Across the Bridge – Chapter 42
Continued from “The Boy Goes Solo”
Hasnu was right: Bhuvan never returned to Kesari Nagar for long periods.
Grandpa was also right: Bhuvan kept returning to the village for short visits to enter the labyrinthine maze at the Bridge yet again but never stayed too far away from its people and the events around them. He carried the images with him to superimpose in his new situations nicknaming individuals paralleling Marva, Ghanto and others; he never found parallels of some like Khatku. It appeared that in some ways, he had seen the whole World in Kesari Nagar; people’s attitudes, the way they behaved, seemed to be quite uniform all over. And yes, Khaira was always around to mount someone with his front legs raised with large carrot popped out between his hind legs whenever a situation presented itself. In such situations, Bhuvan would whisper, “Calm down brother Khaira, we’ll manage.”
Gora became very lonely and sad after Khaira’s departure, no pampering of Grandpa helped his condition, he barely ate, and became quite inactive. Gora died within a couple of months after Khaira’s departure. Grandpa buried him beside his brother.
Khatku found a job driving a truck helping him earn a reasonable living for his family, now consisting of his wife and two sons. His driving training in the army came in handy for the purpose.
The ‘Mute Doll’ Indira Gandhi was no longer a ‘Mute Doll.’ She tilted to the left adopting the policies like nationalization of major banks pleasing the employees, and stopped the Privy Purse Payments to former Kings and Nawabs, which was welcomed by the masses increasing her popularity but was sued for this act by those who lost the benefits. Court ruled against her on the ground that it constituted the Confiscation of Private Property. She campaigned arguing that she wants to take steps to eliminate unfair benefits to elites but she needed two-thirds majority in the parliament to amend the constitution to be able to do so. People voted in large numbers for her party giving her seventy percent of the seats although some election irregularities were noted at a later date, which had profound impact on the politics, governance and the people; that in time. For now, some interpreted her loss in the court a deliberate maneuver to forge such a massive victory. True to her word, she amended the constitution to include a clause that enabled her to confiscate private property for the benefit of the masses, eliminated the Privy Purses on the basis of this clause and afterwards enjoyed an immense power in the parliament. Stimulated by a massive dose of such significant political activities, the meetings on the lawns and the Bridge, were driving in high gear. Even the participation of the Wrestler Boy had increased significantly although his sadness never left him ever again.
Accommodation between the West and East wings of Pakistan had never been easy. They were united only by the religion; culturally, they were poles apart, about complete opposites. Introduction of democracy produced victory for Awami League, an East Pakistan based party. However, an East Pakistani Prime Minister was not acceptable to West Pakistan, which had dominated the country until then. Now the rift was wide open leading to Bangladeshi rebellion followed by a ruthless suppression of East by the West. Consequently, about ten million refugees fled from East Pakistan to India. This constituted a pretext for India to invade East Pakistan. Retreating Pakistani army destroyed the infrastructure and killed and executed about a million people, particularly the intellectuals making the recovery after the war so much more difficult. While this war became a subject of studies by the military strategists for a long time for its impressive execution militarily, the war was India’s to loose in any case, but India realized that American support for Pakistan coupled with Nixon’s personal hatred for India and Indira Gandhi in particular, could make things very difficult and dangerous for India. On top of that, India would sustain immense financial and other losses. Therefore, political maneuvering was very critical leading to India forging a defense pact with USSR that was deemed necessary to counter the American threat in the Indian Ocean. All things put together, the war was won in fourteen days with complete Pakistani surrender yielding ninety thousand prisoners of war and repatriation of the refugees to Bangla Desh, the new name of East Pakistan, was also completed in fourteen days afterwards. The time frames for both of these activities had been announced by India in advance, which nobody believed at the time and was considered an impressive feat after its execution with complete precision. These events were also impacting heavily on the lives of Indians in North America in an adverse way for the western alignment with Pakistan, Bhuvan being one of those who were at the receiving end.
The war had a profound impact on the minds and lives of the people. One of the things people realized was that India could conduct business very efficiently if it wanted to, erasing the impressions of completely lethargic and sluggish system. Indira Gandhi became a very popular leader for her ‘pro-poor’ policies and this complete victory.
As it happens, the euphoria of victory was not very long-lived. Courts ruled against Indira Gandhi yet again, this time for the election irregularities, essentially declaring the election results null and void. Indira Gandhi declared the state of emergency and ruled by decree. Anyone raising voice against her actions was jailed; opposition leaders were the first ones to go. A revered leader, Jay Prakash Narayan, who had left the elective politics during her father’s rule but not politics altogether, had risen in stature significantly by now acquiring the title of Lok Nayak, Leader of the People. Being a staunchly Gandhian dedicated freedom fighter, he was very disturbed by the state of emergency and the activities during this period, commenting at one point, “Activities of this government pain me,” expressing simple Gandhian pain. Any British could tell what a potent political weapon a simple Gandhian pain could be in that land. Him being jailed had a profound impact on the people, “He had carried Indira Gandhi on his lap and she jailed him!” was one of the common comments at the Bridge and elsewhere. The meaning of this comment can only be appreciated by those who could understand the degree to which the elders were revered in that society. He was a leader whom even she could not attack and keep incarcerated for a long period. He was released with just a simple comment that some good forces had been lured into joining the evil ones opposing her and the state of emergency.
Her younger son Sanjay Gandhi rose in eminence even though not elected to any position. He wielded even more power than his mother in some ways and was essentially declared the next Prime Minister. He implemented forced mass sterilization to control the population. The program was abused to some extent resulting in castrations instead of vasectomy and sterilization of even the unmarried men while the program was for men who had two or more children. Also, such a mass sterilization resulted in some medical complications. There was a strong backlash to this program resulting in a setback to the family planning efforts. Having come out of a dictatorial colonial rule, people were strongly opposed to a police state-like conditions.
On the other hand, there was a great sense of relief and approval of various corruption-reducing programs even though equally draconian. For example, the absentee rates in the government offices had fallen to an extent that there were not enough chairs for the employees to sit and no one was allowed to be more than fifteen minutes late. Taxis and autos could not operate now without a functioning meter and the police officers would refuse to accept bribes. Merchants were forced to print prices of the items to the extent that the rate on a piece of cloth had to be printed at every meter. People were pleased that she was putting their house in order. So, there was not complete rejection of the hard handedness; it was accepted, even appreciated, if it yielded desired benefits to the people providing new fuel to the debates on the university lawns and at the Bridge.
On balance however, people were so angry at her that in the next election, in 1977, she lost even her own seat and a period of turmoil in the Indian politics began producing from the Urine Drinking Prime Minister to the Hookah Loading one and many in between. On the other hand, life was moving along as usual for many including for a magician who probably could not earn a living by practicing his craft for his poor magic skills but had succeeded well in marketing himself as God reincarnate. Many rich people and politicians marketed his Godhood as he was coming in handy in laundering the illicit wealth, mainly by ‘producing’ gold and platinum jewelry studded with diamonds and the like ‘out of thin air’ and ‘gifting’ it to them. Poor people, he blessed with wood ash, of course.
During one of Bhuvan’s timely visits, the Drooler stopped by to chat. His father, Kadhelar was dead by now and his elder brother had managed to start earning a living for his Gypsy mother, Drooler and his personal family as a real estate broker with the help of a relative of his grandmother. Drooler was now a grown up man but drooling all the same and known to be half-witted but behind no one in his Jat cast loyalty. He sat down on the ground near Bhuvan placing his helping stick beside him.
“Do you write letters?” he said addressing Bhuvan, “I write letters. You should write letters.”
Bhuvan looked at him rather perplexed. Another fellow remarked, “Pay no attention to him; his brain is gradually disintegrating.”
Referring to the period when the Prime Ministers were changing ‘by the hour,’ Drooler continued, “I wrote a letter: What are you fools doing? Do you not see the right man for the task of the Prime Minister right in front of you, the Chowdhari? Make Chowdhari the Prime Minister, all problems of the country will be solved. That is when they anointed Chowdhari Sahib as the Prime Minister.” Chowdhari being Ch. Charan Singh, whom Bhuvan had listened attributing his success to the blessing of his Muslim teacher for loading his hookah, “May God make you a King, my son.”
“Write letters Bhuvan brother, write letters,” added the Drooler.
By this time, Marva had disappeared with his Marvun and children, no one knows where. He was never seen in Kesari Nagar or anywhere else. People conjectured that he may have found some way of earning a living doing what he was ashamed of; so he went out of sight of Kesari Nagar to settle in his new abode where no one knew him and thus, there was no shame for him there. There was also a rumor spreading that he had taken up the life of crime by joining a gang of criminals making staying out of the public view helpful to him.
Sometime before Marva had disappeared, Lapheel Pha-i had lured Suddal away from Ghanto by letting him share his much younger wife and Ghanto had gone about insane as a result. She would sit on the flat roof of her house with her hookah overlooking the street and talk endlessly cursing Suddal, “Worms will eat him for the sin he has committed, he’ll rot. We had sworn in knee-deep water in the Ganges, Mother Ganges will not forgive him for that …..”
She had also become an expert commentator on everything speaking in the Queen-like language, “People ask us, what is happening to the country; we tell them, “How shall we know?” Everybody wants to be the Prime Minister but no one can do the job, men can do nothing, they were all in line as long as Indira Gandhi was kicking their butts, now no woman to kick their butts, so they are going nuts, everyone is going one’s own way, country is falling into chaos, this is anarchy, but what can we do?”
“You should have kept Suddal on leash and make sure to kick his butt regularly,” some passerby would remark.
“That is the mistake we made. We were loving, devoted woman, men can’t appreciate that, they are not capable of love. The kind of whore Run Vir got knows how to handle such bastards, they make them dance around their little fingers and kick their butts. All they have to do is to wiggle the tail they got between their legs and men go drooling ….. Do such whores know how to love and make love? They don’t have to, all they have to do is to lie in bed like a log and spread their legs. We know how to love and make love, men can’t appreciate that….”
Sometime during her lecture, her eldest son would come home, grab her by the hair and lock her up for a while with her hookah loaded.
As for the blessing of the Muslim teacher of the Chowdhari, it sure seemed to have worked but with a dubious distinction of producing the only Prime Minister never to have faced the Parliament. What had happened was that Indira Gandhi eliminated all the others by breaking Charan Singh way from them with the promise of her support for his Prime Ministership and then pulled the plug just before the first session of the Parliament. This manner of operating reminded Bhuvan of several events from the Indian history when someone rebelling against the reigning king helped some invader overthrow the king in exchange of promise of his own anointment. At times the invader would just loot and leave but often, would eliminate the rebellious traitor and rule himself. There have been events when the invader did make the rebel the King ordering everyone to bow and accept his sovereignty including himself and immediately after the ceremony, he ordered beheading of the rebel, now the King. That is what Indira Gandhi did, reducing the Hookah Loading Prime Minister to a six months’ term as the caretaker to be followed by the general elections.
Indira Gandhi campaigned with no apologies for the excesses during the emergency but promising to plug the loop holes that she claimed were abused by those implementing the scheme. People had seen the chaos and the disruptions it caused to their lives after she was defeated; so they voted for the ‘known devil.’ She also campaigned for her son Sanjay Gandhi who had angered people more and refused to blame him alone. However, people understood in that land where family loyalties are expected, “Which mother would not do good to her son?” Had she not done so, people would have thought and commented with indignation, “What kind of a mother is she who abandoned even her own son!” People had not taken kindly to her jailing of Jai Prakash Narayan for “he had carried her on his lap.” After the victory, Sanjay Gandhi, ‘The Prime Minister in Waiting’ became even more arrogant. Soon after, his wife gave birth to ‘A Future Prime Minister.’ However, Sanjay Gandhi was killed in a plane crash, which he insisted on flying even though he was told that it was unsafe. Anyone hardly seemed to notice the death of his instructor who also died with him. Indira Gandhi pulled in her unwilling elder son Rajiv Gandhi to groom him as the next Prime Minister. Nehru-Gandhi dynasty was now well entrenched, to the resentment of some, “We came out of the dynastic rule of the British monarchs to fall back into a dynastic rule! When, if ever, are we going to get a truly democratic administration?” However, the challenge to the Nehru dynasty was on the horizon. So was India’s economical rise and technological advancement transforming the country and the lives of people drastically together with the landscape that was fast filling with automobiles instead of the paddling bikes. While the rest of the World was content in the thought that China and India could never get very far, both were working quietly in spite of their challenging problems and one day the World awakened to a new reality to its astonishment. Beginning of this new era was still a little together down the road. For now, the life moved along at about the same pace as before.
Grandpa had been the oldest man in the area for a number of years. Old age was revered in that community. Young men going away for education, jobs and the like, as well as the newlywed couples in the area came to seek his blessings. Occasionally they would bring a packet of sweets; newly wedded couples would never come without one. After putting a piece of sweet in Grandpa’s mouth following the blessing, the sweet was handed over to someone to distribute among children.
Before Rajeev became the Prime Minister after her Sikh body guards shot Indira Gandhi dead avenging her attack on the Golden Temple to flush out the terrorists, Grandpa had just crossed his hundred years’ mark. One of those days, on a Monday, he announced that he would leave his body in the morning of Wednesday. Many visited him during those couple of days; most of them would comment, “You will live for many more years Grandpa, many still have to seek your blessings,” but everybody ‘knew’ that he was most likely to go on Wednesday, “Those who live for so long, can see their death as a natural next step.”
In the morning of that Wednesday, Grandpa completed his daily morning chores including his puja, worship of Lord Shiva, and lied down on a cot. Then he asked everybody to gather around him for the final words and good bye. Then Grandpa raised his eyes towards the sky and remarked, “Khaira and Gora are here with the chariot, can’t keep them waiting.” Then he looked towards Parasu Ram and asked, “Spread a sheet on the ground Son.” His order was promptly obeyed. Grandpa now lied on the ground on that sheet. Then asked Parasu Ram again, “Pass the Holy Water Son.” Parasu promptly passed a small glass of Ganges water. Grandpa took three sips, passed the glass back and closed his eyes, forever.
After Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Tamil woman for his activities in Sri Lanka involving the Tamils, his widow Sonia born in Italy was anointed the leader of Congress. Ghanto remarked, “Now they have installed a woman to kick their butts to keep them in line.” Many others were outraged about a foreign born to be given a position of prominence to be followed by the post of the Prime Minister, “Now we are back into the foreign rule!” Sonia on her part appointed English educated economist Dr. Man Mohan Singh to the post of Prime Minister, cleverly escaping the backlash her assuming the post would have caused. Man Mohan Singh was the main architect of major economic reforms improving the country’s economy and was respected for it together with his honesty and simplicity but in his present role, he was understood to be her remote controlled puppet by many: She is the Queen; he is her Regent.
“What else do you expect? Another firangi woman making a puppet out of another Indian. Do you not remember how that firangi whore made a puppet out of Nehru; the country had to pay a dear price for that. Men like such women, they naturally fit in the role such whores subject them to,” remarked Ghanto to the surprise of many who thought she had no interest in and knowledge of such issues of national and international level.
By this time Lapheel Pha-i had sucked out of Suddal all he could leaving very little cash stacked up somewhere and a little patch of land, his share in the house owned by him and Khatku. Now of no use, Lapheel tried to kick Suddal out, which Suddal resisted as much as he could, leading to open brawls embellished with curses, “You cannot quench the thirst of your whore alone, you need me,” Suddal commented at one point. Lapheel kicked him out physically.
Suddal had nowhere to go now except back to Kesari Nagar. He was thinking that he could build a hut in his patch of land and take it from there. He was not looking forward to his ‘welcome’ in Kesari Nagar; instead, he expected all kinds of comments, sympathizing ones to downright condescending, like “He got what he deserved.” He was quite uncertain how Ghanto would react but Ghanto accepted him with open arms. Her son was now very much bothered by their activities and he had known that his mother was more responsible for that. So he would try to restrain her, at times pulling her by the hair and hitting her. One of those days, Ghanto was sitting on a cot in her yard and smoking her hookah. As she saw her son with aggressive body language enter the door, she quickly climbed the bamboo ladder to reach the roof. Her son chased her there. Before he could catch her, she jumped on the cot breaking the fall. Then she ran out in the street, the same street where she had danced as a bride, and started dancing the same dance as she sang a couplet:
Openly shall we love, two of us together;
Shall not fear the World, two of us together.
Bhuvan was not in this World when Ghanto had danced her famous first dance in that street but he was there for this one, her last. From what he had been told and seeing her dancing, Bhuvan had formed an image of her first dance. This time, there were no bells, only the clapping of palms where there had been the striking of bells, striking the ground with her feet made no sound of bells but the moves were all the same. Onlookers watched in awe, including her son from the rooftop: An old woman, dancing like a young bride! She carried on for a few minutes and then collapsed in the street.
Her son rushed to the street but by the time he reached her, others had already determined that she was dead. Her son and others got busy with the funeral preparations. Her body was washed, dressed and placed on an arthi. Bhuvan glanced a suggestive glance at her son. He understood and rushed into her ‘love chamber.’ When he came out, her famous wooden box was in his hand. A neighbor suggested, “We should check what is in this box.” Bhuvan interrupted and extended his hand to the son, who promptly handed the box to him; Bhuvan in turn placed the box on Ghanto’s chest, close to her heart as he commented:
The cup is full
Let no one judge
and death alone
must savor it
Her son promptly covered the body with a shroud.