Across the Bridge – Chapter 24
Continued from “On the Banks of the Ganges”
One of those days, during one of the casual meetings of neighbors in Kesari Nagar, Grandpa mentioned, “Hindu-Muslim animosity is no longer confined to the borders. We should think of protecting our village.”
“It is only some people losing their heads sporadically Grandpa, nothing to be so uptight about.”
“Lack of vigilance has caused demise of many.”
Not much progress was made during the first meeting but it made it a topic of conversation during their subsequent meetings and chance encounters, and the view slowly started taking hold. Finally it was decided that all able bodied man should be ready to fight with his weapon, sticks and spears, handy all the time. There were shows of bravado and moves at which Khargu would have laughed. One day, Hasnu stopped by Grandpa working in the fields. It appeared to be a chance encounter but soon Hasnu’s mission was revealed. Muslims in the village were conspiring with a gang of Muslims operating in the area to have them attack Kesari Nagar, which meant only the Hindus of the village of course, “And Rehamatullah is taking the lead.”
Grandpa was taken aback a bit although not very surprised. Hasnu continued, “And you had saved his life.”
“I did my Dharma; he is doing his.”
“Conspiring with gundas, ruffians, to have his village attacked for his ill-founded sense of solidarity with Muslims? That too while he owes his life to a fellow villager, a Hindu! We decided to stay here because we felt safe and secure .....”
“His Dharma as he sees it.”
Not much was said after that, just the parting words:
“No one should know Grandpa, otherwise it will be my corpse decomposing somewhere with some Hindu suspect.”
Grandpa advised Hasnu to avoid such ‘chance encounters’ for some time and came home.
That day he was going to receive a directive from his Lord Shiva of course, which he did and revealed so in the evening meeting, “Shankar Bhole Nath has told me to prepare our force better, be ready for combat.” For quite some time now, he had started to resemble his first ancestor in Kesari Nagar.
“You are just over-reacting Grandpa. We are quite ready. No gang of Muslims would dare attack a village with such a large Hindu majority.”
“You wouldn’t want to defy Bhole Nath, would you.”
People weren’t all that convinced but they didn’t want to take a chance in case Lord Shiva did really tell Grandpa what he said He did. Thus, work to get the force combat ready began. Khatku’s army training came in handy as he was in the village for his vacation. He was teaching them some fighting techniques in fake battles as Khargu had done some generations back. He also suggested that regular drills be conducted. At a particular call from anyone in a loud voice, every combatant would gather at the ‘fortress,’ which was much better by now than in Khargu’s time and women and children would go to the rooftops where bricks and stones were permanently placed. If the attackers succeeded in entering the village, they could be pelted with bricks and stones. That would not have stopped them but they wouldn’t get what they wanted without meeting some resistance. Before Khatku went back to the barracks, another soldier from the village, Birju came for his holidays to take over from him. Between the two of them, they structured the ‘army’ of Kesari Nagar along a regular army dividing it into four platoons, each with its commanding Subedar, brigade of all four platoons commanded by one of the soldiers and in their absence, by their lieutenant Ram Prasad Bismil. London Tor got only a platoon to command. Given the small population, each platoon had just a few combatants but due to this structure, the ‘army’ did look like a sensible fighting force. Chandu, the freedom fighter, and Wrestler Boy would rather be excused from the whole affair but participate, they had to. Two scouting teams were also formed. In addition, everyone in the village was charged with voluntary scouting responsibility like to keep their eyes and ears open and alert.
They also developed a battle strategy: One of the platoons was to stay behind in the village, one would proceed to meet the attackers head on outside the village with a shout of Har Har Mahadev and each of the other two platoons would proceed quietly to flank the attackers. If the Muslims who were no longer trusted attempted to create mischief inside the village, the platoon that would remain behind would attempt to contain it; if the Muslims attempted to join the invading force or attempted to attack the defenders from behind, this platoon would engage them. There was an alternative strategy if the battle was to be fought inside the village. In that case, each platoon was supposed to defend its part of the village covering all four directions. The soldiers indulged in all this with an extraordinary zeal providing a major outlet for their fantasies to command an army as generals. Rehamatullah and his men were of course watching these preparations. Other villagers on the other hand, found it all very amusing and an entertaining game that they were playing. However, the atmosphere in the village was soiled, the serenity was lost due to the newly developed distrust between the Hindus and Muslims.
The Landlord Mahipal Singh just sat there smoking his hookah like a ceremonial head of the operations. His place, the fortress, was being used essentially by the decree of Grandpa in the name of protecting the village of the Landlord. However, he felt slighted and kind of overtaken by the Grandpa whom he had treated quite shabbily until recently and this was not going very well with him but he had no option for now. Interests of all were intertwined together and certain things had to be put on the backburner but he did ponder, “What a big difference these couple of years have made!” At times, he would grind his teeth, “Let these rough times pass, then...” He actually could not determine ‘What then?’ For now, he had to contend himself with going along with it all with a pretense that he was still the head, the King, and his subjects were doing it all in his service, Grandpa being a kind of regent.
While Birju was still in the village, one day the usual call was issued in a loud voice. Most of the villagers thought that it was yet another drill and they were already losing interest in them. However, they all gathered at the fortress with their weapons and discovered that they weren’t going to have it so easy this time; this was no drill. Parasu had other siblings by this time. His youngest brother, the Little Uncle, some years older than Bhuvan, and Bhuvan were alone in the house for males and the barn. Little Uncle was too petrified to reach the rooftop of house for the females and Bhuvan was too stubborn to leave for wanting to be brave. They both just sat there, each one for different reason. Grandpa likely had anticipated this for he rushed to the barn-house and ordered both to go sit with women and children on the rooftop. Little Uncle was waiting for something like that, protection of an adult, but Bhuvan refused to budge, “Give me a gun, I’ll kill’em all.” Grandpa had no time to indulge. He grabbed Bhuvan by the arm and carried him like a sack yet again, while Bhuvan kept on protesting. There was no problem in case of the Little Uncle as he rushed ahead of Grandpa. In any case they both ended up on the rooftop among women and children. Grandpa rushed to join his front platoon. One of the ‘soldiers’ in Grandpa’s platoon, Ratnu, noticed Rehamatullah scurrying away and managed to remark, “Let’s finish the invaders first and then we’ll finish all of you traitors.” Although the Grandpa had tried to keep it under the lid, the scouts who discovered the attacking gang discovered also the conspiracy, conspirators and their leader and then everybody had to know of course.
On the rooftop, there was a grown up fellow also with his weapon, which was just a sugarcane harvesting tool with a blade and a handle. The fellow had made sure to be surrounded by an envelope of women while he was waving his weapon in the air, striking the roof with it every now and then, and shouting, “Kill’em all.” Women and children, including his mother and wife, just laughed at his ‘bravery’ and tried to shame him into joining the others. Initially he resisted but then he was so humiliated into getting away from the rooftop that he had to. It is difficult to say whether he went to the front or just found some better refuge. Nobody knows of Chandu the Freedom Fighter, and Wrestler Boy. Mahipal Singh found it safer and cozier to slip in bed with his wife in the interior of his haveli.
As the ‘Army of Kesari Nagar’ reached near the truckload of attackers, they found the truck but no attackers. One of the scouts informed them that Rehamatullah had rushed from the village to the attackers, obviously to inform them of the unexpectedly organized defense, more like a counter attack. An attempt was made to turn the truck around but it could not be maneuvered on the narrow dirt road and got stuck in a wet field. So the attackers abandoned the truck and fled on feet with their weapons with them. Obviously, they had no firearms for if they had, they could easily wipe the defense force, which was equipped with only the sticks, spears and the like, in the same manner as the Moguls with smaller armies managed to wipe out the large armies of the gallant Rajput warriors mostly because the Moguls were better equipped with the cannons with gun powder. Worse had happened on the opposite side of the globe when a couple of dozen Spaniards with guns and cannons wiped out large armies of the mighty Aztecs and others in America hundreds of years earlier. In Kesari Nagar, it was discovered days later that the plan was to sneak the attackers in the village and take it by surprise by a diffused attack to confuse and diffuse the defending force if one could be mustered in such a situation, but they were discovered by the scouts well before entering the village and Rehamatullah saw it safer to warn and turn them away. Finding no attackers, the villagers had a field day with the truck, which was smashed to pulp, so to speak. After that, some wanted to turn to the Muslims in the village but Grandpa stopped them, “They are our fellow villagers, we’ll deal with them in a fitting way as an elder brother should with his misguided little brother.”
Police did remove the truck the next day but nothing came out of the investigation as usually was the case those days and no change in the way things were done was noticed as a result of the incident either.
Some villagers thanked Grandpa for his foresight, he in turn asked them to thank Bhole Nath. Many doubters found it safer to start believing what Lord Shiva ‘revealed’ to Grandpa much the same way as many non-Muslims found some merit in believing that Allah had really sent several thousand angels to help the small contingent of Muslims win the battle of Badr against about a thousand seasoned warriors from Mecca. As it was only the Prophet who saw the angels, it was only Grandpa who communicated with his Lord Siva. In yet another parallel, ranks of the Muslims swelled to thousands and about whole of Kesari Nagar started believing Grandpa, both consequent to their victories in the respective battles. Still a few did ask Grandpa if the Lord had really revealed to him the future or he was just making it up to bring the villagers on side. Grandpa just laughed it away with “What do you think?”
“Well, I think that the Lord could make it easy on everyone and just deter the plotters; no one would even have known.”
“Lord drives your chariot but you are the one who must shoot the arrow.”
They should have known that no one was going to get anything else out of Grandpa. Plotters led by Rehamatullah were obviously disappointed at the outcome and frustrated by the preparations of the Hindus and suspected sabotage but they could never determine if it was or not, let alone finding the culprit and thus, Hasnu got off the hook easily.
Some things did change however, Bhuvan’s visits to Nusarat being one of them. Also, the villagers did feel a need to be more vigilant in future. So, some scouting teams were formed to watch and warn, which were deployed every night on several strategic locations around the village, one of the locations being the Bridge. Families were supposed to provide one man each on their turns to be part of the scouting teams. Grandpa assigned this task to Nakul Uncle for his fighting skills; he had to serve nights each few days apart. Other families also assigned the task to someone with some fighting abilities. Periodically, one of the scouts would let out ‘Jagate Raho’ in a loud voice, someone on each of the other teams would respond with the same words to assure that the scouts were awake and alert. Teams also rotated from one location to the other during the night. This allowed scouting of the area in between the team locations and a change of pace. Also, every adult male started carrying some weapon with him, usually a stick or a spear, and the females and children would never venture out of the village alone. At times the weapon proved to be a nuisance instead of providing protection. For example, one day Chandu was carrying a load of cattle food on his head and a spear in his hand when a gust of wind turned his load suddenly; in his attempt to control it, Chandu hit his forehead with the tip of his spear. This gave yet another something to the villagers to poke fun at Chandu, the Freedom Fighter, for years to come even though the little wound it created had healed in about a week.
Anxiety had increased as one would expect. The gangs wandering around had succeeded in terrorizing people if not much else. There were a few killings, which would normally have been major incidents but on the backdrop of what had been happening at the borders and even during the normal course of life like the Ganges fair, they were not much to count but they added to the terror. One of those days, Hookah Walla Uncle stayed in the fields until after the sunset pretending to be working. Staying in the fields after the sunset was just not done those days. Farmers departing from the fields did suggest to him, “It is getting late.”
“I’ll be leaving in a few minutes.”
In fact, he was waiting for them to go so that he could have privacy for his pre-set rendezvous with a girl from a neighboring village. The girl was from a poor pot-maker’s family who helped her parents by scrapping grass from the fields. She too stayed behind unnoticed as she was always hidden inside the crops, which is where she found the grass; the fact that it provided a safe cover was a coincidental bonus. These lovers were meeting periodically. After each meeting, they would head to their respective village avoiding standard pathways preferring the cover of crops. Often, the uncle would walk her close to her village before heading to his. Her parents would often scold her for this but she would make some excuse like she did not notice the time hidden inside the crops, “Besides, gangs don’t show up so early and I usually walk with somebody,” meaning some other girl going to the village with her bundle of grass; parents had no idea about her escapades. Such meetings were daring and dangerous even in peaceful times because getting caught meant a severe beating by their families but under the circumstances they could be lethal. One should not be surprised though as even more daring trysts have taken place before and after around the World; not sure if it is for the carnal desire or the urge to defy the odds for love or both or something more.
After his tryst, the Uncle headed home through the sugarcane fields. The girl told him not to worry about her arguing that she knew how to reach her home safely under the cover of crops. The Uncle, while walking hiding himself inside the sugarcane fields, noticed some movement in the adjoining field and was petrified as a result. He said to himself, “Muslims.” He tried to make his way towards Kesari Nagar, making as little noise as possible, his spear clutched in his fist, but the movement in the other field was following him in parallel, which scared him even more. Finally, the terror stricken Uncle made it close to the Bridge and then he dashed out of the field only to collide with another fellow dashing to the Bridge himself. Look what he found: A neighbor who thought of the Hookah Walla Uncle a gang of Muslims trying to get him.
Continued to “From the Throne of a Jackal”