Across the Bridge – Chapter 35
Continued from “New Brides Old Grooms”
Khatku was retired quite young with a pension of eight and a half Rupees as were all the other combat soldiers, those who were promoted to the rank of Subedar were allowed to serve longer. When serving in the army, all personal needs were taken care of by the army and the salary of sixteen and a half Rupees was enough as pocket money. Now eight and a half Rupees pension and two and a half bigha farmland to his name, survival could just be forgotten about even if there was no wife to support. Birju was in a little better shape as he had a few bighas more than Khatku but not much more. Khatku worked for mere Dal-Roti for as long as his body was considered fit for combat; in retirement, he could forget about Dal-Roti as well. He had to do some hard thinking.
For the starters, he entertained himself and others by indulging in his antics. Whenever he and Birju met in the street, they would greet each other by shaking hands followed by an about the same conversation every time with slight variations.
“Goodd day tto you Collonell Birrajj Pall Singgh.”
“Good day to you also Colonel Khatak Singh.”
“Howzz it goingg at the frontt?
“Wonderful Colonel Khatak Singh, the enemy has been beaten back, they are retreating. How’s it at your end?”
“Oh abboutt the samme Collonell Birrajj Pall Singgh, ennemy has learnedd that itt iss dealingg witth Collonall Khattakk Singgh, the lionne of lionns fromm Kessarri Naggarr.” …..
Bhuvan asked Khatku one day, “Why did you stop at Colonel Khatku, why didn’t you appoint yourself a General right away?”
“What would I promote myself to later on then?”
Bhuvan was somewhat impressed by Khatku’s wit but commented anyway, “What is wrong with starting at the top Khatku?”
“I wouldd ratherr addvansce thrrough the rankks likke anny otherr commonn sollddierr.”
But this was not providing Khatku any Dall-Rotti. Neither was another one of his antics: He would pat himself on his back and complement, “Bravo Chowddharri Khattakk Singgh, Landd Lordd of two hundredd fiffty biggha landd.” For lack of Dal-Roti, he had to contend himself with just roti-gur but being Khatku, he would not eat it just like any ordinary person; instead, he would place a piece of roti in his mouth, bite in a hunk of gur, chew it, swallow it partially, then take a sip of water and hit himself on the back of his neck with his fist; and he made sure to leave his door open while doing this. He was not going to let his theatrics go to waste. One day, after watching the show, Bhuvan asked him what it was all about. Khatku replied in his own way and accent that he was chewing a piece of roti with gur and since it was not easy to swallow it even with some water, he would hit the back of his neck for that way all this food would go down his throat. But all the antics in the world were not going to quench his hunger, nor of his wife although she was amused and enjoyed his antics as others. If people paid him for putting entertaining shows, he would not have had any trouble managing plenty of Dal-Roti but people were not that generous; why should they pay if they were getting the entertainment for free.
Khatku figured that trying to survive by growing regular crops in that little patch of land was a lost cause. So he thought of growing vegetables. He consulted regular gardeners and with all the information he gathered, his calculations yielded the result that he could survive this way. So he picked his tool, a pick and spade rolled in one, and tilled the whole field with the same zeal as he had shown in the battle of Al Alamein. Then he acquired the seedlings for eggplants from a nursery in a nearby village with whatever he had saved from his sixteen and a half rupees over the years. His wife helped him in planting and watering the plants by fetching water bucket by bucket from a channel close to his field. Wood-ash and the like were used for fertilizer and insecticides. Plants grew impressively well. Khatku would be daydreaming as he saw his crop flourishing making plans how the crop would be transported to the mandi and planning for the next crop, “What do you think Chowdharun about planting tomatoes next year and we can plant chili pepper in between,” he would remark addressing his wife.
Plants did grow but at the fruition time, there were just a few fruits. Khatku did ask his gardening consultants why that was so, “Oh this is how it starts, just a few fruits in the beginning. Wait and there will be a good crop.” However, that did not materialize and no one could provide an explanation, not that that would have done any good. Puzzled, Khatku stopped by the block office where government officials provided farmers free advice and soil tests, and sold fertilizers as well as other farming material at subsidized rates. He learned that every crop requires suitable soil for it and if he wanted to convert his land to grow vegetables instead of grain and sugarcane, it would cost him quite a bit of money. His gardener friends did not know this as their land was suitable to grow vegetables forever as they were vegetable growers for generations. In any case, Khatku could not afford to convert his land and had to go back to grow grain and sugarcane, which was not going to sustain his family. His meager savings had dwindled further in the process.
Khatku’s wife, Paharan, knew elementary sewing, just enough to be able to provide simple sewing service to the villagers. This was a common practice there that villagers used such local ‘tailors’ for elementary sewing needs and the tailors in the nearby towns for more complicated work. Khatku and his wife figured that farming their patch of land together with the sewing service Paharan could provide might just be able to sustain them. She had come to Kesari Nagar empty handed. Among the things she left at her parents’ place was her sewing machine. They decided to kill two birds with one stone: Visit her parents and bring her sewing machine, and that is what they did.
Paharan worked with her sewing machine most of the day and Khatku tilled the field just with his hand tool. Had he been a ‘landlord’ of two hundred fifty bigha land, he could rent some of his land and cultivate some with hired help. Even if he had twenty-five bighas, he could have two bullocks and a plough. But now with two and a half bigha patch, only option was to work himself with his hand tool. Amount of grain he got out of the land was enough to make rotis to feed the two of them and supplemented with his wife’s sewing income, they could often afford some dal and vegetables also with whatever was left after looking after other expenses. Thus, they could trudge along for now.
The following season Khatku planted sugarcane in one bigha and grain in the rest. His wife and neighbors advised him to stick to just grain, which was a sound advice given the small amount of land but Khatku ignored it saying just that he just had to do it. Sugarcane matured in time. He made some arrangement with another farmer, which helped him produce gur from his sugarcane. Then he and his farmer friend transported their gur together to Meerut City with a few more farmers with them. Khatku told them the story of the Mall Road, known as the Cooled Road, the road which he used to stare at, the road where he watched white couples walking together and the sign, “Dogs and Indians, not allowed.” He told them how he used to burn with strong urge to break their white necks, “But the firangis got away.”
“Khatku, we are free now, firangis are gone. We should not let the hatred linger on, this will only consume us. Mahatma Gandhi never harbored any hatred towards them or anybody else.”
“I amm nott Mahattma Ganddhi, I amm Khattakku. I amm a sollddierr, howw do I fightt iff I followw the rulles of Ganddhi. I havve to hatte the basttardds to kille themm.”
No one could answer his last question. Mahatma Gandhi himself had been unable to answer this question posed to him by General Cariappa, the first Indian General. Soon after independence, the General had approached Gandhi and asked, “Faced with your principle of nonviolence, how do I motivate my soldiers to fight to defend our country?”
“I have grappled with this question whole my life but have been unable to find an answer yet. When I find one, I’ll let you know.”
Gandhi did not live for very long after that but the question refuses to die.
Khatku woke up his farmer companions at about four in the morning. Winters get quite cold around there forcing the schools to close during the cold spells. Khatku almost forced them to accompany him to the Mall Road. The fellows walked wrapped in blankets and still shivering. They walked all the way to the Cooled Road in the Cantonment area.
“Thiss iss Thanddi Sarrakk.”
“It is just like any other road Khatku, what is so special about it?”
“We couldd nott walkk onn itt thenn, we cann walkk onn itt noww,” Khatku said rather irritated at the ignorance of his companions.
“Alright Khatku, we saw it. Firangis are gone, we can walk on it and so can dogs. Now let’s go.”
Khatku posed for a few moments in silence, then spurred by some internal urge, he threw his blanket away, took his shirt off and rolled on that road paved with gravel and tar, over and over. His friends were awestricken; this was too much even for Khatku.
“What are you trying to prove Khatku, if you can remain alive to prove anything after this kind of exposure to such an intense cold and consequent pneumonia.”
“Noww I amm frree to walkk, jumpp, runn, and roll with my barre backk on Thanddi Sarrakk.”
Khatku got up, wore his shirt, wrapped himself in his blanket as others, and walked back with them, shivering.
Continued to “Khatku’s Battles”