Of Balls, No-balls, and Oddballs
The small gathering waited near the old well behind the temple hillock the next day afternoon. There was palpable expectation and skepticism in the air. Would the white woman come as she had promised? Would she be allowed? If she was allowed and did come, would it really be of any use? The appointed hour passed and there was still no sign of her.
Gurran walked up and down along the dusty path that led from the village. Baga was biting his nails. Ishwar was persistently tapping his cane on the ground. Bhuvan, as usual was throwing pebbles at nothing in particular.
Every puff of dust whipped up by the wind blowing across the plains conjured up a mirage of the expected visitor, only to be blown away a few seconds later into nothingness. The vigil continued well past the appointed hour and just about the time when the waiting intrepids seemed to be losing their patience, there appeared from behind an earthen outcrop, a bobbing bonnet, gradually followed by its wearer, the mare that she was riding, and finally the man walking alongside who led the horse holding its reins. It was Elizabeth and Ram Singh.
“We had to take a detour to avoid suspicion, hence the delay,” said Ram Singh in an apologetic tone.
Elizabeth smiled at those waiting as she was helped down from the mare by the former. The fact that she had come and her charming smile, wiped away all the feeling of resentment that Bhuvan and his men were overflowing with.
With a glance at Bhuvan, Elizabeth got down immediately to the exercise of explaining the game of cricket. Using the cane that she carried to guide her mount for a pointer, she drew a circle on the dusty ground and began, “Assume that this is the cricket field ...” while Ram Singh faltered his way through the onerous task of translating her words to those squatting around and listening intently, as well as interpreting their intermittent queries on the subject to her.
He found the translation of the names of field positions particularly tricky. The only term that the village folk were comfortable with was ‘Gully,’ which meant a by-lane in the local dialect.
“Memsahib,” said Bhuvan, addressing Elizabeth by the title that Indians generally employed when hailing a white woman, “Why can’t every field position be called a ‘Galli’? Like the galli to the right of the hitter, the galli to his left, the galli behind him, and so on. We use no field-position names in gilli-danda and yet the fielders do their job well. Why confuse matters with all these names?”
Ram Singh began to chide Bhuvan for this undue interference and his constant comparison of cricket with gilli-danda, but Elizabeth overruled him saying that anything new is best learnt allegorically.
This constant tendency on the part of Elizabeth to encourage Bhuvan with whatever he said and doing most of the explaining only to him was not lost on Gauri. Not being involved with the game in anyway, her attention was entirely focused on this perceived passion play.
By the time the session ended, the seed of suspicion that was sown in Gauri’s heart with the first glance of Elizabeth upon Bhuvan was to rapidly sprout – copiously watered and fed by the interaction between the allegedly reprobate pair, and mature into a well rooted, thorny shrub that tormented her no end. All things in life are multilateral – though for the sake of simplicity we refer to them being two sided. When we aspire for a thing enamored by one of its traits, we forget that the basic tenet of life dictates that you take nothing or take all. With fervent and possessive love come suspicion, jealousy, distress, and a host of related sensations.
These are inevitabilities, and having chosen the delight of love, Gauri claimed for herself its inexorable consequence too in equal measure. When Elizabeth proposed a session of play after the discussions to practice what they had learnt, it was a morose Gauri who sat aloof and quiet and watched the proceedings disinterestedly, smoldering in the slow fire of anguish.
Tipu and Gurran wanted one particular matter to be settled before they went any further and it was the question of who could be enlisted from among the villagers to play the role of the two old men who went about doing all manner of hand gestures and remained on the grounds regardless of which team fielded or batted.
They could not think of anyone who could play that part. Shambhu kaka was too old to be one. He would collapse, if subjected to such a strenuous exercise. The Mukhiya would consider it below his dignity to stand in the field with them. He would rather stand next to the king and watch the game from afar. Dwarakadas was too much of a priest to be part of a game. So who else could it be?
When Elizabeth heard this, she burst out laughing and explained to them that the old men were called umpires who adjudicated the game and ensured that it was played fairly.
“But we do not have nor need a judge for gilli-danda ...” began Bhuvan only to be stopped in mid-sentence by a fierce look from Ram Singh.
There was relief on the faces of Tipu and Gurran and what remained to be learnt began to look like a pushover to them, so terribly was this matter of the old men weighing them down.
Two sets of stumps were quickly fashioned from the stems of appropriately thick shrubs and pegged to the ground approximately twenty-two yards apart. Gurran positioned himself with the bat at one end of the assumed pitch while Goli held the ball in his hand at the other end ready to bowl. He ran in swinging his hand round and round like a vertical sling, stood outside the bowling crease and let go the ball, directed at the stumps on the other end. Elizabeth shook her head in disapproval.
Ram Singh yelled in an irritated voice, “If you throw the ball with either foot outside the crease, then it is a no ball.”
“How can a ball become a no ball,” shouted back Goli, “If the batter were to come out of the crease and hit the ball, does it become a no bat?”
When Ram translated this question to Elizabeth in exasperation, she said to herself aloud half in mirth and half in vexation, “Balls being bowled as no balls by oddballs!”
“What was it, Madam?” asked Ram Singh.
“Oh, nothing!” she said knowing that this amusing play of words will be lost on the enquirer.
After each of her six students had had their turn with the bat and the ball, Elizabeth decided to conclude the meeting for the day and continue the process on the ‘morrow. She however emphasized the need to have a full contingent of eleven players for the practice sessions to become meaningful. She urged Bhuvan to step up his efforts to enlist more men to the cause and soon.
The next two days went by in a similar manner with Elizabeth explaining further nuances of the game and the students practicing batting, bowling, and fielding in her presence.
Gauri on her part grew sulkier by the day. One part of her wanted to stay away from this entire affair while the other shuddered at the possibility of such a move bringing Elizabeth even closer to Bhuvan.
On the third day while Baga wielded the bat, the ball vanished from sight in the direction of the village on one of his massive hits. That it had landed became evident from a sudden eruption of bird-cackling, which was followed by the appearance of a human figure cackling away in a similar fashion – only a bit louder – and making a bee line towards them in a threatening manner. None had a problem about discerning who it was even before he came into full view.
Wherever Goli was, Bhura couldn’t be far away and a day wasn’t complete without at least one confrontation between them. Observing the bat held in Baga’s hand, he looked a bit crestfallen but when it came to be known that it was off Goli’s bowling that the ball had been hit, he was back in his effervescent elements.
“You had to be involved. I knew it!” he cackled.
Bhuvan saw a great opportunity to snare another player for their team and said to Bhura, “Baga and Goli make very poor students, Bhura, particularly our Goli here. They can neither bat and bowl, nor can they field properly. Why don’t you demonstrate to them how to catch a ball correctly? Here, give me that globe of wood!”
He prized the ball from Bhura’s hand and trotting down a little distance away, threw it fast and flat towards the latter. Bhura’s reflexes were swift. His extended arms plucked the ball out of the air as it attempted to whiz past.
Everyone assembled there clapped hands, Goli a bit reluctantly.
“That was wonderful, Bhura, Lets try a few more,” said Bhuvan, as he retrieved the ball each time and sent it flying at different angles towards the epitome of agility that was Bhura, only to find his catching ability unerringly faultless though a bit overly and unnecessarily energetic.
Shouts of, “Bravo! Bravo!” from Elizabeth at this breathtaking display is what sensitized Bhura to the presence of an unfamiliar face among his audience, which immediately brought a frown to his face as he asked, “Hey! What is that white woman calling me? I cannot and will not stand ridicule.”
“Calm down, Bhura. She is only praising you,” said Bhuvan as he prepared to tighten the noose upon the unsuspecting simpleton. “She feels that you are the ideal person to ensure that the evil designs of Captain Russell are put paid. She insists that you join the team.”
The frowning expression metamorphosed into a beaming, but a little shy visage and Bhura was ensnared securely and completely. It was a slick operation, thought out on the spur of the moment, and executed with finesse. It also made Elizabeth’s esteem for Bhuvan soar higher.
They were a band of six men and a boy now, Bhuvan, Baga, Gurran, Goli, Ishwar and Bhura among the men and Tipu the boy. This distinction had to be made because Elizabeth had said with certainty that the white men would not let the boy play. While Tipu, who was utterly disconsolate at this development, continued to take part in the practice sessions, the fruitless search for other volunteers went on relentlessly.
Then one day, the seventh man appeared literally from the blue. It was a cloudless day. The usual gathering was going through its regular practice ritual. An azure sky met the dusty, parched, and vegetation-free earth at the distant horizon.
From the depths of this distance appeared an aberration that gradually crystallized to present the form of a man rapidly walking towards them. Clad in a length of white pajama that terminated half way between his knees and ankles, a tattered and faded blue vest and a white turban perched on his head, that initially looked to be a little puff of cloud floating up across the sky. As he drew closer, his bushy moustache and beard could be discerned.
The men kept at their game with an occasional glance at the approaching figure. When he was within calling distance, a ball hit by Bhuvan chanced to fly in the direction of the on-coming man. He did a little sprinting course-correction to intercept the ball, held it with one hand, and without breaking stride, ran in to bowl from one end of the pitch.
Bhuvan, standing bat in hand at the other end, hurriedly took stance but taken by surprise – as everyone else was, when the ball rushed past his swinging bat and shattered the stumps. Coming to a measured stop at mid-pitch, he looked around the gathered men as they stared at him in bewilderment. Well built was he, and stern faced, determination etched into every crease and wrinkle.
His deep and gruff bellow spanned a distance far beyond what was required to reach the ears of the assembled gathering as he asked, “Which of you is Bhuvan?”
The severity on his face made everyone wonder whether he was friend or foe and also the purpose of his being there.
“It is I and why do you seek me?” said Bhuvan as he strode forward.
In a very stiff and martial manner, he embraced Bhuvan and continued in his loud voice, “My name is Deva and I have vowed to oppose the British wherever and however possible, if such opposition is within the ambit of the values that I hold dear. I heard that you have challenged them and if you have a place for me in your team I would be glad to offer my services.”
Enthusiastic cheers greeted this announcement.
“You are certainly welcome,” said Bhuvan.
The villagers expected that their greetings and ready reception would provoke an equally animated and lively response from Deva but surprisingly none was forthcoming. It was only later and after they got to know him more closely did they realize that Deva was a man who believed that expression of emotions was a sign of weakness.
This conviction followed from the perception that the utterance of a word is sacrosanct and whatever is said has to be followed with the appropriate action fulfilling all its implications. Emotions loosened the tongue making it difficult to put this principle into practice. These beliefs were nurtured in him from the time he was enrolled in a seminary as a child in Punjab.
“Have you played cricket before?” Deva spun around on his heels hearing this feminine voice speaking in English.
He hadn’t noticed the presence of a white woman in the crowd.
“Oi! What is an alien doing here?” It was his turn to be surprised.
Bhuvan proposed that they take a break from the game and sit down to familiarize themselves and their circumstances. While Gauri distributed the food that she had brought and between mouthfuls of the jaggery laced rice puffs, the villagers heard the newcomer’s story.
Deva was born Devinder Singh Sodhi in a village near Bahawalpore. His father Prabhjyot Singh was a devout Sikh and had vowed that he would have his first-born son dedicated to the Sikh cause. Accordingly, when Devinder was seven, he was sent to a seminary where he was brought up according to the Sikh saint-warrior tradition.
His training demanded that he becomes well-versed with the scriptures as well as the martial arts. It was constantly impressed upon him that he wielded a sword never to attack, but only to defend the helpless.
Deva grew up in such an environment to become a sturdy and strapping youth. His natural disposition helped him in harmonizing the two apparently irreconcilable facets of his training – piety and violence.
The ruler of the times of that land was not a kind man. People were unfairly persecuted for many things, particularly on the basis of the religious faith that they professed. The British saw in this an opportunity to overthrow the ruler and annex the kingdom into their own rapidly expanding empire. To provide a sheen of legitimacy to their actions, they set up a rival to the ruler and raised an army for him under their command. The orchestrated confrontation between the two was promoted as a battle for peace and justice.
Carried away by the false and misleading propaganda, Deva signed up with the British army and fought to overthrow the repressive ruler only to find that those who supplanted the despot were equally despotic, albeit in different ways, and he realized the true intent of the British. He was principally horrified at the shedding of innocent blood.
Disillusioned, he quit the army, vowing never to wield a sword again. But his training and temperament made him seek out pockets of disharmony, strife, and subjugation, particularly those that involved the British being the offending party, and contributing his might in whatever way possible to those afflicted by the malefactor’s insensitive highhandedness. The mission that he set for himself had taken him many places over the past few years. During a brief stop over at Jubbulpore, he had heard from a milk vendor to the British garrison about this strange challenge and had immediately made his way to Champaner.
While with the British army at Bahawalpore for two years, Deva had played a little cricket and was aware of the rules of the game. He was feared for his fiery bowling and gutsy batting. Though it was about a decade since then and his cricketing skills would surely have become rusty due to the lack of practice and his aging body, he still had the fire in him.
“What is left of me is good enough to occasionally shatter the defenses of a batsman and knock down the stumps when I bowl, and make the ball fly beyond the field limits a bit more occasionally when I bat,” boomed Deva, as he concluded his short narration.
Having seen him bowl that single ball at Bhuvan, the others had no reason not to believe his claims. He moved into the village sharing Gurran’s wall-less and ceiling-less quarters and began practicing with the group.
The coming of Deva brought in another hitherto neglected but important dimension to their preparations – that of exercising the body to improve its flexibility and building up stamina. The military man in him assumed this responsibility in all earnest and put the group through a regular and inflexible regimen of physical work out.
It is a very strange fact that words of wisdom from a familiar person sound hollow and unconvincing while a similar counsel from a stranger appears hallowed and saintly. Perhaps the prism of familiarity has this power of distortion.
Whatever may have been the cause, Deva’s presence in the village and his widely audible exhortations began to gradually bring a change of attitude in the village community. The strident hostility that was reserved for Bhuvan and his supporters was replaced by a grudging acceptance and encouragement and at times, even open admiration.
Small groups of spectators began to gather around while they practiced, applauding their efforts, and egging them on. With this shift in the direction of the perceptional tide, it was only a matter of time before the strength of the team grew to the required number.
Their eighth and ninth members were soon to join.
One early morning, a few days after Deva had become a temporary resident of Champaner, a lone British horseman started from the Jubbulpore garrison and urged his steed to gallop at a blistering pace along the winding and dusty road to the village. A journey that took about two hours at a comfortable pace was accomplished in forty-five minutes. He reigned in the horse as it approached the driveway of Captain Russell’s official residence, dismounted smartly in one swift motion, threw the reins to a surprised orderly, climbed up the staircase at a trot, and marched into the main hall of the mansion.
Being of the same rank as that of Andrew Russell and having been commissioned a few months earlier to him, he chose to dispense with the need of sending word to the commandant of the cantonment about his arrival and instead sought to confront him unannounced. He had never liked Andrew Russell from the first instance that they had met nor appreciated his ways, and he felt pleasure to be in a position to deny him the courtesy that he was entitled to.
Russell, already in his uniform, was seated at his work table going through some official papers as he heard quick and measured footsteps and looked up to see Captain Craig McDouglas coming towards him.
“Entry into a private residence demands the civility of a visitor to send word of their arrival through an orderly, who has been stationed at the door specifically for such purposes,” said Russell, showing his displeasure at this breach of protocol.
McDouglas liked what he saw, as this is exactly what he had intended.
“This isn’t the time for procedures and etiquette, Andrew Russell,” said McDouglas haughtily, “it is the time for displaying alacrity and deference to authority.”
He summoned Russell’s batman to pull a chair for him and seated himself comfortably in front of the simmering commandant.
“Here is a summon for you, Russell,” continued McDouglas, “You are to report immediately and let me repeat – immediately, to Colonel Boyer at the headquarters to explain your action of challenging a group of villagers to a cricket match and offering to waive their annual tax for three years should they win the said match.”
Russell was livid. Had it been an Indian in front of him, he would have shot him then and there. In fact, his hand went to his pistol in its holster and McDouglas’ heart skipped a beat. But better sense prevailed, as Russell realized that this was a British officer in uniform and killing him would mean surely the gallows for himself.
“Get out before I do something terrible,” he hissed at McDouglas, who quickly beat a retreat though realizing that he was safe for now and which goaded him to take a parting shot, “I can report you for insubordination, Russell,” as he remounted his steed to gallop back to his station, as swiftly as he had come.
The batman who had provided a seat for McDouglas was the first victim of Russell’s pent up ire. The chair on which McDouglas sat was kicked with such force in his direction by Russell, that as it collided with the batman, he staggered backwards and hit the floor.
Just then, as his luck would have it, Ram Singh walked down the staircase that led to the floor above. Russell’s flaming gaze fell upon him followed by an avalanche of equally fiery words, “You son of a bitch, did I not tell you to have my uniform ironed and laid out on my bed? What do you have for a brain?”
Ram Singh tried to protest saying, “But I did Captain Sir...” Russell did not let him continue, as his baton went flying at his personal assistant aimed at his face. Ram Singh had the presence of mind to duck but was not fast enough to avoid the soaring baton from knocking the turban off his head. He thought it better to be out of sight until the Captain’s fury abated and picking up his turban slipped quietly away by a side door leading to the lobby.
Russell marched down the steps into the driveway and yelled at the orderly, “Where the hell is my horse, you rascal? Haven’t I told you that it should be fed, brushed down, and kept ready by this time everyday?”
“It is right here, Sir,” said the orderly astonished.
“And since when have you decided upon insubordination? How dare you answer back? I will have you court-martialed!”
With these outbursts, ample steam seemed to have been let out by the commandant to have absolved the other subordinate staff present from any imaginary wrongdoing, as they stood stiffly at their respective posts, petrified with fear.
This soothing sight of all his staff terror-stricken in his presence, gave the bully in him a reassurance about his importance and power. He called to the orderly to come and bend beside the horse, stepped over his arched back, and got into the saddle. With a kick to its ribs, he raced away into the open plains beyond the gate towards Jubbulpore.
Colonel Boyer sat at his ornate desk with a large portrait of Queen Victoria for a background. He awaited the return of his adjutant whom he had dispatched to the Raigadh cantonment to serve a summon upon Captain Andrew Russell, ordering him to report immediately to this office.
It had been brought to his notice by the officer-in-charge of the intelligence wing at the cantonment – one Lieutenant Willis, that the eccentric commandant had done something rather preposterously foolish – that of challenging the villagers under his purview to a cricket match to determine the quantum of tax to be paid by them to the government.
Boyer had been opposed to the idea of a person with Captain Russell’s background and capabilities to be assigned the command of a cantonment. In his judgment – which had seldom failed him in his more than three decades long service with the British army, the man would be a good combatant but a poor administrator. A disciplined soldier that Boyer was, he accepted the inclination of his superior on this matter, after having let known his divergent opinion and as an executive he believed that a good manager is he who makes the best use of available resources – however meager or unqualified they may be.
Sooner or later, he had anticipated trouble of this nature and had put into place a few precautionary measures–one of which was to place Lieutenant Willis under Russell’s command to report any deviant move on the latter’s part so that possible consequent damages could be contained and minimized.
He had no doubt that the present situation would be resolved and the erring commandant reined in, but he was tired. This sense of weariness had been gradually growing over the last few years. It wasn’t due alone to the fact that he had just witnessed his fifty-fifth birthday. The primary cause of this fatigue was the disillusionment with the manner in which the British government went about the business of governing its Indian territorial acquisitions.
He believed that in the interests of British Empire and its longevity, the time had come to consider Indians as citizens of the empire with equal rights rather than as slaves to be exploited. His interactions with native personages in the fields of commerce, politics, and philosophy that was afforded by his position as the administrator of a swathe of land that was at least three times larger than Great Britain, increasingly strengthened this conviction. Suppression of native aspirations and denial of equality would only provoke revolt that would ultimately lead to a forfeiture of all territory that had been gained with so much effort and strategy.
Boyer shuddered at the thought of such a possibility. He considered himself to be one of the chosen instruments of fate to actively plot and execute the territorial expansion and growing influence of the British Empire, because he was born precisely at the time when Queen Victoria was crowned on the June 28, 1838.
The only son of a Tory member of Parliament, his sharp memory, logical mind, and an inborn ability to analyze and understand the psychology of individuals as well as that of the collective psyche of groups subject to their ethnicity and living conditions, found a ready place for him as an officer in the intelligence wing of the Army. He had an equally able superior and mentor in Colonel Illingworth.
The two saw and contributed actively to the strategic planning for the Anglo-Zulu war in 1879 and the military occupation of Egypt in 1882. In the midst of his involvement in drawing up plans for the invasion of Sudan, Boyer was promoted to the rank of a Colonel and posted to India and asked to head the garrison at Jubbulpore. Unlike his earlier assignments, the new one entailed a wider and regular interface with the civilian population and less of military planning, and he enjoyed it.
Though his allegiance to his country and monarch was complete and unshakeable, his vision of an empire was that of a federation of semi-autonomous states rather than one that is maintained by military subjugation. He was not apologetic of the British expansionism and was rather an enthusiastic votary. During one of his discussions with a native intellectual, when the Indian tried to argue that the Indian people were by nature peace-loving and the British were taking advantage of it, he thought that such a view was hypocritical.
In his estimation, human nature was the same everywhere and no aspiration was illegitimate, as long as they were within certain bounds dictated by conditions of the times. Man, his nature, and his actions were a product of circumstances. He quoted Indian history citing the examples of Asoka and Chandragupta Maurya to drive home his point. He envisioned commanding loyalty through good governance and granting a reasonable level of freedom of expression and self-rule.
But political thoughts had hardened after the mutiny by the native recruits of the army in 1857 and Boyer, despite his liberal views, had to admit that a certain intensity of force and discipline was unavoidable under the circumstance. However, what Captain Russell had been indulging in transgressed everything in the rulebook. It was a sure prescription for inciting another mutiny. He had to nip this in the bud and set an example to ensure that other wayward officers did not feel encouraged to pamper themselves.
“May I come in, Sir?” The sharp voice of Captain McDouglas awakened Colonel Boyer from his reminiscences.
“Yes, come in. What have you to report?”
“Captain Russell should be on his way, Sir. He should be here within the next hour,” replied the younger man.
“Good. Inform Major Cotton and Major Warren to be in my office in forty-five minutes for the enquiry. Let me know when Captain Russell enters the garrison gates,” ordered Boyer.
“Yes, Sir!” said his adjutant and with a smart salute, marched away to do his bidding.
The former fortress of the king of Jubbulpore now housed the garrison and what was once the king’s court was now Colonel Boyer’s office. It was situated on the highest point of a three-storied structure and the arched lobby abutting the hall afforded a clear view of the garrison gates.
Captain McDouglas stationed himself here, after having conveyed Boyer’s orders to the two other officers.
It was a little more than an hour when Captain Russell came riding into the Jubbulpore garrison gates, his head held high and his manner confident and haughty. Dismounting near the stables and handing over the reins of his horse to the stable boy, he walked briskly towards the staircase leading to Colonel Boyer’s office.
As he bounded up the last flight of steps, he saw McDouglas standing at attention at the door sporting a snide smile. Ignoring the taunt, he entered the room and saluting the three senior officers seated there, said aloud, “Captain Russell reporting, Sir.”
“Sit down, Captain Russell,” said Boyer pointing to a chair placed in the centre of the hall as the other two nodded their acknowledgement. Without wasting time, Boyer began the enquiry, stating the allegation and wishing to ascertain its authenticity from the accused.
“It is reported that you have challenged the villagers of Champaner to a cricket match to be played beginning on the 3rd of August and the terms of the challenge state that in the event of your team winning, all villages within your administrative zone pay three times the normal annual tax, and in the event of your team losing the game, even the normal rate of tax to be paid by the villages will be waived for the next three years. Is this true?”
Captain Russell’s eyes met those of Colonel Boyer and held them, as he answered in a firm voice, “Yes, Sir. This is true. I have indeed thrown such a challenge.”
“Could you then tell us what prompted you to take this step and why you thought it unnecessary to seek permission to alter tax rates, which is outside your stated authority?” It was Major Cotton, who had taken over the responsibility of further interrogation at a sign from his superior.
“To answer your second question first,” returned Russell, turning his gaze to the new interrogator, “I thought it pointless to seek permission on a matter that portended no loss to the government but would only assuredly bring in additional revenue. The gentlemen here will agree that doing a good turn to the government isn’t surely a crime.” Russell paused briefly and looked at each of the three officers in turn with an air of assertiveness.
“To answer your first question, Major Cotton Sir, it is my firm belief that the natives need to be shown their place occasionally, lest they begin to harbor and nurture thoughts of questioning our decisions or acquire the temerity to cross the limits that we have declared for them. This too, Sir, certainly is not a crime. I have acted within the brief that was given to me when I was ordered to take up this assignment.”
“You sound like a bureaucrat, Captain, and not as an army officer. Your service brief also states that you are not free to interpret rules. Any deviation, whether for good or for worse needs to be clarified with headquarters unless otherwise stated. Aren’t you aware of this?”
“Yes, Sir, I am aware.” For the first time Russell’s gaze appeared to falter.
“And Russell, we are not running a concentration camp here. We govern a country whose citizens are subjects of the British Empire. The parliament in London enacts laws according to which we govern. As long as the citizens adhere to those laws, we do not harass them. We are here to keep peace, not to make war.”
It was Boyer who said this and which made the other three present in the hall look up at him in surprise. The Colonel was a stickler for protocol and seldom if ever addressed his subordinates without their rank. If he did so, it would signal either extreme annoyance or excessive fondness and those present there certainly realized that it was not the latter emotion that prompted this utterance. He had neither raised his voice nor was there any alteration in his expression, but the severity of his reprimand sounded loud and clear.
“If your action were to be a precedent, Captain,” added Major Warren, “we would soon have administrators employing horse racing, wrestling, boxing, and soccer to determine the quantum of tax to be levied.”
“What makes you so certain that they would lose the match, Captain?” asked Major Cotton.
“What can unlettered and uncultured brutes do, Sir,” rejoined Russell.
Boyer intervened, “I have been in this country longer than you have, Captain. I understand and appreciate the Indian psyche. If they do not understand or speak English, it does not mean that they are unlettered or uncultured. I agree that they have much to learn from us, but I also know that we have much to learn from them. That is just by the way. The important point that you have missed as a military man is that you should never underestimate your enemy. You should have alternative plans when you undertake any operation, and you don’t seem to have any in this particular case. You have exposed yourself to the additional charge of dereliction of duty.”
“How do you propose to have this match adjudicated?” continued Boyer.
“I will have two of my men to stand in as umpires, Sir,” replied Russell.
“And I suppose that would make certain that all decisions go in your favor and your opponents lose, even if they were to play well?” asked Major Cotton.
Russell gazed at the floor wondering whether he was in the presence of his own countrymen or whether these were Indians in the guise of the British. It becomes impossible for a mind clouded by hatred to see reason and Russell’s mind had been long been consumed by it.
“All right, Captain. Since you have come this far, we will go through the complete exercise. We will have the match as scheduled and on the stipulations that you have made. But it will be subject to the conditions that I now state. Firstly, I will nominate the umpires who will ensure that the game is played in a fair manner. Secondly, should you lose; you will be stripped of your command and transferred to serve in Africa. We have enough trouble on our hands to have another more serious one cropping up. I wish to convey a message to the villagers that though the local commandant is unreasonable, his seniors guarantee justice. Major Cotton, let these new conditions be conveyed to the villagers and let it be known that I will be personally present at Raigadh during the match to witness it in the company of King Puran Singh.”
Rage played havoc with Russell’s countenance. He however, realized his precarious condition and struggled to keep it in check. Colonel Boyer rose from his seat signaling the conclusion of the enquiry.
“Good day to you, gentlemen,” he said in his usual calm voice and strode unhurriedly towards his private quarters. Russell scrambled to his feet hurriedly, saluted his superiors, and rushed out in a daze.
He urged the horse faster but the poor animal couldn’t keep up. The air whooshing past his face calmed him to a slight degree before the recollection of the disastrous meeting with the Colonel came rushing back into his mind, infuriating him and causing him to ride faster. How could the Colonel have taken such a view to what he thought was a service rendered to his country?
“Bah!” shouted Russell, for the first time vocalizing his fury, since having walked out of Colonel Boyer’s study, speechless with anger, only to be smiled at by Craig McDouglas at the door.
“All right,” he said, hardly being able to hear himself over the rushing air. “You will see in the end that I was right and you were wrong.”
The speed of his steed, along with his torrential thoughts for company, carried him to the cantonment at Raigadh faster than he had expected and was surprised when he saw the gates looming in front of him.
‘Those villagers will suffer defeat at my hands, I’ll make sure of that and show the Colonel how very mistaken he was,’ he thought as he raced through the gates.
The thundering sound of a galloping horse made Arjan look up from his work. He had been summoned to the cantonment to fit up horseshoes to a couple of new stallions that had recently been enlisted into service at the garrison.
The summons, as usual, came through a soldier. The man had ridden into the village late in the evening the previous day and informed Arjan that his services were required at the cantonment and that he would do well to present himself there early next day. Accordingly, Arjan had set out at dawn and reached his destination just as the morning sun was reaching its zenith, having walked all the way.
Arjan did his best to keep away from the white officers of the cantonment and they too didn’t bother with him much, acquainted as they were with his efficiency and good work. The horses were shown to him by an orderly and Arjan set to work on them. He was just through with the first of the two stallions when Russell made his appearance.
The sight of the Captain didn’t please Arjan much. He was the man who had levied such an impossible tax upon them. But what Arjan did notice was that Russell did not look too happy at the moment.
He dismounted to a salute from an officer passing by. “When you see a superior you salute, officer,” roared Russell.
“But I did, Captain,” the astounded officer said, realizing that the Captain’s mood hadn’t improved since his departure that morning. In fact, it seemed to have worsened.
“I don’t think so...” began Russell but an intervention by Smith, his second-in-command saved the other officer from being once again at the receiving end of the Captain’s flaring temper.
“I don’t suppose the meeting went too well,” Smith addressed Russell, while motioning to the still astonished officer to get moving.
“It certainly didn’t!” Russell gave went to his anger by kicking a small stone at his feet. “The Colonel thinks I have been indiscreet and careless in taking such a rash decision. Indiscreet?” He kicked at another stone. “Those bloody villagers will pay for this, and dearly. They can’t get away now, those rascals. I’ll show them what Captain Russell can do. I’ll make sure they pay three times the lagaan.”
Arjan who had been listening to this torrent of ill will pouring out of the commandant’s mouth with distaste, suddenly jerked up at the mention of lagaan. He knew that under whatever circumstances the tax was mentioned, it would not bode well for the village. His pulse started to race, as all the injustice heaped upon them came to the fore of his mind.
Just then, the horse that had served as a steed for Russell neighed loudly and made a bid to escape from the orderly who was tending to it. The alarmed orderly did his best to rein in the frightened animal but Russell did not give him a chance. He was upon the poor servant in a flash.
His patience and temper had been tested since morning, first by McDouglas and then Colonel Boyer and it finally snapped at the sight of his horse being hustled by a native.
“What the hell do you think you are doing, you scoundrel? That is my horse you are manhandling. All you local rascals are the same, inept and hopeless.”
The servant was too petrified to even utter a single word in his defense. Smith thought it best not to interfere at the moment when the Captain looked ready to lash out at everyone. He watched without meddling, as Russell caned and kicked the native man mercilessly.
The farrier was watching the whole episode from his work place with mounting fury. This man was a fiend. Arjan thought he could now understand what would have been going through Bhuvan’s mind when the commandant had challenged him, for he himself felt the same anger, the same will to do or at least try to do something to put an end to this misuse of power and reign of cruelty.
The already transforming heart of Arjan needed nothing more to convince him of the justness of Bhuvan’s endeavor. He decided right there, in the camp of the enemy, to join the others in the effort they were making towards achieving the goal of emancipating the whole village.
But something happened then, which changed Arjan’s mind so completely that even if the others had ever shown signs of indecisiveness in their stance, Arjan would have always stood firm and resolute.
As his thoughts wandered, his concentration in his work wavered. His hands shook with rage as they tried to nail the horseshoe in place. This lapse of concentration cost Arjan dearly as the horse that was now being tended to, reared on its hind legs and neighed in pain. Russell who had been busy spewing out his entire wrath on the orderly, turned around to investigate the cause of a second horse’s discomfort.
Seeing Arjan with a hammer in hand and the horse being fitted up with the horseshoe, it didn’t take time for Russell to figure out what had happened. The farrier looked up into the eyes of the commandant that were now boring down upon him with such fire in them that Arjan wondered whether the man was still in his senses. Lieutenant Smith wondered the same when he saw the Captain, incensed and unrestrained, hit the farrier who was now sprawled at his feet.
“You bloody villagers!” he screamed. “How dare you think you can challenge me and win? Your right place has been under my boots and shall remain so. You just wait and watch. I’ll show you that.”
The wounded and aching Arjan felt a sort of satisfaction on seeing the commandant maddened thus.
‘This will be your downfall, sahib. This will. You had us crushed under your might all this while and we bore it. Our patience has now run out. You committed a grave mistake by underestimating our strength – the subjugated are not powerless, sahib, they just lack the drive. But we have it now and it’s your turn to wait and watch.’
It was a very sore but an energized and determined Arjan who made his way to the playing area. The players had just finished one round of the game, and were stretching their limbs and relaxing when Arjan came to them.
Having always been a man of few words, he sought out Bhuvan amongst the lounging team members and told him, “I am with you, Bhuvan. I am going to join your team.”
Bhuvan too didn’t waste words on Arjan but embraced him warmly. The prevailing air of relaxation vanished instantly and all the others jumped up and joyously celebrated the inclusion of the eighth member of the team. Elizabeth’s delight knew no bounds, as she too cheered Arjan, who stood in front of the wickets, ready to face his first ball bowled by Deva.
“That’s wonderful!” Elizabeth’s shrill voice rang in appreciation as a ball smacked by Baga once again cleared the boundary.
Baga hung his head shyly and turned such a deep red that Elizabeth burst into a fit of laughter, something that happened very often now. Ram Singh who noticed this change in her felt very glad for the unhappy child. Companionship had wrought such a good change in her that he could hardly recognize the solemn and quiet girl who had been introduced to him on her arrival, to the Elizabeth who now stood laughing with the others at Baga’s discomfort.
Elizabeth herself had scarcely ever felt this happy in her life. Her motive for spending as much time as possible with these simple villagers, was now not just wanting to help them fight injustice. She didn’t think she could bear losing their friendship, which she now treasured beyond her own life.
Watching this scene of togetherness and joy from their vantage point behind a few boulders were Ismail, Lakha, and a few others, who had stolen over to have a look at the practice session from the village after lunch. Lakha was watching it all with a look of scorn, while Ismail’s countenance displayed emotions in conflict.
He fidgeted about a lot, which made Lakha whisper once or twice in annoyance, “Will you stop moving about so much. They will spot us here.”
They had decided in the village itself that they would watch the proceedings while remaining hidden so as to escape any attempt of persuasion from Bhuvan and all those whom he had managed to win over.
“Shame on us, shame on us,” Ismail sprang up, startling Lakha who had been, with keen interest, watching Deva trying to teach, in vain, an adamant Gurran the correct method of holding a bat accompanied with even more laughter from Elizabeth.
He now looked at Ismail in surprise. “What did you say?” he asked with a furrowed brow, though he thought he had a fair idea of where it would lead.
‘That makes it nine,’ he thought in disgust, while repeating his question out aloud, “What did you say?”
“I said shame on us, Lakha.” Ismail looked furious with himself. “Here is a white trying to help our people fight the unjust rule of those belonging to her own country and here we are, turning our backs on the whole affair. Bah! It really is shameful on our part.”
Lakha did his best not to burst out at Ismail, but...
“Let us join them, let us do. We should be there, helping our own people fight for a cause. Come, Lakha.”
He made to move off but the latter caught his hand and stopped him, while saying with barely controlled fury, “Have you lost your head, Ismail? I thought we had vowed not to take any part in this madness. How can you abandon your standpoint now?”
“How can we desert our people, Lakha? They are doing it for us, for the whole village and it is but right that we assist them. I am going to join them,” he tugged his hand from Lakha’s grip, “Even if you don’t want to,” and he was off, calling Bhuvan’s name as he went.
“No, no!” Lakha was red with rage. “How can this be happening? How can everyone side with that madman?”
And kicking at a stone at his feet, much to the astonishment of his other mates who had silently watched the exchange between the potter and the woodcutter, wanting to side with Ismail but not daring to open their mouth in front of a livid Lakha, walked off without a backward glance to the festivity that reigned in the practice area.
“Welcome, Ismail! Welcome,” said Bhuvan as he embraced the newcomer. “I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you here.”
The others crowded around, smiling, thumping Ismail’s back, while Ram Singh effected an introduction between him and Elizabeth.
“Here,” said Bhuvan as he handed Ismail the bat. Ismail looked at Bhuvan in apprehension, but with a smile of encouragement from all the others, he took it with trembling hands and lifted it in the air. The others whooped and screamed in joy. Who could stop them now, now that that the whole village was coming together. They would show the white rulers that there lay strength and determination to fight back even in the subjugated – all that is required is a spark to awaken it.
‘And you so unwisely lit it with your own hands, commandant. Now be prepared to be scorched in the inferno that rises from it,’ thought Gurran, hands raised to heaven and a sublime smile on his face.
The legend of Krishna was so deeply entrenched in the psyche of the people of large parts of the Indian sub-continent that many dress codes, manner of speech and daily rituals of the times could be traced to it. The affection between Krishna and his childhood sweetheart Radha was a source of inspiration to innumerable poets, bards, and lyricists.
Chamapner too was permeated with Krishna lore, the temple of Radha-Krishna being the most visible representation of this phenomenon. The accepted co-ordinates of birth of Krishna were Rohini nakshatra, in the Hindu month of Bhadrapada, on the 8th day of the waning moon at midnight. Every year on this day of the Hindu calendar, there were great festivities across the land. Men and women would attire themselves as these icons of love, cook and consume edibles that were supposed to be their favorites, and dance the night away doing Dandia – a dance form involving pairs holding wooden rods and tapping away as they swayed and circled around to rhythmic music.
It was that day of the year. The core of the festivity being centered around midnight – the time when Krishna was said to have been born. This day and the one following, usually started late for the villagers. The womenfolk busied themselves preparing savories and the men folk in festooning the village.
The aspiring cricketers had a shorter than normal practice session and joined the preparatory exercise.
Each year one young pair dressed up like Radha and Krishna led the Dandia dance. By popular choice, it was to be Gauri and Bhuvan this year.
There was a tide of happiness sweeping across the community as the arrangements concluded and people began gathering in the square – the venue of the festivities. Weaving through this tide were two undercurrents – one public and the other very private. The former being that the place was abuzz with anticipation of an unusual presence amongst them.
Lady Elizabeth had expressed her wish to participate in the event. This was the first time that a member of the ruling white community had desired to be part of it. The other undercurrent was Gauri’s annoyance with Bhuvan for his perceived disregard of herself in favor of Elizabeth – now having become irrepressible and only waiting for an opportunity to break its bounds and spill over into public view.
Though he did not expose it, he too was beginning to feel the heat of this displeasure and had resolved to settle this baseless dispute once and for all very soon.
All was set for the Dandia to begin. Baga was there with his drum. The flautist, who was obligatory for this occasion – Krishna’s preferred musical instrument being the flute – was in his position and so were the Dandia dancers led by Gauri attired as Radha, and Bhuvan as Krishna.
All looked at Gauri to start the proceedings. Deviating from the normal practice of reciting one of the many lyrics specifically meant for this event, she began an improvised rendering that expressed her anguish at Bhuvan’s insensitive doings.
Her voice reflected her emotions, which also induced an exceptional grace to her movements. The audience listened to and watched spellbound as she proceeded -
A swathe of colors, sweet sensations asquirt;
’Tis passion season, of love’s infectious spurt;
Woe to thee Kris, as Ye shamelessly flirt;
Wouldn’t Radha’s poor heart be deeply hurt?
The arrows of anguish hit their mark and drew blood. Bhuvan was both angered and pained. He dearly loved Gauri and was incensed at her doubting him. He was also upset that he had unintentionally caused her distress. These mixed emotions made him respond with equal intensity as he sang –
In esteeming blossoms, Kris wouldn’t shirk;
To every being, nature’s unvarying perk;
’Tis Radha’s thoughts that lights Kris’ daily murk;
Oh, why does then suspicion, in her yet lurk?
The gathering loved it. It was after a long time that they were being entertained with fresh lyrics rather than the weather-worn ones that were being dished out year after year.
The words in them, the voices that sang them, and the gestures and movements that accompanied them were intense and passionate, which made the spectacle all the more enjoyable. Gauri as Radha, continued with her heart-rending lamentations -
Every true misgiving has its valid reason;
Thy doings, in the language of love, is treason;
Woe to thee Kris, as Ye shamelessly flirt;
Wouldn’t Radha’s poor heart be deeply hurt?
Krishna – played by Bhuvan, seemed to have a ready answer to every reproach of Radha as he defended his actions and censured his partner for being overly suspicious. He cavorted around her elegantly, tapping his wooden sticks against those of hers and singing –
A dose of trust, of which thy heart is bereft;
To heal, crafted by qualm, that grotesque cleft;
’Tis Radha’s thoughts that lights Kris’ daily murk;
Oh, why does then suspicion, in her yet lurk?
When Gauri swiveled round doing one of the methodical dancing movements, she spied Elizabeth seated with the Mukhiya on one side and Bhuvan’s mother Yashoda on the other. This only infuriated her further and she let out her anger at the gyrating Bhuvan in the following manner -
For others, thine limbs and looks excitedly prance;
For Radha is reserved only a cursory glance;
Woe to thee Kris, as Ye shamelessly flirt;
Wouldn’t Radha’s poor heart be deeply hurt?
Bhuvan realized the cause of this outburst following the direction of her gaze and tried to assuage her resentment with words that he truly felt -
The senses savor many a sumptuous treat;
Only thou rulest mine heart, beat by beat;
Tis Radha’s thoughts that lights Kris’ daily murk;
Oh, why does then suspicion, in her yet lurk?
Gauri was still not convinced about Bhuvan’s sincerity and let go a final salvo of allegations. Her spiraling multi-colored skirt seemed to mimic her overflowing emotions, as her voice delivered the incriminatory verses -
Innumerable epaulettes are showered on thee;
Unaware of thy indulgence in every amorous spree;
Woe to thee Kris, as Ye shamelessly flirt;
Wouldn’t Radha’s poor heart be deeply hurt?
Bhuvan was at a loss to figure out how to persuade Gauri and prove to her the truth about his fidelity. Nothing that he had said so far seemed to have made her see reason. Leaving all in the hands of destiny and hoping that his final attempt may perhaps prove successful, he resignedly recited the last of his verses -
Thy insinuations, the truth, utterly fail to meet;
The world’s aware, my tributes, I lay at thy feet;
Tis Radha’s thoughts that lights Kris’ daily murk;
Oh, why does then suspicion, in her yet lurk?
There was great applause from the gathering as the opening dandia dance concluded. While the first set of dancers retired for a break, another group took their place and the revelry continued.
Bhuvan went seeking for Gauri, wanting to talk to her, but she had melted away into the crowd and was not to be seen.
Dwarakadas made his way towards his hut after having sat through the opening sequence of the dancing marathon that was to continue into the wee hours of the next morning. He was at an age where too much of noise upset his body functions. By disposition also, he was the restrained and gentle kind, which did not agree very well with boisterousness that was the hallmark of revelry.
His sleep having been already disturbed, he decided to spend a while lounging on the hilltop gazing at the star-filled firmament – a favorite nocturnal pastime that gave him a sense of being one with the universe. As he lay there, he relived that past hour, marveling at the frailty of the all-powerful human mind, which despite nature having endowed with all necessary means of appreciation, discrimination, and determination, still needed a God as a prop to judge its dealings and Godhead as yet another prop to which it elevated a being from humankind, to compare and grade its own thoughts and actions to the legends and myths that it associated with such a person.
He did not know when he crossed that unmarked boundary between wakefulness and sleep for it was here that an exhausted Baga found his father deep in slumber when he returned home after the nightlong celebrations.
After all, every happening is essentially a state of mind. It is festive time if the mind comprehends agreeability in its environs – an overabundance of all that is pleasing to the senses. Going by this definition, the celebratory occasion for Kachra was on the following day.
While the village slept, he went about cleaning the mess left behind by the revelers and in the process chanced to frequently come across half-eaten savories, which were a once-a-year treat for him. He had no God to judge his actions nor anyone of his kind elevated to Godhead with whose legendary doings he could compare his own. Gods were for humans.
Was he one? Or was he better…
End of Chapter 5