When I was around eleven, my father started drawing on cloth, but we were poor and did not have cloth to spare. My mother drew only on walls and always thought father’s desire to draw on cloth was a strange modern corruption. My uncles and neighbours laughed at him. But father was stubborn in a way only artists can be and he sat sullen and sorrowful whenever he was confronted with a wall that needed painting. He stared at the blank, brown space for hours together and finally, after much contemplation, he would scratch the lampblack with his neem-stalk brush and draw a crow. Always one solitary crow. Sometimes flying, sometimes on an austere branch, sometimes just staring out at nothing.
Father grew increasingly aloof. Whenever he found a piece of cloth, his imagination pounced on it. But still, he drew only crows. More crows. Crows that were fluttering scratches on the rags he found. All his colours – pollen, turmeric, sap of leaves, indigo, palash flowers – crowded around them. Colours for the trees, margins, skies, in-between spaces. Everything else was soot, cowdung, charcoal and lampblack for his crows. Thousands and thousands of them. Sometimes, he drew them with great care. Perfect lines, round eyes, clear claws. At other times, he drew them like they were sounds: cawcawcaw of black. People grew wary of him. He did not get too many jobs. The burden of drawing for the whole family fell on mother and we grew poorer.
One day, some months before he died, father called me to him and told me a story:
Bhobai, when I was your age, I heard a voice crying out to me. It was a full moon night and I could see the fields around me. I walked towards the voice shouting, “Who are you? What do you want?” There was no response, just a wild moaning and wailing. After a while, I started shivering in fear, but I kept walking. My clothes were wet with my sweat and my feet felt each pebble on the road. I saw a goat approach from the left. After a while, I realised it was not a goat, but a big, white bird and it carried a crow in its beak. The crow was dying and it had tears in its eyes. I reached out to touch it, but at that very moment, the white bird flapped its wings and disappeared into the night.
After telling me this story, father went back to his habitual silence and I went to the forest to brood. It was not easy having a father like him. I was almost relieved when he was found dead by the water hyacinth pond. But this story is about me and I should get back to it. I wanted to draw on cloth like my father. It was easier for me. The new cotton mill in our village threw away a lot of cloth and I went there every week to pick up the ones I wanted. My mother sometimes looked at me with worried eyes. Perhaps she feared I would turn out like my father. I did not talk to her much; I did not explain things to her. I was certain this was the way to be… the new way to draw. I did not have to rush against time. Paintpaintpaint without thought while the walls dried fast and furious.
When I turned twenty-five, crows began to interest me. I remember the day well. Sharma Master had asked me to come and paint his son’s nuptial room. I was given tea in the cup kept aside for people like us. The whole day I painted the usual: mating snakes, cooing doves, butterflies on scarlet hibiscus, young couples garlanding each other. And just before I ended, just as the day drew to a close, a few crows. Sharma Master flew into a rage when he saw them and shouted at me, “You’re as mad as your father. Erase the crows, you lowborn bastard!”
I walked home. Inside me, I felt the need to draw more crows. I knew I could not do it in my mother’s presence and went off to the forest whenever I heard the crowbite in my fingers. It was a longing I could not control. In fact, I did not want to. Approximately a year later, I saw the first changes in me and soon, Bhobai, the man turned into Bhobai, the crow. I embraced the change with blue-black wings. My mother never found out. She always had rather poor eyesight. All those years of poring over colours, fussing over brushes had done that to her. I sometimes cawed when she was near me to see if she noticed. She never did.
I went wherever I wanted to. I looked at people’s eyes and knew their secrets. I sang songs with the fishermen. I bathed in the sacred river and flew away from their temples before they could throw stones at me.
Nitoo Das is a birder, caricaturist, and poet. She teaches English at Indraprastha College for Women, University of Delhi. Her first collection of poetry, Boki, was published in 2008.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.