Saturday, February 21, 2015


Author’s Note: It is now 60 years that India got its political independence. Surely, there has been economic development in the country. The per capita income has gone up, child mortality has decreased and literacy percentage has increased and so on. These are but statistics bolstered by government slogans like Garibi Hatao (Poverty Alleviation), India Shining, Bharat Nirman and many more. The reality is that life has not changed much for the rural poor. Distribution of wealth in the country has been acutely uneven. Stark poverty still exists amongst millions who have neither shelter over their heads nor are they fortunate enough to have daily meal and it is a deprecating irony that in this very country there are privileged few spending millions on personal amusement and recreation.

In the sands of Great Indian Desert in the Jaisalmer district of Rajasthan, there is a small village called Gotaru. The dusty outskirts of the village now form the international boundary. The population is a mix of Bhils, Gujjars and Meenas, the backward castes among Hindus and Muslims. They are however identified by their professions such as cobblers, carpenters, masons, blacksmiths and other such trades. Lure of money has now added occupations like pimping, stealing, bootlegging and smuggling to the list. However, the most unfortunate development in the past half century has been the division of the people on religious basis, which the old men and women say didn’t exist in the pre-independence days. The divide is the gift of politicians, the modern destiny makers of the poor people.
In fact, in good old days, religion for the people of Gotaru meant following a few common rituals on the occasions of birth, marriage and death. Id, Holi and Diwali were celebrated collectively by Hindus as well as Muslims. Firewood being difficult to get, even the Hindus buried their dead. Survival in fact was the essence of life.

There is an earthen mound on the east-end of Gotaru. The mound has a cave facing east. Perhaps it was a temple since the half-buried and withered pillars have yakshas and Kinners carved on them. No one knows when the structure was constructed and by whom? The people call it mati-tillah. In the past, the cattle and children of the village soiled the place, and there never was any feud over its ownership. Instigated by politicians and religious leaders, today it has become a bone of contention between the two communities.

Hakim Sah is an old man of the village. He is one of the five panchs of the village panchayat. He doesn’t know his age.
“I may be seventy, may be eighty, may be less, I really don’t know and really come to think of it, how does it matter?” He says feebly.
Hakim Sah was a tall man with broad shoulders, which were now drooping because of age. In his young days, he had a camel and was engaged in ferrying goods. His entire life is a saga of oppression, exploitation, persecution, hunger, pettiness and crime. He has killed strangers for few silver coins and he has acted as a pimp without any compunction. But today, he is infirm and helpless, unsure of his next meal.
Pherumal is a contemporary of Hakim Sah. Both of them have spent their years in and around Gotaru. Pherumal was a blacksmith by profession. They were close friends who had shared happiness, pain, sorrow, liquor, stolen booty and prostitutes.
Pherumal is no better than Hakim Sah in terms of health and worldly possession. He lives under a perforated tarpaulin stretched between two mud walls, secured to a Neem tree on one side and a keekar bush on the other.

1942 was the year when Congress Party workers wearing white khadi had come to Gotaru. It was the year when Quit-India Movement had stormed the entire country. The party workers were carrying the tri-colour flags. There were Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs in that group. All of them were shouting Inquilab. The people of Gotaru don't remember the details. They only remember that the group talked of freedom from the British rule and that they promised better life for every Indian after the white men were driven out of the country.
Hakim Sah squints when you ask him the difference in his life after the white men had left. His face gets distorted with the wrinkles. He is circumspect, perhaps flabbergasted by the relevancy of the question.
“What change? A Raja is a Raja and the Praja is Praja always. The former is born to rule and the later, to be ruled. What difference does it make whether the Raja had a white skin or brown skin? We will always remain the Praja, the servile,” he laments.

The year 1947 changed the course of the history of the Indian sub-continent. It was a difficult year for the people of Gotaru. They were told that half a mile away, from the other side of the village nullah, a new nation of Pakistan had been created. The people of Gotaru could never conceive the prudence of the decision. In fact, the Tangia, a village on the other side of the nullah with identical population composition was now part of Pakistan. Apart from poverty and hunger, which were common on either side, the people of Tangia and Gotaru were related to each other by marriage. Besides, the masons from Tangia and the carpenters and painters of Gotaru worked in both the villages and even beyond. The division of the country had curtailed their movement, making life more difficult.

Hakim Sah was once caught and severely beaten by the border police. He thereafter discontinued going to the other side of the nullah. Over the years, his body strength drained out and he could not bear the treachery of the sandy tracks.
Hakim Sah had two children, a son and a daughter. His daughter, Sabina was married to Sahnawaj, a camel rider from Tangia village. Sahnawaj unfortunately died in a clash with his own people over a land scuffle leaving behind a daughter, Sakina of two years.
Life became difficult for Sabina and her daughter. Sabina was in her early thirties and when an elderly cousin of her husband proposed to her, she married him even though her new husband had six children and two wives. Sabina was not welcomed in the new family. The senior wives of her husband often insulted her and her daughter Sakina was always last to get meals. About a year later, her husband's amorous interest in her waned and he considered Sabina to be an unnecessary additional mouth to feed. One day he took unsuspecting Sabina to Karachi and sold her off to a brothel keeper.
When Hakim Sah came to know of it, he went to Tangia and brought his grand daughter, Sakina to Gotaru.

Hakim Sah's son, Aftab didn't like his father. The dislike was mutual. Aftab disliked the look of a camel and refused to accompany Hakim Sah on his business errands. Aftab became a rebel and finally turned in to a petty thief and a bootlegger. He was caught, beaten up by the border police several times but the habit didn't die. Whenever he got some money, he spent it on liquor and prostitutes. Today, Aftab is mentally and physically diseased. Children tease him and you can see him loitering and begging in Gotaru and adjoining villages.

Pherumal too had a daughter and a son. The son joined his father when he was eleven. Working on a furnace in the blazing desert is understandably a very tiring job. Pherumal after day's work would find relief in a bottle of country liquor, which he often shared with Hakim Sah. Pherumal’s son soon adopted his father's passion for drinking and smoking and in the prime of youth he became a victim of tuberculoses. He often suffered chest pain followed by vigorous bouts of coughing. On such occasions, Pherumal would give him liquor to bear the pain. The battle didn't last long. One day when pain was acute and he was heavily intoxicated, the young lad vomited his lungs out. Life deserted him with black fluid oozing from his mouth. Pherumal's son died at the young age without any descendent.
As time passed and Pherumal got over the grief of losing his son, he became sad for not having a male descendant. Pherumal wanted to have one, at any cost. One night he entered the hut of his son's widow. The young widow resisted but failed and capitulated to Pherumal's irresistible desire to have a male descendent.
Pherumal was happy over his triumph. His wife as well as his daughter-in-law had succumbed to his desire. Everything was working to his liking, unaware that the widow but had her own plans. One day, the young widow left the village for some unknown destination. Pherumal was disappointed, not for losing his daughter-in-law but for losing all hopes of having a male descendant.

Pherumal's daughter, Kajari was married to a young man from the adjoining village, Tanot, which was a tehsil of Jaisalmer district. Kajari’s husband was in the service of Thakur Kripal Singh, the landlord of Tanot village. The Thakur owned five hundred acres of land tilled by bonded labourers. Apart from money, Thakur Kripal Singh also liked wine and women. He had more than a dozen Goli-maids in his harem to satisfy his carnal desires. Kajari was initially employed as farm labour. One day Thakur Kripal Singh saw her and he was stuck by her bewitching beauty and figure. He immediately ordered that Kajari be added to his harem as his new Goli.
It is the duty of a Goli to serve the master and to satiate his sexual desires. A Goli's husband has no right over her body and it was sacrilegious for the husband to touch or desire his wife. The Goli and her husband were however duty-bound to accept the children sired out of the companionship with the master but children from a Goli had no right over the property of their biological father.
Over a period, Kajari was pregnant and was removed from Thakur's service. To her ill luck, one evening she was seen in the company of her husband who could not resist the charm of his wife. The inevitable followed. Kajari was paraded nude in the haveli and beaten till she fainted. Thakur Kripal Singh then ordered to throw her outside his haveli.
No one ever saw Kajari's husband. The story goes that he was hacked to death by Thakur's men and pieces of his body thrown in to a dry well.
Pregnant Kajari came to her parents who refused to accept her. Living behind her parents' hut, one night she gave birth to a son. Two weeks later, Kajari kept the newly born son below the cot of her father and left Gotaru in search of a new life. Nothing was heard of her thereafter.
Pherumal reconciled with his fate and accepted his grandson from Kajari. He named the young child, Panna.

Pherumal and Hakim Sah had grown old and infirm, unable to continue their profession. Pherumal’s family inherited a little knowledge of herbs. Unable to work at the furnace, he now practised as village quack. The two friends would sit together in the evening and talk of the bygone days and their miseries. Hakim Sah would bring his hookah. They would make a small fire out of dung cakes and smoke hookah, coughing phlegm now and then. In the winter months they would sit on the mati-tillah whole day, smoking and lazing around in the sun.


Young Panna, the grand son of Pherumal, was extraordinarily sharp. He didn't want to be a blacksmith. When eleven, he ran away to Jaipur and got the job of a dishwasher in a road-side restaurant. A couple of years later, he was employed by a retired army officer who had turned to politics. There, Panna had the opportunity of observing sly, deceitful, lascivious and hippocratic lives of the political leaders. He was amused watching politicians changing colours faster than the legendary chameleons. It was a training ground for Panna and he learnt the art with amazing alacrity.
Panna often went to his village and gave some money and small gifts out of his savings to his grandparents. Pherumal was very proud of his grandchild.

Panna was distressed to see the pathetic living conditions of his people in Gotaru and around. He felt that the upper caste landlords were ruling the country, exploiting the vote bank of the poor and down trodden. Pherumal and Hakim Sah were worried by Panna’s views, which he propagated openly. They always advised him to lie low. “We are Praja, destined to be ruled; they are Rajas.”
“That is a deep rooted fear instilled in you by the upper castes. They are the people who have made the rituals establishing their superiority. No other society anywhere in the world has such discrimination. It is time that we revolted against social persecution,” Panna often told the young boys and girls of his community.

Panna knew that democracy was the virtue of multitude. He wanted to harness this power, which he knew rested in his people. But the response from his people was far from encouraging. Centuries of servility and impoverishes, ridden with domineering rituals to respect the upper caste had left them timid and meek.
Panna wanted his people to realise that power belonged to them if they mustered courage. He was undeterred by their diffidence. He cultivated young men and women from his community and developed a network of volunteers to take up people’s problems with the district authorities. In couple of years, Panna became a known entity in political circles and consequently an eyesore to the upper caste political leaders.

The elections for the State Assembly had been announced. Panna was busy running from one village to another with his young friends. He had gained a lot of ground, which prompted almost every candidate in the fray to take him on his side. Panna declined all such requests and sent across messages to his people wait for his word until the eve of the election.
One evening Thakur Kripal Singh who was the District Chief of a political party called him to his haveli. Panna anticipated such invitation.
. "Look, you are a Hindu. In fact, your mother was in my employment. I suppose you understand…. I mean ….. ,” Thakur Kripal Singh was feeling uneasy to explain the relationship. With a little pause, he continued, “Why don’t you join us and work for me? If you garner all Hindu votes, I will surely win and for that you will be amply rewarded,” Thakur Kripal Singh was forthright.
"Thakur Saheb, you have been winning the Tanot seat for last thirty years. Please tell me what have you done so far? People go twenty kilometres to fetch water. There is no hospital here and in the absence of roads, the patients die before they can be taken to district hospital. The school is without teachers and its building is in a dilapidated condition.”
Thakur Kripal Singh was not prepared for such outburst but he didn’t want to precipitate the situation.
“Look, I promise to bring all these facilities to the villagers. I do realize that I should have been more attentive to these problems of the people but I assure that hereafter these public demands will be my priority.”
“Thakur Saheb, I see no specific reasons in your change of heart. The fact is you have been exploiting their ignorance, miseries and poverty. And now you are playing communal card. I want to tell them that if they remain united, the power belongs to them. I want them not to be swayed by your communal propaganda. I want to tell them that irrespective of our religion, all of us belong to the oppressed caste.”
The Thakur was infuriated. It was an outright insolence. It was an insult from the man whose mother was once his Goli.
He left the meeting in a huff.
"I don't want to talk to that bastard. Keep a watch over him and find out his weaknesses. Do something to keep the son of a bitch silenced," he told his cronies.

Panna continued with his campaign relentlessly. Slowly he was getting the attention of his people. The number of people coming to hear him was increasing. Thakur Kripal Singh was getting the alarming reports from his party workers. He decided to remove the thorn once for all.
One evening Panna and couple of his friends went to Tanot to attend a marriage. The host treated Panna and his friends reverentially and served them liquor in a separate room on a lavish scale. The drinking spree came to an end with Panna and his friends vomiting blood. A couple of hours later they died writhing in pain. The police declared it a case of death caused by consuming spurious liquor and closed the case.

For Pherumal it was a stunning blow. He could never recover from it. Hakim Sah was sad for he loved Panna but he couldn’t muster courage to go to Pherumal to offer his condolences.

Thakur Kripal Singh once again won the Tanot seat. Years have passed by without anything changing for the people of Gotaru.


It was the month of June. Sun was at its nadir. The wells had dried. People had to go long distance to fetch water, which was highly contaminated. There was an outbreak of cholera in the region. Death stalked every home. Children were dying every other day and those alive, were worst than the dead, their famished bodies looked awful.
Thakur Kripal Singh, the MLA had no time to come to Gotaru. He was in fact busy mustering support to stake his claim to become a minister.
In Gotaru, people's strength and courage was failing. There was no succour coming from any quarter. The government dispensary was twenty miles away. The village road made by the government agencies had vanished under the sand dunes.

The villagers all went to Pherumal for he was their last hope for some treatment of the dying. Pherumal had no children left in his family after Panna had died under mysterious conditions.
"Why have you come to me? What is left of my family that I should treat your children?" He shouted in anguish but his heart told him to save the children.

Pherumal had seen children dying in last few days. After every death the village was getting re-united. Everyone went to the bereaved family irrespective of its caste and creed. Pherumal with his shaking hands was administering the herbs to the children, writhing in pain and dying.
Pherumal remembered Panna’s words, “Our strength lies in our unity. Remember, no one will come from outside to help us.”

After six decades of independence, Gotaru is still a cluster of dilapidated huts. Withering mud walls supporting tattered tarpaulins mark the landscape. Children with running noses and perennial layers of dust on their body play with chickens, goats and dogs. The school, six miles away from the village is mostly inaccessible due to scalding sand or marshy patches during rainy season. The doctors seldom remain the in the dispensary, which is twenty kilometres away from Gotaru. Men in the pursuit of livelihood cross the border and are often caught, beaten and at times maimed or even killed.

The life of the people of Gotaru still remains a tale of unmitigated miseries, poverty, neglect and oppression in modern India.


They were from same street and from same school. That was years ago. In their young days, they had shared dreams; common dreams for their future. They wanted to settle down in the hill town of Gori, which was their ancestral town; a quiet sleepy town, where you could live reasonably urbanized life and afford a kitchen garden and a small orchard too.  They wanted to have a peaceful life, surrounded by their children and a few pets playing around.

After school, Tamuri had joined an accounts firm as intern and his childhood friend Miranda was a helper in a departmental store. They wanted to save enough money before getting married and moving to Gori, the land of their dreams.

Life but took an ugly turn shattering their dreams.

Tamuri was now posted on the North Western frontier of the country pitted against the Russian troops positioned there in support of disputed territory of Abkhazia. Not that his battalion could have stopped the Russians advance but it soothed the battered ego of Georgian government to have resisted the colossal Russians even if it were symbolic. It was late in the evening and he was sharing the cold dinner with his mates in the forward trenches. It had snowed the previous night; the chill in the air was biting and they had to save kerosene of the rickety stove for the long dreary night.

Looking beyond the sky line, quietly chewing a piece of dry chicken, Tamuri was lost in the reverie of past memories.  A year had passed since he had left his home, his mother and Miranda, who was once his beloved.

She must be sharing a cozy cottage with Zurab, unmindful of my woes. He thought.
Zurab was Tamuri’s cousin who had all the makings of a worldly wise, successful person. His father, a Deputy Minister in the public works department helped him in getting contracts for the government works. Zurab, a shrewd young man quickly learnt the knack of keeping the government officials happy.  Inevitably, prosperity gravitated towards Zurab and then other traits followed. Zurab became ostentatious, garrulous and fond of women, wine and wealth in that order or it could be interchanged.  He would take them out for dinner and shower lavish gifts on them. And that made Zurab popular among girls of Mtskheta Street, the place where he, Tamuri and Miranda had spent their childhood.

Zurab had an eye on Miranda as well as she was fair, beautiful, charming and affable.  She was but in love with Tamuri who at times was riled when Zurab tried to come too close to her. He once expressed his fears to Miranda.
“I don’t like that philanderer coming close to you, trying to win you over.”
“Tamuri! I love you more than anything in the world. You don’t have to bother,” Miranda had assured him time and again.

Tamuri had lost his father in the earlier Abkhazian aggression of early nineties. He was the only hope of his widowed mother. Tamuri wanted to be a sculptor. “One day you will see my creation on the main entry to Tbilisi from Gori,” he used to tell his mother and he had confided in Miranda.
“Why Gori side?” Miranda had asked him.
“Because Gori is our ancestral town. It will be a gift from a sculptor from Gori to the capital of the country.”

Tamuri had a flair for sculpting. He loved it and spent all his week-ends in the company of Shalva Gogiashvili, a famous sculptor who saw great deal of promise in the young lad. But the situation changed too rapidly after Tamuri’s father was killed in the war.  He had to earn his bread and look after his mother. His ambition to be a famous sculptor was relegated; he had to join an accounting firm to earn his livelihood.  Tamuri was sad to abandon his love for sculpting but Miranda’s company gave him strength and kept him going. Whenever he found time, he would visit his mentor and watch him work on the sculptures.  

The year was 2008. Trouble started again.

The Russians crossed the Georgian border with Abkhazia, threatening the town of Zugdidi. The Georgian government panicked. Her army was too small before the overpowering Russian presence. Besides, the Georgian boys were not enamored by a career in the armed forces. The forces were acutely short of young soldiers and officers. So the Georgian government issued orders enforcing conscription. All young boys and men were to serve the army for five years. There was no appeal against these orders. Tamuri’s plea that his father had already sacrificed his life for the country and that there was no one to look after his infirm mother was not heeded by the authorities. The letter of reference from the national sculptor was also of no avail. Tamuri was given thirty six hours to report to the 3rd Regiment of the Georgian Lancers deployed in the North Western border.

Events took place so fast that he could not even arrange groceries for his ailing mother. He was heartbroken to leave his mother in that condition and to be separated from his beloved. That evening he brought ‘kachapuri’ from the nearby vendor and shared it with his mother. The old woman had no words to say. She could not even bite the kachapuri. There was a lump in her throat.
“Son take care of you. Don’t worry for me. I am a dying lamp. A blow of wind will put me off. You have a long life ahead of you.”

Tamuri left for Miranda’s place.  Zurab was there. Tamuri knew Zurab too had received the mobilization orders but he saw him in animated spirit enjoying peeba, the Russian word for beer. Miranda looked subdued. He wanted to be alone with her. The possibility seemed to be remote. Miranda’s father offered him a seat on the table and asked him to join. 
“Let’s share Zurab’s happiness,” he said smilingly. Miranda came up to Tamuri and offered him a can of peeba, which he took reluctantly. A little later Miranda’s mother appeared with a tray of snacks. Tamuri noticed; the old lady too had a thin smile on her face. He was perplexed.

Miranda solved the riddle. “You know Tamuri! Zurab’s father has been able to get his mobilization orders rescinded.  Wish someone had helped you also.”

Tamuri never liked Zurab. In fact, it was a mutual dislike. Zurab was a loud mouth and always bragged of his father’s position in the government and of his wealth and he was never shy of throwing his weight around and impressing the girls.
“I have come to say good bye to you….  I mean to all of you,” he managed to say looking at Miranda.

“I am sorry for you,” Miranda whispered. Tamuri noticed Zurab was smiling. He ignored it. He was desperate to talk to Miranda, to hold her in his arms, kiss her and hug her. He looked at her with all the pain in his eyes.

 “Take care of yourself. The place and the enemy are very hostile. Please don’t bother for your mother. I will look after her. God bless you,” she said and then went in to bring another tray of snacks and cans of beer. Tamuri looked at Miranda pensively and then left the place bidding good bye to all.

He was now posted at the war front. The soldiers had access to phone once in a week. He had tried to get in touch with Miranda but she would not come on line. He was dejected and crestfallen. Thoughts of all kind perturbed his mind.

Why is she not talking to me? Had she left him for Zurab?  He would talk to his mother and return to his post.

A year had passed since he was separated from his people. It was that fateful afternoon that he had received a letter from Miranda. It read that she was getting married to Zurab on the coming Sunday and that his mother was serious and had been evacuated to hospital.

He finished his dinner and checked his light machine gun, LMG and the munitions. That evening the enemy aggression was on the rise. They were firing rockets and mortars. The enemy had superior weapons and better fortified trenches. Casualties on Georgian side were always heavy. Tamuri was guarding one of the positions. Tamuri knew there was no possibility that he would be given liberty to attend his cousin’s marriage or for that matter see his ailing mother. Grief overtook him; it pained him that he could not do anything for his dying mother.

As the night advanced, enemy fire intensified. Suddenly his buddy was hit by a splinter cutting across his face, blood spluttering all over.  Tamuri saw him faltering and falling in the trench.

Tamuri was now defending the post singlehandedly.  The thoughts of his ailing mother and of his beloved, going away from him vanished from his mind. He was now a soldier defending his motherland; a possessed soul uncaring for his own life and safety. There was no stopping of him. He was returning the enemy fire furiously, changing the magazines of his LMG one after the other.

The Russians had not anticipated such fierce resistance. They stopped firing but there was no stopping of Tamuri even after his platoon commander asked him to stop.

“Let there be an end to this agony for all time to come,” he shouted at his officer without interrupting the barrage of fire from his LMG. The Russians were vexed and annoyed. They lobbed a couple of incendiary grenades at his bunker. There was an explosion and then there was a ball of fire followed by thick black smoke all over.
Firing from either side subsided. It was time to look for the dead and wounded. His friends in arm rushed towards Tamuri’s trench.

Tamuri lay at the bottom of his trench, his one hand still on the handle of the LMG and Miranda’s letter in the other.