By Korou Khundrakpam
A Roadwidener does just that. It widens roads. I was only six when I first saw a Roadwidener myself. I was walking along the east-dyke when I saw it lazing around sprawled on top of a mound of earth. It was lying perfectly still. I would have thought it was dead if not for its grin and the tongue slipping out from between its blunt teeth occasionally to lick the damp earth beneath. A single lap every five six minutes. I stood there slouched against the earthen wall for about an hour observing it, so I know. In those days they were few in number and very hard to find. So it was natural for a six years old child to be intrigued by an actual sighting of the beast. Far from the uninspired picture of the Roadwidener in my school textbook, seeing this huge beast in real was very overwhelming, what with the rows of booted legs and the perpetual grin on its face. And it was not that it was grinning at me. It didn’t even notice my presence. They are extremely shortsighted creatures, a thing I learnt later on, and its other organs of perception are equally blunt. The grin was a permanent attribute of its face, it remained so whether it was grazing or walking or drowsing off. And it had these long rows of horns sticking out along both sides of its belly. Like the kind of huge ships you see on TV with oars sticking out from both sides of its hull. They looked dirty and worn out, with mud still dripping off from it. It is just back from work perhaps. After quietly observing it for some time I thought I would let it let it rest in peace. Also, I had to reach home before it grew dark.
This is how I first saw a Roadwidener. That was almost twenty years ago and since then; their population has steadily kept on increasing. In fact, since the last few years some people have started voicing their concern about the alarming rise in their number and the impact it may have on our lives. I was never too interested in the validity or even the nature of their concern. But all these years I have been fascinated by the sheer enigma of the beast’s existence! I have spent a fair share of my idle days scouting for a Roadwidener and observing it at length when I found one. It is only since the last three years that I stopped doing so on account of my weakening ankle. I even used to maintain an exclusive sketchbook where I made sketches of the beast from observation. These sketches, now yellowed, are strewn with notes I made on its behaviour. It is again that time of the year when you can’t take a walk around the neighbourhood without passing by at least three of them on the way. They are often seen idly basking in the summer sun. Not that I claim to be an expert in the physiology or behaviour of the beast, but I learnt a thing or two about it from my observations. They are solitary creatures and fiercely territorial. While on the move, and terribly slow they are, it makes a peculiar rattling sound from its huge belly. One would think its rib bones are all broken and hanging like wind chimes inside. Some say it sounds like drum beats, and some like a hailstorm.
How they first came to our village is still a conundrum. Some say they were brought with the influx of migrants from the west. Some discern they have been here since the beginning of mankind, citing primitive charcoal drawings found in the southern caves that vaguely resemble its form. Recently, a rumour is doing the rounds that they are in fact reincarnation of our Gods. And that they are here to save us from our predicament.
The most fascinating of all idiosyncrasies regarding the beast is the Roadwidening Parade. However it is not as much an aspect of the beast as it is of us humans. It is a ritual carried out with much furor and an almost religious zeal. It takes place when the Town Lord decides a particular road needs to be widened to let in a free flow of good fortune. The Parade is led by the Town Lord wearing a grin on his face as a reverence to the Roadwidener. He holds a long barbed leash in his hand. The length of the leash is equal to three fifth of the width of the town along the path of the sun. Next in line is the Roadwidener led by the barbed leash. But the length of the leash is such that there is a span of several days between the times the Beast and the Lord reach a particular place. And by the time the beast arrives, the road would have been properly dug up by the barbed leash like a freshly tilled field ready for sowing seeds. The beast then goes down to work, widening the road like it was born just for that; its movements brisk and economic, as if guided by an instinctive impulse vital for its survival. One of the fourth cousins of the Town Lord rides on the back of the beast. It is often someone with a tongue black from frequent contact with the leather of black polished boots. He lashes his tongue at the beast in an effort to either push it on or slow it down. I was never too sure about it.
Believers from all over the town gather to witness this ritual which, they are convinced, will bring them great fortune from beyond. They follow eagerly behind the beast as it advances forward. Those who were standing along the path of the Roadwidener either runs off to a safe distance or joins the crowd behind the beast where it is both safe and hopeful. Those who somehow happen to be on the path of the beast are either crushed by the horns on its belly or trampled upon by its rows of booted legs. But it is a rare incident as people themselves are cautious of their life and the Town Lord takes special care to avoid such mishap. At times when such cases arise, it is the general consensus that it be deemed a sacrifice necessary to bring in great fortune to the town.
It is customary for new creatures from outside the town to join the crowd as the parade advances. The people of the town reckon them to be symbolic of the fortune promised of the Parade and, with the consent of the Lord, build shrines all over the town where the creatures are shown reverence and gratitude with offerings of fruits of the town.
Today, after a few years, I am spending a few idle hours again observing a Roadwidener in a Parade. I have taken out an old sketchbook with a few blank pages for the occasion. I am scribbling this on my sketchbook as I sit on our porch watching the beast inch along our street. I am waiting. Hoping I can manage a detailed sketch this time: Of a boot perhaps!
(Korou Khudrakpam is an artist-writer-filmmaker based in Manipur)