Book Excerpts

Ruhi, the Hermit and the Serpent: I told you not to harm them. But I never told you not to hiss at them.

The Kitty Party Sanyasins, by Ananya Banerjee

Kitty Party SanyasinsThe schedule had been relentless. She’d made four trips to London in five weeks. Reason: the hearing for the Intellectual Property Rights for a reality show that a regional channel had produced without bothering about the copyright. Unfortunately, the channel had been in the bouquet of TV programmes offered by one of the many hotels in the city. A visiting delegate had seen it and reported it to the original copyright holders by whom he was employed. Many acrimonious meetings and court notices later, the parties concerned had thankfully agreed to an out-of-court settlement. The papers had been signed and Ruhi had felt a pang of sympathy for the unfortunate Indian channel, which would have to fork out a huge amount in fines and copyright fees. Some times life just wasn’t fair. The money would make a very slight difference to the MNC but would probably break the back of the Indian channel. Well, they should have known better than to take a risk like that, she thought, what with the Indian market really opening up globally. What made it more difficult was that the major shareholders in the channel, Rajiv Kumar and his wife Nithi, were her friends. They met almost invariably at the parties that Shahid and she attended. Since she had taken up the case, she had noticed a marked coldness in the Kumars. She hoped they would realize sooner rather than later that professional priorities shouldn’t spill over into personal life. And if they didn’t see it that way, well, too bad! The absence of the Kumars would hardly cause an irreplaceable void in her life.

She wanted to discuss this in their party today.

Ruhi was wandering around the patio, deep in thought, when a hostile voice brought her up short.

‘Ammi!’

She turned around with a start. Her daughter Shamim came around the corner of the house, looking very pretty in elegant white trousers and a pink top. Ruhi ignored the deep plunge of the neckline and the ultra thin straps that held up the top. She had lost many a battle with Shamim over her dressing sense. Shahid always sided with Shamim and since Shamim hadn’t really worn anything completely obnoxious—well, different times, different styles.

‘Yes?’ she asked.

‘Have you taken the Kumars to the drycleaners?’

‘What?’ Ruhi asked in surprise.

‘Oh come on, Ammi, I’m talking about the case that you’ve

been so busy with for the last two months, flitting in and out of London. Was the case against the Kumars’ K Channel? And did you help those foreigners win?’

‘Well, if you put it that way, I suppose I did,’ Ruhi replied. ‘But the Kumars had no business using the format without clearing the copyright.’

‘For goodness sake, people have been doing that forever. Hollywood films are lifted straight into Indian versions and as for the songs, half of them must be culled from international tunes—folk songs from the jungles of Africa to the rainforests of Peru, with just a few twists and turns in the interlude!’ Ruhi was surprised. A student of applied physics, Shamim was usually not in the least concerned about the media. She was a little surprised too at Shamim’s ignorance. Somehow, she always felt that her children knew everything a little better than she did.

‘Dearest daughter, wake up. Things are very different now, especially in the media. You can’t swipe someone else’s copyright without paying for it. That’s to say that you can try and maybe get away with it, but if you’re caught like the Kumars—’

‘That’s just it!’ Shamim exclaimed. ‘Why did you have to take on such an active role in pointing out exactly what all the finer points of the copyright infringement were?’

‘That’s my profession, Shamim,’ Ruhi retorted.

‘And friendship doesn’t matter, does it?’

‘What on earth are you going on about?’ Ruhi asked in surprise. ‘Since when have you become so interested in my cases? What do you know about it?’

‘All I know is what Rahul told me about it.’

‘Rahul?’

‘You don’t even know the name of your friends’ only son?’ Ruhi decided that it was enough. She didn’t like Shamim’s tone and she suddenly remembered the lesson from an earlier party. Discipline yourself as well as your children.

‘What’s this attitude in aid of?’

‘Rahul is my friend, got it? And he just told me that you worked like a beaver to get those foreigners their booty. They must’ve paid you a fortune, Ammi. I felt so ashamed, so cheap. Money’s not everything, there’s such a thing as patriotism, there’s a matter of ethics.’

‘Hold on a minute, young lady,’ Ruhi broke in furiously. ‘How dare you bring patriotism into this? I am unpatriotic because I helped my client? And did you say ethics? Are you joking? What ethics are you referring to, when you’re talking about people who think nothing of stealing someone’s intellectual property, as long as they hope to get away with it? They got caught and were made to pay a penalty, what’s so unethical about it?’

Shamim couldn’t argue with her mother’s reasoning. She also knew that she had no real grounds for this debate. So she shrugged and said, ‘You don’t even want to understand, do you?’

‘No, but I’m still curious, why this sudden interest in the Kumars’ case? Is it because of Rahul? You’ve got a crush on him or something?’

Wrong question, Ruhi, my jaan, she thought, ruefully biting her tongue.

Sam’s rejoinder was prompt.

‘I love him, Ammi, and I don’t care what you think about it. You spend little enough time with me.’

‘Sam, I want to know. I care about what’s happening in your life, darling.’

‘A bit late for the mother-daughter bonding bit, don’t you think?’ Sam’s expression was contemptuous. ‘Anyway, I knew it was a waste of time trying to talk to you!’

‘What do you expect me to do? Put out an ad saying the Kumars are justified? Why can’t you appreciate the simple truth?’

‘You’re impossible!’ Sam said, and flounced away.

Ruhi looked at her rebellious young daughter’s back and thought where did I go wrong? Was it a wrong choice to have a career? Have I been spending enough time with my kids? Why’s Sam being a total pain?

The party members found Ruhi very depressed.

‘Is this our Ruhi?’ asked Alison.

‘It is me, Ali, my jaan. Sam just gave me a mouthful about a totally stupid issue and declared that she was in love and that she couldn’t care less about my reaction.’

Bella was indignant. ‘Eesh! I’d have given her something to care about, if she were my daughter. I’ve brought up three kids, Ruhi, and I assure you I never took any nonsense from any of them. Pari, Ashis or Aloke would never dare say anything nasty to me even today.’

‘I’m not sure that’s a good idea,’ Mira said. ‘I give a lot of time to Uma and she’s always free to express an opposite point of view, even at the age of fifteen!’

‘You’ll know soon enough,’ Ruhi said, ‘when she walks up to you at the venerable age of seventeen and says that she’s in love with someone totally obnoxious. I’ve been good to my kids, never raised my voice—forget about raising my hand. Shahid’s a great father too and now little Miss Smart is in love. She feels free to say awful things to me because her boyfriend’s parents are cheats and I dared to take professional action against them.’

‘You’re rambling,’ Mira said. ‘Tell us about it.’

Ruhi did so, stressing on how Shahid and she had always taken time from their busy schedules for the children—taking holidays together, attending school functions and P and T meetings, never uttering a harsh word.

‘Maybe that was the cause, Ruhi,’ said Bella. ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’

Lila moved her head and her crystal and jade danglers sparkled daintily. ‘I can’t speak about my children,’ she said, ‘but my students are politely asked to leave by Mohan if they decide to become young radicals. I can’t tolerate indiscipline because it contradicts the very essence of classical dance, which has discipline and dedication as foundation stones. None of my students would dare to talk back to me.’

Urgh! I wouldn’t like to be in her class, thought Mira. Her students probably danced like computerized robots. Then she half-smiled, no, that was mean. She’d seen several shows by Lila’s students—had anchored one last month—and there was no doubt that they danced like dreams, with passion and a perfect fusion of grace and power.

Lila caught her fixed gaze and raised her winged eyebrows. Mira shrugged slightly.

‘I’ve read a few stories from the copy of Kathamrit that you gave me, Bella,’ said Ali. ‘Maybe I should tell Ruhi the story of the Hermit and the Serpent.’

‘Am I supposed to be the Hermit or the Serpent?’ asked Ruhi. ‘Depending on that, we’ll have our party; if I’m the Serpent, I’ll shoo you off at once!’

Everyone laughed. Ali was relieved to see Ruhi smile.

The village was surrounded by deep forest from which the villagers were used to collecting firewood and honey. They sold the honey in town and earned some money for luxuries like new clothes and sweets for festivals. Some of them hunted small animals, which made tasty additions to their simple meals. Then a huge king cobra moved into a hole near the path to the forest. The serpent was as thick as a sapling and when it reared its hood, it was almost five feet tall. The villagers were terrified of it. Superstition made them unwilling to kill a snake, as it would bring bad luck lasting several lifetimes. They stopped going to the forest. They really suffered because of the lack of firewood but managed somehow, burning twigs and some times eating half-cooked meals. Some of the more daring youngsters ventured out, but it was difficult to negotiate a path which they could be sure was safe from the serpent. Some got bitten and one boy died. The villagers became resigned and sullen.

Ali paused and Lila said, ‘Everyone goes on and on about preserving wildlife, but some times the circle is reversed—think of man-eating tigers or elephants on the rampage in Assam.’

Mira, a PETA ambassador, protested at once. ‘But that’s only when man treads deep into their natural habitat and leaves them with no choice. They’re hard-up for food and—’

‘Can we let Alison get on with the story?’

‘Whoops! Sorry about that,’ Mira responded, smiling.

A hermit used to visit the village every year. This time, he was surprised when he didn’t see a single villager till he reached the first row of huts and called out. Some of the women came out and made their obeisance. The hermit asked them where everyone was. They replied that the men were working in the fields and the youngsters were playing around in the centre of the village.

‘Why do all of you look so careworn?’

The story of the serpent came pouring out. The women were soon joined by the youngsters and men who were adamant about one thing. The hermit would have to do something about the snake.

The hermit agreed and went out to the edge of the village and approached the serpent’s den. Soon the huge creature slithered out and was outraged to see someone actually approaching his kingdom. He reared himself up fully and hissed loudly. The sight was fearsome enough to send any braveheart scampering for cover. The hermit stood his ground firmly and spoke to the serpent.

‘My son, the villagers have not harmed you. They can’t get firewood and winter is approaching. What will those poor villagers do if you continue to terrorize them like this?’

The serpent realized that this man had special powers. He was actually relieved. ‘I don’t really want to harm anyone,’ he said, ‘but I am afraid that if I don’t attack first, they will kill me. So I make sure that they come nowhere near me.’

‘I understand,’ said the hermit. ‘I will speak to the villagers and tell them never to harm you. But I must have your promise that you’ll never harm them either.’

‘I promise.’

The hermit went back to the village and gave them the happy news. He stayed on for a few days and was delighted to see that the snake had kept his word. The villagers were able to gather firewood after many months and celebrated with a grand feast. The hermit promised to see them again in six months, on his way back to his hermitage.

‘Good story, but I have something to say,’ Lila started.

‘Hey! It’s not finished, dude, give us a break,’ Alison responded, glancing determinedly away from Mira, who had moved behind Lila and was making faces at her silk-clad back.

Lila threw up her hands and Ali continued.

The villagers were initially wary—but the snake was never aggressive. The youngsters got a little bolder and started throwing pebbles at him. One day, they actually chased him back to his hole. This was a day of victory.

The snake was terrorized. He got weaker and weaker, and soon didn’t even have the strength to hunt. He crept around in the dark and survived on the few nocturnal insects and lizards that he could find.

Ali paused to sip some water and Bella said, ‘I’ve read this story so many times but you make it sound new. Eesh, Ali! You really have a knack for words.’

Ali smiled as the others nodded.

Six months passed. The hermit stopped by the village again and enquired about the snake. He was told that the reptile was never to be seen any more. Intrigued, the hermit wondered whether the snake had left the area and decided to go and see for himself.

He walked up to the snake’s hole, which was choked with twigs and stones. The hermit called out a few times and received no response. Thinking that the snake must have left, he turned to go back to the village when he heard a weak voice. He turned again quickly and saw with a shock that something was trying to push past the debris in front of the hole. He went forward and shifted the stones and the poor snake slowly slithered out. He was half-dead. The hermit stroked the withered head and uttered some words of prayer. The snake began to feel a little better.

‘My poor fellow, what’s happened to you?’

‘I am in this state because of you, Holy One.’

‘What?’

‘You told me not to attack those villagers. I obeyed you and they started hunting me instead. I had feared that this would happen and that’s why I had been so ferocious. Now just look at me.’

The hermit was filled with remorse, ‘Listen to me, son, I told you not to harm them. But I never told you not to hiss at them!’

‘What do you mean, Holy One?’

‘I mean—you didn’t bite, but you didn’t hiss either!’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘Humans have devious minds. You stopped harming them, but you should have also made sure that they respected you, by rearing yourself up and hissing at them to keep them from coming too close to you.’

‘That’s a terrific lesson!’ exclaimed Bella. ‘Don’t harm others but make sure that they have a healthy respect for you.’

‘And I have learned my lesson,’ said Ruhi. ‘I won’t be Mother Meek any more.’

‘A bit like the lesson we learned in our party about the delinquent child, isn’t it?’ Mira asked.

‘I think all lessons in life have some similarity, because they are all basic truths,’ mused Ali. ‘We talked about discipline in the very first party, when we were practising our breathing exercises. We talked about it later when the subject of bringing up our children came up.’

‘So let’s sum up,’ said Lila.

‘Never be afraid of death.’

‘Practice meditation and breathing exercises.’

‘Discipline yourself as well as your children.’

‘Forgive and forget, but remember the lesson learnt.’ ‘Don’t harm others but make sure that they respect you.’ Bella said, ‘I have been meditating and doing my breathing exercises every day.’

‘Is Neil practising too?’Ali asked.

Bella laughed, ‘Not a chance! He’s too busy or too tired.’ ‘I think that all of you should try and get your husbands

involved in meditation and Pranayam,’ said Alison.

‘No promises,’ said Mira. ‘It’s difficult enough to discipline myself!’

‘Neil says that his morning walks are enough—eesh! He even told me to start jogging!’

A group of forty-something women decide to meet once a month to mediate, tell each other stories, catch up on life. But even the most straightforward plan might lead to complex consequences.

Ananya Banerjee is from Darjeeling, where she belonged to a family of tea-planters for four generations. She is a media professional.

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