Laden low with forbidding luggage, and yet as sprightly as a fowl by day I was on my way out when without warning the whistle on my lips went off-tune upon the grisly sight of my neighbour, and I mean the whole century of kilos of him. His thick hair making an unsightly peek through the netted vest on a hirsute chest and carrying an enormous paunch that obscured the groin to the back of beyond, two tree-trunk-like legs visible from below his meagre wraparound advanced menacingly toward me, and entering earshot, this creature threw open his verbal gate and sputtered: “Where are you off to, you chimp-faced lamebrain?” I, on my part, received the unfriendly inquiry while noticing that this verbal emission was accompanied by the discharge of copious amounts of betel leaf juice even as a used toothpick emerged from between his fingers and went straight in to the oral works.
Not a good beginning to a quest far removed from neighbours and intended more on the lines of tigers, but the creature was there and breathing down my neck, so quite unable to ignore him, I stuttered “Oh, Hullo there, Uncle; I’m off to photograph big cats!” in the most genial way I could muster under the discomfiting circumstances.
“Cats, what?” he growled emitting a shrill laugh that was closer to a hyena’s hysteric chatter than an infant’s musical note, and I was just about to furnish the definition of the term with some emphasis on the adjective in it when I was impeded by the unhelpful development that he had resumed talking and held scant interest in lending me the ear.
“Why, you love snapping them cats and dogs, do you!” he cried in a pitch so high that his voice could comfortably touch the tip of the London tower and ring the bell at its cornice. “Then why go anywhere at all, son? Plenty of dogs this street got, let me show you, come!”
At this point, he seemed to be having a sort of orgasm that lasts longer than the conventional type, and the wave of mirth got so overwhelming that the line between uncontrollable laughter and the initial stages of a heart-attack seemed to thin considerably, and I began worrying about access to the nearest hearse van centre to dispatch the mortal remains of this now lively thing, should he succumb to his amusement and kick the bucket at my very threshold.
Now, we’re told to love our neighbours, but they regularly scale such unthinkable heights of repugnance and are so consummately concomitant with dread, that even the seemingly simple act of tolerating them must make the worst rogues of us deserving of a national award for peace. But neither in the mood to play the gentlemanly version of a Miss Universe going on a safari of street mongrels, nor fostering the wish to assume the responsibility of couriering his corpse to the morgue, I sequestered the self between the pillar supporting the porch and the hindquarters of my hatchback parked in the portico, slunk out through the narrow gate on the west-side and legged it, while hoping that Father would hold fort.
This worked rather resoundingly well.
A week after the trip, I was nursing a goodish-sized print of the rusty-spotted cat image seen above when the neighbour of the given specification barged in with the same level of formality as a troupe of black-cats breaks into a hide-out.
“Oh, hullo, sir!” I greeted in a tenor of reasonable cordiality.
“How do, chump?” he barked, and noticing in an instant the print held in my hands he was at once reminded of my recent whereabouts. “So you went all the way to shoot a small little cat on a log, did you?” he roared, “Didn’t find no tigers, eh? I told you you could well shoot them cats in my very yard, I did. What a waste of time! Take a tip, son. The next time you want to look for tigers, try the local zoo! Ho ho ho!” and slipped into a pale of laughter with eyes wide shut as of one who has just been tickled in the tum.
This peeved me, and I muttered under my breath “If I wish to find anyone at the zoo, it is you!”
“Say what?” the monster queried, and there was a dam ready to burst inside me if I didn’t repeat the curse louder for the audience to hear.
But there were better ways to deal with this fire-spewing behemoth than hurling back a caustic remark or two of defence, so I took a mental swig of the Scotch on the table, set my brows at the apt angle and striking that delicate note between response and retort, I introduced a modifier: “Why, sir, I did find tigers!” and pulled out a print of the visual exhibited below and held it point-blank.
I have over the years witnessed the profound effect of a tiger’s sight manifesting on the human species in a variety of forms, but if I had ever seen it purging the colour off a man’s face with quite so much swiftness, my memory fails to present me that occasion. And in less time than it takes to raise an arm to the shoulder, gone without a trace was that derisive look, and the appallingly contemptuous expression on his ghastly visage had given way to an unusually reverential hue. Suddenly he seemed to be welling up with humility and the powerful emotion of awe had as though gifted him a juicy wonk on the lemon. His appearance in sum was of one who has just lost his vocabulary at the local laundry, as a sudden revelation of seriousness seem to come over him.
Spellbound for a duration whose outer limit was indefinite, the blighter took his time to recover, and when word had come to mouth, he shoved at me one at a time a series of frequently-asked inane questions (FAIQs), which, in the fair spirit of vengeful gamesmanship, I answered tongue-in-cheek. That is to say, he tongued the questions and I showed considerable cheek in mating them with responses that were expressly designed to poise the balance sheet of morale at a considerable advantage to the self.
“Er…” he said drawing himself up to it “…did you shoot this?” A common question of meagre intelligence, uttered by lowly men with roughly the same IQ as those who, when bumped into at a restaurant, ask “You here to chump on some grub, what?”
“The fact is rather” I said, my eyes lit up by the empty area in his court, “that my camera shot it!” and freed a high-pitched chuckle. The firm upper-forehand punch sufficed to put me 15-love up.
“Ah you joke well! It is of course the camera. Quite the case I’m sure.” he stuttered, trying to pull out a better-drafted construct. “There wasn’t any trench between you?”
I clicked my tongue. “No, nein; nothing on the lines of a moat.”
The man stiffened up, and as the icy glacier of contempt melted and receded to the B.G, I thought I saw a glint of marvel emerge in the right eye and a glimmer of rank awe come forth in the left. Things were shaping up well.
“You weren’t scared, what?” he probed.
“Scared? Oh yes, I was, for the teeny things!”
The man shuddered. I twisted the knife.
“Such little darlings, really. They can barely bear the sight of something as terrifying as me!”
His eyeballs did a breaststroke in his sockets. “You don’t mean to suggest that the tigers would fear you?”
“Why, sir; I say that’s precisely what I intend to assert.”
He was fazed. Rattled even. Almost shaken. He was torn between respect and fear. The moot point seemed to me to be whether I was to be venerated as a hero or feared as a psychopath.
“I say, don’t you carry a gun or rifle when you’re about these?”
“I bother not, sir. The camera and its relatives are all I carry, with spare batteries to boot. A wide-angle lens is my greatest need, for these cats sometimes come so close, they almost brush against me.”
The old bird had been hanging on until now, but this revelation had done it. Come to head the matter had. “Flash-point breached” warned his mental dashboard. Put concisely and with neat brevity, it gave.
“Cats!” he uttered and it occurred to me that the way he expunged the word betrayed both bewilderment and recognition. I could sense that a grand climax was forthcoming.
“Yes, cats!” I reiterated resoundingly, accentuating its impact on the makeup of the conversation. “That’s what they are. Slightly bigger than the ones in your yard, decidedly, but cats nonetheless. But very nice cats they are, and they mean no vile or harm. They don’t even prey on fat men, despite the easy work and high returns on offer!” I said, casting a profoundly meaningful glance at his paunch, “I doubt you should tempt them anymore than I do. I suggest when my next trip comes hooting around the corner, you hop on board with me and come along to witness this first-hand” adding some extra spin and tweak on the latter part. I didn’t mean this invitation of course; I merely intended it as an effective way to deter more than attract, and compound his state of trepidation. I had the foot on his throat and wanted to wiggle it down harder on it.
The disconcerting suggestion seemed to have its proposed effect, for at this delicately-poised point of the proceedings, the blighter seemed to gag on the thought, and overwhelmed by a fit of cough, he sought a drink of the clear vital fluid, but I was too full of wile to miss his ruse. Even Paris Hilton could have seen the bluff like a blimp flying straight towards her. This man sought escape. He wished to dodge the ongoing assault on his shoestring morale, quarantine his bruised ego and lick his wounds in a quiet place. But vain as these sourpusses are even at the nadir of their lives, he was too shy to admit it. This man belongs to the breed who cannot admit to their disadvantage even when the barrel makes up the exclusive subject of their sight. Humble pie is not on their diet. But with my superior intelligence and exceptional inferential abilities, I saw it. In fact I saw all through it.
Returning from the kitchen with a glass of the colourless tepid, I fully expected the sofa to be empty. I had done my job well, namely, I had punctured this bally multi-storeyed balloon of a thug right in the ripest part. Snuffed the air out of him I had and left the thing out of steam, substituting a profound vacuum in its place. Quite clearly, I had delivered the knockout punch in the smooth and efficient manner of a bowling machine dispensing deliveries. There was only so much that the aged man could take and I was sure I had rationed him a healthy bit more than that. Wearing this smug expression of a grandmaster who has just dislodged the last of the opponent’s pawns, I walked into the room with a jolly spring in my step, ready to throw my hands up in triumph and laugh my head off all the way to Pretoria. I could see now that the room would be vacated of the said scumbag, and of any human there would be no sign except on the ground and leading out towards the door the damp pugs of a pair of human feet sweating very profusely indeed.
I was so convinced that a void would be hanging where until recently a man sat, by which I mean that no specimen matching the description of a neighbour would be visible, that I even planned my schedule for the following three minutes on my feet, deciding to put the glass of water away, shut the door after the departed soul and cuddle up nicely in bed with a copy of Milson Edward’s “What ho in Congo”.
It was in this state of elation that I paced down the corridor between the kitchen and the hall, in which the shipment was parked, to find to my utter dissatisfaction that it was still very much in attendance. But I didn’t despair. Yes, it was evident that I had misread the man’s intentions behind seeking a drink, but it could be all the same that he might have changed his mind halfway, or may have even deduced it prudent to linger around to consume the water before issuing the scarcity of person. Notwithstanding the stray case, it is often like that. For, some products need a sterner push, particularly such heavy specimens. “What is a stone for one who eats rocks?” I said to myself, “I have this lump at the tip of my toe; it is now just a matter of prodding it over the edge.”
So I cleared my throat and putting on my best sympathetic tone, I offered my understanding.
“All very heavy stuff, eh? I’m sorry, sir; all this overload doesn’t sit well with the sultry weather, I suppose?”
“No, no!” he exclaimed, “Quite to the contrary, I am thankful to you, for you have opened my eyes.”
“To how you should give these tig-fellas a wide-berth, eh?” I said confidently, bundling some meanness into the package.
“As a matter of fact, to how beautiful they are!” he countered, and gathering the required impetus for the rocket launch, he dropped the lethal line. “And I have fully decided now to accompany you on the next trip.”
I don’t know how many people have had a multi-tonne cargo fall on their head, but none of them has, I am sure, lived to discuss how it feels. But such speculation is no longer necessary, for I now had the taste of it. The voice abandoned my ‘chords, and the vim was gone from my soul, but I drew myself up somehow to verify the dreaded assertion.
“Surely, sir, you don’t mean that you intend to willingly mark your presence at the tiger’s den?”
“You heard me right, cheeky young lad, that’s a good summary of exactly the scheme I contemplate.”
I trust the reader, who I hope has been following the narrative carefully, to confer on me the greatest sympathy when I report that I cringed at hearing this. In fact the mot juste, in alphabetical order, was anguished, fazed or jolted. My heart sank and the lungs abandoned their day job for a few seconds as a great shake-up ensued on the inside. The world did doughnuts around me, the vitals shuddered and there were preliminary signs of internal turbulence.
Still, I pulled the self together for one last-ditch shot at the losing game. “But, Uncle…!” I cried, betraying some desperation, “…I thought your visage lost some verve when you saw the picture…?”
“It’s not fear that took the colour off my face” he revealed in the annoying tone of a savant who knows more than he knows, “it was rather the beauty of this animal, son. If a look at a picture can morph my attitude, an appointment in person may perhaps change my very life. I am quite sure that I shan’t enjoy the summer better doing anything other than hunting them tigs down and watching them all day with you. Text me the dates and I shall book my travel sans no delay.” he said and tottered away homebound leaving a deeply touched but gravely worried bloke in his wake.
I stood transfixed, letting the hot potato in my mouth cool a bit, and then returned to my familiar second home – the troubled waters. The word ‘soup’ might ring your bell all the same. I stood on for a length of time until the luggage in my right hand commenced making its weight felt. I looked at the glass and the colourless gleamed back at me in the sunlight.
I wished it was big enough to drown me.
Copyright © Santosh Saligram 2010. All rights reserved.