Belt-Man with Clay-Pipe

Across the Bridge - Chapter 3

Continued from “Dancer with Bells”

Why was he called Marva?

Because Ramu had six bighas of land.

About two generations before Marva’s time, population of Kesari Nagar experienced a sudden explosion, from about five hundred to about a thousand. Some workers started moving in from the neighboring villages where it was beginning to get crowded with generations emanating from their ancestors. Dwellings were getting smaller and the competition for work was increasing. They saw potential there, particularly cheap land to live on and untapped market for their services. Thus the communities of barbers, carpenters, cobblers, cleaners and what not, developed in Kesari Nagar. Someone did not have a son; his daughter inherited the property, which may have been just a modest house, a barn and the ‘inherited right’ to rent the land from some landlord; she and her husband sold their property and came to live there; proceeds from the sale came in handy for the upcoming wedding of their daughter. Some peasants living in the neighboring villages were renting some land from the Landlord of Kesari Nagar, who found it more convenient to settle there. Some land was still available in Kesari Nagar; landless peasants or the like seized this opportunity to rent some of it. So on and so forth. There were some whatnots who ended up in Kesari Nagar Godknowswhy. Among whatnots who came there Godknowswhy, was an upper class Brahman who with his two sons and a daughter drifted to Kesari Nagar and built a hut on a patch of land, which appeared to belong to no one, within a couple of hours with the material scattered around on the outskirts of village. While they were in the process of building the hut, people gathered to watch who found the whole process rather amusing. It was not long before the men of the Landlord arrived to intervene, “Who gave you the permission to occupy the land that belongs to the Landlord?” The Brahman just looked at them completely confounded at such a strange question, which confounded Landlord’s men even more. Within minutes, he was in front of the Landlord, who asked him about the same question.

“This land is just sitting here Chowdhari, serving no purpose. My family will be a useful addition to your village. Besides, you’ll earn the blessings of a pious Brahman, some punya, for your afterlife and next lives,” came the answer.

The Landlord grinned, “Pious Brahman, eh!” After a pause, he added, “I may as well earn some more punya, Pundit ji. Would you be interested in renting some land also?”

The Brahman was speechless. He had not expected such a sudden gift from his Vishnu Bhagwan. All he was trying to do was to find a spot to plant his toes. He got enough to plant his family and now the land to rent out of nowhere. It appeared that good fortune was pouring through the straw roof of his hut. The Brahman blessed the Landlord and immediately headed to his hut where his family was waiting for him in suspense, almost petrified with fear that they may just have to leave and get drifting again. The fact that it was quite late in the afternoon wasn’t making things any easier for them. All three of his children looked at him eager to hear the verdict.

“Why do you look so scared children? Have you no faith in your Lord Vishnu, the one who takes care of the World, the husband of the goddess of wealth Laxmi? Worship the couple and the wealth will be at your feet,” the Brahman commented.

Children sensed something better than what they were anticipating but the suspense was still there until the Brahman added, “Rejoice children, you not only have a house to live in but also land to cultivate!”

Sudden change of emotion overwhelmed all three children. After they regained their composure, all rushed to examine their farmland. It poured all right, but not through the roof of their hut; it poured on the land that was available for rental. There was about six bighas of low quality, low lying land where plenty of water that poured around during the monsoon season collected, making at least a part of it more like a pond with jagged boundary of swamp. The land bordering the swamp was dry but still of a low quality. It appeared that nothing could grow in the pond and swamp except the frogs and mud snakes of which there were plenty. Dry area appeared to be just the dried out swamp, difficult to even plough. It could probably grow some millet. The land was still available for rental was ample proof that even the desperate ones did not want it.

The enthusiasm experienced a sudden deflation. The comment “What will grow in this swamp bapu, except for the frogs and water snakes, may be a few turtles,” by the older son Ramu was more to tell his father than to ask him.

The Brahman paused for a moment, then responded, “Well, we can grow dhan in the swamp and the dry land is quite good for barley, juar, bajra.”

“Bapu, even dhan won’t grow in it not to mention that it is the lowest quality rice, and what would the yield be if some did grow?” Some frustration and depression was quite clear in Ramu’s voice.

“Dhan is much more nutritious than all the other types of rice including basmati, particularly, basmati.”

“Alright, but what about this pond? Water is too deep even for dhan.”

“We can grow singhara. That will fetch some good money at the mandi.”

“Bapu,” there was pain in the voice of Ramu, “water is too shallow for singhara.”

“It is good that water is shallow children, it is deep enough for the roots and shallow water will make it easier to harvest singhara. We can wade in instead of having to make a raft and row.”

Ramu saw no point in arguing further. All of them headed home with mixed feelings, “Oh well, at least we have a home.” They all knew intuitively that the spot for the hut was there for them only if they rented that ‘land.’

The daughter started to prepare a meal out of what they had brought with them. The father ordered his both sons to rush back to their ‘farmland’ and fetch some pual. He had spotted some of it at his property, the dry straw resulting out of a type of weed grass that was growing in the swamp. This material was available for free on the edges of ponds and swamps; it was used as bedding by the likes of this family and covered with sheet, it made good cushiony mattress.

“And include some sugarcane leaves too. There are some in the neighboring field,” he added.

“What if the owner doesn’t like it?”

“Oh no one minds a little pile of dry sugarcane leaves, especially if they see our need.”

The father squatted in front of the hut smoking his chillum, a clay pipe. Curious villagers asked usual questions as a welcoming ritual. The Brahman also asked questions to learn more about the village and to assess his situations. “Go tell the Belt-Man, that there is a new family in Kesari Nagar,” he ordered a child in the crowd.

“There is no Belt-Man in the village,” all of them replied in chorus.

After a good night’s sleep, the Brahman ordered his sons to remove the weeds, dry twigs and all that from the edges of their swamp, with tools borrowed from his new neighbors and he himself headed out. By the afternoon, he returned with a uniform and a belt, the symbol of his authority, and thus transformed himself overnight from whatnot to something. He had gone to the police station several kilometers away, which was the only link of the villages with bureaucracy that served them or pretended to. In no time, everyone knew that he had taken the job of Village Record Keeper, the Belt-Man. It was available for asking is ample proof that no one wanted it. Thus the new arrival started his life in Kesari Nagar in a hut on a patch of land that was just there, with farmland and a job, which nobody wanted,

The duties of a Belt-Man were simply to report every birth and death in the village and any incident reportable to police, which would not be reported otherwise. He performed the chores of his duties whenever he felt like or whenever he happened to pass by the police station. He filed his verbal report, whatever he remembered and fabricated, at least once a month when he went there to collect his meager salary, which he received by placing the impression of his left thumb as a standard substitute for signature. Police passed this information to the district administrative office. As for the other incidents, the villagers preferred to settle them among themselves. He was wise enough to keep his mouth shut as he knew that if he did not, he would be run out of the village in no time. Besides, with his knowledge of the law or complete lack thereof, he rarely knew what was reportable and what was not, unless it was a murder or a robbery, which were almost absent. In any case, the time he spent for his belt job was miniscule. Rest of the time, he together with his two sons toiled in his ‘farmland.’

The older son had approached the age of marriage a couple of years back, which means that he had crossed his fourteen years mark a few years back. The father was now beginning to get worried. He started losing hope for someone offering the hand of his daughter in marriage to Ramu, who had already acquired the name Ramva. The evolution went from Rama Swarup, the image of the seventh reincarnation of Lord Vishnu, to Ramu, which his parents called him affectionately, to Ramva, which he acquired for being a son of a Belt-Man with six bighas of low quality land. Ramva’s sister had not yet crossed her twelve years’ mark but this was old enough for marriage. The father saw this opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. He found someone in similar situation in a neighboring village and both together found the third. Thus, three girls and three boys got married in a triangular arrangement and with little expense for each of the families. Direct exchanges between two parties were not socially acceptable.

The younger brother of Ramva never got married, neither did the two elder brothers of Marva, the third among seven sons of Ramva. While they all professed celibacy, if it was up to them, each one would have had a harem. The real reason was the same as for his father’s and his own name in spite of being born as Murali Manohar, a name bestowed upon Lord Krishna for his talent for stealing the hearts of young gopis with the tune of his flute. However, only a mother could see Krishna’s beauty and charisma in Murali. He certainly had none of it in him to attract a woman or to impress the fathers of girls searching for eligible bachelors. In contrast, Lord Krishna’s amorous adventures have generated a large body of literature, folk songs, legends and the like. With less than one bigha of low quality land as his share and no skill, he could not be called Murali by anyone but his parents and his appearance was also helping. Evolution of his father’s name had already charted the course. While it stopped at Ramva, for he still had six bighas of land and had also managed to get married, Murali’s name went one stage further. The name metamorphosed from Murali to Murlva to Marva where it had to stop having reached an intimate kinship with bharva. Their counterparts in the gharanas enjoyed a much greater status than the bharvas. For being essentially the servants of prostitutes, who did not enjoy much respect in the society, bharvas were considered among the lowest of low. Nothing could be more degrading and insulting for someone than being called a bharva or hij?a, the street eunuch. The creator of the name Marva wanted some closeness with Murali but distort enough to rhyme with bharva. No one would dare call anyone bharva to his face but Marva was distant enough to avoid a violent confrontation, which would result otherwise. Besides, bharva not being subtle was too gross and did not have the same punch as Marva. His ambition was to have a title before and a surname after Murali Manohar but would have settled for something considerably less. It is another matter that after having earned a coveted title, he would have found Murali more affectionate. For this to materialize however, Ramva had to have considerably more land.

The boys Murali grew up with were all married for some years. It was understood that Marva was to remain a bachelor for life. By his luck, someone in another village left his wife, or she left him, depending on whose theory one accepts, Tajo’s or Sanjo’s. Marva seized this opportunity to make her his Marvun. All he had to do was to secure her agreement, put her on his bike-bar and paddle to Kesari Nagar.

Continued to “A Hunk of Dung”


More by :  Dr. Raj Vatsya

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