By: Maya Unnikrishnan
His face was crisscrossed with lines, deep lines that formed seams across. His shirt hung loose on his thin bony frame, He had a crop of white hair which contrasted with his skin weather beaten and darkened by years in the sun tending his sheep. You could see the swollen knuckles on his hands when he held on his stick. He wore shorts which came below his knee. He wore no slippers. His feet had overgrown toe nails which looked like they clawed out from his flesh. He must have been around 55 or 65 or 70. One couldn’t tell and he didn’t know too. You could smell the beedi on him.
Kurri Thatha, the villagers called him. He reared sheep for a living .He lived in a mud walled enclosure. It was just that , for you could see a door which had to be pulled with a wire to shut and when you open the door a few feet away you saw another opening with no door. The room was just about 4 feet. He slept on the mud floor on a torn mat. His sheep were tied to the back of the house. Kurri Thatha and his sheep lived together.
This house was much bigger years before, slowly over the years it became smaller. He cannot tell you how and when the house with two doors happened. He had a wife and two sons many years ago. His wife died and his sons left him. He lived alone.
Kurri Thatha had his beedi and his favorite actress’s picture which kept him going. Evenings and late into night he would gaze at the picture of the buxom actress and dream away puffing his beedi. He wished that he had her as his wife. He didn’t think of his wife as often as he thought about her. He liked her strength and the characters she portrayed. A woman who stands up and fight for what is rightfully hers. He liked her best when she played the police woman. When she kicked the villain, he would clap his hands in joy. He used to watch her movies on the village theatre few miles away from where he lived. He went into a stupor when she came on screen , but these days he didn’t go to the movies. They stopped screening her pictures. He was disappointed and didn’t like the new actresses at all. He preferred to stay at his home and watch her photograph and dream away.
There was a new house that was built a year ago just opposite to his. It was a proper house with parents and three children. He watched as they played in the hot sun, fighting with each other and rushing inside when their mother called to them. Some days , the lady would call him and ask him if he needed any food. He would have some coffee and sometimes lunch with rice and fish curry. He liked mutton, spicier and he told her that. She would smile and tell him that the next time it would be spicier. When the parents had to go to the market they would leave the kids with Kurri Thatha and the kids loved him. They trusted him and he became the Thaata they never met. One night he stayed over at their home and the kids woke up in the night to see the living room filled with smoke , He had left a half lit beedi on his bedding. Kurri Thatha was desperately trying to put off the fire. It was hilarious to see him looking all flustered and stomping around on the bedding.
The elder son got his cigarettes. He liked his beedis better. One time they took a picture of him smoking a cigarette with a hat on. He found it amusing when they giggled over his picture. He placed the snap near the actress picture on his wall. He took them to the cattle festivals during makar sankranthi. They were thrilled to see the oxen’s and the bullocks rush through fire. It drove the evil away he explained. One of his sheep had been bitten by a dog and he had to put it to sleep. A dog bitten sheep meat is taboo. Evil spirits were all around he explained again thinking about his dead sheep.
Kurri Thatha’s throat troubled him. It hurt him when he swallowed and the village Dr examined him and asked him to lay off his beedis. Easier said than done , he just couldn’t. He definitely needed his beedi at night , puffing away in the dark and thinking about his actress. One night he dreamt that she came to his house and he had to rush to the lady to ask for some coffee. As he rushed out he stumbled on a stone and fell down and he woke up. She was so close to him and he could see her beautiful strong eyes and quivering red lips. That dream was enough for him to forget his throat pain for the next few days.
Months passed by and his throat was swollen. He had become very thin and couldn’t eat any food. Now he was drinking Kanji water. Even that was difficult for him. He could no longer take his sheep out for grazing and so sold it in the market. With the money he bought a woolen shawl and covered himself at night when it was cold. Months later he died. They saw him on the floor covered in the shawl holding the actress picture. The villagers threw the picture away and prepared him for his funeral. For a man so poor almost 150 people had gathered outside his house and it was time to take him on his last journey.
They bathed him and covered him with fresh white clothes and put him on a wooden cot and tied his body so that it wouldn’t fall. They placed some flowers over his body and carried him through the places he had walked, passed the beedi shop, past the meat shop and towards the cremation ground. The group suddenly stopped. A jeep was in front of them carrying some elaborate equipment. They looked like an educated city folks and were carrying huge cameras. Behind the Jeep was a white car. It stopped and a lady got out. She was dressed in a white sari and though her hair was strewn and in a mess, the villagers recognized her. It was the veteran actress. She was in the village for a film shooting. One of the crew explained why they stopped the group on its way to the cremation ground. They had heard that a funeral was passing through and they wanted to know if they can get it for the shot. It would just take an hour. The villagers were dumbstruck and didn’t know what to say. Kurri did not have anyone to fight for him and they didn’t feel that half an hour would not make any difference to them. They placed the body on the ground and watched from a distance. The shooting started. As they watched, the actress rushed forward wailing and fell on Kurri Thatha’s body, hair open and her bindi smudged. She beat her chest and wailed loudly. She bent and placed her lips on his forehead and tore her mangalsuthra and flung it on his body. She cried loudly that she was all alone in this world and did not want to live without him. Takes after takes followed and by the sixth take the director was satisfied. The actress was tired and for a moment as she gathered herself and stood up, the villagers forgot that they were watching a scene. The crew thanked them and someone pressed a 500 Rs Note into one of their hands. They took the cot over their shoulders and proceeded to the cremation ground.
Back at his house, the youngest child had got hold of the actress picture and with tears in her eyes she wiped the dust off it and placed it back on the wall next to his snap with the cigarette and hat.