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A Surge of Time (Chapter 4)

The East confronts the West


It was a terrible clash.

Sparks flew from both pairs of eyes, the cold grey ones intently regarding the raging brown ones. Heaving chests and drumming hearts could hardly contain the boiling emotions within. Muscles twitched, as each longed to strike the other. They considered each other as hunters would their prey. Everything seemed suspended in time to the onlookers, one group alarmed and horrified and the other stunned and dumbstruck. And just when the Mukhiya thought that the stupid boy and the white officer were going to pounce on each other, a sudden calm was restored. A chill even more terrible than the heat that had been.

Breathing heavily, like a winded rhinoceros, Bhuvan lowered his gaze. Captain Russell, however, continued to look at the villager, forehead creased as though in some sharp recollection. And while the onlookers waited with bated breath, Russell addressed Bhuvan, “You were the man in the forest the other day, weren’t you?”

There was a movement behind Bhuvan and the villagers, who were waiting to catch some reaction from the young man, turned to see that Hari had pushed his way to the front of the group. He looked petrified and was considering Bhuvan as though he had set eyes on him for the first time.

“What?” he stammered. “What did this officer say, son?”

No one understood what had caused Hari to react thus. Bhuvan thought he knew what it was that Hari kaka had in mind. But far from making him feel ashamed of his action for the horrified man’s sake, he felt the never-fully-suppressed rage at the officer erupt in him.

Captain Russell was watching this with a frown. He did not appreciate such interruptions. He, the master, the ruler, was being stopped from interrogating a felon by a damned old man. He took a deep breath, building in every bit of fury and hatred he felt into his clenched hand, and hit out viciously at Hari. Bhuvan, who thought he would make an attempt to rein in his anger that was so threatening to burst out, let out a cry and pounced on Russell.

It seemed that all those present there had simultaneously decided that things had gone too far and almost a hundred pair of hands made to seize Bhuvan. The king too felt he could not let the conflict go out of hand; Russell already looked as though he was ready to pull out his six-shooter and pump all the bullets in them into Bhuvan’s heart.

He came forward, appealing to the Captain, “Please, Captain Russell, I think they were here to see me, I am sure they meant no harm, sitting at the periphery of the field, waiting for the match to finish.”

He smiled, trying to lessen the tension in the air. But this only goaded Bhuvan into speech, “I am sorry for having let my temper get the better of me, Your Highness, but we were here to seek an audience with Your Majesty. We came here hoping to plead with your Lordship to help us out from this dire situation and not...” he threw Russell a dirty look, “to watch their rotten game.”

Dead silence again.

“All right! All right!” cried the king, as though hoping to drown Bhuvan’s voice in his. “Come along, all of you. I shall hear what you have to say.”

“Please, Captain. Please,” he added to Russell, as all villagers made to follow the king into the field.

Russell shrugged his shoulders, indicated that he did not have a problem with what the king wished and turned to leave, calling to his men on the field as he went. The king stared at his retreating back. He had not expected Russell to let go of things this easily.

‘Unless,’ the king thought uncomfortably, ‘unless that madman is planning something sinister.’

And knowing Captain Russell, hoping for the contrary, the king knew, would be the folly of only a foolishly optimistic person.

“Come along, men. Come along. We’ll retire for the moment and let the king deal with his subjects.” Captain Russell bade his men to follow him into the rooms beyond the pavilion.

He also, with much courtesy, directed the team that had come from Jubbulpore, who had watched the proceedings of the last five minutes in astonishment, into their quarters. His men, slightly mystified at the spring they noticed in their Captain’s step, followed him.

Smith, his second-in-command and Brooks, who had been at the receiving end of Bhuvan’s outburst, were the first to reach Russell, as he stood with his back to them, hands resting on a table. They hesitated, not knowing whether or not to dare broach the subject of that out-of-hand villager. To their surprise, however, Russell turned to face them, smiling, as they were mustering courage to speak. Their mouths, that were half-open in preparation of an uttering, remained so, resulting in Russell bursting out in laughter.

“I have never seen you two looking so comical!” he exclaimed through his mirth.

‘And we have never seen you this amused, Captain,’ thought the other two. What was it that was pleasing him so much?

Brooks decided it was time to find out. After all, he was the aggrieved party and wanted retribution for the disgraceful act of the villager.

“Will the Captain deign to tell us what is it that he is thinking of and why is it that he appears to be in such good spirits? Both of us here would like very much to know.” He looked at Smith for support, who nodded.

“And,” added Brooks, “what is it that you are planning for that disrespectful scoundrel.”

“That one.” Russell smiled indulgently. “He has a spirit of iron, doesn’t he?”

The two listening to this were just moments away from deciding that the Captain had finally lost his head.

“No force could break him. We cannot hope to achieve anything from trying to use brute power against him. He will not succumb to it. But have you noticed one thing about him that I have? His colossal pride. That, coupled with his searing temper will be our weapons against him.”

‘He is not, after all, deranged,’ thought Smith and Brooks.

“What is it that you have in mind, Captain?” asked Smith.

“A confrontation, a challenge,” replied Russell, grinning now. He looked at the inquiring looks of his two men and winked. “You don’t want me to spill the secret just now and spoil the fun. Let’s go out and you will see for yourself. Now to deal with our friend.”

And for the first time his rage and loathing for the villager showed up in Russell’s face, rendering his visage distorted. It was this, that finally convinced Smith and Brooks that the Captain was going about it the right way.

“The demand is absolutely unreasonable, O Lord,” the Mukhiya sounded agitated. “It was just the day before when we informed Your Highness of the grimness of the situation. We were hopeful that the king would make a request on our behalf to the white lords.”

The group that was seated around the Mukhiya chorused in agreement.

“We could have even managed to pay this year’s normal rate of tax but double the tax is utterly impossible. We will die of starvation, O King...” The Mukhiya and all the others looked beseechingly at their only possible savior.

The Mukhiya couldn’t go on. There was nothing left to state, nothing that remained to be explained. The facts were plain enough to see – they had no means, absolutely none, of paying double tax.

The king thought he understood how the poor people before him felt. He, King Puran Singh, as he admitted to himself shame-facedly, was in no better condition. Helplessness bonded him to his people. If they could not pay tax, he could not convince Russell to waive it.

“You know that I too have my hands tied, don’t you? And that I can do only as much as is in my power.” He didn’t have any other answer. “I’m sorry, my people, I don’t think I can do anything. At such a juncture, all that we can do is have faith; faith on the good Lord above.”

Many in the seated assembly let out shouts of mirthless laughter.

“Hope?” They told the king. “What did we get by hoping for a good monsoon – another year of desiccation? What did we get in return for having hoped that the tax would be waived – double tax? And your Highness expects us to hope?”

The sarcasm was heavy, and the king would have severely punished the man who had dared take such a tone with him at any other time. He himself, in fact, felt inclined to laugh at his own hollow and empty words. There was complete silence as each contemplated their respective fates. Not many, including the king, could see a bright spot through the veil of darkness. Those that hoped too agreed that whatever the future had in store, the present looked truly grave.

“King, I hope you don’t mind my interfering?” Captain Russell had come out of the dressing room, flanked by Smith on one side and Brooks on the other.

The king turned to see the threesome sporting smiles that boded ill. He closed his eyes, uttered a silent prayer for himself and the unsuspecting villagers, and said, “Of course not, Captain. I don’t think I can.”

Russell nodded in appreciation, of both the consent and the blatantly honest way in which it was stated.

‘Yes, you insipid king, you can’t,’ he thought as he turned his attention to the congregation seated on the ground and surveyed them imperiously.

Many averted their gaze, while some held it, but Russell searched for a specific pair amongst them. It wasn’t difficult. They were the ones that still possessed the remnants of the fire that had been ablaze in them earlier.

“You! Stand up,” he commanded in a rough voice.

Not a muscle moved in the seated crowd, as they tried to discern with thumping hearts, who it was thus doomed. A form rose from their midst. A strong young man, erect and proud, hands folded across his bare chest. He looked the Captain full in the eyes, fearless and unconcerned. Bhuvan waited for the officer to pronounce the fate he had planned for him. Russell let a full minute go by in apprehensive anticipation on the part of the villagers.

“What was it that you called our game, man? What was it?” He looked at Smith and Brooks, as though expecting them to furnish him the phrase used by Bhuvan.

“Ah! Yes,” exclaimed Russell, relishing the theatrics he was indulging in. “Rotten. That’s what you called it, didn’t you? Rotten?” His voice rose in sudden anger. “What is it that you know about the game? Do you even know what it is called? Cricket,” he spat. “Cricket, yes, that is what it is, and something worth more that all your rotten lives.”

He was livid now, but Bhuvan just stood there, facing him, not giving way for any emotion to show up on his face. Russell too seemed to think that he had exerted himself enough. He took deep, calming breaths and continued, “If you think you can insult the game, then you should be able to play it too.”

The villagers looked at each other, perplexed and apprehensive. Play it? Whatever did he mean?

They were just about to find out, and many of them wished, after they had heard it, that they had been left with the double tax.

“I have a challenge, a challenge for you.”

As Russell said this, Bhuvan stirred for the first time. His eyes narrowed in shrewd anticipation. Russell smiled – it was going the way he had expected it to. He was sure he was going to snare his victim with utmost ease.

He continued, “If you people defeat us in a game of cricket,” he paused for these words to sink in, “then I will waive the double tax that I have imposed upon you.”

The king looked at the Captain, utterly flabbergasted. He could now clearly see the trap Russell was intending to set for Bhuvan. Smith and Brooks seemed to have understood their Captain’s plan as well and nodded appreciatively.

The villagers seated around Bhuvan, who had been silent till then, started speaking all at the same time, conversing about the implications of this startling statement, discussing what needed to be done to stall this fresh crisis they found themselves in. Unfortunately for them, Russell had eyes only for Bhuvan, and waited for his opponent to respond.

“Bhuvan, no,” Hari, sitting closest to him, whispered vehemently. “This is just a trick...”

“Two year’s tax. I will waive next year’s tax too.” Hari was halted in mid-sentence by this even more astounding pronouncement.

A heavy silence had enveloped the assembly. Russell thought he could hear their hearts race, as they felt themselves being trapped between the nightmare of reality and the ecstasy of their dream, ‘I will waive next year’s tax too.’

Bhuvan, though, still seemed unmoved and Russell decided to provoke him a little more.

“Three year’s tax. You need not pay three year’s tax.”

He looked around to see the effect of his words and satisfied at the staggered appearance of the villagers, he dealt the final blow. “But if you lose, you will have to pay three times the tax.”

The congregation exploded into speech again. Agitatedly they decided amongst themselves that this whole affair was madness and that they should not let themselves be carried away by the bait Russell was offering them.

“Mukhiya, please speak on behalf of us and tell the white lord that we will not agree to any such proposal,” many of them urged the Mukhiya.

He nodded in agreement and though not very happy about the prospect of speaking to the commandant when he was thus in his spiteful elements, turned to face Russell and stared, bowing, “Please, sahib, we can’t possibly...”

“Shut up!” Russell’s sharp voice silenced the Mukhiya. “I want an answer from this man.”

He pointed at Bhuvan.

That man, however, did not seem aware of his surroundings – of the hungry and expectant Russell, and the anxious and pleading villagers. He found himself being carried down and away from the world by the whirlpool that Russell had stirred up in him. The tax could possibly be avoided. They would be free, free from subjugation. The fruits of their labor would be theirs alone to enjoy, with no one to forcefully snatch it from them. But the game, the cruel game that Russell was playing with them. He felt anger rise in him, blinding him, wanting him to throw caution to the winds and agree to the white man’s proposal.

He realized, also, that not many would support him if he rose to the challenge that was set. He would find them stubbornly recalcitrant. Of course, even if he could persuade them to join him in the struggle, the blame would come to lie entirely upon him if they were to fail in their quest. But the fact also remained that they had absolutely no means of paying the atrocious tax imposed upon them, acceptance or otherwise of the challenge not withstanding.

Just when he thought that he should certainly drown in these torrential waters, a thought penetrated him, serving as a buoy, pulling him out to safety.

‘Life, my son, is all about leverages.’

These words of Dwarakadas calmed him, settling the stormy waves in his mind. He immediately knew what he had to do. And suddenly, the barricade that had raised itself around him, gave way, and the voices of the pleading villagers broke upon his ears.

“Bhuvan, no!” “You can’t!”

“I accept.”

The Mukhiya closed his eyes as he heard Bhuvan.

‘No! No! I am surely in a nightmare. This can’t be possibly happening. How unjust can you be O God! What wrong have we done, what sin have we committed to incur such doom? We will surely be ruined.’ He thought the Mukhiya as he looked at Bhuvan.

‘Oh! What have you done, Bhuvan?’


“We are hardly in a position to pay twice the tax and this Bhuvan gets three times the tax imposed upon us.” Lakha sounded livid. “What were you thinking of when you did this?”

He directed the question and a quivering finger at Bhuvan, who was standing at the centre of the assemblage of villagers in front of the Mukhiya’s house, feeling dissent emanating from each of the upturned and questioning face.

The villagers had once again congregated there to discuss the new and alarming developments. But none found anything to say, drowned as they were in misery. None could see any hope in Bhuvan’s endeavor. Bhuvan was made to stand in the middle of the gathering, the convict that he was, having brought this hopeless and inescapable situation on them.

It had been a very quiet procession that had made its wretched way back to the village. Upon reaching it, the Mukhiya called for a meeting. The village had seen too many of them in recent times, and many of the inhabitants felt that it was a useless exercise to gather for another once more. But none had the strength to refuse and so it was that one could see a group of dejected people sitting down to discuss the dismal circumstance they had been unmercifully thrown into by the brutality of the British officer and the foolishness of one among them.

“You are very selfish, Bhuvan. You did not consider any of us in the equation when you decided to rise to the challenge.”

Though Lakha was portraying a perfect image of an infuriated man, like all the others, there was a small part of him that felt extremely happy at seeing his adversary’s predicament. This was such a perfect occasion to bring him down in the eyes of the others. Lakha was always in search of an opportunity like the one that had presented itself to him right now; the best thing about it being that his rival had brought it upon himself. Lakha’s spirits soared as they thought about how enraged Gauri would be with Bhuvan.

But Lakha’s biting words pressed Bhuvan into speech, “I am sorry, Mukhiyaji, but I did this keeping the best interests of all of us in mind.”

This elicited sarcastic snorts from many of those who were seated.

“I did not take this decision on any childish whim, but after a lot of thought.”

He chanced a glance at Dwarakadas, as though to say ‘that was my leverage’ and was glad to see that the old man nodded in agreement.

He felt strengthened. “You all agree that we cannot pay twice the tax and when an opportunity is given to us, why is it that you turn your backs on it? It was meant, I agree, to harm us, but we can, I am sure, turn it into a boon. We just need to believe in ourselves, put in the effort required and we could succeed. I mean it, we could,” He sounded animated but found none who would share it.

“Boon?” It was Ismail this time. “Are you mad, Bhuvan? Do you really think it to be a boon for us to try and learn a game we have seen for the first time in our lives in three month’s time and challenge those who are experts in it?”

Russell had told Bhuvan that the match would be held in exactly three-month’s time from now.

“No one will assist Bhuvan in his supposed attempt - no one. He was alone in making the decision, and he will remain unaided in his efforts too.”

And before Bhuvan could say anything else in his defense, all the villagers got up in support of Ismail’s words and walked away in gloom, leaving Bhuvan standing all alone.

It was Lakha’s sharp ears that caught the sound first. He looked up from his work and peered into the distance. He immediately perceived movement on the road that led into the village. The dust that was kicked up was obscuring his vision and so he put his ears to the ground to try and listen, to discern what it was that was approaching them.

‘Another order from that white officer, no doubt’ thought he.

It sounded like a horde of bullock carts and trampling feet to him and he wasn’t mistaken when he looked up again. By this time, some others had also seen the spectacle and had stopped in their respective occupations to observe the advancing group. The procession stopped as soon as it had come into the village square.

“Bhuvan!” roared the man at the head of it.

“Namdeo? Ramprasad?” It was the Mukhiya as he made his way to the front of the sizable group that had now congregated to watch the visitors. “What is it?”

The man by the name of Namdeo, who had just been addressed by the Mukhiya, let out a scream of anger as he jumped down from the cart. The others followed suit. Many of the villagers saw with apprehension that some of them were holding swords and daggers.

“Are you asking me what is it? You? Bhuvan!” he called again. Bhuvan who had, until then been standing right at the back of the sea of villagers, came to the fore. The sight of him seemed to send a wave of rage coursing through Namdeo. He let out a snarl and jumped at the man whom he held responsible for his and his people’s misery.

A man from the cantonment had ridden into the village of Bhand, of which Namdeo was the Mukhiya, the previous day and informed to the stunned villagers there of the seemingly ridiculous proposition that the Captain of the British officers had made to a man called Bhuvan of the village of Champaner and his acceptance of the very same. The terms and conditions had left the astounded villagers so tongue-tied that they didn’t have a word to say to the carrier of this doomed message. He had ridden off at top speed, not wanting to bear the brunt of the villager’s fury.

When they had come to their senses, they decided that, along with the villagers of Tanpur, whose Mukhiya Ramprasad had received similar news, they would go to Champaner the following day and ‘take care’ of that Bhuvan. Ismail’s cousin Jamshed, who happened to be in Bhand at the time, was very distressed upon hearing this. He liked Bhuvan, despite his apparent foolishness, and wanted to go to Champaner immediately so as to warn its people of the danger they were in. The Mukhiya, though, had, for the night, given strict orders that no one was to leave the village as they made their preparations for the encounter of the following day.

Now that Bhuvan was in front of him, he made to pounce at the man, to kill him, but the villagers of Champaner, who had been wary of his intentions, immediately placed themselves in front of the marked man, pushing him from harm’s way. Though they were themselves furious with the boy, he was still a part of the village and whatever internal issues they might have, they were united against any outside force.

There was a brief struggle as the villagers of Bhand and Tanpur tried to breach the defenses of those of Champaner, before the Dalpat Chauhan put an end to it by shouting, so as to make himself heard above all the uproar, “Please, Namdeo, pull back. This is no solution to the trouble facing us. Hurting Bhuvan will not affect the tax that has been levied upon us. The only possible thing for us to do is to go to the king and make a request again. We will all go together. A bigger group might make a stronger impression on him and then maybe we could solve this problem.”

Namdeo looked as though he would have very much liked to disagree, but then took a deep breath and fell back. Not without reason was he the Mukhiya and he saw sense in the words of Dalpat. He called for his men to stop the assault and once again, the front of the Mukhiya’s hut was witness to a meeting, the group only being bigger, constituted by the villagers of Champaner, Bhand, and Tanpur.

The two leaders discussed long and deep, trying to decide upon the plan of action they might adopt, while the others settled themselves haphazardly in groups and put their heads together in conversation, waiting for the three Mukhiyas to pronounce the final decision.

One man sat alone and away from the ensuing debate – Bhuvan. He had his mind made up, and nothing could force him away from the path he had chosen.

The king was standing stock-still, one hand by his side and the other resting on the hilt of his sword encased in its sheath, which was richly ornamented with gems of various hues that shone brightly from their niches. His head sported a turban just as ornately decorated with precious stones and a single swan feather perched at the front. His head was held high with pride, the luxuriant moustache royally curled at their ends, the eyes sparkling with the ferocity of a ruler.

This was how the people seated in front of him would have liked to see him – their ruler, their defender – in reality and not just while striking a pose for a portrait that was, at the moment, being painted. The villagers of Champaner, Bhand, and Tanpur, led by their respective Mukhiyas, who had come to the palace to seek audience with the king, were seated in one of the many halls of the palace that was adorned with the portraits of the forefathers of the king. Puran Singh was now in preparation for his own joining that illustrious line.

“We beseech you, O noble king, to help us. We are all ready to apologize to the white lord,” the Mukhiya said to a chorus of “yes” from the villagers.

“Forgive me, Lord, but I will not say sorry to that... to the commandant.” Bhuvan had risen from his squatting position and, with hands folded in respect, expressed his refusal to seek pardon.

“Quiet, boy!” The Mukhiya chided him and turned back to look at the king in expectation.

The king looked at the standing man in wonder and wished he himself had even half the courage that he was showing at the moment. He agreed with Bhuvan about the fact that paying double the tax was absolutely out of question – the villagers had no means at all of doing so. But the alternative did not seem a very bright prospect too. He was pleased to see the passion and drive in the young villager, but being of a practical disposition and hardly having the same young blood coursing through him, he did not see much hope in Bhuvan’s enterprise.

Of course, his agreeing or not had never made much difference in the recent past, but at this point of time it made none whatsoever. He explained this to his subjects, trying to make it as expressive as possible, while at the same time striving to continue to remain frozen for the benefit of the artist.

“This is no longer a question of whether or not you can pay the tax.”

The villagers looked at each other in anguish. The matter did seem to have gone out of control.

“You have been foolish enough to challenge the might of the British establishment and now you will have to suffer the consequences of your actions. The commandant, Captain Russell, will, by no means accept an apology from you. I am sorry, my people, I didn’t think I could have done much for you before, but now it is nigh impossible for me to do anything at all.”

The villagers of Champaner, Bhand, and Tanpur parted a little way from the palace to proceed to their respective dwellings, bidding farewell and trying to speak words of courage and hope to each other, while their own hearts were in want of precisely those feelings. While many tried to comfort others, all kept away from Bhuvan and maintained a stony silence with him.

He, however, remained unfazed and walked steadily homewards where at least, he knew, he could hope for some peace of mind and support. His mother, he was confident would always be with him in every resolution he took. She, in any case, would recognize his decision as a just one in the present circumstance, even if the rest of the village took time to see it.

He was also hopeful of another person’s backing. He hadn’t seen her all day and wished he could, before the day concluded.

These thoughts carried him home and he was awoken from this trance by his mother’s voice calling him, “So you have come home now, have you? Well come in. I have just made dinner, so wash up quickly and eat it while it is hot and...” She looked around to see where he was.

It was so unlike him to be so silent at the announcement of dinner. She found him standing at the door, not having moved from there for the past minute and considering her with such affection in his eyes that she was forced to ask, “What is it, child?”

At this, he ran in and hugged her, while burying his head in her bosom. The fragile heart of the mother gave way at this act and tears gleamed in her eyes as she stroked his head and said, “Don’t worry, dear, I’m sure all will see that you did it for everyone’s good. Everything will be all right, believe me, it will.”

Bhuvan closed his eyes, thanked his mother silently and smiled as he thought how Dwarakadas would respond, if he heard his mother say ‘everyone’s good’.

His mother’s soothing words and the buoying image of Dwarakadas made him come out of his depression and he sprang up and said, “What have you made, ma? I hope it is what I asked for in the morning before leaving to see the king.”

Yashoda looked startled but happy at the sudden change that had come over her son and said, “Of course, my boy. I have made what you asked for, why won’t I?”

He ran back to her in the midst of washing his hand, gave her a brief hug and ran back to complete his task.

“You are still a kid,” admonished a beaming Yashoda, serving dinner in his plate.

He ate with gusto, enjoying it bite by bite, licking each finger as thoroughly as possible. “Wah, ma! It is so delicious. No one can cook as well as you do in the whole village, I mean it.”

And expecting her to say that he was a naughty boy he looked up, only to see her considering him with such an ardent look that he laughed as he asked, “What is it, ma?”

“You are truly your father’s son, Bhuvan. I am proud of you. May god bless you.”

He smiled and turned his concentration back on to his dinner.

The stars looked really beautiful to him that day. There was not a single cloud in sight and the specks of light shining down at him seemed to wish him luck. The night breeze was cooler than the oppressive heat of the day and he closed his eyes, ready to doze off...

A sound distracted him from his pleasurable repose. Lifting his head slightly, he tried to discern the direction of the noise. It sounded to him like the jingling of anklets. ‘Jingling anklets, at this time?’ He sat up quickly and decided to investigate. A sudden thought struck him and he beamed as he made his way to the gate on the compound surrounding the hut.

‘Ah! Thought so,’ Bhuvan said to himself as he saw Gauri standing just outside the compound and looking around in apprehension to see if anyone was watching her.

As soon as Bhuvan came in sight though, she forgot everything else. Bhuvan was immensely pleased to see Gauri, but decided to remain his usual solemn self.

“What is it?” he asked her roughly.

She frowned at his tone but said, “I have something to tell you” and hesitated before continuing. “I wanted to tell you that... that...”

He was starting to look impatient.

“I wanted to tell you that I am with you in this endeavor. I have complete faith in your courage and your intentions. I am with you.” She sighed heavily as she completed this, having said it all in one breath.

Bhuvan didn’t open his mouth and looked at Gauri as though expecting her to say something else.

“That… That’s it. I wanted to tell you this.” And looking disconcerted at the lack of reaction from Bhuvan, hurried away unsteadily.

Bhuvan smiled at her retreating back.

‘Thank you,’ he thought. ‘I had hoped for this.’

He lay back on his cot and continued contemplating the sky above.

‘That makes it three people supporting of me. Not much, considering the village population to be about six hundred. Everyone will have to see sense. For their own sake.’

Life is after all an every day war.

Each day you attack or retreat, pursue or flee, execute or avenge, live to see another day or die and merge into eternity. Circumstances determine what is it that you do on a given day and what strategy you adopt. On some days, an assault may be the best form of defense. On another, retreat may be the ideal tactic.

Bhuvan felt that this was a very representative day of this viewpoint. The village was the field of battle and every other person there was an adversary, holding him responsible for the state in which they found themselves. He beat a retreat to his favorite spot on the plateau overlooking the forest on one side and the village on the other, to gather his thoughts, shore up his defenses, sharpen his wits and weapons, and work out a strategy before returning to the fray.

A mind in deep thought generally causes some involuntary movement of the body to be switched to auto-mode, where such action is repetitively done without a conscious effort. It could be drumming fingers, picking nostrils, harvesting earwax, tapping foot, or humming a favorite tune. Bhuvan’s hands were picking little pebbles from the ground and throwing them down the slope towards the forest.

All that Dwarakadas told him the other day came flooding back. Viewed from that perspective, everything that had happened since, appeared to be a clear and inevitable sequence of cause and effect driven by personal ambitions, fancies, aversions, and beliefs of the concerned individuals and the direction of the progression was unmistakably determined by the strongest of the leverages that each applied in an attempt to tilt the situation to their advantage.

‘Life indeed was all about leverages as Dwarakadas had said and every one of its moments was steeped in absolute selfishness,’ thought Bhuvan.

This deduction helped him greatly in exorcising the feeling of guilt that was threatening to overwhelm him. It afforded him the clarity of thought to plan out his next move peacefully, in total confidence and with a reasonable degree of assurance that barring imponderables, his strategy had a good possibility of success.

His first undertaking was to convince himself that confronting the white-men was what he definitely wished to do and that the act of picking up the gauntlet thrown by Captain Russell was not just empty bravado. Having satisfied himself on this score, he turned his attention to the challenge of putting together a team of eleven and learning to play cricket. Dwarakadas’ words of wisdom again lit the way ahead.

He reasoned that those passionate about gilli-danda would be the prime contenders to be in the team and two persons who were obsessively zealous about it were Tipu and Baga. Both of them also had that independent spirit. So it would be them that he would target first. But that would make only three and he would require eight more men and perhaps a couple of more as reserves. The younger boys were out of question.

‘One step at a time’ he said to himself.

He would initiate the process and hopefully its effect should cause further steps to unfold. Having made this resolution, it was an energetic and smiling Bhuvan that rose from his seat of rock and made his swift and nimble footed way back to the village, and directed his steps straight to Hari’s hut.

Fortunately for him, Lakha was not there to taunt him and Hari did not have the heart to do so. At his request, Hari lent his axe, wood-shaper, and a few pieces and planks of wood. Collecting these Bhuvan proceeded to the square and in full view of those around began to fashion the likeness of a cricket bat and a ball from the mass of timber.

Initially, none paid heed to what he was doing. Curiosity is, however, one of the worst of human weaknesses and not long after, many outwardly apathetic faces were turned towards the place he worked, trying to fathom what he was up to. The results were soon there for all to see as Bhuvan threw up the newly fabricated ball into the air a few times and called out to Tipu who was swinging from a tree branch, “Oi, Tipu! Catch this if you can,” as he sent it soaring high.

Between a challenge, a request, and a command, the first elicits an immediate reaction particularly when the provocation concerns something that the person who has been challenged considers himself to be good at. This was yet another deduction from Dwarakadas’ words of wisdom, that Bhuvan had so thoroughly comprehended and was so meticulously making use of.

Tipu was down in a flash and sprinting to position himself along its trajectory. The ball during the course of its rapid descent found Tipu’s cupped hands blocking its path and ensconced itself securely in them.

“Yee!” yelled a delighted, triumphant Tipu.

“See,” said Bhuvan loudly, to no one particular, “this boy can play the white man’s game well enough.”

Then standing with his legs wide apart and holding the plank of wood that he had shaped to resemble a cricket bat, he called out to Tipu to throw the ball at him from a distance of about twenty-five yards.

Tipu took aim as he would when throwing the gilli at a danda and let go. The ball hurtled towards a grim faced Bhuvan who waited until the ball was about two yards away, and then swung his bat in a wide arc. There was a loud sound, two in fact. But neither sounded like wood upon wood.

Bhuvan had swung the bat too early and missed, while the ball hit him on the shoulder making him grunt in pain. This made the onlookers laugh derisively with a few cynical comments thrown in. Bhuvan was undaunted. He returned the ball to Tipu and asked him to throw it again. Another throw resulted in a similar result educing louder laughs and still more caustic remarks.

Resolutely, Bhuvan did not let the mocking spectators deter his concentration. He realized that he had swung the bat prematurely on both occasions but on the second juncture, he had been much closer to have connected. He was now sure that the next time he would make contact. He also knew where he had to direct the hit.

Tipu had the ball again in his hand. There was anxiety on his face too and the boy fervently hoped that Bhuvan would hit the ball this time. The ball hurtled yet again towards Bhuvan to a chorus of scornful shouts that were silenced abruptly by the loud thud of the bat hitting the ball a mighty blow.

A multitude of silent open-mouthed heads sporting shocked expressions, veered in the direction of the soaring ball. The mood of the moment made the ball appear to go much higher than it actually did and as it began its descent, the gathered spectators saw Baga standing close to the spot where the ball was likely to land, which was atop the little hillock where the village temple was.

Baga too was watching the ball’s flight. Down - down came the ball rapidly losing altitude, as it angled towards the temple and hit the bell hanging from the canopy of the open court. There was a loud twang as the ball set the bell and its pendulum swinging making the latter induce further tolling.

There was a gasp from the crowd.

“The call of destiny!” said a loud and deep voice.

Gurran had risen from his squatting position and stood up to his towering height. There was something ominous in his voice and gesture. However, as he always kept his counsel, none could make out what he meant or intended. Before Gurran could say or do anything further, there was another unintelligible yell. A mass of heads turned again and this time beheld another tall man, his hand held aloft clutching the wooden ball, and marching determinedly towards Bhuvan.

It was Baga. The severity of his expression portended something decisive. The crowd expected a quarrel but Bhuvan knew better. Events were unfolding in the anticipated direction effortlessly and far more rapidly than he had expected. Baga reached Bhuvan and with brisk and clear gestures indicated that he was with the latter, and would join him in playing the game and daring the white lords.

“The call of destiny!” boomed Gurran again.

This time the crowd could guess what it meant and a confirmation followed when Gurran walked up to Bhuvan and Baga. Holding their hands, he raised them up overhead and roared, “Victory to us! Defeat to the usurpers! That is the call of destiny!”

Tipu ran up to the trio and stood with them silently displaying his solidarity.

The Mukhiya frowned. Most others in the crowd did likewise. There were mutterings of “Madmen” and “Conspirators.” Yet there were some who felt a shadow of hope, a faint glimmer of optimism steal through them, though not bright enough to be openly expressed in words or gestures.


It was just past midday. The sun was at its shining best as always and most of the village folk had retired to the refuge of their respective huts. Within the hearts of the four pioneers however, the fire of determination and resolve shone brighter still. Bhuvan rushed to his hut and brought a few morsels of food that the four shared, emptied a pot of water into themselves, and set out at a quick pace towards Raigadh.

The match between the visitors from the Jubbulpore garrison and those at the Raigadh cantonment was to be played over three days and today was the final day. They had overheard Ram Singh mention this to the Mukhiya the day before when they had been to the palace to see the king. It was their intent to secretly watch the game as much as they could, to learn and understand its complexity while there was an opportunity. The peril of being spotted by Captain Russell or his men while they were so occupied loomed large but they decided to risk it.

After having watched the game for a while, Tipu remarked that the throwing and hitting of the ball was all very well but he could just not figure out what the two old men who alternately stood behind the three sticks protruding up from the ground facing the hitter and making all kinds of gestures, were up to.

Their hands pointed in all directions – to the heavens, at the king sitting in the pavilion, once simultaneously at the king and themselves positioned as they were on opposite ends of the ground. Occasionally the two old men would wave one of their hands; the reason for which the four onlookers decided after much debate could only be to drive away flies, fleas, or other such winged pests that moved about in swarms. One of them even stood on one leg with the other bent and lifted, tapping the bent knee with a palm.

“He suffers from rheumatism,” opined Gurran and then added, “These younger white rascals have no consideration for the elders of their own kind. Even after the old man complained of pain in his knee, they have not asked him go and sit down.”

Elizabeth was seated as always at one extreme of the pavilion with a lorgnette in hand, which she focused as much on the playing men and their actions on the field as on the surrounding countryside. Ram Singh stood dutifully behind her.

During one such survey of the withering grasslands beyond the field, she spied a large clump of grass swaying about more than what the occasional gentle breeze sweeping across the land warranted. On sustained scrutiny, she could discern the partly hidden faces of four persons whom she had little difficulty in recognizing.

One of them was certainly the young man who had created such a strong impression upon her the other day by his fearlessness and daring. She felt an irresistible tug within to meet him and know more about him. She motioned to Ram Singh to follow her and set out towards the beguiling clump of vegetation.

The camouflaged foursome had not noticed Elizabeth walk away from her seat and embark on a mission of investigating them. It was partly because they were totally engrossed in watching the ongoing game and also due to the fact that Elizabeth had to walk around the field from the opposite end, that made her approach them from one side.

It was Gurran who spotted her first when she was almost upon them and bellowed, “Danger!”

The other three quickly got up and retreated behind trees, while Elizabeth let out an involuntary shriek. The English players stopped their game and looked around for the source of commotion and Captain Russell spotting his sister called out, “What’s the matter, Eliza?” as he made to rush to her aid.

Elizabeth had the presence of mind to contain the situation from going out of hand, as she tactfully invented a little lie and quelled her brother’s concern by her reply when she called back, “It’s nothing Andrew, just a wild rabbit. Carry on with your game. Ram Singh is with me, so there is nothing to worry!”

“OK, but don’t stray too far,” was the counsel from the relieved brother.

The players returned to their game and Elizabeth to her absorbing investigations.

“What is your name?” asked Elizabeth gesturing towards Bhuvan.

“Tell her that we have come here only to watch the game and not to create trouble. We will go away immediately if she so wishes.” said Bhuvan to Ram Singh not understanding the English girl.

Elizabeth had been in India for only a week and she hardly comprehended the local dialect, while Bhuvan had had no reason to learn English.

On Ram Singh playing the dual interpreter, Bhuvan introduced himself and his three companions and after a little pause asked, What is yours? Between all this conversations, the two were sizing each other up as to their character, intentions, strengths, and weaknesses, and both found the results of their respective inspections to be rather positive.

“Elizabeth; that is my name,” said the girl and added, “You are the first native man in India to have asked me for my name.”

When Ram Singh interpreted this, “That may be so because you may not have asked anyone else before for theirs,” replied Bhuvan.

How very true, thought the girl. There had been no opportunity at all for that. From the moment she disembarked at Bombay, she had found the natives always herded away from her presence and being treated inhumanly. This was the first opportunity when she met an Indian on equal terms and exchanged pleasantries.

“You are a good and brave man,” she said smiling and Ram Singh translated.

For none is a little admiration unwelcome and Bhuvan was but human. Though he liked what he heard, he did not let it show on his face, wary as he was of her real intentions, particularly when he knew that she was the sister of his principal antagonist.

“We should be going,” said Bhuvan in a bid to end the dialogue.

“Wait!” said the girl “I know that you want to learn the game of cricket and I am willing to help you do so,” that set Ram Singh translating it quiet incredulously.

“But why should you help us? You are not one of us,” said Bhuvan equally surprised.

“Possible treachery,” rumbled Gurran.

“It is honesty and justice that I wish to support and help, not any individual or a group of people,” replied Elizabeth, though somewhere at the back of her mind, she knew that it was a little more than that.

“Tell me a place where we can meet every day,” she continued “and I will tell you all about cricket and how to play it.”

She wanted to end this meeting quickly so as not to revive her brother’s curiosity and unintentionally invite his presence. If he were to spot Bhuvan it could only result in an adverse consequence when the state of affairs were bad enough and her plans of helping them and seeing Bhuvan again would be wrecked.

For the perplexed band of budding cricketers, it seemed to be a godsend. They reckoned that there was nothing to lose by agreeing to the proposal presented by the white girl and so it was agreed that Ram Singh would conduct Elizabeth every afternoon to the open land beside the old well, behind the temple hillock at the village.

The group quickly dispersed, the natives retracing their steps to their village and Elizabeth with Ram Singh in tow, making their way back to the pavilion.

“Why do you put up with all this abuse, Ram Singh?” asked Elizabeth of her escort and interpreter, “Why can’t all of you stand up fight for your rights as Bhuvan does?”

There was a new springiness in her step, a new tenor to her voice, a luster to her countenance, and an indescribable enthusiasm in her outlook after the short meeting.

“Because all of us aren’t Bhuvan, Lady Elizabeth,” replied Ram Singh, “We have our families to feed and shelter, and were we to rebel and something were to happen to us, who will look after our dependents? Surely not the British. Nor would any of our people, because everyone these days is steeped in trouble, fear, and poverty.”

The four daring trail blazers made their slow way back from the vicinity of Raigadh to Champaner discussing different strategies that could be used to accomplish the twin tasks ahead of them – one of convincing the village folk that the trail that they had chosen to tread may lead them to a possible situation that may enable them to throw off the yoke of tyranny and the other of enlisting the required number of volunteers to play the grudge match with the whites.

Both exceedingly daunting no doubt, but there was this wholly unexpected ray of hope - or should they call it a beacon of optimism - of Lady Elizabeth volunteering to teach the nuances of the game of cricket to them and help them in organizing themselves for the show of strength. But would the other possible converts to the cause accept to have a woman teaching them? Even if they did, how much could they learn from someone who had never played the game and only knew how it is played? Though they had lulled their initial misgivings by supposing that being able to play gilli-danda well, meant that this expertise would stand them in good stead for playing the white man’s game too. Was this supposition a valid one? It was an undulating field of conflicting thoughts that they traversed, while their feet led them along the dusty road to their village.

Coincidentally, each of the ruminating foursome was a man of action and impulse, though of varying age and profession. Having resolved on confrontation, they decided to begin their enlistment drive immediately, beginning with the gilli-danda regulars.

It was long past dusk and the village had begun readying itself for the night. As they walked past huts, they noticed Goli reclining against the wall resting his weary limbs after a long day in the fields. Four pairs of eyes looked at each other and communicated the inclination to cause the resting man as their first target, and they were soon seated around Goli who did not seem to be enthused with their company. He too harbored the general impression among the villagers at large that Bhuvan, by his stupidity, had brought upon this unbearable misery on all of them.

Finding no response from Goli to their greetings, Bhuvan raised his voice a little in annoyance and said, “Listen, Goli! Aren’t we all men enough to stand up to gross injustice? If we continue to lie low as we have always been doing and let those whites tread on our toes we will only be goading them to heap further insult upon us and abuse us. It has been primarily our fault that we are in this state of slavery and when an opportunity of a possible redemption presents itself, all of you lose heart and give up without even making an attempt to utilize it.”

“Ha!” said Goli, “you talk big, and it is so very easy to talk. You have not even thought of the consequences because you have no responsibilities. No wife and children to feed. What about me and so many others like myself? How do we pay lagaan at three times the normal rate and even if we were to manage to do so, what do we live on for the rest of the year? You are just a selfish man hankering after fame, with not a care about what happens to the rest of the village. Go away and leave me in peace.”

Hearing loud voices and not so friendly exchanges, Ishwar and his daughter Gauri who lived in the adjacent hut, came out to see what the commotion was all about.

At Goli’s outburst, she came rushing and stood in front of him and planting her hands on her hips said, “Goli! How can you say such a thing? If it were really so, do you think, Gurran and Baga would have supported Bhuvan? When we cannot pay even the normal rate of tax, how does it really matter whether the white lord asks for two or three times the rate? We will starve anyway. Now, we at least have a means of avoiding it, if we support Bhuvan and contribute our might to this struggle. Think sensibly and tell me whether this isn’t the correct thing to do.”

All those assembled there looked at Gauri – the enlisters in appreciation, Goli in confusion, and Ishwar in irritation.

“Do not meddle in men’s affairs, girl, and get back into the hut,” said Ishwar, “the Mukhiya does not support such confrontation and thinks that we will be the worse for it.”

In any situation, there are protagonists, antagonists, and fence sitters who would sway according to whichever way the wind blows. In Champaner however, Captain Russell, by his high handedness, had managed to eliminate one of the three – antagonists - almost entirely. It only depended upon the force of the wind to determine how soon and how many of the fence sitters swayed towards the only position that they could. The strong-hearted required but a gentle breeze while the weaker ones would have needed a gale.

Fortunately for Bhuvan, Goli and Ishwar were not the weak-hearted kind. Gauri’s logical reasoning and the support provided by Gurran and Baga was breeze enough to set their minds and hearts rocking already, though they strove to hide it and not let it show on their countenance, utterances, or actions.

As each held their initially stated positions and stood their grounds for a while, Bhuvan realized that with just one exception – that of saying what needs to be done, all other things are easier said than done. Goli wouldn’t budge from his physical posture that saw his head bent, his shoulders drooping, his back arched, and his emotional stance, which radiated total dejection and defeat.

“We have a cause, Goli, and we have courage. I cannot do anything alone, but together we can accomplish what appears to be impossible at this time. If there is to be fame, it will be for all of us and not for me alone.”

These words of Bhuvan seemed to touch sympathetic chords in Goli and Ishwar. Another brief period of silence and stillness followed. It was that state of inactive steadiness, where time appears to pause, the heart is in a state of hiatus, the lungs seem to have taken a breather, and the process of life is in intermission, while the mind contemplates the confounding crossroads that it finds itself in.


Gurran was the first to stir.

His eyes looked up at the vast expanse of the night sky with its sprinkling of starlight, entreating divine intervention to show a way out of the impasse, while his left index finger plucked the lone string of his Ektara once. Its resonance seemed to light a spark in him. The finger began to strum repeatedly and his characteristic deep intonation began to voice another spontaneous rendering in verse. Baga, who was disposed to play his drum at the slightest rhythmical provocation, sprinted across to fetch it and returned just as Gurran completed the opening verse –

Courage and patience can, say the wise,

Triumph, from the brink of defeat, entice;

Victory, from the abyss of failure, prize;

Truth prevails, untruth withers and dies.

Bhuvan, whose enthusiasm for all things dear to him, was always brimming and ever waiting to gush out in a torrent, found these words irresistibly motivating and broke into a jig. Tipu and Baga joined in with gusto. Bhuvan’s voice emulated the prevailing mood as he said –

Brothers and friends, wake up and rise,

Lest, us, Time deems fit to chastise;

None will heed our wails and cries;

With trust, our failing spirits energize.

Something inside Gurran seemed to be saying that the flame of unshakable resolve had been kindled and it was only a matter of time before it turned into an all-consuming blaze, taking every soul into its fold and propel the seekers of justice towards success. This sensation made him repeat his inspirational verses with renewed vigor…

Courage and patience can, say the wise,

Triumph, from the brink of defeat, entice;

Victory, from the abyss of failure, prize;

Truth prevails, untruth withers and dies.

The veracity of Gurran’s thought was borne out faster than he had expected. Goli, who had been reluctant all this while to join the group, felt his body, heart, and soul awaken from the debilitating sentiment of despondency, and at that instant, his decision was made.

He would stand up to discrimination. He would fight oppression. He would join Bhuvan, Gurran, and Baga in their crusade against tyranny. The purposeful words of Goli, thus transformed, accompanied the rhythmic progression -

Unbounded zeal and youthful zest,

Will face destiny’s daunting test;

Beyond this uncertainty of a mist,

Our benign fate awaits a tryst.

It was a delighted and ecstatic Gurran who recapitulated, what was now his unflinching confidence -

Courage and patience can, say the wise,

Triumph, from the brink of defeat, entice;

Victory, from the abyss of failure, prize;

Truth prevails, untruth withers and dies.

The lyrical and percussional advocacy of the four pioneers and that of the recent convert Goli finally provided the minuscule impetus, which was all that was required to tilt Ishwar’s allegiance totally and irrevocably. The healer’s faith and convictions found a ready allegory to their articulations as he contributed his share to the prevailing air of cautious hope and budding determination -

Every ailment has a cure;

It’s an inevitability for sure;

If the mind is clean and the heart is pure,

Goodness will certainly endure.

Gurran’s happiness knew no bounds. Here they were trying to enlist one man’s support and they get one more effortlessly. He raised his hands to the heavens and in profound thankfulness, swiveled around on one leg with the other bent and held up, and reiterated his belief –

Courage and patience can, say the wise,

Triumph, from the brink of defeat, entice;

Victory, from the abyss of failure, prize;

Truth prevails, untruth withers and dies.

Gauri, who had been watching this fascinating unfolding of emotions from the sidelines, was overjoyed. Bhuvan’s valiant enterprise had begun to find support and her father had espoused the cause too. She was convinced that the trouble that Gurran had spoken about when reading her palm was now past and her life would be one big and beautiful field of joy and satisfaction.

These pleasant thoughts made her offer an audible precis -

We refuse to be a plaything or a pawn;

For our rights we will not grovel and fawn;

After each dark night, there is a bright dawn;

Our troubles, a happy ‘morrow, will spawn.

Gurran, with a wink, a smile, a hop, a skip, and a sincere benediction for the adorable girl concluded the celebration thus –

Courage and patience can, say the wise,

Triumph, from the brink of defeat, entice;

Victory, from the abyss of failure, prize;

Truth prevails, untruth withers and dies.

Many in the village witnessed this small and spur-of-the-moment late evening festivity that gained fresh adherents to the cause and as with Goli and Ishwar, found their minds and hearts beginning to sway in the gentle, comforting, and stimulating breeze that it initiated, while they pondered over the happening in their beds.

End of Chapter 4

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