‘What happened to his arm?” I blurted out, unable to contain my curiosity. My eyes were riveted on the one-handed Gurkha man-servant who was serving me water. It was a sunny Saturday morning and I was in Colonel Singh’s bungalow in Defence Colony, engaged in a chess game. The flunkey was new to me, maybe a retainer added to the superannuated Colonel’s household.
As was his wont, the combative Colonel did not bother to reply. He was thoroughly engrossed in the game of war. The retired soldier did not believe in multi-tasking his brain. He was single-mindedly focused on winning the war game but I was stirred to the core and unable to focus. Soon I made enough blunders for the crafty Colonel to gain the upper hand.
After hounding me for some more time, the Colonel decided to close in for the kill and clinch the combat. His face bore the expression of a tom cat, which suddenly feels ravenous after having played enough with its quarry. Driven to the edge, I swiftly calculated my chances of survival as nil and threw in the towel. Thus, ended another game of chess on the spacious verandah of Army officer Colonel Zalim Singh, though he had long retired from active service, he still loved to engage in hard core hostilities and treacherous tactics on the chequered seat of war.
“Koi hai” the victorious veteran boomed loudly and leaned back in his easy rattan chair, which he filled quite snugly.
As if on cue, the limbless Gurkha wearing a sleeveless white vest and khaki dungarees shimmied in through the house door and stood rapt in attention awaiting orders.
“Coffee”, the Colonel ordered, with his eyes half-closed and made a sweeping motion with hand indicating that the table be cleared off its wooden warriors.
Though the Colonel reclined nonchalantly in his repose, the summoned attendant once again drew my attention as he went about gathering the chessmen nimbly with his only hand. I have come across amputees before but the striking peculiarity of this man’s disfigurement was that where his right hand had once been, there remained only the twisted stubs of the scapula and a little socket in between them. The fleshly mottled skin added to the macabre effect.
When the lackey disappeared indoors to fetch the brew I could not help asking the Colonel.
“New man… seems civilian?” I asked.
“Yes” replied the Colonel, by now aware of my curiosity.
“How did he lose his arm?”
“Well, what do you think?”
“Accident or by birth?”, then noting the peculiar expression on Colonel’s face I made a wild guess, “Was his hand caught in some machinery…”
“Hmmm…well sort off” grunted the Colonel suppressing a smile, and then seeing that the man in question had returned with a tray full of mugs and steaming beverage pot he commanded,
“Jung Bahadur, tell us about that arm of yours,” quietly commanded the Colonel.
Bahadur disposed of the coffee tray on the table, poured us mugs of steaming black coffee and squatting on the floor, told us his tale.
“Sahib, I was only eleven years old when my Baba took me to the zoo,” Bahadur began his saga.
When Bahadur’s father, who was a janitor in the Globe Picture Palace in Calcutta, took his 11-year-old son for his first visit to the zoo, little Bahadur’s joy knew no bounds. On a bright Sunday morning that December, with his heart beating fast, he clung on to his father’s hand and gingerly stepped through the rotating turnstile into the Alipore Zoological Gardens.
Once inside, he gradually lost his initial fear and was soon running from cage to cage, excited and amazed to meet those wild creatures whom he had only seen in picture books and on the silver screen before. Bahadur Senior was content to stroll behind leisurely, smoking his beedi while his son gambolled ahead making new discoveries.
They saw the world famous Royal Bengal Tigers lolling about in the shallow pools, the playful chubby cubs of the albino tigress and a pride of lions majestic even in captivity. With pounding heart the little boy handed the enormous elephant a copper coin, which it received in the moist tip of its trunk and then did a salaam. Little Bahadur felt like a king!
After visiting the slithery snakes and scaly crocodiles feigning sleep in their clammy indoor enclosures, Junior was glad to be out again in the warm winter sunshine. Pressing his face close to the wire mesh the little boy watched enraptured, as migratory species of Siberian cranes, herons and egrets splashed about in the vast lake making quite a racket with all their cackling, gobbling and squawking.
Next they moved on to the primates. There were many varieties — chimpanzees, gibbons, baboons, bonobos, orangutans, macaques, marmosets and common langurs. Almost all of them morose being cooped up in their cramped cages and sullenly bearing the brunt of the crowd’s usual teasing behaviour.
One particular cage had drawn a large mob. The label on the cage read, GORILLA, gorilla, graveri. Habitat — Tropical rainforests of Eastern Congo, Height 5.5 ft., Weight 250 kgs. Inside the cage there sulked a massive black ape, a silverback mountain gorilla recently captured and imported from equatorial Africa. Little Bahadur was soon abreast of the crowd, gaping wide-eyed at the giant man-like monkey. The stocky and powerful anthropoid had large nostrils and beady black eyes sunk in its bluish bare face and except its chest the rest of its rugged body was covered with coarse black hair.
The people clustering at the cage were trying their best to stir up the animal into activity like its neighbouring brethren. Some people pelted it with stones; others threw bits of paper and wood splinters. Still others were trying to feed it groundnuts and toffee wrappers.
Someone threw a lighted cigarette, which landed right on the gorilla’s bare chest. The silverback sprang up, as all animals are instinctively afraid of fire, and then did something strange. It reared up on its hind paws and standing erect it thumped its broad chest with cupped paws and let out a roar of anger. Then the huge monkey knuckle-walked on all fours in its cage, emitting low grunts while thumping the cage floor with both forepaws.
The crowd was greatly amused by this performance and applauded loudly. As soon as the animal calmed down, another lighted cigarette was aimed at it accompanied by other missiles to urge it for another show. Little Bahadur, by now in tune with the crowd had also aimed a pebble at the black beast. The enraged gorilla repeated the ritual, only this time it was more pronounced and the crowd was jubilant.
On calming down, the animal retreated to the rear of the cage in order to distance itself from the boisterous spectators. But the crowd had tasted blood and the poor beast was again bombarded with various objects. This time it refused to budge, which only incited the hooting and jeering crowd.
Little Bahadur threw some twigs but they failed to find their mark. Gritting his teeth he picked up a nice round pebble, and in a thrice had slipped under the guard iron railing and inserted his hand between the cage bars for a sure shot. In a flash the gorilla bounded across the cage floor and grabbed his hand.
Little Bahadur’s ear-piercing shriek was drowned by the gorilla’s mighty roar of triumph. The crazy crowd was momentarily taken aback by the suddenness of the animal’s attack and then pounced on the boy’s free arm. The air split with the boy’s screams of pain and terror, the gorilla’s bloodcurdling roars and unified yelling of the crowd as a terrible tug-of-war ensued with the human rope.
“And Sahib, till my dying day I shall not forget the brute’s face with its flaring nostrils, bared teeth, and bloodshot eyes under the shaggy brows. My father had joined the crowd and was raving frantic with anger and fear. I felt that I was being torn apart, when all of a sudden the Kala Shaitaan gave a mighty yank, and . . . ,” Instead of completing his tale, Bahadur indicated his loss with his eyes.
“So, you see his arm was plucked out by a monkey wrench”, chuckled the Colonel wryly. I looked on in a daze as Jung Bahadur stood up, collected the coffee mugs on the tray and carried it away with his only arm.