Dec 01, 2023
Dec 01, 2023
Across the Bridge - Chapter 2
Ghanto, the Bell-Girl, took a deep puff on her hookah, exhaled and remarked, “Is this a way to make entry in the house of one’s man, come out of nowhere riding a bike-bar!” and gazed in space.
A rich landlord in a village some distance away from Kesari Nagar had a beautiful daughter. He dreamt of giving her hand in marriage with fanfare to a son of some landlord of comparable status. However, the girl got pregnant before marriage, which became known to many. Abortion was performed with the help of a local midwife who was paid handsomely for her service but this was only a small part of the battle. Bigger problem was to find someone to marry her. In those times, only someone desperate like Marva would have her. It was not the act so much as was the defamation, ‘she got caught’ due to nature’s ‘unjust’ ways. In his desperation, her father found a poor peasant-farmer in Kesari Nagar with a not so good-looking son Bal Ram, named after the elder brother of Lord Krishna. However, he was more like an elder brother of Marva; close enough, as will become clear soon. His parents called him Ballu. He was often called Balla or even Balva; not to distort the name would have been against the culture of place. Standing up on thin legs and wide flat body, he looked like a cricket bat, balla. Thus, the name Balla fit him well. Offer of a beautiful daughter of a rich landlord was beyond the most fanciful dreams of Ballu, who would have been lucky to have anyone. His friends teased him at times for lack of virginity of his wife to be. “How nice, all opened up with no hard work on my part!” Ballu would respond.
As the wedding day drew closer, Ballu’s father was getting increasingly worried. He had descended from the same ancestors as the richest landowner in the village, the Chief Landlord of Kesari Nagar, but generation after generation, they drifted apart in status. There were divisions in each generation for various reasons. One brother had more sons than the other, someone died childless, so the next in line moved in to claim his land. If someone was left an orphan, he or she could bid farewell to the parental property as the relatives moved in to claim shares in the property of the ‘childless’ departed one; it was quite easy to erase the existence of an orphan by bribing the officials and various other tactics. There were some loopholes in the laws, which some resourceful people managed to use to embezzle someone else’s rightful share. So on and so forth. Thus, the passage of time created a number of landowners, farmers, peasant-farmers and plain peasants, in Kesari Nagar as in all the other villages. Those who had larger land holdings, cultivated some of it with the hired help and rented the rest, were called the landlords. Those who didn’t have that much, cultivated it themselves, were called the farmers. Those who rented from some landlord were called peasants. Technically a peasant-farmer owned some of the land and rented some from a landlord, of which there were only a few, but the distinction between a peasant-farmer and a peasant, and between a peasant-farmer and a farmer was fuzzy, depending on what the peasant farmer was closer to. Ballu’s father was a peasant-farmer, difficult to determine which kind he was closer to, farmer or peasant. In any case, he approached the Landlord.
“Chowdhari, I am just a peasant, although a distant kin of yours. If I could find a daughter of someone like me for your Ballu, all would have been fine. But how do I dishonor the big landlord, the father of bride to be, the name of Kesari Nagar and our family with a modest wedding party, which is all I can muster.”
The Landlord paused for a moment; then remarked, “The honor of another landlord is my honor, the honor of Kesari Nagar is my honor and the honor of our family is my honor; Ballu will marry as my son.”
Departure of the wedding party from Kesari Nagar began with firing of two guns. First there appeared a platoon of about a dozen dancing horses adorned with shining jewelry, which glittered like genuine gold and silver. Paturis, the dancing girls, dancing breathtakingly at the beats of nangara followed the horses. Then the music created by the shahna-i players filled the air with its melody. Finally, there was a large band with trumpets, clarinets, drums and other instruments playing as an orchestra, leading a chariot drawn by two horses with Ballu attired as a prince in it. A twelve-year-old kid acting as the conductor of orchestra was just for the show, the real conductor was one of the trumpet players, the band leader and the father of child. Curtains of the chariot were opened so that everyone could see the groom. Groom’s chariot was followed by a long armada of chariots of different makes, and variety of other vehicles, all driven by bullocks. At the tail end, there were a couple of large carts loaded with luggage. The procession was concluded with two horse riders. Ballu’s father whispered to the Landlord, “Chowdhari, you didn’t have to go that far, all this expense!”
“Don’t worry, you’ll be spared,” the Landlord grinned.
The message was clear that the peasants would pay for the wedding one way or the other, excluding Ballu’s father.
As soon as the procession was out of the village, all fanfare and the band playing stopped, curtains of Ballu’s chariot were drawn and it proceeded to the bride’s village. The wedding party stopped for lunch arranged by the bride’s father and to rest in an orchard a little distance away from the village. The procession paraded starting in the late afternoon all around the village with even more fanfare than when leaving Kesari Nagar with dancing horses leading and the rest in the same order, concluded with two horse riders. There was an addition of fireworks, which was the same as genuine artillery without the shells and pallets. The bride saw the procession with her female friends from the flat roof of her father’s haveli, a mini mansion. Ceremonies, singing, dancing and fireworks lasted for three days. Then the wedding party departed the same way as it had entered, with dancing horses leading the way. However, while the entry was highly energetic, departure was less so. There was serenity, pride of having completed a task, having ‘conquered,’ an attitude reminiscent of the old kings and princes’ times who conquered the bride’s father in battle to earn the bride. Curtains of the chariot that carried Ballu and the bride were now drawn.
The procession stopped after it had left the village behind. About half a dozen vehicles could be used as the racing chariots. The sport was very popular in the olden days but even in Ballu’s time, there was considerable interest in the competitive chariot racing. By Marva’s time, the sport was completely dead, a relic of history. The racing chariots lined in the field and sprinted at the firing of a gun. There was strict monitoring to ensure compliance with the rules. Three rounds around the field and then they raced towards Kesari Nagar. The race was largely decided during the three rounds around the field as the leader was rarely overtaken later.
Ballu’s sisters greeted the first chariot that entered Kesari Nagar. Garlands were placed around the necks of the winning bullocks and driver. The bullocks were fed balls made with ata-gur and butter. The driver was given exotic sweets. All the other bullocks were fed about the same as the winning ones and the drivers were given the same sweets but no garlands. In fact, there were plenty of sweets placed on a table for all to feast; after all it was the wedding of the ‘son of a Landlord.’ Distinction was made only to honor the winning team.
Not far behind was the procession, which entered Kesari Nagar as it had left the bride’s village. Ballu’s sisters greeted the bride. A jug of water with mango branch in it was placed on the bride’s head as she entered Ballu’s house. Ritual of examining the bride, commenting and gossiping followed. Although everyone knew it, no one commented on bride’s premarital escapade except in private gossips. Dance party in the evening was more on the minds of women and as per tradition, the bride was asked to initiate.
Did she initiate! The bride pulled out her belts jaded with tiny bells of the type used by professional dancers in palaces of Maharajahs and Nawabs, and in classy brothels, each one called gharana of such and such, indicating its tradition and repute, which were frequented by the Maharajahs, Nawabs, Big Landlords, and by the other few of not so lower status than them. The bride placed the belts properly on her ankles and wrists covering parts of her legs, arms and palms. Two larger bells, one on each palm, were distinctly visible. And the bride danced. The moves she could make and the music she could generate with bells together with the larger bells in her palms striking each other periodically, mingling with the sounds of tiny bells on the arms and legs, were breathtaking, so much so that even the paturis would have been embarrassed. There was support of a drum but no other instruments. As the custom has it, Ballu’s mother waved a bank note around bride’s head and gave it to family-barber’s wife, who provided additional service at the time of weddings for such tips. Although the other women danced later, almost awe stricken by bride’s dancing skills, they just preferred to watch.
The next day, a somewhat modest wedding procession entered Kesari Nagar and passed by Ballu’s house. As the band played, Ballu’s bride could not resist. She pulled out her bells, quickly wore them as she had the previous evening and rushed into the street. Ballu’s mother almost had a heart attack. A bride was supposed to confine to the interior of house covered well with clothes and a long veil to protect her modesty. Even a slight deviation from the protocol was enough to create a scandal. But rushing out in the street and dancing! The bride managed to keep her face partially covered with the veil but dance she did, almost the same way as the previous night but now the wedding band also in the background. The band was overjoyed with the players playing with more fanfare and dancing themselves. Whole of the village witnessed this unimaginable and rather scandalous event. After an initial shock, Ballu’s mother regained her composure, waved a bank note around bride’s head and gave it to the chief band player. Someone remarked, “Balla got a real Ghanto on his hands!” Thus the bride escaped the name Ballo or Balvun. With her skill and courage, she had earned a fitting name of her own, Ghanto, the Bell-Girl. In fact, she bestowed the name Ghanta on Ballu also.
It was a matter of great curiosity how Ghanto managed to acquire the dancing skills of a tawaif, a gharana dancer and courtesan, just by herself living whole her life in a village confined mostly to her father’s haveli, although they could not confine her escapades. Even the tawaifs had to be trained starting in their childhoods and even then one had to have a natural talent for it to acquire a reputation. The only explanation people could think of was that she was a tawaif in her previous life and retained her samskara, natural genetic makeup, to carry the skill in this life. Her premarital exploits lent further substance to this theory. A male counterpart of Sanjo and Tajo, who pretended to be a savant also, gifted to be able to see things that no one else could, past and future, seized this opportunity to ‘reveal’ the next day during his siesta gossip that in her previous life Ghanto was indeed a tawaif in Lucknow, the city renowned for highly reputed gharanas and for rich finicky Nawabs who were their clients. The ‘savant’ concluded with, “I can see her gharana but not very clearly, fog appears to be hiding it from my sight, and yes, I can hear someone calling her by name but it is too feeble, something Jaan. All tawaifs had names like Umrao Jaan, Sahib Jaan, Nawab Jaan, this Jaan, that Jaan, so our savant’s revelation was not impressive so far. The listeners just smirked at this ‘revelation’ by the ‘great savant.’ “Was it Ghanto Jaan?” someone remarked sarcastically drawing chuckles from everybody. The theory about Ghanto’s previous life did take a hold though.
Ghanto’s gaze in space did not last that long. She had captured the sight of whole of her wedding in less than a minute and then she could puff and ponder. A recent bride asked Ghanto, “Auntie, is what we hear about the exchange of personal wedding gifts between you and Ballu Uncle true?”
“Mind your own business. If they are personal, they are personal,” Ghanto quipped.
According to the tradition those days, marriage was not consummated during the first visit of bride. It had to wait till the second visit some months later, except in exceptional cases. Given Ghanto’s reputation, Ballu’s mother was quite eager to showcase Ballu in bed hoping that he could trap her, otherwise someone else’s child could be on her hands. Ballu was quite pleased, everything was getting better for him, without any effort.
In the morning, Ballu walked to the fields. Trees in an old mango orchard had recently been chopped down as they were not producing much fruit anymore and the wood had matured enough to fetch some good money as lumber. Some workers from a nearby town were sawing the tree trunks into planks to haul them to the city. Every day, they came in the morning to saw the trunks and went home at about sunset. They became a part of the village within a few days, as usual. As many others, Ballu had made acquaintance with them. It came in handy after his first night with his Ghanto.
“Brother Fakhru, your sister-in-law has asked for a cylindrical piece of mature wood, about this long and this thick,” Ballu illustrated with his hands, “and yes, some good wood to make a box, about this size.”
“Anything for my sister-in-law,” Fakhru responded, and immediately released the saw handle, jumped off the platform where he sat and dived in the heap of scrap wood. Quite quickly, Fakhru found just what Ballu had asked for. Later Balla gave some gur to Fakhru as the tip.
Ballu gave his bride what she had asked for. Later he had to get a box made according to the specifications. As for the cylinder, she asked it to be shaped somewhat and have a hole bored at about the center along its length. She took the material with her when she returned to her parent’s place. It was rumored that Ghanto had carved a replica of what she saw between Ballu’s legs, meticulously making sure of every curve and detail. It was kept locked in the box with key in Ghanto’s possession. As the rumor has it, she would periodically attach it to the nozzle of her hookah to smoke.
The young bride was not fazed by Ghanto’s quip; she persisted, “Tell me auntie, what I don’t understand is what fun is putting the wooden thing in mouth when you can have the real one?”
“Real thing is natural you, silly girl, a replica is an art,” Sanjo filled in.
“We hear that he was very handsome. Is that true auntie?” the bride changed the topic.
Ghanto did not respond. The bride persisted, “Auntie, one thing I wonder about is that not long ago, you were deeply in love with a handsome boy. How can you be so hooked on Ballu Uncle so easily, even the nozzle of your hookah!”
“I love life, and life is in the moment,” Ghanto remarked, “And you know nothing of the nozzle of my hookah, so stop insinuating.”
More by : Dr. Raj Vatsya