Across the Bridge - Chapter 6
Continued from “Flower in a Sari”
So did the patwari, “And this bastard owes his life and wealth mostly to your father.”
The landlord was well grown up, over thirty years old, when his father died. However, in spite of his father’s best efforts, the fellow never showed any interest in learning the ways of landlording and numberdari, which too he inherited from his father. Some landlord, usually the one with the largest land holdings, was given the task of collecting the taxes and deliver to the government offices. All landlords collected the taxes from their peasants and delivered to the Numberdar, who of course collected from his peasants also. Then there were some farmers and peasant-farmers who paid directly to the Numberdar. He could collect about as much as he could as long as he delivered the assessed amount to the office; the excess amount was his remuneration for the service. The young Landlord in waiting was more interested in sleeping with the wives of his servants and gypsies who would visit the villages frequently to entertain the villagers by singing and dancing. However, their major source of their income was to supply their women to well-paying landlords. Some of the gypsies, mostly the young ones, did not like the ways and wanted to live off whatever they could earn by “honest and honorable” ways, which included stealing from the households. If they tried to persuade their wives not to serve the rich landlords, the wives usually countered, “This is my job, the only man I love is you.” In any case, the husbands usually had no choice. If a landlord wanted his wife, he would have her one way or the other. Even after inheriting the Land lordship and Numberdari, ways of the new Landlord did not change. Other landlords saw this as an opportunity to increase their wealth. One of them managed to persuade, or rather bribed, the officials to have the numberdari transferred to him, which was not difficult as the inheritor of the title was not doing a satisfactory job. Other landlords in the village managed to embezzle a substantial amount of his farmland. After Robert Clive, the first governor of Bengal, had instituted the system of bribery, it had become a legitimate way to carry out the business and being “legitimate,” just about anything could be done as long as a right amount of bribe was paid. Clive did get into difficulty with the British parliament for his ways but no landlord or anyone else in that community ever got into any difficulty; if someone did, some more bribe easily got him out of it. Clive committed suicide, no one knows why; there are theories, like that he could not stand the scrutiny and humiliation in the parliament, that he could not reconcile with the fact that although he delivered the whole country, India, single-handedly to Britain and yet was not accepted into the upper class for being born in a lower one but no landlord ever committed suicide or even came close to it.
Now the young landlord awakened. His only recourse was his Spiritual Master who was away on a long pilgrimage during part of the time this happened. He also had a landlord maternal uncle who was also a Numberdar. The uncle also came to help frequently. However, it was the Spiritual Master who devoted most of his time after he returned to help the Landlord recover what he had lost. His Numberdari was restored relatively easily as he was the legitimate inheritor of the title, right and the responsibility, but recovering the land required some help from the courts. The embezzlers and officials who falsified the documents were exposed and most of the lost land was recovered. As for any penalty to the culprits, there was little or none, for a price.
After most of what he had lost restored, Brahman and the uncle both started teaching him the ways of landlording and numberdari. The new Landlord learned alright, but not the honest and benevolent ways of the Brahman and somewhat less honest but still reasonable ways of his uncle. After he learned his ways, there was no need for the Spiritual Master or the uncle. The peasants and other villagers remembered the help the Brahman had provided to the Landlord. In fact, these remarks bothered the Landlord and he blamed the Brahman for his lowered stature as was the case with mouse in a story in Pancha Tantra. According to the story, a pious siddha hermit endowed with special powers, picked a weak, dying mouse and nursed it to health. One day a cat chased the mouse and it came running to the siddha. The siddha protected the mouse. To solve the problem forever, he converted it into a cat with his supernatural powers. Well, the cats are chased by dogs and the dogs, by lions. So, what once was a mouse became a lion in time. The visitors would remark praising the hermit for such a benevolent deed, “Had it not been for the siddha, this lion would still be a mouse.” One day, the lion thought that all his embarrassment was due to the hermit. If the hermit was gone, so would be his embarrassment. So, one day the lion attacked the hermit to finish him off. While the lion was still in mid-air, the hermit said, “punarmushiko bhava,” become a mouse again. The lion fell to the ground as a mouse. The Brahman had no such powers. He also did not need any for he could look after himself during his lifetime. It was his untimely death that gave the “mouse” the opportunity to devour his orphans.
“And the way Khaira showed that pig, the Landlord; remember Khaira mounting and urinating on the bullock. Everything has a meaning brother; the land was to be yours, Patel said so, but the way it happened tells something; Khaira was telling the Landlord something through the bullock that belonged to him before, after helping you by providing the dung.” Patwari added, “As I see it, the spirit of your father is in Khaira, …”
“The spirit of Shankar Bhagwan.”
“…. same thing. Your father had become one with the Lord and yes, the old bullock that pig dumped on you harbors his spirit. Incident had a meaning brother.”
“As is said, there is delay in the court of Bhole Nath, not injustice. He has restored the land of the rightful owners to them, the peasants, finally,” the patwari continued.
“He has restored more brother; the dignity, the pride. You must have noticed it yourself.”
“It is hard to miss brother Shambhu, and I have noticed something in landlords also. They appear to be hiding someplace. Their old haughty demeanor is gone. Remember, just until a few days back, the way that Mahipal used to ride his horse, what a fabulous horse, his servant trudged behind carrying his hookah, the symbol of his Land lordship, his grandeur, his authority, his dominance.”
Grandpa peered in space as had Ghanto when she visualized her entry into her husband’s house. He hardly noticed patwari’s comment, “Is what we hear true brother, his horse has the seed of your father’s Marvari?”
After the orphans lost what they had, their uncle became quite nice with them. His and his wife’s jealousy turned into sympathy as is usually the case when one has lost what others were jealous of; enemies in prosperity, friends in poverty, misery. He even started feeling guilty. Whatever the case, they were his nephews and what they lost did not go to anyone he would have liked to enrich, it went to someone he had a natural loathing for: A landlord. The uncle was now willing to help and Champa’s father also came to aid. They did attempt to do something about the problem but it was too late. They did run around, hired a lawyer, filed petitions in the court, to no avail. Bhupal, the Landlord had learned the ways well; transfer of the property was clean, seamless; there was no way they could have made a dent. All they could do was to help the boys learn the skills of cultivating the land and the survival skills of poor peasants. Sometime they would curse themselves, “We goofed, it is our fault, we should have attended to the matters in time.”
“No one’s fault uncle ji, the universe unfolds the way Lord Shankar wants it to,” the boy would comment. Finally, everyone would reconcile, “The Lord had placed the pious one on earth and gave him the means to live in comfort. As he called him up there, He took what He had given. The wealth was for the pious one’s use, not for others.” They would conveniently ignore the fact that the Landlord was using it.
Being an orphan meant being an orphan in every way. Much worse things were in store.
Although the Landlord had offered to rent the boys up to one hundred bighas of land at least in words at that time, there was no way the uncle and Champa’s father could manage to help the boys cultivate that much. Although it was a portion of the crop that was to be paid to the Landlord, there had to be a minimum payoff. He would take his minimum. If the yield was not adequate, this would leave little for the peasant. If the whole crop did not cover the minimum, the Landlord would just oust the peasant. After some discussion, they decided to start with twenty-five bighas.
“Your father’s land is all yours Pundit ji, you can have as much as you want, whenever you want, up to one hundred bighas, the Landlord commented, “I have divided seventy-five bighas among several peasants on the condition that they would have to would release the land upon demand. So don’t worry, as you are ready to cultivate more, you’ll have it.”
As the boys were ousted from the land, so were their father’s peasants. When they were cultivating for the boys’ father, they could plead with the pious one. Now that their landlord had “sold” the land to Bhupal Singh, things were different; they had to request Bhupal to rent to them again. As for the law, they knew nothing of it; if they did, they knew also that there is the law on books and there is the law by which people live. Besides, the patwari and all the other officials were in Bhupal’s corner.
As seventy-five bighas of land became available, some peasants scrambled to grab it.
“I have served you well Chowdhari Sahib,” one would say; someone else would plead with, “Your land will be in good hands Chowdhari Sahib.” Someone would use other rhetoric like declaring his children the children of the Landlord, “Your children will bless you each time they work the land Chowdhari Sahib.” Someone would send his wife to do some extra work at his house and the wife would try to butter up the wife of the Landlord. Peasants’ wives, children and they themselves were providing extra, free work to the Landlord and sending some gifts like vegetables, tobacco, which they grew on the land. The Landlord could and would order any peasant to do extra work whenever he felt like and they would work “with pleasure” to get the hands on some good land. This way all the good land of the orphans’ father was gone to the others. The orphans got the least desirable of it. The reality was not missed on anyone. “Doing this to the little boys of a pious man,” some of the former peasants of the boys’ father would remark to those who grabbed the land this way, “There will be curse on you, you will pay, will rot in hell, and that pig too, even worse.” In addition to their genuine feelings for their former landlord and sympathy for the boys, an element of jealousy also played a role in it also. The beneficiaries would laugh a “hin hin,” laced with a boast of having succeeded at conning somebody to grab the land. As for the availability of seventy-five bighas to the orphans at a later time, everyone knew that that was never going to materialize.
The boys’ uncle and Champa’s father would plough the fields and do whatever else they could, whenever they found time. They even had to bring their own bullocks for the boys’ father had only a horse a highly prized Marvari, and a cow. The Marvari horses were used in military by the Rajput warriors. A legendary warrior Rana Pratap rode a legendary Marvari, Chetak, who received a fatal wound in the gruesome battle of Haldighati. Chetak died after carrying Rana Pratap to safety. It is difficult to believe that the horse of Shambhu’s father could be a genuine Marvari, it may just have had some Marvari blood. Whatever the case, it was believed to be a Marvari and called a Marvari, which he pampered and rode. Shambhu Das, whose name was not Shambhu Das then, was as inseparable from the horse as was his father and the horse reciprocated the feeling. The boy learned to ride and by the time his father died, he had become a fabulous rider in spite of his young age. One day when the boy was still a novice rider and his name was not Shambhu, his father handed the horse to him after completing his ride around the fields. The boy grabbed the hair on horse’s neck to jump on to the saddle but before he could, the horse dashed at full speed to its barn about a kilometer from the field, which is where it came to a full stop. The boy hanged on to its neck all through the ride with his body thrashing against that of the horse. His father and the villagers watched in horror: If the boy had fallen, he would surely have died and if he survived, life would not have remained much worth living. After the boy made it through the ride, there was a crowd congratulating him, “What a brave boy!”
“The boy should compete in the annual race.”
“He’ll make a fabulous horse rider.”
Afterwards, the boy’s father reprimanded the horse in a very soft voice, “Why would you do such a thing to your own little boy?” The horse stood there with its head bowed and then licked the boy’s face. A special bond developed between the two from that day onwards.
Before Shambhu, whose name was Shambhu by now, could learn to work in the fields, he needed two bullocks. Bhupal, the Landlord had his eyes set on the Marvari for a long time. Whenever he saw the horse with its owner or wherever else, a cobra appeared to crawl on his heart. One day, the Landlord took a ride on his horse to the fields and noticed the boys’ uncle ploughing the field with his bullocks while Shambhu clumsily tried to hold the handle of the wooden plough every now and then. He had learned to attach the bullocks to the plough but the plough was too bulky and heavy for him.
“Must be quite taxing for you to shuffle between your village and Kesari Nagar with bullocks and all that,” the Landlord addressed the uncle.
“It is Chowdhari, but what is to be done, is to be done; until we can muster some cash for two bullocks for the boys.”
“Hmmm,” Bhupal hummed, “It is my duty to help, to serve my Spiritual Masters Pundit ji. I can pull two out of my ten, it will be difficult to cultivate my land with just eight bullocks but I must make the sacrifice.”
Uncle and the boy, both just knew that the Landlord was up to something but said nothing. The Landlord added, “I’ll do something better; I’ll trade two animals for one, two bullocks for one horse.”
Shambhu Das almost collapsed. The image of Shiva Lingam floated in front of his eyes. He uttered not a word but did say in his mind, “No Lord, not this much; how can I live with my heart cut in two pieces and one taken away! You must allow me to live, at least.”
But what was to be, was to be. The uncle and Champa’s father discussed the matter and to save Shambhu from the trauma, the uncle took him to his village while Champa’s father completed the exchange in Kesari Nagar. Shambhu knew it all but pretended to go along. He himself knew that he could not bear to see the Marvari go. “I feel a part of my heart cut and pulled away, every day, all day, Champa,” later the boy would tell his Bhabhi ji, “Death cuts life once, life cuts life every day, for the entire life.” Tears would roll down from his eyes. Champa would console him whichever way she could but started feeling a little at ease seeing tears in boy’s eyes. It is said that a pain eases if tears roll but if they dry before they leave the eyes, the hurt can kill, even worse: Petrify the person creating a living dead, a zombie. There were times when if someone died, one close to the departed one would not cry, would just stare in space. Whenever this happened, the villagers would try to make the person cry to ease the trauma. So, the tears in boy’s eyes were a good sign. The older brother was part of it all but he appeared to be rather oblivious to its gravity; he would cry every now and then, and then run to play with his seashell playmates. He appeared to be watching a play, appeared never to realize that he was a player in it. He would go sleep with Champa at night as a matter of routine.
All in all, the Landlord managed to dump two aging bullocks for one fabulous horse and declare that he had done a big favor, service, to his Spiritual Masters by taking an old horse off their hands and giving them two young bullocks. Everyone knew the reality but no one would speak a word.
Continued to “Boy with a Sickle”