Across the Bridge - Chapter 4
Continued from “Belt-Man with Clay-Pipe”
Shambhu Das had sixty bighas of land.
Shambhu did not have any land to call his own in his youth. He was a peasant who lived by toiling in the land rented from the landlords. Part of the land he owned now, was acquired soon after the independence from the British when Sardar Patel, the Home Minister and deputy to Prime Minister Nehru, abolished jamindari, the land lordship. Patel decreed that those who cultivated the land would be the owners. Any peasant could claim the land on this ground. Payment of dasguna, ten times the annual tax, and a quick signing of the papers would give the peasant the title and sole ownership of the land. Also, Patel declared a ceiling on the land holdings under one title. Having some advance knowledge of this upcoming law, the landlords transferred the farmland they cultivated with hired help to as many names as they could to the extent that the existence of some non-existent children was forged who were given title of the maximum allowed land. In some cases, the landlords also tried to fire the peasants from the rented land but that was not possible as the peasants were also aware of the upcoming law and there were restrictions on firing a peasant without reason, particularly at that time, as it would clearly indicate that that was done to circumvent the upcoming law. This law had become a common knowledge soon and as every other news, it spread there like wildfire, even faster. This knowledge did not save the landlords and peasants from paying the officials standard bribes for the officials could still inflict damage onto the “offenders;” besides, bribes were a part of the culture of the place at that time. However, the peasants could not save certain things of value on the property like the trees that the landlords removed before the peasants got their titles.
One of those days, Shambhu, whom the children in neighborhood normally called Baba ji, Grandpa, was working in one of his rented fields. The patwari in charge approached him, pulled out a couple of sheets of paper, “Place your lousy thumb impression here,” he hollered, “and wash your filthy hands first.”
In spite of its low status in the bureaucratic hierarchy, a patwari was a highly feared official and being rude was one of his unofficial duties. Patwaris, being the record keepers, were frequently successful in assigning the title of some land to unlawful owners on some technical grounds or just by falsifying the records. To be able to do such things was a skill, they were immensely proud of and considered the bribes they received as their legitimate remuneration for the skill. For such reasons, the peasants and landlords had grossly over-rated the powers of a patwari. The old ladies like Sanjo frequently told children the story of a white district magistrate and an old lady. The district magistrate was the highest-ranking official in the hierarchy, so much so that no Indian was allowed to occupy the position during earlier times; a patwari was the lowest in the same hierarchy. According to the legend, a magistrate riding a horse passed by an old lady who had collected a bundle of grass, which was too heavy for her to lift. She asked the rider to help her place the bundle on her head and he obliged. The old lady thanked the magistrate by blessing, “May God bless you my son, and reward you with the position of a patwari in your next life.” It is about impossible to believe that a British official would be caught travelling without an entourage including police for security; so this had to be just a fable. Nevertheless, it gives a glimpse into the status of a patwari in the rural communities during those times.
Grandpa immediately complied obediently, by washing his hands and drying with his loincloth to make a clear thumb impression. The patwari shoved grandpa’s left thumb in his inkpad, which was dry as the desert sand. The thumb was rubbed and rubbed but would not make a legible impression on the trial paper. “This matherchod too has to dry now,” the patwari cursed and of course it could not be considered his fault for not carrying a proper inkpad. He continued, “Where were you when God was distributing kismet? Is there anything written on your filthy forehead, except starvation? You karmaheen, even the pad dries when it is your turn. And why did you dry your hands? Got any buffalo shit inside your head or not?”
Grandpa wet his thumb immediately. Neither grandpa nor the patwari noticed the fact that the type of ink used was not soluble in water, although water could make some of it come out, usually not in the form that would make an acceptable mark Not surprisingly, it would not leave an acceptable impression no matter how much the thumb was rubbed on the pad.
“I told you, all the luck has gone to the others as is this ink,” the patwari continued, “get some bullock dung, bullshit, that is all you have in your fate.”
They looked around but there was not a piece of dung in sight, which was unusual as the bullocks working in the fields were dropping it regularly, which lend credibility to the assertion of patwari that the grandpa was completely devoid of kismet.
“Do you feed them anything?” the patwari started again, “It is the grass, animal feed, that transforms into shit in bullocks’ tummies but would you understand. No shit in their asses as there is none in yours, not even as much as to shove your measly thumb in it.”
This standard patwari talk was not bothering Grandpa a bit, he was smiling all the time but would have liked to get it over with. There appeared to be no solution in sight; so the patwari tried to produce some tone in the pad by sprinkling some water over it and pounding it with his palm.
Grandpa had a cow, which had expired recently some years after blessing him with two calves, one year apart, whom he called Khaira and Gora, meaning their colors, grey and white, respectively. The cow had given birth to these calves some years after she had stopped re-producing. For this reason, it was considered a kind of a miracle that she produced calves at such an advanced age. The cows almost always gave a signal when they were ready to conceive by mooing nonstop and trying to break the ropes tying them to the pegs to break free. The farmers then would take them to a village ox, which was allowed to roam free. Its only duty was to impregnate the cows in the area. The breeding ox ate from the farms; it was quite fair as it ate evenly from all of the fields, which was likely the result of it being semi-domesticated as were the village dogs who went from house to house to ask for food and left after receiving a small amount. In return, they protected the village from thieves by barking and even attacking if any strangers were spotted during the nights. Their sense of recognition was as acute as the dogs are known for. No resident of the village was ever bothered even if one returned after spending long periods at some faraway place. The village ox also exhibited some traits like the semi-domesticated dogs. Grandpa’s cow had stopped giving the signal years earlier and he did not even notice that she had gotten pregnant until an advanced stage. It appears that the cow had a secret rendezvous with the ox, no one knows how and when. In any case, Khaira was born. After that, the grandpa started creating opportunities for the cow to meet her ox. About a year later, Gora was born. Some years later, the cow died without producing any more offspring.
By now, Khaira and Gora were mature enough to be taken to the fields to get them used to the environment before they could be trained to work. Khaira was just wandering around, eating from the field as it pleased. While the patwari was pounding the inkless pad with his palm, and cursing nonstop, Khaira passed by, dropped a hunk of dung beside them and mooed. The patwari immediately shoved grandpa’s thumb into the hunk of dung and then on to the paper. By now he was too frustrated to place the thumb on a spare piece of trial paper to check if the consistency of the fluid on thumb was appropriate before placing it on the legal document. Perfect thumb impression! But the patwari was not finished.
“Thank the old cow in heaven for throwing dirt into your eyes to go to her y’ar, that horny ox. Your claim is filed; I mean, will be filed the day after tomorrow when I go to the kachehari; haramjade, not a burrow till today and now you own these pastures; go pay dasguna, and do it soon, I mean, after I give you your filing papers and invoice, early next week, or who knows, given your kismet, ....”
He went on as he handed a copy of the claim, which he had signed before leaving his home. Whether Grandpa placed his thumb impression on his copy or not was not patwari’s concern. However, Grandpa made sure to place a good thumb impression with the dung of course, on his copy before the patwari could leave as he asked, “Will it be acceptable?”
“You’ll find out when you’ll have to pay dasguna, you think you can get out of it now and don’t forget my commission, I’ll come to collect it tomorrow, today I have to butt my head against a dozen more asses like you.”
Grandpa did not bother to ask him if he was going to get a proper inkpad before going to those dozen asses; probably he assumed that there must be plenty of dung on the farms, otherwise the patwari would find something else, what, he didn’t care, it was no longer his concern. His problem was to make sure that the patwari’s commission was paid the next day, otherwise, he understood well that his claim would not be filed the day after tomorrow.
While all this was going on, Khaira had walked over to an old white bullock, which grandpa had bought recently from the Landlord. In fact, he had gone to borrow some money to buy a bullock but the Landlord seized this opportunity to get rid of that old bullock. Grandpa on the other hand, realized that he did not have much choice. Besides, no cash payment was to be made at that time, he would pay of course but later and the landlord was “kind” enough not to charge any interest; so the deal, if not fair, was not all that bad either. Khaira had placed itself behind the old white bullock and then with a sudden jump with its front legs, it mounted onto the white bullock and as it did, a large pink carrot like thing popped out of the furry bronze skin between its hind legs.
“This bastard does not know the difference between a bullock and a cow,” the patwari commented as Grandpa rushed to bring Khaira under control.
“Don’t you know when it is time to make a calf badhia you, idiot? The patwari got yet another chance, “Take it to Hazi Pur, that Abdul will crush its testicles so well that it will never even think of a cow, let alone trying to mount her.”
Khaira, for its part responded obediently to the order of its owner but managed to urinate on the old white bullock before dismounting. Then it mooed.
The patwari, for his part, was still at it, “That Abdul enjoys doing it very much particularly to the calves of the Hindus and the money he charges is just the bonus. Why do you think these Muslims slaughter cows and eat their meat? Who do you think would enjoy slaughtering an animal, all that blood and the mess? And who would enjoy eating meat? Have you not noticed the foul smell of decomposing meat? That is how it must decompose inside their stomachs. You think they enjoy it? No, they do it just to offend the Hindus.”
Grandpa had already ordered Bhuvan, Parasu’s son, “Run along and bring ata-gur and I mean run, not walk.”
In no time, Bhuvan came back with a number of balls made with flour and juggery; his grandmother even added some oil to them; there was no butter in the house. Grandpa remarked as he took the tray from Bhuvan’s hands, “How did you manage to be so fast with your little seven-years old legs?”
At first, Bhuvan looked at Grandpa with dismay but then understood that it was a complement. Expecting further praise, he responded, “And I even told grandma how Khaira helped us acquire these fields, while she was making the balls.”
“Very observant boy,” the patwari remarked, “raise him well, he’ll go far.”
Patwari’s work was done; now he would only be wasting his time there. So he left with a remark, “Oh yes, do not forget my commission and remember Parasu is a patwari now,” an obvious hint that he expected more than the standard bribe.
Grandpa became busy feeding balls to the bullocks. Khaira got four, Gora got three and all the other bullocks, two each, except the white old one as only one ball was left for it. Grandpa was not discriminating, after all this too was his own bullock now. It is just that grandma had counted two for Gora as for each of all the others except for Khaira, two extra as its reward. Later in the late afternoon, Khaira was taken home after leaving others in the barn. Grandma rushed with a jug of water, which she poured over the hooves of Khaira. From this time on, Khaira, and with it Gora, were treated like persons, members of the family; so shall we. Gora got this treatment for being the younger brother of Khaira.
After this thanking ritual, Khaira was taken to its usual place in the barn. In the evening, Grandpa spent quite long time with the statue of his Lord Shiva, which everyone thought was to thank the Lord for blessing him with the land.
A peasant could go to the kachehari to file his claim, where he would be paying another “fee” and endure some cursing. In the kachehari, the peasant could get his invoice immediately or could be waiting for ever or could be told to come back another day depending on how much “commission” he was willing to pay. The same applied to paying dasguna and getting the title to the land. Patwaris were quite keen at keeping the extra commission in their pockets although they couldn’t keep all of it as they had to pay in kachehari to get the receipt, invoice and all that. However, the rate for the patwaris was lower than the peasants. Thus, the patwaris did save some of it. So, they were going to the peasants, have them sign the claims and deliver the invoices to them. Then the peasants could go to the district kachehari to pay dasguna. Patwaris would have liked to keep that part of the work for themselves too but they were not authorized to issue the titles. For the peasants, it was more convenient to do it through their patwaris. Besides, no peasant would want to irk a patwari. As for Parasu, he was no patwari, he had only a seasonal appointment with limited assignment; therefore, he had no opportunity to cash in on this bonanza. He was expecting to become a full-fledged patwari, which did happen but some years later. Until then, he had to apply every year although applying was only a formality and it was more like a renewal of the term. Few years after the independence, seasonal employees were paid a retainer for the remainder of year and were recalled in the beginning of next season. Then the assignments of some of them were extended and thus, they became regulars. The remaining ones still had to wait hoping to become the full-fledged ones someday.
The amount of land Parasu’s father acquired in this manner was only thirty-five bighas. Another twenty-five bighas came in time. During the old feudal system, it was very difficult to purchase the land. The landlords had no interest in selling for obvious reasons and the peasants had none to sell. Therefore, even though Parasu was making some money and had saved over the years, although not much, Grandpa could not buy any. As the old feudal system gave way to a freer market economy as a result of the fact that there were so many legitimate land-owners now, buying and selling became possible. Grandpa kept increasing his land holdings slowly. His income increased as his farmland increased, which helped further. Still to get to the sixty bigha, he had to wait for Parasu to become a regular. Slowly, grandpa did become the owner of sixty bighas of land, a farmer.
Continued to “Flower in a Sari”