I asked an old woman why she was sprinkling flour over the ant colony. She startled me by replying, “To you they are ants. But to me they are all people. They are awaiting their turn to be reborn a human.” I immediately understood what she meant. In the Hindu conception of the human lifecycle, between death and rebirth, a person passes through what is called chaurasi lakh yonis (eight million, four hundred thousand different births) before being born a human again. “As a human in this lifetime, this is the least I can do for my fellow beings” the old woman added. She had touched a chord, sensitive in every Indian heart. Deep down somewhere, it is perhaps this feeling that keeps alive in India the ancient tradition of feeding animals.
Although the lowly crow has no such exalted status, it is nevertheless a very special bird in India that is fed all over the country for a variety of different reasons. But chiefly, the crow is identified with the remembrance of ancestors or shraadha – a period of time that comes each year when people recall their departed relatives and offer them food by feeding this winged scavenger. Evocative of ancestors, the crows are routinely fed in the Hindu burning grounds where the dead are taken to their funeral pyres.
A little girl who sees shadow monsters goes to her grandfather for comfort till one day he passes away and turns into a crow.
M was scared of the dark. This may not seem to be a surprising or noteworthy thing, but in fact it is. This is because he reason to be afraid was quite peculiar, unique and genuinely valid. It was the shadow monsters. They kept her up at night.
She spotted them quite unintentionally really. She had been staring mindlessly at a corner of the dining room during dinner (staring mindlessly into space was one of the earlier habits she had developed in the process of growing up and turning into an individual), when she saw something no one else in the room noticed. This was not because her eyes could see special things, but merely because the other members at the table were occupied by the television, and dinner.
[Noteworthy fact #1]
The television had been invented by the shadow monsters as a safety device. It has been studied to be effective at keeping human eyes glued to a place, preventing them from roaming unnecessarily to where the shadows were.
This particular shadow monster that was spotted that came was out to check if the safety device was working. It was, but it wasn’t foolproof. He didn’t know this because he didn’t notice that he was being noticed. He was watching the television.
‘Look, a shadow monster!’
‘Hmmm’, ‘Finish your vegetables’
There was however one person who believed her, her grandfather ‘Ajoba’. She would slip away to him when she felt disheartened, and also because she loved him very much.
[Noteworthy fact #2]
M was a happy child and was rarely gravely disheartened. She saw the world through a pair of rose tinted glasses, and even when things looked bleak, she kept her chin up.
Ajoba had a room to himself. It had blue walls and was oriented such that it got the morning sun. The most prominent thing in his room was his bed. This was partly due to its size, and partly because this was where one always found Ajoba sitting, reclining or sleeping. He stood his ground like a weathered lighthouse, sending out a strong beam of light that drew M to him like a moth to light.
Ajoba would tell M bedtime stories.
He also told her breakfast stories, stories for a rainy day with a thunder storm, hot summer afternoon power cut stories, stories that made her feel happy, stories that made her pensive and thoughtful, stories that kept her up at night, stories that she helped him finish, stories she passed on to others; he had a story for every occasion and some for no occasion at all, and M loved every one of them.
The reason Ajoba believed M when she said there was something fishy with the shadows was because there was something he too had noticed, and it was bothering him very much.
It had started a month earlier. He had woken up in the middle of the night feeling very thirsty and gone to the kitchen for a glass of water. He was not confined to the bed at this point. The moon was out, and as he stretched across the kitchen counter towards the water jug, he noticed wings. The shadow his arm formed was that of a bird’s wing. At first he thought it was the light, but it was reaffirmed the next day in all kinds of lights. The wings were unmistakably there. In his attempt to shake them off, he had slipped and fallen. This fall had required him to take complete bed rest. Soon afterwards, his shadow nose turned into a beak.
What bothered him was that he could not tell which bird his shadow was turning into. He was an avid birdwatcher and quite a famous one at that. He even had a book to his name on the birds of the Sahyadri range, Western Ghats. It was an intrinsic need for him to identify and classify birds wherever he found them.
(Birds at his window, far away birds in the sky as M flew her kite, bird feathers, feathers on hats, birds printed on clothes, birds he ate, he named them all) He had studied his shadow for a month now and it made him loose sleep. It made him haggard, led to formation of dark circles under his eyes and prompted his doctor to increase his medicine dosage. He was at the point of supplying his shadow with a new unique name (he was also a licensed taxonomist) when M walked in.
‘Can I sleep here tonight? The shadow monsters are out again.’
‘Yes, sure my sweet’
‘Did you know your shadow has turned into a crow?’
Ajoba’s face shows a mixture of emotions: intense shock and relief.
They both fall asleep with smiles on their faces.
13 Jan. It was the night before Makarsankranti. M had been practising her kite flying and gotten quite good at it. She wanted to win the kite flying competition in her colony. It had been a long and tiring day and her fingers were quite sore. She would have fallen into a deep slumber as soon as her head touched the pillow if it hadn’t been for one thing. The festivities had missed no one and the shadows were out flying kites tonight. Their kites soared high over the walls and onto the ceiling creating pretty patterns. It was all very nice but M was nervous for the next day.
‘Could you all just go away tonight, I need my rest’
It was as though someone pressed pause for a projected movie. And then, things started getting messy. Shadow monsters are quite gentle and peaceful creature when left alone, but there is something they intensely dislike, it is being ticked off by little girls. They can also be scary when they want to be, and at that moment they had become very big and scary. The air grew still and M sank back into her bed pulling her blanket around her as they increased in number and encircled her. All was not well.
The noise broke the tension. It was a crow on the window ledge. He had a shiny beak and strong claws. He swooped in scattering the shadows with his own, very human one. Ajoba had come to her rescue, but somewhere in the corner of her mind M knew something was not right. She felt sadness engulfing her tired body as she drifted off to sleep.
‘He went in his sleep’, her mother whispered to the phone, and M’s world came crashing down.
This was a bit too much even for her rose tinted glasses and they went flying out of the window. M went to the blue room and curled herself up on the bed. The room filled up with emptiness. They came as big waves, pulverising her under its force. The waves got some fish along and the room filled up like an aquarium. She stayed like that till her head got stuck in a fish, which was when she decided it was time to go look for her rose tinted glasses.
M goes looking for them to the garden. A white sheet hanging out to dry reminds her of Ajoba’s bed which always had a white sheet on it. There is a crow sitting on the line. M is down on her knees crawling through the bushes looking for the glasses.
‘Caw’ ‘A little to your left’
She puts her hand out to her left and finds the glasses, puts them on and looks at the crow.
‘If you are my grandfather, hop two steps to the right’, she demonstrates how. The crow hops to the right and says, ‘You know you could have just asked.’
They both go fly her kite.