‘Bodhi and Sattva’ and ‘Hugs’ by Shehan Karunatilaka

Published : Apr 06, 2023 11:00 IST - 4 MINS READ

Blended with dry wit and morbid charm, two stories for both doomsday and everyday by the Booker winner of 2022.

Bodhi and Sattva

WHEN Bodhisattva arrived in Ceylon, the animals gathered at the Great Rock. Jackal asked it first, “Do beasts have souls?”

Peacock was next, “Can I be reborn a predator? I want to eat creatures like me.” Kingfisher inquired, “May I be born outside the beastly realm? Maybe as a Deva or a Naraka?”

The Great One replied, “Why not a Human?”

“Chee!” said Crocodile. “Look how ugly.”

“Eeya!” said Pangolin. “See how unhappy.”

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“No one is where they haven’t chosen to be,” said the Enlightened One and no one believed him.

Tortoise said he wanted to be faster than Rabbit. Deer wished she were not so edible. Leopard wanted to be vegetarian, so she didn’t have to chase down meals. Hawk wanted to swim, and Frog wished to fly. Only Human wished to be reborn as Human. The beasts hid in the trees and sniggered at the hairless ape.

Bodhisattva put fingers to lips. “What is more foolish? To remain what you are? Or to become what you must?” He sighs, “Every time I come here, I hope. I think maybe this time they’ll get it.”

“That we are all one?” asked a serene Snake.

“That we must try on all hats, before we give up headgear?” asked a mindful Gecko.

“Nope,” said the Holy One, limping towards Nibbana. “Nehe.”

“Not one of you fellows ever asks to be reborn as me.”


WHEN he enters the room, his son doesn’t hug him. His son is four and has cars to play with and doesn’t want a hug and does not see how much his father needs one. Instead of reaching out to his wife or his daughter, who might’ve welcomed his sweaty embrace, he kicks the puppy, who runs in pain and knocks over the dinner. The mother shouts at the daughter for letting the mutt in the house. The daughter sits in the doghouse and dreams of leaving home.

At school, during netball practice, the daughter picks on the girl with pigtails for the crime of boasting about a recent Singapore holiday. The others join in, and there is some pushing and elbowing and catcalls of “singabooruwa” each time the pigtailed girl drops the ball.

The next day, the pigtail girl’s father, a provincial councillor, comes in to complain to the teacher. Unaware of the man’s connections, the teacher remarks that young girls must fight their own battles. The enraged councillor instructs his thug driver to make the teacher kneel in the playground, to the hoots of the school kids. The driver pulls off the teacher’s hijab and cackles as she sobs.

The teacher’s husband, his brothers and some friends from the mosque smash the councillor’s car and stomp on the driver. The next day, organised mobs set fire to Muslim shops. Buddhist monks urinate in mosques, and emails about halal poisoning spread via phones. Politicians impose curfew and condemn no one. Months later, wealthy young men in beards blow up churches and not a soul can explain why.

This is an ancient tale of horseshoe nails and escalations and could be dismissed as horseshit if it weren’t true. Shall we give it a sci-fi spin? Turn to our trusty time machine and reverse it all? Or ditch the hardware and call it magic realism? Whatever gets you to the next paragraph.

What if the boy hugged his dad or the dad hugged his daughter or smooched his wife instead? And what if the daughter defended pigtail girl from the bullies and was rewarded with hugs, a new best friend, and an invite for the Provincial Export Union’s next overseas delegation trip?

And what if any person in this chain of pain decided to embrace rather than punch? Could we prevent riots and terror by replacing knee-jerk kicks with strategic hugs? If each and every one of us gives an extra hug per day to someone who needs it, can we stamp out bullies and bigots and bombers?

This is the reason why hippies are laughed at. Fine. Come back when you’ve exhausted all other avenues. Try more religion in schools. Or less video games. Or more police. Or less taxes. We’ll make a lentil soup while we wait.

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Hugs are the one energy source with an infinite supply. So why not put them to work? We can get the geeks to develop an app. For some reason, you don’t laugh at them anymore. We can count hugs like we do steps and calories. It could spread via the same phones that tell us to delete ourselves. Can more hugs cure all ills? Could we at least try it out and see?

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Reproduced courtesy of Hachette India

Illustrations by Siddharth Sengupta

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