Across the Bridge – Chapter 41
Continued from “Touch and Go”
Yet another war between India and Pakistan broke out in the middle of 1965. By this time, India was much better prepared including the ability to produce some advanced military hardware indigenously. On the other hand, Pakistan enjoyed full support of the West, particularly US, in terms of the military aid. Weakness of the Indian economy showed up further during the war. Prime Minister Shastri appealed to the people to donate generously to the defense fund and people responded. In addition, he granted amnesty to those who would donate their hidden wealth to the defense fund.
There was quite a bit of gold in the hands of people that was not circulating. It was estimated that just putting that gold into circulation would generate enough revenue to fund a Five Year Plan. Some responded but a large amount still remained hidden and continues to be so. In any case, the war progressed well for India. Its indigenously produced hardware held well against more sophisticated items possessed by Pakistan. Indian military aircraft frustrated the Sabers due to its maneuverability and an Indian bullet rendered the Patton useless. There were some territorial gains on both sides but India came ahead in and Shastri was hailed as a hero. He had won admiration of the people earlier for his dedication, and honest and simple ways, which increased after his success in the war. He died a few months later in Tashkent during the post-war negotiations mediated by Soviet Union. Officially, the cause of death was heart attack but there were people who doubted foul play. Soon after, there was harvest time together with the antics of Hookah Walla Uncle. Shastri’s wife insisted on harvesting the crop, which Shastri had planted in an area of the Prime Minister’s residence as his personal contribution towards alleviating India’s food shortages. He had ploughed the ground with his own hands with a plough used by regular Indian farmers pulled by two bullocks.
Guljari Lal Nanda succeeded Shastri for an interim period according to the rules, to be succeeded by a permanent PM. Morarji Desai considered himself to be the natural inheritor of Prime Ministership yet again, even his son declared himself to be the son of the next Prime Minister. Opposing forces fielded Nanda against Desai. However, before the leadership convention, he was replaced by Indira Gandhi, the daughter of Nehru. Although, this was termed a ‘dramatic turn of events,’ it was quite clear that the ‘drama’ was orchestrated. It took some time for the ‘Mute Doll,’ as she was dubbed for her quietness, to establish herself.
Old policies still continued at least for the time being. Due to the strained financial resources coupled with pressing needs, resources available for higher education were still scarce. Bhuvan and others like him persisted with their efforts to pursue their studies abroad. Eventually some of them, including Bhuvan, received offers of admission form some North American Universities.
Within a few minutes after a feeling of satisfaction, the Bridge, the residence lawns, the characters in Kesari Nagar from Wrestler Boy to Marva, Khatku, Bell Girl and all the others floated in front of his eyes; so did his experiences at the Big College including his visit to the Mall Road in Meerut Cantt. He realized that all that had become part of his being defining him and felt somewhat miffed at the feeling that he would now be torn away from that part, his roots. “I am leaving just for a few years,” he reasoned and wrote a letter accepting the offer. “So this is it Old Boy,” he sighed.
“I told you Grandpa, they never come back after crossing the Bridge, they only go farther away,” Hasnu remarked.
“He can go as far as he may from Kesari Nagar but Kesari Nagar will keep pulling him back.”
“This time it is not just the Bridge Grandpa; he is crossing the seven seas.”
“Hasnu, the trail that starts at the Bridge always has strange turns and twists, it ends at the Bridge.”
Grandpa paused for a few moments. Hasnu knew that something was coming up, he waited in anticipation. Grandpa added, “Hasnu, you seem to have forgotten the story of Rameshwari.”
Rameshwari was a woman in Kesari Nagar who was fed up with her husband’s ill treatment. One day, she decided to leave Kesari Nagar to go as far away from it as she could. It was a very foggy day, visibility limited to just a couple of meters. She went to the Bridge and started walking by the canal. After some time, she reached the bigger canal where this small canal originated. She had to take a turn, which she did choosing randomly out of the two choices and then started walking along the bigger canal. Then she came to a point where a small canal dumped its unused water into this bigger one. She started walking along this new smaller canal and came to a T-point where another similar canal joined this one. She chose her next route along this new small canal. At every juncture, she was making a choice that she thought would take her farther away from Kesari Nagar. Now she was convinced that she must be very far from that village; after all she had travelled along several canals going Godknowswhere. As she had walked for a long time and was about exhausted, she needed some rest. All of these canals have bridges near the villages. She spotted a bridge and sat down on its brick railing to rest. A villager passed on the bridge to go to the fields. She asked, “Brother, could you tell me which village is this?”
“This is Kesari Nagar,” came the answer.
Now they recognized each other, which they had missed initially due to fog. The fellow looked at Rameshwari surprised that she did not know where she was and remarked, “Have you been smoking marijuana Rameshwari?”
Rameshwari for her part struck her forehead with her palm and said, “Walked for almost whole day to get away from Kesari Nagar only to reach Kesari Nagar! All I have is Kesari Nagar in my kismet.”
She walked to her home and started preparing the supper.
“So Hasnu, the World is a labyrinthine maze and it’s very foggy out there. If you enter the maze at the Bridge, you’ll end up at the Bridge,” Grandpa laughed as he commented. Hasnu joined in.
Patwarun was devastated, “Separation once was devastating enough, second one will kill me.”
“No ma, it will not. Think that I am gone to school at a faraway place and will return after a few years,” Bhuvan reasoned.
“Will you keep going to school whole your life? All the others are settled, have jobs, gotten married and have children.”
“They had their reasons ma, I have mine. I must pursue my education.”
“You are the most educated one in the area.”
“As was my father.”
“You have gone to the highest level, all sixteen grades completed. Then you were doing something at that Big University; I don’t know what. What more education is there?”
“This is barely the beginning of education ma,” Bhuvan laughed.
Patwarun’s ignorance reminded him of a joke students shared on a lawn of Delhi University residence: A politician visited the University and an official of the university introduced him to the faculty, “Meet Dr. such and such; Dr. such and such; …..”
“Do you do any teaching also here or just treat sick people?” the politician asked.
Patwarun pondered over Bhuvan’s answer and he continued with his preparations.
“You had completed your studies of the four Vedas way back. What more is left that you are going to learn?” Wrestler Boy joked with Bhuvan.
“Donkey’s tail,” Both of them burst out laughing.
“Once upon a time the students from all over the World used to come to India for advanced studies, you know.”
“Times change Pehalwan ji.”
The Wrestler Boy smirked. People had used smirk to address him, initially in sarcasm; then he and others had gotten used to it and it had become normal. Today earlier days flashed in his memory; he recalled how he had earned this title, and smirk embellished his face.
“India should regain its stature and you should help her achieve it. You will come back; won’t you?”
“Of course I will. You seem to have lost interest in rebuilding India though.”
“I had to pay attention to a more urgent matter, had to secure the future of my sons, and they still need help. That will be my help towards rebuilding India. We all have our battles to fight Bhuvan; I have mine, you have yours.”
“Yes, we do Pehalwan ji.”
Bhuvan visited Marva in the haunted house.
“You can’t sulk whole your life away bother Murali. You have to get out and face the World.”
“I have plenty to face here bother.”
“Like Karmu?” Bhuvan joked.
“He is married now. He must have left your wife alone.”
“A little on the side does not hurt; for both of them.”
“If you are so bothered Murali, leave her.”
“She’ll find some other Bike-Bar to ride on Bhuvan, and I’ll lose whatever little I got. But that is a small problem now. Woman is potent but Rupee is omnipotent.”
“Don’t worry brother, you’ll find a job soon.”
“Until then it is just scrapping grass from the fields to feed the buffalo, sell her milk to put a few grains in the mouths of kids.”
“Times always change Murali brother.”
Bhuvan noticed Suddal coming out of the house of Ghanto.
“Are her kids not home Suddal?” he asked.
“Her eldest has a job with the Roadways; goes in the morning, returns in the evening and everybody else is in the fields,” Suddal said with a smirk.
“And you were not going to miss your chance!”
“Hin hin ……”
“I hear that you are going to that Underworld to get some Big Education,” Suddal added.
“Kind of. You too should get some education Suddal, it is never too late.”
“I am doing all my learning here Bhuvan.”
“With Ghanto, your great teacher, eh?
“Hin hin hin ……….”
Ghanto had heard Bhuvan, she came out to chat, Suddal walked away.
“Why are you leaving your home for some strange place Bhuvan Beta.”
“Birds have to leave the nest sometime auntie; they are supposed to fly away.”
“There should be plenty for you here with your high level education.”
Bhuvan smirked at her naiveté, then added, “There is more to strive for auntie.”
“Can you tell me where this country is and how it looks?”
“Come with me,” Bhuvan invited her to his parental house, which was across the street from hers. He showed her the location on the globe he had from his High School days.
“This is really the Underworld,” she remarked, “What kind of country is this, a headless pot-belly with a dried zucchini hanging in front and a tail in the back!”
He was not surprised at this coming from Ghanto. In fact, he should have expected something like that from her.
There were difficulties at every step. To mention one, shortage of foreign exchange impacted here too. Travelers to North American destinations were given eight dollars in exchange for the Indian Rupees at the airport. A movie maker capitalized on this state of affairs by making a movie, ‘Around the World in eight dollars.’ This much amount was fine for a movie character to travel around the World, in the realistic World, it had to be supplemented. Applications for additional exchange could be made and black market was another source. Bhuvan succeeded in getting some additional amount of dollars; he would not explore the black market, if he could help, for ethical reasons. Although this was not much, he felt that he could manage.
This was not all. The current Landlord, son of Mahi Pal, attempted to involve Bhuvan in a false court case to hold him back for some time, which would have been sufficient to keep him from going for his studies, for that year. Mahi Pal, now dead, had always burned with jealousy for Grandpa and his family for its continued ‘progress’ as for other former peasants and injected the same kind of feelings in his son, “These starving peasants served us as their masters and now we have been losing whatever we had and with it our status; soon they will be dominating us; we have to do something to keep our status by whatever means we can.” However, with time the effort was losing the intensity of its impact. One of Mahi Pal’s great grandsons was Bhuvan’s friend and far removed from those old feelings; in fact, he was more concerned about how to earn a respectable living now that his land share had diminished, first by Patel’s stroke of pen and then divisions with each new generation. Similar things were happening in the old royal families. Some of them adjusted with the changing times and succeeded well in the new environment, others would have either old status back or nothing at all. This later variety was losing whatever it could have, even the ability to survive and some had even committed suicide. However, their descendants had to learn their lesson and adjust with the changing times, even if belatedly.
Mahipal’s grandson tried to dissuade his father just to hear, “These peasants took our land, thanks to that bastard Patel, son of a farmer himself; now they are getting ahead and we are falling behind. We treated them like garbage ….”
“Like the British treated you, after taking all there was?” The young man waited for a response; as one was not coming, he added, “You cleaned them the way the British cleaned the country bapu, you made them poor the way British made India poor and now you disparage them for being poor the way British disparage India as if the victims have some shortcomings that made them poor: They are lazy, foolish, naturally inferior, so on and so forth. Now they are working hard to regain some of their lost wealth and pride as is India and you cannot stand it the way the British cannot stand the progress of India. Come out of your narrow mind set bapu; see the light, the victims are poised to show the oppressor who is superior and who is inferior, if any.”
“The World is turning upside down son, and too fast.”
“Or the right side up and not fast enough.”
“You don’t understand son; do you know what it does to me to see them raise their heads in my presence?”
“How long will you keep trying to hold the tide of history back bapu? Times always change, we must learn to adjust or we will perish. Education is the hope of India, our hope.”
“I will try to hold on for as long as I can, what you will do will be your business, I will be gone by then.”
This kind of feeling was quite common in the past landlords. Satyajit Rai even made a movie, “Jalasa Ghara” based on this theme. In the movie, a past landlord was losing his wealth and status while a neighbor was improving his lot. This bothered the ‘landlord.’ He recalled the old days of his grandeur when he used to hold functions in his Music House. Then he took his ‘last stand.’ His Music House had not been used for years, was gathering dust. He got it cleaned and redecorated in the old style and held a function. He invited a dancer to perform and made sure to invite the neighbor. After the dance, the neighbor shouted the words of praise for the dancer, took a handful of Rupees from his pocket and proceeded to throw them on the stage. The landlord stopped him and remarked, “Do you know the proper manner to reward a performer, you uncultured peasant?” Then he picked a properly packed thaili, the dancer bowed to him to accept her reward and he placed the thaili on her palms as the last big flame of an extinguishing fire.
Dissention of the grandson helped leak the word with different impact on different villagers. The Wrestler Boy was incensed and tiraded the Landlord semi-publicly for indulging in an ‘act against the village, even more unpatriotic than an act against the country.’ Bhuvan’s friend apologized to him for such an act of his father and assured him that he was not going to let him succeed, no matter what. Khaira’s image with his front legs raised and a large carrot popped out between his hind legs while trying to mount a bullock with face of the Landlord, flashed in front of Bhuvan’s eyes.
“Calm down brother Khaira, we’ll manage,” Bhuvan whispered.
“What?” his friend, the son of Landlord, asked.
“Nothing; just got to thinking about something.”
Bhuvan’s daydream still continued with Khaira mooing and urinating on the bullock in front of him while dismounting it.
Visits and all that continued as the day of reckoning was nearing and finally it was upon Bhuvan. The Landlord was spotted leaving the village early in the morning with a friend in about the same way as the Wrestler Boy was many years ago. Bhuvan’s friend did come to bid him farewell as did many others.
A jeep had been arranged to transport him and a few family members to the airport, which was parked by the road near Bhuvan’s old High School. Unpaved roads were muddy due to the monsoon rains, which had made it difficult to take it near the village. Some villagers decided to see him off at the school, most had said their goodbyes in the village. Tears were flowing out of Patwarun’s eyes, non-stop. There were tears in the eyes of Grandpa also.
“Are you sad Grandpa?” Bhuvan asked.
“No, no; these are the tears of joy. I helped Parasu travel to the town, journey has to continue, you have travelled a little farther, now continue the journey as far as you can.”
Bhuvan understood that Grandpa did not mean the distance.
Farewell and goodbyes in the village over, Bhuvan picked his small suitcase. Just then Khaira mooed and started jumping and pulling on his peg.
“Wait,” Grandpa said, “Khaira wants to see you off.”
“OK, I’ll go pat him and kiss as I have always done.”
“Not that way.”
“He wants to see you off at the school.”
“That’s ridiculous Grandpa, an animal seeing me off at the school!”
Grandpa looked at Bhuvan with anger showing in his eyes, “Since when has he become an animal? Have you forgotten that he has been a member of our family forever?”
Bhuvan was a bit embarrassed particularly as he had a special connect with Khaira. He commented, “OK Grandpa, he can walk with everybody else to the school and I can pat and kiss him there.”
“No, he wants to transport you to the school in the chariot,” said Grandpa and ordered Nakul and Hookah Walla Uncles to get the chariot out. Bhuvan was somewhat shocked.
“Grandpa, we haven’t used Khaira and Gora for any work for years, they are old, on top of that the road is long and muddy; even under normal situations, it would take much less time to walk on the trail to the school.” He added after a brief pause, “This would be cruel.”
“This is his wish; we cannot disappoint him.”
“This is just your thinking Grandpa, Khaira cannot tell such things in so clear a language.”
“You seem to be forgetting everything son, has he not always communicated with me?” After a pause, he added. “And with you?”
Bhuvan knew his Grandpa as well as Khaira; there was no way either of them could be dissuaded. So the chariot was taken out, dusted and Khaira and Gora took their places.
Grandpa took the driver’s place with Bhuvan inside it. Nakul and Hookah Walla uncles tried to persuade Grandpa to let one of them drive but everyone knew that Grandpa had spoken his word. Enthusiasm of Khaira and Gora was noticeable, particularly Khaira who was pulling the chariot curling his tail and mooing occasionally. Bhuvan sat torn between the feelings of reverence and gratitude for Grandpa as well as for Khaira and Gora, and with guilt at three old ‘persons’ serving him, while a young man like him sat in comfort, and embarrassed at being transported in such a grand style, made such spectacle of; but he had no choice.
Bhuvan’s old High School was in front of him. Relieved, he came down from the chariot. The principal and his old teachers came by to bid good bye. Finally, it was time to depart. He patted and kissed both Khaira and Gora and then he took his seat in the jeep. Just then Khaira mooed as he curled his tail and jumped a bit with its front legs. Then Khaira collapsed to the ground. Bhuvan jumped out of the jeep. The yoke was removed from the necks of Khaira and Gora immediately. Grandpa and others checked what happened to Khaira; they confirmed that Khaira was dead.
Tears rolled down the eyes of Bhuvan who until now had participated in the activities without showing any emotions, just had wanted to get it over with. After regaining his composure, he proceeded to talk to Grandpa who pre-empted him with a comment, “This is how Khaira wanted to go; …. With you.”
“What will you do with him Grandpa?”
“You mean his body?”
“Yes. You are not going to send it to that place for the dead animals; are you?”
“Of course not.”
“The body will be buried with the respect Khaira has commanded, earned.”
“Where will you bury it?”
“In Khaira’s land.”
“Khaira’s land; where is Khaira’s land?”
“You appear not to remember much son. The land Khaira had purchased in exchange for a hunk of dung is Khaira’s land.”
“I remember Grandpa.”
The scene flashed in front of Bhuvan’s eyes, the scene of Khaira dropping a hunk of dung, patwari shoving Grandpa’s thumb in it and placing on the paper while cursing all the time, Khaira mounting the old white bullock with large carrot popped out between his hind legs and finally made to dismount but Khaira mooing a splash of urine on the bullock while dismounting.
“Now go. Khaira will be with you always, helping you whenever needed. You will express your gratitude to him on such occasions, won’t you?”
“Of course I will Grandpa. I will make sure to make five balls of flour, sugar and butter, …. And feed someone in the name of Khaira.”
“Try to find an ox or a cow; if can’t find one, any animal, or even birds will do. All life forms are the same.”
Jeep raced on the road, the same road, which Bhuvan and other children had helped build, carrying dirt little by little, now paved. Bhuvan saw Khaira racing beside the jeep, curling his tail and mooing occasionally. The boy was uprooted yet again.
Continued to “Ghanto’s Last Dance”