On my way back from school, I had to pass a certain house in which a madman lived. You heard me right-a madman, with bulging eyes, a crooked nose and mouth which always seemed to be gaping and salivating. The tall wretched figure would stand at the gate of his house with his puffed club-like arms resting on one of the posts with his eyes staring vacantly at the road,sometime in the afternoon which coincided with my returning home. I prayed fervently not to cross paths with him. But everyday our eyes met inadvertently and he would break into laughing fits when he saw me. This made me even more uncomfortable. Perhaps it was the look of fear on my face that was so pleasing to him.
The madman and his family had moved into this house a few weeks ago and ever since then I started having nightmares. I couldn’t sleep and would often wet my bed. You can adjudge me as a wuss but I was eight years old at that time although wetting your bed at eight does make you kind of a wuss. The thought of the madman haunted me every day. It was like a nail dug deep in my skin which I didn’t have the courage to pull out. The madman came in my dreams luring me with a chocolate, or threatening me and when I went near him he would pick me up on his shoulders and take me to his house where it was always dark and would shut the door behind him. I don’t know what happened after that because I would often wake up. Always in the middle of the night crying and screaming in fright. I had the same dream over and over again.
I told my mother about the madman and when her rousing talk about me being a big boy didn’t work, she instructed Gita, our househelp to start bringing me back from school. I wasn’t the brave man I thought I was. But I could live with that as long as I didn’t have to deal with the madman alone.
But frankly I noticed that the madman had lost interest in me. His interest had shifted to his baby nephew, who had been born sometime after they came to this new house. The woman who was his brother’s wife, would cradle the baby in her arms sometimes standing in the small garden outside their house and the madman would stand near her watching the baby with warmth in his eyes. But he was always a few feet away and was never allowed to touch or cradle the baby. On other days, the madman would crouch near the baby’s crib in the garden and just watch the sleeping baby for hours on end. The baby didn’t seem to mind him. This minute gesture seemed to move him to tears and I felt that being an uncle had made him lose his madness and become a normal person like everyone else.
One day Gita had picked me from school and we were going back home on a rickshaw. When we passed the home of the dreaded madman. We saw him sitting on a chair gently cradling the baby’s crib. I had never seen the madman so mollified and calm.
‘Oi Bamma. Oi Bamma.Don’t make the baby cry’ Gita cried out all of a sudden in excitement and kept on repeating the taunting words. A chill ran down my spine. I gripped her hand tightly, motioning her not to do that. She told me to relax. She did it all the time and the madman didn’t dare to raise a finger at her. After all she worked in their house and the lady of the house, the madman’s sister- in-law had given him a strict warning not to bother her.
I think she must have dreamt it all up. Because the next thing I knew Bamma dashed towards us with a murderous rage in his eyes. ‘Wait you pig! Wait! I will eat you alive’ he screamed at the top of his voice. The baby had woken up and was crying loudly. Bamma leaped over the gate and began chasing our rickshaw. I started pushing the rickshawpuller’s shoulders to make him paddle quickly. I was so scared that I couldn’t utter a single word. My throat seemed to have shut itself due to fear, arresting within it the words that wanted to come out.
Bamma caught up to us eventually. Bare bodied and carrying a large stone that he had picked up on the road, he clambered up the short step of the rickshaw and sat beside us pushing us to one side. Finally I felt what it was like to see those red, bulging eyes up close and the gaping mouth which smelled abysmally of what I felt was rotting flesh. My fear of him seemed to have multiplied a thousand times at that moment.
He pulled on the waterbottle around my neck so hard that it seared my skin. Gita had started a hue and cry. But he didn’t even glance at her once. He seemed only interested in me. ‘Now you see me. You little pig! I will eat you up’ he said in a low drooling voice.
I was paralysed with fear and could not feel anything. He started grabbing my shirt and then my arms trying to throw me out of the rickshaw. But Gita held on to me. I was middle of a tug of a war fight and I felt defenseless. Sweat beads started pouring from the sides of my face and my heart started pounding so fast that I started feeling dizzy. All other worldly sounds seemed to have been blocked and my eardrums vibrated with the sound of my own heartbeat. My breathing became difficult and I started gasping for breath. That was the first of many panic attacks that I was to suffer during the course of my life.
The rickshaw stopped and people started coming out of their homes. ‘Madman! Madman!’ Gita was crying desperately, ‘Someone please help!’
Something came over Bamma. The ragged lines of his face twisted with a kind of unnatural fear. ‘They-They will get me now!’ He said and turned to me. ‘Stop them Deepak da. Don’t let them take me away. I was just playing’ his steely gaze turned soft, almost pitiful. He folded his hands and began shaking violently. Tears welled up in his eyes. But all of a sudden the cloud over his face subsided and he became calm, looking around him with alert, fearful eyes. He tried to get down from the rickshaw but the rickshaw puller had clutched his hand in the hopes of restraining him but Bamma yanked back his arm forcefully and ran back to his house as fast as he could. People had started coming out of their homes into the street with sticks and brooms. Bamma’s sister-in-law was standing at the gate with the baby in her arms. She had an agitated look on her face. Bamma ran past his frightened sister in law, colliding with the steel gate which was half ajar and went into the house, closing the door behind him. His sister in law, startled by the whole episode which transpired in front of her eyes, tried to calm the mob down which had reached the gates demanding that Bamma be brought out. She had a hard time handling the bloodthirsty mob on one hand and her crying baby on the other.
‘This is too much now!’ someone said, ‘Something has to be done. The other day he did the same to my son’ someone said ‘Call the police! Let’s settle this now!’ someone else said. ‘No let’s talk to his brother Deepak first and give him an ultimatum. We have suffered enough. Either the lunatic leaves or we will evict the entire family.’ The presence of Bamma’s sister-in-law didn’t matter much to them.
‘Yes let Deepak come. We will talk then’ Everyone nodded in agreement. ‘Sarita,you tell your husband there will be a meeting tonight at my house, okay. You let him know what we discussed here. Is that clear?’ One of the men in the crowd said looking at Bamma’s sister-in-law . He seemed to me the front man of such eviction drives in the neighbourhood. Sarita nodded demurely and went back to her house, closing the gate behind her. The small crowd dispersed on a positive note.
I sat there on the rickshaw petrified. I felt as if my nerves had turned to stone. I didn’t fully understand what exactly happened. But all I knew was that I had to go to the bathroom quickly. I could feel Gita’s hand on forehead. Her touch felt very cold.
‘Babu mustn’t be frightened’ the rickshaw-puller said. He was an elderly muslim man with a long flowing beard. “Babu is a brave boy. No need to be frightened.’
‘Take me… home soon…’ I said in a low voice, ‘ I..Toilet..’ my face tightened into a grimace.
The rickshawpuller must have driven the rickshaw at the speed of light because we reached home in a very short time after that.
There was nothing to fear anymore. The madman, his brother Deepak, Deepak’s wife and son left the house two days later. The neighbours gave Deepak an ultimatum, either to get rid of the lunatic or they would call the police. I heard from Gita the next day, that the neighbours heard painful screams from the house that night, sounds of ferocious beatings, intense scolding, frantic pleadings which went on the entire night. Two days later the madman was seen lifting bags onto the back of a small truck. He was mild as a dove. People who noticed him said that his brother’s beating had straightened him out. His face was red and swollen as a tomato. It seems that the Deepak opted to leave the neighbourhood rather than let go of his brother. I came to realize what a noble thing it was many years later.
But still every time I passed by the house, I would feel an uncomfortable murmur in my heart. Every muscle in my body would become stiff and I would walk very cautiously, keeping an eye out towards the gate of the house. I feared that the madman would appear out of nowhere and start chasing me down the street. I knew it was nonsense but I was still eight years old then.
I could never overcome the fear that possessed the eight year old me even after twenty-eight years. Nor could I ever forget what happened that day. I think the madman will stay in my memory till the day I die but perhaps not as a monster but as a helpless, tormented man who anyone (you and I included) could turn into, if we don’t value our sanity.