Shifting Sands

Across the Bridge – Chapter 38

Continued from “Bridge Crossed”

Bhuvan, as the other country boys, was awe stricken at the sight of the majestic buildings of the Big College. Many newer experiences were in store like the electric light and fans. Most of the country boys lived in the student residences with a drastically different lifestyle than they were used to in their parental homes in the countryside setting. On the first day after his shower, a boy was sitting in his room and going, “Wah Bhai Wah; Wah Bhai Wah;…” Bhuvan noticed it and asked him what he was so amused by. The boy responded, “Here the water falls right on the head at the turn of a knob!” No need to describe all the new exhilarating experiences but as always, exhilaration was quite short lived and was soon replaced by criticisms citing shortcomings of all sorts. During the early days, the country boys were visiting their parental homes quite frequently, which subsided as they got used to their new environment.

There were also students from other cities in the residences. Thus, there was a mix of the ‘Country Ganvars’ and the ‘Urban Pillas’ as they sometime referred to each other. This created a mix of cultures, country and urban, conflicting and reconciling all the time from the dressing habits to various attitudes. There was no residence for the female students although there was a considerable female student population in the college. Also, there was an all-female, not so Big College in the city with residences. Boys from the Big College managed to find excuses to wander around this college, “I was just going to the bazaar to buy a shirt.” Upon return, he would have a shirt alright, but the one on his back he had left with. Had he been caught, even this shirt together with some of his hide would have gone.

Soon after settling in his new environment, Bhuvan took a walk one day after his supper to the Mall Road together with a couple of friends. “Oh, so, this is the Cool Road of Meerut Cantt,” Bhuvan commented as some of what dwelled under Khatku’s chest, dwelled under his own also. Meerut Cantonment held a special place in the hearts and minds of the students as this was the pace where the 1857 war of independence was considered to have started. The students talked of the related events and looked at the place with reverence; expression of emotion and patriotism on the faces of some of them was difficult to miss. There was a Company Garden beside the road for the British to stroll, sit and whatever else and of course, dogs and Indians were not allowed in that area. The ditches that used to be filled with water were dry now and only the Indians were visible in the Company Garden. By this time, the Company Garden had become a favorable spot for the romancing student couples, which there were only a few of. Since this type of activity was not socially acceptable those days, if a couple was spotted, it was assumed that they were hiding their activity from their parents and others and therefore, the vandals could harass them. But as is said, lovers are always willing to take socially inflicted punishment. On the other hand, if the students spotted any such event, they ignored it with a comment, “This could not have happened during the British period brothers, we should be grateful to the freedom fighters during the 1857 war and after,” with a grin on their faces.

“We should be thankful to them for many more reasons brother.”

The life moved on between studies, romancing and all that.

In the residences, there were stories describing the difference between the old days when only the rich landlord kids could afford to go to such colleges and live in the residences who treated the cooks and other servants like slaves, if not dogs. They described some of the inhuman treatment they had suffered and the lifestyle of those students, which was not complete without their community hookahs, the symbol of their grandeur and authority. All that was now gone together with the hookahs; in fact, smoking of all type was derided. Some of the cooks and servants were having difficult time adjusting to the new civil treatment who were becoming quite bold in overstepping the limits of civil behavior.

Students often gathered on the manicured lawns of the residences to chat, joke and indulge in debates, which took place when they were eating together also. The debates were getting sincerer compared to their pre-university days covering topics from the state of education to that of the governance in the country including its foreign policy. About the same system as the one existed at the Bridge in Kesari Nagar had evolved in every residence. The students indulged in the discussion with the zeal of a new soldier going into one’s first battle, the zeal of the same type as that of Khatku but of course, no one could duplicate Khatku.

While the country had made strides in various ways, the norms in politics, bureaucracy and about everything else were shifting towards mediocrity. This coupled with the ways inherited from the British period like torture by the police although outlawed now, was becoming lethal for a proper functioning of the system. This was the price the country paid for a smooth transition from the old to the new compared to the revolutionary ways adopted by some countries. About every regular person was bothered by this state of affairs. There was general consensus that this slide should be stopped, evils inherited from the British period should be removed and the benefits should be maximized and distributed more equitably. The students were quite impatient to turn things around and considered themselves to be the main instruments and leaders for the deed; they saw themselves as the ones destined to revolutionize and quickly bring Camelot. For that, they had to clarify their own thinking about their career inspirations to affect the change.

Being the students, the state and purpose of education was foremost in their minds, which they considered fundamental to affect any change and for uplifting the society. In this matter, one of the inherited evils from the British period, some argued, was that a professor was sitting in a clerk’s chair and a clerk was teaching in a classroom. The reason was that an IAS position was the Holy Grail for a large section of the academically brilliant students who had the ability to make major contributions in the academic arena. The allure of the administrative positions was power and potential for illicit money and consequent status in the society, which was indicative of the mindset of the society itself inherited from the British period as they had vested immense power in the administrative positions to control the masses. Bribing everyone from the top officials to peons was a routine matter. The notice urging the clientele to report to a particular official if someone asked for bribe stared from the wall behind the official taking the bribe. Bribing was outlawed after independence but in practice, it continued without much change as did the strapping in schools, torture by the police and what not.

Bhuvan got a graphic illustration one day of how the bureaucracy functioned when he accompanied a friend who was going to the kachehari to get a document notarized. While his friend was trying to find a Notary Public, Bhuvan noticed a fellow arguing with a clerk, “I submitted all required documents two weeks back. All you had to do was to verify it and pass it on to the officer for his signatures. But it is still with you.” The clerk peered on into the eyes of the service seeker over his glasses sitting on the tip of his nose, the way Bhuvan had seen his second grade teacher with a wooden pole, and said, “How can the file go anywhere without wheels?”

“How do I put wheels in the file?”

“Have you not seen round things you carry in your pocket?”

Now the fellow understood. He paused for a moment and then asked, “If I put wheels in the file, then how long will it take to get there?”

“Depends on how many wheels you put. If you put two wheels, it will take a week; if you put four wheels, it will go today; if you put a spare in, it will go right away.”

The gentleman pulled out five coins of one Rupee each and dumped onto the clerk’s table. The clerk looked at him with a smile, picked a file from his desk and passed it to the next table without having to even leave his chair. The signed documents were returned to the fellow within minutes.

Back to the lawn, Bhuvan and his friend noticed a few students indulged in passionate discussion and of course, both of them joined in.

“India should have overhauled the bureaucracy at the time of independence. It was instituted by the British to rule over India, not to administer it,” his friend interjected.

“Nehru wanted to keep the British bureaucracy and implement the British system of governance to continue with some name changes like changing Indian Civil Service (ICS) to Indian Administrative Service (IAS) and House of Lords to Rajya Sabha.”

“We have no Lords.”

“They are replaced by others by different name.”

“Nehru wanted to eliminate the position of IAS but others who wanted to keep it prevailed.”

“Nehru considered himself to be an Englishman subscribing to all English ways, he wanted to maintain all that was instituted by the British.”

“Who is responsible is irrelevant. We have it now and it will continue in the foreseeable future. We should strive for good career and serve the country. I can become an IAS officer and work honestly to serve my country.”

“Opting for IAS is to sell oneself for anything, subverting one’s creative urges and reduce oneself to a clerk. This is not genuine service to the country.”

“Even worse, it is to implement politicians’ decisions remaining muzzled in a subservient position. Our place is to indulge freely in pursuit of knowledge and raise the intellectual content of the society.”

“Think of the leaders like Arvinda Ghosh who succeeded in acquiring but refused to serve the British masters in an administrative capacity that would reduce them to something like the House Slaves during the slavery days in America.”

“We don’t have the British now.”

“The way things are, just the levers of power have been shifted from London to Delhi now controlled by the brown Englishmen.”

“It is the allure of power brothers, and think how much money an IAS officer gets as bribes. Those who opt for it are not motivated by an urge to serve the country”

“And the consequent social prestige.”

“Most of us are still living with the colonial mentality my friend, that is what pushes us towards these clerical positions.”

“Situations in the academic world are not all that much better either. There is little in the name of the facilities and this too is a continuation of the British system, no freedom to think, just to follow the same old texts and remained muzzled.”

“Aspiring brilliant brains have nowhere to go except to become part of a sluggish, corrupt and rude bureaucracy or part of a defunct academic system.”

“We need a major shakeup.”

“That would be too disruptive.”

“That was the argument in support of the old ways in the first place but change we must.”

“What do we change?”

“Change has to take place at all levels but government controls the levers of power and strings of the purse and these are the things that are needed to affect any change.”

“We must change the government then.” …..

Before thinking about how to change the government, they had to decide what form of pertaining system should be instituted that is likely to yield a good government. From such thinking, a natural question would always emerge: Which one of the two, Democracy and Dictatorship, was a better form of government for the emerging India. Having come out of a colonial domination recently mainly on the back of a mass movement, it was difficult to fathom that there could be any support for a dictatorial form of government, but there was. On the other hand, there were many staunch supporters of the democratic system who would not be willing to part from their hard won democratic rights for anything.

The arguments against democracy were the familiar ones:

“In democracy, one hundred one fools rule over one hundred wise men.”

“Wrangling of the politicians coupled with their selfish motives is slowing down the pace of progress.”

“Democratically made decisions are like the proverbial horse designed by a committee, the one that turns out to be a camel.”

“In this case, a parliament or the like.”

These debaters argued that we have come out of a foreign domination. First we should clear the mess there was and then implement the democratic system. For that, they argued that autocracy was the answer. Iron fist of Patel was cited as an example, which unified India and managed to get some other tough jobs done expeditiously benefitting the country and the people.

“And don’t forget that he also eliminated the hookahs from the residences.”

“How did he do that?”

“By eliminating the landlords!” followed by a laughter in chorus.

Supporters of the democratic system argued that in a dictatorship, the decisions are made without consulting the people. Therefore, those who want dictatorship have it just by not participating in the democratic process. Those who want democracy have their way also by participating. Thus, democracy provides to each what one wants. Also, people get the kind of government they deserve, want, which is even more so in the democratic system. For the supporters of democracy, liberty was the Holy Grail and eternal vigilance is the price of liberty as Jefferson had pointed out; if people are vigilant, they can eliminate the flaws attributed to democracy. They pointed out that if we throw out the democratic system, which we are lucky to have, then even if we succeed in installing a benevolent dictator, which is a big if, what the dictator grants is not exactly liberty and vigilance requires that in a democracy dictatorial powers not be vested in anybody for this too compromises liberty. Also, there is no guarantee that even a benevolent dictator will remain so for “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” If we get an undesirable dictator, whichever way we get one, how would we get rid of its clutches? In the proverbial cat and mice story, the cat was attacking and devouring the mice. Mice decided to bell the cat. Each young mouse was shouting with bravado: “I will hold the tail of cat, I will hold the leg, I will hold the ear, I will ...; I will ...” Then an old wise mouse spoke, “Who will hold the mouth of cat?” So, if we end up with a cat for a dictator, then who would discipline it? How would one or all of us tame the dictator? How would we bring back democracy?

“How do we tame these politicians?”

“If you don’t like some politicians, vote‘em out.”

“It is easily said than done brother, people are not that free to vote as they are led to believe.”

“Who stops them?”

“There are systemic constraints. Choices are limited, just to choose lesser of the two evils, or many.”

“Politicians have their vote banks. Nehru himself may have allowed Muslims to stay in India after partition to create a captive vote bank.”

“He is secular like Gandhi. They considered Muslims our brothers as they are.”

“Yes but their share of land is in Pakistan. All Muslims could live in India together with their share of land: No partition.”

“Partition has occurred; it is reality now.”

“Have you read Yashpal Jain’s novel, ‘Jhootha Sach?’ Partition is a False Truth my brother.”

“False truth or true truth, it is the truth. This is not the issue. There are variety of vote banks, the main one being the caste based.”

“We always have had the cast system.”

“But not as divided as now and that too for the election purpose.”

“Politicians nurture such differences, even create, for votes.”

“We have always been socially divided along the caste lines, discriminating against each-other.”

“But still living amiably in harmony. It is the politicians arousing the sentiments and pitching communities against each other. The politicians have learned the Divide and Rule policy used by the British so effectively.”

“They fought to wrestle freedom from the British, they learned their ways also.”

“And the new ones also learn the art quite fast.”

“The way things are it is only the power transfer from the British to the Indians with all the trappings remaining intact.”

“There are differences brother, just learn the history of the Mall Road in the Cantt,” Bhuvan interjected.

“What is the history of the Mall Road?”

Many knew the history of the Mall Road but it was only Bhuvan who could relate more closely with it than anyone else, except Khatku, but Khatku was not there. He told the story of Khatku in complete detail to his captivated audience.

In every season, Bhuvan would think of Kesari Nagar and its fields. He would miss the smell of ploughed fields prepared for wheat and sugarcane planting just before the winter set in and thought of the farmers preparing for camping by the Ganges. He was thrilled as he received the news that his parental family was going for camping to enjoy the Ganges fair that year. He imagined Khaira and Gora being fed clarified butter and juggery together with generous amount of mustard seeds and other grains. He took a couple of days’ break from the school to visit them at the fair. Then it was time to miss harvesting of the sugarcanes, then crushing them and boiling to thicken it in the form of the final product. Oh how he missed the smell of freshly prepared gur. He knew that the farmers would be coming to the mandi in Meerut City to sell their product, commented to himself, “But no one can duplicate the act of Khatku; Khatku is the only Khatku in the World.”

Most country kids visited heir parental villages at the festivals like Diwali but most of them stayed in the residences at the time of Holi since the exams would be approaching. Holi is celebrated about the time when the farmers would be waiting for the crops to ripen fully before harvesting. No food was prepared in the residences on that day and no food was available in the city restaurants; everybody was busy throwing the colors at each other and rubbing the colored powder on each-others’ faces. The students visited the professors who had generous supply of snacks and sweets displayed at their places; some place they would get samosas, somewhere else they would get dahibaras, sweets etc. Professors and the students used their colors on each other, then partook the food before moving on to the other house. They would eat small portions; not sure whether they were concerned about those who came after them or about their stomachs because they had to eat at several other places. After that the students took to the streets to watch the celebrations. The streets would be covered with the colored water. Some sweets and snack shop keepers had put palash flowers in the warm water in their woks to extract the traditional color for Holi; they were throwing the extracted color on to the people walking in the streets.

Now the exam time was upon the students. Everybody was looking forward to the completion of exams so that they could spend the summer at their parental places.

“I can’t wait for the exams to be over so that I can reach my village in time to harvest at least the last remaining wheat crop,” Bhuvan remarked in one of the meeting in the yard, “To hear the sound of wheat as the west breeze flows, to chop the wheat plants with a sickle in hand.” Crushing the crop by moving the bullocks on them to extract the grain was to come later.

“Well, I won’t miss that and the antics of my Hookah Walla Uncle and Uncle Nakul,” Bhuvan burst out laughing.

“Those antics must be quite amusing to draw such a hearty laugh out of you Bhuvan,” one of the other participants remarked, “What are they?”

Bhuvan described them in detail.

Hookah Walla Uncle used to have his annual sickness ritual starting in the beginning of the harvest season and ending as the season ended. During that period, he would lie in bed looking very sick. He talked in broken sentences somewhat stuttering as if he was having a great difficulty in speaking. He was certainly a great actor, faker, so much so that everybody, except those who had witnessed his act over the years, would sympathize with him and even make critical comments on the other family members for not taking adequate care of him. During that time, he would be supplied his food in bed and he would order some kid to load his hookah. During the early years when this annual ritual started, a doctor would be called but nobody could find anything wrong with him. The doctor would just order the rest for which he needed no order as he was himself quite obliging in the matter. In time, everybody understood his act and ignored him although he would keep trying to draw attention. At times Grandpa’s elder brother would ask him what was wrong with him. He would start with a few groans, ooon, ooons, and respond in broken stuttered sentences, “If thele is one thin lond Bapu, I could tell you, theventhy ditheases are ottupying thith body.” Bapu would leave remarking, “I have to admire your ability to lie in bed 24/7 without getting bored and tired. Hookah Walla Uncle would look at Bapu in dismay as if a person is looking at a madman thinking, “What is he saying!” At times, he would act delirious, chanting meaningless nothings for long periods like “maa aur, baap; maa aur baap; …. ,” At times, Nakul Uncle, busy as everybody else including the women and children, would get angry at him. Uncle Nakul normally talked fine as did Hookah Walla Uncle, but when angry, he too would stutter. He would remark, “Lyin’ thele fatin’ thickneth while evelybody id killin’ onethelf wolking.” Hookah Walla Uncle would give him the same look as he would give Bapu and everybody else. At times, he would act as if he is close to death. When this occurred, Grandpa would lose his cool and yell at him, “You don’t want to work, don’t, but at least let others work.” Hookah Walla Uncle would realize that he had crossed the limit and return to his regular sickness.

Bhuvan did manage to reach home on the day when the last wheat field was being harvested. After that it was time to thrash the crop and haul the grain to the storage area in house and he had the free theater to enjoy with Hookah Walla Uncle being the protagonist with all the other supporting actors. He also discovered how a neighbor managed to yield considerably more grain than the others from apparently his similar crop: He was stealing the bundles of plants from other farmers’ piles to throw into his own being thrashed. After the harvest season was over, it was the summer of back-breaking cultivating of the growing sugarcane fields. Bhuvan had outgrown jumping in the canals.

Continued to “Revelations”


More by :  Dr. Raj Vatsya

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