The Prop by Sashikanta Mishra

A narrow streak of sunlight steals through the window to wake up Madhu Sahoo as he lies on his cot alone. Sleep departs, and a simmering rage takes its place as his eyes fall on the walking stick resting against the wall.


It's the seventh day of his confinement!


Madhu Sahoo is six feet tall with a sturdy physique to match. Like the monkey king, Bali, the mere sight of him reduces his opponent's strength by half. His raucous laughter causes a beat to skip in even in the bravest of hearts. When Madhu Sahoo moves through the dusty lanes of Subaleswar village, all are struck with an awe usually reserved for mightier beasts like the elephant. No one ever steps on his wrong side. The number of prospective fights with Madhu Sahoo that were reduced to walkovers during his hey day is legion. None has matched his prowess since. He is the undisputed leader, the headman of the village since as far back as memory goes, and he is in no mood to abdicate.


He becomes conscious of the day – it's MakarSankranti and his seventy-fifth birthday.


He is livid, not so much about the freak accident he met while walking in the paddy fields, but for the shoddy treatment meted out by the 'boy' – his very own son, Mahavir, fifty years old and a father of three. Just a few decades ago the boy would have borne the brunt of a thrashing meant only for obstinate cattle, for his silent impunity. Sore knees do not disable a one-man-army! The fool had better understand.


Alright, so he had a fall in the fields. He'd stumbled upon a rock and landed with his entire weight on both knees. Since then, he's been unable to walk. The fools insist it was due to his dimming vision. How pathetic! He feels sorry for their opacity of vision.


But at he is mad at his son. Offering a prop to a mighty father is impunity indeed, though of a subtler kind. Madhu Sahoo fumes as he casts contemptuous glances at the far end of his room, where the wretched walking stick announces its uncouth presence. Its ugliness matches the acute poverty of his son's intellect. Its curvy head bows down before his might in profound apology, he notes with some satisfaction.


The stick had belonged to his father, long dead. He rues the fact that he did not cremate it with the old man.


Madhu Sahoo gets up in rage, but falls back to the bed, holding on to his knees. A seething pain courses up his limbs. He allows the storm to subside and tries to think clearly. He decides to snuff out the life of the shameless appendage, somehow. It is effrontery at its worst, he curses aloud at his son.


Come forenoon, the villagers arrive to inquire.


‘Grandfather, it's sad to see you lying thus on your birthday,’ Sumanta Jena, the upstart and aspiring headman, taunts.


‘Ah! The Bhima of Subaleswar confined to bed ... it's unimaginable ... yet true ... alas! Who can deter fate?’ Kartik Rout rubs salt to the wounds.


‘Better get the Mahasugandha Taila of Purna Kaviraj. The oil worked wonders with my grandfather. The old man used to gallop around like a horse even at eighty,’ Tikina Pradhan sprinkles a few drops of poison to the hateful broth.


Madhu Sahoo fumes within but, there is no word on his lips. He knows he's cornered. Eventually, the visitors leave, but not without spiking him further. The tiger lies in chains! They think he's a ripened fruit, ready to drop. Ha! What wishful thinking. He recalls what they've forgotten: climbing up the tall palms in one go, swimming across the half mile wide river underwater, breaking open a raw coconut with a single blow of the fist, the wrestling bouts, his agility, the swiftness of his leg tackle to down the opponent, the long shot of football from one goal post to another. They've forgotten it all. He curses them again.


They came to tell him, he's grown old. To ask him to abdicate in favour of fresh blood. What blood, he asks. It's like adulterated milk, without power or vigour! The tiger doesn't grow old. He simply matures. But he rules. Staying indoors for a week doesn't mean anything. He promises himself he will get back to action soon to nip the growing buds!


He hollers at the stupid boy. ‘Just break the stick and throw it, burn it, bury it ... do whatever you want ... just get it out of my sight.’


‘You'll need it to walk once your pain subsides,’ the boy answers calmly and leaves the room.


‘I'll never need it, you hear?’ he shouts after the boy.


The boy has the temerity to throw a challenge, the giant observes with ire! He'll soon see the end of it, the father promises himself.


He asks Dinu, the servant, to stealthily get the magic oil from the Kaviraj. Dinu gets the stuff and massages the master's knees. But his son sees them. ‘At this age, the quack's oil won't work. Let us see a doctor in the town, tomorrow,’ he says.


‘What? Have you gone mad? Has the unholy hand of a doctor ever defiled my body these seventy-five years...’ He stifles the urge to add that it would be so for the next twenty-five.


The boy departs with a smile on his lips.


His daughter-in-law brings food and attempts to feed him. What shame! But he's unable to squat on the floor. She makes him sit on the cot. He tries to shoo her away but she's in no mood to budge. Finally, he gives in, irritated but helpless at her steely resolve. He sits up on the cot, like an obedient child before his mother, while she drapes a towel around him. The bib tied securely, she forces him to open his mouth and feeds him. He can't eat without spilling, they say.


It will lessen her burden ... ugh!


It was only a few years earlier that he could devour almost half a goat with a matching heap of finely cooked rice. The old woman could cook a delicacy to his order. But now, they feed him some bland stuff made of vegetables only. It'll reduce his bowel movement, they say. He grimaces in disgust.


The sun's gone down the horizon. He feels the call and shouts for Dinu. The rascal's nowhere to be seen. The boy enters the room holding the bedpan. The father glares at the ungodly contraption.


‘I'm not going to use it!’ he barks as he's done for the past week.


‘Well, if you can squat, then I'll call Dinu and others to take you to the toilet,’ the boy answers.


‘I wont do it before you,’ he yells, causing the boy to leave instantly. But he returns with Dinu and leaves again.


Dinu keeps the bedpan in place and waits silently by the side. The master completes the routine. Dinu cleans his rear with a wet cloth and leaves with the bedpan. The giant casts furtive glances at the door. Nobody has seen, he surmises gratefully. He feels better.


He dreams of his father – the old man with the walking stick, bent double, tottering around the house – thuk-thuk-thuk!


He wakes up with a start. A gust of cool breeze flows in along with the moonlight. He's had enough, he decides. He strains his eyes in the shadowy light to make out the hazy silhouette of the stick. It's still resting on the wall unabashedly, its head bent in perpetual supplication. He senses its silent taunt. It's his best chance, he realises, to smash it to pieces.


The pain's all but gone. Slowly, he gets up and tries to move, holding the edge of the cot. The stick is arm's length away. He attempts to stand without support. He manages but only for a moment, for the pain returns, with a vengeance. It causes him to totter about like a drunkard and finally, his huge bulk tilts. He gropes around wildly for support and just manages to find the wall. He stands with his arms pressed to the wall. The stick's standing just below his hands. Within reach but still far away!


He looks around – the cot's at a distance now. Undecided, he leans onto the wall. The pain subsides eventually. So, he takes a hand off the wall. But he's unable to swivel his bulk to return to the cot. He tries to sit, but the pain threatens.


The sky lights up faintly through the window. He stands plastered to the wall like a lizard in wait for its prey.


Just then the boy enters the room but stops dead in his tracks. An eternity passes.


Finally, Madhu Sahoo breaks into a smile and lets go the wall to place a hand on the curvy head of the stick. Life returns!


He takes the walk back to the cot – thuk-thuk-thuk!


‘Thought, father in heaven would be sad if I had it thrown away,’ he explains to the boy. ‘You can take me to the doctor in town,’ he commands.


The boy understands.


He tells the same story to the villagers. They understand too.


They throng to the house in numbers. He tells them of his decision to abdicate in favour of younger blood. There's more rejoicing among the villagers as he agrees to be their advisor.


They've realised, he's indispensable after all. He takes a walk around the house – thuk-thuk-thuk!



Sashikanta Mishra has a postgraduate degree in Economics from Ravenshaw College, Cuttack and a degree in Law. After practicing as a lawyer for thirteen years in the High Court of Orissa, he was directly recruited as a District Judge in the Odisha Superior Judicial Service. Presently, he is posted as the Member-Secretary, Odisha State Legal Services Authority, Cuttack. Writing short stories in both English and Odia, is a hobby. His work has appeared in Out of Print and Muse India.