Across the Bridge – Chapter 36
Continued from “Mall Raod of Meerut Cantt”
Khatku’s adventure became talk of not only Kesari Nagar but also of the whole area.
“Now we know why Khatku planted sugarcane in his field,” Hasnu remarked in one of the meetings at the Bridge.
“Did he have to plant sugarcane and go through all what he did, roll over on that road during such cold to demonstrate that Thandi Sarak was within his reach now?”
“He had to do it the Khatku way,” Nakul Uncle responded.
This got everybody into thinking for a few moments; everybody could relate with what Nakul Uncle had said. They could not understand why anybody would do what Khatku did but they understood that Khatku would do it and this would be about the only way he would do it. But there was something more to it.
Bhuvan and Khatku had become somewhat friendly by this time and Khatku had started communicating some of his thinking to Bhuvan, which he did not feel comfortable in divulging to others. Khatku described what he was thinking when he walked out of the trenches and was court marshaled for it, and his thinking in ‘paying his debt’ to his father. Bhuvan found Khatku to be an utterly lonely person having views at variance with people around him and he found in Bhuvan someone who could understand his way of thinking.
“I worked whole my life for Dal-Roti and I still don’t have Dal-Roti,” Khatku remarked one day, “I should have joined Azad Hind Fauj.”
“There is no Azad Hind Fauj anymore Khatku, Subhas Chandra Bose died in Taipei plane crash. India is free now, you have to move on, no point in getting stuck in time warp.”
“My Azad Hind Fauj is still in me Bhuvan, Neta ji Subhash Bose is still alive and I do not know whether India is free or not but I am not yet free.”
This got Bhuvan thinking. He understood that Khatku was fighting his own battle, which still was in him. After a pause, Khatku said, “You know Bhuvan, on Thandi Sarak, I was fighting in the snow covered mountainous fields of Imphal.”
“Bose lost that battle Khatku.”
“Becausse I wass nott there,” Khatku said pointedly, “I wass fighttinn forr Dall-Rotti.”
Bhuvan did understand that Khatku did not mean himself personally; he identified with all Indian soldiers who fought on the British side. Khatku meant that if Indians had fought against the British, not for them, Bose, or someone else, would have won, not just in Imphal but the war in its totality and with ease. Fighting for Dal-Roti earned them not much of Dal-Roti but a lot of humiliation from Black Mango to exclusion from the first class compartments in trains to Churchill’s remarks to being lumped with dogs that were not allowed to walk on the Mall Road, …. By rolling on that Road, he wanted to feel the mountains of Imphal, he wanted to earn his right to walk on that road by fighting for it, not handed it over to him or earned by someone else for him by their methods; he was a soldier, a Jat soldier; he wanted to earn it by his methods within the framework of his Dharma, his Kshtriya Dharma, a soldier’s Dharma, which is what he did. Khatku gazed in space, Ghanto’s gaze, then said, “You know Bhuvan, Gandhi did not win independence for us.”
“Then who did Khatku?”
“Neta ji Subhash Bose.”
“Are you just conjuring up things Khatku, to suit yourself?”
“No Bhuvan, even the British PM responded to an interviewer that the movement led by Gandhi ji had minimal impact on the decision to grant independence to India; Bose was instrumental.”
“How is that Khatku?”
“Bhuvan, the rage that was burning in my veins was burning in many veins, inside and outside the military. Neta ji provided fuel for it, outlet for it and home for them all, soldiers and the revolutionaries. Military was ready to take up arms against the firangis and the civilians with revolutionary heart would have joined them. The firangis sensed that.”
“Like the rebellion of 1857?”
“Warr off inddeppenddence,” Khatku said looking pointedly at Bhuvan.
“We lost the war of independence Khatku.”
“Becausse I wass nott therre.”
Bhuvan posed for a few moments, then said in a serene and somewhat sad tone, “Yes Khatku, you were fighting for Dal-Roti.”
“Yes Bhuvan, sadly I was,” Khatku added, uncharacteristically, in the same tone.
Bhuvan understood. Yet again, Khatku did not mean himself individually. He was referring to the fact that the British military had Indian soldiers fighting for them and the whole of India was not united against the British, which it was after the Jallian Walla Bagh massacre. Khatku meant that this time the whole of India together with her soldiers in the British military would have been fighting against the British. The revolutionaries who were eliminated for they did not have a proper united front would have been part of the new revolutionary military. And the British sensed that.
“The firangi bastards got out just in time, otherwise Neta ji would have torn them apart even if he really did die in the plane crash. He had already infused his spirit in us. He lives within us Bhuvan,” Khatku added confirming Bhuvan’s thinking.
“Have you given some thought to the British reasoning that if Bose won, Japanese would have taken over India?”
“I have, I have Bhuvan. This is their yet another disparaging view, “You Indians deserve to be slaves, you will remain slaves; if you get rid of us, Japanese will enslave you. We are better masters than the Japanese will be. Therefore, fight for us to serve us as your masters.” The subterfuge worked for very long time Bhuvan but now we had awakened.”
“Thanks to Churchill.”
“Yes, thanks to the bastard.”
Bhuvan parted from Khatku pondering over what he thought was a major transformation in the rustic Khatku, from an ox to a thinker, philosopher. “Such a thing can happen I suppose, when certain experiences hit a person in the depth of one’s being, the foundation of one’s existence,” Bhuvan mused.
“He had to settle a score, pay his debt he owed to the firangis, debt, self-imposed, it was a personal battle he was fighting and he had to win it,” Bhuvan broke the silence at the Bridge, “As he had to do what he did to his father, …. and he did earn his girl, won his girl by fighting his battle …. and earned his right to walk on the Mall Road in Meerut Cantt.”
Bhuvan’s comment did ease people into talking again. Khatku’s activities pertaining to his father were discussed at the Bridge following Bhuvan’s remark.
“Same as in earlier times when the kings and princes won their brides in battles.”
“The same brother, just in a different guise.”
The event had been discussed number of times before but this time there was a difference: While on earlier occasions, people had mixed opinion; some condemning Khatku’s behavior and some justifying it but they all were somewhat afraid of him; this time there was some respect for him and less fear. His deed of delivering blows to his father and uncle was seen as an act of valor and his antic on the Mall Road was seen as an act of patriotism.
Khatku did not catch pneumonia and die as some had thought was likely to happen but somebody did die: Balla, alias Ghanta.
Balla’s children and Ghanto helped him with work in the fields but to a limited extent due to the children’s school work and Ghanto’s responsibilities at home; for the most part he worked alone. During the summer months, he would return at lunch time and then go back to the fields after his siesta and we know what siesta meant to him. During the winter months as was now the case, he would leave early in the morning and return after sunset. Ghanto would deliver his food herself in the fields at noon hour and help him for a while. He could not escape his duties during winter either, it was just that Ghanto’s love chamber would be replaced by his sugarcane field and the height of the plants made it quite convenient. After returning home to finish the housework and cook, she waited eagerly for him in the evenings. On this particular day, Balla was not feeling well in the morning but in spite of Ghanto’s suggestion that he took rest to recover, he went to the field saying that he would finish some work he started the previous day and return home by the lunch time. The lunch time passed but Balla was not home and Ghanto was getting anxious. She sent her son to check what was taking his father so long. Upon returning from the fields, her son informed her that his father was dead.
“Did you check properly?”
“He was lying on his back with his eyes closed. I called out, ‘Bapu, bapu,’ several times, he did not answer. He looked dead, I got scared and ran home.”
“He may just be resting, he was not feeling well today, he may have gotten more sick,” Ghanto said as she rushed to the fields. Others knew it within minutes of course, and a few tagged along. Suddal rushed ahead of everybody else and took a cot along. Sick or dead, Balla had to be brought home and cot was a standard substitute for a stretcher in that community. Lying on his back in the manner described by his son indicated that he was not in a position to walk.
Balla was dead alright. All that could be done now was to bring him home and perform the last rites. Women of neighborhood gathered to mourn Balla. Ghanto was already wailing starting in the fields, “Who shall I cook for now? Who shall plough our fields? Whom shall the kids call Bapu? Why did you have to go so suddenly my love, without dropping even a hint ...” Ghanto’s bangles were cracked as a standard ritual initiating her entry into widowhood. Gathered women were wailing in rhythm, in chorus. This appeared like a rehearsed mourning, which was quite normal. Only the close ones to the departed one felt the real hurt. After the usual activities the corpse was taken for cremation. As soon as the men were gone, mourning stopped and chatting and commenting started.
“His whole body was swollen.”
“Looked like a ghost.” …..
As the men were seen returning from the crematorium ground, a woman commented, “They are returning, start wailing;” and it resumed. After a while, all but the close family departed. Suddal stayed with Ghanto for the night.
Being winter, there was no siesta during the days but women always managed to find time to gossip.
“Ghanto is the one who killed Balla; poor fellow worked like a donkey and then servicing her was no easy chore.”
“What will she do now?”
“Oh, don’t worry about her, her kind is always quite resourceful.”
“She already has one, could not wait even for one night, kept Suddal home the first night after Balla’s departure.”
“He stayed for her safety and consolation, it was his duty being Balla’s cousin.”
“You, moron, know nothing. You think she was going to confine to Balla? She was supplementing Balla with Suddal for a long time.”
Balla’s bones had to be submerged in the Ganges. Normal practice was to do so soon after the death but the Ganges fair was just ahead, so Ghanto and Suddal decided to combine their camping and performance of the ritual together. As the fair time came, Suddal drove the cart, Balla’s cart with Balla’s bullocks. The eldest son, who was still quite young, submerged the ashes in the Ganges the very first day. On the second day, Ghanto took Suddal into knee deep water and both took an oath to be ‘each other’s, forever.’ Then they took a dip together to solemnize their oath. They were not formally married, did not announce their commitment to each other publicly, no one was told of their ritual at the Ganges, they lived in separate houses separated by a low mud-cake wall. Going over the wall was no big chore and everybody knew of the nature of their relationship.
Ghanto pulled her son out of the school and Suddal started teaching him the ways of a farmer. Since the boy was still young, it was Suddal who had to do the work. She never sent her younger son to school for both sons were needed for the farm work even after they grew up. Neighbors tried to persuade her to send her sons to school, “It has taken a lot of efforts to avail some opportunity for education, you should appreciate its value,” but to no avail. The boys together with their sisters had not fully comprehended the nature of the relationship between their mother and Suddal, they all were rather relieved to have an adult male around to help. Ghanto’s brother started visiting her more frequently to help; he was a more mature adult to help with serious matters. Suddal was good for bull work and the like but he was still a kind of delinquent vagabond. Women would talk among themselves wondering why Ghanto and Suddal do not formalize their relationship and thus, make it respectable, now even Balla’s bar was gone. Hookah Walla Uncle who moved along with his hookah almost oblivious to most of the World around him except for occasional interest in things, asked Suddal, “Hey Sudle, why don’t you just settle down with Ghanto? You are doing all that a husband does anyway and you have no one else. This way is not an honorable way.”
“This will restrict my freedom. I have lived alone for so long that even the thought of settling down with someone fills me with fear.”
“You are lucky to have someone. What kind of freedom are you afraid of losing?”
“Freedom to fool around is not the only freedom, don’t you know?”
“Oh yeah, your drinking and marijuana smoking parties with your buddies.”
Suddal just smiled a mischievous smile and walked away. Ghanto also was not showing much interest in changing things from what they were, “It will have adverse impact on family’s social standing.” The fact was that family’s standing was suffering now while formalizing the relation was although not the most respectable way, it was accepted as in the cases of Kadhelar, Marva, Wrestler Boy and Khatku, But Suddal and Ghanto were quite content the with the way things were and did not care much for what people thought and said.
Continued to “Bridge Crossed”