A Village In Anticipation
The sun relentlessly scorched the already severely parched earth, which presented an appearance of an uneven mosaic of dry mud cakes with an occasional bunch of shriveled grass that had long relinquished their bold but foredoomed effort at life, jutting out from crevices here and there. Looking at this desolate scenario was a young man, perhaps twenty years of age, squatting near his dilapidated hut that he called his home, set upon a little mound, with his back resting against the trunk of a neem tree that provided the sole protection from the oppressive heat for quite a distance around.
It was midsummer.
The little mound was his world and he was king of all he surveyed within a few meters from it, which were just filth and more filth. He was the monarch of all filth generated by the village and the villagers called him Kachra. It is astounding how words sway emotions, build impressions, and color perceptions. Many have their names fashioned after the work they do – Smith, Carpenter, Potter, or at least what their ancestors did once upon a time. The relationship between these names and their respective professions are ostensibly taken at their face value. However, when a person working with filth was called “Kachra,” which is what it meant in the local dialect, there was much more intended than its face value. It was blatantly derogatory. Such wordplay is in itself an ode to man’s ingenuity of raising barriers of emotions, barrages of hatred, and barricades of mistrust between fellowmen. All invisible obstructions – yet more powerful, more effective, and more enduring than their material counterparts.
Kachra himself did not know what his real name was, if at all he had one, having never seen or known his father, and his mother having died when he was but a child. All he remembered were his mother’s parting words that were indelibly impressed in his mind.
She had said, “If you wish to live peacefully, never forget that you are an outcaste, and do not aspire for a place among the villagers on equal terms. It is God’s will that we were born thus and so accept this fact as your destiny.”
Their true meaning began to unravel slowly but painfully, as he passed through boyhood, and in a ruthlessly demeaning manner, as he stepped into manhood. An already subjugated mind was further crushed by a disability that he acquired when he was stricken by a paralytic stroke a few years ago. He had partially lost co-ordination of his right hand. This had not affected his daily routine in any appreciable way, but the elemental joy of having a wholesome body was also denied to him by the unkind whim of providence.
Kachra’s daily routine consisted of cleaning the village pathways. However, this was not as simple as it sounded. Centuries of tradition had woven an intricate cultural fabric of taboos and sanctions, restrictions and autonomy, dos and don’ts. And in this rigid and inflexible hierarchy, Kachra was right at the bottom – an outcaste, an untouchable, and barely human. He was barred from entering the community temple that stood on a petty hillock on the other side of the village. There were some in the community who would not even countenance the idea of his shadow falling upon them.
Yet the village needed him as much as he required the villagers’ support for his sustenance. The king of filth bestowed cleanliness upon the village, while the grudgingly grateful villagers set aside leftover and decayed food, and moth-eaten, barely wearable rags for him. Reeling as they were from recurring drought on one hand and on the other, the callous and insensitive administration of the ruler of the land who was but a puppet in the hands of the British, this act of theirs of giving away decayed food and useless rags was generosity in itself.
Kachra had finished his tedious task of cleaning for the day and was resting upon his mound. While the crippled hand held a putrid morsel that he had salvaged from the day’s garbage, the other shaded his eyes as they gazed far into the sky, hopelessly looking for any telltale signs of a possible summer shower.
Occasional summer rains were not uncommon in this part of the sub-continent, but the rain god had been playing truant for many seasons now. This was the time of the year when the village farmers would normally begin to ready their fields in anticipation of the monsoon. A few sporadic summer showers would aid them in this effort. But this year...
Kachra’s gaze climbed down from the stark sky to the morsel in his hand and a sigh escaped his parched lips. Wretchedness was something that he was used to as an individual. It appeared that the desolation of his heart was now projected all around him. Prosperity of the village would raise his level of subsistence too, and this was possible only by the grace of the rain god who seemed to have forgotten their existence altogether...
A narrow, winding dusty lane from the base of the mound on which the neem tree stood, led into the village, with all its neat and pretty huts in small, asymmetrical clumps, leaving a wide empty area at the center. And there stood a woman, whose bent back and deeply creased forehead told a story of a life spent in hard, heavy toil and worry, than of advancing age. She was gazing skywards, the white saree draped over her head shading her eyes from the searing midday heat, emulating the futile search of the man under the neem tree.
So intense and passionate was her search, that she did not notice a man approaching her slowly, until he stood right over her. His shadow brought her heavenward eyes back to earth and she sighed heavily as she said, “Nothing, not even a speck.”
He too glanced upwards, the expression playing on his face clearly saying that he’d give anything - just anything, for the contrary to come true, before putting down the heavy log of wood he was carrying. He shook his head slowly, mournfully, dropping his axe, which embedded itself into the log with a resounding thud. “Nothing...”
This had been the distressing story of the village of Champaner for the last year and a half.
“Have you seen Bhuvan?” asked Yashoda of Hari, straightening her white saree over her head, as he stooped down to retrieve his axe from the log, at the end of yet another disappointing and fruitless search for those elusive messengers of the rain god.
“No,” said he and then snorted. “He’d be at one of his pranks, no doubt. Don’t you worry. I’ll search for him and send him along.”
Despite his reassuring words, she felt dread steal over her. “Please do that,” she said. “It’s almost lunch time and if that boy...” She moaned with exasperation. That boy.
Thinking of him just then, sent those contradicting emotions coursing through her that so often torment mothers. She was proud of him, proud that he was like his father – everything from the courage, pride, and recklessness, to the love, compassion, and kindness. And yet she was afraid for him. She was fearful of what trouble his recklessness would lead him into. She was scared that family history would repeat itself, that he would fall prey to the same cruel fate that had brutally wrenched his father from him and her husband from her.
She could still vividly remember that day. The rising sun peeking over the horizon, slowly spreading its rays, until the whole sky was a sea of splendid vermillion, which symbolized her joyous and blossoming marriage, akin to the color of the kumkum that adorned her forehead, and a color that was going to be the cause of its termination, manifesting itself as blood. Evening brought with it a thunderbolt that left her utterly incapacitated in thought. She, a happy wife, waiting for her husband’s return from the fields with her two-year-old son dozing contentedly on his mother’s lap, instead got his lifeless body, caked with blood, brought back from the forest by some of the villagers.
They said that he had been shot by the white officer. They said they didn’t know why. But it probably would have been because he was discovered indulging in what he had been doing for many years – saving the animals of the forest from becoming game for the British officers. They said many other things too, but it all failed to penetrate her grief that was so all-consuming that she sat there, as lifeless as her husband, for, she didn’t know, how long.
The memories of her short – for she was hardly twenty-two when widowed – but wonderful life, flashed through her mind. The small and beautiful house in which she was born and of which she was the queen – adored by her parents; her days spent in her father’s farmland; her meeting her love for the first time, as he toiled under the sun in her father’s field; her marriage and in two years time their son...
Sorrow threatened to overwhelm her, but as life still held meaning in the form of her son, the wheels of her existence began to run again, painfully in the beginning, but with the surety of purpose as time worked to heal the wounds it had so harshly dealt her.
The boy grew up in his small world consisting of his mother, the image of his father constructed for him by her, his grandfather’s farm, that would one day be his, and the village that was his family. He was her only support, the only thread holding her to life and it always pained her to see him risking his life every now and then, picking up petty fights with the white officers. He always had sweet words up his sleeve to pacify her with, whenever she had something to say to him about his doings. She would look at him as he pleaded with her and be torn between wanting to smack him hard and wanting to give him a huge hug. In the end she would turn away and sigh, “You are just like him.”
“What will we do if things continue to be as bad as this?” Hari sounded anxious.
She was awoken from her reverie by this question, which was uttered ever so often now around the village, with mounting desperation each time it was repeated. And the situation was desperate. The whole district, constituting thirteen other villages apart from Champaner, hadn’t seen rain for a whole year and the indications of the skies were that they might not relent this year too.
Last year, the villagers had managed to secure a fair amount of crop for themselves. This had cost them a lot though. Each man, woman, and child had expended every reserve of strength in their body towards this end. But they had hoped – hoped and prayed fervently, that the rain god would not be so cruel the next year, not when they had the extra load of tax on their shoulders. As the rain god did not seem to acquiesce, in spite of the ardent pleas of the worn out workers, the villagers now found themselves facing yet another year of hard toil, armed with depleted strength and a sense of hopelessness...
“We have to survive. So we have to do something,” she replied calmly. “If the rain god does not show us mercy, mother earth will come to our aid. We will draw water from her depths.”
He stared at her. Here was a woman with admirable strength and fortitude. Of course, he thought, she was no stranger to hard times. He had been there with her on that fateful day. In fact, he had been one of the bearers of the bad news. She had taken the news with more courage than he had hoped for and moved on in life, which became centered on her son. He had, nevertheless, kept close watch on her and had always been there to support her in her moments of weakness and despair.
She was infinitely thankful to him for this; he knew it, even though she never vocalized her gratitude. But all the help he had to offer to her had not been born out of altruism and love for a friend alone. He had a feeling of guilt to stifle and forget, which unfortunately, he never could. The memory of his friend’s mangled body haunted him even now, after over eighteen years. He would think of the ringing crack of a gun and be transported back to that hot afternoon in the forest...
The ax fell on the wood with the preciseness that could only be provided by a practiced hand. With each thud, a tingling sensation ran through his whole frame, at which he rejoiced. He smiled as he worked, hot and sweaty, but thoroughly enjoying himself. This was something he knew he was better at than anyone in the whole village was, as his father had been and as his son would be after him. His attention was diverted by a rustling in the thicket nearby and he saw a deer. This was followed by the shot of a gun and the deer fell on the forest floor, senseless. Hari recognized danger and hid himself behind a bush. What he saw next almost made him pass out.
His friend, Prithvi was being led towards the dead deer by a few white officers and they had their gun pointed at him. Then suddenly another shot rang out and his friend joined the fallen deer.
“Never interfere with me,” said the officer who had shot him. And he turned and left.
The others followed him, with one man catching hold of the deer’s hind legs and flinging it around his shoulders. The man who formed the rear of the party turned and pumped a few more bullets into the already lifeless body of Prithvi.
Hari was rooted to his hiding place. He could not believe what he had seen, he didn’t want to. His mind played and replayed what he had seen. Grief engulfed him. Then another thought struck him with such force that he almost cried out in anguish. Yashoda! How could he ever tell her? And as his sorrowful mind churned all these thoughts, another feeling was added to it, that of guilt. He now felt that if he had intervened, this would never have happened. Blaming himself thus was absolutely baseless, undoubtedly. He probably would have been killed too, if he had intruded. However, who could ask a person to accept reality when the mind is so completely drowned in woe. And so he lived with it. Revealing it to no one and trying to do all he could to alleviate the pain he had concocted for himself...
He had seen the boy – the boy who reminded him so painfully of his friend, grow up to be a fine man. He just wished that his own son, Lakhan, or Lakha as the villagers addressed him, was as fine a person. Not that he did not regard his son with affection. He loved his son deeply, but there were some shortcomings that even an otherwise blind parental eye could not ignore.
‘It must have been some lapse in my upbringing,’ he thought.
Of course, having seen his mother run away with another man wouldn’t have helped the kid too. Yes, this was another excruciating episode in the life of Hari. His wife, on whom he had showered all the devotion his heart could muster, had eloped with a man from the nearby village.
If Hari had found it difficult to cope with his wife’s untimely and heartless desertion, it was nothing compared to the effect it had on the young child of five. It had devastated him to find his mother absent, when he needed her the most at that tender age, when a child views the world through the mother. This had wrought such a staggering transformation in the boy, that Hari could hardly believe it was his son he was looking at. From a loving and open child, Lakha became withdrawn and sullen. The eyes that saw life to be wonderful and the world around to be a beautiful place from under the safe haven called mother, took a negative view towards everything.
Hari was distraught to see this. He would never forgive his wife for having done this to the child. The boy, nonetheless, found enough affection in his father and he grew up to love and respect him. Sadly, however, he could not get himself to extend the same affection to the other inhabitants of the village and there were always small misunderstandings between the people and him. But as the community lived as a family, the trivial skirmishes were, each time, forgiven and forgotten.
Sighing deeply, Hari brought himself back to the present and took up the task at hand. Leaving Yashoda looking down dejectedly into the depths of the central well of the village, he moved away, enquiring as he went, for Bhuvan. Goli, Bhura, and Ismail answered in the negative to his question and as he progressed towards his house, a feeling of fear started to bubble inside him. Where was Bhuvan?
A pair of deer grazed contentedly in the rapidly dwindling pastures of the forest. So involved were they, that they did not sense danger in the vicinity. Death was drawing closer and closer in the form of a group of white officers from the cantonment. The lives in that gorgeous and unwary couple seemed destined to be extinguished. The chief hunter took careful aim and slowly started to pull the trigger...
Something hit the tree near the grazing deer and they bolted, startled out of their blissful forage. The stalking officers were astounded too. This had been happening for almost an hour now. But the relentless huntsmen headed in the direction in which they could hear the deer crashing through the undergrowth.
A man from behind a tree regarded the deer as they halted from their flight. The beautiful animals peered around for any more signs of danger. Finding none, they turned their attention to the forest floor in search of more grass. The man slowly extended his hand to the ground and picked up a stone. He took a careful aim and patiently waited for the appearance of the party of hunters. They arrived in a short while, and the man braced himself for another throw.
He bent his hand back...
“Throw that down,” said a voice. Bhuvan turned and saw himself staring down the barrel of a musket.
He heard a trigger being pulled and closed his eyes as he heard one of the poor animals fall.
“This native has been disturbing the deer, sir,” the man who had just prevented him from releasing the stone, called out to the person who had snuffed the life out of the deer.
The slayer slowly lowered his gun and turned to regard the native on his knees with disdain who stared back with as much contempt as he could muster in his turn. This only worked to fuel the already rising rage of the officer who, in one fluid motion, pointed the gun at the man’s forehead. Bhuvan seemed supremely unconcerned at this gesture and the man with the gun repressed the intensifying urge to pull the trigger.
But the officer was unaware of the tempest that had arisen inside the young villager.
The act of the officer had suddenly brought to the fore in Bhuvan’s mind, an image of another man thudding down to lifelessness - that of his father. He had never seen it, but from his mother’s description, he had built up a picture of how it could have happened. And with that recollection, came a horde of other thoughts, each racing the other for a stranglehold on his mind. Hatred reared its hideous head. A feeling of fear for his mother who would be rendered entirely alone if something happened to him, swept over, submerging him in its stormy waters. He thought of his farmland that expected him to return in the afternoon, as he always did, and finish tilling and preparing it for the sowing season to come. His aching heart went out to Ismail, Bhura, Goli, Gauri, and the others... All this in the moment when the officer took careful aim and his mouth twisted itself in a smile dripping with scorn.
And before Bhuvan could return the gesture in likeness, the trigger was pulled...
“It will be you the next time we cross paths.”
Bhuvan slowly turned to see a rabbit bleeding to death close by behind him.
He then twisted back to face the white man who was looking at him in a way, which clearly stated that here was a man bred to believe and take pride in his superiority over the likes of this villager. He considered the lot of them to be filth, fit only to grace the underside of his boots. He was playing with the emotions of the young farmer kneeling in front of him, tempting him to do something rash. It amused him no end. As this vicious pleasure articulated itself on the already spiteful face, it only added to its ugliness.
Bhuvan’s mind could only register shock at his reprieve and did not read the expression etched on the face of the man standing in front of him. But a small part of him, which knew prudence that he had inherited from his mother, prevented him from rising to the bait. He remained stock-still, not giving way to any emotion. The officer waited as long as patience permitted him to. He then beckoned to the others who promptly picked up the deer and left, smiling – they had enjoyed the game as much as their Captain had.
The officer, though, wanted to finish it off in proper style and he pushed past the crouching figure, picked up the dead rabbit and said, “For dessert.”
The rest roared with laughter as he, throwing Bhuvan a last mocking look, left. Bhuvan waited, motionless, till they were all out of sight and then got slowly to his feet, wishing that heaven did not have another such ghastly encounter in store for him.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t the last of Captain Russell that he was to see.
Bending his already stooped and frail body and at the same time carefully stepping over the threshold of the wide but short doorframe, Dwarakadas made his way out of the temple precincts. His body now stretched the other way, as he raised a bony arm to the gong hanging down, and struck it once against the bell wall.
The sound reverberated in the stillness of the hot morning, marking the end of the morning’s rituals. Not once had there been a break in this daily practice since the time he was ordained in his youth to succeed his father as the temple priest, more than five decades ago. Comparatively, his was a much less strenuous life.
As a man of God, he was privy to the innermost feelings of almost every resident who called at the temple during all seasons of life – joy, anxiety, pain, fear, dread, loathing, hate, love, anticipation, triumph, torment... the list was endless, and pour out their emotions. Some would do it silently; some would indulge in loud lamentation. But Dwarakadas could read and comprehend their tale – whether of woe, want, or wellbeing, from their expressions. In addition to being a priest, he was also a philosopher, and would wonder at the greatest invention that mankind had made or would ever make – God.
Dwarakadas had his own tale of woe that he had shared with god when it had initially unfolded, and supplicated to him for deliverance. Time and philosophy had gradually changed his outlook towards life and he began to accept what was and get on with life despite it. His son Bhagwandas was mute. His wife had died during childbirth and the father had to play the role of a mother as well, which he did conscientiously and admirably.
That the boy had a problem with his speech became discernable when Bhagwandas at five, could utter no more than the first two syllables of his name ‘Ba-ga’ with great effort and almost inaudibly. Soon, this meager verbal output too became incoherent and all that surfaced from his vocal chord was a guttural sound whose intensity and pitch would vary according to his moods. He began to be addressed by the only syllables that he ever uttered – Baga.
Though distraught at this turn of events, the father bestowed all care, love, and discipline upon the boy and he grew up to be a good natured and dependable young man. He would help his father with the rituals at the temple. What enthralled the whole village however, was the magical manner in which he would play the drum at village gatherings and festivals. His large and well-built frame would gyrate in perfect rhythm with the percussion, as he would weave his way around the assembly in gay abandon with the drum clasped to his body by a broad belt. He truly excelled at it.
The philosopher in Dwarakadas wondered whether this was the recompense granted by providence for the muteness of his son.
Everyday an hour before noon, Baga would help his father down the long flight of stairs that led to the temple, to their earthen abode at the base of the hillock. Pausing at the top of the flight of stairs, the duo gazed at the horizon in the vain expectation of glimpsing a few rain-bearing clouds that could provide a little succor to their desiccated village.
Uniqueness is a hallmark of nature. No two leaves on a branch are alike. No two ants in a colony of millions are identical. It is no surprise then that humans come with every imaginable combination of characteristics that makes them unique. Champaner too had its assorted collection of individuals – all having been born and bred in the same soil but traits as different as the earth and the sky.
Bhurelal and Goverdhanlal were the finest examples of such an irreconcilably diverse pair. They were as different in build and attitude, as was conceivably possible.
Though we have described diversity at its best, there are certain traits common to humans that heed no geographic or cultural boundaries. One such is the habit of conferring a nice, long and meaningful name to a baby at birth and then addressing it for the rest of its life through adulthood and old age with a meaningless mutation of that name and mentioning the original again only in the obituary. Conforming to this universal and exception-less practice, Bhurelal was Bhura and Goverdhanlal was Goli.
The former was short, tending towards being obese, which he would have been but for the parsimoniousness of the rain god, while the latter was tall and lean. Bhura was easily excitable and had a fast, fluent, and fissiparous manner of speech, while Goli kept to himself, would not be easily drawn into an argument unless provoked to the extreme, and his speech was given to tedium and fitfulness.
Bhura raised poultry. He had an assortment of fowl in his collection and when these were in a state of unruly cacophony it was difficult to distinguish between the racket they raised and Bhura’s clamor, as he endeavored to rein them into submission. Goli too had his hands full everyday trying to keep away birds from poaching on his meager crop of sunflower – the only vegetation that appeared hardy enough to stand up to the pitiless onslaught of the sun and its scorching heat. In these lean days, even this produce, which was only an apology of a crop at best, was something to be guarded, harvested, and stored, as the morrow was so nebulous. Goli’s strategy for keeping the birds at bay was to use a sling to throw little stones at them from a perch at one corner of the field, which he could do unerringly.
When inflammable stuff and fire are in proximity, it is only a matter of time before there is an inferno. This outcome is not a likelihood but a certainty. Bhura’s fowl, starved of ample feed and Goli’s sunflower crop, were such a combine, so were Goli’s three little children aged between five and eight and the flock of fowl. This would often result in Goli gunning for Bhura’s feathered favorites and Bhura in pursuit of Goli’s children spewing verbal fire and brimstone. This regular ritual would culminate with the two adversaries – Bhura and Goli, in confrontational postures with their noses almost touching each other – albeit at an angle, considering the difference in height between the two, and swearing eternal enmity. A few invectives from their respective wives was all that was required to deflate them and make them slink away to their workstations. For the village folk at large, this was a regular entertainment and its enactment would leave them with a contented feeling that all was well with the village.
The pair had finished their performance for the day and Bhura was in the midst of herding his flock back to their pen, which was an assorted collection of upturned reed baskets arranged in clusters in the open space at the back of his hut. Each upturned basket housed one or two fowl based on their size, shape, age, and egg laying cycles.
Bhura herding his wayward birds was another spectacle to watch. He would defy gravity and the limiting movements of the human body as he swerved, dived, jumped, flew, and cartwheeled, to grab the fowl one by one and convey them to their respective baskets. A ball of dust, fowl, human, and an occasional feather would materialize each time this maneuver was carried out, only to disperse again into their individual components in a few moments.
During one such maneuver that day, Bhura mistook a grey feather floating down through the pall of dust to be a distant cloud on the horizon. A cry escaped his throat as he let go of the bird in his hand and stood up to ascertain this possible fact. The anticipatory delight proved fleeting as the dust cleared and the feather unhurriedly made its way back to the ground.
Hafiz Mohammad removed his skullcap, wiped the perspiration on his forehead with the towel that seemed to be forever clinging to his shoulders and looked up to the sky. He, along with his wife Fatima and son Ismail had just completed their noon prayers. Fatima went back to her task of kneading clay for Ismail to shape pots with. A row of earthen vessels of varying shapes stood near the wheel awaiting their turn to go into the furnace nearby.
Hafiz walked slowly to the cot and sat down. His thoughts went back to the days when they had first come to settle down in Champaner from Jungpura, about sixty miles away. He was a young man then, married to Fatima not more than a few moons earlier. He used to carry pots made by his elder brother on their bullock cart to Champaner for sale at the monthly market place that used to be organized every full moon day.
They were great times.
The rains had been regular. The journey between Champaner and Jungpura through lush greenery used to be extremely pleasant, enjoyable, and exhilarating. After he was married, Fatima used to accompany him, which made the journey even more ecstatic as their love blossomed in the midst of such enchanting and peaceful environs.
The king of the land was still reasonably independent of the British, whose tentacles were gradually extending all over the sub-continent in their bid – that was initially surreptitious but was increasingly becoming blatant, to gain complete political and administrative control. However, things had begun to turn sour progressively for the indigenous population. The British manipulated the enmity between the king and his brother, fuelling and nurturing it until the brothers broke away dividing the kingdom.
The crafty whites then played their masterstroke. They offered protection to both royal brothers in return for their own men being appointed at the helm of administration. It was then only a matter of time before the kings were reduced to mere puppets, while the whites gained total stranglehold. People no longer felt safe in their own villages, let alone traveling between one village and another.
It was then that Hafiz had decided to settle in Champaner with his family and start a pottery. Ismail was a boy of three when they moved. The villagers had been very helpful in assisting Hafiz set up shop. The fact that his was the only family in that village professing a different faith appeared to be no detriment at all. Without institutional interference, religion is something very personal and beautiful. Each person’s imagination of an entity that transcends human limitations is unique and religion is merely an attempted exercise at correspondence with this imaginary entity. From such a perspective, there would be as many religions as the number of individuals, and the mode of communion between each individual and the supposed Omnipotent too would be different and unique. Accepting another person’s religious faith then becomes as simple and easy as accepting the shape or size of the person’s nose, eyes, eyebrows, or forehead. This was the spirit that prevailed in Champaner as Hafiz settled into his new life.
Ismail grew up to be a quiet young man. He spoke little, was not unfriendly or rude but preferred keeping to himself and his wheel. He would avoid controversies and instead say all that he had to through the beautiful pieces of earthenware that his hands would craft from shapeless balls of earthy dough. The last year and half had been bad for them as well. With farming activity being at about a third of its normal level, requirement for his creations too had waned.
A six-foot plus erect frame. Broad shoulders to match this elevation. Big, round, piercing eyes that almost popped out of their sockets. Thick, upward-slanting eyebrows that gave those eyes a blended sense of fierceness, authority, and mysteriousness. Matted, shoulder-length hair. A deep voice that sounded more like the bass grunt of a buffalo. A set of large, sharp, pearly teeth that a pair of lips concealed under a luxuriant growth of mustache and struggled to keep them from popping into general view. A lush, unruly crop of beard creeping down to the chest. An elephantine gait. A captivating smile to crown it all.
This was Gurucharan – inevitably Gurran for short. He was not a native of the village, but a wandering pilgrim who had found this place to be the one that his inner voice had described to him long ago to search for and settle, for his destiny was intertwined with those of the community here. As a boy of seven, he had run away from home and found refuge at the feet of a mystic, who gave him his present name, the original having been lost in the mists of time that even Gurran did not remember.
Behind the forbidding façade, Gurran had a tender heart that could not bear human suffering. It was this weakness that had made him abandon home and hearth – if at all the little place where his family lived could be called that. His father, a hoodlum and henchman of a corrupt and mean official in the employ of a king, was addicted to liquor, and would wield his stick on his wife for pleasure and pastime. If any of his two elder brothers or himself tried to intervene in support of their submissive mother, they too were subjected to a similar treatment.
Unable to bear his mother’s plight, the boy had fled. A wandering mystic had found him, weak and famished, huddled near a roadside well. He could fathom the profound pain in that tender little heart, asked no questions and took him under his care.
Gurran’s intellect did not match his bodily size and strength, but it was sharp enough to vaguely comprehend the mystic’s outlook about existence, which was that every happening is a function of time and is inevitable. The mystic could gaze at the heavens and foretell events; he could hold a palm and envision the person’s past and future from the lines that crisscrossed them, the contour and form of the mounts under each finger and the shapes of the fingers themselves; he was unperturbed in the face of adversity and unaffected in delight. Having wandered the land with the mystic for nearly two decades, a bit of this ability and temperament had rubbed off on Gurran too.
When the mystic departed for his heavenly abode, the disciple continued in the footsteps of his master’s terrestrial pursuit, until destiny brought him to Champaner. His only material inheritance from his master was a single stringed musical instrument called the Ektara. Gurran had a way with words that came naturally. Many a serene evening had swayed to the soothing melody of his rustic yet meaningful compositions tempered by the resonance of the Ektara.
The residents of the village had not accepted him at the beginning, the predictable misgiving about the objectives of a stranger, accentuated by his fearsome appearance. It was Dwarakadas who had seen through the formidable exterior and comprehended Gurran’s true nature - a case of one philosopher recognizing another. As word of Gurran’s ability of glimpsing the future spread, attitudes began to soften. Some would come to him openly. Others would loudly proclaim that all talk of looking into the future was baseless and nonsensical, yet go to Gurran in the sly, and extend their hand to be read.
Acceptance brought with it the bare means of sustenance and Gurran made the village his home. His master would wonder at the human propensity of wanting to acquire and amass wealth of all kinds when the earth was ours, the sky no different, so were everything in-between them. Most of those acquainted with this perspective would say that it was only a manner of expression, but the master and Gurran implicitly believed it and lived likewise.
A circular platform built around the Peepal tree close to Dwarakadas’ hut was his bed for the night, the village and its environs was his abode and all the villagers his family. A few months ago, Gurran had seen Bhuvan’s hand at the insistence of his mother, the young man being least interested in the exercise. Gurran could make out that very soon Bhuvan’s life was to be filled with happiness preceded by a little stumble. He reasoned that in a village setting, and considering the subject’s occupation being that of a farmer, happiness could accrue only if there was a good harvest and this was possible only if there was adequate rainfall. Though he did not share the chain of thoughts that led to this possibility with Bhuvan, as summer began to wane, he started to look to the horizon everyday in anticipation of the precursory signals supportive of his surmise.
Arjan’s world was his smithy. It had been so for at least twelve generations of his patrilineal ancestors. He was pretty sure of this number as the earthen walls of his smithy, which was also the home of his family, was adorned with articles made by each of his ancestors whose descriptions were passed on from father to son.
Arjan would not tire of repeating the history to anyone willing to listen at any time. His voice would resound with reverence, awe, and pride when he would describe each item of this heirloom. Undoubtedly, the narratives would have gathered many layers of mythical moss as they spanned generations. For instance, one of the episodes was about a sword that his great grandfather had made for the king of Jhunjhunoo. Its blade was supposed to have been so strong that when the said king was cornered and surrounded by a score and more of his enemies under a tree whose trunk was more than five feet across; one powerful swish of that blade had severed it, resulting in half his adversaries being crushed under the felled tree.
The listeners would pardon such excesses, because Arjan was a man who was very sincere and dedicated to his work and everyone in general believed in the adage – if you have to win at anything, you have to believe yourself to be invincible - a perfect fallacy though it was. If indulgence in a little myth helps in achieving near excellence, in whatever that one does, then why not?
Until his grandfather’s time, there was ample demand for swords, knives, machetes, and other such implements of war and the smithy would always be busy with an overflowing order book. With firearms gradually replacing the traditional tools and accessories of destruction and bloodshed, blacksmiths everywhere began to explore other avenues of survival. With a British army-cantonment close by that also had a horse training wing where young horses were tutored before being inducted into service, there was a good demand for horseshoes.
Arjan was not only an accomplished black-smith; he was a good farrier as well, having learnt this art from his father. He was often called over to the stables of the cantonment for shoeing horses that had been newly enlisted. Arjan toiled all alone in the smithy, as the quantum of available work did not warrant engaging helpers. He would begin his labor at dawn sporting his black vest and his dhoti bundled half way up his thighs. A black vest was the ideal uniform for black-smiths in tropical climes, as a vest of any other color would be reduced to this shade in no time inside the environs of a smithy.
Arjan was a big man. Constant handling of a heavy hammer had toughened his body and toned his muscles. It was a sheer pleasure watching his hands swing down and his muscles ripple, as the hammer fell on the metallic object upon the anvil. Working in his smithy was equally gratifying for Arjan too. But the dearth of moisture in the environment due to the failure of the preceding monsoon had considerably warmed the generally moderate conditions, making the toil more a drudgery than a delight. He ardently looked forward to a normal monsoon in the current season that would restore the environment to its usual and reasonable state.
“Gurran, please!” the young maid implored with as much feeling as she could infuse into her voice. “Please tell me.”
The smile that Gurran lavished on her from behind that bushy mass that was supposed to be a mustache, which almost obscured his curved lips, told her that her intentions were not lost on him. She smiled back demurely and held out her palm. Gurran took her small and shapely hand in his large and hardy ones. And after giving her a fleeting wink, concentrated all his mind on the task at hand. As was his habit, he kept nodding, shaking his great shaggy head, grunting and muttering under his breath. It had greatly disconcerted and alarmed all those who came to him, but they had learnt to put up with it and wait patiently for the final verdict.
The process of divining started.
“Oh! What a nice, clear, and well-traced line of heart. That is the first thing that jumps out at you, doesn’t it? Hmm... I so clearly remember Lakha’s too... it is too deep and clear, for anyone’s liking. Ah! Also a strong mount of Mercury, wasn’t there? Told the whole story of his sad childhood without me having to ask.” He shook his head gravely. “A good hand otherwise, no doubt made so by the constant handling of an axe.” He sniggered at the small joke he had made.
But this did not amuse Gauri as much. “Gurran!” she admonished, with a severe look. “It’s my hand you are looking at.”
“All right. All right.” He sounded grumpy.
Interruptions of this kind broke the train of his thoughts. He had half a mind to stop looking at her palm, but the gentleness of his heart prevented him from doing so. Also, she looked sincerely sorry.
“Hmm...” He bent over his assignment again and picked up from where he had left. “Your father had it too, a good Mercury that is, but it manifested itself differently, didn’t it? ‘A healer,’ it spelt out, as clear as crystal...”
He looked at her for fresh signs of interference, but none was forthcoming. He smiled and continued, “And since I know what you have come for, shall we concentrate on that?”
Without looking up, he knew he had hit the bull’s eye, as it was said. She was blushing so deeply that he could have substituted the sun with the glow of her cheeks.
“Let us see... start off with looking for signs... yes, that’s what we’ll do.” And he slowly searched, looking for the signs that he knew must be there.
“There!” he exclaimed, making her jump and withdraw her hand quickly. He grabbed it back, eager to reconfirm what he had spotted, and was extremely happy when he saw it again.
“I thought so, I thought so...”
“What?” Gauri could no longer restrain herself.
He gave her a mock, stern look and said, “Coupled with a nice line of heart, you have those markings which say ‘we bless you maiden, with a long, happy and prosperous married life with your love.’ Do you see them? Those crosses near your thumb? Ah! Those symbols of happiness... Those...”
But Gauri was lost, lost the moment he had uttered the words that her heart had so longed to hear. She repeated it to herself – “we bless you maiden, with a long, happy, and prosperous married life with your love,” and drowned herself in their sweet essence. She sank into those recollections of her childhood that she wanted replayed in her life...
“O Gauri!” he called. “Don’t you know that it is the duty of a wife to await her husband at the door when he returns home from work? Don’t you know that you have to be there when he comes back, tired, and do all you can to ease his exhaustion? Don’t you...”
She never let him go any further. She was there to receive him, an imaginary glass of water in her hand, standing in the doorway of their imaginary house.
He smiled at her, and she smiled back. They loved their games, always enjoyed playing it.
“I was making dinner for you, and if you want me to leave that to burn and stand waiting for you...”
They would go on this way for hours, if not for their parents who would play the part of the villains in their imaginary happy, married life and tear them apart for the day. And they would have to restart all over again on the next...
This was Gauri, a simple village lass, with all those things in her life that form the essentials of the existence of a village girl – a house to look after, a parent to care for, a heart desirous of a good husband, and a wish for a nice household to be married into. Her house and her father could not function without her, she being their only keeper. Gauri had lost her mother in her youth due to a terrible illness. And as for wanting a good husband, she knew exactly whom she wanted to be her life partner and also the description of the household of which she desired to - with all her heart - become the daughter-in-law. It had a neem tree in the garden, two cows, three goats...
“Trouble!” roared Gurran, startling her out of her fond reminiscences. “I also see the signs of trouble. Oh, yes. Trouble. You will face a hindrance in your path, yes. That’s plain to read. I was a fool to miss it earlier. Fool,” He rebuked himself.
“Gurran, what is it?” Gauri sounded worried.
She had been building wonderful castles in the air and they seemed to have been shattered to dust by those final words of his. But to Gurran the job was done and it was time for the final word. He was also angry with himself for not having recognized the signs of danger in the beginning itself and when this happened, he could not go on.
And so, in his deep, sonorous voice, he proclaimed Gauri’s fate to her, “You will be successful in your love and marriage, young girl, but will face hurdles in your path at the beginning.”
And no more could she get out of him.
Watching her worried countenance was a young man, an axe tied to his belt, who had until then been seeking the horizon for any signs of clouds. But her worried voice had distracted him and drawn his eyes to her. Lakha saw her and resolved, as he did every time he set eyes on her, that he would not let it happen again. He would not let himself become the miserable recipient of another denial. It had happened once, but would no more.
Not again would he let himself be forsaken by those he loved. Fate had done him a colossal injustice by depriving him of the love of one of the only two women important in a man’s life. And now he was ready to fight anything, fate itself if necessary, not to fall prey again. As Lakha’s mind filled with these thoughts, the bitter recollections of his unhappy childhood flooded through him. As much as he had tried, he could not rid himself of these.
He remembered a lonely child standing in the middle of the house, exhausted after having searched for his beloved mother and weeping uncontrollably. No one was there to envelop him in the arms of comfort and soothe him. He had cried long and had fallen asleep from anguished fatigue. It was thus that his father found him and had done all in his power to console him, but the child he had known was lost. There was no recalling him. He had built insurmountable barriers around his heart, in the hope of assuaging his pain.
But alas for poor Lakha, he was enclosing into an impenetrable barricade a wounded heart that would have healed better if left open and under the care of those who still loved him. But as a child, Lakha had felt vulnerable and desolate and lest his heart shatter under the weight of the desertion, had cocooned it from the outside world. The poor boy had distanced himself from further hurt, but in the process had also detached his soul from the feelings of care, love, and affection, the essence of which was that he had become incapable of understanding their meaning after the incident that had robbed him of them.
He had, in his life, come close to caring for two people. His father, who had patiently stood behind him, supporting and tending to him, never asking for a return of affection, for which Lakha respected Hari and was eternally grateful. Gauri was the other for whom he had developed a blind craving, his heart desirous of wanting to prove to Fate that he could have his say too. Only he knew and understood the depth of his yearning. He was filled with an irrepressible but tender frenzy as he thought of her. He would go to any length to get her.
He could not afford to loose her to another man. He would not. Yes, she would be his and his alone.
He looked at her beautiful face and smiled as he called out to Gauri. She, still preoccupied with Gurran’s words, hardly noticed it. He hailed her again, and was this time successful in having her attention. But she was not as pleased to see him, as he was to see her. She disliked and mistrusted his ways. She could never fathom his intentions. His behavior tended towards affection but there was a coldness about it that gave her the shudders. But as much as she tried to distance herself from him, he came so much annoyingly closer. And now he was at it again.
But before he could get in half a word, Lakha’s father was there, looking worried. “Gauri, what are you doing? Showing your hand to that madman Gurran again, are you?”
“Hari kaka, please!” reproached the girl.
He shook his head. “Really, it is of no use. You will not get one word of sense out of him.”
“But I did!” cried Gauri, excitedly. “He said I would get married to the man I wanted.”
Lakha could not keep quiet at this. “That is why I keep telling you to accept me.” Gauri made a face and turned away.
He would not relent, though. He put out his hand in front of her and said, “Look, I need you.”
Gauri recoiled at the sight of the bloodied hand, which apparently had got injured during his woodcutting. But she replied calmly, “You need my father and not me. Here, I’ll call him.” And she shouted for her father.
“What is it?” asked Ishwar.
“It’s Lakha, bapu. He has injured his hand and needs medication.”
“That irresponsible boy!” exclaimed her father. “He injures his hand oftener than splitting wood. Come now. I have the last spot of the paste right here, and be thankful, or else you would have had to wait for me to go to the forest and pick up the required herbs...” And still grumbling about how negligent Lakha was, he started to work his medicinal magic.
And that is what he was. A weaver of magic to the villagers. He could cure them of almost any affliction. He had an intuitive faculty of diagnosis, the touch of the supernatural, and most importantly the patience and perseverance of a man dealing as much with the mind of the distressed as their bodily crises. It gave him immense satisfaction to see the diseased become whole again. Their gratitude only stimulated him to work out better ways of healing. Their appreciation told him of their complete faith in him and it worked as a motivation for him to live up to it. Health is wealth – Ishwar believed implicitly in the statement and so did all the others in the village, for their work demanded both a fit body and a fresh mind. Any damage to either and their work would come to a standstill. But as they could hardly compromise on their labor, Ishwar was an integral part of their lives and they expended all the eloquence they possessed on him. They called him God.
“Ishwar,” they used to say. “You live up to your name.”
It upset Ishwar to hear them talking thus. He was aware that he could hardly consider himself to be standing against the appointed course of nature. If the body was meant to degenerate, it would, and he could not do anything about it. Trying to oppose it, he knew, would be of no avail. He considered his treatment only to be a form of assistance to the body that could do the job by itself too.
It was this stand of his that helped him take the death of his wife, due to an illness for which there appeared to be no remedy, stoically. He had done all that he could to ease her pain but she had faded into non-existence, thanking him as she went for having made the passage easier to take.
And thus, Ishwar could be seen at the village, brewing his concoctions of good health, enquiring about the well being of the others or hobbling off to the forest to collect those herbs that he did not manage to grow in his backyard.
It was an established joke in the village that Ishwar’s house belonged more to ‘those plants of his’ than the inhabitants. Anyone who had gone into his home would be heard describing the layout to a group of eager listeners, for there would always be something new, usually involving reducing space for the residents and increasing room for the herbs and preparations.
There were bits of truth in all those tales though. Ishwar was very meticulous and organized in his work. His backyard was picture perfect - tidy and trim rows of plantations with neat paths between them, where he could be seen every morning and evening, watering the herbs. An overhead mesh made out of bamboo sticks - the handiwork of Lakha, protected his herbs from extreme weather of all types – scorching heat, torrential rains, intense winds, biting chill, and the sorts. The orderliness of the outside was mirrored on the inside too. There were shelves containing freshly picked herbs, racks storing his preparations, all neatly labeled and marked and a small area at one corner of the hut where he brewed the medicines. He had separate implements for this job and went mad at his daughter if they, by chance, got jumbled with those used in her kitchen.
Everyday he would go over the herbs and potions, so that he had everything ready for any case of ill health that came to him. He could be heard by all passing by his hut, his low voice muttering words that were, more often than not, lost on them. Sanskrit being the lingua franca of Ayurveda – the system of medicine being widely followed in those days, Ishwar was very well versed with it and knew all the Sanskrit names of the herbs he used by rote.
“Lasuna, Brahmi, Bhringaraja, and Pudina from my garden I have... but I need to go to the forest for the leaves of the Nilgiri and the bark of Devadaru. I’ll also need to take neem leaves from Yashoda. God alone knows why it doesn’t grow in my house when it does so well in hers...”
That morning too, Hari, as he walked past on his way to the forest, could hear Ishwar. But there was a previously unheard note of anxiety in his voice. Hari could understand it. The plants needed water to survive. And water was the one thing that was so scarce now. He caught a glimpse of Ishwar from the window, silently pleading with the skies to have mercy. The lines of worry hadn’t left Ishwar’s face in the afternoon too, as Hari saw him bandaging his son’s hand.
He sighed and turned towards Gauri, who like him, was watching Lakha being treated, and asked her, “Have you seen Bhuvan?”
The sound of this name brought a glorious change on her visage. The frown that Lakha’s words had given her was replaced by a sparkling smile.
“No,” she replied. “But I know where to find him.”
“Good!” he exclaimed. “Now run along like a good girl and tell him that his mother is expecting him and is terribly upset with him.”
And before he could tell her anything else, she was off. He smiled, as he saw her running like a small child, her billowing skirt and jingling anklets proclaiming her joy.
At seventy plus, Shambhu kaka was the grand-old-man of Champaner. When the maximum life expectancy for the times in rural India was about fifty or less, such a sobriquet was not inappropriate. There were many theories doing the rounds to explain this abnormal longevity and sturdiness – from his lifelong bachelorhood, his adherence to simple vegetarian food, his impeccable and regular habits, his daily regimen of exercises, to the fate-line on his palm. There were a couple of exotic ones too involving gods, spirits, and magic. Perhaps, it was all this put together.
But time did leave its imprint upon him in the form of a frail frame and faltering voice, despite his immaculate memory, gentle nature, and willingness to share with everyone his six decade long experience as a farmer, an experience that had witnessed and lived through many hard times and great ones, seen good harvests and utter crop failures, beheld munificent monsoons and debilitating droughts. All farming activity in the village would commence after being endorsed by the old man. He would correctly assess the nature of the soil and weather conditions and advise which crop would be the most ideal under the circumstances for each of the three harvesting seasons – the Kharif or autumn, the Rabi or spring, and Zaid or extra harvest – when vegetables or low grade cereals were sown between the Rabi and Kharif crops, water resources permitting. People generally practiced subsistence farming, shifting to cash crops occasionally – either after a very good harvest, which gave them a buffer-stock of food grains, or during a failed monsoon, when there wasn’t sufficient water for a regular crop.
Shambhu kaka would be available everyday sitting on the platform abutting his moderate hut. There would be no dearth of advice seekers and well-wishers bringing him a regular supply of eatables – a practice that had resulted in a fire not having been lit in his hut to cook food for many years now. Bhuvan and Devilal passed by Shambhu kaka’s hut early that morning on their way to their respective plots of land that lay adjacent to each other, leading their pairs of bullocks, ploughs hung over their shoulders.
Devilal called out to the old man – “Kaka! I am finding it difficult to wean the calf. There is hardly any milk left in the cows udders after the calf has had its fill. What do I do?”
“Do not wean the calf before it is eight weeks old and let it have its fill for it has the first right to its mother’s milk,” replied the old man. “If possible increase the content of castor cake in the cow’s feed for that should increase its yield,” he added.
Shambhu kaka strongly advocated the belief that no animal should be exploited for profit and the villagers respected this sentiment and generally followed it. His conviction was that if man were fair to everything in nature then nature would reciprocate in equal measure. Although everyone else doubted the possibility of the current season having abundant rain, it was the lone voice of the old man that kept aglow a little light of hope to the contrary in the common gloom. His were the only pair of eyes that looked to the sky with positive anticipation, as the summer drew to a close.
Politicians have always and universally been an accursed lot, but that is only seeing one side of the coin. The general populace who damn them for every frivolous (as well as some real good) reason are no better when it comes to organizing and conducting themselves.
One needs to amend that adage that proclaims, “Two is company, and three is a crowd.” In reality, even two is a crowd. From this perspective, three or more is far worse than a crowd – it is chaos. And a village can be an unqualified disaster, unless there is a politician to cajole, threaten, soothe, persuade, order, delude, and deliver the people towards a common objective that is beneficial to all concerned.
The amended adage could be further extended to say that one politician is a good manager; two or more make a cesspool.
Fortunately for the people of Champaner, there was amongst them one politician who made a good manager and still more fortunately there was no other. He was Dalpat Chauhan. Very few in the village knew or bothered to know his name, for he was popular among them simply by the designation of his office – “Mukhiya,” which meant the village chief.
He was wealthy by village standards, called the largest hut in the village his home, owned the biggest plot of land, which he got cultivated by others, and had distant relations at the king’s court, which granted him access to the king in times of need. In keeping with the conventions of the era when professions were predominantly hierarchical, the office of Mukhiya had been with the family for three generations, his grandfather having been the first, appointed by the father of the current king four decades earlier.
Dalpat Chauhan had been a worried man since the time the British army cantonment was established close by. He now had to deal with two centers of authority that had conflicting interests. Though technically, the king was their supreme head, the resident commandant of the cantonment acted as an extra monarchical authority. He had to use all his political acumen and persuasive skills to satisfy his two overlords and at the same time protect his own interests and that of the villagers. That the people trusted him and abided by all his decisions unquestioningly concerning village matters, was testimony to the fact that he had been fairly successful so far in his endeavor.
One great accomplishment on his part in the recent past was convincing the king to impress upon the British commandant to waive one-half of the annual tax, or Lagaan as it was called, for the previous year, citing the poor monsoon and the resulting deficient harvest. It was this step that had kept the village ticking so far during the year.
The Mukhiya had set himself a deadline of two more days to see if there were any portents of the monsoon, after which he planned to lead a delegation of village elders to the king to seek a tax-waiver yet again for this year.
End of Chapter 1