I know what road it is and where does it go. I also know the miles to my destination. It was not always like this. Now I am on a bullock cart lounging on a heap of fodder. Sometimes I speak to carter. We have different accents in different vernaculars but we understand each other. I don’t know how long I am here. When carter will have turned to his village I will start walking. Then, may be another cart or horse or camel or anything else. But certainly, walking will join all these dots of my journey together. One Sunday afternoon I had set out from home and I am out since then. It is Sunday again. This road is different.
That road that I had been treading for a week, the only road that I had been set upon by my whim or heart I am not clear, had never been even once shorn of trees and shadows though woes and worries accompanied me sporadically, as is with everyone. Sometimes dust fluttered, smoke billowed and asphyxiation set in but to my good luck, I chanced upon a brook or had been able to leave the throttling hypoxiated and thirst satiated, almost, always. I never did forget to bow my head to temples I passed by. I possessed music enough in me to be able to enjoy the chimes of the bells in the evenings. I did not shy away from sneaking in Gurudwaras (Sikh temples) that came my way to gorge on langars (free community food) as and when hunger took the decisions for me. I paused to have a few strains of Gurbani wave through me and pierce my ears to clean them but as I had always been a slave of my feet I kept walking. Mosques were just a historical monument for me but I knew these were the places where Muslims worshipped. I knew it even before I was told in school that a place of worship is sacred. I never did enter inside them. I kept walking. The road turned the corners but it limited its playfulness to this only. Neither did it talk to me and nor did I ask it about the exhaustion it must have had. Some of the passersby I ran into greeted me, sometimes mechanically and sometimes, hefting their necks a bit. I still am not sure where were our eyes and what they were doing. So far as I remember I never scuffed. I had always had another pair of juttis (traditional Indian hand woven shoes of leather) in the sack I let my back carry for me.
I remember once a street dog had begun to follow me, accompanied me for a while and I, don’t know why, had felt a sense of owning him. For that short time he was more like a possession, a personal one, than an emaciated animal turned co traveler. I pitied everybody else crossing me from either direction. Once when day grew dim and clouds pervaded I had the wits to say, “let’s walk together and match strides”. Dog didn’t comprehend challenge but rain had understood my fondness for clouds that was invincible even in the face of a downpour which saw the crops in fields flanking the road wilt against its might. I drew a memory from the puddles of water and let my tittupping image play with it. My splashing through the water-submerged road only rejuvenated the hurtle towards something I had no clear idea about. My new found possession on the road in the form of that haggard dog had left me long ago.
Sun despite my cloud loving nature never bothered me. Herds of cows and sheep I pierced my way through often had shepherds being instructed by the elder accompanying them. With feet and head covered, I too had my herd, invisible and always a few paces ahead of me which I had been shepherding ever since I set out on this walk. Truthfully the answer to what started me on this walk may turn out to be so easy that I don’t even need to think about it and so difficult that accuracy may always remain a far fetched chimera.
I often contrasted my back with those of the farmers working alongside the road in their fields. I slouched and then straightened. Then I looked at them and if happened to saw one more straightened and erect back than mine I bulged my chest outwards and changed my walking to seem it like prancing. I thought walking on road was my farming. Every pace of mine sowed the layers of time sneaking in so womanly into my masculinity and harvesting the alcoves entailing an entire idea of spending a night together giving life to an unknown destination which I was sure will seek its beginning from my paces. More worn my juttis were easier they fitted into my feet. Now that I could see the rugged underside of juttis emerging out from a constant rubbing with the bottom of my feet the nonsensical question of ‘how long’ had begun to dangle over my head.
How long had I been walking and how much I had walked were the kind of questions I feared though I thought no one else would bother to ask. I could sense a different language in the air in which my sack was referred to as something else, a word not only unknown but even difficult to pronounce. The air smelled differently. I had left rains and its puddles and the sounds of splashing it offered way behind. The villages, the towns and the cities that I passed through had begun to make their impressions known to the road that still was same as it always had been, rough and dusty. One more thing did not change. I was yet to see any sign of a knoll or hillock. The plainness of the terrain along which the road had been laid seemed in colligation with the rough surface under my feet. Wind that blew was at the mercy of weather that decided the mood of the hours of the day. A turban on my head that also doubled up as camouflage absorbed the buffetings of wind as well as alienation.
Nights were even easier to walk as destination was unknown and curiosity content to be emasculated like a poor always content with the ways of his life. The only possession I could have lost to robbers besides my life was another pair of juttis traveling or shall I say flying on my back. As for some vegetables that I had plucked from roadside fields I was not worried much about as I possessed this strange trust in fields and their tenders. Everyday when twilight set in I would slacken my pace to enjoy evening walk and then with light having completely been devoured by darkness I would quicken the pace of my steps sporadically as if to catch the bouts of darkness always ahead of me. Between midnight and predawn when sometimes I could not catch pieces of slumber despite the prodding of feet and enervation I would think of all the ghost stories my grandmother had related to me when I was so new to this act of walking. In those days this very time slot was reserved for my peeing on the bed and rousing of not only my mother but entire family which so often never went to sleep again. Almost an hour later grandmother was to milk buffalo and mother had to help her. Father and grandfather would start waiting for the dawn to emerge to go to their morning walk up to a local river. By the time crows would begin to give their raucous call everybody except me was already woken up. These ghost stories would amuse and frighten me in equal measure. There were times when darkness had me in a trance and my feet were no longer my feet but some cart carrying me. Moonlight days were even easier to walk that made me think of some girl or woman and concoct fascinating scenarios instead of letting ghosts hover above my head. But I never ran into either ghosts or a girl or even a woman.
With the first beam of crepuscular light penetrating its way though the rumps of the night I was a new person again with a new pair of legs and new head. Everything else remained same. My newness was strictly limited to legs and head. Back bearing the sack never featured in my mind. I would wait for a brook or pond to come my way to give my day a legitimate beginning.
My juttis remained where they were, I never used them. I filled my belly with some of the raw vegetables I had on my way and rest went rotten. Every time water regardless of quality except for contaminated beyond recognition was within my sight I washed my face and drank enough like a camel. The thought of carrying water did not occur to me. The reality of so many paces behind me had my sack swollen. As the walk became swifter and the legs and feet began to disown me I carried on and on like the road I had been set upon by a mysterious but fury ridden urge silently discovering a friend in mirage.
If only it were not for my name this mirage would have been a life long friend. Calling, bellowing and hollering, I had never paid much attention to. A lot of it went as I walked. Much of it had become a ritual for me never to be thought much of. And then, one day when perhaps though it is not easy to admit for me I too was waiting for an excuse to take a pause luckily ears struck a sound. Only sound was not enough for me to be able to do the undoable but it had a name tagged to it. This was not an ordinary sound. The sound of the waves of wind, hum of the day and the nothingness of the night. It was a new sound. I had been able to recognize this novelty though in very first time but did not believe it. There was no reason to believe for I now had been a stranger in an alien land. For the first time ever since I embarked my newness was transcending my legs and my head. Another call and I turned back. There was a man gazing at me seemingly calling out but he could have been anyone calling out anyone.
But this thought of having to be called by name did not leave me. It was a privilege. I thought of Chaudhary Ruldu Ram of our village whom everybody addressed as Chaudhary ji. He was a very rich landlord so I, a nobody, never questioned his right to be addressed with a name that had as its suffix the overtly revering ji. My grandfather and father too after years of toiling hard had earned their shares of this ji from not only relatives and friends but even from some people belonging to much higher echelons of society. Though sometimes my father has had to content with just master instead of masterji. For me my name was just as far from me as the distance between a poor person’s name and ji. My name could never have become a question of identity. In my family I have seen our names being ripped apart, torn apart and raped by everyone who took the trouble of touching them. I was the first one to attend a class or two in my family and Gurji (teacher) as I called him, was never sure whether I was Ram Narayan or Ram Narain or Ram Naran. My father has his name changed by everybody who stumbled upon it. He is Laxman, Lachhman and sometimes even Lachhaman. Even so short a name as my grandfather’s couldn’t escape the trampling of boorish mouths. He is Dana Ram, Dhanna Ram, Danna Ram and sometimes even Dhunna Ram to different people on different occasions (thank God no one called Dhuan Ram). How many times have I heard people call my grandfather’s brother Pokharmal or Pokhram or Pokerram though he is Pokhar Ram. Amidst al these contortions I never heard anybody making Chaudhary Ruldu Ram Ji even Chaudhary Raldu Ramji let alone Chaudhary Rolu Ram Ji.
Because my name was so long, given to me by my grandfather, everyone called me Ramu. The initiator was none other than my grandfather himself. I too had grown so much inured to being called Ramu that I forgot the serious personality I used to be even in my childhood when my father thought I was destined to succeed where he had failed and settled for quite life of a passive farmer and amateur teacher teaching kids from neighborhood mythological stories. My father somehow had scraped together twenty acres of land that was set to dwindle down to five acres for me in a few years from now. I, being the eldest son though a wastrel, desperately wanted my name back from society at large wherein still I was a nondescript Ramu. In a sense this walking though I am not sure where it will lead me but who knows may be an effort to convert myself from Ramu to Ram Narayan ji.
The call instead of growing into a hollering became a soft voice and had me turned around. “Are you Ram Narayanji?” , the man I had ignored at first was standing right before me. A lean man with average height attired in dhoti-kurta with a turban on his head sporting a walrus but thin black with few grey whiskers in his moustache on a swarthy complexion was smiling thinly as he repeated.
“If I am not mistaken you are the son of Laxmanji.” Once again not only did my father’s name enjoy a ji, the ultimate mark of deference, but also the exact pronunciation. Ram Narayanji and Laxmanji in distant land. It was too big to be taken. It took me a while to make something out of the patterns around which the sound had been conceived and then formulated and then finally….. made. Before it struck my ears it must have traveled a lot. As much the distance as I had traveled, in the least. The thought embarrassed me.
I began to see a mangled name following me. The jubilation at hearing a name that I thought was mine gave way to a sense of arrogation towards few letters arranged in sequence in an accent I had never ever neither spoken nor heard. But I knew sequence was right.
My hands were toying between their fingers the fragments of lubricious nature of time I had always known but never feared. Before I could sit down to gather my breaths the flotsam and jetsam of the sack burdening my back devoured my juttis for a while and gobbled my rotten eatables and then in collusion with the waves of my newly discovered but now feared name cemented my hands to my heart, right in the middle.
“How do you happen to be here, alone, walking on foot. I thought you owned a camel.”
“Yes we do, but…”
“In a way it was right. Nowadays some gangs who steal animals are active in this area”,
he assured me I was right in walking on foot.
I had no idea who this affable man was. Why he had stopped me on a road increasingly becoming less desolate and more alien. Though now with day almost worn on desolation too was setting in.
“But I haven’t recognized you. I am sorry. Will you please tell me who you are”, I scraped together a sentence.
By this time he had already sensed my bewildering visage at hounding me like this.
“My name is Phool Chand. Your father knows me well. Once we had gone to Ferozpur to sell some of our animals. There we ran into a quarrel with some mischievous elements. Then it was your father who had come to our rescue. Despite our being strangers it did not take him much time to figure out who was on the wrong side and in spite of being the owner of only one hand dared the gang of culprits to come to blows. So far as I remember I saw you there watching the whole incident from sideline. Even when once they were in some aggressive mood you had tried to hold your father back. Later when we had a cup of tea with your father he introduced you to all of us. You were a boy around fifteen then. I still remember you did not speak much. I can’t be sure whether a whispered ram-ram had escaped your lips or not.”
“Oh, I remember”, I wanted to ask something more as it may not have been an earth shattering coincidence to have met a man 10 years after but still it was worth some conversation but I couldn’t.
“How is your father doing? I had met him last four years ago. Though he seemed quite happy and zestful as he is but….”
“But what…”, I couldn’t resist as I felt concerned.
“He was not his usual self. Every time we took animals to Ferozpur we used to meet him there. But last time he came across a bit different.”
Thank God it was nothing serious, I was relieved.
“Don’t you go to Ferozpur anymore”, I didn’t have much curiosity but just to advance the confab for the sake of de rigueur I asked.
“No, now we too have an animal market here though not as big as is there in Ferozpur.”
In the same breath he continued.
“Do you still live in that village near Ferozpur. What it was called. Yes, Shergarh.”
“No, in those days kaka (father) had grown too involved with buying and selling of animals therefore he had taken a small house on rent only for himself. I visited him sometimes. Now we live at our ancestral village near Bahawalpur.”
He nodded and asked, “so, where you are headed now. Can I help you?”
Emmmmm. I was taking my time. Because the person had a very kind countenance and affectionate mien my tendency to neglect him remained dormant. And then he was now well versed with my father.
“I……don’t know actually.”
He was surprised. “What do you mean by I don’t know.” The expression of bewilderment sprinkled with a sagacity spurted out with an over emphasis on the phrase ‘I don’t know’.
“You are a young man. Your feet and head ought to be in tandem”, the tone was a measured median between that of familiar and stranger.
“I have left my home. I am just walking on the road. I don’t know where it will lead me.”
What I was doing? Why I was giving away to stranger who I had met only once in my life time that too only formally. I had never been so outspoken in my life. Perhaps I too wanted to speak to someone after a week of silence. Perhaps he was giving me what I needed.
“Do your parents know where you are?”
“I had… given them hints that I may go on journeying”, I despite trying hard couldn’t say the truth that they had no idea of my wanderings. My fumbling and use of word ‘hint’ must have had a tinge of falsehood attached to it for Phool Chand ji to catch easily but he didn’t say anything nor did he countenance an skeptical look.
That day on that desolate road almost on the cusp of becoming invisible I, to my own utter surprise and if my family were ever to know about it, to their disbelief, had been talking to a stranger as though I had known him even more profoundly than my father had. Much of it had to do with sheer tranquil demeanor of that person. And may be days of silence.
Breaking his pensiveness I asked. “What you are doing here?”
“I. I am on my way to home. I don’t have even a camel. I live in a village here. Just three kos (approximately two miles) from here. It is dusk now. I am like elder brother to you. You have been walking continuously for seven days. You must be totally knackered down. Actually you are as I can see. I would insist you stay over today at my home.”
He continued, “spend night at my home. Have fresh food and then go back home”.
“I know your father. He must have gone mad by now. And as for mothers you know how they are”.
Now it was my turn to be pensive. Though I would have loved to take much needed respite from my walking still I had some reservations about taking this risk with a stranger. Actually I am wrong here. I just did not want to break my momentum. Despite all the hardships I had loved every bit of my being out on the road. Besides I also feared change. What if an alien familial environ had me into the same shackles I wished to break.
He continued, “God has given me this opportunity to return the favor on part of your father. Please help me in this. Don’t say no.”
If some reservations had been keeping me away from nodding ascent then curiosity and weakness were pressing hard to answer in affirmation. My father’s favor to him helped me take the decision.
“Yaar, what is to be thought over here? Let’s walk. We should be home as soon as possible. Darkness is growing. My family will be worrying for me.”
What did not strike me earlier struck me now. His this sentence hit me. Did I ever think of my family? Wouldn’t my mother be distressed? Wouldn’t my father be bearing anxiety? My younger brothers must have been feeling my absence. And my grandfather must be consoling, praying and inquiring about me here or there in his usual mumblings. Am I too selfish chasing my own unknown and mysterious pleasures? The deluge of all these thoughts had me wanting to return back at once. No sooner had I pulled myself together we both were walking together.
“Where does this road go?”
“Dilli. It is 90 kos from here.”
“Dilli. Only 90 kos.”
Dilli. I was astonished and delighted. For us Dilli was an alien town where grand Mughal Zafar ruled once. It was another matter that now he had been dead. Though how many in my village knew all this I can’t say. We couldn’t have imagined in our wildest imagination to ever have been able to see this great capital which had so many kings and Sultans pulled towards its beauty and splendor. None in my entire family had walked so long to come over to the capital of Hindustan to sell our animals a work my ancestors did and which my father carried on despite being a reader of mythology. For them Ferozpur was their Dilli.
My delight knew no bounds. All of a sudden my feet had a new energy in them. Now once again they wanted to own me. They too wanted to set themselves on the sacred zameen (land) of Dilli. For people like us even that was a luxury. Not everybody in the villages could have even afforded to hear stories about Dilli much less walk on its land.
I had heard that Dilli was home to the greatest of the poets of the time. One thing that my father did not like about me was my poetry. For him poetry and poverty went together. With his twenty acres he always deemed himself quite better off and relatively he really is.
“What happened? The mention of Dilli seems to have animated you”, Phool Chandji had caught my ebullience.
“Yes, back in village I often heard about Dilli. And now I am so near. I never thought this peregrination would lead me here. I can’t believe it.”
“But 90 kos is not small distance.”
“You are forgetting. I have been walking for seven days.”
Travels even without set aim sometimes spring up destinations we have always had a yearning for. Perhaps regardless of traveler’s interest in destination the soul of travel always wants the traveler to measure his travel not only in terms of experience but milestones too.
En route his home Phool Chandji told me he too had been a farmer but because he did not have land of his own he often took other’s land to be harvested and retained 50% of the produce to himself which he sold to earn some money. It was just enough to subsist.
Phool Chand struck me as a person of lively and to some extent of curious but not an argumentative dispensation. It hurt me that sometimes he tended to be obsequious. We touched upon a gamut of issues ranging from farmer’s concerns to more sophisticated issues like education. Of course he was different. In a life spent on dealing with animals and crops he had time for education and issues. He told me about his desire to have his son educated so that he could become teacher. When I asked why teacher and not say police he said he wanted his son to feel peaceful than powerful because powerful may not be happy but a peaceful person is always happy and a happy person is good for everyone around him. When I asked what he meant by ‘peaceful’ he explained his ‘peaceful’ referred to a life without hassles. It hurt me to see the word peace being reduced to such a skimmed and hollow interpretation but still the fact that he preferred ‘peace’ over ‘power’ was peace-inducing. When I enquired whether he was happy he told me only about the leftover distance we were yet to cover to reach his home. Then he gave me a jolt when he threw a question. Having heard him I knew three generation down his family will be important socially too.
“Now we know Zafar is dead. When did he die I don’t know. But I can’t forget the blood-letting these British played in Dilli fifteen years ago. Even children were not spared.”
I was gob-smacked. Not many people in my village even knew who their king was or is. Neither did anyone bother to know. Was it proximity to capital or a student lurked in a farmer I didn’t know but for all his flaws which seemingly lay comatose but still dictated their terms on his likable disposition Phool Chandji was increasingly becoming worthy of reverence.
I remained silent.
We were completely in the grip of darkness sifted through light of moon. Though October is not that cold yet waves encompassing smattering of chill have started to knock on the night.
The walk to his home was a refreshing change as I had for the first time in couple of weeks a person by my side giving me company.
By the time we reached his home everyone had already been to bed. In fact we didn’t get to see any person barring few chowkidaars hollering in the street.
It was a mud house. A central four feet opening blocked with an iron metal sheet in the boundary wall facing the straw roofed annex around 15 feet away supported by three wooden pillars of the house passed off as main door. Outside the annex on my right was a buffalo and calf tethered to a peg sitting chewing the cud. Courtyard was mud plastered. Beyond that what was there night obscured. In the annex a charpoyee (rustic bedstead) on the left side had a old man sleeping on it. Phool Chandji knocked at the door in the annex. A few moments after the door opened. I waited for him to enter first. I could see two occupied and two unoccupied charpoyees resting in the open space in front of a long rectangular room which they told me was their saal. His son seemed around 12 or 13. A girl who I presume to be his daughter must have been around 10. During our entire journey I didn’t hear even a word about her. His wife who I presumed had opened the gate was nowhere to be seen. He went inside the saal and emerged with another charpoyee which he brought out and sat down for me in the annex at some distance from the old man to his left. He pointed me to a small wall across which lay a bucket with a hand pump near by. As I was trying to make sense of a new arrangement he was there with a dhoti and a kurta. He requested I refused. He insisted I relented. Though I was in no mood to bath at a new place I couldn’t resist the temptation. Every fiber of my being was longing for snaan (bath). Wall had inserted in it a nail where I could hang my clothes. Now I could see them how soiled, dirty and filthier they were. The reek of my clothes must have been hard on Phool Chandji. May be I had gotten this chance to make myself anew and purge myself off all what was stinking. Water of the hand pump was warm. I filled the bucket, washed my clothes, put them on the wall to be dried up and splashed water over me. By the time I came out Phool Chandji was ready in the annex with two thalees (plates) resting on a wooden slab on my charpoyee. On my way I had glimpsed his wife, a veiled woman in her late twenties sitting before the chulha (mud stove). During the meal we didn’t talk much. My father’s good deed had stood me in good stead where I least expected.
It was yet not mid night. May be, still a couple of hours away. I was warming myself in an embroidered quilt. I looked at old man who would snore for few minutes and then let silence sitting on the lap of a mysterious droll prevail. It was a special occasion. Days of walking had earned me the golden gift of charpoyee and warmth of quilt. The company of an old man only added to my idyllic pleasure. My mind raced back to the days when only a week ago I had a tiff with my father who had been distressed at my squandering time away either in wandering around or in scribbling poetry as I thought it was. He had three more sons and two daughters besides me to be taken care of and being the eldest I was expected to contribute to family earning either by tilling fields or by securing a job anywhere preferably near the home.
The walking of a week had me totally in the grip of the bliss that this charpoyee offered. No longer was it a general activity that I used to do so unconsciously. I was relishing every moment of the touch of gudar (padding from old tattered clothes) and quilt. I would dangle my legs from charpoyee and savor the assured roof over my head. Everything that was so normal only a week ago was now manna from heaven. I stared at roof of the annex for a while and before I knew amidst the snoring of old man I fell asleep.
A bar of sarangi (a violin like music instrument) woke me up. The melody was so saccharine that I wished to hear it again. I rose up from charpoyee and gazed around. The charpoyee of the old man was unoccupied with blanket placed on head side neatly folded. Old man was nowhere to be seen. I stood up and walked to courtyard. There he was, sitting on a mooda (a stool made of cane) near the gate absorbed in playing sarangi. I sidled up to him, picked up a slab of wood from a heap perhaps being used as fuel and sat down on it. For a while he kept playing. Never ever had I experienced the beauty of music for so long from so close. When finally he came out of his infectious trance he was shocked to see me.
“Oh, when did you come?”, a shocked smile let the words out.
“Just a while ago”, I answered reciprocating his smile.
“You play so well. I did not mind being woken up”, my lips again stretched.
He did not respond to my encomium cum assurance.
“I seek apology. It just slipped out of my mind that you were sleeping. I shouldn’t have played today”, he sounded apologetic genuinely.
“No, no, don’t say this. I would want to hear more. I love music. I am so fortunate to have heard it. You know even good music is not in the reach of poor man. We have to make do with whatever beggars play.”
Something jolted him as if I had appropriated the bars of his music the remnants of which still floated around the mount of dry dung not far from us.
“I too am amateur”, his opening up followed his discomfiture.
At this he realized I was sitting on the ground. It was midnight. The blowing of cold waves could have been felt as they fluttered our clothes.
“Have you gone mad? You will fall ill. Stand up. There is a mooda along side the head of my charpoyee. Bring it. But don’t sit on ground”, he almost ordered while beckoning to his charpoyee.
I stood up, brought the mooda, sat it down near him and parked myself down.
Holding the sarangi in one hand and bow in another he had been sitting in a position which fitted perfectly his stocky built and beady eyes. He seemed to love this hummed silence of night so much that he allowed his own temptation to play sarangi only as much as a dotting grandfather would allow a six year old grandson a free reign once out in the crowd. This thought was distressing for me as I wanted to hear more of his sarangi. He had been stargazing as if someone were waving at him from up there. This sight made for a wonderful painting on the canvas of my eyes.
It seemed a strange night. It was not that I was experiencing the moonlight for the first time but yet there was something romantic about it. I was newly married. For all my traveling I never missed my wife. Though there were times I would think of her misfortune. Never ever for once she crept into my mind wearing such romantic thoughts. My child hood, my parents, my sister, my grandparents and my days in school compound when sneaked in my thoughts at least they brought a sense of nostalgia but she sauntered into the alleyways of mind like those whose sight met my eyes only during this journey. His sarangi had me rolled over into a feeling I had long been yearning for. I loved every tract of this mysterious land.
I don’t know about him as he was lost in his thoughts but I could see a dog lying alongside a corner that turned to our left. The fabric of night appeared too eager to be embroidered with the street that was so deserted now, not even a chowkidaar made his way towards this home. But this desolation had in it a motherly embrace that I liked and I am sure old man liked it too. Old man stretched his legs and put the sarangi down on ground. He looked at me and chortled. I responded. Only then did I realize that his one leg was crippled. Till then the bamboo stick resting on ground was a stick of an old man not a support of a handicap. With his strange white flowing beard, bald scalp and coal like dark complexion he made for an ultimate character. Any artist would have loved to enrich his art with this treasure of aesthetics. His stargazing posture only made me thank my stars. I don’t know what kind of person he was in his youth and how he looked like but now age had endowed him with a power that shone his swarthiness. Was it his sarangi or my love for music I can’t say but every sentence that dropped off his lips carried a force which made me hang on to them.
“Who are you?” The tinge of curiosity may have prompted him to ask this question.
“I am Ram Narayan. I live in a village quite far from here. Near Bahawalpur. My father is a farmer but sometimes he becomes teacher for the kids in neighborhood.”
“Good. Then you too must be a knowledgeable man.”
“No, I don’t know anything. I dropped out of school after learning some basics. I fiddle with some poetry which my father doesn’t like.”
“No, no, it can’t be possible. Every father likes it when his son possesses something special.”
“No, he is furious when anyone calls me kavi (poet).”
“Do you like being called so?”
“Then why do you object at your father taking offence at this moniker?”
He puckered his brows as if to extract an answer. And then went on to explain it away himself.
“See. I think, it’s not that your being a kavi which hurts your father. But he doesn’t want you to be blind to reality. Do you consider yourself a kavi.”
“No, I don’t. Writing poetry is not easy.”
“But he thinks you do.”
It did not trouble me to have been questioned by old man in such a direct way. On the contrary he was helping me pour it all out.
“Do you earn some money?”
“No, I don’t.”
“That’s why your father is worried about you.”
And then he added, “are you married?”
“Yes, I am.”
“What else can a poor father do other than worrying?”
“But I don’t feel like married.”
“I don’t know why. I can’t say. I just can’t help it.”
“Is your wife not a good girl?”
“No, it doesn’t have anything with her being good or bad. Actually she is everything you can ask for in a wife. It is just that she doesn’t make my heart throb. She doesn’t make me feel want her. See, I have been out now for a week and I am happy. No pangs of parting. No memories. Nothing. Isn’t it strange?”
“Huuun. Very demanding, like.. in stories”, old man sighed with his face stooped.
He cut short the subject there and then.
“Anyway, where are you heading to?”
“I don’t know.”
“But if you are giving your feet so much trouble….. I could see the exhaustion on your face, you must have some idea.”
“No. No, I don’t feel exhausted. On the contrary I enjoy it. I believe no pleasure is complete without its share of pain and vice versa.”
“Good thought and that’s why you enjoy inflicting pain on your feet and body.”
“Where is pain?” , I just burst out. “It is pleasure. You need to bake the dough in a hearth to give it its shape and value.”
“Good. But I meant when it will be dawn what direction will your feet move in?”
“I know that Dilli is not that far so I would want to see it.”
“It is 90 kos from here and you don’t have anything with you. I mean food, money etc.”
“That doesn’t deter me. And I have a night’s rest and memories of your sarangi.”
“Have you ever been to Dilli”, I couldn’t have resisted any temptation to ask about a place I had been so near to.
“Yes, I lived there. In my youth. I was a mendicant back then.”
He read for some time contours of my face and then said.
“You were right. Even today you heard only a beggar.”
Truth be told it took me quite a while to digest the truth that I had been sitting and talking with a beggar for so long now. For those few moments all my thoughts had left me alone. There was just a body left in the company of this wretched creature. No amount of mythological stories which my father had taught me in child hood had prepared me to withstand such profound nearness of an untouchable. If my family ever came to know this how many rituals will they have to undergo to sanctify me. Still perhaps it was my reasoning deportment that helped me stay on. In addition his music wore the brilliance of a true devotee not the compulsion of having to earn bread.
“What happened? I can understand your being tongue-tied. Not everybody can be a Phool Chand.”
The mention of Phool Chandji brought me back to old man.
Phool Chandji was not an untouchable. This whetted my curiosity. How did old man who I respected but now was not father of Phool Chandji as I had thought him to be ended up here. My apprehensions gave way to a sense of wonder.
“So Phool Chandji is not your son?”
“No. He is not my son. Though the way he looks after me I feel as if he were my son.
He has given me shelter, respect, a life of dignity, a family, grandson and in return I can’t do anything for him.”
Deep down my heart my reverence for that poor soul grew manifold.
“What brought you here from Dilli?”
“You must have heard about year 57. It was a juggernaut which took away everything that was mine form me. I don’t know what was going on. But it was not like other years. For a mendicant like me what mattered more than end’s meal. I didn’t even get to see them. Somebody told me Angrez (British) were on a killing spree. My wife and son both got killed by Angrez. I was at kotwali then. When I rushed to Taraiah, a place nearby I lost my leg when a horse cart ran me over. I was unfortunate more than them in the sense that neither did I die nor did I remain a complete banda (human being). Phool Chand was in Dilli. Must be for some work. He is very kind hearted person. When he saw me on the ground in that battered state he lifted me and put in his bullock cart. That’s how I ended up at this place.”
The munificent of Phool Chandji had left me awe struck. In this world when custodians of education behave so eerily and stoopily here was a simple poor self effacing farmer setting examples for all of us to follow.
I wanted to ask him about his religion and caste but something stopped me short of that.
After a violent gush I was back to normal. Once again the poor mendicant’s flowing white beard had him radiant in darkness of night.
“How old was your son?”
“Fifteen. He would have been a young man now and with God’s grace a father too.”
While telling me about how 57 changed his life old man wore a pensive visage but did not let past overhaul the present. Now as the talk turned to his son’s pillaged future old man was gloomy and saturnine. Every word was dragging him towards a deep pit. Not words but sarangi helped him much better to heal his wounds. As my eyes fell upon sarangi resting in his lap like a child I asked.
“How do you spend your day?”
“Nothing. Some prattle with neighborhood geriatrics and sometimes I play sarangi in local keertans (religious functions). There is mosque here, nearby. I visit it too, sometimes, not regularly. May be I see my God in Phool Chand.”
“Does he like your music?”
“My music!”, he said with an unusual mix of blush, content and disbelief. “I am not musician but he is kind enough to admire whatever I can play.”
“Didn’t I say? You play really well. Far better than mendicants can. You could have been court magician too.”
“Court magician!” Old man didn’t comprehend.
“I meant you could have been playing for kings and earn good money.”
“Ram Narayan ji you are forgetting. I am untouchable so my music too is unlistenable from inside the threshold.”
Once again he reminded me the of the importance of ji but this time one another word that he rolled over inadvertently into my mind was ‘threshold’. Does threshold mark our limits? Does threshold measure the reach of our steps? Is threshold a protective sheath or a segregating line? I have no answers. But I know society loves thresholds and they protest and punish if breach happens.
I left off this new subject that sprung up in our conversation and reverted back to his music.
“You said you can’t give him anything in return but you bless him with music.”
“Yes. That’s all I can do for him.”
“I think it is not a small thing. How many lay people are fortunate enough to have a musician at their disposal. Only kings are lucky ones. So Phool Chandji is quite lucky in having you here. As I said your sarangi just pierced down my heart. You are the giver of rapture.”
“Let it all go. I am past. You are future. I am following the decay. I don’t know what you are following but some inspiration has kept you walking. You are blooming.”
Old man turned a little poesy.
“You know even what seems unmelodic today sometimes becomes nostalgia. Why don’t you tell me something about your nostalgia? I mean about Dilli when you lived there.”
“My wife and my son were very fond of the city. They would wander about the streets singing bhajans (religious hymns) and I would play sarangi. And this is how we would subsist. I don’t know much about Dilli. Most often we never moved beyond our area that was called Asharfi ka Katra. But I have heard names like Kashmiri gate, Mori gate, Kabuli gate, Lahori gate, Ajmeri gate etc. We were poor illiterate people. What we had to do with city and its politics. We used to think it didn’t matter to us who ruled the city. And then one day a whirlwind came and swept away everything that I had. Anyway why talk about it now.”
“Have you written anything of late?”, old man changed the subject.
“Not very much.”
“You have been walking lately. The paper of road and the pen of feet. A great combination for poetry to sprout.”
“I know back home the lullabies of distance must have had the tough time to put my mother to sleep.”
“I like it.”
The night had yet not started to give way to dawn. But I was worrying over the pace of the time. I don’t know why but I had come to like the company of that old man who once was a mendicant. I have never known what it is like to spend time with a beautiful girl but this phogey swarthy bald man became sort of my refuge, a comfort factor I was so relaxed in. Within deep down my hearts I was literally pleading and imploring to night to become still and stay there and then. The realization of time being on the move frightened me. If I had the leash of time in my hand I would have stopped it even at the cost of being a brutish. I knew I had been trapped into the ephemeral moribund feelings but the old man seemed content at his fake but comfortable fate which could never have been better than his original fate. I felt as if my life were like this old man. Who would love him until one listened to his talks and sarangi. Who would want to spend time with him until one recognized the parable of hoariness lurked behind the hirsute visage.
“What are you thinking?”
“I am missing my parents, my family.”
After a lull I mouthed that truth which I couldn’t tell to Phool Chandji.
“They must be worrying. I did not tell them when I left home. I feel like returning home. This one night of break in my walking seems to be making me weaker and muddle minded.”
“Look, you said you liked whatever you heard of my sarangi. You may have appreciated this music in the din of the day too but this silence and this darkness helped you discern even the most fugacious and nascent note and hence the pleasure was more deeper. Similarly we need darkness and silence to catch those nascent and minute notes lying hidden or obscured in us.”
“Will you play sarangi for me. I want to listen to music.”
Old man picked the sarangi up from the ground and started to roll the bow on the strings with his eyes closed. The silence of the night which occasionally let some distant sounds to permeate in was only too happy to give him the company. The sound of the sarangi transformed itself into an itch of pleasure. He tried to tell me the name of the raga. I deliberately did not hear. Few moments after, the tears that coursed down my cheeks were not only manifestation of my admiration for old man’s sarangi but also for the quest I had set for myself. Every strain of music that sarangi gave birth to sprang up millions of stars on earth too. As the old man transformed himself into the world of his past to meet his son through the heart throbbing bars same bars began to open before me a world I had to walk to and embrace. Tears in my eyes only intensified what was yet not real and tangible and mitigated the thought that walking is only exhaustion. All that I could see through my tear drowned eyes sitting on mooda near that makeshift gate of that mud house was path spreading itself before me. I knew instantly I had to go. Footsteps were waiting. Bars of his music had been turned into a teacher nudging his dear pupil to break the threshold.
Through narrow unpaved filth littered streets and earthy roads as I worked my way to the main road lingered in my ears the strains of old man's sarangi whose silken touch made sure I feel warm even in my half dried clothes in that cold October morning. First stream of light was yet a few hours away but it was an invariable truth. The thought of a bright morning petrified me. Wetness seemed to have started to comfort me. But for us poor people fever was a big illness. I couldn’t have afforded to risk my life. I was ready to welcome and embrace the first stream of sunlight. My feet feeling the pinch of a new pair of juttis had begun to smell the dust of Dilli. The sound of ‘Ram Narayan ji’ will no longer be odd.