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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Murali

Murali lived on the edge of the forest with his Father and Mother. Murali's Father was a woodcutter; he would go into the forest every day and cut wood, which he would sell in the nearby village and earn himself a few Rupees while Murali's Mother stayed at home and spent her whole day cooking, doing housework and tending to their little vegetable garden beside the hut.

Murali sometimes accompanied his Father into the forest, but he would soon grow tired of stacking wood and then he would run off to play with his friends.

And what friends! The bear taught him how to get honey out of the busiest hive and the tiger taught him how to walk so stealthily that even a blade of grass wouldn't move under his feet. The deer raced him until he could run fast as the wind and the rabbit taught him how to find food under the ground, while the eagle himself showed Murali how to recognise one among thousands with a single look.

This was Murali's school and his club, and he was happiest when he was with his friends in the forest, running and leaping, eating and climbing, wrestling and mock fighting them.

When he was home, however, Mother made him do chores. "Get water from the well, Murali". "Sweep away the ashes of the old fire Murali dear, I have to make a fresh one for cooking". "Murali my son, get mud from the river bank to put on the walls of the hut". Murali hated doing work around the house, and kept wishing he could be with his friends forever.

One day, when he was about 12, Murali decided to leave home and stay in the forest forever. After breakfast, he ran off immediately afterwards so his Mother couldn't catch him and give him chores to do. When he didn't come home that night his parents were worried and upset. Father wanted to go into the forest and find him and maybe give him a spanking, but Mother said, "Our Murali is a big boy now, let him do as he pleases. After all, he doesn't owe us anything." Though Father wasn't convinced, Mother was patient, and slowly Father too began to agree that they didn't own Murali and he could live his life as he chose.

In the meantime, Murali was having a delightful time. The monkeys and the birds brought him fruit every morning and evening and the wild goats gave him milk to drink. He rode the river on the crocodile's back. He climbed the mountains with the eagle's help. When it was cold he would cuddle up with the tiger's cubs at night, and wrestle them in the morning. Each day was more fun than the last, and so the years passed.

One morning Murali awoke and thought, "Today is the day the hippo promised to teach me how to stay under water!" A quick breakfast of fresh fish and papaya fruit, and he was hurrying off to the river, eager to learn so he could hide under water and tickle the crocodiles tummies when they weren't expecting it (you did know that crocodile tummies are very ticklish, didn't you?) But he heard moaning as passed the bamboo thicket. When he stopped and looked, he found the tiger's mother lying inside with her son nervously pacing up and down. She had been badly injured by porcupine quills. "The wounds have become infected and there is not much hope for her now", sadly the tiger said. Murali couldn't bear her pain, and asked the tiger what he should do. "There is nothing anyone can do, my friend", the tiger replied, "We just have to be with her until the end."

Murali walked despondently back to the hollow tree which was his house in the forest. The sun which had been shining so brightly only minutes back become pale. The sky and the trees lost their colour, and going to the hippo now was inconceivable with the sound of the tiger's mother still in his ears. "Let me try and sleep and forget for a while, at least", he thought.

But sleep didn't come. Faint and muted, he could still hear tiger's mother living out her last breaths, and each moan hurt him as if someone jabbed a thorn into his side. He placed flat stones on his ears, but they fell off whenever he moved his head. Then he tied vines and creepers to keep the stones in place, and eventually he made himself stone muffs which, though uncomfortable, stayed in place and blocked his ears.

This, Murali discovered over the next few days, was one way to not get hurt.

When Murali fell, he tied soft sandstones around his legs so his knees wouldn't get bruised.

When he had to get honey from the bees he tied stones around his arms and chest so the bees couldn't sting him.

When he ate a bitter berry he blocked his mouth so he would not have to taste anything nasty.

When the eagle was caught in a storm and injured, Murali tied stones on his eyes so he wouldn't have to see his friend's distress at not being able to fly.

Blind, deaf and dumb, Murali wandered through the forest. He blundered into trees but he didn't care because it didn't hurt him. His friends tried to talk to him, but he couldn't see or hear them anymore. He climbed a hill without knowing, and since he couldn't see his way, he fell off the path into a ravine.

Murali was badly hurt in the fall. The stones tied to his mouth wouldn't let him cry out, and the only sound that he could make was a faint "Mmmmmmmmmmmmmmm".

Many miles away, in their hut, Murali's Mother was about to serve dinner to Father. The daal was hot, and she was rolling out the dough for the first roti when she stopped. "Did you hear something?" she asked Father. "No, what?" asked Father, who was hungry and wanted to eat.

"It sounds like Murali", said Mother.

Father too strained his ears, but he couldn't hear anything. "Must be the wind, it's getting stormy.", he said.

"I clearly heard my son calling." Mother insisted.

"Arrey bhai, he has been gone so many years, how can you hear him calling now? If he were that near, wouldn't he come to us?"

"I don't know, but my son is calling me." With that, Mother left the daal to cool and the roti dough unrolled, and ran out of the house.

As she headed where she thought the sound came from, she met the tiger. "Have you seen my Murali?", she asked, but the tiger had not seen his friend in days. Nor had the crocodile, when she met him at the stream, nor the monkey who offered her bananas as she was passing. But her hearing was sharp and her love for Murali guided her to where her son lay, armoured with stones, hurt and bleeding.

Even though Mother couldn't see his face, she knew Murali at once. She sat down on the ground and gently put his head on her lap and then, for the first time since he had left home, she cried for him. "My cherished one, what have you done to yourself?" she said as her tears dropped down her face and onto her child.

And with each tear, a stone melted away and a hurt healed.

--
New Delhi
March 2010

Thanks to Ravi Dewan for insightful critique and editing.

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