Across the Bridge – Chapter 17
Continued from “Warriors”
A middle age woman had given hope of ever bearing a child after giving birth to a girl soon after her marriage who died in her infancy. She did give birth to a baby boy at this advanced age. The parents were overjoyed as now there was someone to look after them in their old age, which was not far away and of course heir to their property. There was another reason for an extraordinary joy of the father: He was fond of wrestling, which was a popular sport in the villages and continues to be so till this day. In the cities cricket is a passion but in the rural areas, they still say, “What is this kirket-sirket, there is only one sport: Wrestling.” The boy’s father would travel long distances to watch the wrestling tournaments. There was no wrestler in Kesari Nagar and there never had been a tournament there. The father had a long-standing desire to have a son and make him a wrestler. There was now a hope that his dream might be realized. There were elaborate celebrations to celebrate the birth. The boy was named Ram Bhool Singh as his birth was so unexpected that it had to be a mistake on the part of God. This would also ward off the evil spirits as they would think that he was not worth the bother, just a mistake of God. Whatever the case, no evil spirits ever came his way and the life moved on. Ram Bhool was enrolled in a wrestling school at ten, which was just to go and learn from the others in an akhara run by an established wrestler for no fee; all expenses were paid from donations from the wrestling enthusiasts.
About the same time a little boy was born to a barber whom hardly anybody noticed. The barber already had several children and no property to speak of. No one knew the name of the barber boy as he was automatically named Kundu for having a depression on the left side of his forehead. Kundu being a low caste barber was married even before he entered his teenage years and by fourteen, he had learned ways of the trade of his father.
Various trade groups had bonded customers by their own rules, their ‘property.’ If a farmer was not satisfied by the services, he could drop the barber, cleaner or whatever, but no other one would provide the service. They could buy and sell their customers. For example, once the regular cleaner of Bhupal Singh did not show up in the morning. Cleaners never came alone; the husband, wife and even children, all came together. They all worked. One day, instead of his regular cleaner family, another one showed up at his house. Bhupal asked why his regular cleaner family had not showed up.
“Chowdhari, we have bought you from them,” replied the lady cleaner.
“You have bought me!”
“Yes Chowdhari Sahib.”
“Who does he think he is; a lowly cleaner selling me, a landlord!”
“This is our custom Jamindar Sahib. He was short of money, so he sold us the right to clean your house, barn and whatever else. Now you are our property forever until we sell you to somebody else.”
“Your property! Get out of here, you, filth, filthy as the filth you clean and send him to me right away. Lowly bhangis sell and purchase me as their personal property!”
The lady cleaner did leave and Bhupal’s regular cleaner did show up soon after.
“What is this I am hearing?” roared Bhupal, “You sold me!”
“Yes Chowdhari Sahib, I am desperate; otherwise, who would sell his property, the source of his livelihood. …..”
“You call me your property! I can have you skinned alive for this, you lowly chura,” roared Bhupal Singh in rage.
“Jamindar Sahib, I sold you for fifty Rupees.”
“You sold me for fifty Rupees, you filthy bhangi; worse than shit!”
Bhupal Singh paused for a moment. Then he called his son, handed him the keys to tijori and ordered, “Get fifty-one Rupees out of tijori.”
As the money was brought to him, he threw it at the cleaner, “Pay it back right away and come back to clean.”
The cleaner took the money and left without a word. He returned fifty Rupees to the buyer and kept one Rupee for himself. Thus, having made fifty-one Rupees for himself, he came back with his wife soon after.
The father barber did not have many customers. He divided whatever he had among his sons, each one getting a couple of them. Kundu saw no hope of eking out a living in Kesari Nagar even with him and his wife taking some temporary labor work whenever it became available. He searched in the neighboring villages and found a few more customers who were not bonded to any other barber for being recent arrivals and started providing them his services. This together with whatever business he had in Kesari Nagar provided him a subsistence level existence. Ram Bhool on the other hand was treated royally. Aided by his inherited genes, food, and exercises in the akhara, he grew up to be a tall, well-built, stout young Jat. Kundu on the other hand grew up to be a puny little barber.
Ram Bhool got married at fourteen with a girl of thirteen. She started living with him about a year after the marriage. His father had already trained him in some chores of farming. Few years after his marriage, his young wife started to help him in the farm work mainly because his parents were getting old and there were not many hands in the house. Soon the roles reversed: She became the main farmer and he, the helper. He did plough the fields, seeded them, irrigated them, not all by himself of course, they used hired help as needed. For the remaining part like getting the cattle-food and looking after the cattle, she did most of the work with little help from her father-in-law. Her mother-in-law helped a little in cooking and cleaning. Little help from the old parents did help but the bulk of the work was still on her back. Ram Bhool had an excuse to train for wrestling, which he did but used it as an excuse more than it really was. As for wrestling, he was still not at the stage to compete in the tournaments; that is what the training was for. A wrestler’s training required toning and strengthening his body and learning and practicing the art in some akhara. Ram Bhool spent a few afternoons every week in the akhara, ate special strength building foods and exercised every morning and evening. Exercises involved sit-ups, pushups and the like. As he was about ending his teen years, soon to compete in the adult tournaments, he had started working with his mugdar, which he lifted and twirled around his upper torso in circular motion. Mugdar used to be quite heavy, so much so that a normal person was not able to lift it high enough, let alone twirl it. At the end of his mugdar routine, he would try to throw it over a high barrier, which he was still struggling with.
One day, he and his wife went to the fields to fetch some cattle food. The wife prepared two loads, bigger one for herself and a smaller one for him. She asked him to help her lift and place the load on her head and he could lift his load by himself later. This was the reason for a smaller load for him for it would have been difficult to lift a heavier load without help. Ram Bhool helped her lift the load but he could not lift his own. The wife dropped her load and helped him lift his smaller one. Then she managed to lift her heavier load by herself. Ram Bhool was embarrassed. His ego, his vanity, had received a severe blow, “I do so many pushups and sit-ups every day, I swirl mugdar many times every day, and I could not lift a lighter load while she lifted a heavier one all by herself.”
He could not keep it bolted inside him. So he mentioned at their bridge, “You appear to have built quite a bit of strength in you.”
“I am a farm girl; it all comes from practice.”
Few moments of silence followed.
“Do you think you are stronger than me?”
“I don’t know but I manage to feed the cattle.”
“So you do think that you are stronger than me. I bet anything, you can’t lift the mugdar high enough to maneuver around your torso, let alone twirl it.”
“Let me try,” the wife said, got out of the bed, picked the mugdar, twirled it a few times around her torso and threw it over the barrier. Then she came back to the bed. Nothing was said or done after that.
Next morning, Ram Bhool took his wife to her parents’ home, left her there and never brought her back. But this is not what earned him the name Wrestler Boy, it only earned him a great deal of downgrading laughs from the villagers, “And you are a wrestler Bhulve,” someone would remark. How did people know of the event that took place in privacy under the cover of the darkness of night? Were there any secrets there?
By the time Ram Bhool reached his twenty first birth day, it had become known that Kesari Nagar finally had a wrestler. Given his appearance, he had to be taken seriously. The episode involving his wife was not yet known to many outside Kesari Nagar that could make a dent in the impression he made. Besides, he was training in a reputed akhara. They thought that he could not have survived there unless he was a damn good wrestler. In time there was a wrestling tournament in a nearby village. Ram Bhool was invited and matched with a wrestler of comparable appearance, Bijju Bijoliya, named for being from the village Bijoli. Bijju had the reputation for never having been defeated in a wrestling match. While matching, some argued that Ram Bhool may be a good wrestler but he had never competed in a tournament. He should not be thrown as a feed to Bijju Bijoliya, the Great One, right away, he should make his way up as everyone else does. Others argued that losing to Bijju Bijoliya would still be an honor and if he can hold even a little, his reputation would receive a boost. After all sorts of arguments back and forth, Ram Bhool was matched with Bijju.
Just before the match was to begin, Ram Bhool excused himself to take a bio break for a few minutes. He went behind a bush nearby. When he was taking too long, someone decided to check. As he peaked behind the bush, he found no sign of Ram Bhool and no mark of urine.
“The coward has disappeared,” he announced.
Of course there were laughs but there was more: Bijju Bijoliya took his lungar and whirled it in air over his head as high as his hand could reach, round and round, as he issued the challenge, “I swirl my lungar over Kesari Nagar.”
In that community, the gesture meant that he had not only challenged the whole village, he had also inflicted the worst kind of insult upon it.
Kundu happened to be among the spectators. He was coming back from a neighboring village after serving his customers there. He had heard that there was a wrestling tournament in a nearby village, so he had taken a detour to watch. As the lungar was being whirled over Kesari Nagar, Kundu jumped ahead and accepted the challenge. First there was dismay and then laughs, “Is this what Kesari Nagar can muster!” They tried to persuade Kundu not to be stupid as the opponent was an established wrestler of very high repute and that no matter how easy he went on the likes of Kundu, there was a danger of few bones being broken.
“I can’t just stand here and see my village being humiliated; I must protect the honor of my village; I must respond,” Kundu argued.
“The weasel has got the courage and honor at least, not like that coward Bhulva,” someone remarked.
When Kundu could not be dissuaded, people decided to let him try, “It might at least be amusing to watch.”
As for Kundu, all he knew about wrestling was that the one who pinned the shoulders of the other down to the ground, chitta position, won the match. He wasn’t even sure of the exact position that qualified as a technically correct position of chitta.
“Alright, someone can lend you his lungar and kachchha,” a few of them suggested.
“I can manage without them,” Kundu said.
He placed his tin can that he used for water to wet the beards, and his tool kit, on the ground. Then he took his shirt off and tucked his loincloth to make it into a parody of a wrestling trouser and stepped into the akhara.
The wrestler felt insulted at this match but he had to respond to whosoever accepted his challenge. So Bijju stepped into the akhara and shook Kundu’s hand, a standard courtesy. Then they both stepped back. At the signal by the referee, Bijju proceeded in style with his fancy maneuvers as usual to gain a tactical advantage and not to let his opponent gain one. Kundu just stepped forward, put his arms around the body of his opponent, lifted him in the air, threw him on the ground and immediately placed his right knee on his chest. Then he looked at the referee and asked, “Is he chitta?” It was too late. The referee had already let out a piercing scream with his both fists extended in air over his head as the signal that the match was over; somebody had won. Immediately, the drummers started beating drums and the horn blowers blew their brass horns as a routine activity. Since the musicians were always placed behind the spectators’ crowd, they watched the match from a distance missing some of it. They were also not paying much attention to this match for hardly any match could be less interesting than this one. They were not surprised at a quick end to the match. One of them remarked, “What is the glory in defeating the likes of Kundu, that too for the likes of Bijju Bijoliya,” but playing the music as usual was a chore to be done.
The word that it was Kundu who had won spread faster than fire in dry bamboo forest doused with gasoline, faster as other news did around there. As soon as it reached the musicians, there was pin drop silence suddenly as their mouths opened like a donkey ready to bray and hands froze in air. After that sudden shock, they started beating their drums even louder while dancing with even greater fanfare than usual. Horn blowers had to content themselves with a little less as it was not easy to dance and maintain the music with those heavy horns but they did participate to the extent they could. As for Kundu, he loosened his loincloth, wore his shirt, picked his tin water can and tool kit, and walked away.
“Not so fast brother,” he heard someone say.
Dismayed, he turned his head to check. He had never been called ‘brother,’ all he ever heard was Kundva or at best, Kundu at times, often Na-i ke, son of a barber, which was an insulting way of addressing. By that time, couple of spectators from Kesari Nagar stepped forward and lifted him on to their shoulders and marched towards Kesari Nagar shouting “Kesari Nagar ki jay, Kundu ki jay, … .” Many from the crowd joined in. The drummers and the horn blowers rushed ahead of the crowd. They did not want to miss the opportunity to be a part of this unusual celebration, once in a lifetime opportunity, or many lifetimes.
Kundu was still a bit bewildered, it just hadn’t sunk into him that he had accomplished about an impossible feat. In time, the entourage reached Kesari Nagar and within minutes everybody knew what had happened. Bhupal Singh took a few silver Rupees from his pocket and offered to the musicians who refused, “This was not for money Chowdhari, if we accept the money, it will downgrade Kundu brother’s feat.” They were persuaded to accept the money however, with some effort. As this celebration was going on, someone spotted Ram Bhool sneaking out of the village and yelled, “Grab that Wrestler Boy.” This is how he got his name. But the villagers were not finished with the newly minted Wrestler Boy. “Get some kalikh, blacken his face and get a donkey,” an elderly man ordered. The plan was to blacken the face of the newly minted Wrestler Boy, put a garland of worn out shoes around his neck, place him on a donkey and parade around the village to really humiliate him. However, Kundu stepped in, “I will never be able to forgive myself for causing this.” Wrestler Boy was allowed to leave the village to return after it all subsided.
For the newly developed respect for Kundu, people did not go ahead with their plan. After all, Kundu was the man of the day. Bhupal offered him some money as reward for saving Kesari Nagar’s honor, which Kundu did not accept.
“I did my duty Chowdhari Sahib. In fact, it was not my doing. Would anybody believe that a puny little Kundu, a poor barber, could beat Bijju Bijoliya! It was Mother Bhavani, who gave me the strength and the skill for just as much time as needed to save the honor of our village. I did not know what I was doing. Mother Kali Bhavani had taken over me. Mother goddess works through humans. I was just her instrument for that short time. Now I am plain old Kundu, the barber, scrapping beards,” Kundu commented.
Someone suggested that they should train Kundu as a wrestler. Bhupal offered to pay for it, food for Kundu and whatever else was needed, “You can be one of my guards, just a wrestling guard. I have others who fight for me with weapons. There will be no danger to you.”
“No Chowdhari, I am a barber, this is my profession, my Dharma. If I take undue advantage of our Mother Bhavani’s blessing that was meant just for a few moments, Mother’s curse will befall upon me.”
All in all, Kundu remained a barber except that he managed to earn some respect. Bijju Bijoliya hanged his lungar, no more wrestling. He continued to train new wrestlers in his akhara though. As for Wrestler Boy, everybody forgot his original name. Come to think of it, the sarcasm in his nickname spoke better that he really was a mistake of God than his original name or any distortion of it could ever have.
Continued to “Merchant with Hundred-Thousand Animals”