Long , long ago, when the moon used to shine in a still clear sky, not filled with the thick orange haze of pollution, when you could lie down on your terrace or your courtyard and actually count the stars or watch a shooting star zipping by, there lived in the village of Gangenahalli, a little boy of about ten, named Madhavan.
Madhavan lived with his grandmother who was called Thankamma by one and all. So Madhavan called her that too. He loved his grandmother with all his little heart, but boys being boys and especially a little boy of ten like he was, Madhavan was forever in trouble. He would walk to school in the mornings, but most days he never reached his destination . A bright kite in the sky, a little pup in trouble, a cowherd friend calling to him from the fields – all these distracted Madhavan and he would forget all about school. His Grandmother Thankamma, who made delicious pickled onions and marvelous lemon rice, could excuse every prank but not his absence from studies. According to her everything else in life besides education and a thirst for knowledge was secondary. This did not entirely suit Madhavan , but then young boys rarely get to express their opinions in front of stern grandmothers.
And so it was that each day Madhavan was reprimanded by his grandmother and almost everyday Madhavan forgot the promises he had made to be a good boy forever more.
One night, as Madhavan stood in a corner of the room looking abashed and with his face downcast ( Madhavan had realized young that a gloomy look on his face eventually softened the old woman’s heart ), a sudden longing to run away over took him. While his grandmother droned on about the evils of playing in the fields all afternoon, Madhavan’s mind took flight.
He thought of the jungle beyond the mountains where no man had ever dared to go. The village lore said that the jungle was the abode of an evil dwarf who had been banished from their village many hundred years ago. He was said to have magical powers with which he had not only outlived every other mortal kind on earth, but that he had made the forest his own domain and no man or beast ever ventured there.
Madhavan was aware that his grandmother had told him many a time that no matter what he did, he was never to venture onto that side of the mountain. Indeed, it was what every parent and elder told the children of the village and when these children grew into adults, they in turn retold the tales to their children. However, the tale had always held an unusual fascination for Madhavan ever since he was a little boy of three and had heard the tale for the very first time. Strangely, the tale of the evil dwarf had never frightened him, although most mothers in their village used the story to put their children to sleep or keep them from mischief. Perhaps, part of the reason for Madhavan’s curiosity and interest was that Thankamma had never believed in frightening a child. Although she had told him the story of the strange and evil dwarf several hundred times, it was never to intimidate or frighten the boy. She told him because she wanted him to be aware of the dangers. Thankamma had never herself questioned the lore; but she did not believe in it the same way as the rest of the village did.
That night after Thankamma had fed him a light meal of curd rice and pickle, Madhavan went and laid out his grass mat and pretended to fall deep asleep. Thankamma finished her usual chores and sat around for a while on the small verhandah outside her hut and gazed up at the moon and the stars. Madhavan tossed impatiently waiting for his grandmother to get up and come inside the hut and lie down and fall asleep. After what seemed like many hours to Madyhavan, he finally heard his grandmother yawn and heard the rustle of her sari as she got up. Madhavan quickly turned on his side and squeezed his eyes shut. Thankamma entered the hut and poured herself a glass of water into her heavy bronze tumbler and drank the water with a loud audible glug glug glug sound.
Madhavan kept absolutely still as she rolled out her own grass mat and lay down beside him. She leaned over then and gently kissed Madhavan’s cheek, patted his shoulders and drew up the covers around him. Madhavan could barely keep himself from opening one eye to peek at her. His grandmother then sighed a long sigh, muttered the name of half a dozen of her favourite deities to keep them safe through the night, turned on her side, sighed and promptly fell into a dreamless sleep.
Madhavan waited with bated breath, still not daring to turn on his side or move even a finger. He lay motionless till he could hear the gentle purring snores of his grandmother and knew for sure that she was finally deep asleep. As stealthily as he could, Madhavan then moved aside his own covers and turned towards his grandmother. He saw the back of her shoulders and her own wrinkled hand resting on her side as her body swelled and dropped in the gentle rhythm of her dreamless sleep. As Madhavan sat looking at her for a long moment – a sudden urge came over him to lean down and hug the old shriveled body that was his beloved grandmother and the only living relation that Madhavan knew.
Barely daring to breathe for fear that he might awaken her, Madhavan got up and padded into the kitchen. There, he looked longingly at the jars of pickles and assorted snacks that lined his grandmother’s neat shelves. He dare not open any jars for fear of waking his grandmother . All his plans would surely be ruined then. Madhavan stood surveying the kitchen with a disappointed look on his face when his eyes suddenly slid to a plate of rice cake which stood cooling under a wire cover jar. Madhavan lifted the lid gingerly and took out the entire cake. He loved the jaggery flavoured rice cake which his grandmother often made for him. Quickly he looked around and found an old cloth bag hanging from a peg in the wall into which he swiftly dropped the rice cake. Licking his fingers off the delicious flavour, Madhavan wiped his hands on his shirt. He took a quick sip of water from a glass which Thankamma always kept ready on a little side table and hurried outside. Madhavan snatched a few shirts, dhotis and a sheet and made his way stealthily towards the door.
Lifting the latch gingerly, Madhavan turned back to take one last look at his grandmother. She was still snoring gently and he loved her. Quick and sure footed as a fox, he slid outside and closed the door behind him. Moonlight streamed down on the house and the surroundings bathing it in an eerie blue light. Madhavan saw his long shadow slant away from his feet and reach the foot of the neem tree. He glanced up at the tree. His grandmother had told him so many stories about the neem tree. He had particularly enjoyed the ones with the ghosts and goblins in them. But Madhavan had never known fear of the dark and now he hoisted his little bundle of clothes on his shoulder, stuck the cloth back containing the precious rice cake inside his shirt and started off with firm purposeful strides.