Across the Bridge – Chapter 18
Continued from “Wrestler Boy”
All this was about a couple of decades after the birth of Wrestler Boy. In the meantime, life all around had been moving fast along a twisted trail, at times resembling the Mobius strip. Gandhi had earned the distinction of being a ‘fumbling lawyer.’ Not getting any business, he had accepted a couple of years’ term position in South Africa and had been thrown, literally, out of a first class train compartment for no colored person was allowed to travel in first class, had suffered injuries from the beatings by the British police for burning the passports and had gone through a major transformation as a result. After having outsmarted General Smut, even having him pay or have somebody pay on his behalf, a shilling for the taxi fare, he had returned to India and was on his way to earn the title of Mahatma. Shambhu and Champa on the other hand were slugging in the fields trying to eke out a subsistence level existence and pay taxes, although engaged in pleasant chats, perhaps meaningless nothings.
Although there was a canal passing by the village, water for the fields was still scarce. On a fixed day per fortnight, fixed amount of time was allotted for a certain amount of land during which whoever was cultivating it, could draw water from the canal. Time in this matter was so precious that the next in line rushed to the fields to be ready to start pulling water as soon as the turn of the previous one was over. The farmers still relied a great deal on the monsoon rains, which normally came at a precise time of the year, every year, take or give a few days. Any year when the arrival of the rain was more than a week overdue, girls in the village would gather in the village yard, select a young girl of eight years or less, well before one could reach her puberty, to make sure that she was a virgin of body and mind. Even that young age was no guarantee of virginity for some of them had lost it before that age mostly in play. Other girls would cover the selected one, called mehasin, derived from a local word for rain, with a blanket and sit her in front of a bonfire under the hot summer sun while they cooked sweet breads on the fire. Then they would go singing to the canal and jump in it. Afterwards, they would come back to the village, singing, and then the pieces of breads would be distributed among the villagers. Normally the rain did not come right away.
“I tell you sister, you don’t know what these girls are doing these days. You have to be a genuine virgin to bring rain. Once I was selected to be the mehasin in my village. As we were returning from the pond after jumping in water, it poured before we entered the village,” Sanjo’s counterpart at the time would remark as she would puff on her hookah. This story has played itself over and over forever.
Rain would come within a few days. Everyone preferred to believe that the ritual worked; no one seemed to notice that the rain had to come for monsoons are never too late and it was already quite late. That year however, the ritual did not work. The girls even repeated the ritual putting another virgin through even more torture; to no avail. Even when it came, it was much less than the other years. During the summer months, the rivers overflowed as ice in the Himalayas melted at a higher rate but could barely quench the thirst of earth under the scorching sun. In any case, the ice would deplete by the monsoon season. By that time, the rain would come to the rescue. Reservoirs like the ponds would run dry before the summer was over. Replenishment was provided by the monsoons. Water in the wells would also deplete noticeably due to the lowered water table, which would be replenished during the monsoons. Thus, monsoons were a natural cyclic balancing necessity. Due to a negligible rain this year, there was little water in the rivers and canals and other reservoirs like the ponds. Peasants did seed the fields and did what they could to grow and save the crops but not much success. Previous year’s crops sustained them during the year but the next crops failed miserably. Scanty harvest could not sustain them for long. So they waited for Lakkhi Banjara to buy the food from.
Transportation was very poor those days. Whatever it was, the administrative bodies used it to serve their aims and serving the masses was not one of them. Lakkhi Banjara, the Merchant with One Hundred-Thousand animals, made a triangular trip once a year. No one really knows how many animals he had as they were dying and being born during the trips; the term Lakkhi was meant to mean many than to mean one hundred thousand precisely. As is said, a genius is like a centipede, which is a centipede not because it has one hundred legs but because it has more than fourteen. The merchant would load his animals like donkeys, mules and camels, and the carts pulled by the horses and bullocks with commodities couple of hundred miles northwest of Kesari Nagar. Then he would head towards Mumbai. On his way he would sell and buy, and keep going, camping along the way. Then he would head towards northeast, reaching Bengal. After that he would proceed towards northwest to reach where the journey had begun, if it could be said to have a beginning and an end. This would complete his golden triangle once a year. Then he would head again on his annual journey, always a whole town on the move like Genghis Khan’s armies. During the journey, he passed by the area where Kesari Nagar was located, both ways.
Like rain, the merchant also came usually within quite precise time frame but he was transporting commodities on the backs of animals and animals have the luxury of being the masters of their moods to some extent at least; so did the merchant. His schedule depended on his sales and acquisitions along the way depending what would increase his profit. Lack of monsoons had also disrupted his schedule by impacting upon the commodities he could acquire and sell altering the usual structure of supply and demand. So, that year Lakkhi Banjara also did not come on time and there was no message from the bush telegrams telling his whereabouts.
People survived on whatever was in store. Landlords had no difficulty as they always had quite a bit hoarded waiting for the prices to rise. Better off farmers also experienced less difficulty but poor peasants could hardly store any as whatever was left after the landlords had cleaned them up was almost all gone usually before the next crop was in. Then there were lower caste people, the service providers; they always lived hand to mouth. The local merchants and the like usually bought from the landlords and merchants like the Lakkhi Banjara and usually stored little; they preferred to keep the money, silver, gold and the like, which was easier to store in a safe and could be used whenever needed. But since there was no sign of Lakkhi the Merchant, everyone held on to what one had and it became difficult to buy food for those also who had the money. Peasants and the lower caste people hardly ever had any money, so it made no difference to them. They had some cheap jewelry that they could sell for food, which wouldn’t have lasted for long but every additional day they could survive was a blessing. However, this had a silver lining: Peasants were familiar with odd sources of food, berries and the like in the bushes by the Ganges Canal. About a couple of hundred meters wide bush stuffed with trees that bordered the canal inhabited by the monkeys, bandits, thieves and cobras, except an occasional visit by a wolf, cougar or panther. They all seemed to live in a remarkably peaceful coexistence. In any case, the bush was a source of food as well, which the peasants and lower caste people were familiar with as they used it during their hard times of which there were plenty. Lower caste people had another advantage: They were often non-vegetarians; so they could harvest the animals like rabbits from the fields and wherever else they could find as well as the fish and turtles from the ponds but the ponds had already been harvested and now they were running dry. Although the Ganges canal flew very fast, albeit at a much lower level than the other years, it had fish and turtles in the shallow water near its banks where the flow of water was slower and the animals were easy to harvest. At that time, the Ganges Canal was being cleaned and widened, which meant reshaping its edges; therefore, there was not much water in it, just some puddles, which did have some fish, frogs and turtles but not many. Laborers to clean the canal were from some faraway places; they had little difficulty as they were harvesting fish, frogs and turtles from the puddles, as many as there were, but they were finding many snakes and insects also to eat. Vegetarian peasants were most in difficulty. There was fierce competition for food available in the bushes. The merchants who relied on their money were worst off. They couldn’t buy, had little stored, did not have the knowhow that the poor people had and they were strict vegetarians, live or not, as were the Brahmans. They couldn’t even think of eating non-vegetarian food except the dairy products. Mahatma Gandhi was even worse who would not drink even milk, a vegan. Short of protein, he could be persuaded to drink milk but he would drink only goat milk, that too what was left after its calf had been fed, which anyone could guess how much. Peasants and merchants were not that extreme but their attitude was quite strict: No non-vegetarian food even at the expense of life.
The lot of Shambhu and Champa was in about the worst group. They had little food in good times; now there was none; and they were strict vegetarians. At one point, Champa suggested that they could try something non-vegetarian at which Shambhu was outraged: “And sacrifice my Dharma, just to save my life!” She should have known better; it was the same Shambhu who at a later date would not eat even his meager first meal of the day, after a hard morning with equally tough afternoon to follow, just because it was touched by a ‘firangi mlechchha.’ He cited the legend of Rantideva who during a famine managed to acquire some food after not having eaten for forty days; then some other hungry man showed up and begged him for food; Rantideva handed the food to the other man.
“Rantideva would not sacrifice his dharma, righteous action, under similar situations. You ask me to sacrifice mine!” Shambhu remarked at Champa’s suggestion.
“And why is it your Dharma devar ji,” Champa asked,
“Because I made it so.”
The view lives on forever: Morarji Desai, the urine drinking Prime Minister, who was against immunizations, responded to an argument that it saves lives, “I shall not sacrifice Truth to save the World.”
Everybody was rationing including the local merchants. The richest merchant in the area was most desperate. He was old and the rigors of time were weighing heavy on his frail body as the meager amount of food with low nutritional value was not sufficient to sustain his body. However, the younger members of his family could still manage although they were getting weaker too but the old man could not. Finally, the he saw his end near. Some hours before he croaked, he called all four of his sons and talked to them, “My sons, I am going. Four persons carry the coffin by tradition; no one is luckier than the one whose coffin is carried by his sons and sons only; no regret in this respect; but I have something to ask of you.”
He paused. The sons looked at him in anticipation with tears in their eyes. The merchant added, “I ask you to place one bagful of silver Rupees near my head; one, near my feet; one, on my left side and one, on my right; then carry my coffin through as many nearby villages as you can so that people can see that I had so much money to throw away but died of starvation. And yes, after my body is cremated, distribute all the money among poor people.” The sons honored the last wishes of their father.
As with the others, each day was becoming more and more difficult for Shambhu’s family, which constituted of just three of them.
“I think my time to go is near Shambhu devar,” Champa said one day, “I can pull through no longer.”
Shambhu looked at her in horror, thought of Champa leaving him was unbearable to him.
“It hurts me immensely to say devar ji, but you will follow me soon after; and not necessarily for starvation,” Champa added, “Your brother will be left alone.”
“Your face is red. Are you getting sick?” Shambhu asked as he touched her face, “You have fever.”
Champa said nothing, just tears rolled down her eyes. Shambhu started to leave.
“Where are you going?” asked Champa.
“I’ll ask Bhole Nath to show me the way, my Dharma,” and walked to the puja room to Shiva Lingam, which is all that was left of his father. After his usual time in private with the Lingam, he came out and started walking away.
“Where are you going now?” Champa asked dismayed.
“I won’t be gone long,” he said and headed towards the Ganges Canal.
He looked at the bushes. He knew there was no food there, all had been harvested; even the dried out berries had been picked. Worse still, the bushes had been ravaged. He just looked at one of the bushes, which looked like a gang-raped virgin; there were many like this one. Weather was taking its toll at the bushes also and they were drying out. Monkeys were still jumping from branches to branches. Shambhu then moved on a little and found a place where he could hide, and waited. After some time, he spotted a young monkey that broke away from his herd. Shambhu followed the little monkey still making sure that he was not noticed. Not far, there was a lush green little patch in the middle of that drying out jungle. The monkey disappeared in it and Shambhu waited. After some time, the little monkey came out and headed to its herd. Shambhu headed to the lush spot but only after the monkey had gone far enough.
It was difficult for Shambhu to get inside that thick bush area but he managed. “Wow” he exclaimed although made no sound. There were some strange berries like the torpedo shaped dark red ones about four inches long and half an inch in diameter growing on a vine. He noticed some waste from the freshly eaten ones and some old ones. There were even some cracked seeds and partly eaten roots. All this was sustained by a small lake like water reservoir, which must be receiving its supply from some underground stream or some underground connect with the canal. Whatever the case, the monkey showed him the food and he collected some, tied it in a corner of his loincloth and tucked it near his waist under his shirt. Then he headed home to Champa.
They divided the food in three portions. Two equal but smaller ones and a larger for the elder brother. Shambhu invited his brother to eat who looked at the food and said, “I am not that hungry, both of you can divide this among yourselves.”
Shambhu looked at Big Brother in dismay, “It is very nice of you to say Big Brother, but there is enough for all of us and we can get food regularly now.”
“Monkeys had helped Lord Rama. They served in his army to fight Ravana to recover Sita. Lord Rama sent them to help us.”
Big Brother did eat the food but re-divided it in three equal portions.
Shambhu started bringing strange food items from the bushes: Berries, roots and the like, all guided by the monkeys. They knew other places like the one the little monkey had shown to Shambhu; all he had to do was to make sure that the monkeys did not notice him; otherwise they would not make the mistake of leading him to their sources of food. In fact, they were likely to be aggressive and attack him if they noticed him. He also had to make sure that no humans noticed him either, otherwise all the food would have gone within hours. Then the monkeys would have gone too as they were living there was only for their clever ways to hide themselves and their resources. Instinct of self-preservation had overtaken Shambhu’s normally benevolent character. Some people did notice his strange behavior, “He goes to the canal regularly; what for? He can’t be going for food for there is none there.”
“Oh well, he is the good old Shambhu Das, who knows what he does,” they would reason it out by appealing to his well-known somewhat idiosyncratic character.
In time Lakkhi did arrive and made a killing by selling his merchandise. He had little left after selling to similar draught stricken areas along his way. People emptied their coffers, whatever there was to empty. The landlords lamented, “If we knew this bastard Banjara was coming, we would have made a killing before he arrived.” They were not selling before for fear of running out and having nothing for themselves. Now they competed with the merchant, which lowered the price somewhat. People did get the food finally although by that time many had died. In addition to a lack of food, drinking water was in short supply; people were drinking water wherever they could find, much of it contaminated. Many were getting sick as a result speeding up their demise. This year, the monsoons came with double strength, which was a mixed blessing as too much water created problems of its own like the floods but this was better than no water of the previous year.
As is said, calamity never strikes alone. Early in the monsoon season, a cholera epidemic broke out. Whatever other reasons there were, people having gotten weak was certainly one of them. Monsoons did bring water but they also brought mosquitoes loaded with bacteria. Thus, the cholera epidemic was no surprise. Now people really started to die. At its height, the situation got so bad that in Kesari Nagar, as everywhere else, by the time they would come back after cremating one, there was another body to cremate. Since the crematorium of Kesari Nagar was out in the open, about where Khargu and the other ‘warrior’ had fallen, pouring rains made cremating all the more difficult. People and the corpses with them waited for some reprieve from the rain for cremation to take place. One day, quite a few corpses got piled up due to continuous rain for several days. Desperate times call for desperate measures. So, the people from Kesari Nagar loaded the corpses in a bullock cart and charged two of them to take the corpses to a river some miles away and dispose them in it. On their way they passed through a village; some people smoking their hookah invited the driver and his helper, who were the only ones alive in the cart, to share their hookah as was usual and they obliged, as was also usual. Then they headed to the river. There, one of them would grab a corpse by the arms, another one by its legs, swing it three times: one, two, there, and throw it in the river. After they had disposed as many as they had brought, there were still some left in the cart. Both looked at each other in surprise.
“We may have made mistake in counting,” one of them said and they threw another couple of them.
“I don’t think we made a mistake in counting. Besides we could have made a mistake of a couple but there are still many more of them there,” the other said.
They stared at each other. Fear was showing on their faces.
“Corpses are giving birth to corpses! They are multiplying!!” both exclaimed in chorus.
It was only a few moments later that both died of heart attack caused by fear. Later it was discovered that while those who had invited them to share their hookah were not being just hospitable, they had an ulterior motive: They had sneaked in some of their corpses in the cart while the attention of the guests was diverted.
This famine was a couple of years before Shambhu’s marriage. His was a poor man’s wedding. There was a bullock cart for the luggage and a couple of smaller carts for the wedding party members. Shambhu managed to rent a cheap quality chariot, which carried him. However, he could not afford to rent a horse. That had a special meaning for him, a special hurt. Champa’s father rented a horse for him if that is what it could be called. Many in the party just walked. The wedding party reached Champa’s village in the afternoon and paraded just with couple of poor quality drums for band. After the evening meal, there was the ritual of marriage. Next day was the day of feasting. On the day they were feasting, General Reginald Dyer was ordering a massacre in the Jallian Walla Bagh in Amritsar. Udham Singh managed to escape death, just got wounded but his pride was severely wounded. Although the word spread as usual, faster than fire does in a dry forest, it still took several days for it to reach Kesari Nagar. Slowly the details filled in; in fact, they kept trickling for years.
“What a sad day to get married Champa Bhabhi. Thank God that gate of the garden was small, otherwise the bastard planned to take the machine gun in to mow the whole crowd down,” Shambhu said one day to Champa when they were working in a field. He had kept it bolted it inside him for quite some time. After a pause, he added, “I could not afford fireworks for the wedding. Did providence have this in store for me: Fireworks in the Jallian Wall Bagh, to carve a deep scar on my heart and life!”
“I hear that he even ordered firing at women trying to escape by jumping over the low wall. What man would do that?”
“He is no man, has no courage, no honor, worst kind of coward is what he is. If you are a man, fight as man with man, as did Rajputs, as did Samurais.”
“I hear that firangis are praising him.”
“What else can be expected from them? They don’t even know that there are taste buds inside one’s mouth, forget about civility and humanity is completely an alien concept to them. That Lieutenant Governor even congratulated Dyer. Firangis awarded him the Sword of Honor, retirement with full pension and a large sum of money as reward.”
“They will pay; God will make them.”
“Yes, Bhole Nath has patience but when He is fed up, he performs his tandava dance.”
Shambhu posed for a few moments, then added, “Some of our misguided brothers also support the action.”
“Thank goodness, majority sees things right.”
There were a few seconds of silence, then Champa added, “I should get going, should prepare lunch before you come. Your big brother should be hungry too.”
“Just a little more work, you can rest under the mango tree, I can finish it, we can go together.”
“You can’t bear to part,” Champa said with a coy smile, “You are married now.”
Shambhu remained quiet, somewhat embarrassed, and kept working. Champa did sit under the mango tree and waited for him to finish.
Continued to “A Hunk of Salt”