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A Surge Of Time (Chapter 2)


The Mirage And After

Boys will always be boys. Some are ordinary, others brilliant, and some others different, nevertheless all boys are interestingly naughty, incorrigibly playful, annoyingly carefree, nonsensically garrulous, and endowed with an insatiable appetite.

Tipu too was one and yet not, and he was also different. All alone in that zone of confusion where he could neither be regarded as a boy nor a man. A mustache that was not however one, taller than boys but shorter than men with the option of assimilating with either camp or being shunned by both at times. When he was about two, a cholera epidemic decimated all but two children in the village up to the age of three.

Tipu was one of the fortunate survivors. The family of the other having migrated from the village, he was now – more than a decade later – the only child in the age group of twelve to fourteen, where on one side there was the constant insistence from elders to lend a helping hand with the household and farm work and on the other, the incessant urging of the heart towards play and daydreaming.

Tipu’s progress into manhood proceeded through these stormy waters of contradictory pulls, but his intelligence, alertness, and good sense helped him in safely navigating through them.

If Tipu had one passion, it was the game of Gilli-Danda.

His prized possessions were a collection of cylindrical wooden rods between a foot and a half or two in length and an inch and a half or two in diameter. He had pleaded with, beseeched, and pestered Lakha to make these for him over the past two years from the wood of various trees. This was his array of magic wands or dandas, using which he would excel in the game. He would let no one touch them with the exception of Lakha – which was only a grudging acknowledgement to their maker for his generosity.

The game of gilli-danda was the most widely recognized team sport of the times played by the general populace. The only gear that it required was a cylindrical wooden rod – called a “danda,” of the kind that Tipu had in his collection, and a much smaller cylindrical wooden rod – called the “gilli,” about six to eight inches in length with long conical ends.

There were many variations of the game and the one to be played in a given situation would depend upon the number of people available for play and the collective whim of the players. It was invariably Tipu who set the ball rolling – set the gilli spinning - would be a more appropriate expression under the circumstance, for an evening’s entertainment. He would seek out all potential participants – boys and men, coerce as many as possible into acquiescence, assemble them at the village square, and initiate the process of deciding the variation of the game to be played at that instance.

This was quite a task for one so young and the fact that he could accomplish it with ease time and again, was a testimony to both his passion for the game and the charm that he exuded.

This charm was in evidence that afternoon as Tipu started canvassing for yet another game of gilli-danda at the village square. Boys being boys, he had no problem in ensuring their compliance and herding them to the playing arena. It was the disorganized, self-centered, and mirthless adults who presented a bit of resistance, immersed as they were in worrying about the wayward monsoon.

Baga was his first recruit for the evening among the adults. Though into manhood going by the years, Baga was still a child at heart; a child that rejoiced at every opportunity of a game that would make him forget his muteness and his perceived incapability of being part of normal society.

Counting himself and Baga, there were seven in the playing contingent now – Tikka, Jumman, Gopal, Gannu, and Jai, all aged between nine and eleven, making up the rest.

Tipu girded up his dhoti and set about the more daunting task, that of roping in a few of the adults. Lakha was his first and natural target as he darted with Goli’s eldest boy Gannu in tow, between the Mukhiya’s hut that faced the square and that of his own whose entrance opened into a by-lane that led from the square into a cluster of dwellings, one of which was Hari and his son Lakha’s. The father and son duo were at work – the older chopping a fairly thick block of wood to smaller ones while the younger was assembling a wooden fence using uniformly shaped sticks that lay in a pile beside him.

“Lakha bhayya,” called the boy addressing the young man, the appendage “bhayya” meaning an elder bother. “We are just one short of making two teams of six each. Please do your work later and join us for the game just now. Please; Please; Please!” Tipu was a convincing and charismatic fibber too. Lakha however, was well conversant with Tipu’s ways and smiled to himself. He had a soft corner for this boy.

“Okay, count me in,” said he, but added, “Once the other eleven are actually there in the square, yell for me, and I will join you.”

Hari was not too happy with this. “There is work to be finished, son,” said he, “and you are off to play?”

“The work will be finished on time, father,” returned Lakha gruffly.

“That makes it eight up and four to go,” thought Tipu.

As he was turning back, he spied one of Bhura’s fowls pecking away for vermin a hut away. “Gannu, go quietly around the hut and block the fowl’s path from the other side. Let us snare it.”

The boy rejoiced and quavered at the same time. It was his fondest of pastimes and also one that brought the strongest retribution. He wavered for a moment, time enough for desire to triumph over fear, and then tiptoed around the hut to stalk their quarry. Once Gannu was in position, Tipu unhurriedly walked towards the unsuspecting fowl. When he thought he was close enough, he lunged and made to grab it. He was fast but the fowl was faster and smarter. In a flurry of feathers, wings, and fowl-cry, it half-ran half-flew away from him only to directly run into the waiting hands of a delighted Gannu.

“Quick! Give it to me, run along, and don’t show yourself until just before we start the game. I am going to spin a tale of my rescuing this bird from your hands to Bhura kaka,” whispered Tipu to Gannu and with the fowl in his hand, sped on looking for Bhura.

Lakha who was watching all this smiled and said to himself, “The little rascal!”

Tipu knew that he could extract an assent from Bhura if he ingratiated himself to the latter. Though quick tempered, Bhura had a kind heart and would go out of his way to return a favor. Tipu planned to exploit this weakness. He found Bhura mixing feed for his birds, with both hands immersed elbow deep inside a large wooden tub containing grain and powder in many shades of yellow and brown wetted with a nice smelling liquid.

“Bhura kaka! I caught Gannu chasing this bird and rescued it from him. Here, hold it.”

Bhura’s face turned crimson. He let out a stream of invectives at his imagined tormenter, showered accolades upon his perceived ally, and asked Tipu to put the bird under one of the upturned reed baskets. The boy complied immediately and turned to go.

After a few steps, he retraced them, and as if it was an after-thought, said to Bhura, “Kaka, we are about to commence a game of gilli-danda at the square. We are already twelve. However, if you wish to join in, I will ask one of the boys – possibly Gannu, to sit out and make place for you. We would love to have you playing. Won’t you please come?”

Bhura could not refuse such a well-rendered invitation from someone who had just helped him, particularly when punishment for his tormenter was also included in the bargain.

“I will come directly upon finishing this work. Five minutes,” replied Bhura.

‘Nine up and three to go,’ thought Tipu.

Ismail was relaxing in the shade of the sit-out adjoining his hut, which is what he did more often these days. With him was his cousin Jamshed who had come visiting from their ancestral home of Jungpura. The sensation of coolness that spread over the body each time a gust of wind mopped up the perspiration on their sprawled bodies generated by the heat of the afternoon sun, was a soothing experience.

The two were in a state that could be called neither sleep nor wakefulness. It was that condition in between that gave a bit of both worlds. Along with one such gust of wind came the sound of pattering feet. Ismail opened his eyes to see Tipu standing over him, arms on hips.

“Come, Ismail bhayya, do something useful,” and seeing that Jamshed was awake too now, he added, “... lest visitors should think all of us to be lazy.”

Ismail had a friendly swipe at Tipu using his towel as a flexible baton.

The boy deftly sidestepped the blow and pulling Jamshed by the hand said, “Jamshed bhayya, get this lazy cousin of yours out to play a game of gilli-danda.

Jamshed was just a few years older than Tipu and was immediately taken in by the idea. Ismail found it difficult to resist the onslaught of two ardent supplicants and had to give in, although with much reluctance. He would certainly have liked to continue with his extended afternoon nap.

‘Eleven up and just one to go,’ thought Tipu as he walked towards the village square holding Jamshed’s hand with Ismail lazily hobbling behind.

He knew for sure whom he wanted to be the twelfth and he would not have any one else as a substitute. His eyes searched the fields on the periphery of the village in vain. He had seen him head for the fields in the morning and not seen him since then. Where was his twelfth man?

While Tipu went about scouting for and recruiting players, the five boys in the playing contingent were having their own little game of gilli-danda in a corner of the square. Hearing their excited shouts, Kachra walked down his mound, desirous of watching the boys at play and squatted a little distance away. His lonely childhood had left many unfulfilled yearnings - simple and harmless desires - buried in his bosom. His adulthood was no better but it had at least brought with it a little power of reasoning which attempted to justify his plight in some far-fetched way.

“Hey, Kachra! Move away,” called out Tikka.

“But I am nowhere near you,” protested Kachra.

“If the gilli falls near you and we happen to touch you, then we will be defiled. My parents say that it will be a great sin.”

“They say that even talking to you is so,” responded Jai.

Though Kachra was used to this attitude of the villagers all his life, it still hurt when it was explicitly spelt out each time, that too by some one so young.

“And which idiot says that touching Kachra or speaking with him is a sin?” thundered a voice nearby.

Gurran, who had wandered off to the nearby village in the morning to soothsay, was returning home when he heard the conversation. His normally fearsome appearance was further accentuated by perspiration streaming down his face that had acquired a tan from having walked under the sun.

“Here! I will touch Kachra,” he bellowed and held the trembling man’s hand for a moment before walking away towards his resting place under the Peepal tree.

The boys slunk away in confusion and so did Kachra. He did not know whether to consider Gurran’s intervention to be a boon or a bane and shuddered at the possible adverse repercussions of the encounter, for he could not remotely imagine any propitious outcome from it.


Panting and perspiring profusely, she stopped for a moment on the steep slope. She gave one look to the height still left to conquer and her tired legs threatened to give way, but she willed them to take a few more steps. She knew that it would be worth all the effort to get to the top of the plateau and watch him sitting there gazing into the distance, cross-legged, on a small boulder, his strong arms wrapped around his knees, his hair being ruffled by an occasional gust of wind.

Smiling to herself, Gauri continued on her way up. She reached the summit of the plateau with an almighty huff and closed her eyes to steady herself, and expecting the sight of Bhuvan to drive away all the weariness of the arduous ascent, she opened them, scanning the barren flat panning out in front of her. But it remained desolate, the frame of a sturdy young man missing from it. Puzzled, Gauri gave the landscape another swift search. Despite the climb having robbed her of all the air in her lungs, she forced them to aid her in calling out for him.

“Bhuvan!” “Bhuvan!”

Her full throated yet sweet and lyrical cry traveled many furlongs around and she was sure that he would have heard it if he had been somewhere close by. Since her worried calls did not elicit any response, she panicked.

Where was he?

This had never happened before. Every single day he came here after a mornings work at his farmland, before coming down to the village for lunch. Nothing, as far as she knew, would make him change this routine.

‘Unless he is in trouble,’ thought the poor girl anxiously. She readied herself for another shout.

“Bhu . . .”

He was striding towards her, having climbed up from the other slope, the one that faced the forest. His worried countenance was lit up by a smile, as he perceived her.

‘Is he attempting to hide something or is he genuinely pleased to see me?’ Gauri asked herself.

She felt frustrated with him. He had changed so much from the Bhuvan of their younger days. He was no longer the boy who would so willingly become her make-believe husband in their imaginary world during playtime. He now hardly ever returned her signs of affection in likeness. It hurt her to see him toying with her emotions.

‘Well’ she thought. ‘I know he feels the same way as I do. It’s only that he doesn’t want to admit it. I’m sure it won’t be long before it spills out of him. I’m ready to wait as long as it takes. And in the mean time...’

Her eyes sparkled with anticipation as she too started off towards him.

“Where have you been?” she demanded. “I’ve been tearing my throat for you here and you come up slowly, hardly bothering to answer back.”

He grinned at her indignation. She swelled with annoyance and turned away.

“Fine,” he shrugged. “I am going back home then. You don’t seem to want to talk to me.”

There it was again. While the Bhuvan of old would have pleaded till she forgave him, here he was, making fun of her resentment. Her hands that had been resting on her hips to display her displeasure fell down heavily to her sides and she turned in time to see him walking off. She hurried after him and pulled him back and despite his grumbling, sat down and forced him to do the same.

She made one more attempt at wheedling an apology out of him by turning her face away, but seeing none coming, turned back to him and asked with a smile, “Do you know what Gurran predicted for me today?”

Her face shone with such child-like animation that it erased the revolting memories of the morning from Bhuvan’s mind. His smile felt much more genuine to Gauri than it had when she had first spotted him, and she felt encouraged as she continued.

“He told me that I’ll get married to the man I love,”

He raised his eyebrows.

The girl pouted. “I am serious! That’s really, what he said. Also...”

She paused before continuing. What she was going to tell him now was not what Gurran told her, but Gauri wanted to see how Bhuvan would respond to it, or whether he would respond at all. Had she been realistic, the girl would have known that such a ploy would have been useless – hadn’t she been unsuccessful on innumerable other occasions? But a mind in love is an impractical one, which will see neither sense nor logic.

And so the maiden in love ploughed on with her effort.

“Also, he gave me a description of the house I’ll be married into.”

His eyebrows ascended higher.

“He said it’ll have a neem tree in the garden, two cows, three goats...”

The eyebrows were almost lost to view as she went on but the face gave away nothing.

‘Thwarted again,’ thought the disappointed girl.

She tried another maneuver. “What kind of girl would you like to get married to?”

“Me? Well, that’d be who ever ma likes.” And there was truth in every syllable of that sentence.

But what registered in Gauri’s mind was ‘ma,’ and she remembered what she had actually come for and was horrified. She had totally forgotten about it and now Bhuvan would surely be livid. Her dismay was not lost on him as she smacked her forehead and answered his questioning look.

“I am really sorry, Bhuvan. But I had come to inform you that your mother is expecting you and,” she added timidly, “she is very upset with you.”

“Look at her! Look at this girl,” yelled Bhuvan springing up.

He was not at all angry with Gauri – he knew he could convince his mother, as he always did so remarkably well – but grabbed at the opportunity to steer the conversation away from all the ‘my love’ and ‘your wife’ stuff, and to annoy and alarm the girl a little further. He enjoyed irritating her thus, seeing that attractive face snivel at his harmless taunts and sarcasm.

“You’ve only grown bodily, but that brain isn’t developed enough for your age,” he used to say every time her eyes threatened to fill up, upsetting her even more. Even now, as she looked at him beseechingly, he didn’t let go.

“Why did I ever sit down to listen to you? God save me from this girl.”

And he was off, running down the inclines of the plateau, with Gauri tailing him, looking flustered and lost.

“Oi! Tipu,” boomed a far away voice from behind.

It floated down the slopes along with the breeze that swept in sporadically from the mountains beyond, bringing with it the mild and enchanting fragrance of the forest vegetation that lay between. Tipu let go of Jamshed’s hand, spun around and yelling to Ismail and Jamshed that he would meet them soon at the square, sprinted towards the source of the voice.

It was his twelfth man.

Cleaving the oncoming breeze went Tipu and seeing the boy bound towards him and Gauri, as they walked down the slope to the village, Bhuvan was reminded of the swift-footed deer that he encountered in the woods that morning.

Bhuvan held out both his hands. Tipu did a hop, skip, and a jump as he came close and landed on Bhuvan’s hips, his arms and legs and the arms of the man clasped around each other, which was followed by a burst of mirthful laughter before the two separated. This was their usual mode of greeting. Just as the two never tired of repeating it, Gauri too never wearied from watching it. It provided that wonderful feeling of togetherness and made life so pleasurable.

“What’s up now?” asked Bhuvan, sensing the eagerness in Tipu’s eyes.

Gilli-danda, what else!” retorted Tipu.

For Bhuvan, most of the bitterness of the morning had worn off after talking to Gauri and the prospect of an exciting match with Tipu, erased whatever little that remained.

“Who are all playing?” asked Bhuvan and Tipu recounted his spree of canvassing and listed the members of the assembled contingent of players.

He also told him the need to include Gannu, despite his promise to the contrary to Bhura. Bhuvan said that he would handle that and also told Tipu that they would need to be in opposite teams to ensure balance considering the proficiency of the other ten players.

“Let’s go then,” said Bhuvan and the three raced each other back to the village square.

Many pairs of eyes watched them coming – some admiringly, some emotionlessly, but there was one pair that did not like what it saw.

The need to heed his mother’s call was forgotten in all this excitement until Gauri nudged him, as Bhuvan made to join the group of players waiting to begin the game.

“I will be back in a moment,” said he, as he sprinted towards his hut where he found his mother kneading dough for the evening meal.

Yashoda’s lips parted to attempt a reprimand but they never got a chance. Bhuvan’s words came in a torrent, washing away her half-formed words, her anxiety at not seeing him since morning, and her annoyance at his insensitivity towards this.

“I am at the square, ma. We are going to have a game of gilli-danda. Finish your work and come over to watch it.”

And before she could respond, he was gone - as swiftly and abruptly as he had come.

The exasperated mother shook her head, muttering to herself in dismay, “He is still a kid. An overgrown one. When will he ever become a responsible man?”

It had taken less than half an hour for Tipu to gather his team and now began the arduous and noisy exercise of deciding on the variant of the game that was to be played. Except for Bhuvan and Tipu, none noticed the fact that there were only eleven players assembled, Gannu having made himself scarce on Tipu’s suggestion, and lurking behind a tree for an opportune moment to make his appearance, which he was sure, would come very shortly.

Lakha, who had always been a loner, began proceedings by saying that the game will be better played individually than as a team. A chorus of opposing shouts drowned out his voice and his suggestion. With no support from any quarter, Lakha gave in and sat on the ground sulking, not taking any further part in the exercise. Bhuvan knew that if he and Lakha were chosen to be in the same team, then the latter would walk out. He gestured to Tipu about this unnoticed by the others. Tipu announced a tentative composition of the two teams according to which – Lakha, Tipu, Jumman, Gopal, Bhura, and Ismail were in one, while Tikka, Jai, Jamshed, Bhuvan, and Baga made up the other.

“One team is one player short and pray why should I be bunched with three boys? Why should I not be in the other team with Bhuvan? I am always the one singled out for mistreatment...” Bhura began his train of objections in his usual fowlish manner, his nasal voice making it even more fowlish.

Bhuvan saw his chance of hitting two fowls with one stone and cut him short by saying, “All right, Bhura. Your objection is upheld and you come over to my team. This would make us six and the opposing team will be reduced to five players. So you should let Tipu include anyone else of his choice to make up his team of six. Do you agree?”

Bhura was stumped. It was seldom that his objections were so promptly addressed; they were generally not even given a patient hearing. Elation spawned magnanimity and Bhura gave his consent, thanking Bhuvan profusely, who winked at Tipu, who in his turn put up a little charade and called out to a few people he was certain would not participate. Then he called out to Gannu who had been impatiently hiding behind the tree. At the sight of him, Bhura’s irritability unsuccessfully attempted to resurface as it lay smothered by his own acquiescence to the proceedings made a short while ago. All that escaped his lips was an unintelligible grumble and then everything went quite.


This bit of sly maneuvering was not lost on Lakha, because he had been privy to the plot hatched by Tipu and Gannu earlier. He rejoiced at Tipu’s clever manipulations but resented Bhuvan’s hand in it. With the two habitual dissenters – Bhura and Lakha, silenced, it was quite easy for Tipu to declare the rules to be followed for the ensuing game. There weren’t many and they were easy.

Bhuvan proposed that Tipu’s team play first and it was accepted by all concerned. So began an evening’s game of gilli-danda and a crowd of spectators slowly started to gather around the periphery of the play area...

Players of the fielding team took their positions around the field. A little depression was made in the centre of the field to enable the gilli to be placed in it in such a way that it formed an angle with the ground. Tipu strode in with his favorite danda from his modest collection and looked around the field to ascertain the positions of the members of the opposing team. He observed that Bhuvan had placed three players in the semicircle facing him and three at the back, keeping in mind the boy’s ability of hitting the gilli on either side with ease.

Tipu began his first sortie.

He tapped the gilli gently at the end that jutted out of the ground at an angle, making it loop into the air - spinning lengthwise.

While it was airborne, he gave another gentle tap to make it loop another time, and then gave it a mighty whack, directing it between the fielder in front of him and the one placed to his right. The gilli flew towards the intended direction and the two fielders converged on the point where it would hit the ground. The flying bit of wood outpaced the racing pair of legs and fell to the earth well between two pairs of outstretched hands about ten yards away from the place where it was hit.

Bhuvan standing to the left of Tipu nevertheless encouraged his mates by applauding their failed effort.

Gannu reached the fallen gilli first, picked it up, and readied himself to throw it back to hit the danda that Tipu had placed spanning the little depression in the ground. If he hit the danda successfully, then Tipu would be ‘out’.

“Hey! Step back,” yelled Tipu at Gannu, “You have taken two steps forward from where the gilli hit the ground.”

Gannu maintained that he had not, and there commenced a little verbal duel between the two, before Bhuvan intervened and worked out a compromise. Accordingly, Gannu took a step backwards, raised the gilli in his hand, and threw it at the danda.

It wasn’t an easy task to hit a two-foot long wooden rod with a six-inch one, from a distance of ten yards, more so, when the full length of the danda is not visible due to the angle between the positions from which the gilli is thrown. Some have an unerring aim and do accomplish it occasionally. Gannu was not one of them. The throw went wayward.

“Do all agree that the distance the gilli went is fourteen danda lengths? Or does anyone want me to measure?” asked Tipu.

After a short pause and seeing that there were no dissenters, Tipu said, “That makes my score twenty eight points – fourteen guna two.”

Guna was the term used for the distance multiplication factor determined on the basis of the number of times the gilli was tapped before being whacked.

Tipu made five triumphant sorties aggregating two hundred and eighty points with a guna of four in one of them. On the sixth however, a miscue sent the gilli high up, giving sufficient time for Bhura to get under and hold it.

There were shouts of exultation from the fielding side on the exit of the star player of the opposing team. Tipu was crestfallen and almost in tears. This was one of his lowest scores, which usually averaged over three hundred and fifty points.

Lakha walked in to take Tipu’s place and Bhuvan rearranged the fielding positions bringing four players facing the hitter and two behind. The initial field positioning was only speculative, for a hitter could change the direction he was originally facing, while repeatedly tapping the gilli (which also increased the distance multiplication factor or guna) after it was airborne and before giving it the final whack. As the hitter changed his direction he faced during this process, the fielders too would shift accordingly.

Lakha added a further two hundred and forty points before being dismissed by a throw from Jamshed from seven yards that hit the danda spot on. The team’s aggregate now stood at five hundred and twenty points.

There are three ways that a hitter can be dismissed from play in the game of gilli-danda. The first is when the gilli – after being hit, is caught by a fielder before it is grounded. The second is when a gilli thrown by a fielder from the place where it fell to the ground, makes contact with the danda placed on the depression, which is roughly the place from where it was hit. The third is when after tapping the gilli up into the air, the hitter fails to make contact with it when attempting to whack it.

The next three players who followed Lakha in a sequence were the three boys – Jumman, Gopal, and Gannu. Each gave an unsolicited demonstration of one of the three modes of being dismissed and walked back, averting their eyes from those of Tipu, which were firing darts of fiery anger and intense reprimand.

Their individual contributions were meager–twenty-five, eighteen and thirty respectively, that swelled the team total to five hundred and ninety three. Ismail was the last man to walk into the middle for his team.

Much to his annoyance, he had been woken from slumber yet again, into which he had slipped back when play started. It is for this reason that he had volunteered to go last and had also expected Tipu to play for a much longer time, which would have let him be in his favored state for a while more.

If there was one thing that Ismail could not stand, it was being taunted, even if it happened to be in a lighter vein. A sneaky comment from the irrepressible Bhura that he was a sleepy head, brought the adrenalin rushing into Ismail’s blood stream resulting in a flurry of strokes that saw the team’s score rapidly climb to seven hundred and ten before a diving catch by Bhuvan ended his innings. Ismail left the ground to the applause of the appreciative spectators.

The players gathered around an earthen pot filled with water that had been brought by Gauri and placed under a tree for a water break before the commencement of the innings of the other team. There were animated analyses of individual performances, reliving of exciting moments, heated arguments over perceived slip-ups, and eulogization of exemplary achievements. There were also suggestions aplenty, words of encouragements, wishes of good luck, and taunts for failures from non-participants.

It brought the village together and every one had some opinion to air, some one to support, some one to bait. It was an uninhibited manifestation of the vibrancy of life. The Mukhiya, who was also one of the avid spectators, glanced at the western horizon and saw the sun beginning its exercise of retiring for the day and hustled the players back to the field.

Bhura entered the arena with all the mannerisms of a warrior going into a battlefield – his head held high, the right hand holding one end of the danda with the other end resting on his shoulder, an expression that was meant to be both a frown and a smile, intending to convey to the opposing players and the spectators at large that he was about to overhaul the target total single-handed.

The intent and attitude was no doubt laudable but his performance did not match it. It should be said to his credit that he did regale the audience with his physical and verbal acrobatics and put up a reasonably good score of one hundred and seventy points before failing to connect on his last sortie. There was a smug expression on his face as he walked out, for the adulation of the crowd meant more to him than his contribution to the team.

Tikka, Jai, and Jamshed followed Bhura in that sequence and exited after making moderate contributions.

The score stood at three hundred and ninety five points, which was just about half way to the target.

Baga entered the field. Gurran had brought with him Baga’s drum and was waiting precisely for this moment and began to play a quick marching rhythm. The spectators got into the act and began to clap their hands to the tempo and chant his name, “Ba–ga,” “Ba–ga,” and Baga in jubilation, began a march to the centre, his legs moving with the beat.

The atmosphere was thrilling. It was a treat to watch Baga play –whether it was fielding or hitting. While one was absolutely comical, the other was awe-inspiring. The funny side was that he could never catch a gilli in flight. He would position himself on its flight-path, cup his hands with his mouth open, quivering all over, and just as the gilli was to make contact with his hands, he would close his eyes and spill the catch to the ground. No amount of explaining could get him out of this habit over the years.

However, when it came to hitting, if Baga whacked a gilli, it stayed whacked. It would sail over the crowds and cover at least twice the distance that other hitters managed. The flip side to this ability was the fact that there was only an even chance of the danda making contact with the gilli, and point multiplier taps were beyond his capability.

But Baga’s hitting more than compensated for all his clumsiness because one of the rules of the game was that if the gilli cleared the perimeter of the field when hit, then the hitter was awarded a hundred points. On his day, Baga could win a game all by himself. That day was not one of those special days and having managed only two massive hits, he exited the field to an equally noisy and lively farewell.

The score stood at five hundred and ninety five points, which was one hundred and fifteen points in deficit of the target.

Bhuvan was the last man in. He made it to the centre to a combination of cheers and jeers. He had this quality in him – of eliciting extreme reactions from people. They either adored him or despised him, commensurate with his twin qualities of being excessively magnanimous and being uncompromisingly obstinate.

Today, the two attributes of his had decided to manifest themselves in unison. Looking at the dejected faces of the four boys of the opposing team, he had decided to throw the match away. He began hitting the gilli high into the air rather than with an intent of scoring points. The inevitable soon followed when he was caught by Lakha making his team win by a margin of fifty points.

Tipu and the other boys erupted with joy while the chorus of despondency was led by the inimitable Bhura. The spectators dispersed and the sun began its self-effacement behind the hills.

Evening twilight signaled prayer time at Champaner. Dwarakadas opened a shelf inside the sanctum, fumbled for the bottle of camphor in the gathering darkness and placed a few pellets on the brass plate in preparation for lighting it as soon the temple bell would begin to toll, energetically rung by Gurran to a measured beat, with Baga playing his drum to the same tempo from atop the hillock.

Gurran was already in position standing beneath the huge bell that hung from the canopy over the paved open yard that led to the temple door. Baga, his drum suspended in front of him by a belt slung across his shoulder, climbed up the flight of stairs to the summit. His hands rose, hovered in the air for a moment, and fell powerfully on the leather stretched across the two sides of the drum, just as Gurran began his metrical ringing.

Dwarakadas lit a bit of camphor holding it against the flame of a little oil lamp that was always kept burning inside the sanctum, and put it back among the other bits on the brass plate. Their glow amidst the cadence of the bell and drum created an ambiance that seemed to spread a sense of energetic serenity among the villagers. Very soon, the camphor pellets metamorphosed into vapor, merged into the surrounding environment as it disintegrated and could sustain the glow no longer. As the flame ebbed away, so did the reverberations of the ringing bell and drum beats.

Gurran and Baga, having completed their assigned tasks, turned to descend. Their eyes momentarily spanned the western horizon as they did a hundred times each day looking for those ever-elusive nimbus clouds and then readied themselves to pilot the men down the stairway.

It was only then that the duo realized that the picture of the horizon was not what it invariably had been for the past several months. Rising up like a mushroom far away, was a column of clouds, portending a possible thunderstorm. All this while, the color of the clouds had made them blend with the twilight and hence no one had discerned it. They also had the advantage of height, standing as they were on a hillock.

Their heads jerked up again. Yes, it wasn’t a mirage.

It was real.

They stood there watching, rooted to the top-most step of the flight of stairs, and saw the cloud-column rapidly grow in size indicating that it was moving towards the village. Unconsciously Baga’s hands began to beat the drum again.

Boom… Boom… Boom...

Gurran, who had a penchant for the dramatic and spontaneity of expression, began strumming his single stringed Ektara and began to sing as he walked down the steps –

Bridging the expanse between earth and sky,

The column of rain clouds trundle by.

A streak of lightning, a rumble of thunder,

Praise be to the Lord, says I.

This deviation from the evening’s prayer routine made people in the village look up towards the hilltop and the temple, and in turn follow the gaze of the two men as they were moving down, silhouetted against the evening sky. The village square that had just emptied a while ago after the game, began to fill up again replete with delighted cries, joyful whoops, soaring spirits, and cheerful revelry. Some embraced shedding tears of happiness, some held hands and danced in circles, some others lent their voice to a chorus that began to chant Gurran’s impromptu rendering –

Bridging the expanse between earth and sky,

The column of rain clouds trundle by.

A streak of lightning, a rumble of thunder,

Praise be to the Lord! says I.

…to the accompaniment of his Ektara and Baga’s drum. One of them was Shambhu kaka, who hobbled out of his hut into which he had retired for the day, his trembling hands holding a cane for support, and his quavering bass voice giving a marked tenor to the otherwise high-pitched chorus.

Supporting his cane with one hand, he held up the other, motioning to the other vocalists to pause, as he included his own extemporized verses that reflected his convictions about the workings of nature –

We do inherit as we ply -

Bounty if true, upon deceit - fie;

There’s strength in our arms and trust in our hearts;

Praise be to the Lord! says I.


The enthusiasm of the old man appeared to be infectious, for many more of the villagers began to sing the chorus –

Bridging the expanse between earth and sky,

The column of rain clouds trundle by.

A streak of lightning, a rumble of thunder,

Praise be to the Lord! says I

Baga swayed to the beat as he wove between people, drumming away in unrestrained pleasure. Bhuvan who was swinging along in the wake of Baga, suddenly felt an inspiration tug at him, and heard himself articulating in verse his own beliefs that were founded on youthful zest, idealism, and impetuousness –

Courage we possess to aim so high;

Achieve we will, else trying, we die;

Peace to the usurpers we will deny;

Praise be to the Lord! says I.

Many among the crowd who had suffered humiliation and disgrace at the hands of the British army officers from the cantonment, roared their approval at Bhuvan’s outpourings.

For once, even Lakha did not find hatred and anger welling up inside him, which usually happened whenever he found anyone supporting Bhuvan or agreeing with his ideas. To the villager’s surprise, they saw Lakha too join the chorus –

Bridging the expanse between earth and sky,

The column of rain clouds trundle by.

A streak of lightning, a rumble of thunder,

Praise be to the Lord! says I.

There was a whirl of multi-colored fabric, in the midst of which pirouetted a pretty girl. Baga’s drumbeats transformed this usually bashful and tongue-tied girl to an irrepressibly gregarious lass, just as Baga’s glance sent her heart fluttering.

It was Jigni, the daughter of the big-mustached Sukhari who was a farmer, like most others in the village. When the contagion of poetic expression caught up with her, it made her heart spill forth her innermost yearnings –

The clouds have heard my heart’s deep sigh;

How long could I stifle its longing cry?

The season hast come, of rain and love,

Praise be to the Lord! says I

This beautiful expression of affection from Jigni, touched sympathetic chords in many a heart and the crowd chorused in unison -

Bridging the expanse between earth and sky,

The column of rain clouds trundle by.

A streak of lightning, a rumble of thunder,

Praise be to the Lord! says I.

A calm and tranquil voice rose from the gathering at the next metrical pause, at which all eyes turned upon the person from whom it came forth. She was clad in white, as she always was, a symbol of purity, goodness, and serenity.

It was Yashoda. Her words and advice always reined in runaway emotions of all kinds. So it did now as well, as she sang –

Village folks we are and not Magi,

To divine the present, into the future, pry;

Pray we will for the good of all,

Praise be to the Lord! says I

. . . and the crowd chorused in agreement -

Bridging the expanse between earth and sky,

The column of rain clouds trundle by.

A streak of lightning, a rumble of thunder,

Praise be to the Lord! says I.

Squatting on his mound, Kachra watched the two spectacles – the one on earth and the other in the sky. What did they mean to him?

Neither meant much. He could not be part of the former. Being an outcaste, his emotions and aspirations were of no consequence. The effect of the heavenly spectacle would perhaps provide some bodily respite, but it would also substantially increase the quantity of filth that he would need to scour – for a prosperous village meant heightened consumption, which resulted in increased waste and refuse.

Kachra, however, noticed one thing that the rejoicing villagers did not, which was that the column of clouds that were right above them now, did not appear so ominous and immense as they did from afar. The western horizon had already reverted to its normal and fading twilight tint. This mass of clouds was only one of those freaks of nature that occasionally show up with a lot of fanfare only to fade away rapidly. Engrossed in themselves, the villagers anticipated raindrops to plummet upon them.

But the droplets never did.

The supposed rain carriers made their swift passage over the village. A bright and blinding flash of lightning, followed by a loud clap of thunder brought a momentary pause in the joyous revelry of the expectant villagers. They all stopped, hands clasped, breaths held, their hearts resonating with the same pulsating beat, their moist eyes gazing at the bearers of respite and bliss, willing them to drench the whole earth – each pore and each particle – with their sweet nectar of life, and infuse into it a vigor and vitality it hadn’t seen for a long time. The clouds responded to this fervent call of the people and with another dazzling flare through a canopy of darkness over the packed square.

Every moment seemed to stretch to an eternity to the expectant populace.

They waited... and waited.

Having had their patience tested for a good two years by the rain god, a few more moments of delay was tolerable. But the moments went by without a single drop moistening the ground at their feet.

And then...

As the villagers watched with unbelieving eyes, the column of dark clouds moved away without unloading the bounteous happiness they seemed to have promised. None in the congregation stirred as the deceiving clouds rushed away, revealing the fading twilight in the background. An eerie calmness seemed to have enveloped the whole place.

The heavy silence was shattered by Bhura’s shriek of agony that seemed to echo the anguish of all present there. Bhura then disengaged himself from the crowd and tore after the retreating clouds, shouting and screaming for them to come back. Baga’s drumstick fell to the ground as he abandoned his beloved drum to race after Bhura, letting out a roar that emanated from his grief-stricken heart.

Gauri and Jigni were weeping on each other’s shoulders. Yashoda, whose legs had given way under her, was being supported by Bhuvan and Hari, who themselves looked in need of comfort.

Dwarakadas and Gurran found support and solace in their philosophical notions, while Shambhu kaka had for a prop his long experience in addition to his walking stick, leaning on which he believed that good days would yet come and soon, despite the betrayal of this dusk.

The mirage of the early evening instilled a sense of urgency in the Mukhiya, who sent Tipu around to the houses of Shambhu kaka, Devilal, Sukhari, and Hafiz to inform them that they should accompany him to the palace the following morning, to seek an audience with the king. He wanted to request the king to urgently intercede with the British army commandant on their behalf and impress upon him the need to either completely waive the lagaan, the yearly tax that the villagers paid as a percentage of their harvest produce, for the year or at least retain it at the level of the previous year, which was one half of the normal rate. Whatever little they did harvest during the year, would barely suffice to pay the half lagaan.

The dawn of the ‘morrow saw the elders of the village huddled in a bullock-cart proceeding along the dirt road that connected the village to the palace grounds, which was an hour and a half’s journey away.

“Careful, Devilal. Guide the cart away from the potholes. It hurts.”

Shambhu kaka seldom undertook such expeditions now. His frail body could not put up with the rigors anymore. But this meeting warranted his presence, as he was the eldest in the village and his words carried the weight of experience and exactitude of knowledge of the prevailing situation - a combination, which the Mukhiya was convinced no one else possessed, and insisted upon Shambhu kaka being one of the party. And so the reluctant septuagenarian was helped into the cart by Tipu and Bhuvan in the morning, padded up with as many blankets as Gauri could procure from the whole village.

“Ah! My poor bones.”

The bullock-cart trundled on thus...

“Very good, Raman. Very good.” The king sounded pleased.

Raman bowed, glowing with pleasure. He was as proud of the king’s horses as the owner himself. The king was in his stables, inspecting each stallion, mare, and foal. He patted one or two of the very sleek ones. That is all he could do now since he was hardly in any shape to ride them.

He smiled ruefully to himself as he remembered the day, almost thirty years ago, when his father who was the king then, had declared proudly that his son was the best horse rider in the kingdom.

“Hail the King!” the voice of one of his servants floating in from outside the stable, cleared up the haze of the past that had clouded his eyes.

“What is it?”

“I am here sire, to inform the Lord that the Mukhiya of the village of Champaner, accompanied by a few other elders, wishes to seek an audience with His Highness.” The servant bowed as he entered the stable.


The king thought he knew exactly what they had come for. He felt a feeling of annoyance rise in him, but he stifled it as quickly as it came. It wasn’t the fault of those simple, hardworking villagers that he was in such a precarious position – balanced between the weight of the ever-increasing dominance of the British and the continued failure of the district to generate enough produce to satisfy their demand.

A sigh escaped his lips as he ordered the servant to go and inform those who had come to be seated in the grounds and that he would see them in a little time. He would have to hear them out patiently and see what he could do in his power, which, he admitted to himself, was fast waning, to help them.

“Hail the King!” The waiting group chorused and got up to bow down reverently before the king, as he approached them.

The king indicated for them to be seated, and asked the Mukhiya what had brought him here.

The Mukhiya bowed as he answered, “O King! It is the plight of not only the village of Champaner but also of all the other villages that come under your Lordship’s rule that has forced me and the others who accompany me to place a request before Your Highness. If I may be permitted by His Majesty to speak...” he trailed off.

The king motioned for him to continue.

“The King must know that the situation of the monsoon in the district hasn’t been very good for the past two years. By Your Majesty’s kindness and concern for his subjects, the burden of lagaan on our shoulders was halved last year. And we are immensely thankful to the Lord for this act of benevolence.” He lowered his head again respectfully to express his gratitude. “But as this year too the rain god doesn’t seem ready to shower down on us, our situation has worsened. Our provisions have depleted even further and what meager crop we are able to harvest during this year, might not even suffice to pay half the lagaan.”

“The situation is indeed a dire one, Lord.” Shambhu kaka lent his shaky voice to the gravity-filled explanation of the Mukhiya. “Though many of us still hope for rain this year, it would hardly be in time for the lagaan payment. It would crush the farmer’s strength completely, if a waiver isn’t affected this year too.”

The king was surprised to see the old man in the group. He had not set eyes upon him for a very long time now. It was then that he understood the magnitude of the whole affair. Shambhu kaka would not say something was impossible, if it really wasn’t.

But the king knew he could hardly hope to get the commandant of the British cantonment to agree to a second tax-waiver. That he had agreed the last time was still a wonder to him. He also realized that something needed to be done, and done by him. He was the only agent between the tyrants and the oppressed. And if nothing was done at this stage, things could take a turn for the worse at a later time, both for the villagers and himself.

But he couldn’t see a way out of this tangle. He needed something that would serve the triple purpose of keeping the villagers and the British happy, and keep his own position secure. What could he do? Nothing, as far as his mind could strain itself.


“I have a proposition.”

The king spoke after a long time spent in deep meditation, a period, which the group had spent glancing uncomfortably at each other, hoping and praying.

“Anything our Lord has to say, for he always thinks of the good of his subjects.”

The Mukhiya’s words brought a smile to the king’s lips. “Yes, I have something in mind. You must realize that it is extremely difficult to convince those at the cantonment to agree to anything. I managed to do it last year for my people, but repeating such a feat is going to prove to be an immense task,” the king looked at the stricken faces of those seated before him before adding “which I shall undertake, if my present suggestion does not succeed.”

The villagers, looking less anguished, prepared themselves to listen intently to the king’s words. “My suggestion is that the villagers pray at Mata Bhavani’s temple in Bhavanipur. It is said, as you all must know, that She is very kind to those who come to Her in dire straits and pray with sincerity. But as Bhavanipur falls under the reign of my brother, who is now a sworn enemy,” there was melancholy and bitterness in his voice, “I will have to request the British to permit your entry into that village. If nothing comes out of your prayers, we will have to revert to asking the British commandant for a waiver. What do you think, Mukhiya?”

As the Mukhiya could hardly say no, he bowed again and said, “The King’s suggestion is a command to us. We shall obey it word for word.” The others lent their voices in agreement.

“All right then. Go home with hope; if not in peace and may the Goddess bless you all. I shall do everything in my power to help you.”

This signaled the end of the meeting and the villagers got up.

“Hail the King!” “Hail the King!”


End of Chapter 2

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