Across the Bridge – Chapter 11
Continued from “A Cup of Tea”
“Things will be fine brother,” the patwari continued, “you have some land of your own now and Parasu is a patwari …”
“Just a seasonal, brother.”
As Parasu’s first season at the job started, he set out with the zeal of all beginners, the zeal of a new convert. As is said, “A new Muslim convert eats eggs all the time,” and of course he preaches the others who have been Muslims for generations to pray five times a day. So Parasu started his first day at the job with the fervor of a soldier going to his first battle. However, his enthusiasm was short lived as he discovered that he knew not a thing about ‘this patwari business.’ There was no training, no initiation, he was just handed the ledgers, assigned an area and he was just supposed to know all there was to know about the same way. He recalled how some older kids had taught him to swim in a canal: One grabbed his legs, the other, his arms and just threw him in water. He did manage to learn some swimming that way but this patwari business didn’t seem to be that straightforward. At the end of the first day on job, Parasu came home exhausted and worried to death. He conveyed his experience to his father.
Shambhu pondered over it for a couple of minutes; then said, “Come with me.”
“To see Karmu Patwari.”
Now Parasu understood that his father would try to persuade Karmu patwari to train him. They quickly had something to eat and got going. Karmu’s place was in a village several miles away. By the time they reached there, it was quite dark.
“Ram Ram big brother,” Karmu addressed Shambhu, “How did you manage to forget your way today to wander off to my humble place?”
“It is nice of you to say so brother, but you already know that I have some selfish motive.”
In all honesty, nothing had to be said and no persuasion was necessary. Everyone in the area knew that Parasu had become a patwari and of course he would need help of an established patwari; Karmu was one of them. As Shambhu and Parasu entered his house, he saw some Rupees coming his way that inspired his polite greeting. So the arrangement was made quickly that Karmu would teach Parasu the tricks of trade for half of the commission Parasu would receive during his first season; Parasu would keep the salary and the remainder of the commission.
The next day, instead of going to his own area, Parasu went to Karmu’s area and spent the whole day with him. There was some backlog of work for which Karmu was not finding time. Now he got a free hand. He gave Parasu some directions and dumped quite a bit of routine work on him and of course loading his hookah and the like were the extras. This reminded Parasu of a Master in a Sanskrit period school where a seeker was kept for twelve years mostly doing menial chores; at the end of twelve years all he learned was that God is the Truth, Universe is False. At the end of the day Parasu was not very much ahead of the day before but was no longer petrified. Within a few days, he learned a few things, enough to get started on his own work. He could go to Karmu whenever he needed the help during his first season. He could go later also and receive help as the professional courtesy but every courtesy comes with an obligation to return the favor. Accounting of his share was based on the honor system, which almost all in the community valued immensely. Anyone found cheating was an immediate outcast, which everyone dreaded. So, everyone honored the commitment, if not for honor, for the fear of excommunication, particularly as there was a possibility that one may need help at some later date.br />
Karmu had been nice enough to teach Parasu a few secrets to make money off the landlords and peasants alike. The knowledge came in handy, although Parasu did not use it to swindle the poor peasants, he remembered his own history, and it was not easy to swindle the landlords but they paid the patwaris to swindle others. Parasu made some money on top of his salary from the landlords and better off farmers.
Parasu took stock of his earnings for the first month on the day he received his first paycheck. He couldn’t believe his eyes at the sight of that much money, “Wow, soon we’ll be flooded with money, we’ll be rich!” However, it did not take him long to discover that this was the reaction of someone at the sight of meager amount of subsistence quality food who had been starving for days; but that was later. For now, after taking stock of his earnings, he kept some for his next month’s expenses and the remainder he took to his mother, Big Mouth, placed all the money at her feet and stood there with his head bowed. Tears tricked down her eyes at this gesture of gratitude and reverence. Nothing more was said or done. She picked the banknotes, found a clay pot, placed them in it and placed the pot among other such pots, one containing the salt, the other pepper and the like, on top of each other. This is how she and everybody else in that community stored things. After that, at the time of each paycheck, she would receive the money and place it in the same pot. Shambhu diverted some money Champa’s way with the knowledge and full approval of Parasu but Big Mouth was kept out of it. The debts were paid off in time and pawned jewelry was recovered, Big Mouth’s and Champa’s, both.
They never had that much money, now they had to find the ways to use it. Shambhu’s lifelong desires were to acquire some land of his own, in fact to increase it to as much as he would have inherited if it was not embezzled by the Landlord, and a Marvari. His desire was about as intense as that of Hori for a cow, the main character of Prem Chand’s novel Godan. Hori worked hard but acquiring a cow kept eluding him. Hori’s family faced and irony at the time of his death in that his wife was asked to donate a cow at the time of his death for his salvation. Shambhu escaped that kind of fate and managed to fulfill some of his desires but that would be much later. For that to materialize, they needed much more money. What they had now wouldn’t fetch even a patch for a kitchen garden. So, the banknotes were just accumulating in a clay pot for now.
After the season was over, no more money was coming in and the clay pot was forgotten. Then the monsoons came with leaking roofs and all that. After the monsoon season was over, Parasu was looking forward to his second season and Big Mouth was busy cleaning up after the rains as was every other woman in the village. They would check what had started spoiling due to humidity and leaked water, and dry it. So Big Mouth would pick a pot with wet grain, empty it on a sheet in the yard, spread it and ward off the crows and other birds, which would flock to eat the grain. After drying the contents of one or two pots at a time, she would get to the next batch. Slowly Big Mouth got to the clay pot with the banknotes.
She emptied the pot on a sheet, spread the banknotes and sat there with a cane warding off the crows and other birds. No crows or birds were interested in eating them was of no concern to her. This is the only way she knew to dry and guard things. The notes were not only wet, some of them were even molding. A passerby noticed it and stood there with his eyes wide open at the scene. Soon there was a crowd of villagers, amused and startled, amused at the innocence of Big Mouth, her way of treating the banknotes as grain or any other commodity and startled at the sight of that much money. After that Shambhu’s family came to be referred to as the one who dried banknotes on a sheet in yard. That was later, for now the villagers found it a source of amusement.
Among the onlookers, there were a couple of political activists, more like agitators. One of them was known as Rama Prasad Bismil, nicknamed after the famous revolutionary and poet by this name, and the other as London Tor, the London Breaker. Someone in another village had organized a group of political agitators some years earlier and declared himself London Breaker, the only London Tor in the area with some genuine credentials. The fellow in Kesari Nagar had joined the group, so he too was nicknamed London Tor. Both of these nicknames were given more as a joke than genuine recognition. There were a number of London Tors in India those days by declaration for having a dedication to force the British out, one of them went on to become a prominent political figure after independence. There was another class of opportunist free loaders like Chandu. No one wanted to insult the famous revolutionary leader Chandra Shekhara Azad by calling Chandu by this name even in sarcasm in spite of likeness of the names. Chandu was a mischievous, no good delinquent whom his mother had kicked out in anger. He headed to Meerut City on feet taking shortcuts. By that time, he got hungry and discovered that he needed money if he wanted to acquire food. Then he spotted a group of protestors being arrested. Chandu joined them and started chanting slogans in chorus, ‘Angrejon, Bharat chhoro’ and thus he had himself arrested. He was fed, clothed and sheltered in jail and was blacklisted as a political activist, rebel, opposing the British rule in India. The status changed after independence from ‘rebel’ to ‘the freedom fighter,’ which paid big dividend later.
A story was circulating about the genuine London Tor of this area when he was campaigning for a legislative assembly seat after the independence, which appeared more of a fabricated tale than a real event. It is true that he had created quite a bit of mischief, which disrupted the electric system in Meerut City and had given hard time to the police in the process but by quite standard tactics. However, the story how he disrupted the electric system that was circulating to garner votes was more amusing, which goes as follows.
TThe fellow gave notice to the administration that he would cut the electric wires carrying electricity from a small hydropower generating station on a dam on the Ganges Canal and thus disrupt the service creating chaos. He had announced in advance that cutting would take place in an orchard near the generating station in the morning of a particular Sunday. To prevent the cutting and arrest him, the orchard was surrounded by a large contingent of armed police well before the declared time. Close to the announced time, a veiled woman with a basket by her side approached the orchard’s boundary.
“You cannot go in there, turn around and run along,” hollered the Deputy Superintendent of police who was commanding the operation.
“I am the gardener servant of the owner, it is my duty to pick flowers in the morning of every Sunday to deliver them in time for the puja at Lord Shiva’s mandir,” she whispered from behind her veil in a barely audible voice.
Innocent enough. Besides, the Deputy would not want to risk the wrath of Lord Shiva. He happened to be a devotee of Lord Shiva himself although he was no match for Shambhu. The woman with basket was frisked quickly if that is what glancing at her garments could be called, after all they had more important work to do, bigger fish to catch, keep London Tor to be from entering the orchard. She could even be a decoy to divert the attention of police so that the fellow could sneak in, he thought. br /> “Get in there, pick your flowers and get out quickly or you will see a real show here soon; goliyan chalengi, a bullet might even catch you, is likely to catch you,” the deputy said.
SSoon after the gardener woman entered the orchard, a wire was cut and there was a blast due to high voltage electric discharge into the ground. The Deputy screamed and beat himself on the head and forehead repeatedly, “Run all of you, in the name of King George, run; in God’s name, run, in Lord Shiva’s name, run ….” the Deputy screamed, “Don’t just stand there and beat yourselves on your heads.”
A couple of constables and inspectors smirked and chuckled while running with their clubs and guns drawn, occasionally colliding with trees. The constables had only the clubs but there were a few Inspectors and Sub Inspectors with guns.
“How in the name of hell, oh! How, I ask, and where were you when the bastard sneaked in?” the Deputy screamed.
“Right beside you, sir, when you let the bastard in,” one Inspector dared to remark.
The Deputy started beating himself on the head and forehead again with one palm, the other was occupied with the gun.
“Oh that bloody whore was no whore, with a basket on her side, she was the bastard. How innocently she, er he whispered, ‘Gardener servant, flowers, worship, Lord Shiva.’ A whore is what she was ....”
By that time one more wire had been cut. There was just one more wire remaining for the whore, er bastard’ to cut.
Sure enough, the gardener woman was no gardener woman, she was the ‘bastard’ perched in a chamber protected by three thick tree branches, more like trunks, high in the tree close to the electric wires. A long wire cutter was hanging on a branch beside him and a gun in each hand aimed at the Deputy and Inspector. The ‘bastard’ had certainly done his homework: The wires were stretched from the station to a high pole on the other side of the orchard passing over this tall tree. Due to poor foresight and carelessness, the wires there were dangerously low; one could reach them from this tall tree. An unusual structure but very convenient for the ‘bastard’ who later advised the Deputy, “Tell your idiot firangi masters to employ better engineers and make sure to put a pole next to the generating station.” That was later. For now, he ordered:
“Tell everyone to drop their guns, and clubs too; you drop first, and everyone step back ten steps, otherwise your heads will be blown before any bullet catches me, if one can at all, in this place.”
The Deputy ordered the guns and clubs dropped, dropped his own first and everyone stepped back.
“And don’t try anything foolish while I stretch out of this place to cut the last wire,” the ‘bastard’ continued, “or your heads will be blown before you can reach your guns.”
Then he cut the last wire in style taking his time with his guns hanging by his sides. Then he dropped his guns and surrendered with a smile on his face. Oh yes, everyone knows what they did to him at the police station, even shoved hot peppers up his ass, but the fellow only smiled even when tears were flowing out of his eyes and he was in an excruciating pain.
“How could you tolerate all that pain and that too smiling,” someone asked him later.
“I continued thinking of the moment when the Deputy was beating his head. I was already victorious having conned them and did what I had declared I would do. No one could take that away from me.”
That was in time. For now, the Deputy grinded his teeth as he said, “Oh you’ll see what happens to you, what’s your name, you, son of a bitch, seed of a swine?” the Deputy’s gun was in the holster by now.
Although everybody knew his real name, at the police station he was asked to state his name as a procedural matter.
“London Tor;” came the answer.
From that day on, he was known as London Tor, and so was the fellow from Kesari Nagar in sarcasm than a genuine credit for he had earned none, which was the case with Pundit Ram Prasad Bismil of Kesari Nagar also.
Rama Prasad Bismil and London Tor of Kesari Nagar noticed that King George’s face was disfigured on some of the notes due to mold. Each one selected a good one and offered twice the value of the note to Big Mouth. This was even more amusing.
“Why are you buying a spoiled note and that too at a higher price?” someone asked.
“I’ll frame it and display on my wall. Wouldn’t a molding face of that firangi bastard displayed on my wall be a beautiful sight for all to see?” one of the activists replied.
“They’ll hang you for it.”
“What an honorable death that would be!” the other activist replied.
Everyone shook one’s head. However, making insulting gestures like that towards the British was an undercurrent of the day when the nationalistic fervor was at its peak and part of it was the gestures to downgrade the British in whatever way possible. Those days, quite a few delinquents went on to become high profile politicians after independence. They had started their ‘careers’ with a blow of stick to the head of some policeman by sneaking from behind. The fellow would get a really good beating before being thrown in the slammer and some even had to spend an hour or more in the Dog Chamber, which was to stand in a cell barely accommodating the person with arms stretched horizontally and legs apart, with spears placed so that if there was even a slight movement, the spears would pierce his body parts. Some of them did collapse of course, only to be bloodied and death was not unheard of. Such tortures became their credentials to get the votes but that was after independence. For now, Big Mouth enjoyed getting more money with her mouth wide open for the notes that she had thought could not be salvaged. Couple of others from Kesari Nagar picked one note each as long as the face of King George was disfigured to show their patriotism by showing disdain for the British and not to be completely outdone by Ram Prasad Bismil and London Tor. As the word spread, few others from the nearby villages also came to buy the soiled notes. However, the novelty wore out soon and Big Mouth’s unexpected business did not remain all that lucrative. She had to sustain some loss as some of the notes could not be salvaged. Chandu of course would have none of that, he was a Milk Drinking Majnoon, not a Blood Giving one.br />
AAccording to the story of legendary lovers Laila and Majnoon, Laila was forced to marry another man. Their separation was not easy for either one but Majnoon took it very hard. He wandered around in jungles calling ‘Laila, Laila, ....,’ went insane and thus earned his name Majnoon, meaning the Madman. Many fables get fabricated around such legends. According to one of such tales, Laila sent her servant with a bowl of milk to find Majnoon in the forest and give him the milk. The servant went to the forest and called out for Majnoon. After some search, he encountered a fellow who asked him why was he wandering around calling ‘Majnoon, Majnoon, ....’
“Laila has sent a bowl of milk for her lover Majnoon.”
“Oh, that would be me.”
The fellow drank the milk and returned the bowl to the servant who in turn took it to Laila. Laila asked, “Did Majnoon send any message for me?”
This routine continued for several days. The servant would reach about the same spot every day and call out for Majnoon, the fellow in the forest would show up immediately, no search was necessary after the first day, the fellow would be waiting. Then he would drink the milk and return the bowl. Laila would ask the same question every day and receive the same answer. Laila got suspicious. One day she gave the servant an empty bowl and told him to ask Majnoon, “Laila has asked for a bowlful of your blood.” As the servant reached the familiar spot, the fellow rushed to get his milk but the servant conveyed the message of Laila instead, as was instructed. The fellow in the forest answered, “I am a Milk Drinking Majnoon, not a Blood Giving one,” and disappeared in the forest.
Chandu was a Milk Drinking Majnoon, not a blood giving one like Azad, who shot himself with the last bullet to avoid capture during his last confrontation with the police and like many others who went to the gallows with pleasure singing ‘Vande Mataram.’ For the likes of Chandu, there were quite a few milk bowls in future.
Continued to “A Pail of Water”