The Best Medicine
Gopi’s father was yelling at Gopi’s mother again. Something about the pickle, at dinner tonight. Why did she serve it when it clearly wasn’t ripe? Of course, he would have been angry either way. Gopi’s father, like all angry people, periodically felt the urge to yell at someone. Gopi knew all about angry people. His village was full of them.
The village of Hastinapur did not have much going for it except for a few acres of fertile farmland. Yet, millions of Hindus across India were familiar with its name. For Hastinapur was the setting of the Mahabharata, an epic centered on a mythological war between rival clans. The war was believed to have occurred 5,000 years ago on the dusty plains where Gopi and his friends now played tag. The great war of the Mahabharata was truly epic – it featured magic weapons, a solar eclipse, transvestite spies, brothers killing brothers, a woman seeking revenge by soaking her hair in blood and many other dramatic episodes that shaped its legendary mystique. To the people of Hastinapur though, the most significant story of all came at the very end of the saga, when the heartbroken Queen of the losing side cursed the people of this once gilded city, dooming their descendants to remain angry and quarrelsome – forever.
Gopi did not believe in the curse, but his mother did. Whenever she’d see a fresh bruise on a dalit girl’s face or walk past the school and hear the smack of a ruler on a young boy’s wrist or smell the stench of cheap alcohol on a disgruntled farmer’s shawl, she’d shake her head and whisper “Jai Shree Krishna,” her humble attempt to try and offset as much of the curse as she could. The curse, she’d tell Gopi (though he never asked), is why everyone there was so angry all the time. Not her, though. She was a happy person. She always had a tune on her lips and a sparkle in her eye. She even moved as though she were moving to the beat of a secret song, audible only to the happy people of the world.
The secret song would stop, however, on those terrible days (and nights) when Gopi’s father would begin his dark dance of fury. It would usually begin with him yelling at her for something trivial. The veins in his gaunt neck would spring out like knives; his voice would become fiercer with each insult, like a dust storm spewing chaos out of nothing. He’d fix his piercing gaze on her and she would morph into a completely different person. Eyes pointed straight down at her feet, head still as a grasshopper, her slender fingers trembling uncontrollably. Her heart would beat so fast, her chest heaving in and out; her eyes growing bigger, like the eyes of Lord Krishna, pictured in the calendar hung up on the wall. When she’d sense her husband’s hand rising to hit her, she’d finally look up, her pupils would dilate, her hands would stop shaking and she’d breathe a sigh of relief. The pain she could handle, the anticipation she could not.
Gopi’s father was still yelling about the unripe pickle. “You should have left this out in the sun for at least three more days! Look at it! It’s green! What kind of thoughtless woman serves a jar of half sun-dried green…crap!”
His hands were flapping about wildly, his face looked more scrunched up than a freshly washed turban, and the pitch of his father’s voice rose to a comically absurd tenor. Suddenly, Gopi felt a powerful force take over – a force that had been bubbling inside him, seemingly forever. As his father raised his right hand and his mother looked up, Gopi cleared his throat and gave in to the force. “This isn’t pickle! Its green crap! What kind of green woman serves green pickle to her husband? Woman! Have you lost your damn green, er… I mean, mind?”
For the next 30 seconds, Gopi paced the length of their hut, swinging his hands and shouting at the top of his lungs like an over-the-top incarnation of his father, imitating every detail of the man’s rage, exposing its absurdity, and having a surprising amount of fun in the process.
“Gopi!” His mother was terrified.
Gopi looked at his father who, mouth ajar, stared right back at him. At that moment, Gopi returned to his body, became aware of what he had just done and felt a wave of panic sweep over him. He closed his eyes and waited for his comeuppance.
Silence. Then a chuckle. Not from his mother but… from his father! A chuckle that became a roaring laugh. A laugh that spread to his relieved mother, then infected Gopi himself. The three of them sat laughing for what seemed an eternity.
“You little rascal! Do that again! Here take my laathi.” Gopi’s father handed his wooden cane to the boy and without hesitation, Gopi incorporated it into his act.
“Woman! Where the hell is my laathi – I swear if I don’t find it soon, I’ll…”
“You’re holding it, my Lord.”
“Oh… yes, I knew that!”
Gopi’s father was on the floor laughing. His mother gave Gopi a playful pat on the back of his head. “Shaitaan!”
Gopi was on a roll. He mimicked his neighbors bickering about a missing goat, much to his father’s delight. Then he imitated his paternal grandmother, much to his mother’s delight. The schoolteacher, the white man who came with the camera last winter, the gypsy singers who passed through the village every year, Chacha Nehru, Bapu, even the white king Mountbatten…Gopi mimicked every voice he had ever heard on the radio. Each laugh from his parents was a new wave of energy, propelling him to be bolder, funnier, happier. His mother and father stayed up till dawn watching Gopi perform until, finally, their hearts fed with enough laughter to last a lifetime, they fell asleep in each other’s arms. Gopi, his voice hoarse and his heart racing, snuggled himself between them. Before he drifted off to sleep, Gopi looked up at the calendar. Suddenly, Lord Krishna’s mischievous smile made sense.
Word spread quickly. First, the neighbors gossiped about the “performance” they had overheard last night, then the schoolteacher heard about it and asked Gopi to “do him” in the yard. All the children laughed and, fortunately for them, so did the schoolteacher. Before long, the old men who smoked beedis on their chaupais all day, started asking Gopi to sit with them in the evenings. They tossed him a coin each time he made them laugh, until they ran out of coins and their angrier-than-usual wives dragged them away. From farmers to laborers, classmates to housewives, Gopi was soon regaling one and all with his mimicry of politicians, movie stars and of course, the angry people of Hastinapur themselves. He started playing games within his game – giving his characters backstories and context, expanding cute imitations into proper scenes, even one-act comedic plays.
Every afternoon, while the other kids played tag or fought with one another, Gopi could be seen pacing back and forth on the porch of his hut, muttering dialogues to himself, crafting witty scripts and occasionally sending himself into uncontrollable fits of laughter.
Every evening, villagers would excitedly gather outside Gopi’s hut after dinner, waiting for him to burst through the door, dressed in a new costume, acting out a new scene, spurring new laughs from familiar faces.
What used to be infuriating became silly, what once enraged now amused. It was as if Gopi had removed a 5,000-year-old blindfold and the whole village could see light and levity for the first time. There were fewer quarrels and more giggles, fewer slaps and more claps, fewer tears and more cheers.
Within weeks, the Collector sahib in Lucknow heard about the little jester from Hastinapur. He sent word that he would like to visit the village and see this “boy wonder” perform. The last time a Collector had visited Hastinapur was during the reign of Queen Victoria, some 47 years ago.
Chaupais were borrowed, clothes were washed, and three extra lanterns were placed outside Gopi’s home for the big performance. The smell of freshly cooked pooris, pumpkin stew and rice pudding (rumored to be the Collector sahib’s favorite) filled the air. The sound of an approaching automobile sent the villagers into a tizzy. Gopi’s mother began to order the nieces, nephews, neighbors, and various good-for-nothings frantically. “You! Get the jug of water and stand near there, where he will get down. Hey, you two! Stop fooling around and help me carry this pot. Can’t you hear he’s almost here!” An out-of-breath look-out came running towards the village shouting “He’s here! He’s here!”
From inside the automobile emerged the rotund frame of a middle-aged man dressed in a three-piece grey suit and shiny black shoes. Collector sahib folded his hands in a vague gesture of respect to the star-struck crowd, waiting impatiently as a crew of nervous villagers adorned him with a garland of fresh marigold flowers. They escorted him to his seat a few feet from the makeshift stage (formerly known as Gopi’s front porch). They asked him to say a few words, but he declined, for the smell of pooris was a powerful incentive to get the show started right away.
Gopi’s father all-too-eagerly jumped up on stage, personally welcomed the Collector sahib and introduced his son, who he claimed to have coached in the art of comedy. Listening to his father’s self-aggrandizing remarks from inside the hut was little Gopi, suddenly overcome with fear. Surely, after his father’s introduction, Gopi would have no choice but to give the best show of his young life, but what if he couldn’t? What if he disappointed Collector sahib? How angry would that make his father?
“So respected Collector sahib, with great humility and for your amusement, please welcome my son, Gopi!”
Gopi timidly emerged from his hut and was greeted with roaring applause. As soon as he heard that sweetest of sounds, all his nervousness and anxiety melted away. It was as if his mind and body zeroed in on their singular purpose in life. In that moment, Gopi knew what he was here to do – and he was ready.
Within minutes, Gopi was enthralling the crowd with one of his most impassioned performances. The entire village was in splits, cheering on Gopi and hoping for the ultimate seal of approval from Collector sahib. Then it happened. Gopi heard the most important laugh in the audience. He heard it again, and again and again. At the end of the show, a beaming Collector sahib sprang to his feet and clapped his hands together furiously. “Bravo! Bravo!” The immensely satisfying chorus of applause compelled Gopi to take not one but three consecutive bows.
Collector sahib was so excited that he waived away the post-show pooris and approached Gopi’s father for a word in private. “This boy’s gift is too precious to be squandered here,” he insisted. “My brother-in-law in Delhi works at All India Radio. I’ll arrange for the boy to meet him tomorrow – make sure he’s ready.” He paused and then added in a softer voice, “This partition has broken too many hearts. We all… we all need a laugh right now.”
After a hearty meal and many more encores, Collector sahib confirmed the pick-up time for the next morning and bade everyone good night. His farewell was a lot more heartfelt and warmer than his greetings earlier that day. The automobile hadn’t even exited the village boundary when Gopi’s father excitedly started planning Gopi’s future. It was decided – the boy would go with Collector sahib to Delhi the next day, impress the important men there, become a radio star and bring back lots of money. Gopi too got swept up in the excitement. “Baba, do you think Collector sahib will let me drive the automobile? My teacher said there are no huts in Delhi, everybody lives in stone houses and some even have pet peacocks. Do you think we’ll get to see any peacocks, Ma?”
His mother looked at Gopi’s father, apprehensively. “I didn’t want to say anything in front of Collector sahib but…it is not an auspicious day to travel tomorrow. See here, on the calendar, it says that it’s Parva tomorrow – not a good day to begin a journey.”
She motioned towards the calendar where, underneath the right corner of Lord Krishna’s smile, was the number 14, circled in red to denote an inauspicious lunar alignment.
“Woman, are you mad? Collector sahib said that if the boy is selected, he’ll get two rupees on the spot! Two rupees! That’s enough to feed every Brahmin in the village twice over, so don’t worry about your Lord Krishna. He’ll be well taken care of.”
“Can’t you ask Collector sahib to choose another day?”
“Ha, yes, yes that’s a great idea. I’ll just tell him that my silly wife would prefer…”
“It’s just one day, he’s such a big sahib, they’ll listen to him if he…”
“No, you listen to me, woman. My decision is final. Now shut up.”
“You can talk to Collector sahib! Just tell him it’s Parva! Tell him it is not…”
It had been a long time since Gopi had heard the familiar sequence. The crisp, loud slap. Then another. Then another. As he saw his father reach for his laathi, Gopi ran in front of his trembling mother, still not sure quite what he was about to say. “Baba, can I… can I have your chappals for the journey? I promise I’ll take good care of them.”
Gopi’s father, his eyes still fixed on his familiar victim, paused for a moment. He looked like a statue of a revolutionary leader leading a violent mob, laathi in hand, chest swollen, eyes wide with manic determination. What a thin line it is between hero and destroyer, how similar they both appear in the fiery glow of passion.
He glanced down at Gopi and, after a moment’s hesitation, threw away the laathi which landed noisily on the clay jug, spilling water all over the floor. Then, Gopi’s father marched out of the room, still breathing heavily. Within minutes, he was passed out on the front porch, snoring soundly.
“Ma… are you okay?”
“Come here, beta.”
Her breathing slowed and her hands regained their composure as she instantly transformed from the battered to the protector, the way only a mother can.
“See how happy I am? How happy you make me?”
Gopi’s mother hugged him more tightly than usual. Maybe it wasn’t the astrological omen but the anxiety of being away from her son that was making her so uneasy. Her husband would often sneer at her. “You’re too in love with that boy. That’s why your womb went barren the minute he popped out.” Maybe he was right. Or maybe God, in his infinite compassion, had spared her the sin of bringing one more life into this cursed village.
Throughout the four-hour carriage ride to the city, Collector sahib was spouting English words which Gopi didn’t understand. “‘God is a comedian, playing to an audience too scared to laugh.’ That’s a famous proverb, son. You know which cheeky bugger said that? Of course, you don’t.”
Gopi did not know, nor did he care. He was too infatuated with the experience of his maiden automobile ride. The roar of the engine sounded even louder from the inside. He checked the many compartments and drawers inside the car, but he couldn’t find the source of the sound. He imagined a ferocious tiger trapped deep within the automobile, roaring thunderously, scrambling in vein to escape, propelling the car forward with each desperate motion. The scene was at once silly and sad. After he laughed at the tiger, he felt bad for it.
The carriage finally stopped outside an enormous grey building with the words “All India Radio” inscribed above the front door. Gopi noticed there were no peacocks waiting to greet them, which was a bit disappointing.
Gopi and Collector sahib entered the lobby of this magnificent structure and were greeted by two scrawny men who hurriedly led them down a wide hallway, past what must have been a dozen rooms filled with tables, typewriters, and busy-looking people. Each room was bigger than Gopi’s house.
“This way.” The scrawnier of the two men stopped outside a green door and motioned for Gopi and Collector sahib to enter. They found themselves in a cramped, windowless room, where several empty-faced children, accompanied by anxious adults, were quietly waiting. Every now and then, an elderly man in a black jacket sitting on the only stool in the room would yell out a name and a child would be ushered through a heavy green door into another room. A few minutes later, the child would walk back in through the same green door and quickly make their way towards the exit. Some children looked happy when they came out and some looked disappointed, but they all appeared equally exhausted.
The room made Gopi cough. Almost every adult there was puffing on a white tube that smelled worse than the beedis that the men in Hastinapur smoked. Between drawing puffs of the vile contraption, the old man in the black jacket shouted, “Master Gopi!” Collector sahib grabbed Gopi by the hand and marched him through a small door. Gopi found himself in a strange room with no furniture, just a large microphone behind a glass plate, surrounded by boxes with colorful buttons on them.
“Stand here, behind this and speak loudly into it. Loudly, okay? Good, now begin! Make them laugh, my boy!”
Gopi looked out into the crowd of serious-looking men. He cleared his throat and let the mischievous smile take over.
It was pitch dark by the time the automobile made its way back to the fields of Hastinapur. Collector sahib had been excitedly babbling throughout the ride, even as Gopi drifted in and out of sleep. Each time he thought of what had just happened, the exhilaration was too much to handle. He would drift off, only to wake up again, remembering at once that he was on the precipice of something special – clutching his two rupees with one hand and his box of laddoos with the other.
There was a large crowd gathered outside Gopi’s hut – it seemed like half the village was there! He knew he should have brought back more than one box of laddoos. This one was for his mother. Maybe he should hide it from the crowd? His mother wouldn’t like that though, she always said it was a sin to hide food. Maybe… but isn’t it also a sin to come home empty-handed?
Collector sahib excitedly hopped out of the automobile before it came to a complete halt. “A hero’s welcome! Wait till I tell them the good news, my boy!”
Gopi opened the car door, said a soft goodbye to the poor trapped tiger and jumped out behind Collector sahib. Happy as he was to be home, Gopi was a bit unnerved by the crowd. No one was saying a word. Oddly, no one was smiling. Did they think he had failed? Should he tell them? No, he would tell his mother first. Suddenly, Gopi felt a sense of urgency. Where was his mother? Lots of hands were trying to reach him, many concerned voices were beckoning for him to listen to them, to hold their hand, but right now, Gopi had eyes only for his mother. He pushed and shoved through the crowd, running the final few steps into his hut.
He heard the familiar sobbing, only it sounded different – coarser and more afraid. He hurriedly took off his slippers, washed his feet and ran into the main room. His father’s body was shaking violently as he cried like a wounded wolf, still clutching his freshly reddened laathi. Next to him, a pool of blood that led to where Gopi dared not go. The box of laddoos fell out of his hands as Gopi dropped to his knees. Somehow, Lord Krishna was still smiling.
Priyank Mathur is a writer, producer and entrepreneur who splits his time between Boston and New Delhi. He is a former Contributing Writer for The Onion and for the TV series, Onion News Network, on IFC. As Founder and CEO of Mythos Labs, Priyank has produced and co-written over a dozen short films in Asia that use humor to promote gender equality and positive narratives. Priyank previously served as a Counterterrorism Intelligence Analyst at the US Department of Homeland Security and as Global Consulting Director at Ogilvy. Priyank’s work has been featured on Quartz, CNN, Hindustan Times, The Tribune, and Bangkok Post, among others. A proud alumnus of Boston University and MIT, Priyank can usually be found planning his next trip, binge-watching a political thriller, eating a whole pizza, or all of the above. Twitter: @PriyankSMathur