Across the Bridge – Chapter 25
Continued from “Battle of Kesari Nagar”
Things were moving fast and the initial impact of Rehamatullah’s treachery had faded somewhat. Grandpa was waiting for things to cool down before touching the issue. One morning, while he was sitting on his cot pondering, to determine how to proceed, Rehamatullah came running to him, pale and shaking like an autumn leaf, “Ratnu is after me Pundit ji, with a plough blade. I swear on the Holy Quran Grandpa, I knew nothing of the gundas attacking our village, people are wrongly suspecting me, ...”
“Now shut up and stand behind me.”
By that time Ratnu was there with his plough-blade raised in air, “Let me get to this mlechchha bastard Pundit ji, I’ll send him to jahannum with just one blow.”
“His jahannum and jannat are in Kesari Nagar. Now go do some work in the fields. We’ll talk in the evening.”
Ratnu had to leave but managed to remark as he left, “I’ll get this pig in time.”
After Ratnu left, Rehamatullah fell on his knees at the feet of Grandpa, “You know Pundit ji, Ratnu is a savage. You are the only one who can save me. You believe me Grandpa, don’t you?”
“I believe you.”
“I laid down my life to save our cart Pundit ji, I couldn’t conspire with anybody to harm our village; I swear...”
“I said, I believe you. Now, go home, nobody will harm you.”
Rehamatullah was neither convinced that Grandpa believed him nor that he would be safe in this village anymore but he left with his head bowed down.
Neither was the Landlord Mahipal Singh convinced that all that was being done was actually in his name. Pretense may fool others but it never convinces the pretender in spite of all the efforts to convince one while pretending to convince the others.
Mahipal, as the other landlords, had always acted in the manner of kings holding his court in the ‘fortress’ yard with his hookah smoking chamchas who used to come for free smokes, gossip and massaging his ego as did many animals in the court of a jackal. This proverbial jackal held its court sitting on a throne of bones painted with dirty muck and wearing old worn out shoes on its ears. The chamcha animals in its court sang:
Golden is thy throne, painted with sandal-wood paste
Diamond rings in ears, adorns it a Brave King Great
A fox passing by noticed the spectacle with amusement and went on its way smirking. It had barely reached the edge of the field by the time many curious animals had gathered there attracted by the sound of the singing chamchas. They asked this smirking fox what the spectacle was all about. The fox responded:
Heap of bones is its seat, painted with stinky muck paste
Leetras on its ears, squats on it a Coward Jackal Great
The jackal heard it. Its feelings were hurt; it let out a loud ‘hoo’ and everyone knew it for what it was. Revelation of the true identity of Mahipal took place very much later; for now, the pretense in the court continued together with indulgence in idle talk, gossip and whatever else they fancied. Among ‘whatever else they fancied’ often used to be some serious matter, which were raised rather casually.
“This pundit is getting quite bold,” the Landlord said rubbing the nozzle of his hookah on his lower lip, “Acting like a Chowdhari.”
“You are speaking the truth Chowdhari Sahib,” one of the chamchas added.
“I have wanted to say it myself for some time but hesitated for I was not sure how you’d take it,” another one tried to take some credit.
“You are the Chowdhari of this village and Chowdhar belongs to a Chowdhari.”
“He should be stopped before it is too late.” ................
It was decided by consensus that a meeting should be called to deal with the matter of treachery of the Muslims and Mahipal should take charge, “As a Chowdhari should.” It was anticipated that that would dislodge Shambhu from the position of dominance he was acquiring rapidly.
A landlord in that community would call a meeting by sending his servants to call whoever he wanted to be present. As nothing could be kept secret there, the word would spread and many ‘observers’ would gather who felt free to give their input whenever they wanted. Mahipal called his meeting that evening trying to make it a reasonable representative of the village except that no Muslim was invited and none turned up as an observer except Hasnu. In fact, as the word of the meeting spread, it was quite clear what it was about, which sent tremors among the Muslims. Hasnu rushed to Grandpa who in turn advised him to be among the observers, “That might come in handy.” Grandpa was of course invited. Mahipal introduced the topic of the meeting, “We, Hindus and Muslims, have been living amiably forever in this village but after this horrific incident, atmosphere is soured. We cannot continue living distrusting each-other forever.”
“Muslims got more than their share of land, which Pakistan has but about half of the owners of that land are in India. They must go live there.”
“Nehru decreed that Muslims can continue to live where they are in India. First they wanted Pakistan. Now that they got one, they do not want to go there.”
“On top of that, they indulge in treasonous activities like inviting gangs of thugs to attack our village.”
“We should drive them out.”
“Not before killing a few of them,” Ratnu almost screamed.
“All of them;” someone went further.
“Think with your heads, not with hearts,” another voice countered, “That will lead to riots. Do you want to create situations like borders in the interior also?” .........
No consensus was emerging and the meeting started turning chaotic. Noticing this, the Landlord Mahipal Singh called the meeting to order. However, what to do was not yet clear. No one wanted a drastic action except a few like Ratnu but no one wanted to ignore the matter either. Grandpa broke the impasse.
“Chowdhari Sahib, Hasnu has witnessed the mood of the people. Let him talk to the Muslims and get back to you. You can make the decision after the views from Muslims are also available.”
Mahipal liked the tone of Grandpa’s suggestion as it assigned the decision making authority to him but the fact that his intervention was needed to get somewhere, bothered him still. The suggestion got everybody out of a state of confusion with a possibility of a sensible decision emerging later.
Hasnu was pleased with the outcome of this meeting and gladly agreed to mediate between the Muslims and the others. Next day Hasnu did talk to Mahipal Singh and told him the other side of the story. According to the suspects, they did not conspire with the attackers; instead, would be attackers approached them and solicited their help, which they refused to provide and threatened to reveal the plot before it was carried out. The ruffians then threatened them, “If you squeak, we’ll finish you first.”
“From what they tell me Chowdhari Sahib, they kept quiet out of fear but they realize that they have done wrong and are willing to pay the penalty imposed by you,’ Hasnu concluded.
Hasnu was then dismissed.
Mahipal Singh discussed the matter in his ‘court’ with his smoking chamchas. No one believed the story but what to do was still not clear.
Mahipal called another meeting with the suspects being among the invitees. Led by Rehamatullah, they repeated the story they had told Hasnu, which was followed by a roar of, “They are telling a blatant lie.”
“They should be punished for this dishonesty in addition to their treachery.”
Mahipal intervened, “What did the gundas intend to do?”
“Probably looting Chowdhari Sahib,” Rehamatullah said in a quivering voice.
“You are supposed to help protect the village. It was your duty to alert us and help prepare to protect against such attacks.”
Rehamatullah and others stood there with their heads bowed. Suggestions for what to do were being presented by the attendees in loud voice. After a couple of puffs on his hookah, Mahipal announced, “There is no point in arguing. It is quite clear that you fellows have committed a grave mistake; you are guilty of an unforgivable crime against the village, a major sin. I ask you to suggest a fitting punishment.”
Culprits stood there silently. Yet again, after a couple of puffs on his hookah, Mahipal announced the punishment, “Five hits of shoe on the head of each; ten for Rehamatullah.” Then he took another puff to mark the conclusion of his decree.
Ratnu immediately took his shoe off. Noticing this, Mahipal added, “Not you. There is not much dishonor in being hit by a chowdhari; punishment has to be carried out by a bhangi.
A sound of ultimate vulnerability came out of Rehamatullah’s throat inadvertently, the same sound that the pig in the fields of Kesari Nagar had let out while surrendering to be slaughtered, the sound that Khatku had recalled at the battle field of El Alamein. The reaction of Rehamatullah was understandable as the punishment announced by Mahipal was the most humiliating one occasionally carried out in that community. Noticing this, Mahipal added, “Be thankful you mlechchha, according to the Islamic Shania law, you would all be beheaded.”
Come to think of it, some would consider being beheaded a lesser punishment.
“Can I say something Chowdhari Sahib?” Grandpa asked Mahipal.
“Of course you can Pundit ji,” Mahipal granted the permission with hauteur of a chief, a ruler, from his throne.
“Humiliating a fellow human being is not an honorable act. This degrades the one who humiliates no less. Also, this punishment will sour the atmosphere in the village, which is what we want to avoid.”
“Then what do you suggest Pundit ji,” Mahipal said rather irritated.
“I suggest that they seek divine guidance and forgiveness. If divinity forgives them, who are we mortals to interfere.”
“How do they do that?”
“After their usual prayers, they should seek forgiveness of God and pray for peace and tranquility in the village, and the whole country.”
“They do not pray to the same God as we do, they pray to Allah.”
“God, Paramatma, is one, we call it by different names. Mahatma Gandhi has even included this view in his verse stating that Ishwara and Allah are both ‘Your’ names.”
“Oh yes, Mahatma Gandhi!” someone from the gathering commented.
Silence followed for a couple of minutes. Then Grandpa added, “Lord Krishna has one hundred eight names; you can worship Him by any name, outcome is the same. God has many names; you can connect with Him through any name.”
There were agreements and disagreements but finally Grandpa’s solution was accepted. Grandpa then concluded with, “And Hindus should also pray for peace and tranquility in the village as well as the country.”
Mahipal turned to the accused, “You have been saved by Pundit Shambhu Das this time. You better not stray from the right path again.”
“Never Chowdhari Sahib,” Rehamatullah rushed to assure everybody. Then he touched the feet of Landlord Mahipal Singh followed by touching the feet of Grandpa, other suspects followed his gesture; so did Hasnu.
Continued to “Dirt and Dung”