Across the Bridge – Chapter 8
Continued from “Boy with a Sickle”
Champa did get pregnant and gave birth to a daughter.
Yet again: Time has a way of slithering more swiftly than a cobra in bush. Shambhu was thirty-seven years old now. Champa had a son and another daughter and number of miscarriages in between each successful birth. After the birth of her younger daughter, Champa kept getting miscarriages and gave up hope of ever bearing a child. However, she was not bothered, nor were the brothers for they had at least one son to look after them in their old age. By then they had taken two orphaned sons of a cousin of the brothers also. Someone had to look after them after their parents’ premature death and they were the closest kin. Besides they could use some help, which the orphans could provide after they grew up. Orphans’ parents left no property to speak of. By the time Shambhu turned thirty-seven, the boys were just ten and eight year olds. Efforts to send them to school were unsuccessful. The starting school was just a private set up by some literate fellow in another village. The boys would leave home to go to the school, pass time somewhere, eat their lunch and come back in the afternoon. All efforts to persuade them met with the answer, “Nobody goes to school here. What are we going to do with education? All we have to do is to learn the ways of farming.” However, they were no help in the fields either.
Champa was the oldest child of her parents. Her youngest sister had just turned eighteen, which was not surprising when the boys got married at fourteen or so. It was quite common for some uncles to be younger than their nephews. Efforts covering a several years’ time span at finding a groom for Champa’s sister were all unsuccessful she was an ‘old maid’ of eighteen was ample proof of that. Things were getting desperate. The problem was that she had asthma and no one would want an asthmatic girl in that farming community as their women had to be able to work hard, not be in need of care. Champa talked to Shambhu.
“Shambhu Devar, my sister has turned eighteen. There is no hope of finding a groom for her now except for someone desperate, and you know what kind of a life she can hope with a marriage under such conditions. You and she will make good personal family together.”
“But I have my personal family;” Shambhu interjected.
“Yes, but it is different. Besides, if you and she get married, we’ll still be one family, looking after each other.”
There were arguments back and forth. Finally, it was decided that they would get married. Champa visited her parents and gave them the good news. The age difference was a factor but Shambhu was in the family with no hope of getting a wife and the girl had the same status. Two unwanted ones could be joined together by marriage. Later Shambhu’s wife came to be known as the Big Mouth for her boastful ways.
With a big mouth in the family, what were the chances of it staying together! The family split. Shambhu now had twelve and a half bighas of land, an asthmatic, big mouth wife, and two delinquent adopted children. His big brother did some work but not much. So Champa’s family was in no better shape either. In some ways things changed significantly, in some ways they remained the same. Shambhu and Champa still kept working the same way on the same land, twenty-five bighas. Big brother’s ways were also the same as before. So the working hands and their ways were about the same; just more mouths to feed and more trouble to put up with.
Soon after Shambhu got married, Big Mouth gave birth to a son. Shambhu named him Parasu Rama, Rama with an Axe, the sixth re-incarnation of God, and a Brahman. Rama with an Axe is known to have defeated the malevolent ruling Kshtriyas of the land twenty-one times liberating the land from them. Shambhu had named his first born with a purpose. Almost all of the landlords, including Bhupal Singh were Kshtriyas or so they classified themselves. However, when the time came, this Parasu Rama had neither the strength and skills nor the charisma and resolve of the original one. While Rama with an Axe was known for his trademark legendary anger, Parasu Rama turned out to be a meek weakling. However, he still turned out to be a beneficial addition to his family for certain redeeming qualities.
“Then you made a very intelligent decision, Shambhu brother, educated Parasu. Everyone knows how difficult it was; besides, no one even thought of education around here those days. Here you are born, you start working in the fields as you turn five, by the time you reach fourteen, you are a regular peasant and likely married or soon to be.” Dharmu patwari completed what he was saying as he passed the nozzle of the hookah to Grandpa, “And after that everyone knows what happens.”
After a pause he added, “You tried to educate those lazy, no good orphans also, whom you treat just like your older sons...”
“They are my older sons, brother,” Grandpa interjected.
“...yes, yes, you weren’t going to take them if you didn’t intend to consider them your own sons, otherwise would be unthinkable in the framework of your ways, but Parasu responded to your call, your efforts, that is your good luck.” The patwari completed his sentence.
“All by the grace of Bhole Nath, brother Dharmu, all by the grace of Bhole Nath, who always provides a tree by a well along an arduous trail in hot desert.”
Shambhu and Big Mouth both called their firstborn Parasu, an affectionate abbreviation; others called him Parasa. There was too much reverence for Grandpa in the community to distort the name further, not to distort would have been against the culture of the place.
Parasu was about two years old when Champa’s son, in his early teens, was suddenly taken ill. Champa and Shambhu tried all that was available. The nearest adequate medical facilities and the physicians were in the city many miles away connected with rural areas by a primitive transportation system. Even the towns did not have much in the name of medical help. Besides, the peasants did not have the resources to pay for an adequate medical treatment. Seeking that kind of help did not even occur to them who were struggling to eke out a meager living. Landlords did take their sick to the city. For the peasants, there was a standard route to follow. There were a number of medicine men in the area, Hakims and Vaidyas. A genuine hakim is accredited in the Greek, system of medicine and a Vaidya, in the Ayurvedic. These two systems were prevalent before the modern and there were established academic institutions for training them. However, the British considered those systems hocus-pocus and closed down the schools. Indigenous systems of medicine had fallen in so much of disrepute that when Dr. Sarkar, a nineteenth century physician accredited in the modern system of medicine and a renowned scientist, asserted that the Ayurvedic system of medicine is in some ways superior to the modern, the British and of their persuasion recoiled in horror. It was only towards the end of the twentieth century that the Ayurvedic system started regaining its long lost place and by the early twenty first century, it appeared to be entering a period of renaissance, its methods being sought all over the world resulting in a large tourist revenue for India and sprouting of Ayurvedic schools as well as the labs like the one in La Jolla. Yunani, Greek, system was still struggling to gain some meaningful recognition.
After the schools of the older system of medicine were closed down, the only way to learn them was to be an apprentice to some established practitioner. The knowledge and the skills declined with each new generation of apprentices. Some with no other means of income found to spend a year or so with someone and declare themselves experts, an easy way to earn a living and acquire a great deal of prestige as well as clout in the rural communities. Some went even further: Read some elementary books and learned some kitchen medicines mostly from folklores and announced to have apprenticed in the system. There were some such experts in the area endowed with extraordinary reputation.
A hakim in a neighboring village had managed to acquire the reputation rivaling that of Lukeman, the personal physician of Alexander the Great. Likewise, a vaidya had acquired the reputation rivaling that of Dhanvantri who is fabled to have been able to heal all in his sight. Both of them spent part of their time in a swamp looking for the raw material for their medicines. Some herbs and minerals they bought from the city also. They prepared the final products in a variety of ways: Grinding and making pallets, boiling and filtering the herbs, drying and preparing their ashes in a particular way, and mixing some of them together. The standard way for the peasants was to ignore the sickness initially. If the sick person recovered, all was well; otherwise one of the two was invited at the toss of a coin or on the basis of one’s faith or someone’s reference. If the person recovered after some effort, the respective medicine man got credit and all was still well. Otherwise, the other medicine man was invited. If the sick recovered, he got even more credit and added reputation as ‘the other one could not cure but this one did.’ If the sick still did not recover, it meant that there was nothing wrong physically, it had to be something supernatural since ‘it escaped two expert medicine men!’ Then there were as many ways as mouths: Witch doctors, lighting lamps on the graves or shrines of some saints or hermits, prayers in temples; so on and so forth.
Shambhu invited the hakim first. The hakim came and checked the sick boy. Diagnosis involved a variety of gestures like shaking his head while checking the pulse and utterance of number of hmmm’s. Then he told Shambhu to come to his place the next day, “And bring a bottle, about this size.” he ordered as he left. If one did not take a bottle from home, the hakim would provide with an added charge. The hakim headed straight to the swamp. The next day, Shambhu brought a strange looking dark liquid with an offensive smell. It was believed that if a medicine did not smell and taste bad, it was not a good medicine. This rule applied to all medicine, Yunani and Ayurvedic. The boy remained sick, got even worse. So they tried the other way: The vaidya. His methods and the final result were still the same. After that, the obvious conclusion was that it was no normal disease, something supernatural like an evil spirit had gotten into him and the only way he could be cured was to get rid of it. So a witch doctor was brought in.
The witch doctor was a barber living in Kesari Nagar. His income before he became a witch doctor, was quite meager; so he decided to become a witch doctor to supplement his earnings. Becoming a witch doctor was a whole night affair with standard rituals. Well known witch doctors and their disciples from the area were invited and fed before the rituals began. A clay statue resembling the human shape was made quickly and a clay lamp with clarified butter for the fuel was placed in front of it. The purpose was to please some good spirit that would attach itself to the barber whom he could summon in need. This could only be done with the help of some other spirit already attached to a witch doctor, which would occupy the statue. The most junior one among the guests tried first. As this junior witch doctor summoned his spirit, it occupied the statue, and after some worshiping, it entered his body. As it did, his body started shaking violently and his head moved rapidly in circles while the barber sat beside him praying for the blessing of this spirit. Shaking and movement of the head appeared more of the doings of the witch doctor’s own than that of some spirit. Whatever the case, he did not succeed in getting a spirit for the barber. Had he succeeded, the barber would have become a witch doctor and the process terminated with a celebration. Since he did not, the next, more experienced one tried. The process and the result were the same. No spirit blessed the seeking barber. After several of them had tried without success, there were whispers:
“Appears that he doesn’t have what it takes.”
“One has to have inherent special qualities to become a witch doctor.” …...
It was a rare entertainment for the villagers many of whom were there as onlookers.
One after the other, all of the witch doctors tried except the most senior one, the Grand Guru. Barber’s body did not shake; head did not move in circles; he felt nothing. Things had gotten worrisome, rather desperate. The Grand Guru decided to determine the reason for this dismal failure before he tried. He took the barber a little away from the crowd and had a little chat with him. Then the ritual began again. Within the first minute, barber’s body shook violently and his head moved rapidly in circles in front of the Grand Guru’s head spirit supposedly residing in the clay image, and wouldn’t stop. The helping witch doctor had to hold him and prayed to the newly arrived spirit in him to ‘go easy on the child.’ The barber calmed down. He was perspiring profusely. The Grand Guru was not the Grand Guru for nothing. It was rumored later that the Grand Guru head advised the barber that if no spirit blessed him, all the expense he incurred would go to waste and still no means to supplement his income, “So think about it brother,” and the barber did.
Shambhu had heard a story: A criminal was brought in the court of a king. After examining the case, the king ordered the nose of criminal cut off as his punishment. The punishment was carried out. As soon as the criminal lost his nose, he started dancing and chanting. Startled king asked him why he was so happy. The criminal replied, “I didn’t know before that there was God behind the nose. As soon as the obstacle is removed, I can see God, and who would not dance and sing with joy at the sight of God!” King dismissed the criminal. About a year later, there was a whole crowd of cut-nose people dancing and singing with joy in the street. When the king heard the commotion, he sent someone to find out what it was all about. All of them said that there is God behind the nose, lose your nose and you’ll see Him. The king summoned the whole crowd. After they repeated the same story, one after the other, the king was convinced and decided to have his nose removed. The vizier stopped the king, “Let me try first.” The head cut-nose, the criminal who had been punished a year earlier, took a sharp knife out of his pocket, slashed the nose of the vizier and whispered in his ear, “Your nose is cut now, people will laugh at you, ridicule you; so brother, start dancing, that is your only salvation.” The vizier ordered the whole crowd executed.
Shambhu had heard the story. He had also heard the rumor circulating about the barber becoming a witch doctor but as is said, if one can’t find his saucer, he looks even inside a cup. So, Shambhu invited the barber to get rid of the evil spirit.
The witch doctor had his standard routine, his antiques, like shaking his body violently, thumping his feet, grabbing the forehead of the sick boy and pull the skin as if he was extracting something out and throwing it in the air while saying loudly, “Go away, leave the boy alone.” If it hurt and the boy objected, the witch doctor would scream to reprimand him. Everyone believed that he was hurting and reprimanding the evil spirit. It went on for several days together with the payments of his fees. The boy was getting sicker. The barber would remark, “This is the toughest, the meanest spirit I have ever encountered.” He said so in almost every case he treated. The barber had become quite good at it. After all, he had gotten the spirit with the help of the Grand Guru!
The spirit did leave one day: The boy’s spirit. Only thing left to do was to cremate the body. When the saucer was not found in the cup, it was turned over and struck with a stick hoping for the saucer to fall out. No saucer fell out but the cup was broken.
The loss of her only son weighed very heavy on Champa. She would cry most of the time. It was tough on Shambhu also. They both would sit together mourning. Shambhu would try to console her with tears rolling out of his own eyes. The big brother did try to console them both but he was not very good at it and had no patience. Besides, loss of the son was weighing heavy on him too. However, he did work much harder than before in the fields and managed to pressure the other two delinquents to do so also at least for the time being.
“We did whatever we could. If Shankar Bhagwan wished it to be so, who could change it?” Shambhu would argue.
“Daughters will be gone. Whom shall we have at home? Who will take care of us in our old age?” Champa would say at times but it was clear that this although a genuine concern, was the least of the reasons for her grief.
“You are still young Champa Bhabhi. Besides, Parasu will look after us in our old age.”
“All four of us and with my Big Mouth sister in the mix!”
“Have faith in Shiva Shankar Bhole Nath Champa, all will be well, have faith.”
Champa never got over the grief for the rest of her life. She could never even utter the name of her son, just called him ‘The Departed Son.’ The Departed Son had a significant impact on their lives, in some ways more so after his death than he could ever have alive.
Continued to “Gardner’s Daughter”