Across the Bridge – Chapter 5
Continued from “A Hunk of Dung”
The patwari came the next day to the same field to collect his commission.
“Ram Ram brother Shambhu,” the patwari greeted Grandpa. His demeanor had changed completely compared to the previous day.
“Ram Ram brother patwari,” Grandpa responded in kind, “come have a smoke.”
They started smoking hookah together. It was Parasu’s off-season during which he helped his father in the fields, or pretended to, as he was not much of a help for not being physically strong enough to endure the rigors of farming. As the patwari came, Parasu knew what he had to do: Go home and get his commission. As Parasu left, the patwari knew what he was gone for.
“Things are different now brother Shambhu,” the patwari started the conversation, “since independence, everything is changing by the hour, faster than chameleon changes its colors.”
“Or a patwari changes his talk,” grandpa joked.
Patwari burst out laughing, Grandpa joined in. Laughter of the two was so loud that Parasu, who had walked some distance, looked back in amusement at the two old men belly-laughing like children.
“This is how it should be brother, things should change with time,” patwari rationalized.
“You are right Dharmu brother, the whole universe is in a perpetual state of transition, always; these are the words of wisdom of our forefathers: Ishwara is nit, Universe is anit,” Grandpa said thoughtfully with his gaze fixed in space.
“Your philosophy again, always; why do I keep forgetting who am I talking to if it’s not Pundit Shambhu Das. It is not the ways of your Shankar Bhagwan I am talking about, it is the ways of the world I am referring to. British are gone, thanks to Mahatma Gandhi, ......”
“Not just the Mahatma,” Grandpa interjected.
“Yes, yes, I know,” the patwari resumed. What was I saying; oh yes, the British are gone, so is Mahatma Gandhi, got shot. Pundit Nehru has little interest in India, he is after changing the world and Sardar Patel has little concern for the World, he wants to transform India. Patel eliminated the Raja-Maharajahs and Nawabs with one stroke of his pen, the Landlords, with the other and don’t hold your breath brother, there are many more strokes left in his pen.”
“Well, these couple of strokes have worked pretty well brother, particularly this one; peasants have acquired some land and some dignity.” Grandpa paused for a moment, then added, “So have I, thanks to my Lord Shiva Shankar Bhole Nath.”
“Well Bhole Nath has given you back what was yours in the first place, some of it, I mean. This bastard Mahipal’s father, Bhupal, another haramjada, had stolen it from you in the first place; one bastard died, left another behind but after teaching him all of his tricks,” the patwari responded ignoring the last name Singh of each, which was used only occasionally any way.
Shambhu Das was a direct descendent of the original Brahman settler of Kesari Nagar. His father, who owned about a hundred bighas of land, had left him an orphan at ten together with his fourteen years old brother who was already married to a twelve-year old. Mohandas Gandhi, had already been married for ten years and was much too far from acquiring the title of Mahatma; in fact, couldn’t even fancy in his wildest dreams that he would ever be standing against the British; on the contrary, he had believed that the British Empire was for the good of mankind as all empire builders manage to persuade their subjects. During those ten years, things were changing for Gandhi but not much for Shambhu except at ten when they changed forever with the passing away of his father, never to return to the old ways. His mother was already waiting in heaven or wherever, for a couple of years. This was one of the reasons why his elder brother’s marriage was arranged at twelve instead of waiting for him to be fourteen.
The bride came wrapped in a sari adorned in jewelry. The day of arrival was reserved for the viewing of bride and commenting on her looks, mannerism and all that. The following day was used up in ceremonies. Next day, the bride threw away her sari and started playing hide and seek dressed in a blouse and slip, with Shambhu, her brother-in-law. After that she was interested in playing with pebbles. Some older woman, a neighbor, would visit, exclaim in horror and teach the new bride the manners with a verbal reprimand although some consideration was shown for her age. She was supposed to sit quietly wrapped up in a sari with face covered up to her neck with its end forming a veil. After a couple of such experiences, the bride learned. As anyone would enter the house, she would quickly wrap and tuck her sari here and there in the slip and pull veil over her face and sit on a bamboo stool woven with jute twines. She became so adept at it that it took her only seconds to transform herself from a wildly running child in a slip to a timid, veiled bride although inside the veil she would be trying hard to suppress her laughter. The visitor would smirk and get on with other business. As the visitor would leave, the sari would be gone too and devar-bhabhi would resume their hide and seek or a game of pebbles; in fact, both games following each other and there were more.
The younger brother called his new sister-in-law bhabhi ji as he was advised. The bride of ten became quite friendly with her eight years old playmate who was closer to her with his childlike mannerism and interests than her twelve years old husband who was getting interested in girls and leaving his childhood slowly behind more by listening to the fourteen and sixteen year olds than by his natural development. After a couple of days, the bride asked her devar to call her Champa, a fragrant pale flower, although this was not her real name. Her face did have a hue of Champa flower but there was more copper and some pink rose in it; the combination was more pleasing to the eyes than the pale of Champa flower. Few days later, she went back to her parents. The husband was not supposed to visit the bride during her first visit. Normally, the second visit, when the marriage was to be consummated, followed after the girl had reached puberty even if it was ten years after the wedding. In her case, it would have been a few years, in some cases, it would be just months. However, given the fact that there was no woman in the house, the bride was called back after about a month. Her friendship with her new playmate kept getting deeper. The husband spent hardly any time with her except for sleeping with her at night and making it whenever he got a chance during the day. She did it, just because it was something to be done as sweeping the floor, one of the chores she was supposed to do as the older women had coached her before the second visit at her parents’ house and the neighbors like Sanjo, the same way as Mohandas Gandhi was coached by his sister-in-law before meeting his wife for the first time. However, contrary to young Gandhi’s realization that no coaching was really necessary, Champa had really not comprehended it even after the experience. A few years make a big difference at that age.
In addition to the fact that by their twelfth year, the girls were reasonably well educated in the matters of cooking and house cleaning in that community, Champa being the only woman in the house had become even better at it by the time her husband together with her devar became orphans and she with them. There was plenty in the house; therefore, no immediate impact of their father’s passing away was felt, as far as the day to day activities and living was concerned. Peasants of the departed father, who were keener and quite adept at cheating on taxes during his lifetime, became a bit less dishonest and even magnanimous towards the young boys. They were already providing some free service to their father, which continued and even increased. Some of them took it upon themselves to help the boys learn necessary skills like caring for the horse, which the younger brother was quite fond of for some years. Under such situations, usually the maternal grandparents and uncles took the responsibility of caring for the orphans but the Shambhu’s maternal grandparents had already left this world and the wife of his maternal uncle had never gotten along with Shambhu’s mother mainly because of the difference between their material worth. The uncle argued that the boys weren’t too young. Further, that the older one having had a wife was virtually an adult and there was plenty in the house. All in all, he managed to convince himself with his wife’s help that the boys didn’t really need any help. To rinse any thoughts of guilt, he would visit them every now and then and “convince” himself that things were going well. Periodically, Champa’s father would come to help for the day. Since the father was not supposed to consume anything of value from his daughter’s place, he would bring his own food as well as whatever else he needed and would leave by sunset. If she had a grown up brother, this encumbrance would have been eased, but many things would have been eased if things were different from what they were. Both of the helpers were peasant-farmers with little knowledge of the pertaining law and how to manage the property. So the help the orphans were receiving was only in day to day living. No one seemed to be concerned with the serious matters. The younger brother was quite interested in learning the skills but the elder one was more interested in sports and gambling with seashells, and of course in sleeping with his wife. Not surprisingly, the younger one became skilled at managing the affairs of home and the older one at winning the sports events; the wife became skilled at cooking, cleaning and milking the cow; all in time. Before that some other things had started to happen.
The orphans were allowed thirteen days of mourning in peace, most of which was spent on religious rituals that included the two boys sitting for a couple of hours each day in front of fire praying for the salvation of their father’s soul together with the officiating priest chanting Veda Mantras. During that time, a large pan filled with ashes from the cremated body, mostly the burned wood, sat covered by a bucket with a heavy stone on it to keep it in place. On the thirteenth day, the priest removed the bucket in the presence of onlookers. After examining the ashes, the priest announced, “The Pious Master has been granted his due; he has become a family god.”
“That is why Lord Shiva called him so soon,” someone remarked.
“He has more important work to do up there,” the other one added.
So on and so forth.
Not sure if anyone else saw the sign but the boys surely saw nothing to indicate such an elevation of their father. Nevertheless, they were elated and even congratulating themselves quietly thinking that although their father’s pious life likely had more to do with his elevation, all the time they spent in front of the fire must have helped. Champa was taken to one of their fields to build a small mud temple for the new family god and light a clay lamp filled with clarified butter. The temple was genuinely small, barely a couple of feet in extension in each direction, length, width and height. After that, the fourteen years old son was adorned with a turban to symbolize the transfer of title of the family head from the father to the eldest son. A feast followed as a final farewell to the departed soul. The Landlord insisted on paying for the feast and preparations had begun days in advance. It was about the same in all cases except that becoming a god was rare. Few who lived a righteous life became humans taking birth some place, others were granted variety of other lives, from horses to pigs to birds to worms and many others in between. Family gods took the form of snakes but they were somehow markedly different from other snakes and remained invisible most of the time, only manifesting themselves as snakes to communicate some symbolic message to their descendants. Every now and then a family god would enter the body of someone like an elder in the family and verbalize his or her message. The person whose body was occupied by the god would never remember the experience or the message, depended on the others to tell him or her for what was communicated by the god. No one really knows who granted this next life, divine powers or some mortal. If a mother-in-law and her daughter-in-law did not get along with each other, the mother-in-law was surely not granted a human life; what life, depended on the degree of animosity between the two. If the daughter-in-law made a mark looking like a dog’s paw, someone else could have erased it to make a hoof and declared at the time of viewing that it was a horse’s hoof. Priest’s insight was not always solicited; for the regular mortals, family members could determine what it was. Some argument could follow whether it was cow’s hoof or a horse’s. Whose view prevailed depended on a variety of factors. The final decision could even be made by Sanjo or Tajo.
Champa’s father-in-law was a devoutly religious Brahman. He had gotten married in his mid-teens as everyone else, but his wife kept on getting miscarriage after miscarriage. His father wanted him to take another wife as the likelihood of having any offspring with this wife was very little and diminishing rapidly. However, the boy refused on the grounds that it was not a righteous conduct. This was his first noticeable pious act. However, when he was approaching his thirty years’ mark, the wife had a nonstop bleeding due to hemorrhage of the uterus following another miscarriage. She was dead after a few days in spite of all the efforts of the midwife to stop the bleeding. Now the boy was free to take a wife and since no one his age would be available, his marriage was arranged with a fifteen years old, which was not difficult as the boy was known for his good character, was in line to inherit a sizeable property after his father’s death and complete access to it in the meantime. The second wife, after having a premature daughter who died after a few months of her birth, did not conceive for the following ten years. It was said that the midwife who delivered the daughter had made some mistake and damaged the reproductive system of the mother. For those ten years, regular treatments like massaging of the abdomen administered by another local midwife, continued to “correct” the damage. So when the mother conceived in her mid-twenties, it was attributed to the skill of the midwife whose business increased as a result and the older orphan was born. Four years later she gave birth to the other boy. Then she stopped conceiving again. There was not much worry in this regard anymore as there were already two boys to carry the family name, inherit the property and whatever else. However, the mother conceived about ten years later while approaching her forty years’ mark, which proved to be fatal as she died in childbirth together with the child. Still in his mid-fifties, the father of orphans to be was not looking forward to his death and was now beginning to think about educating his sons about his business and provide them the necessary information like the documents pertaining to the title of land. Before he could do this, he was found dead in his bed one morning, which lend support to his disciples’ belief that he really did not die but was called up there like a king in need of a skilled administrator would call a capable subject engaged in some other activities. So, he was a good candidate to be anointed a family god with many disciples left behind.
Their Spiritual Master gone, disciples wanted relics to remember him by and pay their respects. Chief Landlord of the village seized this opportunity, “To serve the sons of his Spiritual Master, to protect their rights.” He had already made his move by paying for the feast and by being omnipresent to keep the potential embezzlers away. On the fourteenth day, the Landlord was the first one to enter the place of puja, a room the father had reserved for his prayers and other religious activities, kind of an in-house temple. He picked the statue of Laxmi, wife of Lord Vishnu, the goddess of wealth, and the wealth with it: He had known where the Brahman kept his legal documents, hidden under the carpet beneath the statues of gods. About 10 AD, Mahmud Ghaznavi, had found wealth, gold, diamonds and other precious jewels, hidden inside the statues of gods at Somanath Temple by accident as they started to pulverize the “idols” with sledgehammers. Ghaznavi hauled jewels on the backs of horses, donkeys and the like through Khyber Pass, the Landlord just picked the documents from beneath the gods, placed them in the inside pocket of his jacket and walked out with a small statue of goddess Laxmi in his hand. Then the disciples entered and took whatever they fancied but only one item each. Someone took a statue, the other one just the prayer beads, a book, a hand-written manuscript and so on. They were kind enough to leave a few things for the boys to remember their father by but the orphans were to remember him more by what had already been taken away before the disciples had even entered the puja house. Dark grey Shiva Lingam still stood at the center of carpet that was occupied with all kinds of statues before. The father was a devout devotee of Lord Shiva, worshipped in the form of Lingam in its natural environment; so no one dared to take it, partly because of concern for the feelings of the orphans and partly for the fear of some likely punishment: You do not fool around with the personal deity of a devout devotee!
Soon after that, Landlord’s trips to the city increased to exercise his skills. In fact, not much skill was needed. He had already gotten possession of the papers. Handsome bribes to appropriate officials worked wonders to eliminate any trace of the ownership of land by the orphans’ father. Any wrinkles that may have been left were ironed out by the village patwari who altered the records, in exchange for his “commission” of course, to show that the Landlord had administered the land for years. The Landlord congratulated himself for his skill and considered it a legitimate reason for having taken control of the property. There were others who used quite simple ways like loan sharking as in Mahboob’s classic movie, Mother India, describing embezzlement of an innocent farmer’s property by a loan shark. The farmer had placed most of his land as collateral for a loan. Most of the crop was going in paying the interest. He tried to remove the rocks from a field, which was still under his full control but could not be cultivated unless the rocks were removed. He lost his hands in an accident while removing the rocks and left home quietly to reduce the burden of taking care of him on his family. His wife and the orphaned young sons struggled to survive. When the sons grew up, the mother and the elder son adjusted with their new situations as had many others. The younger son rebelled and became a bandit as had some others burning with desire for revenge. Similar stories had played themselves out many times in real life. The Landlord of Kesari Nagar used at least a little more sanitized route. The movie was made in the nineteen fifties sometime after India had broken up with its past. Well before that, the novelist Prem Chand had made a career making this a major theme underlying his literature. All in all, the orphans became poor as the sons in Mother India; even worse, they had no strong mother.
The landlord waited for a few months and then invited the boys to his place. He paid respect to the boys; after all they were now the inheritors of the mantle of his Spiritual Master.
“Things are getting a bit tough these days Pundit ji,” the Landlord started the conversation after a puff on his hookah.
“There are difficulties Chowdhari, but we will manage with all the help we are getting including yours,” the older boy responded.
“I am sure you will Pundit ji. But things are getting tough in this land-lording business. British are increasing the taxes nonstop, controlling the crops we can grow, peasants cheat like anything and inflation is getting out of control. It is becoming difficult to keep up with all the requirements of the position, perks and all that; even to maintain the standard of living is becoming difficult.”
“You’ll manage Chowdhari, I am sure.”
“Will have to Pundit ji, whatever way it has to be.”
Then he took another puff on his hookah and came to the point, “Well, Pundit ji, your father had sold the land to me years back. He was not cultivating it and had no time to manage it due to his religious indulgences. He was my Spiritual Master, so I let him collect the taxes. But now things are getting tough. I’ll have to take what is rightfully mine. But you are my Spiritual Masters now, I’ll rent as much of this land to you as you want but in time. In the beginning you can’t cultivate all of it, so I’ll have to use others.”
He took a puff on his hookah and remarked, “And I’ll even donate a part of the field to you where my Spiritual Master’s temple stands.”
There was not much more to say. The boys left knowing that now they owned some square feet of farmland.
The elder son headed to the puja house, “Our father had once told me that he kept his important documents hidden under the carpet beneath the statues of gods where he and only he could enter.”
The younger brother followed. No documents were found. The elder brother concluded that their father had really sold the land and walked out. The younger brother was overcome with a completely strange sinking feeling, something appeared to cut and pull his heart out. He fell on his knees as if to pray but it was more likely for the reason that he could no longer stand. He did place his forehead on the ground close to the bottom of Shiva Lingam. Tears streamed out of his eyes. He did transfer to a prayer mode after a few minutes.
He came out of the puja house and broke the news to Champa, “I do not believe that my father had sold the land. The landlord has stolen it.”
“I believe so too. But what do we do now.”
“We’ll have to do something.”
The boy started spending most of his time with his forehead at the foot of Shiva Lingam, and soon acquired the name Shambhu Das, the servant of Lord Shiva, as a result. During his prayers, Champa would have to intervene and persuade him to eat. After three days, the boy told Champa that he had a vision, a sakshatkara, face to face meeting with Lord Shiva who told him that he had died and this is his rebirth, his next life and that he would live most of his life in poverty but indulged in pious deeds enlightening the paths of many.
“Just like real death?” Champa asked.
“This is real death,” the boy said with emphasis.
“But in real death and rebirth, you do not remember your previous life.”
“In spite of vivid memories of my previous life that lasted for only about ten years, this is real death Champa Bhabhi, and real rebirth.”
Champa didn’t say it but felt that the boy had sedated himself by conjuring up a belief to reconcile with his situation. Whatever the case, they had to learn to live with them. Champa’s father, orphans’ uncle and the peasants were convinced, rather knew, that the Landlord, had stolen their property.
Continued to “Horse with a Tiny Rider”