Pukon, Pakkom’s eldest son, my uncle, was a tall and lanky fellow. He loved playing football and many a times in his life he had to resist the moral bondage of duty and run away to join his football team. He also happened to be the first person in the village who brought home a modern football. Prior to him they played with dried hyacinths stitched into a round shape. The day he went to buy the football from the market he woke up with the first crow of the cock which was precisely at one a.m. during that time of the year—it would be dawn at three a.m. and daylight would begin at four a.m. (My tall and lanky uncle of course did not count the hours of the day in numerals of clock-time). With a mind moved by will-power, he washed his face and climbed down the house, it was pitch-dark and his eyes took some time adjusting as he smelt his way towards the shed. There was the smell of fresh cow dung mixed with a strong smell of something sweet that had turned sour (one of the oxen had farted). While he was untying his bullocks, he glanced up and saw the stars blinking high above, they seemed to be observing him too. With plough and yoke on his shoulder, he guided the bullocks to the fields, which were outside the village. The tilling was done till the break of dawn, and with dawn he began his journey to Lakhimpur, the closest town where he could buy a football.
He ran across ploughed lands, and past forests, crossed rivers (swam across one and took the boat service in the other one), escaped troublesome gangs of ill-famed villages, and finally reached Lakhimpur. At Lakhimpur he bought a “Rocket” football for twenty rupees and fifty paise and put it safely into his bag. On the way back Uncle Pukon stopped at a tavern to eat some rice. He was aware of having one of those hungers where he could eat trice the amount a normal person could eat. He was gifted with what was known among the Tani people as a ‘long stomach’. It was simply impossible to fill a long stomach or to make it bulge out; it had a mechanism of adjustment, tightening and rapid digestion. He asked the owner the price of rice and fish curry, which the owner replied as two rupees. “Can I have extra rice and curry to eat?” he inquired, concerned that he might have to leave hungry still. The owner replied, “As many times as you want. The extra is free.” So Pukon began eating and he found the food and the fish curry cooked with cauliflower to his liking. He grinded the puffed up rice with his teeth to perfection, his tongue flicked and mixed the food with saliva. The curry went with the grinded rice like fire on dry leaves, his mouth diminished the volume of food to a quarter of its original volume before it was sent down—it disappeared like magic. The first plate was licked clean and the extra was provided promptly. My young uncle had the feeling that he was just getting started because he could feel that his stomach was just warming up, still quite loose. Then the second extra came fast enough, and only now his stomach started to fill up. The fourth came in and by the time he licked it clean the preliminary round of filling his stomach was over. His stomach was finally beginning to feel satisfied and was taking on that admirable muscular and tightened shape that he knew so well. He felt good with the way things were going and was looking forward to the fifth helping but there was a delay. He had already licked the plate and his fingers clean, and now the plate and his fingers were beginning to dry up like clay, “Hey, Owner of this Tavern! Bring me some more!” he said. Then he heard two people arguing over something in the kitchen-side of the establishment, one was the owner’s voice and the other was probably the cook’s. Pukon became angry with the sly owner who was no doubt considering profit and loss. He got up angrily and spoke in a menacing voice, “Is there a problem Owner Fellow? Why the delay?” Then after a few tense moments of silence, the cook himself came out with an empty sack and an empty cooking-pot. “Sir, please don’t feel offended but there is no rice left for me to cook. What we had for today you have finished it.” Pukon looked at the cook and saw that he was telling the truth. He washed his hands with the jar, took out two rupees and kept it on the table, and went out to continue on his return journey. Then after a while, he laughed recollecting the whole incident. These fellows just don’t know that not everyone eats only as much as they eat. Shit! Umbrella alone would eat ten times what they eat. I wish I had brought him with me. That stomach of his probably would not have even felt that something had entered inside it.
The sun was already sinking by the time he got back to the Subansiri river. There were no men nor boats in sight, so he tied the football to his back and jumped into the high current and whirlpools of the river. He emerged out of the water on the other side quite enervated at his own will and daring. In the twilight, as he was passing through the adjoining Koyom village, he caught sight of a tiny chicken-coop plus a bottle of gin standing on his path. It was glowing in the dying light against a background of white sand. Seeing nobody was around he picked them up happily and kept walking back in the direction of his village. When he entered his village he went straight for his friend Bilasing’s house, ready for a feast.
“Oi Atai Bilasing! Come out!” Pukon shouted from the front of his friend’s house, “You motherfucker, Come out double quick!”
“Oi Atai!” came the reply, “Coming!”
Bilasing came out with ruffled hair but looking ready and alert. “What is the matter?” he asked expectantly.
“I have a coop of chicken and a bottle of gin,” said Pukon, “Let's hit it!”
When the two finished plucking off the feathers of the chicken the first cock had crowed to signal the arrival of a new day. It was already dawn by the time the two licked the cauldron clean. He and Bilasing thought of catching some sleep but decided better not to. Instead, they walked from house to house and woke up all the players of their village, and got them ready for the match against the Yeken team.
The match did not go anybody's way. The Yeken team was strong but so was the Basket team. There was no one willing to be a referee as referees usually ended up getting beaten up by the audience. And the match went on and on. Foot collided against foot, bone collided against bone, ankles got swollen, toes got twisted, toe-nails got torn, and players limped around with raw and stingy feet. The game kept on and the tension kept mounting. The sun was beginning its descent when a point came when Pukon made a decision in his heart that no matter what, he was going to score a goal that very minute. He intercepted the ball, and turned a three hundred and sixty degree which was his signature move and ran with the ball towards the opponent’s goal. It did not bother him that there were players in front of him and beside him trying to stop him, they did not matter anymore, he was going to score a goal, it was a simple truth, he entered the penalty box and—somebody caught his shirt and pulled him back. He stopped right there, then went straight ahead and picked up the ball with his hand. Match stopped. Basket team wanted a penalty and the Yeken team did not. Sentiments rocketed up. Outside of the field the Yeken supporters watching were waiting for just such a moment. They already had thorny twigs hidden in the nearby shrubs in case they lost the match. They came charging in with their weapons and the fight begun. Umbrella and a few others stood their ground. Umbrella had his reputation as a fighter: he looked thin but no matter how you hurled him to the ground he never fell flat on his back.
Pukon did not risk staying back to take the fight to the enemy. He ran like the rest of the team. A Yeken fellow ran after him, his thorny club raised on his hand ready to strike-hurl it at the disappearing head of the man ahead of him. But he could not keep up as Pukon leapt across a large puddle and kept running.
Just across the bend the Jaguar was on his way to see if he could catch the last minutes of the match.
“Where are you running?” the Jaguar asked Pukon, “Who won the match?”
“The match never got over. They are beating our boys with thorn-clubs.”
“Was Umbrella back there?” he asked hurriedly.
“Yeah he is alone.”
And Jaguar was not called Jaguar for no reason. He could catch a flying knife in mid-air. He and Umbrella were a team. Pukon did not see the fight that ensued between the Yeken team and the deadly duo, but the next day he saw many bandaged people being carried past his house on stretchers. They were the victims of Umbrella and Jaguar, and these poor victims were being carried to the hospital in Lakhimpur, which was the only one in a radius of ten miles.
Life moved on. My uncle who loved playing football died at the young age of twenty-five or twenty-six in a quick case of pneumonia and dysentery, leaving behind a wife and a son. His death was a mysterious affair that seemed to have been perpetrated by the entire village. It was an open secret that his life was taken by Moolad who tamed an army of cats without tails, (which he sent out at night). A certain important and good man of the village had become gravely ill, and was lying on his death bed. The villagers wished that he should not die. Moolad said that he would stop death from taking away the man, but for that to happen he had to take another man’s life. It so happened that it was Pukon’s life that Moolad had thought of, and the villagers agreed with him, more or less. Lolita, after the sudden and mysterious death of her husband, left Basket village with his son, to begin a new life in Asiapin village which was some five miles away, and closer to Three-Roads town.