No one knew who he was and whence he came from. One fine day there he was, sitting beneath the huge banyan tree on one of its roots that stuck out of the earth at an angle creating a seat, before slipping back inside. The tree stood on the far side of the village with a pond next to it where the buffaloes and young boys spent lazy summer afternoons. Strangely enough, it was not the eyes but the ears of the villagers that first perceived his presence. One fine morning the sweet notes of a flute had come riding the gentle breeze coming from the west.
The men out in the fields paused in their work to listen. The women at various jobs in and about their homes likewise stopped whatever they were doing and stepped out. The ragged group of children playing in the shade in the village square left their game midway and gravitated towards the tree. A couple of buffaloes that were left to graze, a few goats, the dogs that usually were asleep in some cool corner at this time of the day, a group of three scrawny cats and the village headman’s rooster and its harem of hens were part of the motley crowd around the banyan tree, equally mesmerised by the divine music.
The stranger though was oblivious to his audience and went on playing, his eyes closed, lost in the music he made. That was the first day. Soon he became a permanent fixture beneath the spreading canopy of the banyan tree. The villagers and the village animals alike went to hear him play the flute. The man spoke to none, answered no questions. Deaf by birth, the villagers concluded, and yet what marvelous melody flows out of his flute, they marveled.
It was as if the whole village was energized by the arrival of the man who played the flute. The mood of the people on the whole changed to one of cooperation. There were fewer fights and arguments. They seemed more forgiving of each other’s faults and willing to help. General harmony prevailed, much to the relief of the headman whose headache it was to sit through disputes, something he hated.
The villagers started taking the stranger gifts, whatever little they could spare. They were poor people, the crops being dependent on the weather and the weather failing them every now and then as it is wont to. But they were generous by nature and for someone who entertained them with such divine music, were willing to get together anything they possibly could.
Some brought him cooked food wrapped in banana leaf. Others took him rice, lentils, a vegetable, some flowers, an egg, or milk, whatever they could spare.The man accepted each gift with folded hands and bowed head. What a humble man, they said, blessed with such a great gift, yet he so simple in appearance and manner. We are really lucky he chose our village.
There was one person who watched all this with growing annoyance, the village priest. The gifts that usually found their way to his house were now going to the flute player under the banyan tree. It also stung him that the attention had shifted from him who was the most important person in the village, well, next to the headman anyway. He was the caretaker and spokesperson of the deity and yet an unknown man in rags seemed to garner all the attention. No one even knew what caste he belonged to, the priest gritted his teeth.
The village headman was head only in the nominal sense, it was the priest who was the real authority and advised him on everything. The priest himself thrived on lack of harmony and peace in the village. Only then would people stream to him, requesting to solve their problems, offering him gifts in the name of the deity. As the village oracle he made it his job to predict dire consequences for the village in the form of the deity’s curse if her wishes weren’t fulfilled.
The wishes were mostly what he made up on the spur of the moment, to benefit himself. Now the villagers were all at peace and happy. There was no feuds happening between neighbors, no flaring tempers leading to fisticuffs, no jealousy or one-upmanship, what’s more no one was falling ill too. This was disaster according to him. He brooded and came up with a plan to break the new-found tranquility in the village.
One day the village woke up to the sound of loud laments from the priest outside the small enclosure housing the stone idol, beneath the giant tree that was their temple.The garland of fresh flowers he had adorned the deity with that morning had wilted within hours. A bad omen, he declared. He would have to don the robes of the oracle and look into the sacred fire for an answer.
The villagers dutifully got him what little clarified butter they had in their houses, to pour into the fire the priest had built. As it crackled and smoked, he threw strange powders into it, making the fire flare and light up in different colors. He pretended to concentrate and when he opened his eyes he told them what the proportion of colors in the flames meant.
The village was doomed. It was the flute, the notes emanating from it, which would be their undoing. It was a magical flute the newcomer to the village held and once he had all the villagers under his spell through the music he played, the man would show them his true colors by making them his slaves. After all many of them were already running to him with gifts, the man added slyly, did they think it was of their own volition? Of course not. It was the magic of the flute doing its work. Hadn’t they seen even the animals attracted by the notes of the flute? It was all evil magic.
It wasn’t difficult to plant fear into the minds of the villagers who trusted him. He had been doing it for so long, it was mere routine to him. Though a few were skeptical at first they eventually asked themselves, what did they really know of the stranger apart from the mesmerizing music that attracted them to him? Fear grew in their hearts. They bowed before the priest, asking for his help and guidance.
He decreed that the first thing they had to do was destroy the flute. So the villagers walked to the banyan tree lead by the priest. The man was bathing in the pond next to the banyan tree. They took the flute out of hs cloth bag kept under the banyan tree. They made a bonfire there itself and threw the flute into it.
The man had seen the men taking his flute out and had quickly swum ashore. When he saw them fling the flute into the fire he shouted out in agony. No, no, no! please, no! Don’t take away my life. The mob was shocked, as was the priest. So he could speak. Skilfully, the priest used this fact to his advantage. Look, he is a liar, he pretended to be deaf, he said.
The mob, feeling powerful in their new role of enforcers of punishment to the potential evildoer, started pelting him with stones. The man burnt his hand frantically trying to retrieve his flute from the fire, but it was nothing but ash by then. He cried tears of an incomprehensible loss oblivious to the stones. get out, they chanted, leave our village and go!
Just then one of the men turned to another and asked, ‘What if he made another flute and returned to overpower us?’ ‘Break his right arm,’ one of them said, ‘how will he make another flute again or hold it to his lips to play it?’ The priest was pleased. What he had begun was going in just the direction he wanted. The crowd was by then chanting assent. Break his arm, his right arm. Piteous cries of the man in pain could be heard. The unfeeling mob only laughed. They did not stop at breaking his arm. They beat him to death and threw him into the pond. Satisfied, they went back, thankful that the deity had through the priest saved them from an unknown disaster in the nick of time.
©Shail Mohan 2015
Well, this story could have a message, if you can find it. But the message was not why I started writing it. The intention had been to use the words for the Midweek Wordle #8 at A Prompt Each Day.