He told me his head was once bitten by a camel. Not bitten off, but bitten into. He even showed me the spot, which was actually a scar hiding under a film of gruffly hair. He said he and his siter had been taken captives by the Pakistani army, at the Rajasthan border, and imprisoned for about two months. The first few weeks, there was no food. And it would get nauseatingly hot. So hot, that the tar would melt from the road and ooze on to the sides.
He had scraped some of the tar and eaten it. Which made his stomach swell. It was so bad, he said he'd rather watch his sister die than give her some of that road pulp.
They asked him several questions, but he had no clue how they ended up in this place. He mumbled something about being sedated by a cattle trader. Then they started using the terror tactics.
His sister was brought in front of the camel, to be trampled underfoot, in front of his very own eyes. It was while trying to save her that the camel bit him.
I asked him what happened to the sister. He looked unperturbed, much like someone who's gone off the rocker and doesn't realise what he's lost, or what he's been through. He only knows events that brought him to the edge of sanity. Not a moment's worth of recollection more. And the camel bite was probably when he'd lost his sanity. From then on, he'd started regressing. His voice became that of a crackled teenager's. Or, according to some rumour, he'd had his bollocks removed out of spite just because his father didn't let him marry the girl he loved.
But even though he was regressing back to childhood, his features were increasingly getting older. He wore the expression of a 40-year-old man, even though he was only 29 at the time. With callouses on his palms, saltnpepper beard and scaly, bunion infested feet, he reminded me of a caricature uncle. Someone who amused kids to bits, and was naive enough to earn the trust of the ever suspicious parents.
He'd announce his arrival from hundreds of yards away. There was a peculiar way he held the side of his palm to his mouth and let out this carnivalesque horn. No one could produce that sound. It was louder than a truck siren, and longer than a train horn. It began from a low note, a rumble that'd climb till you could hear the vocal chords vibrating furiously with the soft flesh of the hand. That siren was another reason he was popular with the kids.
I can think of one more reason. He could eat any amount of chilli. And I’m not talking about heavily spiced food. He could eat, bite into and chew the hottest chilli in the world like it was a beanstring. And boasting about it almost always worked as an ice-breaker with the kids. He’d recount triumphant tales of when such and such person challenged him into eating a teaspoonful of red chilli powder. And he’d taken one teaspoon, polished it clean and then scooped another heap into his mouth, like it was milk powder.
And when you prodded him enough, he’d say there was no secret or trick to it. “I was born in a chilli”, he’d laugh maniacally. He’d then proceed to explain the obsession had caught on much early. From childhood, he’d started eating green chillis with a dash of salt. And soon it was just chillis. It never caused any awful reaction in his system. Ever.
He worked at a solar observatory. It was the only one in the country, he'd boast. And it was situated in the middle of a lake. So kids would go absolutely nuts about the journey to his office, which had to be undertaken in a boat. The observatory was a cylindrical building with a rotating dome at the top. The first time I entered it, the dome rotated a couple of degrees, at which point the pigeons nestling there took flight. That gave me a sudden jolt. And he laughed, wickedly. In fact, he found it so amusing that he came back and recounted the tale with sadistic pleasure to my mum.
"He was calm throughout the boat ride, you know, but you should have seen the look on his face when the telescope moved!!" he'd cry with a rasp, hoarse, maniacal laugh.
But there were certain things even his affected mind knew would be anathema to talk about. Like how I had almost died the day I went with him to his office in the lake. The disaster that had been averted just in time. Apparently, while getting off the boat, I'd calmly stepped into the water, thinking it was the dock. The water was some 30 feet deep there, and I fell with an unceremonious splash. He jumped in to save me. He was always saving people and getting into trouble. But thankfully though this time, the moor and the rope were right next to us. And he'd had the good sense to grab it right before jumping in. We never mentioned the incident to anyone.
I spent the afternoon sitting in the lawns of the observatory, warming my body and drying my clothes. I hated it. I'd been pretty desperate to check out the observatory, peer through the gigantic telescope and see the spots on the sun. Now I had to content myself with only soaking it up.
After taking a mighty swig from the jug full of chai, he asked me whether I could join him for buying some poultry. A chicken farm, he promised me would be exciting.
We cycled off to the farm. And he showed me how the hens were kept inside the coop, and their feed sprinkled through a mechanical device. I watched the hens roosting peacefully, totally oblivious to their suitors. We were looking for the one with the right amount of flesh. Not too swollen, “because it’d taste like a potato”, he’d say. And not too skinny either. There are 5 people eating it, remember?
A moderately sized chicken was chosen, but we had to go the main entrance to get the butcher guy who’d make her ready. Before that we went exploring the farm. There some dogs lying about in the sun, watching us but not quite. He looked at me with a wild grin and said he was going to give the dog a cup of coffee. I burst out laughing. The imagery was so funny: a guy offering a cup of coffee to a dog. I was still laughing when he picked up the stone and hit me in the head. It was so sudden, and so blinding, there was hardly any pain. I could see the events unfolding, and knew it was going to hurt. But like in a dream, I just couldn't move; I didn't even want to move, and I didn't feel the pain. I really didn't. It was fun, except that I don't remember what happened next.