Across the Bridge – Chapter 26
Continued from “From the Throne of a Jackal”
Jinnah had already launched the proxy war in Kashmir with the help of tribals who were more interested in looting and plundering than in advancing to Srinagar, the capital. This provided the king Hari Singh sufficient time to seek and receive help from India in return for his joining the Indian Union. In response, Jinnah deployed Pakistani regulars. There were still many Muslim Pakistan sympathizers in India who developed a slogan, “hans ke liya hai Pakistan, lar ke lenge Hindustan,” announcing that they took Pakistan laughing all the way and now shall take India by force of arms. Naturally, some skirmishes were the result; luckily, they never got out of hand; mostly verbal back and forth. Mahatma Gandhi had declared his intension to live in Pakistan and suggested that India should provide a road link between the West and East Pakistan. Indian leaders withheld some money, which belonged to Pakistan. Gandhi insisted that the money be released to Pakistan.
“But Jinnah buys arms with the money he gets and uses against us; it is a matter of national security Bapu ji,” argued the other leaders.
“It is a matter of honor,” responded Gandhi and went on his last fast.
Money had to be released of course. Sure enough, it was used to buy weapons and used in Kashmir. At the Bridge as in the general populace, supporters of Gandhi started having harder time defending his ways. His ‘saintly’ position was seen as a further proof of his bias towards the Muslims; his ‘ekala chalo re,’ going alone, was always a thorn in the side as it embodied his lack of adherence to the democratic principles and his going on fasts to get his ways had often been interpreted as an unfair use of his influence on the masses to get his way; his offer of prime ministry to Jinnah and all other ministerial positions to Muslims was seen as appeasement at the expense of justice and fairness; his dubious position on the principle of nonviolence had irked many during the Noakhali riots as he had advocated the use of violence by the Hindus against Hindu youths retaliating the gang killings by the Muslims. The position that he was favoring the Muslims started taking hold. Finally, this all resulted in his assassination by Nath Ram Godse, a Brahman, which led to violence against Brahmans. Godse and Apte were hanged for being the co-conspirators in spite of urgings of many to commute the sentences including two of Gandhi’s sons. Mahatma Gandhi, having been nominated for the Nobel Prize for peace four times and never having won was nominated for the fifth time. This time he was expected to be awarded as the British had already left India and a Nobel Prize to Gandhi was no longer a black eye on the imperial face. However, Godse spared whatever little embarrassment it may have caused the British by assassinating him well before the time of award.
Bhuvan still hanged mostly around his grandparents as he had gotten used to it in the absence of Patwarun. On Sundays, Grandpa was spared his consistent pestering with unanswerable questions as Parasu did his work at home this one day of the week; there were no holidays for him and the others in his kind of jobs. To keep Bhuvan from pestering him, he started giving the boy some reading, writing and other related work. As a result, Bhuvan had already learned what was taught in the school during the first year, a kind of kindergarten, even more, by the time he reached the age of five, the earliest age for children to go to school those days. There was still no school in Kesari Nagar but there was an accredited elementary school in a nearby village. A number of children from Kesari Nagar were attending that school. At five, he too started walking with the others. Most of the other students were several years older than him, some were in Bhuvan’s age group and there were in all age groups in between. Five was suitable age to start school but too young to walk through the fields and bushes as the crops were taller than him and a slithering cobra or the like, although not common, were encountered occasionally. To make the matters worse, children had to walk past the pond where the ghost of the Headless Washer man was said to lurk. As many other young kids, Bhuvan had been convinced by the older boys that the Headless Washer man did hover there to swoop over the Hindu boys whenever he got a chance. Bhuvan was always petrified while passing by that pond even with the older kids who of course did not believe the story themselves but enjoyed impressing it upon the younger kids. Sadistic pleasure of scaring little kids, particularly seeing the expression of fear on their faces, was too difficult to resist for the older kids. It was not just because of the Headless Washer man but for various other reasons also that Parasu had entrusted the care of Bhuvan to two older kids from the neighborhood that would get some treats every now and then in return.
The school had one large room referred to as the hall for the students in grades two to five with one head teacher sitting in his chair with his round wooden pole sitting on the table. The pole was about an inch and a half in diameter and about three feet in length. The teacher peered from over his glasses that sat on the lower tip of his nose on to the students sitting on the mats on floor while caressing his pole. Lashing of students had been made illegal immediately after independence but it had no effect on the practice although lashing with such a horrific weapon was unusual before as well as after. The pole was used often to strike the palms of the students but for most of the time his peering and caressing the pole was sufficient to instill immense amount of fear in the children in hall substantially diminishing a need to use it.
There was a raised yard in front of the hall for the grade one students. The beginners who were learning just to read, write and count, sat in the dirt yard in front of the raised yard. The junior teacher sat in his chair sometimes on the raised yard and at others, on the dirt yard. The students who sat in the yards took empty jute sacks from home to use as their mats to sit and took wooden planks to write on. The plank was blackened with carbon from the cooking pots and polished with a glass ring. For ink, they used a type of clay mixed with water and the pens were just the shaped pieces of canes. One day, when Bhuvan was polishing his wooden plank, his neighbor was polishing his; at the same time, he was splashing dirt on to Bhuvan`s plank. When Bhuvan complained, Siddha, the neighbor, responded that it was the wind, not him, that was blowing the dirt.
Siddha was not the boy`s real name as one should know well by now. He had once decided to achieve the state of super consciousness, enlightenment, and superior powers that came with it. To achieve his goal, he sat ‘meditating’ for long times in front of fire. In his zeal and to speed up his success, he would at times move his hand through fire and the like. One day, he took a burning piece of wood and placed it on his head. Well, Siddha discovered that he had not yet achieved the powers he was after as the fire still burned his hair and some of his skin, but he did acquire the name Siddha, the one who had achieved those powers, in the same spirit as Wrestler Boy had earned his name. Now that he had earned the name, there was no need for him to continue his quest; in fact, his father saw to it that he didn’t. His father applied some Aloe Vera pulp squeezed from a plant in his neighbor’s yard to his burn and the reprimand that came with it was sufficient to deter Siddha from pursuing his quest further.
The ‘wind’ kept on splashing the dirt on Bhuvan`s plank and Bhuvan kept on getting more and more irritated. Finally, he spotted a hunk of dung that some passing cattle must have dropped, which he picked and threw on Siddha`s plank. Siddha rushed immediately to the junior teacher and complained. The teacher called Bhuvan and slapped hard on his face. Siddha having gotten what he wanted started moving away but the teacher was not finished; he called him back and slapped on his face as well. Bhuvan got his first glimpse of the raw ‘justice,’ the first but not the last. Whatever the case, the wind no longer blew dirt on to Bhuvan`s plank.
Parasu’s tactic to keep Bhuvan from pestering him came in handy as Bhuvan graduated from the dirt yard to the raised one within a few weeks. He was pleased. It is unclear whether he was more pleased for getting into grade one or for getting rid of Siddha. He still wasn`t very far from the sight of Siddha who did manage to find ways to pinch Bhuvan when both of them were together, usually when several kids would crowd around the junior teacher. At times, Bhuvan retaliated by some mischief of his own like burying Siddha’s book in sand one day, which he considered safer than to complain to the teacher after his first experience in the operating system of justice. When the teacher called the kids in the dirt yard to read from their books, which had only the alphabets and a few pages of elementary sentences, Siddha had no book. When it was his turn to read, he alleged that somebody had stolen his book. Siddha was slapped on his face and the other kids were interrogated; all of them denied knowing anything about his book of course. They were all ordered to search for his book. The kids were looking for the books wherever they thought it could be, the dirt road, behind the trees and what not; and yes, they were kicking dirt in the yard also; and cursing Siddha who in turn was kicking the dirt himself and responding, “It’s not my fault, it is the thief’s fault,” to receive the response “You lost the book and conjured up a thief to blame.” After some time, Bhuvan did manage to kick the dirt in the right place to unearth the book, by chance of course. Siddha looked at him with piercing eyes telling that he was not fooled and that Bhuvan would have to pay for this.
Some reduction in Bhuvan’s trouble with Siddha at school was well compensated by the mischief of his escorts on the road. Children from each of several neighborhoods in Kesari Nagar banded together while walking to the school just for company than for any other reason. Different groups walked at some distance away from each other, not deliberately but because each group would start at its own time. Also, the lower cast kids walked in a separate group; yet again, not by design, but because they all lived in one neighborhood in the village. There were times when more than one group ended up walking together. The smallest group constituted of Bhuvan and his escorts. The escorts discharged their responsibility dedicatedly but they had little interest in going to school themselves. There were times when they would walk Bhuvan to a spot close to the school and then disappear only to show up at the same spot at the closing time. Their parents would ask Bhuvan about them and Bhuvan would tell the truth. Consequently, their parents would beat them up. They wanted Bhuvan to protect their secret. Bhuvan refused citing truthful characters from literature, which Grandpa had told him about, mainly the King Harishchandra, who having donated his kingdom in his dream to a sage remained true to his word by actually donating it in the morning; and sold himself, his wife and his son into slavery to pay dakshina, the customary topping on each donation. The king ended up cremating corpses, his wife worked as a house maid and the son tagged along with his mother. Final test of Harishchandra’s adherence to his Satya Dharma came when he refused to cremate his son killed by the sting of a cobra until he received the cremation tax, which his wife paid with half of her sari.
“So you want to be like Satya Harishchandra eh,” would remark the escorts, “Well then pay the price as he did.”
The price Bhuvan had to pay was miniscule compared to King Harishchandra’s. He got away with incidents like the following: There was a tree by the pond haunted by the ghost of the Headless Washer man. One morning, while walking to the school, the escorts placed Bhuvan on a high branch and disappeared. Although there was really no need of it, the escorts did make sure to instill the fear of ghost before disappearing, “It is a matter of minutes before you disappear forever to the world of ghosts, you Harishchandra.” A group of the lower caste kids was not far behind. They got Bhuvan down. After that, he started walking with those kids periodically only to earn a title of chamar for himself.
At the end of the year, Bhuvan graduated with the other grade one kids into grade two. Bhuvan was now beyond the reach of Siddha for the time being.
Continued to “In the Yard of an Old Woman”