The boy was born with a tail.
After three girls, finally, a boy. The mother and her newborn received great care during the birth—care that was absent during the female births.
The nail-like protrusion of flesh, less than half an inch, right on the top of the boy's tailbone, didn’t concern the parents initially, until it started to grow. It grew to an inch within six months. On a market day, the boy’s parents went to see a doctor.
The doctor examined the protrusion thoroughly. ‘‘I’ve never seen anything like this.’’
The boy began to cry. The mother looked at the doctor. She tried to calm her son, nestling him against her chest, rocking him. The doctor asked for some more details and ended up saying, ‘‘I don’t see any harm in it. Don’t worry, just leave it as it is.’’ He was right; the boy was healthy apart from the protrusion. Because it was more than an inch by that time, you might have actually been tempted to call it a real tail.
And then a new problem arose. Neighbors began appearing.
‘‘Is it true that your boy has a tail?’’
Embarrassed, the mother tried to be evasive. ‘‘No, who said that?’’
They elbowed each other and winked. ‘‘Let us have a look.’’
Villagers not only from Durgapur but from all around began coming to the house at ridiculous times. The boy’s father, who did betel leaf farming in the lands surrounding his house, found it hard to concentrate on his job—and to turn away the visitors. ‘‘I’ve come from far away just to have a glance. You can’t say no,’’ they would say.
Some were not content to just view; they wanted to touch, to see if the boy had any feeling there. The father decided that he’d bring the boy to the visitors only in the afternoon because it was getting too difficult to handle the unexpected visits.
At school, children got on the boy’s sisters’ nerves. ‘‘Your brother is a monkey, right? How long has his tail grown now?’’
‘‘Here goes monkey-dad, blessed with a boy, after three daughters. How’s he now?’’ villagers said to the boy’s father.
The boy’s mother, a housewife, had rarely gone out since his birth. But something more was in store for the family.
Early in the morning, the boy’s grandma called her son into her room, disheveled. She looked much older and thinner, with sunken cheeks and hollow eyes.
‘‘Are you all right, Ma?’’ the father asked.
‘‘I had a dream last night,’’ she whispered, gazing up at him, wide-eyed. ‘‘Lord Hanuman has come to us. He’s born as your son.’’
The boy’s father tossed and turned all night in the old bed, woke up at dawn, and went out to his farm. Wandering around and looking at the young betel leaves in the soft morning light, he let out a satisfied sigh.
One day, a middle-aged man wearing a brown blazer appeared. His name was Joy, the owner of Rajkamal Circus which was due to be set up in the district for a month. He asked the boy’s father if he’d be interested in making some easy money.
The father frowned. ‘‘You’re telling me to use my child to make money?’’
‘‘No, take it easy,’’ Joy hastened to reassure him. ‘‘I know people gather here in the afternoon to see your son. Why don’t you show him at the circus instead? Just for two hours in the evening.’’
Joy, before heading off, handed the father five thousand taka, enough for a month’s expenses, in advance. It upset the family.
‘‘How dare you, you wretched man!’’ Grandma exclaimed to her son. ‘‘You’ll be cursed. He’s the God Hanuman, you know that.’’ She glared at him so forcefully that he felt uncomfortable. She then told him of another dream in which she had been told to erect a temple for Lord Hanuman.
The very next day the advance was returned. The boy’s father, out of a feeling of fear and guilt, soon decided on a location in the front yard of the house, and within a month the Hanuman Mandir temple—made of bamboo and straw—was completed. A modest clay statue of Lord Hanuman, sitting with his legs folded in a lotus pose, was placed there too. Although this was the first time the village idol-maker had made a statue of Lord Hanuman, rather than the usual Goddess Durga or Kali statues, his effort was commendable. Inside the temple, hogla mats were used as floor cover. Garlands were hung in the doorway. Strongly scented incense created a holy atmosphere.
People from far away began coming to Durgapur village not only to seek blessings from the boy, but also to visit the temple, claiming that this was the first Hanuman temple in the country. Visitors lined up at the temple from early afternoon. The boy, accompanied by his father, sat on a mat wearing dhooti, allowing the uncovered end of his seven-inch long tail to be touched by those seeking blessings. Visitors knelt and paid pranams, and touched the tail, hoping to be cured of their ailments or to have their secret wishes fulfilled. Before leaving, they put money in the offering box. Those who could not afford to give money would bring coconuts, bananas, papayas, pumpkins, betel leaves and nuts.
The boy was a little over three years old now. His eyes were big and dark, and the childish innocence on his soft face that was mingled with a seriousness that seemed to indicate that he understood his role in what was happening. Although sometimes he appeared not to understand—or perhaps didn’t want to. On these days he would sit for a while before the devotees, and then start yawning, his eyelids drooping, and in no time he would be asleep. And sometimes he would ask his father too many questions: Baba, why they put money in the box? Is it all mine? Baba, I don’t eat pumpkin, throw it away. Baba, why does he have no hair? Often he found things funny and would suddenly burst out laughing: Baba, look, she has only one tooth. Sometimes he was stubborn: Baba, she is so untidy, tell her to go away. Occasionally he was so wild, that he would run away from the temple and begin climbing a mango tree by the pond. It wasn’t what the devotees wanted, but they watched in awe the little boy’s natural climbing skill. Just like a Monkey god, they murmured, paying pranams at the foot of the tree. But some days the boy didn’t want to be at the temple at all. He screamed. He cried.
Soon after being blessed by the boy, a childless woman miraculously got pregnant, a young girl suffering from severe asthma was completely cured, and many stories went around about people’s health problems disappearing after coming to the temple. Because of the growing number of visitors, a neighbor opened a tiny shop on the way to the temple to sell various religious items including pamphlets and souvenir amulets. The small temple, over time, turned into a tin-roofed well-shaded one. The family began to make other home improvements, and the boy’s father bought substantial plots of farm land.
One morning in the late monsoon, the boy woke up with a backache. The next day he developed a fever. This was unusual. He had always been healthy; he had never had more than a cold. His body temperature slowly rose and he got sicker. On the fourth day, he couldn’t keep anything in his stomach, kept throwing up every time he ate. He became very weak, and looked scrawny and poorly. Home treatment continued, with traditional medicine from the local ayurvedic doctor. Devotees visiting the temple prayed for his fast recovery. But the fever remained high. And the pain in his hip, especially right on the spot of his tail, became intense. His big sharp eyes were now puffy, with no more tears left to shed. He didn’t even have the strength to whimper.
On a morning after a thunderstorm, the sky was very clear and the air was fresh. The boy had slept for the first time in a week. When he opened his eyes, he felt better and stronger than he had since falling ill. He looked around. His mother and father were still asleep on either side of the bed. His sisters were sleeping with his grandma in the next room. Rolling to face his face his mother, he felt uneasy around his hip joint. He reached around to feel his tail. His eyebrows rose in disbelief.
‘‘Ma.’’ He shook his mother’s arm.
‘‘Yes, dear’’ His mother woke instantly from her gentle slumber.
‘‘Ma, where’s my tail?’’
His mother frowned at him as if she didn’t understand the question. Then she pulled his shorts down. By this time, the father was up, too. They both gazed at the boy’s naked hip. Their eyes were wide; they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.
‘‘Where did it go?’’ cried the father.
They searched the bed and found the tail lying at the bottom, half hidden by the twisted bed sheet. Neither of them spoke. At that moment, nothing could have seemed sadder, more surprising, more shocking to them.
The grandma took to her bed, saying ‘‘God has left us.’’ Her eyes, wide open, blinked no more. ‘‘God has left us.’’ The words dribbled continuously from her mouth.
Published in Aerodrome