I opened up the flask I was carrying and poured myself the last cup of coffee. My morning ritual was nearing its end. The newspaper & the flask were almost empty now. I often imagined sucking the words off the newsprint and gulping the daily sports, stocks and political affairs down with my morning beverage. I finished off my coffee and newspaper and got up from the park bench. My arthritis knees reminded me of my age again as I shuffled my weight and picked up my things to head home.
I had just walked a few steps when I heard a young mother call out to her child “Don’t go near the fence, gatekeeper uncle shall put you in a bag and take away.” I did not bother to look back to see the faces. It was just too much of an effort and anyways such threats from protective mothers hardly work on children these days.
You want to be extra careful with your kids in this modern day world where they can be soft targets and easy victims. Sometimes picked for easy ransoms and at other more unfortunate times for satiating the dark urges of pervert predators, the children today needed more elaborate instructions than not to talk to or take goodies from strangers.
As I turned round the corner, I saw an ATM machine behind a glass wall with a starch shirt guard at the door. This was where a huge neem tree once stood. My thoughts went back to the times when the life was less complicated and I was a child. The whole place had changed beyond recognition. Who would have thought that now where the market was abuzz with people from all walks of life and where bright and resplendent showrooms glittered with mannequins and imported fashion brands, there once stood only a dusty road and few grocery shops around it on either side.
The Neem tree which was cut couple of years ago had stood its ground for many a decades before it gave way to the glass cage serving the any time money needs of people who no longer recognized each other.
The tree was home to many a birds and probably the only spot of shade on the way from where it observed people go on about their businesses, for many years. And yes, there was the old hunchback who could be found resting under the shade of the same neem tree during most parts of the year. Feared by young children of the locality, he largely figured as a scourge in the stories which mothers told their young ones to settle them in silence and made them have their porridge without protest.
How the memory of the old crookback filtered through the realms of time six decades thick amazed me. I could faintly remember his wrinkled face and dirty attire but the recollection of his huge burly hands with nails almost half an inch long came in with much more clarity.
I was probably 7, maybe 8 then and we lived in the same small town where people once generally knew each other. The population could have been loosely grouped as the service class who travelled on the morning train and came by the 8 ‘o’ clock mail and the shopkeepers and small business owners who opened up early and closed as the sun went down. The women folk were generally home makers. Those were simpler times. There were hardly any engines on roads. In fact there were hardly any roads and children, when they were not on roof of their homes flying kites, could be found running about and rolling gleefully in dirt outside. The only form of entertainment that was granted were the same stories which a mother or a granny narrated over and over again, as they broke pieces of bread and stuffed your mouth. The plain rotis and dal became spicy with the stories of the hunchback “Neem baba”.
Nobody really knew where the Neem Baba had come from and what he did and how he survived. He had probably wandered off from some neighboring town or village and the shade of the neem tree interested him enough that he settled under it and hence the name. His belongings included a large dirty jute bag, a tin mug and an aluminum plate with round edges. It was again a matter of speculation as what he carried in that bag. We, as children, were told that it contained boys who have been disobedient and they believed it without raising a question.
Grandmothers in particular were fond of adding an extra dash of pepper to the tales of Neem Baba and kept children on their toes to fetch them their glasses and needles and little nick knacks that were required from the kitchen or the store, for if they disobeyed the Neem Baba would lift them with their cots at night and take them away. Neem Baba would also often play the evil magician in the Aladdin tale or the huge giant who takes the princess away or simply the hideous baba who would sneak in and steal all the toys.
Almost every child my age had seen the neem baba with his unkempt beard and long hair and his flowing garb, sitting under the neem tree often looking skywards and talking to himself. Little could be done to avoid him as the neem tree was on route to the main market and one had to cross the main market to reach either of the two available schools.
We, as children, usually walked to the school in small groups of 3 or 4 and spun our own little yarns about the monstrous activities of the Neem Baba on way. Often he would grow fangs and develop bat wings and fly all over the sky to the cremation grounds and devour on little kids who had been naughty. Often someone would vouch for the authenticity of the story and swear on his mother for knowing so. At other times, someone would bet all his marbles and even the mango in the lunch box and claim to have seen Neem Baba kidnap one of the kids from the school. The group would hush to a silence the moment they saw Neem Baba sitting under the tree. He usually could be found lying on his jute bag under the tree in the mornings when we went for the school and could be seen gnawing at an odd piece of bread or a fruit when we passed him in the afternoon on our way back. Each trip was punctuated and made special with a new story or anecdote about the Neem Baba.
It was one of the summer afternoons, a day before the summer vacations began, and school closed. I was probably the last one to leave the school premises. The geography teacher had some sort of strange affinity towards me and had an even stranger way to display his affections. He would catch me by my scruff and make me sit down on the floor the whole hour that his period lasted and then make me carry his bag or notebooks to the staff room at the farthest end of the ground on the slightest of pretexts.
It was no different that particular day. I was packing my school bag to leave for the day as the bell rang and when my empty lunch box fell to the ground. The little noise which the steel case made as it hit the cement floor was enough for the teacher to look up from his book, perk his glasses on his pointed nose and order me to stand on the bench. In fact he threatened to leave me there for the entire 6 weeks of vacation that was to follow until I actually made a sorry face and asked him to spare me. He realized it was his opportunity to make an example out of me. He allowed the other students to move out of the classroom one by one and let me wait there and be tormented. What followed was the usual round of giving explanations and apologizing from my side and his asking me to carry his bag to the staff room.
By the time, he let me off, the school was almost empty, and I had little choice but to walk home alone. Not that I was afraid to do so or there was some danger lurking round the corner (those were safer times), going alone just meant not being a part of the daily round of children gossip and of course missing out on sharing the tamarind candy which one of the boys carried in his pocket. Having no friend by my side for a company, I picked up a fallen twig from the ground and waved it around like a sword and proceeded to walk home.
As I approached the market, my eyes fell on the Neem tree. The Neem Baba was nowhere to be seen. I looked around and heaved a sigh of relief. The road was almost empty. It was a sleepy hot afternoon and there was a lazy lull in the air. Probably the Neem Baba was away somewhere dozing off after a heavy lunch of roasted limbs of naughty children, I chuckled to myself. I waved the twig again as if slicing a monster in little chunks. I imagined fencing with Neem Baba and making him fall to his knees and seek my forgiveness.
It was I guess one of those fancy moves which I made with my ‘sword’ that it escaped my hands and floated high up in the air, before coming down on the head of a street dog resting in a muddy puddle on one corner of the road.
Now, there were only two things which scared the hell out of me then. It was either the thrashing which our English teacher gave us on incomplete home work or the perils of a dog bite. I am sure that the twig hit the ego of the dog more than it brought him any physical harm. Probably he saw it unreasonable that he be disturbed at such a lazy afternoon from his sleep and took severe offence to the injustice meted out to him by a mortal being not much taller than itself. No matter what his reasons were, the ferocious ‘son of a bitch’ fathomed to avenge himself at the loathing he supposedly thought I gave him, that he got up, took one good measure of my size and launched himself at me.
I froze to the ground. Had the canine form of life been imparted the power of the speech by the divine lord, I would have probably tried to explain him that it was an accident and that I meant no harm and that I was a good student and that I learnt my lessons well and that I truly believed in non-violence as Gandhi ji had preached and that I was sorry and that….
All I could do was to holler in fright at the top of my voice and took off with my eyes shut. I must have run a hundred miles before I bumped into something and fell on my backside right on the road. It hurt and I opened my eyes. It was just not my day. I was running away from the devil on four feet and had bumped right into the monster on two feet. The horrendous Neem Baba faced me.
The dog, who was so bent on chasing me till I fell off the planet now just stood a little behind me. Still growling a bit, he probably was assessing the situation himself. To me, it seemed like one big well thought plan, the dog was an aide of Neem Baba who snooped and spied on boys coming alone and chased them right to the big jute bag of Neem Baba.
My school bag lay open on one side and I was still ‘sitting’ on the road. This was probably the closest view that any of my friends ever had of Neem Baba. He was not as strong as we thought he was, his face was wrinkled and his eyes were grey and not red. His nails were just a little longer than mine and he definitely did not have claws. He was barefoot and dirty and his attire was shabby but I did not see any blood stains on it.
My mind turned blank and I was still wondering what to do. I was probably contemplating playing dead. I had heard in one of the stories told by my grandmother about two hunters who got lost in the forest and who were attacked by a bear. While one of them climbed a tree and saved himself, the other just held his breath and acted like he was dead. The bear came around sniffed him and went away. I was not sure if the same idea would work either on the dog or the Neem Baba.
The dog growled again and I gave another shrill cry. I have little idea of the next few seconds and can recollect them as only vaguely disconnected flashes. The dog leapt towards me, Neem Baba picked up a stone and aimed at the animal, I rolled over on the road to get aside, out of the way and shouted again, a shopkeeper from across the road charged with a stick in his hand, the dog finally running away and I losing track of everything happening around me.
The next thing I remember is the shop keeper picking me up and the school bag and comforting me and handing me a glass of water and me composing myself before taking off hurriedly towards my home.
As I walked by I saw Neem Baba sitting at his usual spot nonchalantly and resuming his conversation with himself. I slowed down just a bit, no longer alarmed, or scared by his presence. I looked at him and our eyes met for a brief moment. He looked at me and stopped talking to himself. I don’t know if I imagined it or if it was for real but I could see a little shine in his eyes. I smiled at him almost as if to acknowledge his presence and to thank him, and I still believe I could see a little movement at the corner of his mouth and saw him smiling back.
The school closed the following day and I left for my maternal uncle’s home for vacation in two days and did not return until the evening before the school was to re-open after the break.
I met my group the next morning on way to school. As we approached the abode of Neem Baba, I looked around for him. He was not there. The space under the tree lay vacant. Even the signs of his presence were no where to be seen. The jute bag was gone and so were the little tin mug and everything else.
“Where is Neem Baba, today?” I enquired one of the boys.
“Don’t you know? He died last to last week. It was very hot that day. My uncle who runs a cloth shop at the end of the market says he probably died of a stroke. A van came from the municipality and they took him and buried him somewhere.” Rajan, my friend from school, continued to add after a brief pause. “The crazy lunatic Neem Baba is gone. Good riddance!!”
I did not know what to say. For some inexplicable reason I wanted to stand in defense of Neem Baba and tell Rajan that Neem Baba was not crazy and that he was not the monster that we all thought. I did not say anything though. As I crossed the Neem tree, I looked back at Neem Baba’s seat and raised my hand just a little, waved a little good bye and walked in silence.
Today, 60 years later, I crossed the same spot and was reminded of that little incident for no reason at all. I looked at the ATM machine that stood in place of the Neem tree again. Maybe to give life some conclusion I again raised my hand a little and waved Neem Baba another good bye.