Mothers spoke about him in hushed whispers. When they fed their babies. “If you don’t finish your lunch, Elikunji will take you away.” We debated, “Does he exist? Or is it just a conspiracy to make the babies eat?” But, somewhere in the dark corners of our minds, a nagging question kept us on tenterhooks: what if he is for real?
There were too many small stories, snippets, trivia that contributed to the larger-than-life outlaw called Elikunji. First, the name: Elikunji in Tamil meant ‘baby rat or rat’s penis’ depending on how you look at it. Conversations with old men on Pagadamanu street confirmed my doubts. Elikunji was vertically challenged. He is only 3 ft tall, said some old men. The deaf old man next door had a different take. “He is as elusive as a rat,” he said and farted aloud. I pitied the Easy Chair he was sitting on.
Life in Chittoor was not exactly romantic. There was talk of ‘Boochandi’ the bogeyman who took kids away and ate them. And, there were the spirits and ghosts stories that abounded. Parents fed us all kinds of stories to ensure that we fell in line. However, Elikunji was top-drawer. He had two hearts for starters. And just when you gulped that enormous fact down, they said “…and that helps him in jumping from any height. Any height, you know?” Every time I heard that bit I used to ask “Can he jump from the LIC building in Chennai?” LIC building was world-famous in Pagadamanu street, Greamspet, Chittoor, thanks to me and my younger brother.
“Of course he jumped from the LIC building, the police were after him and he was cornered on top of LIC. And he just jumped. Straight on the top of the Chittoor bus that was passing by on Mount road.”
Elikunji apparently was a legendary fighter. He could beat up 100 men, while having tea and masala vadai, and reading Eenadu.Now, a part of me didn’t take all this seriously. But as a ten year old, you are bound to give in to some level of fantasy. Days rolled by. One day, a huge fight broke out between two neighborhoods. Konda mitta vs Greamspet. Goli soda bottles flew. When they exploded, the pins in them delivered a nasty surprise. Swords flashed. I was watching the street fight from my friend’s terrace. My eyes fell on one short guy. He was armed with a bicycle chain and he was devastating. He whirled around like a hurricane, delivering deadly blows. Despite his short stature, he jumped up to execute his ‘dichha’ (head-butt).
The fight lasted for about ten minutes before the Police came and stopped the party. The road in front of the municipal school was littered with glass, shoes, and what not. That’s not the story anyway. The cops were chasing a bunch of guys and I saw that short guy climb up the school wall and onto the next-door bungalow’s terrace. He did it with feline grace. The cops chased. They barged into the house and were climbing up. The short guy knew it. He just stood there on the terrace wall. His face was serene. I thought he had a smile on his face. I thought he saw me. Our eyes met for a fleeting moment, and he just raised his arms for balance and somersaulted! He landed, rolled a little and was on his way towards Konda mitta.
“I saw Elikunji today.” I whispered to the boys during the lunch hour. Little Flower Convent forbade any mention of such ungodly, sinister names. The boys stopped eating. “Fuck off!” M.P. Venkatesh said. “You are in fifth standard. Not LKG. Grow up!” He added. I wanted to punch him. Velayudham, though, was interested. “What do you mean you saw Elikunji?” So I told him. The others brushed it aside. Even I forgot about the whole thing.
A few days later, Leela our house-help, broke another news “Phoolandevi surrendered!” I didn’t understand. So Leela told us about the legend of Phoolandevi. “Can she jump? From great heights?” I asked. The next day on the way back from school, I stopped by at the snake-charmer’s house. He had two cobras dancing. The snake charmer was rehearsing. He was blowing the traditional ‘nee-nee nee-nee nee-nee-nee-nee’ snake tune. I was transfixed. I didn’t notice him until he was right in front of me. I don’t know when he arrived, but I was face-to-face with Elikunji. I stared at him. He stared back. My knees shook. I felt cold. The Snake Charmer’s tune was hitting a crescendo. And Eli patted my face and walked away.
“Do you know who that guy is?” I asked the Snake Charmer. “Kutti Raja.” He said, packing his snakes in a bamboo basket. “Are you sure?” “Sure about what son?” “His name…” “Well I didn’t father him. I only know by how people around call him!”
After a couple of weeks, our maid Leela broke the story, “Elikunji was shot dead. They had to shoot at both his hearts, otherwise he could have escaped!” I was tempted to ask why didn’t they blow his head away? But there’s nothing more sadistic than killing the moment for a storyteller. So Elikunji died. Or did he?
I couldn’t sit through my classes at school. After school, I went to the snake charmer. He was drinking arrack from his Pumpkin shell flask.
“Want to see the new arrival? She is a bombshell,” he asked. He was referring to, well, a cobra. I shuddered and said, ‘No.’ And I asked him for directions to Kutti Raja’s house. He was perplexed, but he gave me the address. It was somewhere near Pratap Talkies. So I walked.
Behind Pratap Talkies, in Kondamitta, in a small lane, was his house. I reached the lane. Drummers were in full swing. Funeral drummers. A bunch of guys were dancing. So it was true. Tears welled up in my eyes. I waited till the funeral procession passed me. The pungent fragrance of Pannir lingered on. One of the fire crackers that the guys from the procession were bursting, suddenly woke up and did its duty. “Phat!”
Strong wind from the hillside picked up. And an arm fell on me. “Watch it kid. Those can hurt you.” He said, pointing to the failed firecrackers. “You never know when they come to life!” He said and winked.
I stared at him. My heart was thumping away.
“What’s your name?” He said.
I told him my name.
“What’s yours?” I asked.
“Is that your nickname?”
“Why do you ask?”
“I know your real name… Elikunji, no?”
He stopped, waited for a truck to pass, and helped me cross the road.
“Go home. Your folks will be worried.”
“You haven’t answered me…” I said.
“You haven’t asked me anything!”
“For you, I am.” He said.