The king and the ruler
Unemployment breeds laziness. Laziness nurtures obesity. King Puran Singh was unemployed, lazy, and obese.
Over a period of two decades, he had been reduced from a benign and able sovereign to a brooding, powerless pawn. Some attributed this transformation to the British; some ascribed it to destiny, while others credited it to his own ineptitude. None of these diverse conclusions made any difference to his present pathetic state. His ego would not let him be a commoner, his despondency would not let him be a king, and the ascendancy of the British stranglehold on India would not let him be either. His undivided kingdom had spread across an area of almost 1500 square miles with 27 villages.
His grandfather, King Ranadeep Singh, had built a palace near a village called Raigadh, which was supposed to have been the seat of power of an ancient dynasty but had fallen into ruin with the passage of time. The presence of the palace spawned other associated activities, and Raigadh soon attracted a relatively sizeable population. The kingdom flourished during Puran Singh’s father King Raunaq Singh’s reign and his two sons – Puran being the elder, inherited a stable state and satisfied subjects.
Stability and satisfaction are ephemeral, as are their counterparts. When one set has had its run the other set is bound to follow. Instability and dissatisfaction arrived in Raigadh, in the shape of the destabilizing ambition of Puran’s brother Diler Singh. Never having been reconciled to the fact that he was the younger sibling, he had always nurtured the desire of being independent, despite Puran having treated him as an equal and having granted him a say in all affairs of the state.
The British, who were always on the look out for disaffection within ruling clans to exploit, weaken, and annihilate the native hold upon administration, found a ready ally in Diler Singh. Within a year of Puran Singh’s ascension to the throne, the die was cast and their consequences followed in rapid succession. First to come, was the bifurcation of the kingdom, followed by the disbanding of the armies of both divided entities, and finally the usurping of their respective administrative powers.
Because of the tradition of allegiance of the population to the king of the land, the British needed the kings to keep the population in check. They achieved their twin objectives of ruling, and ruling without accountability, by making the kings glorified dummies who could also serve as potential scapegoats in times of need.
If things went well, the British would claim credit. If circumstances were adverse, they could conveniently blame it on the king’s incompetence. This was not an original, unique, or exceptional strategy of the British. It was a time-tested tactic pursued by conquerors across the world.
Gradually, Raigadh became a ghost town. Most of it was taken over by the British army to house its cantonment. The mansion of the king’s army chief became the residence of the commandant of the cantonment and all administrative orders began to be issued from there rather than the palace. Puran Singh was left to marvel at the portraits of his forefathers that adorned the walls of his sprawling palace, feed the pigeons that made the niches in the palace walls their home, admire from afar the tottering gait and faltering trot of the few nearly emaciated steed that remained in his stables – for he could ride them no longer considering his overweight and their depleted state, which would have been an unpleasant experience for both man and horse, and grant an occasional audience to his impoverished subjects sitting atop his ceremonial elephant, riding his six wheeled decadent buggy, or gracing his powerless throne.
To add insult to injury, he had to report his every activity to a man much younger to him in age, inferior to him in education and in his perspective, an uncultured upstart in comparison to his refined disposition.
He had no choice but to suffer Captain Andrew Russell, the commandant of the cantonment of Raigadh.
The darkness of the night had engulfed the cantonment. The exhausted officers retired to their tents. There had been frequent squabbles for the last few days between them and the villagers. Suddenly, a gun was fired, sounding the alarm. The tired officers stumbled out of their beds.
“What now?” roared a loud, arrogant voice.
Lieutenant Paul Russell walked out of his camp, brow furrowed in annoyance. The soldier who had sounded the alarm flinched and averted his gaze.
“The villagers are advancing towards the camp with flaming torches, sir,” he said, addressing his feet.
“Those dark skinned rascals,” barked Russell. “Let’s teach them a lesson.”
The officers present there dropped their gaze.
“This is an order,” said Lieutenant Russell loudly.
Grumbling irritably, the men turned and trundled back to their tents. There were loud sounds of splashing water, and the men returned with their firearms, looking a fair bit brighter after the face-wash, but still complaining under their breath.
“Hurry up,” shouted the Lieutenant, giving a disrespectful nudge between the shoulders of the man nearest him. One of the men out of earshot of Russell whispered to his comrades, “Sooner or later, we’ll have to knock some sense into Nero’s little brain that he is only the acting commandant of this cantonment. He is not our Captain.”
His comrade nodded. “Nor can he ever be; our Captain was better behaved.”
The men of the cantonment called him Lieutenant Nero behind his back. The only few moments the men had ever witnessed Russell having a pleasant smile on his face was when he was given a free hand to deal with local rebels and crush any armed uprising with an iron hand. For him, this meant shattering the skulls of as many Indians as he could. The fact that Lieutenant Russell took this more as an entertaining sport than anything else, made the men feel disgusted.
The officers and soldiers marched out of the camp in haste to confront the villagers. They found them clustered around, in deep discussion with one another and who turned to face the soldiers when they heard the rhythmic tramping of boots.
Lieutenant Russell brandished his gun at them and asking his men to remain in their positions, walked arrogantly forward, clearly trying to establish his superiority.
The villagers screamed and flourished their flaming torches, which every one of them had been holding. Russell stopped dead in his tracks. The villagers laughed at him. Even a few of his men standing behind him tried their best to hide sly smiles.
Russell reddened. “Mukhiya!” he shouted. “Where in the name of hell are you?”
A man as old as Russell himself, probably older and a foot shorter came forward. He was the only person not carrying a torch.
“What do you want?” he asked Russell, and then turning to the villagers shouted, “Don’t injure him, or we’ll have his Government to answer to.”
One of the villagers spat on the ground at Russell’s feet. Russell spun around, lifted his gun, and pointed it at the man’s heart. But when the villagers roared again deafeningly, he lowered it and turned around to the leader of the village again.
“Very good,” he said, as if there had been no interruption. “You have learnt some sense; because you will have your Government to answer to if you injure me. Now why don’t you scamper back to your beds unless you want me to ask my men to baby-sit the whole village?” Russell laughed maliciously at his intended joke.
“Oh, what a surprise,” mocked the Mukhiya. “It is just what you cannot do right now.” This time the Mukhiya too laughed openly on Russell’s face.
The Lieutenant slapped the Mukhiya with all his strength and sent him sprawling on the dusty ground. The villagers roared with anger and surged forward, but the Mukhiya held up his hand and spat thickly through a mouth of blood, “Keep to your places.”
Russell looked to his men as if asking for support, only to find a solid wall of villagers blocking his view of them. He had not realized that he had been surrounded and was alone in the midst of a seething mass of humanity.
The color drained from his face. He turned back to the Mukhiya, who was still lying sprawled on the ground. He pointed his finger accusingly at the man.
“You, fool,” he said softly. “You are digging your own grave.”
Addressing the villagers, he said loudly, “You all are nothing but pathetic madmen. You have all proved your inferiority by doing this to me. I am a respected Government official. I serve my country dutifully, and take great pleasure in cleansing this world of brutes like you, if my duties allow me to do so.”
Though the villagers did not understand all of this as Russell had spoken in English, the arrogance and the spite in his voice was unmistakable.
A sudden movement to Russell’s right caught his attention. Whirling around Russell raised his gun and pulled the trigger. The loud bang of the gun was lost in the blood-curdling scream of one of the villagers who toppled over the frozen form of another person, who in his mounting anger at Russell had bent down at that moment to pick up a stone lying at his feet.
The man, who was hit by the bullet, fell to the ground with a thud, which echoed loudly in the sudden quietness that ensued. Through the blood spurting freely from the dead man’s forehead and flowing down his face, Russell recognized the man who had spat at him earlier.
Laughing like a maniac, he turned around and raised his gun again. The villagers moved away revealing to him his own soldiers, none of whom had moved from their positions. Before he could react, he heard running feet behind him. He turned again ready to pull the trigger only to find two villagers helping the Mukhiya to his feet.
A cry like that of a wounded beast escaped Russell’s lips. “You are the sole cause of all this trouble,” yelled he.
The Mukhiya smiled serenely at him. Angered by the Mukhiya’s reaction Russell yelled again like a madman and took aim.
But he never got time to pull the trigger.
At that moment, a sharp stone left the hand of the man who had earlier bent down in search of a stone and flew at Russell’s head, cracking open his skull. Russell cried out aloud in pain and fell convulsing to the ground at the Mukhiya’s feet.
The last thing he saw was the villagers running towards him with blazing torches ready to consign him to the flames, and his last thought before the darkness of death took him, was a feeling of intense anger towards the men of his cantonment for their betrayal.
The first hazy rays of the morning sun swathed the handsome manor with its shades of yellow. The mansion built of bricks and painted red and white, which was set facing the church, belonged to Lea Russell, wife of the late Paul Russell, who had served as a Lieutenant in the British army in the Indian sub-continent.
Apart from his family, no one else in the neighborhood had grieved much at his death, since Paul Russell was arrogance itself and was constantly feared and shunned by most people living in Horsham, a fair sized market town in SussexCounty in England. Though it had been over ten years since Lieutenant Russell had died, his memory could never be erased from their minds, try as they might, because Paul Russell’s son was as much a bully as his father had been. The Russells had two children, an older boy - Andrew, and a younger girl - Elizabeth, who had thankfully inherited her mother’s sweet tempered nature.
Though they had very different dispositions, the children got along well with each other. Andrew passionately fulfilled the duty of an elder brother. He always stuck close to Elizabeth when she ventured out of the house and was constantly concerned for her safety. In her turn, Elizabeth loved her brother and never tried to go against his decisions, but in certain situations, which involved Andrew becoming unnecessarily and unreasonably violent fuelled by his unchecked arrogance and anger, Elizabeth would try her best at restraining and calming him.
Lea had kept the circumstance of their father’s death from the two children, mainly for Andrew’s sake. When the children persistently questioned her, she would merely say, “Your father was a brave man. He was a Lieutenant in the British army in India. He died defending our country.”
Every time he heard these words, Andrew used to swell with pride. Lea feared that the truth would inflame his arrogance and induce in him an uncontrollable hatred towards the Indians and other dark skinned races, which had already developed to some extent due to his regular brawls with children of a few migrants from Asian lands who had settled there.
But the truth could not be held back for long.
Neighbors had no qualms telling their children about the murky past of Paul Russell. The young boy from whom Andrew came to know the actual story of his father got a black eye as recompense and was sent back to his house bawling at the top of his voice.
However, this sinister fact failed to shatter Andrew’s pride and Lea’s worst fears were realized. On the other hand, Elizabeth’s first reaction was asking her mother whether it was the truth. She managed to calm herself when her mother, with a heavy heart and head bent in shame, said that it was indeed so.
Lea had completely given herself up to the pitiless caprice of destiny. She could only watch helplessly as her son was caught in a web of conflicting emotions. He began to withdraw increasingly into a cocoon and when he emerged out of it occasionally, it was only a destructive, vituperative, and defiant young man that people saw.
Andrew was soon hated and feared for his superciliousness and viciousness, as his father had been. There was no end to the complaints that Lea received concerning her son’s actions. Even Elizabeth could not, for all her attempts, manage to keep her brother’s temper under check.
When worry takes root in the mind, it is not long before it has overwhelmed the latter and then begun to spread its invisible tentacles around the body, slowly yet surely squeezing out life. This dismal doom befell Lea Russell too.
Not long afterwards Andrew and Elizabeth found themselves orphaned.
The boy could not endure this loss. He managed to convince himself that the Indians were somehow responsible for these circumstances. He swore that he would make life difficult for them as they had made his.
Time sped by.
Andrew was commissioned into the British army as a Second Lieutenant. He was posted to Mesopotamia during the first three years of service where he saw a lot of action. It must be said to his credit that though a bully, he was no coward. He would confront situations head on, charge at an adversary fearlessly. His superiors found in him a valuable but dispensable weapon and used him in situations where their etiquettes were called into question, or when they feared harm to their person.
The very attributes that acquired for him the epithet of a bully obtained for him the appellation of a hero. He quickly climbed two rungs of the hierarchical ladder and was made a captain, given independent charge of a contingent and posted to India as the commandant of the cantonment at Raigadh.
“Take care, Elizabeth. Give Andrew my love. Heaven knows how I wish I were coming along to visit that rascal of a boy. And don’t forget to write me a nice, long, and lovely letter as soon as you have seen enough of the place. And...”
“For God’s sake, Aunt Emily!” Elizabeth sounded exasperated. “Do you want me to miss the vessel? And of course, I will do everything that you have asked me to. I am not a kid anymore, am I?” A smile spread across her rosy visage, as she moved forwards to hug her aunt.
The older woman embraced her, secretly thinking that Elizabeth was still as much a kid now as she was, when she had first come to live with her, almost ten years ago, when she had been but thirteen years old. She hoped fervently that the girl would reach her brother safe and sound.
She had not found Andrew’s proposed plan of his sister’s visit very comfortable, and had told him so. But who could stand their ground in front of his adamance? So an itinerary was chalked out to which Aunt Emily had to agree, not having any other option.
And thus, it came to be decided that Elizabeth would leave for India on April 1, 1893. She was to first sail from England to Bombay, a large port city in the south-west of India. She would then board a train to Jubbulpore, a name that took almost a week to get around Aunt Emily’s tongue. She had told Andrew, and in a stern voice (or at least what she thought was stern), that, whatever that place was, it sounded dangerous. This had resulted, much to her bewilderment, in him laughing his head off and telling her that in that country nothing was dangerous to the likes of himself and all those who were related to him.
Aunt Emily had pushed this to the back of her mind, as she listened carefully to the rest of the schedule. Elizabeth was to then take a ride in a buggy to Raigadh. Aunt Emily hadn’t bothered to tell Andrew that to her, ‘Raigadh’ sounded even more obscure than ‘Jubbulpore’ did.
She was to be accompanied from Bombay to Raigadh by Lieutenant Brooks, one of the men under Andrew’s command. This had calmed Aunt Emily’s troubled mind to quite some extent. She didn’t think her already weak heart could take the idea that Elizabeth had to travel almost six thousand nautical miles by ship, six hundred miles by train and another sixty miles in a buggy all alone.
She had insisted that Andrew let her have a word with Brooks and had, in more than a word, thanked him so profusely that he, all red and bothered at the end of it, could not even manage a - ‘Oh, its my pleasure ma’am.’
“Good bye, Aunt Emily!” Elizabeth called from the window of her carriage as she waved. “I will miss you a lot.”
“I will miss you too, my girl. I will miss you too.” Aunt Emily’s voice was choked with emotion.
She had never been parted from her niece since the time she had come to live with her. She had been a pretty, sweet, and scared girl when she had come under her care after the demise of her sister Lea. It had come as a painful shock to Emily herself, but her sorrow deepened as she thought about the two poor lambs left parent-less.
She had immediately decided to take both of them under her roof and look after them. It was only after they had come to live with her that she realized how much both needed looking after. While Andrew had become alarmingly violent and needed a firm hand to keep him under control, Elizabeth, delicate as she was had received such a huge wound that she would have broken down completely if it hadn’t been for her aunt.
The children thus grew up under the able care of their aunt. Elizabeth doted on her with all her heart, hungry as she was for affection. Emily just wished that Andrew was capable of showing even half the affection that Elizabeth could stir up. The boy seemed cool and collected on the outside but this demeanor of his terrified her. His calmness appeared to her as the calm that comes before a storm, a storm that was building up inside him, a storm of hatred towards those he held responsible for his present condition. Emily knew that it would burst forth some day and there would be woe to those he had set himself against.
She didn’t have to wait very long, when one day Andrew told her that he wanted to join the army. It might have been innocent enough had it not been for the madness that she saw in his eyes, which told her that he was going to follow in his father’s footsteps. Having not been able to control him in his days as a kid, Emily didn’t think she could make him change his mind now, when he was a young man.
She reluctantly gave her consent and it was a tearful Elizabeth and a fearful Aunt Emily who bid him farewell as he left to make a future for himself.
Time made its progress, slow and painful on occasions, swiftly and stealthily at others, and before Aunt Emily could sit back and reflect upon the ten years spent nurturing her nephew and niece, it was time for Elizabeth to leave too.
But now, as she saw the carriage bearing her niece away disappear around the corner, the parting evoked in her the recollections of the cheerful, distressing, frustrating, and rewarding, but essentially happy times spent together.
After Andrew’s departure, Elizabeth became withdrawn and lonely, with only her aunt for company. When Andrew had been around, he would never let his sister mingle with the other children of their age and would be over-protective about her. This made the children stay away from Elizabeth even after Andrew left. The girl used to cry about this and then think about the absence of Andrew and weep a little more.
But having inherited her mother’s nature, she recovered soon and spent most of her time reading and writing or going on long walks or taking lengthy rides in her carriage. The time expended in philosophical considerations on life had made Elizabeth a very quiet, calm, and serene person.
This would, however, be the first time that she would be stepping into the world of reality and there were some experiences awaiting her there for which even her fortified mind was not prepared.
Elizabeth found herself shivering despite the change in the temperature from the temperate to the tropical.
‘I am nervous,’ she decided. ‘I am nervous about meeting Andrew after almost five years. I am scared about encountering so many people in the cantonment.’
Andrew had told her that she would have a royal welcome from all the people under his command. There were, according to him, fifteen officers apart from himself, a hundred soldiers, and thirty other support staff. Elizabeth made a small mental calculation and her eyes widened in trepidation. That came up to a hundred and forty-five people! Elizabeth had never been in the company of even half that number before.
‘God save me,’ she prayed silently.
She spent the last week of her voyage by ship in arming herself mentally for the forthcoming experience.
The ship docked at the harbor of Bombay. Elizabeth was preparing to disembark, when she stopped dead in her tracks. The place was abuzz with humanity. People, both of her own kind and the natives, moved about. They called to each other in different tongues, English getting drowned in the multitude of local languages, only to rise up again in command. This was something she noticed in all the activities. While there was a swagger in all the movements of her own people, there was subjugation etched in those of the indigenous population.
“Get moving, Lady.” A man from behind called.
Elizabeth mumbled an apology as she descended into the sea of people beneath.
A piteous cry from not very far off caught her attention, and she turned to see a white man kicking viscously at a brown-skinned one sprawled at his feet.
“How dare you!” he roared. “How dare you come in my way? How dare you obstruct my path, you scoundrel.”
“It was a mistake, Sir. A mistake.” The cowering and bleeding man pleaded.
But the white man continued to hurt him and would have kicked him to death had not Elizabeth intervened. “What do you think you are doing, Sir? What has the poor chap done?”
The offender looked up in disbelief to hear a female voice, and a voice from his own country stopping him. His disbelief turned to shock, as he perceived Elizabeth.
He straightened up immediately and brushed himself up for a presentation. Elizabeth though, did not notice any of this as she had bent down to help the fallen man to his feet. The native let out a yelp and scurried away. Elizabeth looked at him in surprise. But this was nothing compared to Second Lieutenant Brooks’ state who had opened his mouth to introduce himself. Words failed him a second time in a span of just a minute, something that did not happen very often.
He shook himself up and said, bowing, “Lady Elizabeth, I suppose. I am Lieutenant Brooks, your escort from Bombay harbor to the cantonment at Raigadh.”
Elizabeth was extremely shaken by her very first experience in India and had developed a dislike towards Brooks, who couldn’t understand why Elizabeth was being so cold to him. He had been struck by her innocence and beauty the very first time he set eyes on her. This coupled with the fact that she was the Captain’s sister made him behave very pleasantly and politely towards her, despite his initial misgivings due to the episode at the harbor. He was trying to make her first trip to the country as comfortable as possible, but she was intent upon denying a relaxed journey to both herself and him.
Thus, it was a very relieved Lieutenant Brooks who got out of the carriage, ordered Ram Singh to announce the arrival to Captain Russell, and turned back to offer a hand to Elizabeth to get out of the carriage. He smiled at her, as a last attempt at being warm, and was surprised to receive one back, not a full and convincing one, but better than the stony gaze that he had had the luck to meet during the whole journey.
‘I was a little hasty in taking that attitude towards you alone’ she thought, as she saw his eyebrows rise in astonishment.
The two-day journey by train and then the half-day ride in the buggy presented to Elizabeth other incidents similar to the one witnessed at the harbor, perhaps even more atrocious, which had told her that this was the general case throughout the country. Brooks wasn’t the only one. She had felt the same pangs of dislike that she had felt towards Brooks rise up in her on every such occasion, but she learned to curb it. She also realized that though there were some who enjoyed the domination and took pleasure in the cruelty they dealt out, there were some others who were here because they had a duty to fulfill, a country to serve.
‘He, unfortunately, belongs to the first group,’ thought the girl sadly as she heard a voice roar out her name in joy and saw her brother striding out to meet her.
The not-so-regularly-oiled buggy being drawn by four not-so-very-healthy white horses creaked and groaned its way from the palace to the commandant’s mansion in Raigadh. Seated upon the buggy’s fraying cushioned seat was King Puran Singh in his resplendent red ceremonial attire. An off-white headgear decorated with strings of pearl adorned his head. His moustache – dyed black, groomed, starched, and pointed at the ends, lent that royal aura to his round cherubic face that had once sported a healthy smile, which could now only be imagined from its remnants in the form of a few creases radiating from the ends of the lips.
The occasion for this royal visit was an invitation to breakfast from Captain Russell, ostensibly to introduce his visiting sister to the king but in reality to demonstrate to her the utter helplessness and servility of the man, and his own complete dominance and hold over the affairs of the two divisions of the kingdom.
A trumpet sounded, clear and reverberating in the stillness of the morning air. It was heard by a man in a room on the first floor of the mansion at the cantonment. Captain Russell it was, watching the royal entourage bearing the king pass through the gates. He smiled to himself as he watched the slow gait of the emaciated horses.
‘Animals appropriate for a worthless man,’ he said to himself.
And though ready for the meeting, he sat down at the desk, pulled out a sheaf of documents from a drawer, and started reading, brows furrowed.
‘Let him wait.’
“May I come in, Captain?” A voice asked from outside the door.
“Yes, Ram Singh, come in,” Russell called. “I know that the King has arrived. Go inform Lady Elizabeth about it,” he said, when Ram Singh came in, bowing. “And ask her to meet me in the hall in fifteen minutes.”
“Now, this is ridiculous!” Elizabeth exclaimed as Ram Singh told her the Captain’s wish. “Why make him wait when both of us are ready?”
Ram Singh looked as though he would have liked to agree with her very much, but kept his mouth shut.
“Oh, my god! Why did I even hope to see anything better? I should have known. You may go Ram Singh. I am sure you are bored of these outbursts of mine. But I can’t help it can I? I come here hoping to meet my brother, a good and happy man. But what I get is an extremely happy one without a trace of goodness. Oh! What would Aunt Emily say?”
Ram Singh thought it better to leave immediately. He had been witness to such explosive outbreaks from both sides. The Captain, he could tell, was annoyed that his sister did not like the way he ran the place. He was angrier at the fact that she, never having dared to do it before, was now vocalizing her disapproval too. Elizabeth madam, who was utterly unlike the bully she had for a brother, did not appreciate the unnecessary hardships that the Captain put through the people under him. This difference of opinions had resulted in a strain between them. Ram Singh wished he could do something for Elizabeth madam. He liked her. It was such a respite to talk to her. She was always so polite and nice.
‘God bless her,’ he said to himself.
“Was this delay necessary?” asked Elizabeth, as she descended the stairs gracefully towards her brother.
“Yes,” he snapped. “And I wish you would stop questioning me about everything I do.”
He offered her his hand. She took it, stiffly and silently, and they proceeded to the lawn in front of the mansion where the breakfast was to be arranged.
Puran Singh felt impatience tug at him. He had been waiting for twenty minutes now and there was no sign of that Captain yet. But he quelled it. He was, for once, glad that an invitation to breakfast with the Captain had come yesterday. He had to talk to Russell himself, in view of the request made by the people of Champaner. And he preferred doing it now, when the commandant had invited him, rather than ask for an audience himself, which he always found embarrassing.
Just as he thought he would ask an officer stationed nearby to remind the Captain of his arrival, Captain Russell, stunning in his uniform, accompanied by a breathtakingly beautiful young maiden, strode out of the mansion. The king let out a sigh of relief and came forwards to meet the pair. Captain Russell gave a few orders to the servants who immediately set about preparing for breakfast.
“Welcome, Your Highness! Welcome!” Russell boomed, bowing. The king returned the gesture.
“I take great pleasure in introducing my sister Elizabeth to you. She is here visiting me.”
“Elizabeth, this is King Puran Singh.”
Puran Singh smiled and bowed to her. As she too inclined her head, Elizabeth noticed how affected the mannerisms of both were. She grimaced to herself, as she realized she would have to sit through a conversation between the king and the Captain with double-edged sentences, buttered phrases, and poisonous words coated with honey directed at each other. Russell had, in the meanwhile, led the king to the table.
“Please be seated, King.” Russell said, offering a seat to Puran Singh.
“Smith!” He called, at the sight of a smartly dressed officer entering through the gates. “I see that you have returned.”
“Yes, Captain,” replied Smith, approaching the group. “Your trip went well, I hope. Do join us at the table. Here, let me also present to you my sister. Elizabeth, this is Lieutenant Patrick Smith. My friend and second-in-command at the cantonment.” Smith beamed at this introduction and sat down beside Elizabeth.
The servants came forward at a signal from Russell and started serving to all those seated.
“Won’t you serve meat to the King, Seva?” Elizabeth asked when she noticed that the king’s plate did not have a piece of it.
“I am a vegetarian, Madam.”
Puran Singh was surprised to hear Elizabeth address a servant by name, but found his voice in time to reply to her question.
“Oh! I see.”
The breakfast commenced, Russell and Smith savoring each bite, the king too occupied in thought to eat much and the girl observing both parties. She felt that there was something in the king’s mind and that he was waiting for the right moment to talk.
The right instant seemed to be when Russell looked extremely satisfied with the first course and was about to start on the second one. The king cleared his throat and Elizabeth looked up from her plate. Russell did not seem to have noticed. The king repeated it and said, his voice quavering in the beginning, but gaining in strength as he spoke on, “Captain, I have a request to make.”
Russell raised his eyebrows, but motioned for the king to continue.
“I am sure you have not failed to notice the lack of monsoon in the region this year too. The lands are parched and farming is not in a very good shape. You were kind enough to waive half the tax last year. My people and I are very grateful to you for this magnanimity.”
The king paused, hoping to see a reaction from the Captain. But Russell sat there, stock-still, stony-faced, interlaced fingers supporting his chin. He seemed to be waiting for the king to come to the point at the core of all this meaningless banter. The expression on his face did nothing to help Puran Singh’s already feeble confidence, but he forced himself to continue.
“The people of the village of Champaner came to me yesterday. They wanted me to make a request to you. There is, as you know, a Mata Bhavani temple in the village of Bhavanipur. It is common belief amongst my subjects that a true prayer offered to the Goddess will bring deliverance from all problems. They wanted me to request you to allow them safe passage into the village of Bhavanipur.”
The king looked extremely relieved that the ordeal of making the request was over. He now waited hopefully for an acceptance. Captain Russell, however, remained expressionless and lost in thought for a long time.
He finally smiled, a sinister smile that told the king to be prepared for the worst, and spoke, “A safe passage into Bhavanipur? Sure...” the king found his lost hopes resurfacing, despite the logical promptings of his rational mind. “If...” Russell paused dangerously. “You eat the meat.”
Complete silence followed this pronouncement. Both Smith and Elizabeth looked at Russell, the former grinning in approval, the latter too appalled to say anything.
The king felt dazed, as though struck on the head by a heavy weight. What was the Captain asking him to do? What was this awful man demanding of him? He felt choked. He made a valiant attempt at smiling, which ended up being a grimace and managed, “I thought I told you I am a vegetarian, Captain. How can you ask me...”
“Eat the meat!” Russell’s voice cut across his, sharp and searing. The king flinched.
Elizabeth could not hold herself any longer. “Why are you...” she was silenced by a raised hand and a venomous look from her brother; he was not going to be stopped by his sister’s pathetic emotions.
Elizabeth turned her face away, disgusted, tears glistening in her eyes. ‘Why is he doing this?’ She had never felt this helpless and in need of comfort before.
The king however, did not think he was going to give in to the unreasonable demand of the ruler. “Captain,” he said in an even voice, a voice that came from a man in an attempt to salvage the last dregs of self-respect. “I will not eat meat, though I have nothing against others doing so. I cannot forsake my faith, my convictions, and my religion for mundane affairs. Good day to you.”
He made to leave the breakfast table when Russell, who hadn’t finished yet, spoke words that scorched the king, their crushing essence weighing down upon him, enveloping him in utter darkness. “Since you refuse, your subjects will have to pay double the tax this year.” Russell’s voice rang out with maniacal triumph.
Puran Singh, who, for a second time, felt clubbed on the head, staggered and dropped down heavily onto the chair, which he had just vacated. He presented the pitiful sight of a defeated man, caught up in the worst nightmare of his life.
But Russell continued remorselessly, “You were unsuccessful in completely paying last year’s tax. It is therefore but right that you should compensate for the failure of the previous year. Duguna lagaan.”
After the morning rituals at the temple, Dwarakadas was lounging on a coir mat in the shade of the overhanging roof of his hut. Bhuvan, who had come there to quench his thirst after a long morning in his field, squatted beside the elder man to provide a short respite for his tired muscles. The front yard of the hut afforded a good view of the road too and they could see a bullock cart coming down this path towards the village. As it came closer, they could identify the driver to be Som – a former resident of Champaner, now employed at the cantonment as a goods and passenger transporter and the man riding with him to be Ram Singh, the former valet of the king who was now the personal assistant to Captain Russell.
It had been with great reluctance that Ram Singh had relinquished his job at the palace. The British had severely curtailed the allowances for the king that necessitated laying off many of those employed at the palace. Ram Singh was one of them. He had found ready employment at the cantonment considering his familiarity with all the village heads and his fluency with the English language, and was made the chief interlocutor between the rulers and the ruled. It was in this capacity that Ram Singh was coming to Champaner to inform the Mukhiya about Captain Russell’s decree that the tax for the year had to be paid at double the normal rate.
As Dwarakadas hailed Ram Singh and waved out to him as the cart passed by the hut, the latter in a friendly gesture, broke protocol to convey the purpose of his visit.
“This is ridiculous! We have no means of paying such a stiff tax,” gasped Dwarakadas as he sat up jolted from his reverie. “The administration isn’t realizing that they are harming their own long term interests as well, by demanding such a high rate of tax,” he muttered.
Bhuvan was left speechless by this news and kept staring away at the receding cart with parted lips and a look of bewilderment.
“Why doesn’t everyone think and work for a common cause rather than for individual objectives?” he asked Dwarakadas at length.
“My son,” said the man on the mat in a kind and measured voice, a faint smile lighting up his face, “no one ever thinks or works for any cause other than what they perceive to be their own individual objectives. Not even the Gods. When it so happens that the individual objectives of many are similar, you see the mirage of a common cause that vanishes the moment one or more of the individual objectives begin to deviate.”
Bhuvan was lost in thought for a while again, as he attempted to digest the import of the notion put across by Dwarakadas, then said, “Surely the fact that all of us in the village pray for rain can be deemed as an endeavor towards a common cause.”
“Perhaps,” said Dwarakadas, “but it has become a collective initiative only because each one of us here is adversely affected by the scarcity of rainfall and our lives are intertwined and dependent on each other. The British army contingent resides a very short distance from us. There are Indian soldiers too in that contingent. It makes no difference to them whether it rains here or not because they will be fed and get paid regardless of it. If things get worse, they just move away to another place, which is more prosperous.”
Bhuvan’s next question followed immediately. “Then do we all live only for ourselves?” he asked.
“Yes, indeed,” said Dwarakadas. “You, me, everyone in this village, all in this country and everywhere else in the world and not just humans but each plant, animal, insect, or microorganism, live only for themselves.”
There was a hint of vehemence in Bhuvan’s voice when he said, “We do think of others and offer selfless service sometimes.”
A short mocking, but not disparaging laugh, escaped from the older man’s lips. “Like you let Tipu’s team win the game of gilli-danda the other day?” he asked.
Bhuvan let out a false cough and looked away. He had assumed that no one would have been aware of his deception but realized how incorrect that supposition was.
“I would not attribute that to your sense of magnanimity or your predilection for impartiality, fairness, or such other notions. I say that you did what you did because it gave you satisfaction, it fulfilled your desire of gratifying the convictions that you hold dear. The flowering of a rare smile on Bhura’s normally scowly face meant less to you than the blooming of a ready grin on Tipu’s countenance. You leveraged the situation to your advantage using the means available and the methods you were conversant with, just as everyone else does all the time.
Life, my son, is all about leverages. By an exactly similar argument, you can justify the actions of our king who pays lip-service to his subjects, dances to the diktats of Captain Russell, and does so only to protect what is left of his own wealth and position. The faith and trust of his subjects and his seeming indispensability to the British administration are his leverages and he deftly uses them. I do not say this however, to show him in bad light. Any one in his position would have done the same.”
It took a while for Bhuvan to force his mind to accept such a line of argument, used as he was to the general view of absolute virtuousness and unconditional culpability, though the contentions of Dwarakadas appeared entirely reasonable to his logical intellect.
He tried to apply such an interpretation to the situation of the other day when he had had a confrontation with Captain Russell, when he had striven to save the life of a doe, and realized that both his adversary and himself were justified in what each did considering their respective priorities and beliefs. Yet he could not suppress his anger, frustration, and the desire to avenge the killing of the hapless animal. The patter of running feet broke his chain of thoughts as Tipu approached the hut to convey tidings that the Mukhiya had called for a meeting of all villagers at the square immediately to discuss the latest development.
The village square slowly began to fill up with glum faced villagers. The boys of the village who doubled up as pages during such situations, had scurried all over the settlement and its environs locating every resident and communicating the Mukhiya’s summons and its purpose. Some were in the midst of their regular occupations. A few were half-way through their afternoon meal. A few more were resting their tired bodies and limbs away from the searing midday sun under some shade.
Normally, such a summons would have gathered perhaps half the population. But doubling of lagaan! This was unreasonable, atrocious, and terrible. They will have nothing left in their larder for the rest of the year if they were to comply with this order, yet comply they had to. And if the monsoon failed again this year, they will all starve. It was this specter of starvation that galvanized everyone and made them wend their dreary way to the square, though they very much doubted whether the Mukhiya, the king, or they themselves could do anything about their plight. It was a multitude of blank, hopeless, and expressionless faces that stared back at the Mukhiya when he looked round ready to address the assembly.
Politicians have this irritating habit of repeatedly stating the obvious, indulging in – what they think to be – cunning banter. The Mukhiya succumbed to this irresistible inclination as he began his oratory in a melancholy tone to suit the somber occasion.
“My brethren!” he said, “We are all aware that there has been no rain for the past almost two years. A large part of our crops have withered. Our food stockpiles are almost empty. Our lands are parched. There isn’t enough feed for our livestock ...”
He was rudely interrupted in his self-indulgence by many loud and unnatural coughs and a couple of bold, “All right, All right. Let us get to the point.”
At any other time, the Mukhiya would have admonished the perpetrators of such interruptions. The palpable mood of the crowd today, made him think better of it.
“Brethren! We will go to the king. We will plead with him to reason with the white-skinned lords. We will beseech him to deliver us from this predicament.”
One strident voice called out, “We are all doomed. What can the king do? He is only a puppet and so are you.”
There were a number of voices that lent endorsement to the implications of this outburst of pent-up frustration. The Mukhiya found himself on slippery ground; his authority was being openly challenged.
Representatives of officialdom also have this unerring ability of identifying and utilizing escape routes from what would appear to be hopeless situations to lesser beings. The Mukhiya by definition should have been adept at this craft too and he was.
He raised his hands in a token of submission and surrender and said in a voice laced with effected humility. “If that be your collective decision, my brethren, then I will gladly step down from the post of Mukhiya. I am here to serve you and if all of you consider that I am unable to fulfill my obligations then it is but proper that I quit. But...” The last word was uttered in a raised voice that jolted the gathering into alertness.
“But,” he thundered on, “I will not tolerate one word said against our venerable king who has done much for us and continues to strive for our betterment. I will prefer dying that to listen to slander against our benefactor. Kill me first, and then slur the king’s name.”
His face was alight with aggrieved resentment, as he looked around him, seemingly to project and convey his hurt feelings, but in reality confirming whether his dramatics had had the desired effect on the unpretentious villagers.
Downcast gaze and eyes that were on their way to look at the ground under them told him that it had indeed. The battle was won. His position was safe and the people’s esteem that seemed to be rapidly waning was restored in all its fullness. Only Shambhu kaka and Dwarakadas saw through all this theatrics of the Mukhiya and smiled to themselves. The Mukhiya too knew that they knew. He also knew that they did not possess the histrionic ability, the power of oratory, or the passion for power to supplant him.
He respected them for their wisdom yet did not fear them. They were an integral part of his support structure and dependable too, primarily because they too had no other choice. It is to them that he turned after the villagers had been won over by his impressive performance.
In a deferential manner, he said to them, “I propose that we go to the king immediately in large numbers–one representative from every family in the village and implore him once again. That I suppose is the only alternative open to us. There is of course the option of denial but that would invite severe retribution and we cannot confront the foreigners, unarmed and untrained as we are.” Shambhu kaka and Dwarakadas concurred.
The dusty road to Raigadh was witness to yet another pilgrimage within a short period of two days, only this time the pilgrims were much greater in number and the composition of the group was more heterogeneous in terms of age and occupation than the one that went earlier.
Like the dusty road, there was one more inconsequential witness to this spectacle. It was Kachra, squatting on his mound. The doubling of lagaan would have affected him too. There would be much less or no stale food to be cast away by the villagers for they would have been reduced to a state to be themselves consuming such fare. There would be much less filth to clear but that was no compensation for an empty stomach. Despite being an aggrieved party, none asked him to accompany the group to meet the king. Does one take along representatives of cattle, sheep, and swine?
Kachra, in his own small way could understand the charade being played out at the village square. The unattached vantage position afforded him this power of observation. He could also foresee its possible conclusion. Unfortunately though, he did not count his blessings and instead tallied his woes.
It is a great irony that every human mind invariably indulges in such dim-wittedness. Here he was – totally independent, with no family, no responsibilities, living each day as it came along, and assured of his station in life - however low, regardless of who were the rulers and who the ruled, whether there was abundance or scarcity, prosperity or drought. Yet he yearned for the very situation that negated all the above advantages, that of being part of the village community.
On the outskirts of Raigadh was an open field that had been cleared of weeds and rid of little outcrops of earth, and made into a level ground that was good enough to play a game of cricket by the British officers. It was quite often that yells and shouts associated with the game could be heard from here as the Raigadh cantonment eleven met the challenge of teams from other neighboring troop stations. The king was a standing invitee to witness these matches, the general populace was however not welcome. The road from Champaner to the king’s palace skirted this cricket field.
It was a Sunday and the Raigadh cantonment was playing host to a team from the Jubbulpore garrison about 60 miles away. Fourteen white officers from this station along with their commandant had arrived on horseback the previous evening and after an early breakfast, the two teams had taken to the cricket field. The visiting team had won the toss and elected to bat, while Captain Russell and his men sweated it out fielding under the hot tropical sun. Going by the known strengths of the two teams, they were evenly balanced, but Lady Luck seemed to smile upon the visitors who were piling up a huge score, losing very few wickets.
It was about this time when the solace-seekers from Champaner came tramping along the road.
Noticing from afar, the cloud of dust that went up in the wake of the moving crowd, captain Russell ordered his personal assistant Ram Singh to ascertain its cause and it was about the right time that he did so, because just as Ram Singh reached the periphery of the cricket ground the throng of people was about to invade the field in their bid to reach the presence of the king, whom they had spotted reclining in a chair in the pavilion on the other side of the large ground.
“What are you people up to?” yelled Ram Singh, stopping them on their tracks. “Can’t you see the white lords are in the midst of a game? What have you come here for?”
The Mukhiya strode forward and explained to Ram Singh the purpose of their visit and their desire to meet the king immediately.
“Wait here until the game is over. In the meanwhile I will inform the king that you have come and find out whether he would be willing to grant you an audience.”
Ram Singh was in his own territory and said all this in a loud and authoritative voice before marching away. He had been much more sympathetic when he was in Champaner earlier that day. The poor man was torn between the natural inclination of his heart and the thoughtful deliberations of his intellect. On one side were his own people, suffering the injustice heaped upon them by the administration, and on the other was his livelihood which would be as bad as theirs should he go against his masters. And this made him run with the rabbits and hunt with the hounds; he led a double life that was consuming him from inside.
The villagers annoyed yet subdued, squatted among the shrubs on the perimeter of the field awaiting the finish of the game. Curiosity however soon overcame exasperation and it was an engrossed set of spectators that was soon watching the progress of the match. They had never watched a game of cricket before.
“What is this game that they are playing?” asked Gurran.
The Mukhiya, who had heard about it from his sources at Raigadh, explained that it was called cricket and that it was very similar to the game of gilli-danda except for the fact that a ball replaced the gilli. While they were thus deeply occupied in deciphering the nuances of the game as it was unfolding in front of them, there was a loud shout from the fielders and a moment later an oldish man who appeared not to be participating in the game at all, raised his hand with his forefinger pointing to the sky.
The gaze of the crowd followed the pointing finger. All that they saw was a clear blue sky. Not one wandering cloud, not one soaring bird; not even a fluttering butterfly, or a floating dragonfly.
What was the expressionless old man pointing at? No one in the crowd had a clue. Someone opined that he was only asking the players to look at the sky to see if there was any sign of the monsoon. Another said that he was asking the hitter to bear in mind the presence of God and not resort to trickery. There were many more such theories that did the rounds but none of them were close to the fact that the umpire had given a batsman out.
While they were thus absorbed in their animated arguments, the next batsman executed a powerful drive that brought the ball racing towards them. There was a melee as many hands attempted to get to the ball first. It was Bhura with his acrobatic maneuvers who succeeded, and held it up triumphantly. The fielder who was rapidly chasing the ball was upon them at that instant and noticing the ball in Bhura’s outstretched hand, let go a combination of a vile invectives and a perfectly aimed punch at Bhura’s face that made him stagger backwards, lose his balance, and sprawl on the ground. It was Lieutenant Brooks who was the assailant. He stood over the fallen man intending to heap a few more blows on him.
The villagers stood transfixed. Not a limb moved. Not an eye blinked. Not a sound issued out of a score and more of parted lips. The unavailability of the ball had stalled the game, and the stalled game brought the other fielders and the more knowledgeable spectators in the pavilion to the scene of confrontation. King Puran Singh was one of them. As they converged, they were witness to another spectacle that was a repetition of the one that had been enacted a few minutes earlier except that the roles were now reversed. Bhuvan had risen like a tornado from the cloud of dust that had been kicked up in the skirmish and returned the compliments of Brooks in kind, and it was a dumbfounded Lieutenant of the British Army who found himself slumped at the feet of an enraged villager glaring down at him, a sight seldom seen during the times. And just as Bhuvan was about to hit Lieutenant Brooks a second time, a horribly familiar voice roared, “What the hell do you think you are doing, you scoundrel?”
End of Chapter 3