The arrogant summer sun exploded into a hundred pieces and Raya swayed like a wooden doll with an eroded base. Her hands gripped a human arm before she lost all consciousness. After all how much could a ten year old bear.
Drifting in and out of her consciousness, Raya vaguely heard human voices, conversing in Hindi. She was comforted, at least it was not the den of those infant devouring kuchche khao (Gobble you up raw) shouting monsters! They surely won’t speak in a known tongue, the language of her family and friends! For Raya, languages signified familiarity and that meant a zone of comfort to her mind still unexposed to the sordidness of this world. Her subconscious mind alleviated her tension, assuring that familiarity of tongue meant a certain level of association, that she was among human beings like her own self, even if strangers. So, even now, when she felt closest to peril in her pursuit of the kuchche khaos, she drew comfort from the familiar language that she could hear and immediately fell into another round of slumber brought upon by an exhausted physical and mental state.
A skinny hand caressing her forehead woke her up. As she parted her eyelids, first in a hairline gap, and then gradually wider, the greyish white wall of the room in which she was lying down at that time, with its dense cobwebs and multiple cracks revealed squalor to her child’s eyes that was till that point only acquainted with the middle class mode of existence. Slowly, she adjusted her eyes to the dim light of the room and sharpened her gaze. An old woman with numerous wrinkles, which told stories of her long and poverty stricken existence, was sitting near her head and moving her long, thin fingers along her forehead. As soon as she felt Raya stirring into consciousness, she offered her a glass of water.
Raya gulped it down her parched throat and instantly felt much better.
But her relief was short lived. No sooner did she regain her wits, she heard that frightening shrill cry of kuch-che-kha-o from somewhere nearby. She jumped out of her skin and her eyes frantically darted around looking for an escape way. The old woman, understanding Raya’s fears, put an assuring hand over her arm.
That shrill voice was the reason that Raya was there in that unfamiliar surrounding. With her head full of the fairy tales bravados, that very morning Raya had decided to confront the kuchche khaos herself and banish them forever from her life and that of her fellow playmates. These behrupiyas (the ones with many disguises), who often ventured into Ghumi and bellowed in their fiercest voice, scared the children of that little township. The kids were miserable; whenever they wanted to indulge in what the adults called mischief, but to them were important projects, the terror of kuchche khao loomed large. Their parents had told them umpteen stories of those child devouring terrible monsters who loved to catch the errant kids, stash them into their huge shoulder bags and then take them to a faraway land to eat them with salt and pepper.
Tired of living under these constant threats, effectively used by their parents to keep them disciplined, all the ten to twelve year old neighbourhood kids had decided to hold a crisis council. Raya, the most notorious one among that young group, itching to demonstrate her heroic temperament was eager for action. As luck would have it, one of the kuchche khaos was heard from a distance while that serious discussion was underway and the children saw that feared persona gradually grow from a tiny figure at a distance to a full grown monster with his full throttle, spine chilling call – kuchcheeee khaaaao!
It was a spur of the moment’s decision to follow him. Though most of those little brave hearts quaked in fear and ran to take cover in the nearest house, a group of the real dauntless ones tiptoed behind the grotesquely painted man, with a childlike curiosity and heroism. While most of Raya’s companions gave up the pursuit after some time, Raya continued all alone, as if in a trance, undeterred by the scorching sun or the fear of getting lost. Her mind focussed on her prey, she didn’t even think much of her own defencelessness, till probably after half a kilometre walk, when the behrupiya suddenly turned around and zeroed his eyes upon her. That sudden face off with the most fearsome individual of her life, coupled with her scampering under the ruthlessly hot sun, triggered a series of reactions in her – her mind fumbled, stomach churned and vision got blurred. That was the last she remembered till she felt a human hand holding her and she passed out again.
Now that she came back to her senses in an unfamiliar surrounding, that feared cry made her shiver. When the assuring arm of that wrinkled old woman allayed a part of her fear, an unbelievable sight caught Raya’s attention. Through the only window in that dilapidated room, Raya saw not only the kuchche khao but also her beloved Hanuman Ji (The Monkey God) , sharing a bidi and laughter! They were also speaking in a kind of Hindi she had often heard being used by Santi didi, their maid at home. Her little mind was perplexed. It was the first time that realisation struck her that probably they were humans too! Till now, to her and to all her friends, the children of Ghumi, that kuchche khao was nothing more than a monster while the hanuman, on the other hand was their beloved playmate. They had never bothered to think beyond their painted appearances! And yet, here she was – a witness to a unique connection, and it overwhelmed her, a mere child of ten.
But even before she could gather her scattered wits, and take complete stock of the situation, a couple of khaki clad policemen approached her, followed by her father and his friends. Her father wordlessly scooped her in his arms, holding her tight and close to himself, as if he too feared the kuchche khao gobbling his little one in one big morsel. As he carried her out of the hut, Raya saw that old woman frantically shaking her head, denying something with vehemence. She also saw that one by one the kuchche khao, the Hanuman Ji, Lord Shiva, Durga maata, gather around the constables and talk in pleading tones. She saw a kind of fear written upon the face of the one who had till then terrified her the most. Somehow, it left a deep imprint in her mind. The terror on those painted faces contrasted sharply with the smug satisfying smiles of the constables as they pocketed money, handed over to them by one of those behrupiyas.
Today, sitting in the university library, Raya suddenly got a clear insight into the incident that had happened years ago. It had somehow left a profound impression on her mind which even years of distance could not wipe out. On that unusual day as she returned from the behrupiyas’ village, she was bursting with questions, yet she dared not ask anyone; she knew that she had overstepped her boundaries by following that behrupiya and her mother was not going to be in a hurry to forgive her. The only conversation that she had had was with her anxious father relentlessly questioning her about her well being, questions that naturally came to him out of his concern for his girl child in that bad world. She did not even understand the questions properly; unaware of dangers more sinister than the kuchche khaos waiting for girls like her in the world outside. Yet she had a hope, one last resort to satisfy her curiosity. Now that she had uncovered the human persona of their most feared monster, she thought she could directly seek her answer from him. But even though days accumulated into months and eventually years, the much awaited monster behrupiya did not come to their township. Even Shiva and Hanuman did not approach them as frequently as before. Raya’s questions remained buried within her and slowly, this episode receded into some unused crevice of her mind. Soon she and her playmates also found other attractions to catch their fancy. Yet, even then, somewhere the entire episode remained, intact and latent.
Today as she sat reading about the behrupiyas, about their miserable conditions and their social exploitations through generations, as a part of her Sociology term paper on the de-notified tribes and their colonial classification as the criminal tribes, a lot of her childhood queries were answered. The fear on their faces, the pleadings and the money that had aroused her interest on that day now fitted perfectly in the picture. She felt sad – perhaps that one childish escapade by her had banished that kuchche khao forever from their township, perhaps had also robbed him of a portion of his living!