For a little bit of honey
Though the village children taunted Badi Bi, Veerka liked her. Even to the extent of braving a midnight jaunt into the dark forest.
“There is a dusty road up the hills which goes nowhere…” was the only thing Badi Bi would say. But she didn’t say it anymore. She had been lying on her cot, staring at the belly of her mud-tiled ceiling, for the last three days.
No one knew how old Badi bi was. She had been there since Veerka’s father was born. Her wrinkled body resembled the surface of a lake frozen on a breezy day. Bapu, Veerka’s father, said that her sons had gone to the city and never came back. The villagers helped her now and then.
Veerka had dark wiry limbs and deep set eyes which seemed to be looking inside him rather than out. He was the eldest son of a poor farmer, whose hut smelled of three smells: smoke, sweat and honey. Having no other helping hand, his father would take him to the jungles for wild honey hunting in the flowering season to give his family sustenance.
Veerka and other village brats had grown up playing around Badi bi’s hut, which was shaded by a mango tree. The brats would see her and chant, “Here lives the wrinkled toad, She only goes up the dusty road…” But she just gave them her toothless grin.
Veerka was fond of the bent old woman. He was her neighbour. She gave him mango slices covered with red-chilly and salt that he so loved. But as she grew older and couldn’t cut mangoes, Veerka brought her a little bowl of honey now and then. She would just grin happily and say, “There is a dusty road up the hills which goes nowhere…”
That day, Veerka stopped the village doctor coming from Badi bi’s house as he passed his hut. His father had been away to sell their meagre harvest in the city. The hens and chicks moved in and out of Veerka’s hut as if they owned the place. His skinny siblings looked after the younger ones with runny noses and watery eyes. The goat bleated in disapproval through a mouth full of grass and kicked some mud as one of them bumped into her.
“How is she?” asked Veerka.
“Magra Baba is calling her now. Not many days left.” The village doctor ran his fingers through his long beard.
“This can’t be! Isn’t there any way out?”
“Well, keep giving her wild honey. The rest is in the hands of Magra Baba.”
Honey was supposed to have healing powers and it gave a lot of energy. But all of their stock was over. Veerka went around the village to every hut looking for honey but no one had any left. Another day passed and Badi Bi kept looking at the ceiling, not able to eat anything.
“I will get the honey from the jungle,” he told his friend Roda.
Roda whistled in disbelief.
“You must not tell anyone, especially Amma.”
“And why are you telling me?”
“So that you can inform Bapu and Amma if something happens and I don’t come back.”
“Sweet. That’s what langotia friends are for. To break such news and get the whacking.”
Veerka had never gone to the jungle alone, let alone on the risky task of getting honey. That night, he stood near the mahua tree which housed a beehive of large bees. He tried not to think of leopards and snakes or of dying of a thousand bee stings. Lighting his torch of twigs, he climbed the mahua carefully, his face wrapped in cloth. Holding the sharp pole, bucket, rope and burning torch, which was made to emit more smoke than fire, he reached the branch of the beehive. The humming sound rose and fell like his heaving chest. Smoke stung his eyes and a few bees stung his hands. Once he had smoked away the bees, he hung the bucket below the hive and started cutting it with the pole.
It was a moonlit night. Before he could lower the filled bucket down the tree with his rope, he heard a loud puffing sound. Maintaining his balance, he turned around to see a sloth bear climbing up the tree! The short-sighted bear had not seen Veerka and had climbed up the tree to have honey, his favourite food. After all, bees couldn’t sting bears through their thick fur. No scream escaped a shocked Veerka’s throat as the bear scrambled up. He could neither jump down the tall tree nor fight the bear. Sweat trickled down his brows as he closed his eyes clenching the smoky torch in front. His mother had advised him to pray to Magra Baba in the times of peril, but all he could think of was home. This place also smelt of smoke, sweat and honey.
He expected to be pawed any moment when he heard the bear wailing. While attacking Veerka, it had caught hold of the torch instead. Howling like a banshee and sucking its burnt paw, the bear rushed down the tree and then into the night jungle.
Veerka climbed down on his wildly shaking limbs and hurried to the village.
Roda was slumped on the porch of Badi bi when a trembling Veerka came holding the honey bucket.
“How are you sleeping here?” Veerka managed to ask.
“In my underwear,” said Roda.
“I mean…never mind!”
Veerka trudged with the bucket into Badi bi’s hut and lit up a tiny lamp. They saw her staring at the ceiling. Roda squeezed some honey from the spongy hive in a pot. Veerka gently lifted up Badi bi’s head and trickled some honey down her throat. They sat there tensed and expectant through the night giving her a few drops of honey now and then.
At dawn, Roda tapped on Veerka’s shoulders and shook his head sadly. Veerka kept clutching the honey pot as his eyes welled with tears. As he began to get up, he saw a movement through his blurry eyes. Badi bi had turned her head towards them. Her face slowly broke in a toothless grin as she said, “There is a dusty road up the hills which goes nowhere…”