The Octopus: A Fable
Pariya Tenammi suffered from a unique problem that became the source of all his misery. It was this that rendered his life a mess, turning it into a series of unfortunate heartbreaks unfolding one after the other. For as long as anyone can remember, whenever Pariya fell in love, seconds after, he’d turn into a gigantic octopus.
He was all of eight when it first happened. One humid August evening, his new neighbour, Nomi, eagerly tagged along with her mother to make introductions. Pariya, shy, withdrawn, approached the playful Nomi, close to his own age, with some caution and an extended hand; an ageless offering of friendship. So, when Nomi cheekily swatted away the hand and pulled Pariya in an embarrassing embrace, he was flushed with something he’d never felt before.
In a flash, the room turned into a cauldron of screams. The shrieks bounced off the walls and seeped into the carpet, lamps, everything, ensuring no one would forget that day all too easily. A bawling Nomi was hurried out by her horrified mother. She was sternly told to keep her eyes averted from the nightmarish octopus.
Pariya usually remained an octopus as long as the sheer intensity of what he’d felt last. Three hours later, he began to forget Nomi’s face and the warmth of her fingertips embedded in his back began to fade. Gradually, he started to change back. His tentacles thinned to arms and legs and the frantic sobbing of his mother stopped. Our Pariya was back. Naked as the day he was born.
In those days, Mrs. Tenammi was problematically superstitious. It was difficult to explain to her that things were the way they were because they simply couldn’t be any other way. With a set mind and turning a deaf ear to Mr. Tenammi’s reasoning and well-founded scepticism, she marched to the door of every witch-doctor she could find. And, inevitably, for a time, Pariya became the victim of his mother’s determination. Of her resolve to find logic in a place where it didn’t exist. And to cure something that couldn’t be cured.
Poor Pariya was shown to countless tantriks and sadhus. He was smacked silly with brooms, rose-scented incense sticks, shimmering tail feathers of a peacock and numberless items drawn reverently from small, dank cupboards. To impress the paying mother, strange brown and green powders were blown into Pariya’s stinging eyes, his clipped toe-nails were tossed into a sacred fire and spirited Sanskrit prayers were raised to the heavens. All to force out the non-existent demonic spirit of the Octopus, the ashtbhuj, from the boy’s body.
After six weeks of this madness, when Pariya’s limbs didn’t swell into tentacles in a spontaneous explosion for three whole months, Mrs. Tenammi considered her efforts a triumph. She larded the victory over her husband and brought it up frequently to settle petty disputes. At the time, she didn’t know or understand that nothing had changed. But time, being kind would allow Mrs. Tenammiher complacency for another six years. Because it would be six years before Pariya found Graja, sitting in a corner of the classroom, scratching her name with the wrong end of a compass into the chipped wood of her desk.
Pariya was fourteen, chubby and sprinkled generously with acne when he saw Graja one Friday afternoon. While he was geeky and solitary, Graja was no spring flower either. Stubborn, crazy and with a beaky nose, which looked as if it had been mercilessly pinched out of shape, she was wild, more storm than a girl. Did Pariya fall in love at first sight? Thankfully, no. It would be terrifying to imagine the enormous octopus slithering towards a cowering Graja across a chaotic, screeching classroom.
No. First came the fumbling of a new friendship. A day after he noticed her, Graja, deservedly, and Pariya, mistakenly, were punished in Biology class for interrupting the flow of Mr. Sen’s priceless thoughts. “The colon is an important part of the syllabus. It’s worth at least four marks!” Mr. Sen bellowed at Graja. To this, Graja couldn’t help responding icily, “Four marks or ten, I’m not interested in your colon.”
During the lunch break, Graja walked over to Pariya to apologize for dragging him down with her. And over palms placed close to each other, comparing the depth of the red left behind by Mr. Sen’s angry ruler, a peculiar bond formed between the two. In the following week, it strengthened as Pariya began to grasp, and even find pleasing, Graja’s crude humour. Graja, on the other hand, fell in love with Mrs. Tenammi’s cooking and the daily, almost sinful, pleasures of Pariya’s lunchbox.
As unlikely friendships go, it was a good one. But it didn’t last longer than a month. What went wrong? What else.
It happened on a Saturday when Graja and Pariya wandered to the roof during lunch to enjoy the shade and gurgling of rainclouds that seemed unaware that it was March. Sitting down on the cool floor across from him, Graja snapped open his lunch box. Peeling back the crinkling aluminum foil, she marvelled at the rich colour of the paranthas, the intoxicating aroma of nimbu achaar. As they both immersed their fingers into the small plastic box, trouble busily got down to work.
The first drop of rain struck Pariya’s nose in warning. Thereafter, in seconds, it grew into an onslaught. Pariya hurriedly stood up, pointlessly covering the lunchbox with a hand, searching for its lid. Graja didn’t move. She turned her palms to the sky instead and, catching Pariya off-guard, smiled.
It was a sweet, disarming smile. It was an un-Graja smile. Pariya saw the smile and thought of a small boat, catching the wind in its large sails, managing to pull an island after itself. That was what that smile, though slight, did for Graja. In a blink, it transformed her completely, personality and all.
What happened after that isn’t all too hard to guess. Pariya was an innocent in the ways of rain. Inexperienced, he was unaware of its mischievous nature, its cunning. He had no idea how it both brought out and imbued, with the suddenness of a lightening, beauty. And to see Graja like that, her dark hair thrown back, eyes squinting at the sky and that guileless smile on her lips, Pariya didn’t stand a chance.
Two minutes later, a hysterical Graja came dashing down the slippery staircase, yelling for help. There was a monster on the terrace. When the shaking, superstitious guard, gripping the black thread around his neck with fervor, opened the clunky door to the terrace, there was no monster to be found; just a nude Pariya. With tears on his face that were indistinguishable from the rain.
The episode with Graja made it obvious for the Tenammi family what the incident with Nomi hadn’t. Now, that family of three knew what they were facing. This time, Mrs. Tenammi didn’t insist on voodoo or high-profile astrologers or black magic. All she did was hold her son, as a desolate Pariya broke down in her lap. The sheer violence of that first heartbreak spares no one. But for Pariya, somewhere, an invisible line had been drawn. A law created. My grandparents, to give them credit, never said it out loud. But when my father at fourteen wept, when the misery beat out of him in waves, he didn’t just weep for the heartbreak that was burning a hole through his chest. Chubby but bright, speckled with acne but precocious, Pariya also wept for all the heartbreaks he’d never have.
After that, life went on as usual. A portent unease descended on the Tenammi household for a while. But if Pariya was anything, he was dependable. In the years to come, he wilfully steered clear of women. What helped immensely was that puberty wasn’t yet done with him. It was slow and methodical in its tortures. And so, with Pariya sporting a wispy mustache, pitted cheeks that broke out in hives with cruel unpredictability and new layers of fat on top of the old pudge, women steered clear of him too.
Years passed. Neighbours shifted in, shifted out. The long-held custom of having fresh flowers in the drawing-room vase had to be discarded when the florist doubled the price of sunflowers. For a few years, seven artificial, perfumed roses were stuck down the vase’s throat. Eventually, the vase was removed from the drawing room. Pariya grew to be twenty-four years old.
This is where the story gets blurry, indistinct. I have hounded my grandparents for details, repeatedly asked friends of my parents to recount. But it has been of little use. Nobody knows how it happened but at twenty-four years of age, Pariya, my father, began dating an art restorer named Amyya. They dated steadily for three years before marrying in a splendid ceremony. The photographs of my parents’ luxurious wedding are among my most precious possessions.
A year later, they had me. And I was all of four when tragedy tore our small family apart. On a return flight from Anaheim, my mother suffered a fatal heart attack twelve minutes after the airplane picked its feet off the ground. My weeping father, inconsolable, trying to shake awake his dead wife, found no comfort in the uneasy-looking stewardess. As she repeated ‘Sir’, intoning it differently each time, my father, in his boundless grief, suffered a similar fate as my mother. While still in the air, an acute and terminal cardiac event robbed him of his life, too.
I don’t remember my parents very vividly. What I’m left with are stray voices that I often chase around in my mind. But growing up with my grandparents, I have nudged and coaxed every story and every spare memory from them. About how my father at six tried riding his first bicycle and drove it, at a great, unfurling speed, straight into a distracted postman. How when he brought my mother home for the very first time, my grandparents were taken aback by her frankness and the way she addressed them by their first names. When she laughed at a witticism from my father, throwing back her head, gargling loud, raucous laughter, a silence fell on the dinner table.
There are hundreds more. But the gaps in the stories remain. I look at the pictures of my mother and am startled by her beauty. By her grace and self-possession. And when I look at my father, I’m naturally forced to wonder at the match. My father, the studious, introverted Lepidopterist (I didn’t understand the choice of his vocation at first, but now I do; with butterflies being strong metaphors of transformation, he picked a field full of creatures whose bodies too had secrets of their own) and my mother, the successful, gorgeous art restorer whose work took her to places like Prague and Vienna, belonged to vastly different worlds in every way imaginable.
So, for a long time, I believed that my father did the practical thing and took the only way that truly existed for him. He played it safe and picked someone he couldn’t ever possibly love. People have done much worse, going against their very nature s at times, to avoid being lonely.
This conclusion to my father’s story has haunted me for a while. It upsets me to think that he not only was unfair to both himself and my mother but also, more troublingly, that he never found acceptance or happiness in any form until the very end. As much as it hurt, I believed in this version of events unquestioningly. Until today.
I woke today morning with my mind in the grip of an image that had been shaken loose from deep down in my sleep. And it was a thing so rich in detail, so suffused with recognisable elements, that I instantly knew it was not my imagination but a misplaced piece of actual memory.
It took me some hours to dig out the remembrance, brush it clean and be amazed at the ease with which it resolved the mystery of my parent’s marriage and lives. I remember it clearly now. I recall being little. I recall getting up from a low bed and knuckling from my eyes the remains of whatever nightmare that had woken me. Then, half-naked, I sleepily tottered into the living room, ready to squeeze all my displeasure at being wakened into an awesome fit of crying. But the scene in the living room captured my attention and left me stunned. I remember gazing with a mixture of fear and delight for almost a minute before they noticed me there. On the couch, engulfing it, their protruding eyes fixed on the news blaring on the television, two enormous octopuses lay sprawled. Their tentacles were snugly wrapped around each other. And if my adult self truly focuses on that old image, I can see one of the two tenderly leaning its bulky head against the other's.
He was happy. They both were.
Isn’t life bizarre?