Sunday, March 19, 2017

IN SEARCH OF A HOMEMAKER

Satinder Singh was one of the richest land owners of Gurdaspur district in the state of the Punjab. He owned over 200 hectare of richly fertile land in the doab region known for its effective canal system.  Though the Zamindari system was abolished long back in India, the land owners crafted means to hold on to excess land in connivance with the land record authorities.
The big landholders in India influence the lawmakers with their brute monetary prowess. Lording over scores of bonded labourers, they live an ostentatious life like feudal chiefs. Thus when Satinder’s wife gave birth to a male child, there were large scale celebrations in his village with liquor flowing unabatedly and dancing troupes and band of eunuchs entertaining the villagers for several nights. The newly born child was named Rajinder Singh.
Satinder Singh, himself a rustic farmer wanted to bring up his only son in an elitist ambience. He wanted to groom him to become an educated landlord and a sophisticated businessman. He therefore put Rajinder in an elitist famous boarding school in Kasauli, a small town in Himachal Pradesh.  Satinder Singh would visit the school couple of times in a year and give handsome donation to the school.  That enhanced the image of young Rajinder. The teachers and the principal of the school treated him as a privileged student.  
Rajinder grew a well built tall lad and a promising tennis player. He was in the school team and with the influence of his father, he became its captain. Rajinder passed out from the school as a bright and handsome young man. Satinder Singh was proud of his son.
 Rajinder was enamoured with glamourous army life and was keen to join it. This was not in consonance with his father’s plans who wanted him to take care of the family farm and the distillery he had newly set up.  Satinder Singh was aware of his advancing years and therefore wanted his son to assist him in managing the estate. But Rajinder was adamant to join the army.
“Babey! Do you want me to see happy?” Rajinder asked his father.
For Satinder was unsettled by the question. His eyes welled up.
“Son! For me there is nothing more important other than your happiness. If you are happy by joining army, go ahead. I too will be happy.”
 Rajinder took the entrance examination and was selected for training in the National Defence Academy, Pune.
Rajinder did exceedingly well as a trainee cadet. He was a robust and agile cadet with remarkable grasp of military manoeuvres.  In the final term of training he was short listed to command the passing out parade. Rajinder was very happy and so was his father. But then ill luck struck them. A week before the passing out parade, Satinder Singh died in a car accident.  It was a very sad and hurting moment for Rajinder.
His mother wanted him to leave army and look after the estate. It was a difficult choice to make. Rajinder had to choose between a career in the army and responsibility of looking after his estate and his ailing mother. He was pressured to choose the latter. A disappointed and bitter Rajinder returned to Gurdaspur with shattered dreams.
Rajinder was averse to farming and a greenhorn to handle the complexities of a distillery.  His ambition to hold the coveted ‘sword of honour’ in the passing out parade haunted him. Money was no attraction for him, which his father had left in plenty. He was a restless soul spending most of his time outdoor to assuage his hurt feelings.
Over the years, Rajinder recovered from the heart break. He joined city’s elite club and spent most of his time there. His ailing mother gave him space to get over his grief before asking him to get married.
“Son, I am not sure how long I will survive. It is my wish to see you married. You need someone to take care of you after I am gone.”
Rajinder was not prepared for it. He felt destiny was cruel to him in snatching away the glory and happiness of his life. He was in touch with all his batch mates who were now officers in the army and would go out of his way to invite them and entertain them in a generous way.
The distillery was doing well since liquor consumption was ever increasing in the prosperous state of the Punjab. Rajinder decided to enhance its capacity by installing another distillation plant. That required the sanction of the district authorities and the excise department other than the patronage of political bosses. He sought the appointment of the district collector to present his case. On the appointed day, Rajinder reached the collectorate with his senior manager much before time. They were made to wait for more than two hours. Rajinder was at the edge of his patience but was advised to keep his cool by his skilful manager who was accustomed to bureaucratic obduracy. It needled Rajinder’s ego further to learn that the district collector making him wait was a lady officer. 
Anjali Shrinivasan was the collector of the Gurdaspur district; an officer known for efficiency and honesty. Rajinder expected a word of apology from her for making him wait that long.  
There was none.
Anjali heard him and examined his papers.
“On the face of it, the documents seem to be OK. I will recommend your case to the excise department. They have the final say in the matter. Please see me after six weeks,” she summed up the meeting.  
 The much needed sanction was received though after a longer wait than promised.  Rajinder now wanted to hold a function to commission the new plant. He invited the minister in-charge of the excise department, the excise commissioner and the district collector.
Anjali Srinivasan belonged to the all-powerful Administrative Service. She was fair, slim and tall and she was beautiful. Besides, she was a pleasant conversationalist. Rajinder was attracted towards her. He found out her daily schedule and learnt that she played tennis in the evening. That was a welcome coincidence. Rajinder took out his tennis racquets and became a regular to the tennis court. It was not very long that Anjali was impressed by his skill, stamina and suave manners. Tennis brought the two closer.
Anjali belonged to a conservative Brahmin family from the South.  Whereas she was awed by Rajinder’s opulence, the latter was overwhelmed by her élan and charm. Their courtship flourished into intimacy. One evening Rajinder invited her to his place and introduced her to his mother as his friend. The old lady understood the nuances of their relationship. She was pleased to see Anjali and wished, her son married her.
Rajinder and Anjali were married with great pomp and show not witnessed by the people of Gurdaspur in their living memory. It was the talk of the town with almost all senior bureaucrats and several ministers landing in Gurdaspur. 
A year later when orders were issued shifting Anjali to another district, Rajinder used his political clout to get the orders rescinded. The young couple were elated by their success; Rajinder giving all credit to his political reach.
A couple of months later Anjali was selected for a fellowship by the University of Duke. It was a highly prestigious fellowship, one that would help Anjali in the furtherance of her career. Anjali was quite excited; it was a momentous occasion but Rajinder wasn’t enthused.
“Why do you want to go away?  We have everything one needs in life and it is in fact time we have a family,” he argued.
Anjali was flummoxed at the suggestion. But she was not prepared to concede.
“Perhaps you don’t understand how significantly this fellowship will impact my career? Family can wait, the fellowship will not. Let’s think of raising the family after I come back,” she said with a sardonic smile.
Rajinder wasn’t convinced. Pressing his point further, he said, “Please try to understand ... I am not a male chauvinist... I am making a rational suggestion.  Everyone considers you a brilliant officer. Time now, you prove to be a good homemaker.”
“I don’t have to prove anything to anyone,” Anjali retorted and then added sarcastically, “You think my career is of no importance?”
“Frankly speaking, I do think that way. In fact, it is time you left the job,” Rajinder shot back.
Anjali was furious. “Look, I am dedicated to my career; can’t ever think of quitting midway. You should have known before marrying me.”
 Both were adamant. They had frequent altercations widening the fissures in their marital life. One evening after a serious altercation, Anjali shifted to the circuit house and flew to USA three weeks later. She didn’t even come to see Rajinder or his mother before leaving Gurdaspur.
Rajinder’s self-esteem was hurt. The hurt was grievous, taking him to a point of no return. He wrote a nasty letter to Anjali followed by a divorce notice. Anjali never thought the situation will worsen to that extent. Though the divorce notice pained her, she signed her consent and sent it back to Rajinder.
The two were divorced after a married life of three years.
Rajinder’s mother couldn’t bear the shock and left for her heavenly abode without seeing a successor to her family.
Rajinder shifted from club’s tennis court to its bar. He became an alcoholic neglecting his duties towards his business and the farm. He would be the last man to leave the bar; mostly helped by his chauffeur or at times by his friends who enjoyed his perennial hospitality.
Excessive drinking finally landed Rajinder in a hospital.  
II
Amarjeet was a trained nurse in the multi-speciality hospital where Rajinder was admitted. She was a young and dedicated nurse considered highly proficient by her seniors even at a young age.
 For six days Rajinder Singh was in the ICU under constant watch of the doctors duly assisted by Amarjeet. He found her around attending to him whenever he came to senses. Rajinder was impressed by her dedication and fell in love with her.  
That was the beginning of a new story.
After discharge from the hospital, Rajinder kept in touch with Amarjeet. He would go to the hospital and look for her. Amarjeet knew that he was a rich businessman of the town and her sixth sense alerted her that he wanted to meet her for reasons beyond professional care.  She discouraged him politely but Rajinder wouldn’t give up.  
One day when Amarjeet was taking coffee in the hospital canteen, Rajinder came over and took a seat beside her.
“Can I talk to you for a few minutes?”
“Of course, you are welcome.”
“Not here. Can we meet outside ... any day when you are free?”
Amarjeet was reluctant. She wanted to stay away from him but Rajinder pleaded relentlessly.
They met in the district club. Rajinder told her about his life and that he was a tired person and wanted to get rehabilitated and that he wanted her help in it.
Amarjeet guessed his intentions and pointed out the inequalities in their background. “We are poor people,” she conveyed to him in many words. Rajinder simply shrugged off.
“I don’t want more wealth. What I am looking for is a life companion. Please think it over,” he pleaded.
“Look, I lost my mother when I was very young. My father didn’t remarry. Instead, he brought me up. Now it’s my turn to look after him in his old age. He is my responsibility,” Amarjeet portrayed her family picture.
“I understand. In fact, he can live with us. I have a big enough house.” And then he requested Amarjeet to take him to her father. “I would like to meet your father and seek your hand.”
Amarjeet took Rajinder to her place. Her father was a small time haberdasher. The father daughter duo lived in a small room in a downtown locality.
 The old parent was flabbergasted. He was overwhelmed that the richest man of the town was asking for his daughter’s hand. “We are impoverished people ... not anywhere near you ... can’t ... even dream of ...” the old man couldn’t complete as tears rolled down his crumpled cheeks.
 “I like Amarjeet and that’s enough. I want your blessings.”
They met few more times. Amarjeet had started liking him and told him one day that she was agreeable to his proposal.
Both of them went to Amarjeet’s place and apprised her father of their decision.
“I want it to be a small affair, a quiet marriage in a Gurudwara.” Rajinder’s suggestion was accepted by the poor parent.
That evening Rajinder and Amarjeet went for a dinner. They were sitting quietly musing over their future life. Rajinder wanted a child from her at the earliest. He wanted her to be a full time wife, a genuine homemaker.
“Amarjeet, I want you to be free from all encumbrances to give your full time to our family... I mean after marriage there is no need to work.”
Anjali was stunned by the suggestion. She never expected Rajinder would ask her to quit her job.
“Why should you work? We have enough to live a comfortable life.” Rajinder said laying emphasis on his affluence.
Amarjeet was shocked at the logic advanced by her future husband.
“How can you talk like this? You think we can weigh everything in terms of money. I am rendering humble service to the society for which I have been trained. Besides, all of us have right to cherish an ambition beyond money.”
It was now Rajinder, astounded and gaping at her fiancée. . He could not believe that a girl from a poor origin could deprecate his opinion.
“I mean, why should you slog when I can take care of all your needs? We can travel all over the world, lead a luxurious life,” he fumed.
“Sorry, you are wrong here. Money cannot substitute human values. I have a duty towards the society; I cannot pawn it for my personal comforts,” Amarjeet said and left leaving Rajinder alone at the table.
III
Rajinder Singh, the rich man of Gurdaspur is seen again in the bar until late hours, waiting for someone to take him to his palatial house. 




Friday, March 10, 2017

MEETING OF THE PARALLEL LINES

Ajay Purohit was seventy now, leading a solitary life in Paori, a small hill town in the foothills of Himalayas. He had relinquished his medical practice in Delhi and handed over his clinic to his son who was also a medical practioner. In Paori though he did see the patients coming to him but he didn’t encourage them to revisit him and since he didn’t charge any fee, his patients didn’t have much confidence in him.
He loved to see the sun rise from his bed room and as the sun rays entered his room, he felt elated in body and mind. He would get up, make coffee for himself and lie down leisurely on his bed, drinking coffee and waiting for the newspapers. He was a newspaper addict for he disliked TV news channels. He was irritated by their innumerable repetitions. In fact, he felt the news reporters were ill-educated and lacked depth and sensitivity. Basic approach of most of the TV channels was to sensationalize issues to enhance their viewership. He therefore seldom opened news channels of his TV. He had made arrangement to fetch newspapers from the market, which came late in the morning. For him reading newspapers was an engaging past time.
Ajay Purohit was a man of few words. In fact, he didn’t speak when he should have and that was the bane of his life. He knew his family members were more than unfair to him but he never showed his demur or voiced his dissent. There were occasions when they disagreed with him even when he was right and yet he gave in most of the time. Besides, his wife always favoured his son unduly. But in his private moments, he would mull over the events time and again and get agitated.
Finally he handed over his clinic to his son and shifted to Paori where he had purchased a small cottage. He wanted to live a peaceful life. He had engaged a helping hand as a cook and for the upkeep of the cottage. He would go for a walk in the evening through the forest lane of fir trees in the east of the town towards the famous Kinkaleshwar Shiva temple. This was the best part of his day. Walking in solitude with fresh breeze even during the summer months and fragrance of the wild flowers invigorated his spirit. On his way back, sometimes he would go to the market to buy vegetables and grocery.   
Ajay had a good collection of old melodies. He spent the latter half of the day listening to the music.  He hardly missed his family even though he answered their calls. It used to be brief talk bordering niceties; both sides eager to conclude at the earliest. However, at times he missed his grandchildren. But he always missed one person all through his life. He longed to talk to her even though he had no clue of her whereabouts.  That was Anita, his school time friend and neighbour during his childhood days in Dehradun. They loved each other, had dreams of a life together but could never discuss them together for they were the cagey youngsters of sixties.
He remembered watching Anita play with small children and at times feeding the street dogs. He remembered her ever smiling face and compassion in her eyes. He had this picture imprinted on his mind and he loved her for it. They would exchange glances and brief smiles but no words were spoken between them.  And when he was to leave Dehradun to join a medical college in Delhi, he mustered courage and decided to ask Anita to come with him for a movie.
He invited Anita for a movie a few days later. For the entire duration of the movie both of them sat quietly; their eyes were on the screen but their minds were wavering.  They were daydreaming; floating along with their dreams. And finally when the movie was over and they came out, Ajay took her hand and said, “I am going for the medical course; will be leaving for Delhi by next month. It is a five year course.”
“I know. Your mother told my people,” Anita whispered.
“Will you wait for me?”
“I would wait for you all my life if it were left to me. But my father is already looking for a match.” Then after a long pause she added, “He thinks I am old enough to be married off; doesn’t want me to go to college.”
Ajay knew her father. A retired soldier, hardliner, brash and unaccommodating. Anita had sounded her mother of her love for Ajay but the poor lady lacked courage to talk to her husband. “He belongs to a different caste. Your father would never agree,” she cautioned Anita. A month later, Ajay left for Delhi and his father was transferred a month later to Agra.
For nearly two years they exchanged letters.  Those letters were far from being romantic; they were prosaic and platonic since they were apprehensive of their alliance because of caste barriers. They could not commit to each other.
Ajay was in the second year when Anita was married off. There was no contact between them thereafter. He even didn’t know to whom she was married or where she had moved to. But her memory remained firmly imprinted on his mind. He often remembered her.
After completion of his medical course, Ajay got a job in Delhi. 
Years rolled on. Ajay was married and had a son who also became a doctor.  Ajay left his job and opened a clinic in East Delhi. His son joined him there. They were doing well professionally and financially but he always found himself a loner for his profession kept him busy and there was hardly any compatibility of mind and head between him and his wife. Luckily, his school friend Dinesh had also joined a private firm in Delhi. The two often met in the evening.
Dinesh was the only person to whom Ajay could pour his heart out and in his personal moments he remembered Anita.
One evening when Ajay was in his clinic, Dinesh came over after attending a marriage function. Ajay was also invited but he had regretted.  
“How was the marriage? And you seem to have been well looked after. By the way, which whiskey was it?” He chided Dinesh.
“They missed you,” Dinesh shot back.
“I am sorry. There was an emergency in the clinic.”
“Well you not only missed the function but also a pleasant surprise.”
“What is that?”
“Well, met someone who mattered to you.”
“Dinesh, please no riddles.”
“Well, for old time sake let me not lengthen the suspense,” Dinesh said with a wide grin.  
Ajay waited.
“Anita was there.”
The coffee mug Ajay was holding crashed on the floor. He was virtually shaken.
“Are you sure and how do you know it was her?”
“First, I am good at remembering faces and secondly, Anita was my class mate. Can you forget a dear friend?” Dinesh said with a mischievous smile.
Dinesh paused and then added, “I talked to her.”
Ajay kept quiet.
“She lives in Delhi. In fact, she has been living in Delhi for last twenty five years. Her husband was an army officer. Unfortunately he died few years ago.”
 Ajay was still quiet.
“And I have given her your telephone number.”
Ajay was a bit upset to hear that.
“Dinesh, I always knew you were an irresponsible person. Why the hell did you do that? What is the need to rake the past?”
“She asked for it.” Dinesh replied playfully.
“Dinesh, you are the biggest idiot I have ever come across.”
“Thank you sir but be assured, the compliment is reciprocal.”

It was sheer coincidence that Anita met Dinesh in a marriage function and learnt about Ajay. Old memories soared in their hearts. She was keen to meet him; she longed for him. Buy she was in two minds.
Would he be still remembering me? How would he react on receiving my call?
Thoughts of all kinds were flocking her mind. Finally she got over the dilemma and rang him after a week.  She requested him to come to her place. Ajay agreed.
They got in touch after three decades. Their appearance had changed. They had greyed. Perhaps they might have missed each other while crossing a street or walking past a shopping mall. Ajay expressed his condolences over her husband’s death but didn’t know what else to talk. Anita recalled, Ajay was always cagey and coy. He had not changed much. She talked of her past and of her daughter who was married and settled abroad. “After my husband’s death, I am living a lonely life in this small flat,” she told him.
Anita remembered, he liked strong tea. She made one for him. “I have made strong tea for you but haven’t put sugar. Not sure whether you take sugar in your tea.” Ajay was moved; that she still remembered his choice of tea. “Yes. No sugar for me. I am diabetic, in fact, on insulin.
They met thereafter several times, talked of their past and would leave with an unsaid promise of meeting again.  Ajay learnt that her husband, an army officer was ever inquisitive; always keen to go to the depth of the matter. He was a careerist appeasing his superiors and keen to curry their favour. He would entertain them lavishly and he wanted Anita to act a perfect hostess; drink, dance and socialize; neo-culture anathematic to her basic nature. For a girl from a conservative background, it was difficult for Anita to adapt to her husband’s demands but he was persuasive as well as aggressive. Unfortunately, the pressure didn’t work. She tried her best but could never come up to her husband’s expectations for he wanted a un-inhibitive, trendy, fashionable wife.
“I often thought what life would have been with you,” she told him once. Ajay sighed. Anita took his hands in hers and suddenly asked him, “What did you find in me? I mean what attracted you towards me?”
Ajay smiled and said, “I saw compassion, love and piety: all combined in you and I loved you for your soberness.”
Ajay talked of loneliness in his life and that he wanted to run away from his family and move to Paori where he owned a small cottage. She was awfully pained to hear that and tried to persuade him to stay back. Ajay delayed his departure but one day when he had heated arguments with his son and wife, he thought it unbearable and decided to leave. 
II

Ajay had moved to Paori. His contact with Anita remained through phone calls. Ajay would wait for her calls. They would have lengthy talks, talking of their lives and acting as mutual counsellors.
One day Anita surprised him; telling him that she wanted to come to Paori.
“I am missing badly and want to see you,” she told Ajay.
Ajay kept quiet. He was concerned.  
Anita could make out that he was diffident. “Look, I don’t bother about my folks. But tell me is it alright with you?”
Ajay paused for few seconds and then he was reminded of his family’s indifference towards him. He made up his mind.
“It is cold here. Bring adequate warm clothing,” he advised Anita.
A week later, Anita was in Paori. It was a winter evening. Anita was cold. Ajay made hot tea for her.  They talked throughout the evening.  Anita who was always short of words had turned garrulous; she wanted to keep on talking. Ajay was pleasantly surprised.
Suddenly, Anita started crying, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“Ajay, I missed you all my life; always remembered you.” After pausing a little she continued, “We were like the two banks of a river, like two parallel lines that never meet. But a week ago, it suddenly dawned on me.
Why can’t we live our own life?
“The thought changed my attitude towards life. Then and there, I decided to break the shackles; come out of the fetters and here I am in front of you,” she said with a smile.
Ajay took her hands in his and kissed them. Anita was overwhelmed. She went in to his arms. Their lips locked. Time came to a standstill. They forgot the chilling world outside.
They felt warm and cosy; lost in their own sweet world that had deluded them whole life.  


Thursday, March 2, 2017


THATCHED ROOFS AND THE ANITILIA

Arun Pratap decided to visit his village after six decades. He was nine years when had left his village along with his mother to join his father, a poorly paid employee of a private firm in Delhi. Arun was excited that he was going to see Red Fort, Qutab Minar, Birla Mandir, Rashtrapati Bhavan and many other monuments he had read about in his books. And above all, he was eager to see aeroplanes flying in the sky. Never did it ever occur to him that it will take him sixty years to return to his native village.
His schooling was in a government school of Delhi but he was a bright student and on his own merit, he was selected for law graduation by the Indian Law School, Bangalore. After qualifying his law examination, Arun started his career as an advocate in Delhi High Court. Since his parents had returned to their village, he shared a small room with another bachelor friend. He was doing well in his profession and couple of years later when he got an offer to join Bradford University Law School as a research assistant in the Faculty of Oriental Customary Law, he accepted it.

For Arun, life thereafter moved at a faster pace. He married a British woman of Indian origin; had two sons from her and purchased a house in Bradford. He was a generous father but could never become a good husband.  Perhaps somewhere at the back of his mind he perceived his wife to be like his mother; always submitting to her husband’s command. The differences between them widened over the years and ultimately, their marriage of fifteen years broke off. He never thought of marrying again.
He became a British citizen and was honoured for his contribution as a ‘Greenpeace Volunteer’ and his work for the under educated Asian immigrants. His fame reached the pinnacle when he was elected Mayor of Bradford City Council. 
Arun travelled worldwide and evinced interest in the technological innovations around the world.  As Greenpeace Volunteer he had visited several nuclear reactors, giant hydro-electric projects; motorways running over the sea and condominiums piercing the sky. Strange that whenever he returned home from a trip abroad, he remembered his small village in Betul district of the state of Madhya Pradesh in Central India.

He was sixty nine now; a frail and feeble man after a bout of pneumonia and he felt lonely after his wife and later his sons moved away from him. In fact, he was leading the life of a recluse. Now he longed to visit his village but there were several impediments. He had no contact with his folks other than his cousin Satya Prakash who lived in Delhi. He had no knowledge of the conditions prevailing in his village.
It was a cold winter in Bradford. Arun Pratap was sitting in his study listening to melodies from old Hindi movies and smoking a cigar. He was found of smoking cigar even against the advice of his doctor. His wife used to admonish him for it and his children frowned at him. Now that he was a loner, there was no one to reproach him.
As he lit a cigar, he was reminded of an old incident of his childhood days in his village. His grandfather had asked him to prepare a hookah for a guest. He readied the hookah and sucked it hard. And then he coughed and coughed until he fell on ground, exasperated. There were tears in his eyes and his lungs were full of smoke.  His grandfather rushed up to him and the first thing he did was to spank Arun hard couple of times on his hind side. That was the way children were managed those days.
A thin smile appeared on his face. He called Satya Prakash and told him of his intention to visit his village. “Tell me what the conditions are in general? I mean road, housing and water supply ....”
“Road connectivity has improved. You have to walk less than half a mile.”
That was quite encouraging for he remembered they had to walk nearly twenty miles to come to the bus stand though he knew walking even half a mile was now a challenge for him.
“Unfortunately, your house is no more there. Sixty years of neglect has brought it down. Only walls are there with weeds all over,” Satya told him.
Arun was sad but he knew that was expected, inevitable. 
“You stay in my house. It has Indian style toilet but water has to be collected from the drum kept outside the house.”    
Arun laughed for he remembered the good old days they would carry a lota of water and ease in the open behind some brushes. And it was always a thrill to bathe in the open in the natural stream, splashing water on each other.

II

On a sunny April morning Arun Pratap landed at Delhi airport. He was wonder-struck to see the expanse and elegance of the airport.
Fabulous; can be compared with the best of the world.  He thought and felt proud.
That night he stayed with Satya. He didn’t want to hurt his cousin by staying in a hotel. Besides, he wanted to acclimatize to lesser comfort living. As directed by him, Satya had hired a jeep for a week to visit their village.

Next day, Satya and Arun started from Delhi early in the morning. Satya’s wife had made stuffed paranthas for them for lunch. Arun relished paranthas. After nearly nine hours, Arun was delighted to see his village but the realization that he had to climb a plateau to reach there depressed his spirits. Walking the craggy track was painful but Arun didn’t give up. He stopped after every few yards; took long breath and resumed walking. He was returning to his village after sixty years. Finally, they entered their destination in the evening.

The first look at the village shocked Arun. He was appalled to see the condition of the houses. Most of them still had mud walls and thatched roofs. Many roofs were crumbling for want of maintenance. He could see men, women and children compelled to share space with cows, oxen and goats. He was pained to see young boys smoking in the village chowk and fooling around in inebriated condition. Satya could see the grief in Arun’s eyes.
“Poverty stalks the village life. These boys cannot continue schooling. There isn’t any skill development center here. Some of them do menial jobs and have taken to these iniquities.” Satya told Arun Pratap.
It was dark outside and also inside Staya’s house. There were electric poles in the village but without power. Satya lit a kerosene lantern and asked Arun to settle down. “I will see if I can get you a cup of tea from a neighbour,” he tried to comfort Arun.
“Satya, can you arrange some hot water? Hot water bath is very refreshing after a long drive,” he said with a wry smile.
Satya laughed aloud. Arun Pratap was baffled.
“Skip the bath to night. I will try to get some hot water from neighbouring house tomorrow,” Satya told him. Arun realized, perhaps he had asked for too much.

                Next morning he got ready early and came to the village chowk. He saw children; some of them merely six or less going to the school through the forest track. Many of them were barefoot; only a few had slippers. 
He remembered the situation was nearly same sixty years ago when he used to go to school. It was the same track, leading to the school. He had always found it difficult to walk with the satchel on his back. And then suddenly his mind swerved to his grandchildren who would not even carry their water bottles and had to be placated with cookies and chocolates to go to their school in a luxury car. He decided to follow the children.  He gasped for breath negotiating the rugged track and it was a great relief when he finally reached the school.

The school was a dilapidated structure; half of its tin roof opening to the sky. The school teacher greeted him and asked a boy to bring a glass of water for him.
“You seem to be too tired,” he told Arun Pratap sympathetically. Arun Pratap did need water quite badly. He drank the glass of water even though he was unsure whether it was potable.
“This school building is in very poor shape. Don’t you get funds to repair the building? And what happens during the rainy season?” He asked the young school teacher.
“We have no say in the allocation of funds. The best we can do is to gather the children on one side below the roof when it rains,” the young teacher replied nonchalantly. By then the headmaster arrived. Arun introduced himself briefly.
“I am Arun Pratap from Bhatkoti. I was as student of this school over sixty years ago. Just come to village and was keen to see the school.”
“We are honoured to have you here,” the headmaster said and offered to take him around. As they went around, he saw a splintered blackboard hanging on a wall. A teacher had done some multiplication sum on the board.
“How many classes are here?”
“This school is up to eighth class.”
“You mean eight classes being run in three rooms?”
“During fair weather, we hold classes in the open also,” the headmaster volunteered the information.
“What about teaching aids?”
The headmaster laughed. “Have you come from villayat?” You seem to be unaware of the life in villages.”
Arun didn’t want to tell him that he had in fact, come from villayat- a foreign country. And then he suddenly remembered his grandchildren.
“I want my Tablet,” one would demand and the other would scream for his video game.
 “I mean you surely have heard of overhead projectors or electronic screens or computers? He asked the headmaster.
The headmaster laughed sardonically. “Yes, we see them on TV.”
After a little pause the headmaster continued, “Sir, you are talking of teaching aids? We don’t have enough chalk pieces to write on black boards. We pool money from students and buy them from market and we use worn out ‘pyjamas’ to clean the black boards.”
Arun was pained to see the abysmal condition of the school and then he asked, “Incidentally, what do the students do in the sports period?”
“We ask them to fetch water from the PHC- the Public Health Centre building. Girls help in making tea and mopping the classrooms.”
“Do you have any library?”
“Having seen the school and the conditions prevailing here, don’t you think it is a silly question?” The headmaster had grown bold after the long conversation. Arun was dumbstruck.
Then he saw a little boy dipping a plastic mug into the water canister. Arun Pratap noticed that child’s hands were filthy and after he drank from the mug, the child dropped it in to the canister.
“Is this water potable; I mean properly filtered?” He was getting impatiently curious.
“We are lucky that the PHC guys allow us to take water from their tap. You think we can ask them whether it is purified or not?”

Arun Pratap knew in several African countries children had tape worms because the supply was from a stagnating source and there was no system of purification. He was sad that situation was no different in his village.

Arun then noticed a board reading ‘Government Public Health Centre’ on the adjoining building. He was curious to see the PHC. He asked Satya Prakash to accompany him and as they entered the building, they saw about a dozen villagers waiting to collect medicines. There was a shabbily dressed middle aged man dispensing medicines to the villagers. He was the compounder. Arun found out that out of the two doctors posted there, none was present.
“Where are the doctors?” He asked the compounder. The man’s authority seemed to have been outraged by a nincompoop asking an impertinent question.
“What have you got to do with the doctors?” He frowned.
“I understand there should be two doctors here.”
“Yes, but what’s your problem?”
“Where are they? Shouldn’t they be here?” Arun Pratap was seemingly curt.
The waiting patients joined him. “Sir, the doctors are seldom here. In fact, they come in the first week of the month; indent medicines, pick up their salary and go away to practice in their home towns.”
Arun was taken aback. “Are you suggesting that you are competent to dispense drugs to patients?” He asked the compounder.
“What drugs? The doctors take away all the medicines to their personal clinics,” the impatient patients said in unison.
“In that case what do you do here?’ Arun Pratap asked the compounder.
“I am here to disburse pain killers, analgesics, apply bandages or ointments in some cases.”
It was a distressing revelation. Arun Pratap was shocked at the quality of medical facilities available to the villagers even after sixty years of independence. 
“Do you have any female nurse here?”
“One female nurse was posted here a year back but she is yet to join; has appealed for cancellation of her posting. No one wants to work in these remote areas.”
“What do you do in cases of a child birth; I mean what happens when a maternity case comes here?” He asked the compounder.
“There is an old midwife in the adjoining village. She comes on call basis. In fact, she knows all the would-be mothers and knows when an expectant mother is brought here. In some cases, she helps in child birth at expectant mother’s place.”
Arun Pratap was shaken. Satya Prakash could see tears rolling down his cheeks. He arranged for a chair and asked Arun Pratap to sit down.

Arun had read about India’s successful Mars Mission. He had read about the increasing number of Indian billionaires in the Forbes list. He had seen the TV news item splashing Anitilia - as world’s costliest house owned by an Indian. He knew India had the best of luxury hotels, exclusively fashionable spas, endearing entertainment parks and beaches; and that India provided the largest number of software engineers and doctors to the world community.

Why has my village been left out? In which century are my people living? Why this uneven distribution of wealth? Will the fosse between the thatched roofs of my village and the world’s mammoth living abode, Anitilia owned by my own countryman be ever filled?

Arun Pratap was an anguished man.

“Let’s return to the village,” he told Satya Prakash.


Thursday, February 23, 2017

PEOPLE OF LAHARTARA - THE ABODE OF KABIR  


Imtiaz Khan is a weaver from the holy city of Varanasi. He lives in Lahartara, once a small locality in Varanasi where great saint, Sant Kabir lived in the fifteenth century. Most of the dwellers of Lahartara are Muslim weavers. They can’t be called descendants of Sant Kabir for two reasons. First, Kabir was a celibate and secondly, Kabir was not a Muslim. Kabir was not a Hindu either. He was a humane soul who loved all irrespective of caste, creed or religion.
Imtiaz Khan is a weaver for several generations. When did his forefathers convert to Islam, he is not aware. But the loom in his courtyard is over two hundred years old. He is a devout believer, offers Namaz five times a day. Imtiaz Khan is poor and so are most of his kinsmen and neighbours.
The men weave silk saris and the women do needle work. They work for Hindu merchants who control the entire business. Imtiaz Khan and his people are paid on job rate basis. The former make the kill. During marriage and festive seasons, the profit margin could be three hundred percent or even more.

Sometimes when tired, Imtiaz Khan rests in the sarai – the dingy inn in Lahartara. The sarai is maintained by the Kabirpanthis, the followers of Sant Kabir. He listens to the famous Kabir Dohas- theological couplets. He understands them and their message.

Sant Kabir propagated Vedantic philosophy in layman’s parlance. He brought God nearer to the common man. He was able to establish a rapport between a common man and the Supreme Cosmic Power through the medium of human love.

Imtiaz Khan has been warned several times by the Imam of Lahartara mosque. “You are getting too close to the infidels. Mend your ways lest I ostracize you from the community. Don’t forget, you have six daughters to be married.”
“I will issue a fatwa against you, forbidding Muslim boys to marry your daughters. Remember, the infidels will only use them for pleasure. They will not marry them.”
Imtiaz Khan just smiles. He knows the Imam has an eye on his second daughter.  He has rejected the proposal. His daughter was not even one fourth of Imam’s age.

Besides, how can listening to Kabir Dohas be a sin? Imtiaz Khan is at his wits end, he is not convinced.

On certain days, Imtiaz Khan spends several hours with Hanuman Das, the Hindu merchant for whom he and his family work. He accepts tea, snacks and sweets from him, including the prasad that comes from the Kaal Bhairav temple. Imtiaz Khan accepts the prasad in both his palms like any Hindu believer and eats with reverence.
The Imam never objected to Imtiaz Khan accepting Kaal Bhairav prasad for he knew he survived on donations from people like Imtiaz Khan who in turn had to have cordial business as well as personal relations with Hindu merchants. Still, Imtiaz Khan is worried about his daughters.

“The market is down because the sartorial likes are changing. Hardly any demand for saris. Can’t give you any work.  Moreover, we are pitted against Chinese who have swamped the market. Saris are now coming in fifty metre thaans- rolls. Their designs are more attractive and above all, they are cheaper,” Hanuman Das tells Imtiaz Khan whenever the latter goes for some work or advance.

Imtiaz Khan is familiar with the opening prologue from Hanuman Das. In fact, it is nearly a repeat for years. Imtiaz Khan smiles briefly in response.
Malik, our survival is in your hands. Where else can we go? Unless you give us work, how will our families survive?”

Imtiaz Khan has been working for Hanuman Das since his childhood and his father worked for Hanuman Das’s father.  Unfortunately, Hanuman Das has no children. He has adopted his nephew. There has been mutual understanding between the two families apart from human bonding between them. It’s an unwritten covenant. Religion is no consideration here.

After delivering the homily on the prevailing market conditions, Hanuman Das comes to the substantive part. 
“These saris are urgent, required for a marriage in the coming week.”
And then he suddenly remembers to add, “The needle work in the saris I gave you last week was clumsy. Better get a pair of specs for your begum,” Hanuman Das snaps.
Imtiaz Khan giggles, exposing his stained teeth. He knows it is one of the ways his employer uses to put down wage hike. 
“Slimy old man but considerate nonetheless,” he mumbles within himself.

            Imtiaz Khan always went to Hanuman Das whenever he was in financial trouble, which he often was. There was yet another understanding between the two. Hanuman Das’s acerbic tongue and Imtiaz Khan’s inane giggling were coexistent.

One late evening Hanuman Das’s wife was returning from a religious function from her relative’s place on a rickshaw. The road is narrow and dark. Unfortunately, her rickshaw was hit by a car with such an impact that the rickshaw toppled throwing the old lady on the ground. The rickshaw puller a young man was soon on his feet but the old lady lay flat on the ground howling with pain. The car driver took her to the hospital and rang Hanuman Das urging him to reach the hospital immediately.
The doctors told Hanuman Das that her left femur was broken and she needed to be operated immediately.  Hanuman Das was person of poor nerve. He was extremely upset to know that his wife needed to be operated and that he should find volunteers to get three bottles of blood from the blood bank. He remembered Imtiaz Khan.

He alone can help me at this deathly hour. He thought and rang him narrating the whole scenario. Imtiaz Khan reached the hospital and saw Hanuman Das sitting on a bench, nervous and downcast.
“The doctors want three bottles of blood. Where do I find the volunteers at this hour of the night?”
Imtiaz Khan took the hand of Hanuman Das in his and told him to relax and not to bother.
“I and my two sons will donate the blood and if need be I will call half a dozen boys of Lahartara. Please tell the doctor that the volunteers are ready. He can start with me and in the mean time I will ring my sons to come over and also alert the boys of the locality.”

The operation was successful. Hanuman Das’s wife was discharged from the hospital after a week. A couple of days later, Hanuman Das asked Imtiaz Khan if he could compensate him for the blood donation.
Malik! Please don’t hurt me by offering money for a small act of humanity. What’s the use of our long relationship if we cannot come to each other’s help?” Pausing a little, he added, “Don’t we live in Lahartara, the abode of Kabir?”    
  
II

Akhtar, Imtiaz Khan’s son was a very active lad, known for activities outside his madrasa, especially in climbing trees. He was called when jamun or mango trees were fully laden. Akhtar didn’t believe in plucking fruits singularly. He would climb a tree and shake its branches. The ripe fruits would fall on ground in hordes. The Lahartara boys called him a baboon.  Young Akhtar would swing to the farthest branch and shake it. Caution or fear had no place in his psyche.  
In one of such foolhardy adventurous move, Akhtar was on the top branch of a mango tree. It had rained precious evening. The bark was wet and slippery. Before Akhtar could get a firm grip on the branch he wanted to shift to, he lost control and fell to the ground.

The news of Akhtar’s fall upset the entire family He was the youngest child of Imtiaz Khan. In fact, he was born after six sisters before him. Akhtar was thus a pampered child. They all ran out to the place of accident. Akhtar was lying on a cot. He was in severe pain, howling hoarse.   
Imtiaz Khan took him to a nearby clinic.  
“There is a major fracture in his thigh bone, needs immediate surgery.”
 As usual Imtiaz was out of pocket. He had taken a loan from Hanuman Das the previous week for the festival of Eid. The family wanted to have a nice meal after a long time. Imtiaz Khan had spent the money on food and small gifts.

The clinic attendant asked him to deposit thirty thousand rupees. Akhtar was crying in terrible pain piercing Imtiaz Khan’s heart.  
“The child is in severe pain. Please start the treatment. I will deposit the money at the earliest possible,” he begged.
“Please deposit the money first.  Nothing can be done before that. This is the policy. I am a mere employee,” the clerk at the counter told him.

            Imtiaz Khan left Akhtar in the hospital with his family members. His only hope lay in Hanuman Das. He took a rickshaw and asked him to pedal fast to the sari bazaar.

How I am going to plead and be prepared for the tongue lashing from Hanuman Das?  All through he was preparing himself.

            Hanuman Das was sitting with his munshi, taking stock of the day’s sale and cash. Imtiaz Khan’s sight was ominous.
            “What makes you come here at this unearthly hour,” Hanuman Das asked in his normal caustic way.
            “Maliki… Malik… Malik … Imtiaz Khan could not continue. There was lump in his throat.
            “Stop this nautanki. I know you excel in histrionics. Don’t ask for money. That’s the last thing I want to talk about.”

            “Malik, Akhtar is in hospital. He has broken his leg. The doctor wants advance before starting the treatment.”  
           
Hanuman Das gave a searching look at Imtiaz Khan.
“Bloody dirty trick, once again. I say aren’t you ashamed of yourself. What happened to the advance I gave you last week? You think I have a mint here?  Get lost.”
            Imtiaz Khan was crestfallen to see his only hope crashing. He made another attempt.
            “Malik, please help me. He is my son. Sooner or later he will work for you. My ancestors worked for your ancestors. My father worked for your father and I have been working for you. One day Akhtar will work for your descendants. Please help me… please…,” he couldn’t continue. The helpless father burst in to tears.
            Hanuman Das didn’t react. He was back to his business, counting the day’s collection.

            Heartbroken, Imtiaz Khan turned back empty handed. He didn’t know what he could do to help his son. Suddenly he remembered he had collected five silk saris from Hanuman Das, the previous week. They were all costly ones. Imtiaz Khan decided to do what had never happened in his family.
            He sought the forgiveness of Allah the merciful and decided to pawn the saris to Radha Kishan, another merchant, one of the competitors of Hanuman Das in the sari bazaar. He narrated his woes to him and pleaded to accept the saris as surety for a loan. Radha Kishan saw the saris and told Kabir, “I will give you twenty thousand.”
            “Malik, these saris are worth eighty thousand in the market. Please at least give me thirty thousand. I need that much to give to the clinic.”
            “Imtiaz Khan, make up your mind. I will not give a penny more. Decide.”

Imtiaz Khan had no choice. As he was picking the money, Radha Kishan asked him to sign a paper. “This is the acknowledgement of pawning these saris to me of your own volition.”
Imtiaz Khan looked at the paper. The amount received was mentioned as thirty thousand.
 “Malik, please give me the amount I am signing. I need it badly.”
Radha Kishan snapped at the money. “Get lost. You need money and still dictate terms. Listen, you will get it on my terms. Take it or leave it.”
Imtiaz signed the paper, picked the money and rushed to the clinic. On his way, he was contemplating the plea he would make before the doctor.
 I will mortgage my house in doctor’s favour. He decided.
Imtiaz Khan’s heart sank as he saw none of his family members in the courtyard outside the clinic.
It seems the doctor has turned them away.
He went to the counter clerk who smiled and said, “All is well. The doctor has taken your son to the operation theatre.”
How could that be? I am yet to deposit the security money. Imtiaz was flummoxed. He rushed inside. There he saw his elder son and daughters. They had a glint of satisfaction in their eyes. And then he saw Hanuman Das ambling out of doctor’s chamber. Imtiaz Khan’s heart froze.
Has he come to know of my misdeed? Oh God, how am I going to explain it to him?

“The doctor says Akhtar will be all right. He will run … no, no climb the trees as usual.” Hanuman Das said grinning.
Imtiaz Khan could not meet him in the eye.
Malik, I am a sinner… I have done the meanest thing in my life… never done by anyone in my family.  I… I have betrayed your trust…” Imtiaz Khan could not continue. He was cursing himself, sobbing and hitting his forehead with both his palms.
“Imtiaz Khan, take care of your son and yourself. God willing, Akhtar will be up and kicking in a week.”
Imtiaz Khan was speech less. And then Hanuman Das whispered, “Don’t worry about the saris you pawned. My man followed you after you left abruptly.  I wanted to check the veracity of your story.”
Hanuman Das waited and then continued, “You only did what any father would have done for his child. Don’t worry. I have retrieved the saris after settling the matter with Radha Kishan.”  And then he added with a smile, “I have settled the matter with the hospital also.”
Imtiaz Khan was dumbfounded. He was shaken to the core; visibly moved. “I am extremely sorry. I was helpless.”
Hanuman Das came forward and patting him on his shoulder he said, “I am not a Kabirpanthi but let me do this much,” he said leaving the hospital.
Imtiaz Khan looked at Hanuman Das leaving the hospital and thought.

Why did he do so much for me? How did parental love sprout in this childless parent?  And brooding over the matter for a long it occurred to him.

Of Course, he too belongs to Lahartara, the abode of Kabir.