An exaggerated version of a true story, as told to me by a friend who chose to remain anonymous. Yeah. You’ll know why he did so after you have read this story.
He threw our clothes, splashed some kerosene on them, and set them on fire. We stood there, standing by the edge of the irrigation well, and watched. He finished burning our clothes and turned to us. The only thought that was running in my head was ‘if he hits me, I can’t raise my hands to defend myself: my hands were busy defending something far more important.
Raghava Reddy was an ancient man. Some said he was 60. Some said 80. But from when I knew him, I was 14, he had been the same: lanky, dark man with a 100,000 wrinkles. I don’t think he even changed his clothes in all those years: he was always clad in a white dhoti and a white baniyan. The dhoti was always wrapped up and knotted way above his knees, exposing his underwear: the world-famous Patta-patti (now known as ‘Bermudas’).
Reddy’s paddy fields offered a magnificent vista from our backyard. A wooded area, guarded by ancient Tamarind trees that rose thousands of feet above the ground separated his farmland and the row of houses in which we lived. We, the kids that lived in the row of houses on Pagadamanu Street, in Chittoor, practically lived in that small patch of wilderness between Reddy’s farm and our backyards. We caught garden lizards and made them smoke beedis. We made up stories about the ghosts that lived in the Tamarind trees. And, we also once in a while, crossed over to Raghava Reddy’s farm, either to steal mangoes or swim in that massive irrigation Well.
The ancient Well’s walls were paved with granite and a winding staircase lead you to the water. The water was a brilliant translucent green. You could count the pebbles on the bed of Well, standing at the top. A couple of decades back, we were told, Reddy rescued a Turtle and gave it asylum in his well. It was still around. Flapping its fins? I think it’s called fins. Yeah, flapping about in the water or basking on the steps, sunning itself.
The reason Reddy never let kids swim in his Well was his Turtle. He feared it seemed, one of us would, for the heck of it, kill it or something. I understood his fear. We tortured garden lizards and something as exotic as a Turtle was an exciting prospect. However, we never got around laying our hands on the poor animal. When we were swimming he hid in a crevice, on the wall of the Well. Underwater. We always had a lookout posted when we were swimming in Reddy’s well. We took turns to do guard duties. But that day, that simmering hot day, Nanda couldn’t resist it. He just jumped in. When asked ‘What the fuck are you doing here?” He said “Reddy must be sleeping. It’s two in the afternoon!” And before one of us could climb up – we took our time debating who should replace the deserter – Reddy was onto us.
His glazed eyes stared at us. His wrinkled hand was shaking. He had tied a towel around his head. His gray stubble stood out like nails. If one had to pick a word to describe him, it has to be ‘parched’. He plucked a branch from the Neem tree and moved towards us. The searing conflict in my head was ‘If I did make a run for it, dash through the backyard, what was the guarantee that P won’t be around in my house. P was my neighbour and classmate. Yeah. I had the hots for her and if bumped into her now, in this state, she’ll in no time, realise just how happy I was to see her, without me having to utter a single word.
I turned to Partha and whispered “Can you get me clothes, I will wait in my backyard?” If I had a choice, I would not have asked for help from Partha. Only a week back, he had mixed some tablets in the Sambar. In his grannny’s funeral lunch. Some twenty of them suffered loose motions.
He said, “Sure ra, of course I will run into your house or mine naked and ask your mother, or mine, to give me clothes. That’s what friends are for, right? Read my lips. Go make love to a goat or some suitable animal!”
I was crestfallen. Raghava Reddy was a few seconds away. Some boys had already started running. Partha, who was about to take off, stopped and said, “Listen, this is the best I could do. I am sure that thing is big enough to cover your modesty. Now, this old fucker is closing in. Run!” and handed me the turtle. I don’t know when he caught it and I don’t know why I took it. It was the situation I guess.
And I ran. The slimy, slithery thing stared at me. He had eyes just like Reddy’s. I ran across the farm, jumped over the thorn fence, to the wooded area, and screamed into our backyard. Reddy was far away. He was too old. Too slow.
I was gasping for breath. I instinctively covered my modesty with the Turtle, while I was looking for something appropriate, something that was not a living thing, to replace it. Leaves? No! I spotted an old newspaper in our vegetable garden. It was too fragile. Too sunned out. It was bleached. It would crumble if I touched it. I was cursing myself and the damn Turtle started wriggling. And the backdoor opened. P stepped out, she was in mid sentence talking to my mother in the kitchen when she saw me.
I had my mouth open. I had a Turtle between my legs. And it didn’t look pretty at all. Screw pretty. It looked like I had discovered my fetish at a very young age. P made a strange noise. Turned and ran out. I just stood there watching the girl of my dreams storm out of my life. I was going to tell her what I felt for her in the next few days.
I dumped the Turtle in our Well. Reddy came for it a few days later and took it. He was happy, according to mom. He almost cried it seems.
I wanted to let things cool down a little. So I waited for a week before I knocked on P’s house. After what seemed like 20 years, the door creaked open. And there she was. Her eye brow was arched as if saying ‘WTF?’, as she digested the fact that it was me. Her beautiful lower lip quivered and that mole, right under the lip… oh my god.
Her cat walked out. She purred and rubbed herself against my leg. I was about to open my mouth when P snapped at the cat “Pinks! Get in here.” She picked Pinks up and held her against her face and growled “If you go anywhere near him again… I am warning you!”
‘It was an awkward moment’ would be a glorious understatement. It was more embarrassing than your dad catching you, you know, performing acts of self-love. It has happened to one of my friends, trust me.
I just walked away. I caught Partha standing outside home. He kept staring at me.
“WHAT??” I screamed.
He burst out laughing.