An excerpt from the book, The Radiance of a Thousand Suns by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar.
They stepped out into the open. The sky was an indigo coloured dupatta with stars embroidered on it like silver mukaish. The fragrance of the night queen flower wafted in the air as the two women ambled towards the lawns, Niki gripping their arms to hop ahead, her discomfort forgotten. What a blessing to have a child’s memory! Biji had wrapped her wool shawl tightly around her and was inhaling deeply. In the distance, a horn blared.
They must have reached the rear of the theatre, near the stage, for the dying sounds of the Yakshagana reached them, an occasional jubilant cheer breaking through. A door opened onto a porch where a stray dog was curled up. A shuffle from the corner drew her attention and Nooran watched an actor step out. In the shadows, his costume
looked impressive, his headgear rising a foot into the air at least, ankle bells jangling as he strode down the porch to settle on the platform edge.
‘Bheema,’ Biji nodded.
‘Even he needs a break from his fearsome character!’ Nooran snorted. She glanced from Niki, who was gathering fallen chrysanthemums, to him, and wondered how Niki would react if she saw him now. At this distance, in repose, Bheema looked severe in his elaborate make-up of thickened eyebrows, kohl-lined eyes and bushy whiskers. The fear he engendered came from those manic gestures, the high-octane voice, the smacking sounds as he pretended
to drink blood. In his hands lay the incriminating evidence, the spool of red ribbon that he had clutched in his jaw and showcased as his enemy’s bloody entrails. As they passed him, the women nodded in acknowledgement.
‘You watched the performance?’ His voice surprised Nooran. It was a regular male voice.
‘Until you scared our child!’ Biji pointed towards Niki, who was squatting beside a flower bed.
‘Ah! I have that effect. This make-up,’ he drew a hand along his face, an elegant movement that resembled a downward spiral, ‘is the main culprit.’
Curious, the women halted.
‘How many hours does it take?’ Biji asked.
‘Four or five.’
‘Yes. Every day. Back home, all of us actors work during the day, and after an early dinner, we lie down and get our make-up done. After which, the night-long performance begins.’
Biji hadn’t known this aspect of the Yakshagana, assuming the actors were full-time professionals. ‘So, what work do you do?’
‘I am an electrician.’
Mighty Bheema, who ripped his enemies apart, repaired wires and fuses for a living.
‘You get to choose your part?’
‘I grew up watching Yakshagana. As a teenager, I started practising with the village group that performed every year. I slowly evolved into this role. I have been performing for twenty-odd years now. My height,’ he soared a hand in accompaniment, ‘makes me eligible for the role of Bheema, eh – the strongest Pandava.’
Nooran nodded as she leaned against the porch. Inside, another crescendo was rising, the celebration of another slaying by another hero. Niki ran towards them, palms full of plump white flowers. Seeing Bheema, she gasped and edged towards Biji.
He grinned. ‘But yes,’ he rolled up the ribbon neatly, ‘I scare children. My own daughter, when she was small, would refuse to come near me when I changed into Bheema. But there’s nothing to be scared of. Here!’ He took off his peacock-feathered crown and leaning forward, plonked it on Niki’s head. ‘There, you are the mighty Bheema now!’ Niki giggled, her shoulders hunching in merriment.
‘But something happens…’ Bheema said.
As the women looked puzzled, he continued, ‘…when I wear this make-up and costume. The behaviour of others around me changes. Neighbours, friends, my children even – I sense an awe in their faces. As if by playing Bheema and undergoing this transformation, I have temporarily discarded my electrician self and now, I am one to be
feared. Even the man who does my make-up treats me differently when he has finished. You see, I feel it too. My voice changes, I walk taller, I feel powerful.’
As he spoke, his voice became robust, he sat upright, his chest thrust forward, and he casually flung the ball of red ribbon outwards. For a few seconds, it trembled in the air, bloody enemy entrails again.
He glowered at the darkness, his fearsome painted facade shiny in the porch’s dim light. The transition from electrician to Bheema had been swift, compelled as it was by the fiery persona he was enacting, consumed by vengeance, propelled on the wings of an ageless myth, an epic bloody battle between brothers which, several thousand years on, was still being re-enacted in this land.
In the car ride back, the dam Biji had built to hold back her emotions burst.
She had spent five days in Trilokpuri picking her way through the aftermath of anti-Sikh riots. Yet, there was not a single surviving resident who had witnessed the massacre in their neighbourhood. They were away during that time. Hadn’t heard anything either. But the corpses rotting in their lanes? The gutters clogged with blood and ligament and hair? The smoke still being emitted from charred homes like dying gasps? No, they shook their heads – they had seen nothing. The few people that trembled forward as witnesses recanted their testimonies soon after. But they had participated in identifying the houses of Sikhs, marking them with large Xs, led mobs to their doorsteps, joined in the killing. How had neighbours morphed into murderers? No. Na. Nahin. Nothing. They knew nothing. Indeed.
Because to kill the men and women who lived next to them, they had donned a mask. A mask that changed them from feeble men to mighty killers. That was all it took to change men, to unleash the monster within – a mask.
Niki wiped Biji’s wet cheeks with her small hands and Nooran draped an arm around her back. From where he sat beside the driver, a concerned Tiny watched them in the rear-view mirror, his plan having gone woefully wrong. The car sped past the mighty oak trees of the City Beautiful.
Picture Credits: Manreet Sodhi Someshwar/ Harper Collins
Excerpted with permission from The Radiance of a Thousand Suns by Manreet Sodhi Someshwar, HarperCollins Publishers.
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