We all know of H. Houdini, the late and famous ‘escape artist’. Amazing sort of bloke, by all accounts, able to perform the most outrageous and daring feats.
But as far as I am concerned, I will always cherish the memory of a little wizard that could at all times, in my humble opinion, ‘Out-Houdini Houdini’!—this was Ranji, the little mongoose.
Ranji was a brownish-golden little creature, as lithe and agile as a hundred monkeys, and as fast and furious as a bolt of lightning. He was named after the great Indian cricketer, Ranjisinghji, HH the Jam Sahib of Nawanagar (‘Ranji’ for short) who displayed a similar virtuosity and agility and grace of movement when at the crease. For long years, little Ranji the mongoose reigned supreme in the old haveli of a great-uncle of mine, who was devoted to this small bundle. The old haveli, with its rambling, overgrown garden and ancient, crumbling walls, was an ideal locale and haunt for snakes of all sorts, poisonous and non-poisonous, and thus, my great-uncle had the brilliant idea of getting a mongoose to safeguard him and his equally old wife and dozens of assorted children and grandchildren. So, messages and commands were sent out. And soon enough, one fine day, a shikari materialized as if by magic, with a tiny mongoose held carefully in his hands—our Ranji—who had lost his mother and needed a good home.
So, Ranji came into all our lives and made a lively misery out of it for one and all. From the very first day, he became the lord and master of the haveli, eating and drinking lavishly, encouraged in his fierce and autocratic ways by my grand-uncle and his equally fond wife and all the rest of a doting household. For Ranji wasn’t just keen on attacking and slaying snakes (which he did though, in large numbers)—he was equally fond of getting his sharp little fangs into anything that moved: cats, dogs, mice and rats, and above all, people’s toes. This last was the worst experience one could possibly have.
Imagine, a guest, a stranger (for we at least were somewhat forewarned) lounging at ease in a comfortable seat in the old haveli, sipping a perfectly nice cup of tea and maybe nibbling a slice of moist and delicious cake or some such thing—and zap! Out of the blue, a set of sharp little mongoose fangs sank into the softest and most vulnerable part of your big toe! I will not elaborate this frightful and tragic scene, least readers swoon with sheer agony.
It eventually became necessary to keep Ranji incarcerated, locked up and chained, to a nifty little collar made especially for him—but was Ranji to be thus detained? No sir! Not he. Like a Super Houdini, he could get out of any gaol or hold or restraint. And, very much like Riki Tikki Tavi, Kipling’s famous literary mongoose, he was a past master at the art of evasion and escape and of eventual apparition in the most unimaginable places. Once, when my aunt (great-uncle’s youngest daughter) was getting married and there was a mehndi or dholki or some such feminine function afoot, Ranji escaped from a cardboard box inside which he had been chained, out of a locked and sealed store-room, past seven maids and a large posse of kids, to appear chattering and gnashing his little teeth defiantly, in my aunt’s lap just as she was being adorned with Henna and all those condiments and spices (rather like a lamb being prepared for a barbecue, I always thought) and set a whole bevy of some 300 odd women screaming.
Houdini, may God bless his simple soul, had only to escape from a limited number of chains and boxes and all, but Ranji had to contend with dozens of such strictures at the same time and also defeat an entire host of underlings and servants and family members set out to guard him. And he always did it. Astounding.
Ranji finally passed away, an old, old mongoose by any standards, and lies buried in a flowerbed in the garden of the old haveli, which he once prowled. He outlived my great-uncle by a few weeks. The world was a much more peaceful place after Ranji left it, and even the walls of the haveli seemed to take a sigh of relief.
I cannot honestly say I miss him or that I even loved him a bit, or anything; but I sure do still admire his fierce pride and subtle dexterity which could teach a hundred Houdinis some new tricks.
Orig published 2011