atul was short. His sisters had to reach the top shelves of cupboards for him. His brothers had to hoist him up so he could see the rooster fights in their village square better. The pehelwans and other musclemen of their village mocked Batul, despite his wrestling skills. His parents despaired of finding a bride for him. But Batul despaired the most.
“Can’t live like this. Got to do something,” muttered Batul to himself as he tried to hoist himself on the low lying branch of a tree to get a better view. The girls were at the village pond, hitching their clothes up, getting wet, as they filled their pots and washed clothes, laughing coyly and gossiping with each other.
Batul swung from trees. He ate dozens of bananas and drank gallons of milk. He even swallowed the bitter golis prescribed by Hakimji, who was the most trusted quack in the whole district. But nothing worked. Dejected, Batul went to the forest to pray to Hanumanji, the God of wrestlers. Hanumanji continued smiling beatifically, but he did not appear. Instead, a tiny fellow with piercing blue eyes and snow white beard materialized as if by magic.
“Hey!” said Batul, startled, but pleased nevertheless to find someone shorter than himself. “And who might you be Mr. Shorty?”
Shorty smirked. He looked Batul up and down, from head to toe. Batul started to feel uncomfortable.
“I can solve your problem,” said Shorty, still smirking.
“You? Solve my problem? How do you know I have a problem?”
“Oh come on,” said Shorty contemptuously. “Who doesn’t know? News about your get-tall-quick schemes has gone as far as Timbuktu!”
“You’re from Timbuktu?” said Batul incredulously. He had never heard of the place before. “What kind of a place is it Shortyji?” He asked eagerly. “Are all the people there like you?”
Batul was suddenly filled with visions of being the tallest in the land; and that could happen if he went to Timbuktu. Maybe he ought to befriend this strange stranger. “Would you like a moong dal laddu Shortyji? It’s made with roasted moong beans, the finest sugar and ghee from our own buffalos.”
Shorty looked at him disgustedly. “What nonsense! Stop blathering like a buffoon! Do I look like a laddu-eater to you? Be serious. I don’t have all day you know. You want to grow tall or not?”
“You can help me?” Batul was still incredulous. “Shortyj…” But before he could finish, Shorty snapped his fingers, and Batul found himself in a medieval torture chamber, lying on a bench with his hands and feet shackled to two iron pillars at either end of his body. Shorty snapped his fingers again and the contraption tugged at Batul from both ends.
“What is this machine?”
“No business of yours!”
“No but sir, does it work?”
The machine cranked up and started to pull harder. Batul felt good. His muscles felt stretched. It must be working, he thought. He was sure to grow tall.
“How long do I need to do this Shortyji?” he asked enthusiastically.
Shorty disappeared, leaving Batul dumbstruck for a whole week.
When he appeared again, with a jug of gruel and a loaf of bread, Batul was too frightened and weak to eat. He begged to be released.
“I am a poor man,” said Batul. “But my parents love me. They will sell all their buffaloes to pay you. My sisters will sell all their jewelry to pay you Shortyji. My brothers will shave of their moustaches in penance. Please sir.”
“I can’t,” said Shorty, stroking his beard. “It’s a spell. Only you can break it. If, you can tell me my name, my real name!”
Batul stared at him. This must be a nightmare! This couldn’t be happening to him. But there was no getting away from it. Batul had to discover the fellow’s name.
“Can you give me a hint at least?” he pleaded.
Shorty shrugged. “Read any fairy tales as a kid? Shouldn’t be too hard if you did.”
Batul tried to bring back Masterji’s singsong voice reciting English Fairy tales from the distant past. He wished he had paid attention to those stories at school when Masterji had droned and droned, instead of fiddling with his catapult and marbles. He strained his head trying to recall, just as his muscles strained on the bench.
“Your name’s Rumple,” he whispered at last. “No Rumpel, something Rumpel? I mean like Rumpel-something, right?”
“Close,” said the Shorty, smirking. “Not bad for a first try Batul, I must say. You’ve got the family right!” Then his smirk became wider. “But that’s me grand paw’s name! Not mine! No way! Ha Ha-ha Ha-ha!”
Batul focused for the rest of the week. He thought of every single English lesson that he had been taught. At last the name came to him.
“Rumpel Stiltskin,” he said steadily, though weakly.
A sound like thunder made Batul shut his eyes in anticipation. But when nothing happened, he opened his eyes to see Shorty, all cracked up with laughter, holding his stomach for dear life. A smell like rotten eggs hung in the air.
“Nyah! Nyah! Nyah! Nyah! You Batul boy are still one generation away!” spluttered Shorty.
“One generation away? How many generations are you?”
Shorty rubbed his hands in glee. “That’s me Paw. That’s me Paw! Batul boy! Haw haw-haw haw-haw!”
“What do you mean that’s me paw, that’s me paw? Money’s paw!” said Batul getting upset. “Here I am being tortured, just because you want some fun and games. Not fair! I tell you, it’s not fair. You’re a liar! You promised. What you’re doing is nothing short of cheating! That’s what! You’re a cheat!”
Shorty only laughed, louder. Batul struggled to be free. Rage filled every bone in his body.
“Rumpel cheat!” He shrieked. “Rumpel scoundrel! Rumpel trickster! Rumpel robber! Rumpel Rat! Rumpel Shorty pants!” Batul began to pant. People always fooled him; conned him into believing their tricks. He was always being short changed. Batul was sick of it. Sick. Sick. Sick.
“Rumpel Shortchange!” squeaked Batul, trying hard not to burst into tears. “Rumpel Shortchange!”
Shorty spluttered in mid guffaw. His face turned red. He stamped his foot in rage.
Batul was back beneath the Peepul tree. Except this time he had a sore back and limp limbs. For a few minutes Batul lay still, feeling dazed and bewildered. Slowly, he got up and looked around. He touched himself to see whether he was all in one piece. He was, but he was as short as ever.
Batul prostrated himself and thanked Hanumanji profusely.
Rumjhum Biswas writes fiction and poetry. Currently she lives on the outskirts of Chennai where local and migratory birds still fly around and do their bird things.