A Surge Of Time (Chapter 6)

Updated on January 27, 2018

An un-imagined emancipation


With the scheduled day for the match drawing closer, Lakha’s outlook seemed to be getting narrow, and narrower. And that day it whittled down to it’s narrowest. Though he had resolved to have to do nothing with the preparations for the game nor with the match itself, the thought that Gauri would be close to Bhuvan all day long – that too with the consent of her father, drew him repeatedly to the practice ground and made him conceal himself behind boulders on the periphery to watch the proceedings.

If Gauri stole a glance at Bhuvan, it would rip his heart. If she applauded his effort on the field, it would bludgeon it. If she fetched a glass of water for him, it would cause the blood in his system to gush forth to his head, blinding him. Things seemed to be getting out of hand. He had to act now or else all will be lost.

And act he did.


A waxing near-full-moon lighted up the sky that night. With dwindling resources, the villagers had begun to retire progressively earlier, which helped them in curtailing consumption, particularly to conserve oil for lighting lamps.

As the village sank into inaction, a shadow stirred and cautiously followed the body that cast it, which was shrouded in a thick blanket from the head down to the ankle. At a perceived movement or sound, both body and shadow would merge into the darkness behind a tree, hut, our mound, only to re-emerge and continue determinedly towards their chosen direction.

Once outside the village precincts, body and shadow moved with speed, purpose, and much less vigilance, arriving outside the gates of the Raigadh cantonment.

“Who goes there? Stop and reveal yourself our I will shoot!” shouted one of the sentries at the gate.

Lakha let slip the blanket from his head to fold up on his shoulders so that his face was revealed to the sentry in the light of the burning torches that hung from the gate pillars.

“I am from the village of Champaner and I have an urgent message for the Captain Sahib. Let me in.” said Lakha.

“Ah,” said the sentry, “Everyone coming here does so with urgent work. This is no time to disturb the commandant. Anyway, you do not look like someone to whom the Captain would assign any important work. Run along, man, before I get angry.”

The fire of envy and retribution burnt too strongly in Lakha to be so easily dissuaded.

“I warn you,” he said to the sentry, “If you do not let me in now, I will anyway meet the Captain Sahib when he is on his rounds tomorrow and if he asks me about the reason for the delay in conveying my news to him, I will have no regret in reporting you to be that cause. You know his anger, so decide for yourself.”

There could not have been a more effective and potent threat and the gates opened rapidly, as if by magic.

The sentry closed the gate and secured it after admitting Lakha and chaperoned him to the commandant’s office. Russell was sitting at his work-desk talking to Lieutenant Brooks.

“Sir, this man says that he has something urgent to tell you,” said the sentry wondering whether he was going to be yelled at for this intrusion.

Surprisingly, Russell was unlike his normal self when he turned to look at them and replied, “All right, let him in.”

The sentry hesitated at the door for a few moments, hoping to see the man dismissed immediately so that he could have his pound of flesh for having threatened him. A sharp look from Russell however sent him scurrying back towards the gate.

“Now, what is it?” queried the commandant.

“My Lord! Those villagers have joined Bhuvan and have formed a team to play the cricket match with you. They practice everyday. A man from outside our village who says that he had been with your army a long time ago has also joined them and stays in our village. He says that he knows the game too. They practice every day, my Lord! I have come all the way unseen by them to report these developments to you.”

He had said all this without pausing for breath that resulted in him having a fit of cough. Russell looked at him quizzically for a while.

For quite a while in fact, that made Lakha squirm, wondering whether he had done the right thing in taking this step. The Captain’s mind in the meanwhile was going through the possible consequences of these developments. Though he resented the way Colonel Boyer had treated him the other day and would have liked to forget that meeting all together, his superior’s words rang loudly in his ears, “Never underestimate your adversary. That is the first lesson that a military man is taught.”

Perhaps he had indeed underestimated the villagers. He was still very confident that they would not be able to win the match. Yet the report that they were putting in much effort in preparation, indicated a possible threat. He told himself that he will be more prudent this time and would do something to neutralize this risk and an idea struck him at that instant.

‘Why should he not use this man as a pawn towards this end? Yes, that is what he should do.’

Unable to comprehend the reason for his superior’s long silence, Lieutenant Brooks interrupted his thoughts saying, “Sir, shall I have this man sent away after being given a few lashes for his audacity in coming here?”

A smile suddenly played on Russell’s face. “No, Brooks. He is a good man, at least as long as he is useful to us.”

Then turning to the nervous looking native, he asked in a friendly voice in the native dialect, “What is your name, and why do you want to help us?”

Lakha gulped.

He did not know what to make of the friendly stance of this white man. “My name is Lakhan, my Lord. They call me Lakha. I want to see that upstart Bhuvan defeated.”

‘Aha! The very weapon that I need,’ thought Russell and asked aloud of the anxious man fidgeting with the turban in his hand, “What is your enmity with Bhuvan?”

Lakha debated whether he should spill the whole story. But something in him cautioned strongly against dragging the name of Gauri into this. He regarded Gauri too deeply and would not compromise her safety in any way. His enmity was with Bhuvan alone. In a faltering voice he said, “It may be said that my victory is in Bhuvan’s defeat, my Lord.”

“So be it,” said the commandant patting the native on the back, “I will reward you for your services after the match. In the meanwhile, I have some work for you. You will join Bhuvan as one of his team and report every development there to me regularly. Can you do this for me?”

Lakha was aghast, “My Lord, how can I join Bhuvan? He is my enemy!”

Russell could never tolerate his commands being questioned by subordinates and here was an unlettered fool of a native answering back.

The put-on charade of friendliness began to wear away rapidly and he barked in a threatening voice, “Do as I say or you will rue your decision of coming here, is that clear!”

“Yes, my Lord. I will do it… I will certainly do it,” stammered Lakha and bowing low to the commandant retreated quickly out of the office and made his way back to the village as fast as his legs would take him.

.


He could not sleep that night. Anticipatory illusions made his eyes observe many a happy sight with himself as the principle protagonist. Bhuvan’s team would lose the match and he would be standing beside the white lord laughing at Bhuvan’s disgrace and discomfiture. He would pray to the white lord to maintain the rate of tax to be paid at the previous year’s level, in return for his services. The villagers would be beholden to him for this benefit that he would bestow upon them.

Gauri would come to him, hailing him as the savior of Champaner. Perhaps, he could extract the same deal that he bargained for Champaner, for the other villages of the kingdom too, which would make him the hero of Raigadh.

That would make King Puran Singh redundant. May be the white lord would make him the king instead. No doubt, he would only be a nominal king, yet it would be miles away and ahead of being only Lakha. And that beautiful white lady. Once he was made king…

The train of thoughts abruptly and jarringly halted and the darkness of the night flooded his vision. He had forgotten to mention to the commandant about the white woman who came escorted by Ram Singh everyday to help Bhuvan and his men.

No matter, he told himself. He would first make good his promise of infiltrating Bhuvan’s team and becoming a mole. When the time was opportune to meet the white lord again to report further developments, he would mention this matter too.

.


The next day at dusk when the cricketers sat discussing strategies, they were surprised to see Lakha come to them, shorn of his usual recalcitrant manner and in all humility seek admission into the team.

They were still a pair short of the required eleven and no villager had yet volunteered for those two places. But none of them were comfortable with this man and his sudden turnabout. Deva shrugged his shoulders and looked away, indicating that he had nothing to say in the matter. He was a guest at the village and did not want to air his opinion about anyone there.

Gurran let go one of his typical one-worder that could mean quite a few things, “Dubious,” he growled, and no further.

Ishwar sat staring at the ground. He was tired. Being older than the rest of the group, his body needed a much longer time to recoup after each strenuous day. However, hiding behind his tiredness was his feeling of guilt. There had been a time not long ago when he had attempted to use Lakha as a counter to his daughter Gauri’s leaning towards Bhuvan. The events of the weeks gone by had significantly altered his impression of Bhuvan and he sincerely wished that the affection that this boy and his daughter bore for each other would culminate in matrimony.

Tipu was too young to be consulted on such matters. Had he said anything, it would have been considered impertinence. Tipu had been the closest to Lakha but the latter’s reluctance in joining a common cause and his open animosity to Bhuvan and all those associated with him cast a shadow on the esteem that he had for his former close friend.

Goli said very little generally. In such a situation, even sustained goading wouldn’t have extracted a consistent opinion. Bhura was itching to cackle away. The solemnity of the circumstance demanded that he begin his incoherent banter only if asked, but no one asked him, not wanting to disturb this solemnity.

Though Baga was mute, his facial expression spoke more eloquently than words could ever have, about his dislike for Lakha.

Arjan never formed any opinion on anybody. He would judge a person depending on the circumstances of the moment and going by the present instant, he truly had no opinion.

That left only Ismail and Bhuvan. Ismail opined aloud, “I cannot fault him for being skeptical so long, because I was so myself at the beginning. We will leave it to Bhuvan to decide. If he deems it proper, let Lakha be admitted. If he be unconvinced...” he let his voice trail away.

Bhuvan called Dwarakadas’ words of wisdom to his aid.

“Every thought and action is essentially selfish,” the old man had said.

Why would Lakha do a turnabout unless there is something in it for him? The only reason that he could imagine was that having observed their progress with time and the fact that most of the villagers were with them, the man did not want to be isolated. It is one thing to be able to recall words of wisdom and quite another to be able to apply them to a situation and figure out various possibilities in its light. The latter exercise demands experience, something that Bhuvan lacked, having seen but twenty summers.

There is of course the phenomenon of revelations when an idea is exposed even though there is a paucity of both wisdom and experience. But such instances are few and far between. Bhuvan, therefore, by no stretch of his imagination could fathom the real intent of Lakha. He was however sure of one thing. With the villagers and particularly the Mukhiya having endorsed his stand and the consequent enterprise, they had nothing to lose, whatever may have been the man’s purpose.

Having made his decision to admit Lakha in principle, Bhuvan wanted to test his sincerity of purpose and degree of commitment.

“We have been practicing so long and you will lag behind. How do you propose to bridge this gap?” he asked.

“I play gilli-danda well. You know that. Adapting my skills to this game will not be very difficult,” replied Lakha.

“We have been also building up our physique and stamina under the guidance of Deva. You have missed out on all that. Can you prove to us that your body can withstand the rigors of prolonged training?” ventured Bhuvan.

“Sure! What do you want me to do?”

“We run up and down the stairway four times each day at the end of our workout. Can you do this seven times at a stretch without resting?”

“All right, just now?” asked Lakha.

“Yes, right away!” exclaimed Bhuvan.

Girding up his dhoti, the man who intended to be a mole rushed towards the temple stairway and began his endurance test. The first two cycles were easily manageable. The third saw him a little out of breath. He was badly panting at the fourth and beyond. It was a difficult proposition even for one regularly accustomed to it and Lakha was not. The sixth saw him staggering, it was his hatred for Bhuvan and the illusion of finding favor with the white lord and its possible agreeable aftermath, that provided the power to stay on his feet and scale the height that appeared to be becoming steeper each time.

Gauri, who had been watching all this, half concealed behind a tree, came to Bhuvan and confided her misgivings about Lakha’s real intentions.

“Did you watch his eyes? They never met yours while he was entreating you to let him be part of the group. He surely is up to some mischief. Do not include him,” she advised.

“I too have my reservations, Gauri. But we should give him a chance. If he proves insincere, he may harm our cause a little but he would hurt himself much more in the process. We have nothing to fear,” replied Bhuvan.

It was a thoroughly perspiring, gasping, and worn-out Lakha who folded up and collapsed at the foot of the stairway after having completed the task set for him. Bhuvan walked up to the miserable man and placing his hand on his trembling shoulder said, “All right, you have passed the test and are admitted into the team. Join us at the workout tomorrow morning.”

The mole slowly lifted his head and a smile stole over his countenance. Others misrepresented this to be one of thankfulness but it was in reality one of depraved satisfaction at having accomplished his nefarious design.

The next morning however, there was no augmentation in the numbers of the group. They were still ten, including the boy Tipu and there was no sign of the latest recruit. Bhuvan sent the boy along to ascertain his whereabouts. It came to be known that Lakha had hobbled home the previous evening to hit the bed and had not awoken yet. The exertion of the previous evening had laid him low. It was the same story that met them when Tipu made another sortie in the afternoon prior to the group’s practice session. The members almost felt sorry for the stricken man and hoped that the following day would see him fit and vigorous.

That night, it was a waning moon that witnessed the shadow and its shrouded creator sneak away as the village prepared to retire. The success of the previous day had made the duo lower their guard considerably, which only underscored their immaturity in matters of espionage and surveillance. There was less of an inclination to seek the cover of shadows to ensure concealment, which led to its inevitable consequence.

Gurran had gone visiting Shambhu kaka for a late evening conversation. As they reclined on the hut wall with their legs stretched, they observed a dark silhouette emerge from Hari’s hut, look around surreptitiously, and then hurry along the path leading towards Raigadh. Shambhu kaka’s eyesight was any way poor; the distance and darkness made it difficult for Gurran too to identify who it could be. The two got up and made their way to Hari’s hut to investigate.

“Hari!” called out Gurran.

The woodcutter came out of his hut and on seeing the visitors asked them to be seated on the platform along its front wall and did likewise.

“Where is your son?” queried the old man. “He had been sleeping the whole day and said he would go out for a stroll. Should be back soon, as he hasn’t had his dinner yet,” replied Hari.

“Why would any one go out for a stroll furtively concealed in a blanket? It is all the more intriguing when such a stroll happens to be in the direction of Raigadh,” said Gurran, his voice sounding a bit accusatory, which was not lost on Hari.

It had been difficult for him all this while with his son defying the collective mood of the villagers. It was even harder because he too agreed with the villagers and particularly with Bhuvan and yet could not say so openly for fear of hurting his son. He would have liked very much to believe that there was a change of heart in his son yesterday but he knew Lakha well enough to suspect that it was not so.

“Let us wait here for his return and we will together question him,” said the worried father.

“If he has gone where I think he has,” said Gurran, “it will be a long while before he returns and it will be futile waiting. Shambhu kaka needs to rest too. We will be here early in the morning to confront your son.”

The trio dispersed, each engrossed in theorizing the possible ramifications of the stealthy sojourn of the shrouded silhouette.

.


The commandant was not too happy when the man from the village he intended to use as a pawn was announced a second time.

‘What audacity,’ thought Russell. ‘He is here again without my summoning him.’

The man seemed to be harboring hopes of getting into his good books, now that he was working against his own people.

‘Well,’ thought the Captain. ‘The poor chap is in for something nasty. He doesn’t seem to know what Russell thinks of him and his ilk. I’ll employ him till he is useful and then he is in for nothing better than the rest of his kind. The rascal. Imagine him demanding a second audience. Its ‘important’, according to him. Let’s see what it is. And if it isn’t good enough to warrant disturbing me in the middle of the splendid ball, well, the man is not going to see daylight tomorrow.’

This ball that Russell was referring to was the one he had organized for Elizabeth. Differences might have cropped up between the siblings since Elizabeth’s arrival at the cantonment, but the man still loved his sister dearly and wanted to do something that would make her stay at the cantonment memorable.

The idea of the ball had been given to him by Smith. Russell had heartily commended the suggestion, while wondering whether Smith was hoping to be the one to hold Eliza’s hand and dance the night away. He didn’t mind that a bit, in fact, he approved of it.

So, it was a Russell in unusual high spirits who had informed Elizabeth of the ball. She, though not very happy at the prospect of socializing, saw that her brother was eager to make her stay happy and so did not have the heart to tell him that she’d rather spend all that time alone with him.

The house was in an uproar a week before the event with servants running around the house, busy making preparations, shouting at one another, being shouted at all the while by those who were supervising the arrangements and occasionally by Russell and then themselves shouting a little more.

Elizabeth found all this clamor very disturbing and found tranquility in the company of Bhuvan and the others. Every time she saw Bhuvan during that particular week, an image formed, unbidden, in her mind. It included the ball room, her and... She did her best to push it to the back of her head, but failed miserably. She could not; she had to tell someone…

Russell, happily unaware of the turmoil in his sister’s mind, continued with the preparations and on the eve of the ball was at his commanding best, scaring the lives out of everyone to ensure that everything was in place for the following day.

The grand ball commenced at dusk the next day and the biggest hall of the mansion that had been converted into a ballroom for the event, began slowly to be filled with guests, gorgeous in attire, decked up in dazzling jewels, exchanging pleasantries with each other. The room resounded with talk and laughter as festivity reigned.

The orchestra began to play and the guests moved to the dance floor. The Captain, who had never been much of a dancer, watched in pleasure as Smith offered his hand to Elizabeth with a bow and she took it and the pair started to waltz. And without realizing, Russell was humming along, a rare smile on his face, feet tapping to the rhythm of the song.

It was then he was interrupted by Willis who came in to inform him that the man from the village was waiting for him outside his study.


Lakha bowed as the commandant approached him. Russell threw him a disparaging look before motioning for the man to follow him into the room.

“What is it this time?” asked he. “It had better be something useful...” he left it at that but the intended threat was not lost upon Lakha.

“It is sahib,” the man sounded quite confident but a little hesitant. “It’s about …” Lakha had been preparing himself for this the whole day, having refused to join the other team members during the workout first and then the practice.

He had lain in bed, rehearsing the words he had to tell the Captain in his mind over and over again, before doubt and dread came over and he resolved to abandon the plan. He was fearful of the commandant not taking the news of the white lady’s betrayal calmly. What if he refused to believe Lakha and decided to punish him for what he thought to be cheek on his part? His blind anger and hatred and the will to do something prevailed over his prudence and he made up his mind to go ahead with it.

“It is... there is something, sahib, that...”

“Make it quick or you will have hell to pay,” Russell sounded impatient.

Lakha knew that the time for inhibitions had long gone past and he said - eyes closed in prayer, “I had forgotten to mention something the last time, Captain sahib, in my eagerness to be useful. There is a white lady who is helping them understand the game and also teaching them to play it.”

Lakha fully expected Russell to shout at him but there was silence. He opened his eyes just as the door of the study opened and Smith walked in, looking from the stunned expression on the Captain’s face and the hesitant, but triumphant look of the villager.

“What is this about, Captain?” Smith ventured to enquire.

“This man here says that a white lady has been helping the villagers learn the game of cricket.” Russell’s voice was devoid of any emotion, which made it difficult for both Lakha and Smith to determine what the commandant thought about it.

Smith frowned. The Captain seemed to be sparing thought for something he himself thought preposterous.

“But that is impossible, Captain. Who would do that?”

‘Who would?’ wondered Russell.

He would have, under any other circumstance, refused to believe Lakha’s words outright but his meeting with the Colonel had sobered his pride a bit and opened his eyes enough to consider what the man was saying, however outrageous, in serious light. Besides, he thought he had an inkling about who it could be. No one else had raised a voice against his decision...

He had to make sure, though. He looked at the waiting man, trembling in anticipation and said sharply, “Are you sure?”

“Yes, sahib.” The man flinched but there was conviction in his voice.

“All right, what did you say your name was?”

“Lakha, sahib.”

“Yes, Lakha. Can you identify the lady who has been helping the team?”

Lakha looked relieved that the commandant had taken him seriously, as he answered, “Of course, sahib. I have been observing them play for quite a long time now.”

“Good. Now, come here.” He beckoned to Lakha to follow him and as Smith gazed at them in astonishment, opened the door by a crack and asked Lakha to peep out.

The ball was in full flow and Elizabeth was dancing with Lieutenant Brooks who had taken over when Smith had left to follow the commandant. The pair occupied the central portion of the dance floor and Lakha had no difficulty in identifying her.

“There, sahib!” he exclaimed. “There in the middle of the whole group.”

Russell, though prepared for the shock, found it difficult to accept that it really was his sister. “Eliza, no!” he moaned.

Smith, who could not believe it, pulled Lakha back roughly and asked, “Are you sure about this, man?”

“As sure as Bhuvan is my enemy, sahib.”

“Captain,…” began Smith but Russell raised his hand.

“You have done well, Lakha. Go now, and continue informing me about every new development.”

Lakha bowed and left the room. Smith looked as though he wanted to say something but Russell overrode him again, as he said, “I know what to do, Lieutenant. You may rejoin the ball. And while you are at it, could you please inform my sister that I will be waiting for her on the terrace and that she would do well to come there immediately.”

All this was uttered with such an eerie calm that Smith shuddered as he left the room with a, “As you please, Captain.”

He thought he felt sorry for Elizabeth, despite her betrayal – he was thankful that it wasn’t he who was going to walk up to the terrace and face Russell.

.


Elizabeth briefly paused in her ascent to savor the sight of the stars that were glimmering in the clear, black night sky. As she continued on her way, she wondered what Andrew could want from her.

Lieutenant Smith, after having left her to follow her brother who had mysteriously disappeared into his study, had come back and informed her, with a not too friendly smile that the Captain wished to see her immediately and that he was, at the moment, waiting for her on the terrace.

Elizabeth was not complaining. This was the first time that Andrew had, since her arrival, expressed his desire to speak with her. This was the first opportunity she would get to be alone with him. There were many things that she wanted to talk to him about. The girl also realized that wanting to talk was one thing and actually doing so was quite another. It was the latter that she had never been able to do all through her life; Andrew’s domineering nature had made sure of that.

But Elizabeth felt that the time for it had come and that if she did not do it now, she would never be able to do it again.

Immersed in her thoughts, she did not realize that she had made her way to the highest level of the mansion before the pleasant breeze of the night startled her into reality. She fortified herself for the argument that was sure to follow, upon her broaching the subject of his premeditated malice. She prayed to god to give her strength to face her brother.

An argument did crop up that night between the siblings, but it was for a reason quite different from what Elizabeth intended and one totally unexpected.

Russell was pacing the terrace in anger, one question repeatedly ringing in his head – How? How could Eliza do this? How could she even think of joining hands with his enemies? The only person he cared for, the only person for whom he felt any affection – a back stabber? Working with his rivals, plotting his own downfall?

He could not bear it. Russell’s mind and heart was too steeped in feelings of spite, hatred, and ill will to try and fathom the motive behind Elizabeth’s actions. The thought of it only incensed him.

“No, Eliza. Absolutely not. I cannot allow you to hinder me,” he said aloud.

At the sound of approaching footsteps, he turned to see his sister walking up to him.

‘It is time,’ he thought, ‘that my little sister knows where it is that her loyalties are.’

It would have hurt the poor girl to know that it was his defeat that bothered him more than his sister’s deed. Elizabeth, thankfully oblivious of it, approached her brother with a smile. He smiled back. It did not seem very genuine to her and she was immediately on guard.

“I am sorry that I disturbed you, Eliza. I am sure you were enjoying yourself on the dance-floor.”

The girl merely inclined her head.

Russell continued, “I hope you are enjoying your stay over here?”

“Oh, yes,” replied Elizabeth, careful about what she uttered. She didn’t have a very nice feeling about the direction the interrogation was going. “I am glad that I came to visit you, Andrew. Life at the cantonment has been a new experience for me. And the place is quite beautiful too. The fields, the forests, the...”

“Villagers?” Russell interjected.

Elizabeth looked up in alarm and knew instantly that doing so was a mistake. Russell had read it on her visage. But she tried to salvage the situation.

“Villagers?” she asked, innocently. “I haven’t met any villagers…”

“You bloody well have,” exploded Russell with such intensity that a stunned Elizabeth had to take a few steps backwards.

He caught her hand in his iron grip and pulled her closer. She winced in pain but her brother, mindless of it continued to bombard her with allegations of being a turncoat, a traitor.

“I can’t believe it. You? My own sister? Plotting against me? Are you telling me that you would see me defeated for the sake of those villagers? What were you thinking of when you decided to help them? You have been very insensitive, Eliza.”

“I have, on the contrary, been very thoughtful and just, Andrew.” He looked shocked at his sister’s outspokenness and his grasp on her hand loosened. “I am not a child anymore, if you haven’t realized it yet, and I am entitled to my own opinions. And in mine, what you have done to those innocent and helpless people is cruel and absolutely unjust. I don’t know whether your conscience allows you to do such a thing, but mine will not let me see this brutality being carried out.”

The anguish in her heart forced tears to well up in her eyes. This was her brother standing in front of her, and yet she wished it wasn’t.

‘Oh, what have you become, Andrew?’ she thought. ‘I had hoped that you actually weren’t what you portrayed yourself to be or what the world saw you to be. But now I realize that it was a fool’s hope. The hope of a foolish sister for her brother. I am sorry Andrew. I certainly can’t see any sense or justice in what you are doing and if you can’t see reason in my deeds, then I am sorry, brother, but we part ways, right here.’

Elizabeth felt better, now that her mind was made up. Making such a choice hadn’t been easy; it was the most bitter decision of her life. But she felt it was time for it.

Taking a calming breath and hoping that her strength would sustain her through the ordeal, she addressed her brother, “I won’t give up what I am doing, Andrew. I am sorry, if it hurts you,” which she very much doubted, “but I absolutely won’t.”

Russell wondered whether it really was Eliza, his quiet, introvert and obedient sister, who was talking thus.

“Well,” he said. “If that is your decision, then hear mine too. You are, from this moment, forbidden from stepping out of the gates of the cantonment.” She started to argue but he cut her off. “That is final. And if I ever get to know that you have disobeyed...”

He left without a backward glance, but the girl stayed on, letting all her agony pour forth as tears. She looked up beseechingly at the dark heavens and the stars dotting them. The velvety sky, with its twinkling spots of light, failed for the first time, to pacify Elizabeth.

What could, in that moment of grief?



Gurran was at Shambhu kaka’s well before daybreak. He wanted this matter of a possible treachery resolved at the earliest but could not gather sufficient courage to go alone and question Lakha in front of his poor father. He thought the presence of Shambhu kaka would somehow temper the tension of the moment and help keep the confrontation from going out of hand. As dawn began to break over the stirring village, Gurran and Shambhu kaka were at Hari’s door yet again.

The sound of an axe repeatedly striking wood indicated that either the father or the son was busy making fagots for the hearth. A knock on the door brought an immediate response in the form of Lakha.

“Oh! I was on my way to join you all. Sorry about yesterday. You know how it was the day before. I slept the whole day,” said Lakha on perceiving Gurran.

“You did not however, sleep the whole night I am sure,” returned Shambhu kaka.

The mole was instantly alert and on the defensive. His eyes became shifty. “I did tell father that I was going out for a stroll. There is nothing wrong in doing that is there?” stammered the young man.

“There is my son, if the stroll is taken covertly, covered in a blanket and for such a long period of time that it can no more be called a stroll,” said a voice behind him.

Hari, hearing voices at the door had come quickly, interrupting his work. He had noted the long absence of his son during the preceding night and the stealthy manner in which he had returned.

“Father, you too suspect me!” exclaimed Lakha.

“Yes, my son, for your own good. If you are doing something more than what you profess to, then please don’t. You will only bring shame upon our house, which is still reeling under the infamy of your mother’s deed.”

The pain and anguish in the man’s voice when he said this deeply moved the hearts of the visitors. Their eyes met for a brief moment communicating the unsaid thought of not subjecting the wayward son to further questioning, which would only pile further agony upon the father.

Shambhu kaka however deemed it proper, being the eldest in the village, to bestow a bit of good sense on the youngster appearing to go astray under the influence of anger, envy, avarice, and possibly passion.

“Son,” said the old man, “whatever that you may do, do not make your father’s head hang down in disgrace. He has suffered enough and so have you. The village has come together now as never before. You are certainly entitled to have your own views and convictions, which may be at variance with the rest of us. If it is so, then be open about it. Make sure that your position is one that is born out of practical logic. If the villagers in their current mood were to ever suspect that you have been a back-stabber, then heaven save you. You are one of us Lakha and we can only wish you well. Do not let us down in this hour of trial.”

The old man’s frankness and good will made a deep impression on both father and son. Hari was particularly grateful to him and Gurran for having decided not to interrogate or confront Lakha that might have only vitiated the tranquility of the morning.

The feeling of solidarity with his people and the sense of responsibility towards them, which lay dormant and buried deep in the young man’s heart, began to awaken and lock horns with the baser emotions that had led him to this self-destructive path. The exalted sentiments were as yet not strong enough to gain an upper hand.



It was a dark and cloudless night. The stars were twinkling and bright. The setting was just right. For a somber and thoughtful delight. What more could Gurran ask for, as he proceeded to strum his Ektara, stretched under the Peepal tree with Deva for company.

Shambhu kaka’s advice to Lakha had made a deep impression on him as well. How wonderfully charming a reprimand it was that he had come up with. It was both hard-hitting and soothing. Quietly threatening and considerately cajoling. Gurran’s irrepressible admiration welled up as a poignant set of musical verse -

Hark to the wandering minstrel’s call;

Human failings, they do appall;

From immemorial time have seen man fall;

In spite of his wisdom and wherewithal.

With all means is nature endowed;

Upon us, in turn, are its fruits bestowed;

Yet we forsake this inexhaustible bliss

When possessed we are by mindless avarice.

Gurran's fingers continued plucking the string of his instrument to keep the tempo going while he took a deep breath before rejoining the flow -

Hark to the wandering minstrel’s call;

Human failings, they do appall;

From immemorial time have seen man fall;

In spite of his wisdom and wherewithal.

We let unbridled anger, our eyes cloud;

Bury ourselves in an impregnable shroud;

Believe that we hurt others with our blazing fury;

That this is a myth, to prove, it needs no jury.

The sudden call of a partridge from the woods nearby that almost matched the rhythm of Gurran's strumming, made him pause for moment. As the call petered away into the darkness, he resumed -

Hark to the wandering minstrel’s call;

Human failings, they do appall;

From immemorial time have seen man fall;

In spite of his wisdom and wherewithal.

Perceived accomplishments make our pride swell;

For happiness, they also sound the death knell;

When realized, every instant to be fate’s imprint;

Every rise by a blessing, every fall by a dint.

A mellow breeze carried these meaningful, evocative, and melodic words to the tremulous leaves, to the swaying branches, to the inflexible rocks, to the silent earth, to the fickle fowl, to the placid bovine, to the sapient humans and their naive children... and all seemed to imbibe its import in their own little ways.



She looked around before taking another step. Her hands that clutched a small box in leather casing, trembled slightly. Satisfied that no one was watching her, she continued to make her stealthy way through the thick undergrowth of the forest floor. Ram Singh had clearly told her the location of the glade where he would meet her and she reached it just as he had finished saddling her horse.

“Thank you, Ram Singh,” said Elizabeth, as he helped her onto the steed. “I don’t know what I would have done without you.” He bowed as she smiled and rode off.

“It is my pleasure, memsahib,” said Ram Singh as the speeding horse and rider became a mere speck in the horizon.

He shook his head in sorrow. Elizabeth had called for him the previous night and the attendant, expecting the regular orders of having the carriage and horses ready by ten o’ clock the next morning, received a shock when he found Elizabeth in a very pensive mood, her beautiful face tear-stained and eyes red with weeping.

As soon as he entered, she addressed him, “Why, Ram Singh? Why is it that the people closest to us cause us suffering? And why is it that we continue to love them and feel sad about it?”

Ram Singh did not know what to say and Elizabeth spared him the trouble of doing so. She narrated to her only true friend at the cantonment, about the face-off between the Captain and herself. Ram Singh felt very sorry for the kind-hearted Elizabeth.

At the same time, he was surprised that the news of his sister’s helping hand had reached the Captain. He wondered how it could have happened. It certainly wouldn’t have been someone from the cantonment – he too would have been at the receiving end of the commandant’s fury. But if that was the case, then it could mean only one thing – it was someone from the village.

Ram Singh shuddered at this thought. A hidden enemy among one’s own ranks is more dangerous than an open adversary is. But Ram Singh didn’t think he could do anything in the matter except pray for the best. He of course, did not confide any of his misgivings to Elizabeth, but told her of a plan that would ensure her leaving the cantonment without anyone knowing about it.

“But, memsahib, are you sure you want to continue going to the village? If the Captain gets wind of the fact that you have disobeyed him…”

“No, Ram Singh. I am determined. In fact, I have a surprise for them. I will stay with Bhuvan...” Ram Singh started, “... and the others,” Elizabeth added hastily, “till the very end.”

“Very good, memsahib,” replied Ram Singh, another worry nagging at his mind.

The sound of a galloping horse alarmed the practicing players and those who were watching the proceedings. They all stood still and waited with bated breath for the approaching horse and rider to come into sight. Who could it be? The commandant or one of his messengers?

It was neither, as they found out when Elizabeth came riding into the play area. Lakha was shocked to see her. He thought that he had ensured she would never more help the team but here she was again.

‘Well,’ he thought as he too joined the group that was crowding around Elizabeth, ‘I have to do something about this.’

Elizabeth smiled at them all, as she saw that the case in her hand hadn’t gone unnoticed by the team. The small boy was especially excited.

“I have something for you,” she said, causing Tipu to stand on tiptoes for a better look at the possible treasure that Elizabeth was holding in her hands.

Without further ado, she opened the box and the red, shiny leather of the cricket ball gleamed in the morning sun. There were exclamations of surprise from the crowd. Bhura looked at the red ball in Elizabeth’s hand in disgust. This was the thing that he had picked up when the white men were playing their game, only to be hit by one of them, though it hadn’t been that shiny then. But he pushed his thoughts to the back of his mind and listened carefully to Elizabeth who was, with some assistance from Deva, explaining to the players about the ball and the various ways in which it could be used.

“You will now play with this,” said Elizabeth when she finished and handed the ball to Bhuvan, who felt it with his hands and passed it around to the rest of his excited team.

“All right, let us begin play,” called Bhuvan. “Deva you start bowling with the new ball, the others can learn by watching. Ishwar kaka, please take strike. The rest of us will spread around.”

“No one is going to do anything before eating something,” said a commanding voice behind Bhuvan.

He turned around to see Gauri holding the basket, which contained their meal. He grinned at the stern expression on her face and said, “No, Gauri, we will play a little and then eat. Besides, memsahib can’t wait that long.”

He turned to Elizabeth, who smiled and nodded. Gauri looked angry and wanted Bhuvan to notice it, but he was too busy discussing the field positions with his memsahib. She walked away in annoyance, muttering under her breath. The play commenced with Elizabeth as the umpire.

Gauri sat with Jigni at the periphery of the playing area, muttering and grunting continuously. “Please, Gauri. Stop sniveling. Why don’t you try stopping them again? Bhuvan can’t ignore you for ever.”

“Who knows,” said Gauri, but stood up nonetheless. “No more play until you all have something to eat,” she called again and was glad that Bhuvan nodded in acquiescence and said bowing, “As you wish.”

‘Take that memsahib,’ thought Gauri triumphantly, as all the eleven players lined up in front of her to receive their share of the packed lunch.

Bhuvan was the last to approach her. Gauri found the knowing smile on his face very disconcerting. She wondered why was it that he continued to be so tactless if he knew it all, knew that she was burning in jealousy from within. She dearly wanted to ask him, but could not muster the courage. She now realized that the ‘trouble’ Gurran had told her about was this white woman who seemed to be doing her best to steal her Bhuvan. Gauri recognized that she needed to do something about it, and soon.

‘But what?’ thought the girl as the man for whom her heart ached so, came up to her and held out his hand.

She made a face and was about to hand his meal when Elizabeth came up to them and said, “Bhuvan, there is something important that I want to talk to you about.”

“Yes, memsahib,” replied the young man, his attention now completely focused upon Elizabeth.

Gauri looked in exasperation from one to the other.

“Could we...” Elizabeth looked uncomfortable, but Bhuvan nodded and started to move away.

“Bye, Gauri.” Elizabeth sounded almost apologetic.

Gauri’s heart could no longer bear it. She threw down the basket that contained the lunch and made her silent but weeping way to the bullock cart that was waiting at the edge of the field. Jigni, who was fondly watching Baga eat, noticed the despondency in Gauri’s gait. She looked around for Bhuvan and found him walking with the white lady. Shaking her head and muttering about insensitive men, she followed Gauri and intercepted her path before the latter reached the cart.

“Oh, Jigni. What can I do? Look at him, so happy in her company. He hardly cares for me and when she is around, he totally forgets me. Oh, Oh!” hiccoughed the miserable girl.

Jigni patted her on her back and said, “Everything will be all right. You just wait. He will one day have to own up.”

“I hope so,” said Gauri, as she sat in the cart with her back to the playing area.

“Bhuvan, I can not come to see you people so often now. But I am sure you can practice on your own. The team is just one player short and I am certain the eleventh will soon turn up. The team is also progressing very well.”

Elizabeth was just trying to find reasons to prolong her talk.

“All this was only possible because of your help, memsahib.” Bhuvan said, and he meant it.

If it hadn’t been for this kind young lady, who, without any apparent motive, was doing so much for a bunch of complete strangers - strangers who were also looked down upon by her people - the team would, by no means, have been as confident as they were now. He never thought he would come to respect and like a white as he did the memsahib.

This brought a smile on his face, the warmth of which emboldened Elizabeth to speak further. “Oh no, Bhuvan. I did nothing. The fact that such a good team is shaping up is all because of you. It’s because you are a good, dedicated, and hard-working man.”

She could not stop herself now.

She had to go on. “You know, I did not have any friends till now, until I met you. And... well, I have to tell you something else too...”

“Yes, memsahib.” Bhuvan looked concerned at the apparent discomfort of Elizabeth.

The latter reverted to her native tongue to complete her unfinished sentence. “I have to tell you this, Bhuvan. I can’t keep it to myself any more. I don’t know whether it is right or not. Or even whether it is possible.”

He cut across her delirious utterances, “Memsahib, you know I don’t understand English.”

Elizabeth shook her head, tears welling up in her eyes and yet continued in English “That is exactly why I am doing this. I am falling in love with you, Bhuvan. I can’t help my feelings towards you. Yes, I have fallen in love with you.”

And, without a backward glance at the confused and upset man, she left in her wake, Elizabeth ran to her horse, mounted it, and rode off.

It was a very thoughtful Bhuvan who made his way back to the playing area. He wondered what it was that the memsahib wanted to tell him and yet could not. He was so drowned in his thoughts that he did not notice the almost empty field. He started when Jigni stood herself in front of him.

“Jigni, where is everyone, where is Gauri?”

“Oh, remembered her now, have you?” said the angry girl.

Bhuvan raised his eyebrows in astonishment.

“Everyone is preparing to walk back to the village. And Gauri is sitting in your cart, waiting for her father to ride her back home.” Jigni scowled at him before adding, “And she is upset and is weeping.”

“What?” Bhuvan, startled at first, realized what could be the cause. His worries for the memsahib were driven away from his mind as he said, “That stupid girl. Now I suppose I have to go and plead and make up with her.”

“High time you did!” Jigni shot back at him.

Bhuvan smiled. “Don’t you worry, Jigni. I know just the thing to do.” And he wended his way to the cart calling as he went, “Oi, Gauri...”


With most villagers taking an active interest in the progress of their team, play equipment began to be made by the more enterprising and enthusiastic among them aided by Elizabeth’s designs. It included spare stumps and balls, pads for the legs, hips, and shoulders, a bat for each team member commensurate with their height, and gloves for the wicket-keeper. There were regular breakages and quick wear-outs considering the intensity of the training and practice, and the stock of items were quickly replenished.

All this equipment was carried to the playground and back each day on Bhuvan’s bullock-cart. Gauri would ride on it carrying food for the group. It was usually her father Ishwar who would drive the cart. He would exempt himself from regular exercises as well, as the walk up the grounds and back, being the eldest of the group and in that period of life where a person is neither middle-aged nor old, where the mind is eager but the body begins to complain.

When Ishwar was about to make his way to the cart for the journey back at dispersal time, Bhuvan came up to him and said, “Ishwar kaka! Would you mind if I drive the cart home today. Gauri is quite cross and upset with me. I need to make up with her.”

“Sure, son,” returned Ishwar with a smile, “And I can see why she is upset. Return her to a pleasant mood if you can. I have been having terrible dinners for the past several days.”

Bhuvan went towards the cart and piled all the equipment into it. Gauri was sitting in the cart in one corner, glum faced.

“Cheer up, lassie!” called out Bhuvan, nudging the bullock to begin the transit.

“My name is, Gauri. Save up all your endearments for the white woman,” shot back the irritable girl.

The dry tear marks on her cheeks indicated that she had been crying lately and they had not escaped the notice of a concerned Bhuvan.

“Why should I, you stupid girl, when it is you who rule my heart?” It was his first candid expression of his affection for the girl camouflaged as a chastisement, and it had the desired effect. Her eyes shone, her countenance was overcome with radiance.

It also brought back her normal playfulness as she said “Oh! Bhuvan lets play housie as the cart plods home. It has been so long and I really miss it. All right, you are my husband and you have just got back home from the fields…”

Bhuvan was overwhelmed looking at this simple and lovable girl and thanked his stars that he should be blessed with a likely life-partner such as her. His boundless joy made him exclaim -

O my dearest winsome lass;

It has now so come to pass;

Despite the caution I lavish,

My heart’s been stolen alas!

Gauri was not found wanting in sustaining the loving humor and romantic tempo as she replied –

O my good, gentle braveheart;

Of a liar, you well play the part;

But I can unmask your every move,

For I am quite adept at this art!

Was it real? Or was it a housie game? Or was it a game that had become real, wondered Bhuvan as he continued –

Long have I endured your ire-filled flaunts;

Your dire accusations; your baseless taunts;

Oft’ have you embarked on pouty jaunts,

When even the thought of mollification daunts.

.

O my dearest winsome lass;

It has now so come to pass;

Despite the caution I lavish,

My heart’s been stolen alas!

Being in love has many flavors. To be drowned in the misery of being sidelined is one. To be complaining about having been sidelined when no longer so, is another. Gauri had tasted the one. Now she took pleasure while tasting the other and heaped tender rebukes upon Bhuvan –

Tears, heartburns have been my staple fare;

To bare my heart I could not dare;

To comfort me you hadn’t a care;

Gallant men are indeed rare.

.

O my good, gentle braveheart;

Of a liar, you well play the part;

But I can unmask your every move,

For I am quite adept at this art!

This was housie! This was real and this was wonderful! The lightness and elation of the moment made Bhuvan continue –

Chivalry, politeness, or such other action,

Pleases one who knows satisfaction;

But when cupidity is one’s declared creed,

Wasteful and of no avail is every deed.

.

O my dearest winsome lass;

It has now so come to pass;

Despite the caution I lavish,

My heart’s been stolen alas!

Gauri was overflowing with happiness and lest someone cast an evil eye upon it as they neared the village, she strove to end their colorful repartee by steering it towards a temporary conclusion saying –

Oh, honey! Let bygones be bygones;

For ourselves and the village a new future dawns;

We will face it, however it may unfold;

With you by my side, I am fearless and bold.

.

O my good, gentle braveheart;

Of a liar, you well play the part;

But I can unmask your every move,

For I am quite adept at this art!

The two happy souls had eyes only for each other, all quarrel, arguments, and bickering forgotten, as the cart meandered its way into the village and stopped by the side of Bhuvan’s hut in the gathering dusk.



While Gauri and Bhuvan basked in the warmth that gushed out from everywhere in love’s land of eternal radiance, Elizabeth ploughed a lonely furrow, in the false hope that she would be successful in raising a wonderful garden rivaling that of Eden. She would fuse cultures, bond traditions, and unite people for Bhuvan. She would demolish distrust, raze reservations, and silence skepticism for Bhuvan. She would resist regulations, defy conventions, and oppose authority for Bhuvan.


In this enchantingly delirious state, induced by her fond feelings for the rustic villager, Elizabeth chirped –

Of glorious blooms, of magnificent flowers;

In anticipation of lively, comforting bowers;

A fertile imagination does the heart plough;

Oh, would anyone deign to tell me, is this love?

.

To raise me from this mire, so morose and glum,

Come riding in would my prince handsome;

A fertile imagination does the heart plough;

Oh, would anyone deign to tell me, is this love?

Falling upon her bed, she felt herself sink into its softness and imagined herself ensconced in Bhuvan's strong and loving arms. Her lips expressed those feelings aloud thus -

Firmly ensconced in his caring embrace

Will I, fearlessly ride out life’s stormy waves;

A fertile imagination does the heart plough;

Oh, would anyone deign to tell me, is this love?

.

Believe I do, that I am on the happiness trail;

Strengthened with his thoughts, is this mind frail;

A fertile imagination does the heart plough;

Oh, would anyone deign to tell me, is this love?

Alone in her room, alone amongst her people in an alien land, alone in life, she believed that she had found that support, holding on to which she would banish loneliness; found a bedrock upon which she would build her castle of happiness.

This budding of emotion and its progression into a blossom was not lost on Ram Singh who was in constant attendance. He realized that it was foredoomed to whither prematurely, destined never to see the light of day. He was neither in a position to advance and sustain its development nor suppress and restrain it. No one could.

His heart grieved for what he was certain to be a disastrous dedication. In his thought, there was no distinction between infatuation and love. These were words devised by human insensitivity condemning a failed emotional bonding as one and deifying a successful one as the other. In his vocabulary there was only nascent and matured love and one led to the other.

Elizabeth’s was a nascent love, which would never lead anywhere.



Time flew by. The weeks that remained to the grudge match began to rapidly wane. The villagers had not yet found their eleventh man. It is not that they had not tried. They had and earnestly.

There had been many apprentices. Some lasted a day or two and quit because they could not stand the rigor. Some had survived a little more and were sent away as they did not possess the necessary agility and dexterity to be a sportsman. The deficient team was desperate. But it is not desperation that solves problems. Time does and it had arrived.

It was the usual practice session, held at the village square that day at the express request of the Mukhiya, who had by now become an ardent fan, as well as a self proclaimed connoisseur of the game. This transformation was both a benefit and a detriment.

A benefit, due to the fact that he was the village Mukhiya and it was always an advantage to have access to and support from high places. A detriment because impractical and incompetent advice from the same high places – though well-meant, would have to be given at least a semblance of being considered and acted upon.

Bhuvan and his team felt that the benefits far outweighed the detriment and so humored the Mukhiya’s indulgence. Not having far to go, quite a few villagers had come to witness the game played with five players to a team, Tipu being the umpire. Also watching the game that day was Kachra from his mound. The ball soon began to fly in all directions; the men knew how to wield the bat well now. Some of them certainly had preferences.

Baga always swung the bat horizontally. He being right handed and if the ball was hit, it always soared towards what Elizabeth called the “On” side. Goli was partial to the area that their English tutor called “Third man,” which her pupils found very intriguing. They had wanted to know from her where the first and the second men were for which she had no convincing answer. Gurran, whose stance was like that of a horse rider with the bat held like a stirrup, could only hit the ball behind him. Setting a field for him was a nightmare.

A hit by Bhuvan landed the ball by Kachra’s mound at which the poor man became suddenly wary and alert. What should he do? Could he pick up the ball and throw it back? Would the villagers consider it an unclean act and he be beaten for it?

He dearly wanted to hold the ball in his hands, touch it, feel it, throw it up, and delight in its pressure on his palm as it fell back from a height. Prudence vanquished inquisitiveness and Kachra began to slink away, as Bhuvan walked towards the mound to retrieve the ball.

Upon spying the cleaner lurking near it and attempting to hide himself from being seen, he called out aloud, “Oi, Kachra, throw the ball back to me!”

Many eyebrows rose. Those of Kachra too, while wondering whether he had heard correctly. Here was a man willing to touch something after he would handle it. Was he serious? Some of those in the crowd who had heard Bhuvan’s call wondered whether this young man was in his senses.

“Come on, Kachra, throw the ball, how long will you keep me standing here?” urged his voice again.

Kachra approached the ball warily, picked it up with his trembling and partially crippled hand, and flung it towards Bhuvan. The ball pitched about three yards ahead of the waiting man and as his hands cupped together and readied themselves to hold it in its anticipated path of motion, they found it swerve sharply and go past.

The faces of both the thrower and the unsuccessful catcher wore quizzical looks, as they looked at one another.

“Oi! What did you do?” shouted Bhuvan running back to fetch the ball while the cripple stood rooted in trepidation. Throwing it at Kachra again he said, “Do that once more.”

“I am sorry! But I did not do anything. Believe me. I swear,” mumbled Kachra incoherently.

A psyche that had been subjected to vituperation all through life found it difficult to comprehend words directed at itself in any other way. By this time, the other players and some from among the spectators had reached the place and stood around Bhuvan. This only added to the Kachra’s consternation.

“You have not done anything wrong. I am not reproaching you for any misconduct. Just do as I say and throw the ball back at me the same way that you did last time.”

Hesitantly, the outcast took the ball in his normal hand and prepared to throw.

“No! Not with this hand, with the other, as you did earlier,” encouraged the cricket captain, seeing a sensational bowler in the making for his team.

Kachra threw, producing a similar result. The ball pitched, spun, and veered away from the crouching fielder. His deformed fingers and hand lent themselves to form a perfect grip and release-action, similar to that of a leg spin bowler.

A wide grin graced Bhuvan’s face as he retrieved the ball once more, walked up to Kachra, put his hand around him, and resting his palm on the latter’s shoulder, declared triumphantly, “We have found our eleventh player. It is him. Kachra!”

There was a stunned silence at this announcement.

The very air appeared to stand still at such a momentous happening. No one in that assembly had ever beheld a scene of this kind before, when someone had stood so near Kachra and what was more astounding – laid a palm upon his shoulder. Some one had touched Kachra!

The poor outcaste himself felt an unknown sensation, never having felt another human’s hand upon himself after his mother had died. It was a potpourri of feelings that pummeled his mind – utter disbelief, untold fear and, unfathomable gratitude. However, in many of those gathered around, it was disgust, revulsion, and loathing that raised its ugly head. The first to vehemently articulate it was the Mukhiya.

“Are you out of your mind, Bhuvan?” he thundered. “Do you know what you have done? Thousands of years of tradition have you broken. Customs that have enriched our lives have you busted. The exalted spirits of our venerable ancestors would be unbearably squirming in heaven. Who has given you the right to so disrespectfully abandon our ways? Kachra is an outcaste and will remain one. He cannot be in our cricket team. If you insist on his inclusion then none of the others will be in it. I have spoken and that is my final word.”

Whether he truly meant and believed in what he said though being suspect, the Mukhiya could never let go of an opportunity to exhibit his power of oration or emphasize his importance and primacy in the community. There were several heads that nodded in agreement. There were a few dissenters too to the Mukhiya’s line of thought.

The first disagreement, that was equally vehement and loud, equally flamboyant but woefully succinct was from Gurran who let go a vociferous one-liner – “Traditions that are best buried, and customs fit for cremation.”

He looked with his piercing round eyes at the gathering, straightened himself to his full height and walking majestically with long strides stood next to Bhuvan with his hands on his hips and legs wide apart. There were more sedate disagreements from Shambhu kaka and Dwarakadas, who slowly shook their heads staring at the earth.

The battle lines appeared to be drawn.

The supporters of Bhuvan’s point of view were few but they were persons whose opinion, outlook, and judgment were respected. Those who were opposed to it were in an overwhelming majority; they were people who had always been led and never aspired to have an independent opinion. Though a greater part of this motivation-lacking mass was silent, there were some who were garrulous among them as well, who seconded the attitude of the Mukhiya.

Change, however small, always attracts resistance and this was an attempt at a considerably significant change, which was bound to draw an equally severe opposition. Bhura was muttering away about the lack of respect for conventions in the younger generation.

Arjan wore a repulsive frown and spat, “If that untouchable is part of the team then I am certainly not there.”

Lakha growled at his rival, “You led us into a confrontation with the rulers, now you are leading us into hell.”

Bhuvan reckoned his support and was convinced that the leverage was with him. He walked up to the Mukhiya and said, “We respect you as our leader and believe that you have the power of judgment to distinguish between what is just and what is not. Have we not accepted the whites as our masters despite our traditions castigating them as being unclean and their customs as being barbaric? If we can let them into our houses, move with them, eat with them... then why do we shun our own people who have been born in the same land and breathe the same air? When Ishwar kaka feels the pulse of a person to diagnose an ailment, does it beat differently for people of differing castes or religions? Will he refuse to feel the pulse of Kachra if he were to be seriously ill? If it is expediency alone that shapes religion, traditions, and customs, then they cannot be sacrosanct. The need of the hour is to have Kachra in the team. He has the ability to do what the others cannot. Tradition and custom have no relevance in this matter. If they do, then we do not need such traditions or customs. Please ask the wise elders in our midst – Shambhu kaka and Dwarakadas, whether my arguments are valid. I am convinced that they are. Gurran and I will play with Kachra whether any of the others in the team wish to do so or not.”

Shambhu kaka was very curt with his concurrence, “I completely agree with you, Bhuvan. The Mukhiya is not a stranger to my long held views on such matters,” he said in his quavering and dragging manner.

Dwarakadas was still brusquer. He merely nodded his head vigorously signaling his approval of what Shambhu kaka and Bhuvan had said. He knew that any attempt at eloquence in the philosophical plane would be lost on most of those present there. He felt that all that had been said by either side was only to satisfy their respective current conveniences dictated by the beliefs that appealed to them presently. Kachra as an individual truly mattered to none – Dwarakadas himself included. In fact, none excepting themselves mattered to anyone. And all were merely pawns in the hands of Time, as it moved each one of them appropriately to give rise to happenings that it had long before worked out.

The politician in the Mukhiya knew when to pull out a sword from its scabbard and swish it around making contact with nothing else but the air with loud noises and when to shove it back in and run and call it a great tactical retreat or a divine revelation. The time was now – for such a divine revelation. The two long-standing pillars that had supported his chieftain-hood –Shambhu kaka and Dwarakadas, had espoused a cause that was at variance with his currently held but dispensable principle. Lately, Bhuvan too had rapidly risen to be yet another pillar of support. The people were behind Bhuvan, at least until some moments ago and may again rally behind him if they were to be convinced by the arguments of the two wise men of the village. Discretion dictated that the dispensable principle be abandoned and a new one that was amenable to the situation installed in its place so that his position regained its security and predominance.

“My friends and fellow villagers!” he called out. “Those steeped in wisdom and astuteness have spoken. I have realized my mistake and stand corrected. It is true indeed that if the white men can be accepted then we should accept our own. Henceforth, the village of Champaner would not practice this abhorrent practice of untouchability. Kachra will live amongst us and will be part of the team that will play the match against the white lords.”

As branches and leaves change the way they tilt and sway with the direction of the wind, the villagers gradually amended their dispositions. It was so convenient to toe a given line because it presented the certainty of always being right.

For Kachra, the world had suddenly changed.

It took both him and the others, to get to terms with the new reality. Habits die hard. Those that have been around life-long, die harder. Yet, with changed circumstances, die they do and die they did gradually in Champaner. Kachra moved from his mound to a hut in the village. He began to get paid for his services. He was allowed to draw water from the village well and not barred from entering the hilltop temple. It was an emancipation that he had never imagined would happen to him in a lifetime.


End of Chapter 6



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