Birthing the Blue
by Abha Iyengar
Ashraf stepped on the dead foetus once more, just to make sure, and then he pulled his foot back. Mission accomplished. There was a long streak of blood down the back of the small creature that lay like a bird. It flowed from its back and trailed a finger along the spine of the road. This he would leave for the crows to feast on. He needed to get home.
* * *
Ashraf came home dog tired. He was a small man, with a faun-like face and a thin, emaciated body, the stomach so caved in that you could rest a baby there. His features were delicate, but his skin was rough and abrasive. The black checked lungi that he wore had dark brown stains on it and carried the stench of rotting animal flesh.
On his left arm, above the elbow, was tied an amulet with a black string. On his left ankle he wore a hansli, a thick, well rounded but hollow anklet, smooth and heavy, which made his walk a bit ungainly. On the index finger of his right hand he wore a large topaz set in a ring made of the five metals. He did not like being asked why he wore all this, but did give an explanation if anyone persisted. “As a child I was prone to fevers,” he would say, “so my mother took me to mosques, soothsayers, holy men and shamans.” It was a question of life and death for him, and he preferred to live with the good luck charms. He sat down on the floor now, his lungi bunched around his legs.
He giggled suddenly and hit the inside of his thigh. It was a low giggle, much like a girl’s. “Caught you,” he said to the mosquito that lay dead against his skin. He flicked it away with the sharp pointed nail of his little finger. “Saa...la” he cursed under his breath.
The tattoo on the inside of his right ankle began to glow like fireflies on a dark night. Kareen Mian a.k.a.The Crane was calling. Dinner would have to wait. He gulped down some water and stepped out into the street.
* * *
Kareen Mian — or The Crane — stood on his long legs and leant against the wall, eyes closed, deep in thought. This is what had given him his name.
He put a pinch of tobacco very carefully behind his lower lip and let the saliva do the rest. Ashraf had bungled the last task. This made him very unhappy.
Ashraf walked in, his lungi threatening to fall off his thin torso. The stench filled the air-conditioned room. Silently, Kareen Mian nodded at a chair near the desk. A fresh lungi of the same colour and weave was lying on it. Ashraf picked it up and threw the old one in the waste paper basket. He tied the new one around himself as Kareen Mian watched. There was no time to lose, so he had not gone to the washroom to change. After all, The Crane knew him well enough.
“I can see that you want to show me that you are still worth it,” said The Crane. The tobacco in his mouth gave a particular thickness to his speech.
“Well, just that I am still available.” Ashraf had no illusions about himself. Years of doing his job and being on the run, at the beck and call of his job or his master, and his bouts of unexplained fever, diminished in frequency now but still potent when they took hold of him, had made him a pretty undesirable specimen of humanity. Most of all, no amount of shampooing or washing or anointing himself with his favourite jasmine ittar made any difference to the smell of his body, the smell of the scavenger.
The Crane was looking as though he was asleep.“What happened to the last job, Ashraf mian?” he croaked suddenly. The word mian, spoken to denote a sense of bonhomie, actually bit Ashraf’s ear like a mad dog. The bite was sharp, stinging, sudden.
* * *
The Crane had made good use of Ashraf’s availability. He opened a bleary eye and looked at Ashraf lying next to him. Though there had been no time to waste, and Ashraf had to be taught a lesson, he had been unable to stop himself. There was something about Ashraf that he could not resist, despite the fact that he had become thinner and smellier over time. Even the smell was exciting.
He pushed his long thin, very pink legs onto the floor and stepped into the shower. The water cascaded over his white fleshy body.
He re-entered the room and shook Ashraf awake. “Meet me for breakfast below in ten minutes,” he said, “we have lost precious time.”
“Worth it, but, wasn’t it, boss?” said Ashraf, assured of his place once again. “A much needed intervention.” His low giggle hit the walls and bounced back. He sat up, his legs hitting the floor and his hansli made a thudding sound.
“Why do you wear the damned thing?” said Kareen Mian, “It’s very distracting.”
“To seduce you,” Ashraf grinned. He lifted his right leg onto the bed and traced a finger over the tattoo on the inside of the ankle. The tattoo was of a crane, waiting in waters. “I like this too,” he said. “Especially when it glows. I know then that you want me to come.” He looked up, his kohl-rimmed eyes full of mischief.
The Crane shut the door behind him.
* * *
The mood at breakfast was business. The Crane said that there was no time. They had to go meet Kansa.
Ashraf spoke, “Kansa, the Kangaroo. The Immortal one. The Ruthless one. The Indulgent one. We bow before the might of Kansa.”
The Crane’s smile was forced. “This is serious, Ashraf.”
Ashraf said, “I am serious. I speak nothing but the truth, don’t I? I am happy that we have a job coming our way from her, for we feast and make merry as well. And the money is not to be sneezed at.”
Kansa was ruthless in ordering the killing of whoever she thought deserved it and Ashraf and Kareen Mian did the job well for her. Ashraf and Kareen Mian were extremely adept at the killing and the eating of the condemned. While Kareen Mian went for the delicate parts and was rather finicky in his pickings, Ashraf went the whole hog, and often emerged from one of his eating orgies with blood all over himself.
“We have to leave immediately. She said the matter was urgent. We have to be there before the baby.” Kareen Mian said.
Ashraf choked on the liver on his toast. Another baby? Was his fate to be this, handling small stuff? For a long time now, nothing big had come his way. He swallowed hard and looked at his arm. A mosquito sat there, its long proboscis drawing blood. “Saa...” cursed Ashraf and killed it on the spot. “Blood-sucker,” he said.
Kareen Mian placed his napkin carefully on the side. “Are you ready, Ashraf?” he asked.
Ashraf nodded. “Yes. May I ride on your back?”
“Of course,” said Kareen Mian. He was suddenly overcome with excitement. The idea of Ashraf on his back made him swoon.
* * *
Kansa’s astrologer welcomed Ashraf and Kareen Mian at the gates of the Blue World. This was Kansa’s world, and she had lovingly created it to suit her tastes. The astrologer ushered them into the palanquin, and as they sat on the watery blue satin cushions and smoked the customary hookah, he spoke with extreme gravity.
“You know that Kansa the Kangaroo is immortal, don’t you?” the astrologer asked them.
“Yes, nothing and nobody can kill her.” As they spoke, their eyes blinked to adjust to the blue haze that hung everywhere.
“When the gods are forced to grant you immortality, for they never do this willingly, they also always make it conditional. It’s a trip-up,” said the astrologer.
Ashraf and Kareen Mian listened quietly.
“Kansa remains immortal as long as no child enters her pouch and survives. She is barren, so her safety is keyed into her system. Yet, she also desires children, and despite my warnings, has copulated with many just to have a child.”
“Then she is safe...” Kareen Mian was getting impatient. Why had Kansa called them? He shot a look at Ashraf. Kansa had a soft spot for Ashraf. He quelled his jealousy and listened to the astrologer.
“Kansa has a twin sister, Malati, who is extremely fecund. Kansa has now put Malati under house arrest so that all her babies are brought to Kansa straight away. Malati has produced seven babies to date, one after the other. Each one, at the time of its birth, was pulled out from Malati’s pouch and placed in Kansa’s pouch, on Kansa’s insistence. Kansa’s great need to experience motherhood is making her desperate.”
“But this has not killed her. So what’s the problem?” Kareen Mian looked out of the palanquin. He could not see anything which caught his fancy. He decided he did not like hookahs. He unhitched his mouth from the one he was smoking and closed his eyes.
The astrologer continued to speak. “They were weaklings and they died in her pouch. But the eighth one will survive. He must not enter her pouch. He will be the Death of Kansa! He has to be killed.”
Kareen Mian was shaken out of his reverie. So, the job was there.
Ashraf’s eyes were glinting like black stones as he sucked hard on the hookah. He jumped off the palanquin, for they had reached the palace. The astrologer followed him, and Kareen Mian exited last, happy to be escorted by two very elegant fish. They were a feast for his eyes.
* * *
Kansa reclined on a floating bed of blue lotus flowers and deeper blue lilies, getting a relaxing massage from several nubile young maidens and men. She closed her eyes as she felt fingers caress her fat stomach with perfumed oil. When these fingers reached inside her pouch, she sighed. She thought back to the last conversation she had had with her astrologer in her consultation chamber.
“Malati is with child again, I hope this one is strong,” said Kansa.
Her astrologer made a sign to her to contain herself. “He will be strong. He will not die. You will have to have him killed,” he said.
Kansa was angry. “Why? Why do you say this when you know I want this child for myself? Make him live and I will give you anything!”
“Accept the laws of nature, Kansa. You are not meant to have a child. Once an heir comes into your pouch, he will suck away all your powers and you will die.”
“I am immortal, no one can kill me.”
“This one surely will.” The astrologer was firm.
“What are you saying?” Kansa’s big body shook from top to toe.
“Kill him, Kansa.”
On her astrologer’s insistence, Kansa had called for a meeting with Ashraf and Kareen Mian.
* * *
When Ashraf and Kareen Mian entered her court, the air was heavy with the smell of unguents and perfumes. Kansa signalled and soft, lilting music filled the air. The handmaidens and men swept themselves into the shadows.
Kansa sat up now, her body glistening and alive against plush blue cushions. On either side of her sat Ashraf and Kareen Mian. She motioned to Ashraf to bend towards her. As Ashraf bent, she pointed to her pouch. “This is destined to remain empty forever, Ashraf. I have been advised that I should get my eighth nephew killed, for he will otherwise kill me. What do you think?”
Ashraf licked his lips. He whispered back.
Kareen Mian a.k.a. The Crane leaned forward to hear the exchange, his plump body finding it difficult to bend forward and maintain the balance on his stick-like legs. He heard Ashraf say, “Of course you can’t take chances, even for the sake of the pouch.”
“I feel so barren,” moaned Kansa.
She is getting old, thought Ashraf to himself, noticing for the first time the creases around her eyes. He moved back, and Kareen Mian was relieved. He did not want to share Ashraf today with Kansa.
“Anyway, it is a choice between immortality and barrenness. I suggest you choose the latter,” said Ashraf. He was always one for practicalities.
“Kill him then, as soon as he is born,” Kansa commanded. “Let us drink,” she said, and the air filled with the sound of champagne pops.
The party was in full swing when a handmaiden came running into the court. “The baby, the baby is born, he is here,” she said, dropping on her knees and holding out the baby to Kansa.
Kansa had one look and her eyes began to shine. “A blue joey. Irresistible. Here, put him in my pouch.”
“No,” warned the astrologer, standing next to her. If Kansa went, he went.
“No,” said Ashraf, not wanting to lose out on the killing and eating.
“No,” said Kareen Mian, seeing his chances slip away of a delicate feast.
“Yes,” said Kansa, as the blue baby curled into her pouch and began to suck on her teats. “Motherhood...” She sighed with contentment.
* * *
The night was dark. The waters swirled and eddied around Kansa’s world. Kansa the Kangaroo, who had defied Death till now, could not hold out against her desire for a baby. The curse that came with the hard-earned boon of immortality finally destroyed her. The life was sucked out of her by the eighth-born child of her sister.
Ashraf and Kareen Mian were unable to understand her self-willed destruction. They drank themselves silly, knowing that the party had ended. Their eyes locked.
“I feel the fireflies glowing at my ankle,” said Ashraf.
“Lead the way,” said Kareen Mian.
Copyright © 2009 by Abha Iyengar