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|by Kusum Choppra|
There was a macabre note to the festivity in the village. It was alien to Death, with the somber portrait on the flower-bedecked altar at the village chowk, the buntings, and the welcome arch, all for the dead. There had been nothing, no such welcome for the two living heroes, young jawans who came home to nurse their war wounds: one with a stump for an arm, the other with grievous wounds in the shoulder and leg. Both lived in the village over the hill. The macabre festivity was reserved only for the dead hero; the whole village was in an uproar. Today Mantriji was to bring his ashes home. He had been dead six weeks, on a faraway rocky slope, torn apart by enemy shells. How much would actually be him, in the urn of ashes? Did no-one wonder?
The story had been told and retold --- of his valor in the face of the enemy, of his lost body, found after weeks, at least portions believed to be his, after the maggots had been at work. A birthmark on his cheek and stitches on his leg identified him -- they were told. Remember, he had come home to recuperate from the accident and stitches. That was the last time he'd come home and Belliya still hugged his last secret inside her. She had not told anybody that she carried his seed in her.
Bhim, the dead hero had lived almost at the bottom of the crooked lane of Nanavas. It wound right and left and around, so that if you stood at the head of the lane, on the narrow opening from the chowk, you could not see Bhim's house at all. Only if you walked down the crooked lane and it turned, then you could not miss it.
Bhim’s house stood out from its neighbors. They were mostly kutcha hovels; some had one or two pucca walls, some even half a brick wall, but Bhim's house had all four pucca walls. As a matter of fact, the ladi for the flooring was stacked in a corner of the courtyard and an order had been given for the Mangalore tiles for the roof and for the cement. He was to do all that on his next annual leave in September. This was June. Who would do it now?
The Sarpanch's wife was railing quietly at her husband.
"Why did you have to bring them all here? To my aangan? To pollute our house like this? I'll have to wash everything, the whole house and call Maharajji for shhudi karan afterwards."
For a moment the Sarpanch was non-plussed. He had never thought of that -- death ceremonies, thirteen days of rituals and meals. He pushed aside the niggling worry
"They don't do all that. In any case, I'll take all the expenses from Madha. After all, it's for his son."
The argument may have carried on much longer, but for sounds of arrival. It was the bus. It bore the grief stricken father of the widowed Belliya. Atop his dhoti was a worn coat adorned with his newly burnished medals; a generous military mooch bristled snow white. The old soldier did not stop to return any greeting. Heading straight to his destination, he took in on the way the all to obvious festivity, the anticipation in the air, the welcome arch -- all far away from his widowed daughter’s home.
Prudently he curbed the sneer that almost rose to his lips. "Scavengers. Doms. Living off the dead" he thought. He covered his face with the tail of his pugri as he stepped into the lane. Onlookers tried to decide whether it was either the stink or to wipe his eyes.
His quick progress checked at the newly built doorstep of his samdhi’s house. Madha was waiting for him. The underground telegraph had informed him within seconds of the soldier alighting from the bus. They exchanged formal, unsmiling greetings and condolences. One had lost a son, the other a jamai.
Suddenly a bundle of black assaulted the old Soldier. Thin arms flailed at him, sobbing and ranting, " Baba, Baba, why me, why me? You had promised that everything would be smooth sailing and peaceful. I believed you and see what has happened."
After a brief moment’s Non-Pulse, the old Soldier took her flailing hands into his, holding her firmly close to muffle her voice along with her sobs in his shoulder. But before he could say anything, a posse of ghouls descended, surrounding his daughter, softly attempting to tear her away from him.
The black-robed ladies of the household, her mother-in-law, sisters and aunts-in-law, other female relatives in traditional black clothes and the party workers in starched white saris. They spoke almost in unison. " Beti, honi ko kaun taal sakta hai. You should be proud. He is our Shaheed. He has done our village proud. Woh to Amar ho gaya hai, watan ke liye".
They tried to prise Belliya away, only to unleash a fresh torrent. " Quiet" she was commanded harshly. " You stop this. How can you behave in this fashion? Mantriji will be here anytime and the TV cameras will be with him. Are you going to show your tears to the TV? You, the Akhand Saubhagyawati"
That mother of all platitudes was trotted out to shush her: that the widow of a martyr was not an inauspicious widow. She was the eternal suhagan.
The ringleader of the white saris, a regular battle-axe who till now, had stood apart, lips pursed, stepped into the circle. She gripped Belliya with a vice, voice-dripping acid:
"You must not spoil this show like this. If you cry like this, your eyes will be swollen. Have you thought of that? And I told you to wear a white sari."
After some stuttering she got it out "these black tatters?" she motioned disparagingly at the black ghaghra choli and barely oiled hair of the grief stricken widow. It was not her words. It was the look, the gesture that evoked a response.
"No white saris. We do not wear white saris. It is not our custom." The old crones with her concurred solemnly.
The mother-in-law bristled and the other community elders turned towards the raised voices.
"In our case, we wear these clothes -- no white saris. If it looks bad on your TV, don't bring it. No Fauji sahib said anything about white saris."
He almost panicked as Belliya pressed herself even more closely into her father's shoulder.
The women tried to prise her away, but Belliya continued to resist and finally the Old Soldier forced them to desist.
"Let’s go, Beti," encouraged the father. " Come, you’re a soldier's daughter and a soldier's widow. Don't let us down."
Once again those platitudes. Holding her firmly by the shoulder, he turned her and propelled her along in the press, headed for the chowk. As he went along, he gently wiped her face and smoothed her rumpled hair.
"Baba,” moaned Belliya softly, "you got me into this ... this, this marriage. You know I did not want it;" her tirade was soft and low, only audible to her father. Around them, the spectators thought the young widow was praying. "I wanted to marry my Uka. But you said he was unsteady, he was not able to hold a job for long, and how could he keep me. You said a soldier would be more loving and trustworthy, he would look after me all my life...” at this point her dirge would have risen into a crescendo.
Instinctively, the Old Soldier's arm tightened warningly around his daughter. He shushed her under his breath "We’ll talk about all that later, not in front of all these people. I have come to take you home."
That pacified Belliya, who was rather stupefied by the sea of humanity, which had, by this time, engulfed them. Surging forward, it propelled them to the house of the Sarpanch, where all the village elders were assembled. The Mantri Sahib stood, holding the urn in his hands awkwardly. It was covered with mandatory red cloth. A string of slightly tired marigolds shone against the red of the cloth.
As she progressed, the party workers had been questioning each other mutely. Suddenly, one moved forward to block the TV camera’s spotlight. Before anyone could protest, Belliya was cut off expertly from her father and her in-laws and surrounded by white clad party workers. The party worker allowed himself to be shoved away from the camera's eye.
The Sarpanch and the Mantriji carefully placed their hands on her head, blessing her for the camera. Even the officers who had brought Bhim home were hemmed in by the white crowd.
" Vande Mataram. Bolo vande... Bhimrao amar rahe "
Slogans rent the air. The TV cameras whirred, picking up shots of the startled widow, shrouded in an alien white, surrounded by loyal 'villagers' led by the Mantriji, saluting her.
Belliya looked anxiously into the crowd, trying to pick out her family, Baba, but the lights of the TV crew dazzled her. She lifted her hand and rubbed it across her eyes. It made a poignant picture, which was to move thousands to tears.
But Belliya? She was traumatized, by her sense of loss, her insecurity in the crowd, the claustrophobia of the crowds and the buntings all around and the raucous blare of the loudspeaker, droning out speech after speech. Her mind turned blank, her eyes glazed over and she would have tipped over, if two women flanking her had not caught her in time.
When Belliya surfaced again, another speech was on. Someone was reeling off lists of figures. She tried to pay attention. " Jeevan bhai panch hazar, Patel Samaj dus hazar, Vankar samaj be hazar ... As the list grew, Belliya noted her father's face grow longer. After sometime, his trademark sneer appeared briefly, before he quickly covered it with the end of his pagri.
Finally the Fauji Sahib took the mike. He spoke in Hindi. Belliya could follow a little. Bhim had taught her all he knew during his last leave. The Sahib recounted Bhim's devotion to duty and his bravery. He expressed tremendous satisfaction that the community was reaching out to help Smt. Bhim in her time of need. That, he emphasized, would be in addition to what the government would give her as pension and gratuity etc.
At last, it was over. The Mantriji and his TV left, with deep prannams to the martyr's immediate family. And then finally the focus did come to them. The crowds melted away quickly, neighbors afoot, the slogan shouting party workers in their hired trucks, their leaders slamming their car doors and brakes.
The Fauji sahib spoke up ' we must get Smt. Bhim's signatures on this file.'
Madha turned around. Handing over the marigold topped urn to his wife, he motioned to the womenfolk ' you carry on. I’ll finish this off.'
The old man chewed on that information, disappointment was writ large on his face. Belliya and her father held back. They approached the table. Cleared of all the paraphernalia of martyrdom, it now held the Fauji sahibs and their files and papers.
The father saluted and spoke up. "How long will this take? Can we not do this at Dhrol, my village? I have come to take Belliya home and the bus is due shortly'.
But the Fauji sahib was merely questioning "Why do you want to take her?' The Old Soldier preferred to address his mates
'Janab, you know these women. Already the whispers have started --- she ate up her husband. They'll make my Belliya life hell. And I can't stay to protect her. I have to go back.'
Madha and the Sarpanch butted in unison. 'She's our daughter. We’ll look after her.' For good measure, Sarpanchji added, "She’s the pride of our village. How dare anyone say any such thing to her? I'll pull out their tongues'.
The sahibs merely asked ‘‘why don't you stay for a week or so, let things settle down?'
'Sir, Belliya is not my only Kargil daughter’’ Belliya’s bowed head shot up. ' Bhim is gone but my Parbatiya’s husband, my other jamai is hanging between life and death. She needs us there, me, her mother, and her sister. Who knows what will happen?" his voice trailed off brokenly.
The Fauji saheb's lips tightened. "You must go, I can see that. How serious is it?"
The two soldiers looked deeply into each other’s eyes and the younger man got the message as if it had been spoken aloud. "Your daughter must follow later. Her bank account has to be opened, otherwise everything will be terribly delayed.'
Now things moved quickly. The signatures were taken. Madha and Sarpanchji exchanged quick significant looks. The latter pressed a chit into Madha's hands. He looked at it blankly " What?'
The soldiers’ lips curled. An old party worker who had been watching the tamasha from outside the compound wall spoke up
"Sarpanchji, the function was the party’s. Why don’t you collect from the party, instead of your widowed daughter?' The sarcasm evoked a roar of raucous laughter from the usual hangers-on loitering near the chowk. Madha flung the chit down and shepherded his party home.
Belliya upbraided her father. ' Baba, you never mentioned Parbatiya to me'.
They reached the house and Madha had the string cot brought out into the courtyard, laid a gudri on it and sat his samdhi down. As soon as the news went inside, the womenfolk emerged to convey condolences, which drew a visible impact. Before everyone’s shocked and concerned eyes, the Old Soldier’s shoulders sagged, his eyes dampened and a dam burst. It was a veritable litany. The rest listened fascinated, Belliya hanging on to every word.
'I am the culprit. I am the one. I was the one who married both my girls to faujis. Belliya didn't want to. She resisted for days, but in the end, she listened to me. I said --- I said to her, that he would be a steady person. Fauj makes a person steady. Everything is regular, eating, drinking, working, playing even the pay; it is all steady and regular. That becomes a habit. So that not only will you be provided for while he works, but even after retirement, he’ll continue to work because work will have become a habit. And he’ll continue to bring you money.
Uka was a wild one; he would lead you a merry dance, from one day to the next, you don't know what he'll get up to. She listened to me, obeyed me and sees what it's gotten her. Bhim is gone now, only Uka is left. He may be unsteady, but he will be there...' the voice trailed off into thought. After a pause, he resumed
Ram jaane what Sampat told her about his station, once Parbatiya decided she must see it. I told her she could not go, there was no place for her, he could get court-martialed for sneaking her in as he had not been allotted any married quarters yet, but....
She dreamt of going to the station and meeting his officer sahebs and their memsahebs; of accompanying him to the gala, as if she was also a memsahib. Parbatiya heard all her father and father-in-law's warnings and mentally discounted them as she made her own quiet plans.
One moonless night, she slipped quietly out of the village and walked for hours to catch the early morning bus. She requested the daughter-in-law of the chai-wallah at the bus stop to inform her people, if they came inquiring.
What an adventure! Parbatiya couldn’t quite contain her excitement. It was her first bus ride alone, but she schooled herself to act like a veteran passenger. The butterflies in her tummy were kept firmly down. Her gaze fixed out of the window, watching the green trees of her hills melt into the green patchwork of fields below and then, the dusty greenless roads. The day grew hot and then hotter, but Parbatiya was shivering with excitement. How surprised Sampat would be! How thrilled!
The thought buoyed her spirits; she was able to ignore the many sidelong glances and several advances up front from male passengers unused to a young woman traveling alone.
Parbatiya had little actual trouble reaching her destination. She wasn't really worried about home; rather, confident that her message would have been delivered well in time to stave off acute panic. Clutching Sampat’s whereabouts on a scrap of paper on which she had laboriously copied out the address from his last letter home, she approached the sentry at an imposing looking gate guarding a gheru colored palace. " Go down 200 yards, turn left, again left and then right another 500 yards'
Parbatiya nodded a grave thanks; wondering what 200 yards amounted to on this hard road. Her feet were tired and aching and she was thirsty; and now more than a little anxious to end her ‘‘ adventure’’. Doubts of Sampat’s possible reaction assailed her as she recalled his remark "Officers prepare everything in advance. They don't like surprises'.
It was absolutely right. Faujis don’t like surprises. And delighted as he was to see his young wife, Parbatiya's appearance put Sanpat in a quandary. The sentry at his unit had managed to alert him without too many others involved, but what when the CO sahib got wind of it, as he was bound to? Sampat approached his subedar sahib and poured out his heart.
'Janabji, she is innocent, a little foolish. She's come without telling anybody at home, only left a message with a friend, but what to do with her now, until someone comes to fetch her?'
The salt and pepper whiskers quivered involuntarily. 'You're a lucky dog to have landed such a sherni. She came all this way for you and no one dared to touch her along the way. Now take care of her'. But after a stern look and a hrumph-hurrah, he offered to help, promising to speak to a colleague with quarters, whose wife had gone home for sometime "She can stay there for a few days.'
Parbatiya was a hit with the whole station. The memsahebs of the sahebjis, the memsahebs of the Janab JCOs and the men who were thrilled at the 'bhabhiji's' adventure. Sampat came in for much backslapping and ribbing. Innuendoes flew about on his sexual prowess, or were it his randiness, which had brought his wife post, haste to his side? The comments threatened to become more and more explicit.
Sampat was greatly inhibited by the presence of his senior and his family. His silent retreat had Parbatiya worried. 'Don't you like me anymore? Didn't you want me to come?' she would ask anxiously, until he took a few days leave to take her back home, where his responses were sufficiently amorous to allay her fears and the anger of the elders at Parbatiya's escapade. That was the last she saw of him, until ... until he came back in pieces.
The Old Soldier's voice broke. 'They loved each other so much. And now? What more accursed father can there be than one who wishes his young jamai dead as early as possible?'
The raw emotions roughened his breaking voice. The words stirred through the audience crowding the tiny courtyard, bursting into a loud questioning murmur. Madha vocalized it, hesitatingly in a single word ' WHY?'
The word was a bullet shot full of question, nervousness, and wonder.
‘‘ Madha, mere bhai, you have no idea of Sampat’s condition. Parbatiya and his mother are both beside themselves. No legs, wounds in the stomach, chest and neck. Even if he escapes death, which no one is sure off, not even the doctors, how’ll he survive, what’ll he do? Sampat was a proud hero. Let him remain so. Can he beg? He has told Parbatiya he does not want to live and the doctors are not sure he will survive. And all I can think of is that if he had to go, let it be as quick as possible. But those military doctors move heaven and earth to save lives, not to lose them. If Sampat goes soon enough now, Parbatiya will get her compensation and pension quickly. I'll be able to get her married again as soon as possible.
Once this political nasha is over, kya Kargil, Kaun Fauji? Who knows if they'll give the money at all then or make us run from desk to desk for years? I know, even some memsahebs had such problems for years. And they were memsahebs. What is my poor Parbatiya? If Sampat lingers on for some months, all this urgency and nasha will definitely evaporate. Phir kya hoga? That is why I pray that God relieve Sampat and my Parbatiya soon. I'll get both the girls married together."
All the while Madha had listened intently. Now his face closed. His voice was taut. 'If you want to, you can get Parbatiya married. But Belliya is ours'.
Instinctively, his sons and brothers closed around, enveloping both Madha and Belliya sitting at her father's feet. The eyes of the two old men met and held fast. The father's eyes, which had a few seconds before, dwelt lovingly on his daughter's bowed head with its expectant pouted lips, now turned steely, his face cold.
Madha's equally stern face was hard -- was it a streak of greed?
'Belliya is my daughter. What is her place here now? Let her come home, we’ll resettle her. Uka still waits for her. He told me so', there was a touch of pleading as his daughter slipped her fingers into his.
But Madha was adamant. 'No. Belliya remains. For all we know, she may be carrying Bhim's seed, my grandson who'll inherit everything. Besides, there's work here, our lands and the new land the government has promised. Who'll work that land? Belliya'll have to do it; who’ll handle all the Fauji files and accounts and all that? Besides, if she married, they may take the land away....'
'Let them,' the Old Soldier burst out,' has she not suffered enough that you pass a life sentence on her, to eke out looking after land and a bank account?'
There was more that he wanted to say...' that you're wanting to lay your hands on the land and the money, that's why you won’t let my daughter come home.'
But discretion, he decided, was the better part of valor. Already the cracks had appeared and the signs were ominous. The Sarpanch and the village Bania were crowding behind Madha; and the village hoodlums, never far from money and land, had appeared like magic to station themselves near the gate.
The Bania spoke up ' Faujibhai, Belliya belongs to this village now. We will look after her. I've told Madha not to worry about seed and fertilizers for the new land. As soon as he clears his old loan, I'll open a new khata for Belliya's land. The tractor loan can be paid off easily now. '
There was some sympathy in the eyes of the women as they gazed at Belliya's bowed head; each word emphasized her life sentence. Her mother-in-law was obviously torn: sympathy was writ large on her face, but the eyes were lit up, reflecting the naked greed in the circle of men, father-in-law, uncles and brothers-in-law, creditors, goons, village elders.
The Old Soldier looked around for the Faujis. They were nowhere to be seen, undoubtedly being discreetly entertained at the Panchayat Ghar, well away from the savage court, which had pronounced a Life Sentence for his Belliya.
‘‘Madha,’’ he pleaded, ' you have daughters too. Let my daughter get some happiness. She has done her duty and will continue to do it towards you.'
'This,' came the clipped reply, ' is her duty, to look after her family. Go in peace. If she had to marry, let it be to her Bhim's memory, or to his younger brother' (a little boy of 9?)
It was abundantly clear that the vultures would never let go of this prey, nay this feast inadvertently offered to them. Belliya looked up at her father. The expectancy had left her face. It was now sallow, her eyes lifeless.
'Go, Baba,' she said protectively, ' look after Parbatiya if you can, before the vultures get her also. Tell Uka I will meet him in the next life.' Her voice was loud and clear. It shot a flame of fury through Madha and he would have raised his hand. His Samdhi’s look stopped him. The look was steadfast. 'You said Belliya was your daughter? What guarantee do I have that you'll look after her once my back is turned, with Bhim gone?'
There was a raucous bellow from outside. 'Who'll kill the sone ke ande dene wali margi? He'll not part with such a margi?'
An old drone stood up. ' Sharm karo. You call yourselves men? Should we call you dalals or vultures? You, who'll live off a widow and her dead husband's blood money, '
The old woman’s son shot forward to shush her. She flung him away. "Madha, makkhi chuus, now what are you?'
A babble rose, everyone speaking his or her piece. In the hubbub, Belliya led her father into the house, conscious of the careful watch of the self-appointed bodyguards. ‘‘Beti,’’ the Old Soldier spoke under his breath, 'I can get you away at night. I'll speak to the Fauji sahebs...'
'No, Baba, no. They have tasted blood. How long can I hide from them, even at home? You think they'll let me live in peace with Uka? They’ll kill him too. All the money has been apportioned already in their minds. It is upto me now to see how long and in what ways I can hold out, to secure my own future and let them dance after me.
Thank you for making me learns to write. They'll not be able to palm off any anguthas and I’ll be able to put different signatures everywhere so that they'll have to dance after me. Let them.'
' Beti, try to understand, they may try..." She did not let him voice his worst fears.
'No, Baba. Madha'll not harm, but he'll not let go. He wants this money too badly. Go now, so that I can call you again when I need your support. Go and look after Parbatiya before the vultures get her too.'
Belliya pushed her father as if by pushing him, she was hurrying him into Parbatiya's home before it was too late for her too.
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