The first Konkani book to be translated into English, The Upheaval deals with the collapse of an agrarian society that lived by myths and unspoken rules. Exclusive extracts from the novel to be published shortly.
NANU stood in the open space in the middle flanked by two other boys. He was dressed as a woman in a saffron sari and a shiny red blouse edged with gold. Long earrings dangled from his ears and a red dot was etched on his forehead, as vibrant as the sun.
The women gasped in admiration as he slowly bent forward and picked up the brass lamp with its seven flaming wicks swimming in oil. He placed it carefully on his head as Master struck a few chords on the harmonium and the song began. Nanu's feet kept time to the music and the bells strapped to his ankles chimed softly. His hands move graceful patterns in the air as he leaned forward and then drew back again drawing gasps of admiration from the assembled crowd.
Savlo Master took out a copper coin and placed it on the ground in front of the boy. Nanu would now lie prone and pick it up with his tongue, balancing the lamp on his head all the while, following what Master said. Every heart grew heavy with fear and the veins on everyone's neck grew taut in anticipation as each of the onlookers imagined the lamp to be balanced on his own head. Savlo Master sat in front, nodding encouragement and urging the boy on.
Nanu lowered himself carefully to the ground, bracing his shoulders as he strove to balance the weight on his head. His tongue inched forward in search of the coin as everyone's eyes remained transfixed. It was at the very last moment, when his tongue had almost reached its goal that Nanu's neck twitched convulsively, his head fell forward, and everything before him turned dark.
"It's fallen! The lamp!"
"O God! On his back!"
"O my son... "
"... the hot oil! ... will scald his back... "
Everyone jostled about as Rukmini and Pandhari pushed their way through the throng. Someone carried the boy down to the chowk another tried to revive him. For a moment, Savlo Master couldn't make out what was happening.
"Such a small boy... imagine making him do something like that!"
"The children are under his control, so he thinks he can do anything with them!"
"The Master is mad!"
The guests from Volvoi and Naveli left, mocking the school teacher, but he said not a word. How could something like this have happened when the rehearsals had gone so well, he asked himself.
"Master, is this the dance that was to make our eyes gleam in admiration?"
"If the hot oil had got into his eyes, the dance would surely have blinded him."
"Such a smart boy! Thank God nothing happened."
"It isn't Master's fault. Nothing like this happened at the rehearsals."
"Maybe the gods are angry."
"Did Abu perform all the rituals properly?"
"He's old. Maybe he forgot something."
"I'm not mad... "
"Then why did something inauspicious like this happen?"
"How could I know? Maybe one of your women went to bathe in the lake or came here to the maand when she was still unclean... "
"Why would any woman do that?"
"Let's ask the Oracle to tell us what went wrong."
"You can't do that in the month of the Shigmo."
"Who knows what might happen next... "
"These children... they roam about in the fields and by the lake all day... and even at night. Who knows where they go... ?"
"Pandhari! Where all did Nanu go these last few days?"
"Nowhere... nowhere at all."
"Nowhere? Didn't he follow the dancers through those fields where the spirits live?"
"No... no... "
"Of course, he did."
Savlo Master pushed his way through the crowd and sent everyone out of the room where Nanu lay resting. He placed his hand on the boy's chest.
"Feeling better now?"
"Not scared any longer?"
"Tell me what happened."
"Nothing... " Nanu looked this way and that, then he pointed to his neck.
"What happened to your neck all of a sudden?"
"I... I... "
"Don't be afraid. I won't tell anyone."
"I went to Naveli yesterday, and the day before."
"But you came to the rehearsals in the evening."
"Yes. I went in the daytime. Bappa said not to tell anyone."
"He took me to work at the mine. To carry stones on my head to fill the cart. It's our own cart so if we do the work ourselves we can make more money."
"Then my neck began to ache. I didn't tell you. I was scared you'd be angry. When the lamp was on my head my neck began to ache and suddenly it snapped forward... and... and... Master don't tell anyone... Bappa will hit me... "
Savlo Master got to his feet. Specks of darkness cut though the brilliant moonlight that spread before him. Sparing not a glance for Pandhari who stood before him, Master elbowed his way through the crowd and on to the narrow foot-track, trudging blindly away from the chowk till he was lost to sight.
The Upheaval, Pundalik N. Naik, translated from the Konkani by Vidya Pai, Oxford University Press,
Chennai, p.172, Rs. 295.
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