Cabby adventure

We erected our Yaoshang* beside a banyan tree. Every night, we stole** vegetables and fruits from the kitchen gardens in the neighbourhood. More daring outfits even attempted poultry.

That day, we decided to steal cabbage from a cultivation out in the fields, far from the owner’s house. We zeroed in on a local uncle’s crop that his daughter used to sell every dusk at the village market. We sent out some younger members to do a quality assessment of the produce. The feedback was positive. This uncle, a former tailor, was a strongly built man with some height. I once saw him push an Ambassador car to ignition by himself, and a football burst when he took a corner kick in a match for the elders. In hindsight, he was the local macho minus the rowdy part. The actual location of the asset (aka the cabbages) was near a stream, some 100 m from his house. A discontinuous line of trees was the only barrier in between. It was all fallow rice fields beyond.

© Pixabay

We got up at around 2 am and headed for our adventure with a couple of jute bags. The objective was to fill them with cabbages. En-route, a nervous member quipped that the uncle had a hole in the wall of his bedroom through which to keep an eye on his cultivation. I don’t know how he got that troubling information but it was in the nature of secrets to get leaked all the time. We reached the plantation area from the opposite side of stream as the uncle’s house. One knowledgeable member instructed us to feel the cabbage heads first and choose only the harder ones. So, we got into character and started cutting the hardest heads of the lot. We assigned one member to keeping an eye on the direction of the uncle’s house. Then, suddenly we heard a loud cry: “Be where you are! You ill-begotten sons of scoundrels!” and saw flashlights coming from the dreaded direction.

“Run or die. Don’t forget the knives,” I shouted.

I picked up whatever I could and ran; and jumped into the stream. I lost my knife there itself. Others were on their own putting their souls on their feet. Upon reaching the safety of the other side of the stream, we heard a loud slapping, so loud that it must have dislocated the jaw receiving it. The jaw belonged to a comrade who was caught. This was what he told us the next morning.

I too began running immediately after the flashlights like the rest of you. Then I hit my big toe (this toe of his was unusually big) against a stone and fell down. I couldn’t even agonise the pain vocally. Left without any means, I pulled myself along the coarse earth and hid among the cabbages. I thought if I lower my head to the level of the cabbage heads, they would camouflage me out in the dark. It appeared I hadn’t noticed, in the heat of the moment, my shoulders and hip towering up so high. But that cunning man acted as if he didn’t see me. He came and sat down nearby; and started feeling the cabbage heads like a mad man. Doing so, he reached for the cabbage just next to me. He grabbed it viciously, as if to crunch it, and uprooted the whole thing with a single pull. Then, he retreated back, sat down to lit a bidi and smoked it so tediously. At this stage, I had lowered my head so low, I was burying my face in the soil and was grunting dust in and out. Suddenly, he took hold of my head with his two big hands, squeezed it along the jawlines and said, “ Hmm, this one is very hard,” and started twisting my head. I was sure he was going to kill me. Then, he held me by the ear and slapped me across my face, and said, “We’ll see when I tell your mother.”

* Yaoshang: Manipuri name of Holi, the Hindu festival of colours. It also refers to the huts burnt on the penultimate day. Boys usually live out the entirety of this festival in these huts.

** Stealing is permitted during this festival as a custom. It is rarely, if ever, reprimanded.

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Review: The Salesman

Iranian movies often have a contrarian poise while looking at tragedies. In Taste of Cherry, a dying man drives around the countryside searching for a person who will be paid to bury him the way he wanted. The Salesman draws on this school of quaint conformism and goes even deeper.

© Memento Films

The film is premised on the assault on a woman— a new tenant of a decrepit apartment she moved into with her teacher-husband in an Iranian city. Barring her, everyone is subdued in the aftermath of the attack; even eager, to move on. They all seem to agree on the gravity of the incident but are shown to take a collective sigh of relief that the worst didn’t happen. So the couple try to take it in their strides, hiding it from their colleagues at the drama club and readjusting their lives. In a sense, it harks back to an Eastern culture of solemnity in times of sorrow, that cares more about keeping up appearance than living the raw emotions. The absence of anger and outrage, though, is never absolute. It’s little more than a veneer to project normalcy. Underneath this shin, shame and jealousy, anger and remorse do churn ceaselessly. They come out when this people are left alone, unencumbered by the watchful eyes of society and demands of decorum. The film excels in exposing this process of slow burning descent to chaos. Doubts are raised about one another and simple things become suspects. The charming husband becomes a walking time bomb bidding for the ultimate trigger to explode.

It also questions our habit of faulting an attacker without hearing his side of the story. What if it was a case of mistaken identity? What if the victim’s carelessness allowed his entry in the first place? This dilemma was further complicated when we find that the attacker was an old man, sick of the heart and the head of a close-knit family. The film takes a U-turn and asks whether a temporary lapse of judgement, which he now accepts and regrets, deserves to be punished in front of his family. In seeking justice, it reminds us of the forgotten values of atonement and kindness which should rank above the crudeness of revenge.

This much-adored movie, beautifully captured in clean unsteady shots, is a study of sullen acceptance and profound humanism against the currents of shallow impulses, which often get the better of us.

The Salesman (2016)

Director: Asghar Farhadi

Country: Iran

Award: Academy Award For the Best Foreign Language Film (2017)