QUEST FOR HONOUR
Haria Nagla is a tiny village located somewhat midway between the towns of Aligarh and Hathras. The nearest town is Sasni which was famous for its industry of making glass chimneys for Hurricane lanterns. These lanterns were very popular even in post independence days till electricity was introduced at village level in the mid-fifties. The village land was fertile and most of the holdings were with a few families. The other folks performed farm duties to earn their lively-hood. Those days one could reach the village road from Aligarh by paying an Anna – equal to today’s 6 paisa by privately owned and dilapidated buses of American make. These buses were invariably brought from Army Surplus disposal as trucks and a bus body was built at a local workshop. From the main road and in good weather the village was not too far. During rains, it was a different story.
Kaluram does not recall many intimate moments that his family may have had back home in the village. The village sat in the lap of lush green fields of wheat, bajra and jowar and small plots that grew vegetables. The cash crop of vegetables was one saving grace in the sustenance of the villagers round the year as it was needed to fulfill the limitless need in nearby towns. Most of the residents were landless and made their living by working on the farm lands of the rich. Kaluram’s father Jasraj had traditionally supported his family by working on Chaudhary Govind Singh’s lands. Besides his own parents and his wife Imarti Devi and one aunt who had lost her husband and had no family of her own, there were five other children being reared. Kaluram was the eldest of the lot and therefore, it was his natural duty to work and contribute to the family’s income. Now at eleven years age he was working at the land-lord, Chaudhary Jagtar Singhs house. He was assigned various menial tasks. Typically, he arrived at the only concrete brick structure in the Village while it was still dark.
His first task was to get the Coal Angithi (a brazier) cooking burner equivalent of those days. The process took him several moments. He first pounded the bigger chunks of coal with a hammer to break them into small and usable size. Then he arranged the chunks so that air would pass upwards through them and there would be good heat for as long as it was required. An angithi with a good fire going was the essence of good cooking and a well laid angithi gave Chaudhary’s wife great satisfaction while she churned out delicious meals for the family . Then he would arrange small twigs in the hollow below the grate in the angithi and stuff some loose paper rolled into balls. He would then repeat the same for the other angithi which would be used later when the load for cooking increased as all family members rose to their normal living cycle. He then got busy at the well where he had tied an empty 16 litre oil container to a long rope. The rope itself ran over a metal pulley overhead and the pulley made screeching protesting noise when the pulley was made to move. He would haul several of these containers up and fill up the water tank with supply of water to be used as convenient by the Chaudhary family. After he emptied the container into the surface water tank he would throw it back into the well. Then he had to juggle with the rope so that it sank below the water surface and filled itself with life giving water.
Once water was filled, he made his way to the rear where two buffalos were tethered to their stake. He had to make their feed ready. This he did by mixing dry cut hay from its heap with khali, gur, binolla, green Chari or a special edible weed grown especially as animal fodder. These were added not as taste givers as no one was sure if the buffalos had any particular taste, but as milk enhancers. All ingredients were put into shallow trough and mixed with water using bare hands. Both hands had to be dipped into the mess right up to the elbows and worked till it was mixed thoroughly and the buffalos would not have any preferred areas to eat from. The next step was to let the calves loose so that they could begin to suckle and the animals were in proper frame of mind to be milked. The calves were removed as soon as their mothers were ready to yield milk and he would sit on haunches with a pail between his squatted feet to collect the milk. Then using both his hands he would milk each animal. This was a good time as in between he could squirt some milk into his mouth directly from the tits. Once all this was over, he was free to do his most favoured activity, namely, frolic and time wasting with other boys of his age. There was no school and boys of his age rounded cattle from their homes into vacant fields for grazing.
While the cattle did what cattle do, the boys would engage in a host of activities. These were playing Gilli-Danda, Kabaddi, or using a catty to bring down fruit from unguarded trees. During peak summer times they would sit idly under what ever shade they found or just picked up suntan in open air. Kaluram had a special elevated position amongst these boys as he earned for the family, though he was not sure how much as the money was collected directly by his mother who also washed utensils for the Chaudhary family. He was aware that part of his salary was adjusted towards some loan that the family had taken from Chaudhary and later was unable to repay. As a leader he was always at the helm of affairs in raiding plantation trees for guavas, ber and raw mango, depending on the season. Most of the times they took a sound thrashing when caught, but some times they got off scot-free due to his social standing. Come evening, the boys would drive the cattle back. Kaluram rounded the Chaudhary’s buffalos and tied them to their stakes. He then busied himself with feeding and milking the animals. This was the routine, unless he was sick. In the village no one ever fell sick as sickness was never curable and most often than not the person falling sick would die if it was serious illness or get cured without medicine, if he was lucky. Folks always banked on Grand Mother Recipes for various illnesses. These were well known all around and were family-hand-me-downs. Due to its efficacy one seldom saw a doctor unless he became severely ill and had to be transported to a nearby town on a bullock cart.
Kaluram’s uncle Deena had taken money from Chaudhary for meeting urgent family commitment. He paid back some of his loan in due course of time but the income from his small fields was not enough. He spoke to Chaudhary and got an offer of work-in-lieu-of-loan. Since Deena himself was a landlord in a small way, he agreed to do errands at the Chaudhary’s residence. This went on for some time before Deena realised it was too humiliating and it took away all his time, and some times clashed with his own work in his lands. Upset and unsure of the Chaudhary’s ire he began to think of ways to escape the routine. One day he ran away from the village. He had presumed he would work in the city and repay the loan
Deena had been forced to migrate to Delhi. The Outskirts of Delhi from the village were a seven hour journey via Aligarh. Trains were available but were very costly travel mode; in any case Deena had no money. People preferred to travel without ticket on trains and if they were to be caught then a couple of days of detention were added to the journey period. But, if one had some money then the frugal way of traveling was by hitching a ride on a truck.
Deena had fallen foul with the Chaudhary and had to leave the village to avoid his ire. He had bummed a lift on truck with few of his of belongings and no money. The driver made him pay for his passage by performing the job of odd man-cum-cleaner. The routine had lasted for a week during which the driver and his buddy had paid for his meals. At night he stood guard at the truck while the two slept inside roadside Dhabas. He also had to wash the truck’s outsides using buckets full of water filled from a hand-pump. One day as the truck neared Delhi, Deena escaped into the darkness. For the next two days he survived on water and loitered around aimlessly. He was uneducated and had possessed no other skill and was too proud to beg for a living. On the third day as was passing a factory, hunger and heat made him feel giddy and he fell down. He was revived by the chawkidars of the factory who carried him inside the gates. From this time onwards he began to live with them as a parasite. He accepted any food they offered and did whatever they asked him to do, including pushing the heavy metal gates open and shut. Gradually he grew to become a chawkidar and had his own shift as the others. He began to earn forty bucks in exchange for his vigilance and was allowed to stay in company quarters. He was to remain a Chawkidar for the rest of his life. Under his circumstances there was no chance to get married and raise a family. When ever he thought back he always thought of his brother and his family as his own. The favourite among them was his nephew Kaluram. He knew the boy was wasting his time in the village. He began to consider ways and means to get the boy with him and keep him under his wings - perhaps even educate him at the company welfare school.
Chaudhary was furious at this. He took it as a personal affront by a lesser mortal and the indignation was difficult for him to swallow. He called the Panchayat and put his view to the local court and got the injunction that another family member of Deena will work at the residence so that the loan could eventually be liquidated. Actually, Deena had done all this on his own and no other family member had got wind of his escape or plans to repay the loan. He had not taken any one into confidence and had just vanished into the big mysterious world. Luckily, as was the practise in vogue those days, there were no complaints made to the Police. Deena’s brother Jasraj pleaded that his son Kaluram would perform some duties for the Chaudhary and that is how the young boy got to be in Chaudhary’s service. Part of his salary was paid to his mother and the greater part went to repay Uncle Deena’s loan.
He was in touch with his brother and Kaluram’s father through mail and he mooted the idea in one of his letters. To write the letter or to read a reply he had to seek favours from a person who could read. Often, it was the postman who had carried the letter, who read the postcards for free but accepted pittance if a reply had to be written. He came to know that Chaudhary had called Panchayat when he had left the village without repaying the loan, and that Kaluram was forced to work at his house in lieu. He did not like the idea that his most favoured nephew had to pay for his deeds. He decided to remit money regularly through his brother Jasraj to pay up his debts to Chaudhary.
Kaluram’s journey to a new world began to unfold. Initially Kaluram began to cook for the Guards and run small errands as his uncle Deena had done earlier. He also began to go to the Welfare School and learn some English, Hindi and Maths. The barely twelve year old was learning fast – not just the school education but also the worldly ways. He soon graduated to work in the General Manager’s house and excelled in his job.
Deena and Chaudhary each had won best enemy awards from each other for life.
Kaluram was a hard working, happy soul and in any case he already did work outside the Chaudhary’s home. He never slipped and generally was some one who drew no attention. Time is the best healer and the arrangement became routine. Kaluram did not mind working extra time as he could stay away from his own family members and his personal liberties were never compromised. In any case the fact that he worked for the Chaudhary had given him a slightly elevated position among his friends. Off and on he also benefited from the Chaudhary’s wife in the form of eats and sometimes money. He was enjoying his time.
Deena was very unhappy when he came to know about the happenings back home, it was more than six months and he was surprised to understand that the family was paying for his escape. He secretly had made contact with his brother- and Kaluram’s father Jasraj. The two brothers agreed to meet in the nearby town of Sasni. His brother updated him with happenings in the village and this had made Deena very sad. Deena had been able to save some money which he gave to Jasraj, instructing that he pay off the debts to the Chaudhary and secure succour for his most favoured nephew.
Jasraj was happy to receive the extra cash and decided to keep the arrangement a secret and to use the money for his own purposes. In any case his son, Kaluram was doing all to repay the loan amount. The two brothers would meet every two-three months at Sasni and with every meeting Jasraj would trade village stories and receive money saved by Deena to finally settle his dues and to liberate Kaluram from the clutches of Chaudhary. Jasraj was happy with the money and thought it to be a bad move to tell the Chaudhary that he was in touch with Deena and that his brother was returning his loan. He never even told his family about his secret meetings and the money. Life began its onward roll with Deena remitting money to his brother regularly; Kaluram continuing to work for the Chaudhary and Jasraj amassing all the savings of his runaway brother.
After two years of clandestine meetings with Jasraj, Deena was sure he had returned all his dues with interest and asked Jasraj to speak to Chaudhary so that Kaluram could stop working for him. Jasraj told the truth for the first time that debts were actually never repaid and most of the money from Deena was ploughed into the household. Deena was upset again; but this was one family affair he could not tackle. It hurt him that his nephew was paying for his escape and that over the time he had done precious little to ease his agony. Deena had never married and his ultimate emotional satisfaction was to think of his nephew to whom he was closely attached. Now stung by his own brother’s breach of trust he began to think of ways to retrieve the situation. He imagined that he had penalised himself for the family’s welfare and yet he was short-changed by his own brother. He felt there was a need to get even. Without revealing his plan, he asked Jasraj to arrange for a meeting between him and Kaluram as the two had not met for a very long time. In his innocence and under the weight of his guilt of misappropriating his brother’s money he promised to bring along Kaluram the following month.
So, one fine day when Kaluram did not turn up at the Chaudhary’s home, the drama began. Those days it was not usual to call the police. A small village search party was organized which made queries with nearby hamlets. There was no news of either Deena or his nephew for a long while and gradually every thing became normal.
Deena had always kept his whereabouts a complete secret and after the meetings he always dissolved into the milling crowds of the small town. At the next meeting he did something similar to this practice. Only, this time he vanished with the boy in tow. Jasraj had had no inkling of what was to happen. Kaluram, of course, did not know what was going on.
After the two had disappeared, Jasraj kept trying to trace them and gave up his search as it grew dark and the last bus to Haria Nagla was about to leave. He kept on cursing himself for his folly for on one hand all his extra income had stopped and he was quite at sea to face and explain the matter to Chaudhary. Like every one else, he too was mortally scared of the Chaudhary’s temper. He could not reveal his misery to his family and made up a story that Kaluram had travelled with Deena for a short while and would be back soon. His wife blindly believed him. Next day, Jasraj and his wife went to Chaudhary and made up another excuse for the missing boy. They explained that he had suddenly taken ill and had been shifted to a relative in Aligarh. Chaudhary put up with the excuse for a few weeks and then began to suspect foul play. He called Jasraj to his house and got nasty with him. Under duress, there was no other option and the truth came out. The Chaudhary was most miserable that he was cheated again; His intuition told him Deena was behind all this. What followed between Chaudhary and Jasraj is another matter; Kaluram had begun another phase of his life.
Govind Singh was the biggest land owner in the neighbouring area within a circle of 10 Kos (A Kos is approximately 2.7 kilometres), therefore he enjoyed the status of a village leader. He had lost his father early and being the eldest among his siblings was conferred with the title of Chaudhary. The title itself gave him the standing of a powerful person. With the backing of four other brothers and the Akhara’s (training academies for wrestling and other physical activities) around he was actually a formidable force for lesser mortals. The lesser mortals in turn made it their business to stay away from him and his interests, partly out of respect, and mostly out of fear. Thus, though the landless labourers were forced to work in his fields; they were always cautious and never crossed his path. He also kept the balance of position with him through keeping a hold on the village temple and its activities. He was free with donations in the name of God and was the force behind community celebrations of major festivals.
The villagers were aware of his short temper and knew that he was a bad loser. Most had to make no efforts to stay away from his tantrums as Chaudhary hardly ever ventured out of his palatial house or his lands. Most of his friends were in other villages and some times he used the only station wagon in the village to visit them. Since the Station Wagon was badly maintained and not in regular use, it had to be started following a particular drill. On the day of its use, several boys were rounded up with the promise of Laddoos – a sweet delicacy. Meanwhile, a driver and servant dusted and washed the old hardware from outside and inside giving it the appearance of an old aunt getting ready for movies at the plaza. When word came of Chaudhary’s readiness to move, the driver sat at his seat and fiddled with its controls. He moved the key to its start position but never cut in the starter as the battery was perpetually low. The start function was for the boys to accomplish. They all positioned themselves around the car and began to push in unison to the chant of ‘Jai Bajrangbali”. In turn, the car would splutter and thick black smoke would come out in small clouds from its silencer. If the engine caught on, then it was fine and a chorus of happy shouting from not only the boys but from all bystanders would rant the air. If it did not, then the car would be pushed back to its original parking position which was slightly raised from the rest of the ground. The second or third attempt was usually successful.
He was fond of visiting the towns for movies and had a taste for Hotel food and had often used the vehicle for participating at dinners, hosted either by friends or him for friends. Chaudhary also had two horses and an elephant. He used these for early morning rides and mostly stayed within his vast properties. He was also a keen shooter and often shot pheasants and quails at dusk time. He was helped by a retinue of servants who collected the dead birds. The other habit was the only one that could not be appreciated by the lesser mortals. Chaudhary was fond of the English peg after sun-down. He did not do this frequently, but when ever he hit the bottle he overdid it. After the drinks he would make a nuisance of himself and would be aggressive with the women of the house and often used muscle power on the servants. The servants were the most hapless of the lot as they were there only because of loans and monies they had taken from the Chaudhary from time to time and now it was pay-back time with hard labour and suppressed dignity.
The Chaudhary had always thought it was paramount to maintain his position in the society. He knew there were only four ways of doing so. These were Charm, dole largess, punish and be informed. The family had to shell out substantial money as grants and loans to achieve the first two steps. For punishing those who defied his authority or fooled about his dictates he was very ruthless, since he was a rich man, he was deemed to be always right. This apart, the family had somehow held high village office as Sarpanch or the head of the village administration body. The last of the steps was a matter of personal trait and successive Chaudhary’s before him had adopted different ways of staying abreast of the happenings in the village and in the district. But the biggest tool was the fame attached to the hierarchy of Chaudhary’s as each generation had maintained distance from the common folks and adopted a stance that no nonsense would be tolerated. Govind Singh, too, had maintained this image and had nurtured the respect of all.
First, Deena’s escape and now the disappearance of Kaluram had hit this image hard. He had to make an example of the two, and the whole village knew that he had the power to do so. Govind Singh had to plan something viable, but his anger and anguish always got the better of him. With Jasraj not revealing anything and his trusted men also drawing a blank regarding the whereabouts of Deena and Kaluram, his frustration grew and he always felt ashamed of his failure to get even. He had his own set of informers in the village and he had also paid for look outs in nearby villages and towns for any information on the two. As time passed by he did not forget the episode and this was well reflected in his dealings with the villagers, and particularly with Jasraj’s family.
Time went on at its own pace and the thorny issue was found its place on a back-burner. Now and then, a fresh defaulter would be reminded of the incidence with a promise that one ay he would locate the duo and make an example of them. The defaulter got the message that Chaudhary would adopt a similar stern attitude if there was any laxity from his own side.
Initially, Kaluram began by cooking for the Guards as his uncle had done earlier. He also began to go to the Welfare School and learn some English, Hindi and Maths. The barely twelve year old was learning fast- not just informal school education but also the ways of the world. He soon graduated to work in the G.M.’s house as part time Gardner. He had green fingers and G.M.’s wife was very pleased with her garden and the new Gardner. He closely observed how the family conducted itself and tried to work to their expectations. He never left the school and regularly attended classes. By the time the boy was fifteen years old he was ready to be shifted to G.M.’s office as a peon and right-hand man of the family. He enjoyed working for them and was ever ready for extra work. The factory workers had noticed his clout with the family and used him several times to put their petty problems to Sahib’s notice. He enjoyed this very much. G.M. had found Kaluram to be an efficient person and always favoured him by listening to workers grievances. Over the next two years Kaluram had been confirmed in his position as a peon and was able to read, write and generally do any thing that was expected of him without complaints. Gradually, he had risen well above the Guards and was well respected by them. He started to sport a name plate that read ‘K. Ram’. Perhaps his journey had already begun.
G.M. was a lazy man in his late Fifties. He was not in the best of health and suffered from blood pressure and diabetes besides being grossly over-weight. His peak had deserted him decade ago when he had nursed the Company from near bankruptcy to its present status. Progress graph then on was a horizontal line on the Board of Directors meetings. However, things were going on at its own pace as the owners had diversified into other business and this was being retained as a family venture. All Directors thought it was best to let sleeping dogs lie. They were happy so long as no investment was called for and it did not bother them. The G.M. managed this very well and even produced profits. He kept the few old workers happy and life for every body was nice and cool. The man lived on campus and had no particular hobbies or social commitments. This was his first appointment and his bachelor’s quarters were converted into family quarters after his marriage. This was done some thirty years ago, but by the Grace of God his family had not grown beyond two – him and his wife. The wife was a religious lady and gradually got to look after the lower staff as her dependents. She invariably distributed Prasad on each Full Moon and conducted a kirtan after office hours. On Diwali and Holi she arranged get-togethers for families of the staff with traditional activities. Lately, she even started a small ceremony on the day of id as the number of Muslim workers had grown substantially. All staff revered her and it is perhaps for this reason that they did not make any difficulties for the G.M. With assured good behaviour from all concerned, the man had to only put up a Fatherly exterior. There was no need for him to ever produce rabbits out of a hat. His life time achievement was also a result of this superior strategy where his wife managed the working environment.
G.M.’s name on Graduation Certificate issued by Nagpur University was Uma Shankar Sharma. Since no one in the Company was his senior in age or rank, no one had the need to use his name. Back home during the time he was in School and College the name had troubled him all through. His friends, teachers and first-time acquaintances preferred to call him by the first part of his name. This was the name of Lord Shiva’s wife and therefore had feminine undertones. He was very uncomfortable with it. At home his family and relatives called him by his pet name and that was even worst. Now, when he reflected on the issue it gave him immense relief that he was happy just being nameless; he felt no need to have a name at all. One day, he simply removed the old wooden name plate outside his office as if performing the last rites of the issue. Mercifully, the name plate outside the house had read “G.M.’s Residence”. He arranged for a new one when the old one was eaten up by termites. This time had installed a metal plate but retained the old wordings. G.M. Sharma had got married some fifteen years ago.
The lucky lady hailed from a village and she was more than content with what all existed in her husband’s house at the time of her marriage. She learnt to respect the flow of electric current and took a long time to master use of electricity operated gadgets like the iron press or the electric kettle. Lucky Ladies name was Kamla. She was brought up in the village under her mother’s patronage to perform house-hold chores. She excelled in all these genuinely, and as she had not been to a school she was unspoiled by the feminine magazines and journals. All requirements in the house were instantly complied with by a host of servants and she kept herself busy doing embroidery on old and new linen. Sharmaji rarely bothered her and she was rarely bothered about Sharmaji. In her spare time she began to engage herself with the families and children of the lower staff. In time she realized that she herself would have no children of her own due to a medical condition since her birth. Sharmaji was not disturbed by this and Kamla had to get used to being childless. She pampered her motherly instinct by just being with children of the locality and concerned herself with their activities as far as it was practical. She converted an old disused shed into a room and pressed Sharmaji to hire a teacher on Company account. The ladies of the staff were happy to let their wards go to the school rather than loiter around and be a nuisance. Gradually, on her bidding Sharmaji pressed for mid-day meals from the workers quota with the Management. Surprisingly, the approval came almost immediately. Kamla had established her supremacy with the staff families and became most favourite auntyji.
She was God fearing and had a small temple in the house. With no interference from Sharmaji, she spent lots of time praying and making the small pedestal temple look good and gave a daily bath to the small metal Gods. It was the annual time for white-wash and maintenance of on campus houses. When it came to their turn, Kamla shifted the temple to a corner of the shed for the time being. The masons and painters got to work on her house and stayed there for over a fortnight; after all it was G.M.’s Bungalow. During this time the moon was at its full glory and as per her practice she held special prayers on that day and distributed Prasad. She was forced to do her ritual in the shed and as other ladies saw the special prayers they too joined her. The ritual this time became a big success and initially all the ladies and later even the men folk came to the make-shift temple for daily darshan. Thus when at last the masons and the rest of the team went away, there was problem shifting the temple back to its original place. It was pleasant to her that her deity was so lavishly worshipped by all. When the Management got wind of it they appreciated the idea and made special sanction to prop up the place. Soon, a full fledged temple came up and the teacher became a part time Pundit. He was moved into the annexe of the temple and to keep his kitty going began to organize special prayers for even the smallest occasion. For a Hindu religious calendar one could have a special reason on almost all days. Kamla sternly kept check on the Teacher-cum-Pundit and things went on nicely.
Kamla’s gift of the school and the temple to the Company proved to be not only a good thing for the staff but also brought in luck to the management. They had better success not only at this time-pass company but also for their other ventures. They attributed all this to Sharmaji’s abilities and expressed their happiness during bonus time. It became a joyous moment for all the workers and their families as well. On campus all families began to see the Sharma couple in more revered light. Bonus time coincides with Diwali festival and the occasion called for celebrations. The temple shed became a glittering all night affair. Kamla had succeeded in setting up her first annual ritual. She herself was not very educated and she needed help to control her ever growing field of activities and she roped in Sharmaji’s peon and confidante Kaluram on a part time as-and-when required basis. Kaluram was by now better known as K. Ram and had an aura of efficiency and self-blessed importance as the right hand man of the Boss. He was impressed by the Lady’s achievements as were all others and considered it a privilege to work with her.
Ram’s organisational skills were exceptional and he had little opportunities as a peon. He had learnt to tinker with the typewriter and had plenty of time to practise by night when he had a free run of the place as Chawkidar in charge. He often sat close to the accounts clerk during day and watched him make entries of the days transactions on a typewriter. He could somehow setup the machine on his own and began to type as he observed during the day. He realised soon that he could type a whole page from a book or an old magazine. He began to make special favours to the accounts clerk and slowly his knowledge on the machine grew. He kept his skill to himself as he felt that if some one caught him tinkering with the machine or if anything went wrong with it then there would be hell to pay.
One day Kamala had been resting in the breeze of the fan on a hot afternoon re-reading a Hindi story book. The story was around a youth who had run away from home and almost lost life’s purpose. Somehow she linked the story to Ram and began to reminiscence about his growth in the company. She recalled the time when the accounts clerk took ill during the last annual audit; the Accounts Manager had been at a big loss and could not possibly induct a new hand at that time. Ram offered his services and produced the documents as per the Manager’s requirements. Accounts Manager was relieved but her husband, the G.M., was totally thrilled. He would have been very angry with any one else looking into his accounts but with Ram it was quite another thing. The Audit went off well and Sharmaji could flavour the next budget to his liking. This was another feather in his cap.
Deena and Kaluram had completely disassociated with Jasraj and the village. The two were honest people and had lived frugal lives. While Deena had stagnated as a Chawkidar, his nephew had made good progress. Though formally Kaluram never went to a proper school he was fond of learning academics, he had picked up alphabets both in Hindi and English and always gave credit to posters of Hindi Films. Gradually he began to take interest in scraps of old newspaper that were used to pack groceries. He also gave credit to Meena, Chaudhary’s youngest daughter who was then in class 3 and was driven down to the Government school in the battered station wagon daily. Meena had liked Kaluram for he was the most dominant boy amongst the village boys. She often gave her old books to the boy and more often than not had to guide him study them. They hit off fairly well. Many a times Kaluram would share the raw ber or sour mango he plucked all day from the fields while looking after cattle and frolicking with other boys. At other times Kaluram would roast Bhutta – corn on the cob- for her and apply generous amounts of salt, chillies and lime juice. The relationship was benefiting each the same and the flavour of the friendship stayed with both. Kaluram therefore was well read in his own ways as a self-taught. He managed his contacts with the out side world, his superiors and all others very well because of this hard-earned education.
In the Factory too, he achieved much the same privileged standing, as in the village through his interest in studies; also since he had direct access to the G.M. and his wife he was held in good esteem by his colleagues. After the incident about the annual audit, even G.M. placed complete faith in his loyalty and ability. Due to his association with G.M.’s wife he made some money on the side as welfare honorarium. He saved his money in a bank and Deena was never aware of the boy’s expenses and savings even though they both lived under one roof. Deena would often discuss his past with Kaluram. He spoke about his escape from the village, his brother Jasraj’s wrong doing, his enmity with the Chaudhary and his burning desire to get back to his birth place. Kaluram was sensitive about his uncle’s precarious state and often sympathised. He always wished that there should be a solution as there was never an evil intention. He began to exercise his mind.
The audit clerk had been a sincere person and had always spent long hours in the office. He made it a point to complete all his books even after office hours were long over. He was allotted with staff quarters on the campus because of his dedication. The other people in the accounts department could conveniently bank on the young boy to cover their own shortcomings. He was always at hand when completed goods were to be shipped late at night. Kaluram had become his companion for such shipments and helped him in making up the dispatch papers. The management had placed full trust on the duo and there was no tension for any body else as dead line after dead line was met in all dispatches. No one was aware as to when it became the standard practise to ship goods only after working hours. The routine was going on flawlessly and a major activity was being conducted without asking for any rewards by the two resulting in savings of running costs to the Company.
The accounts were to be closed on Diwali and the Company had to ship out the last of the production before this date. As the Diwali time approached the whole Company would perform with great zeal. Every body worked hard as it translated to better overtime and bonus for the year. Production activity usually carried on all night. Even though workers were tired and sleepy, they never cribbed. It was on the night just prior to Diwali when all production targets had been met. Goods had been packed and transport had been waiting to load up and proceed. The time was past dinner and the Accounts man and Kaluram were doing up the papers.
Earlier in the day the management had arranged for a feast with a good sprinkling of booze to thank the workers. The party had been over and only a handful of drunkards were still brawling outside the main Company gates. Suddenly without any warning the accounts clerk slumped in his chair. Kaluram was sitting at the same table and did not know how to react. The clerk had just slid down from his stool and lay on the ground in a small unhappy looking heap. His eyes were open and saliva drooled out of the corner of his mouth. kaluram ran out side and knocked at the supervisor’s door. There was no reply and he could hear heavy breathing from within bolted doors. He realised the man must be completely drunk and inert. Kaluram turned towards the G.M.’s cottage, and was relieved to see the man sitting in the veranda in his banyan and pyjamas. Kaluram blurted out his concern to him. Sharmaji sprung out of his chair and was a t total loss for words. He had expected to hear the trucks roll out in a while and thus celebrate another successful year closure. His happiness was crushed under the weight of his anxiety. He put on a kurta and rushed to the accounts office with Kaluram in close pursuit.
On one hand the immediate problem was to provide medical care to the accounts clerk while on the other it was imperative to dispatch the goods before mid-night – now just an hour away. G.M. had lost his nerve and sat down on a chair. He just stared at Kaluram and the accounts clerk; one at a time. Kaluram collected his wits and called in his uncle Deena who was on Chawkidar duty and had been sipping tea with drivers of trucks. Both put the accounts clerk in one of the trucks and drove away to the Company authorised hospital. Meanwhile Kaluram got busy with the typewriter and began printing invoices and covering notes. Sharmaji was impressed by the boys speed and the way he went about his business. Kaluram and Sharmaji were outside the office as the clock struck twelve. The dispatch was completed on schedule.
Day after Diwali the bonus was paid. Kaluram had another packet along with his share of cash bonus, sweets and crackers. In an envelop embossed with G.M.’s official marking was a wad of green notes, a letter of appreciation which was read out in front of all assembled people and a small letter which merely stated that that the management was pleased to promote him as Head Peon. Kaluram was very pleased but did not exactly relate his massive contribution last night to make a whole year’s of labour by each and every person on Company rolls.
The new appointment was only on paper as he had no qualifications to fill in for the sick accounts clerk. In effect, the clerk never fully recovered from his illness and his family members took him to his home town directly from the hospital. Kaluram did accountant’s duties on his behalf and delivered well. Slowly this became the norm. Since head of accounts was not sure if he should ask for a qualified replacement he did not bother with the issue. In any case, Kaluram had not let any one feel the absence of the accountant, days rolled into weeks and weeks rolled into months. It became a common assumption that Kaluram had been appointed as the new accounts clerk. Gradually he was weaned out of the duties of Head Peon and was loaded with duties of the accounts department. Somehow Kaluram could always cope with the new position. The owners became aware of the arrangement and were pleased that they did not have to pay for a clerk. They gave an ad hoc raise to Kaluram and thus cemented his position and to ease admin matters appointed a new Peon. This saving also got attributed to Sharmaji’s abilities to cut running costs and increase the profits.
It was at this precise junction that Kaluram became K. Ram
With each passing day Kaluram’s heart pined for the village. He wanted to meet his family members, friends and generally missed the openness of the village environment. It was a nice thought to just play Gilli-Danda with friends or even raid some plantations for raw guava, mango or ber. He even thought of Meena and her kindness to not just sharing her old books but also her help in his learning of those books. But he was usually very busy and had little time to do anything about it. In his spare moments he imagined being with his old time buddies and felt sad and uneasy once his train of thought was broken by a present day activity. Though he was having an immensely enjoyable present he always thought it to be incomplete without his childhood memories of friends – and also perhaps Meena. The force that separated the past and future was the Chaudhary and his resentment that two members had played dirty with him. Kaluram felt that in his own way Chaudhary was right and if he was angered, he was entitled to it. But, at other times he felt that his uncle Deena and his own efforts at the Chaudhary’s service had more than adequately compensated both, the money debt as well as any mental distress that Chaudhary may have faced. He was keen to put an end to this hostility and get back to normal living. Thinking rationally at other times he was never sure if a return to old equations would please him. All these days in self-imposed exile and life with the Company had rendered him unfit for living the village life. His soul was tormented.
At the end of his sixth year with the Company and in service with G.M. sahib he realised that it was time for the aging G.M. to bid farewell to his long association with the Company. Already people had begun to guess that some sort of retirement honorarium package was being worked out by the management. In the absence of any interest by any of the owners the G.M. had made most of the functioning as per convenience and if one were to go into the arrangements many wrongs would be discovered. One such issue was Kaluram’s appointment as accounts clerks while he did not even have a school leaving certificate, let alone qualifications from a business college. Sharmaji was aware of all this and he knew he had to set things right so that his trusted lieutenants were not harassed once he laid down office. There was still some six months to go and time to straighten the mess was now.
Like a few others, the G.M. had a good mind to return a favour to Kaluram for his unwavering and steadfast support, before he retired. He was sure there was no future for the lad after he left as he would be reverted to Head Peon and would therefore suffer financially. Their Company procured a lot of raw material and glass casts were sourced from Sasni. Over the time the supplier- Owner had become a good pal with Sharmaji. Now, Sharmaji broached the sentiment with his friend to bail out Kaluram.
The Owner of the Glass Factory was called Deepak Gupta. It was their family business and he was the third generation after his Grand Father set up the factory on family land. Most of his own employees too were sons and daughters of erstwhile workers – people who had served the family with loyalty and hard work. This way the Business was sure that there would never ever be a labour problem and in any case the work force was like a family. He fully appreciated Sharmaji’s problem to rehabilitate the people who had made his stay a success. They had met over a drink at the local restaurant that specialised in arranging discrete socialising venues for his better customers. Those days it was not considered a good thing if such elite were ever caught in public gaze, behaving like a commoner after drinks. Gupta’s business was on an upswing and he was in need of some one trust-worthy like Kaluram. In any case during his several visits to Sharmaji’s Company it was Kaluram who had serviced this client and had more or less looked after his account single handily. Gupta saw a great opportunity when he saw one – right now one was staring him closely in the face. At the end of their dinner Gupta rose and promised to do something for his friend Uma Shankar Sharma, G.M. and his protégé Kaluram. Sharmaji was relieved.
A few days before his retirement, Sharmaji had accepted resignations from a few of his trusted people. Among the lot was the resignation of Kaluram. He wrote to his management that these people had served the Company with all sincerity and had put in exemplary service. The Company had to compensate such loyal work force and set example for other workers. He even prepared a small citation for each case. He had to meet the owners a couple of times but ultimately got their OK to dole out gratuity to these workers. In any case the management was not keen to run this unit after Sharmaji left and had planned to use this God sent chance to attract other workers and so close down the Company. They approved handsome parting gifts to Sharmaji’s list so that others may follow suit. G.M. had felt relieved and he thought that he had not let his friends in a lurch. One day before his own farewell he had distributed the full and final settlement cheques to his faithful friends.
Kaluram was pleasantly surprised at the amount on his gift cheque and expressed his gratitude by breaking into uncontrolled crying. In front of all assembled people he fell at G.M.’s feet and later he repeated the same for Mrs Kamla Sharma. His uncle Deena too had got his premature release and they were all given a discrete farewell at Sharmaji’s behest. Sharmaji had deliberately stayed away as a very successful period closed in Kaluram’s life.
The second step
Both Deena and Kaluram reported at Guptaji’s glass factory next day morning. Gupta had briefed his Supervisor for Deena but personally met with Kaluram. He was most impressed with the young man’s organisational capabilities and his total sincere approach to life. Besides such rare personal qualities Kaluram also had some degree of mastery with the electronic typewriter. It was now time to introduce the modern gadgets into the old Gupta family business. Gupta personally handed over an appointment letter to Kaluram that read his post to be as Personal Assistant to Chairman and M.D. He was given a small front office behind the reception area and adjoining the M.D.’s office. He was given common telephone lines with appropriate call transfer and monitor facility on both the internal and external lines. The only fax machine was also shifted to this area. Gupta’s business was what some what modern in comparison to what his previous employer had. Even the volume of activity here was endless. The factory worked three shifts in season and it was common to have overtime work on most days. Day in and day out trucks rolled in with raw material and rolled out produced goods. The system here was already in top gear as there was no scope of shortfall on consignments. With Hurricane lanterns going out of fashion, in favour of the electric bulb and the petromax lanterns the market for glass chimneys had nearly bottomed out. There was good demand for glass bangles and glass laboratory equipment. Firozabad had nearly capitalised on this new market with existing infrastructure and access to business contacts. Many Glass Works from Sasni had already moved out there. However, some conservative families, like Gupta’s had been reluctant to move to new location and even then it was a matter of time as to when they too would follow suit or close down. Deepak Gupta valued family traditions and tried to balance the sentiment by retaining the old family premises and shifting production to Firozabad. This town was better suited as it was on the main Delhi – Calcutta route by train and road. There was already established coal off-loading and Goods shipment facilities. Guptaji was acutely aware of his position and had been fighting family odds for a long while.
Deepak Gupta was aware that sooner or later they will have to wind up and go to Firozabad as the cost of transportation and coal was much lower there due to its being on the main railway route from Jharia and Dhanbad coal fields. Most of the workers are floating migrants and they had found better prospects outside Sasni. The skilled workforce had already moved out. It was difficult to find suitable replacements not only because old trusted and skilled persons were at a premium but also because buyers had found better response to their purchases at Firozabad and other budding centres of glassware manufacture. With better prospects at Firozabad even Gupta had reserved a plot at the new location. However, to trail off a family business is always a difficult matter as the older generation always blamed the man in drivers’ seat to be incompetent. Deepak Gupta was putting in efforts to maintain his image as the most successful business generation in the family; what with the Management Degree had studied for at UK. Gupta worked hard and he knew how to put his hard work to productive use. He only wanted a dependable team. Now, he felt reassured that he had the team leader in harness. He had thought out a plan to shift the few odd machinery pieces, still in good shape and to convert Sasni establishment as regional supply head. This way he could show greater volume of production and also maintain existing buyers from Sasni. He could always pick up new business from his new site and take advantage of the new opportunities.
He saw Kaluram as the Regional Head.
Kaluram was a fast learner and he moulded himself quickly in the new cast beating the expectations of Deepak Gupta. Deepak had placed a retired person under Kaluram who could take care of all correspondence and also a management youngster who could look after business. Kaluram knew how to milk these two and coordinate with the Gupta family. Soon Deepak moved away to Firozabad and got busy with the setting up of the new unit. Kaluram had to work long hours to oversee production and to tie up business loose ends at Sasni. The rest of the Gupta family had to only watch from the side lines and seldom intervened.
Off and on Kaluram thought of making a trip to the village which was so near. His desire was always suppressed by the fear of an out-burst from the Chaudhary. Technically, Haria Nagla was located within Rural Aligarh but it was close to Hathras. As a different town, in Hathras the Government authorities, the Police and the civil functionaries were all different and hence he felt comfortable that Chaudhary would not hold much clout due to his venerable position of a big Land holder- Zamidnar. He also knew that Sasni was the closest he could get to people of his village He only wanted to be a little free from almost round the clock work so that he could find some time for himself and his village folks. Now almost a year had passed and Kaluram was in the saddle firmly. He had managed every thing to the satisfaction of the Gupta family since the parting of Deepak Gupta.
One day when he was visiting the town hall in connection with some taxation matters, he was surprised to see Chaudhary’s station wagon also parked there. He decided to put his work out of his mind for the present and watch the movement of Chaudhary’s car. He waited for perhaps two hours when a young driver appeared and began to dust the car carefully. Kaluram had never seen this man before and hence was sure he would not be recognised. He kept his vigil.
Suddenly, his heart almost skipped a couple of beats for he saw Meena making her way down the steps of the town-hall with her brother. She looked much the same and had retained her baby features. Kaluram only watched as he was unsure of the reaction he would receive from the two. For some reason he wanted to watch Meena endlessly; he watched her come down to the station wagon and put a bag beside the driver on the front seat. She shut the door and walked round to the other side, opened the rear door and got in. Her brother had already seated him self and the moment she shut her door the car moved away throwing a big cloud of dust behind it. Kaluram felt cheated as without the cloud of dust he could have watched the car a little while longer. Even though, he was happy that he had not wasted his time. He was in no mood for another bit of work for the day and decided to quit for the day. After years he felt light and decided to watch a movie. He started to cycle towards the only cinema hall in Sasni.
Perhaps a spark had been lit.
Next day was a usual day and Kaluram had taken on things as they came. This was his mantra and it had never failed him. He never had backlogs as he spent so much time in the office that he almost felt out of job. The day had just begun and today’s main job was to dispatch the better machines by truck to Firozabad. Deepak Gupta had already earmarked them and there were apparently no major issues. The crew working on these machines had dismantled and were now busy packing them. Except this all seemed like a normal day. By three o’clock the trucks had rolled out and it was then that the lurking problem became apparent. There were 36 workers whose jobs were related to the machines just dispatched and these people were now without machines. The other machines were also linked indirectly to the machines now in the trucks. Kaluram realized the problem was much too big for him. He went to the Gupta house hold and met the senior Gupta. The old man was not perturbed before hearing the problem nor did stress size him after he heard Kaluram out. He simply asked Kaluram to either lay off the extra staff or send them to Firozabad. Kaluram was stunned. He tried to reason out that there were families and local liabilities to be cleared before a person who was settled here to move on transfer. The senior Gupta showed no emotions.
Next day Kaluram called these 36 workers and offered to pay their passage with families to Firozabad. There was total resistance. By evening he had promised to grant them a month’s wages and four days leave if they volunteered to move. This created a rift amongst these people; some wanted to avail of the offer and some still tried to drive a hard bargain. Kaluram asked for volunteers from among other workers to fill short falls. To his surprise this offer worked and he announced the arrangement to the senior Gupta. He also told him that with the depleted machinery it was not possible to maintain production schedules. The old timer had been waiting for this moment as he felt that Kaluram had been adequately capable in towing the Company line. Indeed, the other remaining workers were also to be laid off. In a small town it is difficult to fire one worker and Kaluram’s task was to get rid of many workers. The charter of the Company was transformed overnight from a production unit to a logistics and supply depot. This had necessitated that glass workers be removed and instead people with logistics background be recruited. If it had been difficult to lay off old workers, it was even more of an uphill task to get suitable hands to work as product store keepers and dispatchers at Sasni.
Kaluram broke the news to the assembled workers next day morning. There was almost a storm of furious activity. Kaluram held his ground. He told the workers that he himself was new and was in danger of loosing his job. This gave the workers an impression that Kaluram too had been wronged. At this stage he agreed to go and talk to Deepak Gupta at Firozabad and represent the case on behalf of all the workers. The simple folks saw sincerity in Kaluram’s words. The storm had abated for the present, with every one hoping that a better package of severance of service will be procured for them. The crowd dispersed.
Kaluram appeared at the scene after nearly a week. During this time most of the workers had found alternate jobs and were in the process of settling down. Some of the workers left for their villages to overcome shortages of hands at the fields during the reaping season. Kaluram was careful to stay away from his Factory-turned Office most of the times but he managed to find time and cleared all produced goods and even shipped out raw material to Deepak Gupta. This was seen by the rest of Gupta clan as a smart move. Actually, Kaluram had never gone to Firozabad and had used this time to visit friends at his last Company. There was a lot of merry-making and that had refreshed the young man a great deal.
Slowly but surely, Kaluram took the reins of his new job as Regional Head. Production had begun to pick up at Firozabad unit and gradually there was a lot of goods movement, storing, sorting and resending. Some times he met some old worker still looking for a settlement and did not waste much time with them. He promptly settled cases and invariably sent away the worker satisfied, if not happy. At the end of six months there were no court cases on account of mass lay-off and this was an achievement for the young man. The Guptas were impressed once again. Kaluram had grasped the practical handling of staff very well and had tremendous negotiation powers. This quality he began to use with his new business partners and always came a cropper. Work had grown and along with work there was a definite change of life-style.
Kaluram purchased a readymade bungalow and traded his old cycle for a brand new Lambretta scooter. Though times were changing for the better, he himself had little time to enjoy the fruit of his new found affluence. His personal assets grew out of necessity and he had always found time during his several visits across the state to select each item of need with meticulous care. He was well aware of his name plate showing him as Regional Manager and he wanted to adopt an appropriate lifestyle.
A new image
As he settled into his new job of Regional Manager, he realised there was more spare time as he was able to task his managers well. The Office was functioning on auto-pilot and complaints from the buyers were few. In fact he had made the organisation so efficient that even the Managers had ample free time. With good working atmosphere there was happiness all around. But Kaluram himself was unhappy. His unhappiness began the day he had left his village by the back-door. It became worse with the accidental sighting of Meena and her brother. With new and more powerful busses and auto-rickshaws, his village was barely a half hour run. But due to the imagined stigma, he had never mustered enough courage to visit his lands. He had met with his father and some other male relatives off and on but he never told them of his shifting to Sasni. All relatives continued to be under the impression that Kaluram came to Sasni to meet them and returned the same day. He had largely adopted this ploy to ensure safety of his family from the Chaudhary himself.
Now with better maturity and experience, Kaluram thought there must be a way to going back to the village. He wanted to meet his mother and other female relatives. Besides his own folks he began to think of Meena very often. She had bloomed into a very beautiful girl. Kaluram was keen to know more about her. He thought that all this was not possible without revealing himself. But the hesitation had remained.
In his earlier employment he had initially mingled with the Guards and other Class IV staff till he became an accounts clerk by default. At this juncture he mixed around with the white collar employees and learned their ways of life – the way lower middle class, educated families carried themselves. He had risen above his own kind. Now at this new location and new job he began to view life as proper middle class. He had money to spare and now he found time to spare – deadly combination, he thought. But what stood him in good stead was the fact that somewhere down the line his old uneducated and un-ambitious friends had vanished and new friendships had developed to suit his new image. Perhaps, even that was now due for an yet another upward swing.
Gupta family gradually began to appreciate the step taken by the family heir to move out to Firozabad. They also appreciated that he had retained an Office in Sasni only to please the die-hard older generation. Though none of the old timers wanted to move out of Sasni, they all agreed that it was time to shift the Regional Office to a more convenient location. The family decide to implement this at Firozabad over the next six months. The senior Gupta called Kaluram and made the plans clear.
This time Kaluram decide to act rather than flow with the tide as he had done so far in the past. He began to look around discretely. But Sasni itself was an over-grown village and the avenues open to him were very limited. With agriculture being the main activity around Sasni and now with the glass industry having slowly edged out, there really was nothing left. Education and law related jobs were clearly not possible for want of a formal degree. In these areas the questions during an interview generally moved around qualification and hardly around experience or individual talents. Kaluram was a rank looser. He began to consider modern activity connected to agriculture.
India was moving out of the era of bullock driven farming to tractors. Mechanisation was already pushing out slow manual activity . Government had already introduced electricity and local farming related broadcasts were centred around use of chemical fertilisers and chemical pesticides. However, since the farmers were traditional families they were always reluctant to adopt modern methods despite awareness programmes conducted by Government machinery at village level. Kaluram decided to try something on these lines. He had the money and banks and Government lending houses were willing to finance many such projects. As a Rural project several companies were trying to push agricultural machinery and tractors in this area. Kaluram invested some of his money in a workshop. There had been an unused shed at the periphery of the city and quite close to the Gupta property from which the Factory had operated earlier. He began to develop it as a modern workshop. Being a small town the news of a new Workshop spread. To his surprise Kaluram found several sales persons with varied interests swoop down on his project. Now with several new offers he decided to go for tractors servicing and sales of farm machinery.
Soon the neighbourhood saw a new name board go up – M/s K. Ram Tractors and Machinery. India Tractors were the leading Manufactures of Farm Machinery and their 85 Horsepower tractor was the most in demand vehicle. Most of the tractors and farm equipment in the area had been a product of India Tractors. The Company had wanted to set up its sales and service workshop in this area for a long time but could not find a capable party to establish the workshop. The two had got together now and business was waiting to flourish. Soon India Tractors found Kaluram to be a reliable party and they began to increase their stakes and credits. Kaluram had been ploughing back most of the earnings into up gradations at the workshop and that made a difference too. Soon they were doing good business covering all nearby villages. Kaluram’s’ men were servicing farm equipment at villages and in the open fields. These villages, included Haria Nagla and its clients included the Chaudhary too.
As a strategy it would be nice if Kaluram literally rode into the village on a tractor. The villagers and particularly Chaudhary would welcome some one so well placed in society as to be owner of a franchise venture. But first his position as a rich, influential and powerful person had to be established beyond doubt. A position, that would command the respect of local officials, rich farmers, businessmen and of course the owners of any sizable industry still functioning from Sasni. At this stage perhaps half or almost that much had been done. His trump was that he was an eligible bachelor too. However, hardly any one knew his background and no one suspected him to be the teenager Kaluram who had left the village like an escaped convict. He had made his come back as a grown up person and was known as Mr. K. Ram. He had not come here as an illiterate farmer, but as an educated Accounts clerk. In any case farmers had nothing to do with his line of employment and Kaluram had made deliberate efforts to stay away from his people. His own family had genuinely thought him to be still working as a Guard with his first employer.
The guise, though not deliberate had put the situation in favour of an appropriate re-entry to the village. Kaluram began to plan a proper execution.
Casting the dice
Just before the pre-monsoons, most farmers commenced to plough the fields. Those who depended on Bullock Power had already tilled their fields and were busy with other business like arranging for compost and to a limited extent to chemical fertilisers. They had already repaired the earthen burrows which would feed life giving water to far away plots of land. It was quite common to have a few of ones plots removed from the bulk of his land. In such a case a farmer had to traverse someone else’s land to reach his own. They had stored seed from the last crop and in rare cases brought home seeds from the local market at exorbitant prices. Now they waited for rains. The smart ones had grown vegetables to tide over the non-active period. Then there were some farmers who could afford the luxury of hiring a tractor; In Haria Nagla most farmers depended on the Chaudhary’s tractor and often had to pamper his whims. This was always a better option as the machine churned up soil deeper than ox driven ploughs. However, Chaudhary had charged them heavily and in advance; even then, he rarely completed the job on time. Due to delayed sowing, some times a pair of bullocks pulling a wooden shaft with metal blade had seemed to be the better option. The farmers were never sure which was to be the better option.
This time around there was a cheaper and faster option given to small and big land holders to plough the fields. The contactors were from Sasni and were called M/S K. Ram Tractors and Machinery. The quoted rates were much lower and there was to be no dependency with the Chaudhary. The offer had been that farmers book the tractor by paying a nominal fee and secure a date for the operator to come and do the needful. The final payment was to be made after the work was done to satisfaction. Even those with bullocks felt it may be a good idea to let the tractor run at least once. This sent waves of concern to the Chaudhary home and he began to investigate who this new player was. He sent his men as decoys. K. Ram never met any one but his people ran a small resume of the Boss. The bio-data was impressive but it never revealed who the person actually was. That year, a perplexed Chaudhary had to swallow his pride as his income from the tractor rentals had taken a severe beating.
The rains came and came in plentiful by God’s grace. The fields really blossomed and the yield looked to be very good. Every year Chaudhary had monopolised the labour. Working hands were available to other farmers only when they were done with the Chaudhary’s yield. His grain was the first to be harvested, put in sacks and the chaff stocked in neat hut-like stores on the field itself. So many times the others had to wait inordinately and suffer losses if it rained. Then there was a question of moisture content falling low and losses to rats and other pests if the grain stood too long in the fields. This year there was an offer to them for harvesting by tractor-towed machine for a small sum. Quickly the farmers did their arithmetic and found it to be cheaper option. They were similarly given time schedules and large areas could be harvested in very little time. It was also easier to keep an eye on the harvesting so that nothing was lost to pilferages. The final payment had been deferred to the time the produce was sold in the market. It was a real bonanza for the small and medium land holders but a great shock to the Chaudhary Empire who grew very uncomfortable to see his profits and his clout over the small land holders diminish.
Two months after the current harvest was sold the folks of the village felt less need for relying on the Chaudhary. This did not remain a secret with Chaudhary either and he was concerned that his clout had become subdued. He could no longer depend on his tried and tested henchmen for information on who was behind all this. He decided to make enquiries himself but even then did not get a tangible answer. Most of his friends in Sasni, Aligarh and Hathras felt that it was India Tractors who had done very aggressive marketing in the area and had been a good offer to the farmers. Chaudhary did not buy that as no other friend had felt that the villagers were being pulled away from his circle of influence. Why was it so pronounced in his village? With credit facility available to the small and medium land holder his business of money-lending too had taken a beating.
Chaudhary decided to tackle the issue with the agency servicing his area. He tried to find the antecedents of K. Ram of K. Ram Tractors and Machinery. His visits seldom brought home any information except that K. Ram was the Boss and that he hardly met people. All problems were looked after by a Customer Service Cell and in any case there were no complaints from any one. Actually, service wise even Chaudhary had no problems. All his break-downs were promptly addressed. During one such visit to the workshop Chaudhary had the chance to see the Owner; Mr. K. Ram himself. He could not place him and in any case he was not linking the man to some one he knew. His aim had been to befriend the owner and let the service be routed through himself so that he retained his hold on the common man. This was a sly thing to do and this was one plan that he could not share with even his own shadow.
Chaudhary decide to generally hang around the workshop on some pretext or the other. It was vital for him to keep his strong hold on the villagers for it was time to elect the head or Sarpanch of the village Panchayat in the coming month. A village Panchayat was a body of elected persons of the village that handled all the disputes and had some legal sanctity about it. But this was not all; a Panchayat handled all administrative plans of the Government and in times of need they were entrusted to handle distribution of funds in times of droughts and other natural calamities. So, a Panchayat was the apex body in the village for all practical purposes. The Panchayat itself constituted of five elected members of whom one was the Head or the Sarpanch. Ordinarily, the position was to be enjoyed by the most popular and wise person in the village, but, if you had a powerful person then he somehow squeezed himself into the coveted post. Chaudhary had lent money to almost all the village at some time or the other and even though he had a very uncaring attitude towards all villagers he was continued to be looked upon as a Messiah when in distress. Besides, the sheer size of his land holdings in various names and the assets value was mind blowing and this had deterred any one wronged, to actually take up cudgels against one so rich and powerful. His was the best concrete house in the village; he had a tractor with farm equipment and now, a new car besides the old Station Wagon. Some of the children of his family were in boarding schools while all others went to decent schools. Chaudhary had unfailingly organised grand scale functions on Diwali and Holi though he seldom attended these himself. He had done all he could to keep his supreme position.
It was essential to be elected on the Panchayat and then one could find his way around to become the Sarpanch. Right now Chaudhary’s popularity was so low that he was reasonably sure of his defeat. After the entire village had lend him support for his money and power and never on his missing human touch. So now if the tradition of being the Sarpanch was to be broken, his family would never forgive him. His frustration was well founded. Now, he felt some one was trying to dilute the very purpose by offering Sops in the line of basic survival. He simply had to know who it was and what the motivation in these moves was. Right now after seeing the illusive Mr. K. Ram once he was impressed by the man’s simplicity and over-bearing personality. He did not have a plan to counter his unseen adversary and at that time it seemed that he possibly may not have one before the Panchayat elections. He was desperate.
Finally, one day, lady luck smiled on Chaudhary. That day he had been in the workshop for some imaginary repairs to his tractor and on that day the workshop had installed a new servicing machine. The machine had been directly imported and perhaps there were no parallels existing in the country. After installation K. Ram had decided to see it for himself and also meet the suppliers to ensure good and proper training for his staff. He was therefore present at the newly erected automatic machine and was surrounded by a host of people in dungarees and other working uniforms. The occasion made K. Ram look more impressive in the limelight he was receiving. Chaudhary inched his way close to these people. Initially he just stood aside and watched the towering machine with much awe and pretended to be interested in the training lecture being delivered by one of the technical salesmen. He understood nothing; but he just stood around unobtrusively. He was just trying to understand the man at the centre of all.
Suddenly K. Ram noticed him there and addressed him directly to please proceed to the waiting room till his machine was delivered to him. As if an after thought, he added, that he will see him as soon as he was free. Chaudhary was elated and sauntered away from the group towards the air-cooled waiting room. He waited for two hours even though his tractor had been serviced, before he saw Mr. K. Ram walk in without any escort. He stood up immediately but no words came to his lips. Ram extended his right hand for a shake and Chaudhary found himself limply holding on to it. Both men sat down side by side and spoke nothing over the next couple of minutes; merely looked at each other. Ram had known and rehearsed his part where as Chaudhary was searching for words; at this moment he was glad that Mr. K. Ram had spared time for him. Then abruptly Ram rose from his seat and asked the older man if he had any problems that he could look into. Chaudhary’s heart said there were plenty, but all he blurted out was there were none and that he was very pleased at the service he got. Ram turned on his heel and in the next moment he had left the room. Chaudhary was angry at his silly handling of the God-sent moment.
Eccentricity of his thought to use Mr. K. Ram as a lever to his winning ticket for the Panchayat elections forced Chaudhary to shed inhibitions and seek to meet the powerful Mr. Ram- the new saviour of the farmers and other village folks. He appeared at the Workshop on weekly closing day and saw that Ram’s car was parked in the portico. Two helpers were busy polishing the already gleaming exterior. He approached one of them and asked if he could meet the Sahib. He was a little perplexed to address their boss as Sahib, perhaps by saying so he was admitting the superiority of the other person over himself. The helper was a rustic and volunteered to inform the Sahib of a visitor.
Ram had been observing all this from his picture window over-looking lush green fields in the distance. He told the helper that if the visitor could wait for about 30 minutes he would see him. He also asked him to serve refreshments. Though there was no urgent work with him yet he made Chaudhary wait for an hour before the helper returned to say that Sahib will now meet him. This time Chaudhary had rehearsed his lines and had planned that during the current meet he will restrict him to an overview of the happenings and merely offer his friendship to Mr. Ram. The two had tea again in Ram’s air-conditioned office. Ram had been very friendly and carefully avoided answering questions about his own past Since Ram kept himself artificially busy with files during their chat, the Chaudhary achieved no success in his quest for background knowledge of Mr. Ram. But Ram had invited him to come up for a tea whenever he was in the area as a mark of his friendship. Chaudhary was some what content with half his agenda achieved and the other half initiated.
They subsequently met a couple of times thereafter and on Chaudhary’s insistence Mr. Ram agreed to meet informally at lunch at the only decent restaurant. Chaudhary had been overjoyed and relieved at the same time as the elections were nearing and his plan was working to his entire satisfaction. Along with him there were another 17 people who had given their names for consideration for candidates in the coming elections. Naturally, the discussion turned to these elections. Chaudhary had been the Sarpanch for past seven years and before him it was his uncle. But now the position was being seriously challenged as the voters did not depend on him and his family Now they had awakened to a new alternate of Mr. K. Ram or another man supported by him. He was surprised to hear that Mr. K. Ram would support his candidature and would speak to his contacts to re-elect the Chaudhary. Chaudhary had not clearly understood the power of the man who was paying for his lunch, nor had grasped the man’s mind-cycle.
Ram had his people visit all house holds in the village. By the end of the third day six of the nominees had taken their candidature back. The effect of canvassing by Mr. Ram was unbelievable, Chaudhary won hands down in the elections and the elected representatives had no hesitation to elect him as the Sarpanch again. Chaudhary’s esteem had been saved and he had no doubts how it was achieved. He wanted to thank his saviour and decided to have a Dawat (Feast) for the village folks. He planned to invite Ram as the chief guest and walked into his office for extending the invitation. Surprise was in store for him as Ram turned down the offer without even an excuse.
Chaudhary had won the Panchayat battle with Mr. Ram’s help- the war was yet to be won and he needed this support to stay in this position. During the coming times Ram would often offer an excuse and not meet with the Chaudhary. There were no telephones those days at village level and each time that Chaudhary wanted to speak to Ram he had to travel to Sasni and take his chance. It was therefore very frustrating that Ram would refuse to meet him. He knew he had to keep trying for his own good. The boot was on the other foot.
Kaluram had left the village when he was under 12 years of age and now he was almost 26. He had outgrown the lean but robust body from his village days and now had an almost six foot tall athletic frame with glowing features. He was fond of growing a nicely kept black full beard; partly because he liked to keep a beard and partly as he felt it necessary to have one to keep his identity confidential. Luckily when he made an entry to Sasni he had been moving in middle-class circles; which were higher than other with a village background. Informal education had given him an urban look and had completely overcome his tendency to use the local dialect. To any one, and that included the Chaudhary, he appeared as some one from Delhi or Bombay with convent education and upper crust behaviour. He had acquired tastes that belied his background and had displayed sophisticated tendencies in his preferences. All his clothes, shoes and accessories were branded and he carried himself much like a person who had spent time overseas- thanks to his interest in fashion magazines, when ever time had permitted him. But, at heart he remained Kaluram from Haria Nagla.
Now, more than ever before, he missed his family and had wanted to lift the self-imposed exile, getting back to normal family living. He contacted his uncle Deena whom he had helped move away to Firozabad and to better prosperity in his own ways. On his bidding Deena had never revealed the truth behind their relationship and had always considered himself to be behind the life that Kaluram had voluntarily lived initially. Later, as things became better for Kaluram, he began to take credit putting him in the mould that he was in. Now, he was confronted by Kaluram with the proposition to let normal times return. However, Deena was not only advancing in age himself but had remained a simple village man at heart. He was sadly aware that his own brother had been the villain behind the scene as he had deceitfully not given the money to Chaudhary which was meant to pacify all. In any case he had met with the Chaudhary some months back and had explained the foolishness of his brother. As it stood now they owed nothing to Chaudhary except the guilt of having played dirty with him. Time too had put a shroud of healing on the whole affair and Chaudhary had made no queries about Kaluram.
Deena narrated the story in details to his nephew and did not elaborate on what needed to be done. In fact, he was himself not very sure about Kaluram’s actual status. The two always spoke in the local dialect of Brij Bhasha and from the fluency of such speech; Deena always thought that Kaluram was perhaps a supervisor and no more. After the meeting it appeared to Kaluram that he could now make a move to get things back to normal at the village and family level. With the faith that Chaudhary had placed in his other and largely unlinked façade he was sure he could take a step in that direction. Deena had been regularly going to the village for over four years now to help whenever the pressure of work in the fields so demanded. At other times he helped the brother’s family with his savings, if required. Deena had known that Kaluram was doing better than himself and did not understand why he had not been contributing much to the family’s well-being. Kaluram decided to take the next step without help from Deena.
The day he returned to Sasni he found Chaudhary waiting in his workshop visitors’ lounge. Kaluram came and occupied the seat next to him. He pretended to be busy with some papers which he shuffled out of his brief case while exchanging pleasantries. Chaudhary requested Ram to route all his technical services to Haria Nagla through himself so that all others felt that it was one of Chaudhary’s largess to the village. This way he could leverage some influence on the farmers in time of urgent need. He had even earmarked an outhouse for housing material and if required to house transiting mechanics and other staff. He was eager to seek Kaluram’s consent on his plan.
Ram too had an agenda. He had wanted to return to the village as some one at par with the Chaudhary. If required the two could freely and openly discuss the past; and bury it. Ram was not too sure if Chaudhary still had a seething fire of revenge burning in his heart. The point had never come up between the two and his meeting with Deena had given him the impression that Chaudhary may be quite willing to let sleeping dogs lie. Then the second part of the agenda was- subject to the first part going through cleanly- to ask for his daughter’s hand. He had hoped that she was still a traveller of the marriage market. Usually girls less than her age at villages were married off. Ram was relying on the thought that she was pursuing some career and staying either at Hathras or Aligarh. Perhaps she was an advocate with finance cases or cases of land and revenue. He had carried this impression with him ever since he had seen her for the only time since leaving the village. He had been too shy to talk to Deena about her. In any case eligible boys did not discuss their preferences of life –partners with their elders.
Chaudhary kept trying to engage him in small talk while he kept trying to pretend his business with the papers. Of course the Chaudhary did not understand any thing from the mood of Ram. Ram put his papers back and very informally invited the Chaudhary to his cabin on the first floor, perhaps he had decided to take the bull by its horns. Chaudhary was elated at the invite. During their walk upstairs Chaudhary beckoned a servant and asked him to bring up Chaudhary’s metal canister with him. Chaudhary explained that it was a small gift of home-made Ghee which his wife had prepared with her own caring hands. Ram smiled inwardly as they walked along together.
Once inside the cabin and when tea and biscuits had been served the two faced each other seriously for the first time, Ram expecting Chaudhary to speak his mind openly. He decided to give him the chance to unload himself and take up his own cudgels later. He asked Chaudhary exactly that question. Chaudhary, like a true villager who had bags of time at hand began with a huge background. He kept praising the younger man for his help during the Panchayat elections as punctuation marks in his otherwise well rehearsed speech. Ram had listened to each word very carefully and now he was trying to arrive at an in-between the line meaning. The case was put up without any holds but it did seem a little tricky. His business could be affected. He decided to put off his own agenda point for another meeting and to consider the Chaudhary’s point first. He decided to take Chaudhary for a lunch in his favourite and the only decent Hotel in Sasni. At long last Ram had agreed to Take Chaudhary’s plan further provided the whole matter kept in a shroud of secrecy between just the two them. Actually, Ram had gained a foothold and free office and storage space in the village. He had been toying with the idea to extend his business to cover seeds and fertilizers. He had seen that lately the average farmer had chosen to invest in these as they yielded better produce. In the end, while parting company, Ram promised to make the necessary documents ready through his lawyers.
Chaudhary had been floating in cloud nine.
The meeting some ten days later was more relaxed and informal. For one, it was held at Ram’s residence. The bungalow was built during the British days and occupied a huge area deep inside a cluster of trees. The mansion had fifteen rooms and two dining halls. Much of the furniture and paintings were retained from the original time under its first and only British civil services officer. Chaudhary was sure that any one who could afford a place like this had to be tremendously rich. He was not wrong in his reading.
Ram produced the contract document based on Chaudhary’s offer and along with that he whipped out a bottle of rare scotch. Chaudhary knew by instinct when he saw a good offer and a good whiskey. Ram handed over, both the document and the whiskey glass to Chaudhary and waited, sipping at his own drink occasionally. Chaudhary was not fluent in English and even less so with legal English. He suggested that he will show it to his lawyer daughter and return a signed copy if it was ok. Ram passed on the envelop to him to case the document as well as the issue for now. But he had stumbled on a bigger secret. So Miss Meena was the lawyer he was hinting at; outwardly he showed no emotions but hearts of heart he was tremendously happy. His resolve to get to his childhood friend just grew stronger. For the first time, he asked about Chaudhary’s personal life and was rewarded with more than just information by the whiskey loosening the tongue a tad. In the process he decided to lower his own guard very shrewdly. For the first time Chaudhary learned that Ram had belonged to the area and was a local lad once. He had drawn a blank regarding his village or about his family members. After a dinner served in style by a bevy of servants and the whiskey adding more colour to minds perception Chaudhary departed for his abode in the village in the new car that he now possessed.
In subsequent meetings Ram had received the legal document from Chaudhary, duly whetted by his lawyer daughter. Ram had feigned that some of the additions and deletions needed to be discussed and asked for the address of the lawyer daughter. Chaudhary happily scribbled it on a paper napkin. Now the daunting task before Ram was to break ice with the daughter and see if she too had remembered him. Next day Ram drove out to Aligarh to met Meena at the address now safely folded in his pocket.
Meena was in her chamber on a Sunday morning and had been pouring over an old case that was coming up for courts review next week. Her clerk led in a smartly dressed handsome six-footer into her cramped office without even having informed her; let alone with her permission. The man had smiled through his neatly trimmed beard and had taken the only other chair in the room. He still had his Ray-Bans on and had looked very handsome. She drew in a sharp breath. The newcomer smiled disarmingly, and had begun without ceremony to introduce himself. He produced his visiting card with a flourish and rose to pass it to her. Her mind had to somersault a few times from her occupation, first with the old file and then with the arrival of an extra-ordinary person on a Sunday morning. Little later she had reconciled and appeared to be more in control of herself, and had guessed the background of the visitor from her discussions with her father and the document he had asked her to finalise for him. She rose from her seat and wordlessly, indicated Ram to follow. They were presently seated in her drawing room which was much more presentable. She asked a servant to arrange for some tea.
Their discussions started on the document and he asked her to finalise it so that it could be signed. He had caught her looking at him sharply. His mind was aching to think she would try to recognise him. In fact, she was trying to do this precisely by mental dead-reckoning. By the time tea arrived they had finished the business about the document and now it was time for some social talking. Ram asked her how she decided to study law and enter a field that was not only traditionally for men but also considered as unclean. She flashed a disarming smile and he was pleased that she had retained her pristine beauty. It only reflected better on her now. Then her lawyer brain burst into activity and she asked without preamble if he was not Kaluram from her own village. Ram was totally stumped and did not know what to say. He admitted the truth and they both seemed to be pleased that they were meeting after such a long time. They sat reminiscing about the past excitedly till lunch. All other discussions had been suspended and they appreciated each others happiness at this chance meeting after so many years.
Ram explained how he had feared her father and how he had stayed out of the village deliberately. He felt it was chance that had brought him to Sasni and it was providence that had won him Chaudhary’s trust; not aware of the chasm of destiny that had transpired itself in a different plane. Meena felt that he had been wronged by circumstances and he needed to be helped. They both seemed to have a common cause and a common goal; Return of Kaluram to the Village with dignity.
Meena had been just an eight year old when Kaluram had suddenly stopped coming. She had noticed with some concern how her father would always get enraged whenever he had met with Kaluram’s father Jasraj. Actually Jasraj was a sly type of a person and he seldom said the correct thing in response to direct questions. Meena always suspected his hand in the disappearance of his son.
On the other hand Kaluram had been an honest and hard-working boy. He was not only keen to learn but was sharp on the uptake. He had treated the Chaudhary household with respect and reverence as he did for all other elders too. Being of a stout build, he had commanded natural leadership of his friends. She also noticed that he was ever grateful to her for passing down her old school books and frequently he had asked her help to clear his doubts. The boy had natural learning ability. She felt she had the upper hand with him and liked to help him. Since Kaluram had not told her any thing before he had vanished into thin air, she had half-heartedly tried to believe the story given by Jasraj.
When time came and mango trees were laden with raw fruit, she missed him most. Kaluram had made it his habit to select the best fruit he pilfered from the grove for her. He would wash it clean and leave it on a shelf in the outhouse. They had tacitly agreed for a particular recess in the wall which was not easily visible, being in a dark corner. He had kept a bottle each of salt mixed with black salt and red chilli powder. The two powders could be shaken on a piece of paper and mixed according to ones taste. This mixture was then used to dab the raw fruit, adding to its tanginess. Most children would do any thing for the simple delight of sourness of raw mango with the burning salt mix. She always found the hidden fruit and nibbled happily at it, sitting near the buffalos. Inside the house, and if her mother caught her at it there would surely be sparks flying all over.
Now, after so many years she had preserved her English, Hindi and maths books with a hope to give to Kaluram someday, whenever he would reappear. But, Kaluram had not come back over all these years. Each time the house sold off its wastages of news papers, empty canisters and other such stuff, she vehemently persisted with her desire to preserve the books and there was always a showdown between mother and daughter over the issue. Even a imperceptible event can turn out to be major reason to remember. It was not love, but it surely was deeper than average feeling. Later, she had cleared her Board examinations and time had come for her to move to Calcutta and to Presidency College, she hoped Kaluram would not get back home in her absence. This would take away half her fun. She dreamt that when Kaluram came back, and she was sure of that, she would be the first person he would meet with. Time passed and she graduated in commerce and had simultaneously studied law. She was a big girl now, but when she thought of Kaluram she always saw herself as an eight year old, waiting innocently for some one she had inwardly cared for.
Before leaving for Calcutta she even tried to talk to Jasraj and some other family members. They had become masters at not revealing the truth about Kaluram’s whereabouts. They thought she might share the information with her father, the Chaudhary. She tried to talk to other boys of his gang and found them to be genuinely blank. She left for Calcutta.
In Calcutta she had stayed at the girl’s hostel and had shared the room with another girl. Anjali, her room mate became her best friend over the coming months. They were in different classes but shared the trait of gossiping till late in the night. Meena was always flabbergasted at Anjali’s unending store of stories – real and imaginary. The two got off really well. In one of her favourite gossip-time stories Anjali mentioned a boy she missed sometimes. Her capping of stories about this boy always ended in asking about Meena’s own secret crush. Meena was never sure, but she always thought that if she had to have a boy-friend then it could have been Kaluram. She had studied at a girl’s school and it was true that she had never really had the chance to befriend any other boy. She always wanted to hide the point that good village girls from good homes never had boy-friends. Under the influence of Anjali’s true or concocted stories of her boy friend, Meena began secretly to pine for a male friend. Alas, there was none who could even come close. At the end of three years she had completed her graduation and Law nearly simultaneously and the two friends had parted company and went their ways. But Anjali had lit the flame of desire for a male relationship and raised her hopes to see Kaluram, some time.
With the chapter of her education closed, she proceeded to do her article-ship under a lawyer at Hathras. She had stayed with him for about a year and had then moved out with a family friend at Aligarh. It was during this time at Hathras that one day she had noticed a young man while returning from the local bench hearing. She was in the parking lot and a well dressed bearded young man was trying to look at her obtrusively. Her mind was preoccupied with the details of the hearing and she had not paid much attention at that time. However, as some faces haunt you at leisure time, this face had been visiting her off and on. When she pondered she could link the looks of the person to the innocent face of Kaluram, and this kept her interest for Kaluram had been kept alive, by sheer default.
Lately, when she visited her home in the village during weekends she had learnt of great stories about this Mr. Ram from her father. He was strongly critical of Ram at times and at other times wanted to get along with him. She was never sure how her father wanted this man. In all other cases, it would never be too difficult with the family’s clout with wealth and strength to dispose off any person in any way. She wasn’t too interested in the case, but her father’s extraordinary occupation with this name was unusual. Then with the few families in the village where she had maintained good relations she began to hear of the Ram’s stories. Everywhere, everyone spoke about a business man who had adopted the village and had done wonders in terms of cash flow and help in real-time farming. It is here that she had first heard that they may not support the candidature of her father- Chaudhary for the Panchayat elections. She had warned her father and had even shared the evolution of the strategy to win back the village folks confidence with the help of this influence, called Mr. Ram.
Though she was so much part of the process connected with the dealings between her father and the wealthy Mr Ram she had no idea who this person was. All this would have gone on normally as cat and mouse game, but then Mr. Ram had appeared one day at her office in person and that made an all time difference.
Chaudhary Govind Singh came from a family of traditional land-lords. It was said that they had been the biggest land holders in the proximity of a hundred neighbourhood villages till the land ceiling act was passed by the Parliament. Even then, with local clout and superior planning the Chaudhary’s had managed to retain much of the land. Whatever they had to give up they had given up with great pomp and show. This had given them an even greater standing with the villagers.
From early times, the Chaudhary’s had almost ruled the place like informal Rajah’s. They had been very caring of the villagers comfort during festivities and in times of need by loaning the much needed money and other material help. Despite being so noble no member of the family ever met other people in a friendly manner and maintained good distance. The two acts put together probably made up an image that was like royals. The average villager had always looked up to the Chaudhary’s when it came to a crunch. For this reason they had revered their saviour and had helped the family retain power in Panchayat. The arrangement was in every body’s favour and life would normally be balanced, except for the well-known Chaudhary anger. The family was intolerant of any disrespect to it and had come down hard on any body who dared. It was unusual of a Chaudhary to be seen at a gathering except for Panchayat and major Puja gaiety. For this reason the villagers had learned not to mess with any one of the Chaudhary clan. To further advance their image of angry people the Chaudhary’s had good hold over the local police, the casual farm hands and most of the fair-weather roads as they passed through his lands at some place or the other. If some unwitting villagers crossed path with the Chaudhary they came down heavily on the defaulter; so much so that the defaulter ended up not only correcting himself but rendering public apologies.
Staying aloof from the villagers had one more advantage for the gossip starved village. No one knew what the Chaudhary’s were up to and who visited them and whom they visited. The royal style was always accentuated by the Shikari party which hunted small game under the patronage of the current Chaudhary. The other signs of affluence were the elephants, horses, the tractor and station wagon besides the palatial house; most other villages had no such thing to boast about. Chaudhary had a heard of cattle that he had kept for commercial purpose and in addition had his private buffalos that stayed on his family residence. It had become an honour to work at the household as who ever did any work at the house was always handsomely rewarded both by way of salary as well as by way of gifts on happy occasions. Above worldly advantages, the whole village looked forward to receive any tit-bit of gossip of the upper crust super-family.
Traditionally, the Chaudhary’s were an educated lot. All their children, girls and boys, went to school in neighbouring major towns. When time came these children went to colleges and some of them picked up jobs in India’s metropolis. The younger lot always added to the family coffers and image. Generation wise, the eldest or the most suitable person was groomed to head the family when time came. It was a tiring time for the selected person to cope with the image of the family and at the same time alter his life style to resemble that of a Royal. It was a full time obsession with them to stay at the top of the local who-is-who chart. Govind Singh understood this well and had spent most of his time politicking on issues – real and imaginary. He himself had returned to the village after studying at Calcutta University where he graduated in Arts. Then he had been employed with a British paints firm for a while. The town experience had added to his personal growth and he had upgraded village living for the entire family. His only agenda had been to bring electricity and phones to the village. Recently the State Government had promoted Electricity connections at village level and Chaudhary was the first to get his own electric pole, a water pump and an extension to light up the barn area. The rest of the villagers, as indeed the subjects of the entire state had been scared of the electrical lines. They were afraid that electricity would bring in bad luck and ruin for the village. But no one had dared to oppose the Chaudhary’s plan to go ahead. Current was supplied on a limited time basis and during that time the water pumps on Chaudhary owned lands reverberated with the eerie sounds of whine and clank of the motor and pump.
This ad been the story of just one season. The farmers who had helped to reap the lands for the Chaudhary were stunned at the amount of grain harvested. They had begun to understand that electricity had its own rewards and not drawbacks. Soon applications for a connection began to pile up at the local electricity Distribution Circle. The Chaudhary had thus granted another favour to the villagers and for the first time farmers had spare water available round the year.
Chaudhary Govind Singh and before him his ancestors had to put on an artificial hard mask. Firstly, as the richest person in the area the commoners had to be segregated as per the Mantra applied by the British Rulers, not very many years ago. Secondly, in order to retain the status and ensure growth of the family it was imperative to seek status friends and of course it mattered that all Chaudhary family members including ladies were educated. They had made it a cardinal rule not to offend or mistreat any one who volunteered to work either in the fields or in the house-hold and in a message to the community of belonging they always organised and paid for public festivities and merry-making. However, very few village folks ever took part at personal and private functions such as marriages. This helped to maintain the social status and let the whole community acknowledge them as uncrowned Kings. The Chaudhary’s contribution and donations to local school, medical centre, and adult education was legendary. The Chaudhary’s had been concerned and involved in the well-being of the entire village.
The present Chaudhary – Govind Singh had taken over from his father Anand Singh. Anand Singh had been in the imaginary social harness and had worked for the uplift of the village like all his predecessors and was well liked. He was the one who had brought home the Station Wagon and had hired mechanical farming for his fields. The first time a tractor was seen inside village fields and the first time a tractor drawn harvester was used was a tribute to his farsighted ness. He had arranged for demonstration and film shows for use of chemical fertilizers and modern seeds. The village was a leader in implementing latest trends in agriculture and all peasants had made a better living. He was forever a first choice for the post of Sarpanch and his decision making on disputed cases was well spoken of.
The whole village had been shocked to hear the death of their beloved Anand Singh Chaudhary in a hunting expedition days after the harvest had been off-loaded in the local markets, called Mandi. At that time Govind Singh was only twenty two and had been in college at Calcutta. He was hurriedly recalled and due to floods in Bihar did not arrive on time for the funeral of his father. Apart from missing the funeral he also missed out on an opportunity to get introduced to the villagers as the new head of the Chaudhary family. He had left the village as a sixteen year old and had been schools at Aligarh and Calcutta. He seldom came home during school breaks and had liked to visit many parts of India or preferred to be with relatives settled in towns. He always felt ill at ease to be in the village and deal with villagers. Now destiny had forced itself on the young shoulders and he had to continue with the family tradition. Being an Indian is always concerning oneself with tradition. His start in life at the village was very turbulent.
During the elections to select a Sarpanch for the position vacated by the death of Anand Singh he did not submit his papers on time. For the first time the Panchayat had no Sarpanch from the Chaudhary family; worst, no representation at all from the number family in any village matters. However, the main elections were due in just six months and how he regained family status in the next elections was another story. He had found it very difficult to cope with the society and had often faulted himself in the dealings with the village world due to his unripe age and his long continued absence from the village. He took all of six years to get a proper grip of things and just before the next Panchayat elections had had made his grounds and learnt all the ropes. He may have gained maturity, but he always had to struggle to keep his head up during elections and serious debates. One such time was approaching again. He was now approaching the age of 40 years and had outside competition from one K. Ram, teaching the villagers how to live better without help from the Chaudhary. He had already offered schemes for ploughing and harvesting fields where one would make deferred payments and they did not have to take short term loans. Not only that, the same person was now trying to introduce better techniques, better seeds and better fertilisers. Govind Singh could not understand why any one would stake his own money for some one else’s farming yield.
All his attempts to try and find out the true face of his tormentor were largely unrewarded. Since at such a crucial time the average farmer and his family were being weaned from the traditional dependence on the Chaudhary, he felt his boat was being rocked by unseen and perhaps, vested hands. He was in panic. After many visits to Sasni he had not been able to meet the elusive Mr. Ram. None of his own contacts and none of Ram’s workers and staff could throw light on Ram’s background. No one knew of Ram’s preferences, moods, friends and his hobbies. No one had even the faintest idea of his family, his cast or his village. In India the surname of a person gives out a mile long story of who he is. But here was some one with a common name like Ram and an initial K. which also was a mystery for its true expanded form. To achieve his goal at just any cost he had to play under this Ghost of a man called K. Ram. The later had been a truly busy person and despite wanting to help Chaudhary he had no time at his disposal. Govind Singh had opened his cards prematurely before Ram and literally begged his help for the forthcoming elections. Ram had read his quarry well and had played his cards deliberately. He had explained it to be a business strategy to advance help to farmers and let them pay later, but he did not tell him why he took the big risk of not being paid back if some one chose to be dishonest.
He had also seen that it was because of Ram that the village roads had been tarred for the first time and a drain was under construction at the far end of Deena’s fields. Earlier during heavy rains water had entered the village affecting Deena’s fields and crops worst of all. He was surprised to see a dhaba or a food joint for truckers and other highway users. Along with the Dhaba smaller shops were surfacing along the road not just dispensing cigarettes and tobacco products but even small mechanics and the like. Naturally, the village had a new source of earning revenue. It was a good thing to happen and he as Sarpanch should have got the credit for it; in fact he should have helped villagers start this from the position of being the Chaudhary. He had missed his chance and lost a lot of his sheen as the local Messiah.
He prided himself in his efforts to tame Mr. Ram outwardly, but he knew that he had survived only because of the blessings of Mr. Ram. He now wanted to retain the friendship and the advantage. He had found access to Ram’s home but he had known nothing of the man himself. He had thought of him as a suitable match for his daughter but without any background information or the name of a suitable elder with whom he could hold parlays, he was directionless. He decided to be blunter next time.
The next time turned up soon enough and this time around all he could gather was that Ram was a local lad but he had no other information on him. Ram had simply told him that whenever he was stuck for any thing at all, he should know where to seek help. From the success of his association Chaudhary had come to rely on Ram unconditionally.
But the break came soon enough.
One day while waiting in the workshop visitor’s room Chaudhary spotted Deena. By now he had almost forgotten the years ago issue. In any case, Deena had seldom visited the village. He moved closer and accosted Deena. The two moved out to a roadside tea-shop, chatting broadly on non-issues. Chaudhary had merely sought some company to while off his time while his machines were being serviced. Deena hadn’t been too surprised to see him there and thought that both Ram and Chaudhary may have resolved the old enmity and patched up the differences. Sometime during their talk he had slipped Ram’s name as his relative but when he saw surprise jump into Chaudhary’s eyes he tried to cover his tracks. There after, Deena beat retreat not only from the tea stall but also from the workshop. Chaudhary now was sure that if the two were related then it was easy to place Mr. Ram. He tried to get more information from Deena’s brother, Jasraj, every time the two met.
Deena had apprised Kaluram about his inadvertent slip and how he had retreated. Ram again had a tool to exercise as his entry to the village. Two days before Diwali, Ram sent his man carrying sweets to the Chaudhary’s mansion. It was a large package with sweets and dry fruit. Chaudhary was impressed to receive a gift at all. There had been no practise in the village to send gifts to another’s home. On the contrary, the whole village met at the local temple compound, and while they were there the Puja ambrosia served as sweets for all. This was something new for Chaudhary. Chaudhary revved up his new car and decided to return the favour. On reaching the house-hold he was ushered in by a servant to Ram’s spacious drawing room. He found Ram lounging in his pyjama suits, an attire, in which he had never met Ram before. He was welcomed expansively and treated to many more types of sweets and invited to stay on for lunch. For both a beginning was made. Ram had several visitors that day and he always met every body briefly, thus trying to afford more time with Chaudhary.
Govind Singh broached on his chance meeting with Deena and that he had told him that he and Ram were related. Ram pondered over the chance to confirm his relationship. He was yet to tell him how. After lunch the stream of visitors had dwindled and Ram had once again retired to the Drawing room with his guest. Ram narrated his story to Govind Singh Chaudhary as it had happened form the time he left the village. The listener’s eyes were popping out in disbelief all the while. He just could not imagine his folly to have played himself into the hands of someone who had served as a helping hand in his own house. That day Chaudhary went back to Haria Nagla as a wisened up man. Wisened up and yet very tormented person.
A lot of time had passed since the time, first Deena, and then Kaluram had aggrieved Chaudhary. Much of the agony had healed itself; scars of bitterness had remained. Then, he thought of the good that Ram had done to the Chaudhary’s standing and enhancing his image in the neighbourhood. The more he analysed this the more convinced he was that Ram had always paid respect and had done only good to him. Even the commercial shops and Dhabas on the roadside had reflected his will to do something good for the village. Even if he had kept quite about his identity, he had never attempted to conceal it. No amount of reflection made him see any male-fide intentions. He was more attached to his daughter and decided to seek her help to understand the mental mess he was in.
On one hand it was impossible to forgive the cardinal sin of letting down a Chaudhary and on the other it was impossible to sufficiently thank someone for so much help to retain ones image during ones bad phase. The following weekend Meena came home.
In his only meeting with Meena, Ram had asked the daughter to pave the way to family friendship between Chaudhary and himself. Now, apart from Chaudhary only she had known the whole background of the entire happening and had the power to analyse and represent the issue as she desired. The young lawyer had pitted herself, both, for and against the two contending parties. She had to convince the father, that it was an inescapable thing that Kaluram had to do to really bring out his potential and reach the present status. This she had to do for the man she wished to bring in her life some day. Then, it was for her to convince Kaluram that being a Chaudhary, one had immense duty towards the others and had to do every thing to maintain his social standing and keep ones upper-crust image. She had seen positive bits of this when she pondered about the role of Kaluram during Panchayat elections, but then, on the other hand, he was definitely building a formidable challenge to the Chaudhary by his welfare business offers to villagers and commercialisation of lands adjoining the road. She had pondered about this for long. Perhaps if she used one to favour the other, rather than work one to counter to the interest of the other, she might come up with the winning combination.
Was this to be a test of her inner desires, her preferences and her acknowledgement of what no woman would like to openly confess? Was it necessary for her to do anything with it? Was it right to weigh her father’s standings against those of Kaluram?
Father and daughter had a long chat that evening. She had chosen the path of shock to her father’s basic thought process and then give him the choice of making the final judgement. She decided to keep her own feelings at bay, and if required, deal with that separately. It was essential to satisfy her father’s ego and then make him understand that the present scene was different from the last one and the present had been more beneficial than the past had been damaging to him.
She let him speak out his mind. Chaudhary had a lot of gaps in his information. Actually, the biggest hurdle to him was “Who exactly is K. Ram and why is he interested in Haria Nagla and why has he been supportive of his own cause”. His obligations were several and very important. The problem was acute and it was difficult to identify a starting point. Chaudhary had cleared his throat several times and had finished two drinks of the quota of four, approved by the family.
He began with the Panchayat elections and the farmer supportive schemes introduced by K. Ram for the village. He openly admitted the damaging effect this had on his chances with the elections. He dwelled for some time on how he had wanted to find a solution to his desperate need to be and remain the Sar Panch in the interest of the image of the family. He was not hiding any facts where he had done something below his dignity; much like those endless waiting in Ram’s outer office. But he certainly highlighted any thing that he had done even as a small and desperate measure; like the Office space he had given to him. He was also very thankful for the spontaneous support he had received. He indeed gave a very truthful and unbiased narration of his predicament.
Chaudhary had now poured his last drink and was sure he had made a very fitting statement for opening of his case. Meena had been all ears and had never added anything to his side of the story. She took up the lead now.
She suggested that her father had received good backing of Ram as a friend and if the friend had any interest in the village to do and invest what he had done then it was indeed a big price to pay for mere friendship. Perhaps, she added, the friendship was struck by her father to satisfy his own needs. The friend had accepted the spirit of the offer and had done all possible things to ensure that Chaudhary got what he was after. So far there was nothing to disagree with and after all the liquor doing its spirited things Chaudhary was missing out on concentration. Meena had sensed this and she decided to make a quick summary and defer the rest to the following day. That night Chaudhary had gone to bed with an assurance that at last something was being done to lessen his stress. Perhaps, he thought, that after all Mr. K. Ram had been a happy instance in his life. Still in deep debate with himself, he slipped into blissful sleep that only whiskey can bring about.
Next day, Meena surprised him by starting the subject from the time Deena taking the now infamous loan from him and how he had been duped by his own brother for the return of the payment and then added the episode of Kaluram filling in for Deena even though at that age he may have understood nothing of such dealings. She chided him for going for such an arrangement and wondered how Panchayat had even permitted the arrangement. But then, Panchayat concept had not yet settled well in the argument, and in any case the rulings made on behalf of the Panchayat were the desires of the Chaudhary and not necessarily of the masses; such were the powers of the Chaudhary family then. But hearts of hearts, he had to agree that it was an insincere thing to have done and even then the little boy had never let them down. Now, happily, the matter was over; but why had she taken up the cudgels of the Panchayat rulings taken long time ago, at all?
Breakfast had been over and both father and daughter had settled into good old British easy chairs under the winter sun. She then truthfully told the story as best as she knew from the beginning. She added, literally verbatim what Ram had told her at her residence. All along the father listened intently to the story and perhaps thought, in retrospection, that he had been very harsh in his actions at that time. With time he had mellowed down, partly because time is such a good healer and partly because he had made good his losses and had taught the sundry villagers how to respect the traditional Zamindar. Now many knots in the story had become undone and he was happy that he had learnt the details of it at last. He asked her what could have been the reason for Kaluram and Deena to have played the drama for so long. After all, the loan had been liquidated long back and the two could have returned.
Meena took a long break to sort out her choice of words. She shifted uneasily in her chair and resumed.
Deena had been addicted to the life in the city and he actually did not wish to return to farming, but when ever need arose, he had joined the family for harvesting and also for functions in the family. Kaluram on the other hand had never set foot in the village till the day Chaudhary had begged of him to come and see for himself, the arrangements he had made for Ram’s staff and technicians to function from the village office. Kaluram had kept his own family in the dark about his true status. Even though he had been based in Sasni for long years now, he called his father and other family members to meet him for brief get together as if he were visiting the place for short while. The family had insisted that he move to the village, but he had persisted that if at all he came back to the village, he will do so only with dignity. Over the years he had helped the family with money and because of this Jasraj. Kaluram’s father had been able to increase his land holding, have proper water pumps and so on. He had insured that they all prospered. When that was done, he turned to help his other friends through Jasraj and that is how commercial activity had started along the highway. All shops along the Highway belonged to his close friends of yesteryears.
Chaudhary had been hearing all this for the first time. The sheer volume of Kaluram’s contribution to his family and to the village now hit him like a blast from the past. He had sat up bolt upright and had listened deeply to his daughter’s analysis. It was beyond him to appreciate one Man’s strong will to uphold his image and in the process he had almost turned around the whole village, almost single handed. The story had amazed him and suddenly he felt very silly to have been the villain of the story that had unfolded before him. He could not hide his surprise and now openly came out in favour of Kaluram. He resolved to meet him over the next couple of days and restore him to the village –with pride.
Well past his prime, Chaudhary was now evolving as a person. He had grown in age and now he was learning what academic education had not taught him. He was observing from his interaction with society and family. He was well aware of changes taking place in the new generation, their needs, their urges and above all their desire to change the social fabric. Gone were the days when an average village farmer would pull up his cart into an empty patch, dismount and let the Chaudhary family icons pass, if they met along a road. In the past when a villager had some favour to seek from the Chaudhary family, he would simply come to their huge property and respectfully just wait outside without even sending a message that he was there. While this eternal wait was going on, some times, for days and some times for weeks, the village farmer would carry out several menial tasks that would otherwise have been done by servants to attract attention of the Chaudhary in the most humble of ways.
In the past, such behaviour had helped both, the Chaudhary’s as well as the other residents. The Chaudhary benefited because he was assured that his status of Chaudhary was being constantly upheld and his supremacy was respected. The resident not only got the guidance, worldly material help and more often than not the satisfaction that Chaudhary of his village was the person who was worthy of respect. After all, bad luck often targeted poor farmers and if Chaudhary’s coffers, influence and giving direction to social activities of the village were not there, then the farmer’s subsistence itself would have been endangered.
Now, Govind Singh, as the present Chaudhary had a crisis to understand himself and his more common friends in the village, vis-à-vis the changing times. He wished he was as accomplished as his father and even before that as his Grand Father. The episode of Kaluram had really shocked him as it had run over such a length of time and all along, he now realised, that his own position of Chaudhary had never been compromised by Kaluram or for that matter by anyone else from the village. No doubt, that there were attempts to break free of existing social norms and ethical values, but these tendencies had been commonplace elsewhere too, and in some cases they had very undesirable results. Amongst his friends, he had seen that social and family rankings had begun to erode as the new generation launched itself headlong in the quest of freedom. It was hard to understand the idea behind this agitation as no one, neither the old generation nor the new generation understood the cause – freedom from exactly what. Perhaps the seed of all this lay in the increased Western influence. With the much prevalent family hierarchy the Indian family had followed a certain pattern of joint family living; a pattern that insured good space for the old, the infirm and the sick as well as traditional grooming of the children. Modern adoptive values had afforded only individual growth and from this upward motion neither the family, nor the group nor the state and very sadly nor the country could rise above itself. So, the person who had abandoned existing norms and put himself in a struggle without direction only as an individual were few. Many chose to follow the path of the unknown, where they succeeded sometimes and at other times they simply slithered back to the well established family pattern. But Kaluram had been flung on a path where he was forced to make his on roads.
Within his own family, Govind Singh observed it was hard to comprehend that either of his children would be able to maintain the dignity and pride of being a Chaudhary. Perhaps, they did not even believe in the need to be a Chaudhary. This was amply brought out by Meena today. She had gone through her narration without much sentimental or moral understanding. All along, it appeared to Govind Singh, that he was at par with Kaluram. His own understanding of social ascendancy told him the scene was differently laid and coloured. Govind Singh decided to take the counsel of his daughter in the spirit of the new generation as apart from him the other players in this absurd drama were either young people or people of lower social standing. As soon as he had made peace with himself on this account, many other latent issues began to crowd around his mind
Though he and his family had always attended to the welfare of the village, they had done so as an obligation of being the Chaudhary. Even then, they had done the minimum that was required to meet any situation. In Kaluram’s case the boy had no understanding of his duties to the village at the age that he had been roped into the present drama. But, then, as time passed and he became matured enough to understand the matter he had single minded acted only to bring the situation where it had rested till now. He had remained respectful to his family, village and elders, which included Chaudhary himself. Govind Singh now saw that Kaluram had always been in fear of the Chaudhary’s ire and he had never done anything to displease him. If he had acted to help his family and friends, it was normal. What was super-normal was how he stayed out of the scene and did his bid without ever exposing himself to those who had benefited from his largess. His friends and family were clearly financially better off now –than ever before.
His selfless work to introduce the new system of receiving payments for his services from villagers after they had reaped the harvest was not only selfless but also held great risk in case some one decided to play foul. He braved the risk as he upheld the commitments of people being simple villagers with clean hearts and pure minds. He had not considered that all this could have impacted on the Chaudhary’s image; that too at such a crucial time as the Panchayat elections. It was purely coincidental. Then, when Chaudhary had asked for help to re-establish himself, Kaluram had willingly laid down his enhanced position and sacrificed his advantage. Chaudhary felt real gratitude rising within him for Kaluram.
Ego is a sinister emotion. Despite being convinced now that the boy needed to be restored to his rightful position and to accept that the hard work put in by Kaluram had made him a worthy equal, Govind Singh found it hard to face the reality. A week later the problem had not gone away, perhaps only intensified. A month later it was still there.
Meena’s feelings for her newly rediscovered friend had been showing in some form or the other when ever she visited the family. No matter what conclusion Govind Singh arrived at from his ponderings over the most sensitive issue of Kaluram, it would be channelled in a one track manner by Meena in the weekly musings of father and daughter. Gradually, Govind Singh had no doubt at all that his little daughter had more than just a soft corner. He decided to confront her on the subject and made a particularly rash assessment of the episode. Meena had not even given him a chance to conclude. He invited her thoughts and was surprised to hear her as if she had considered and rehearsed her arguments. That may have been so but the actual contents of her diction seemed to be quite correct.
When Meena went back after this weekend, Govind Singh had two issues. The one about Kaluram was now nearly settled and perhaps reached a final stage, but the other and newer one about Meena’s disposition on Kaluram and her true feelings towards him became the more important of the two. In Kaluram’s case he had weighed the pros against the cons and had come to the conclusion that the young man could not be faulted for his doings; rather he felt that Kaluram was perhaps a victim of circumstances and he had now come out a cropper. Even then he never let his good tidings effect their equations at any stage and now he was a worthy person to be a friend.
The other issue was more serious in that he had sensed his daughter’s inclination towards Kaluram. He tried to analyse the reason as to why Meena seemed to be siding with him and his doings. He was sure the two could not have met ever since Kaluram had vanished from the village; in any case they were too young and too immature to have developed such lasting bonds. Then, how come that even though her father had expressed understanding and reconciliation of an old issue she had gone on and on with her arguments. Was she trying to put another matter across to him? He sensed something was in the air and he just could not put a finger on it. In such matters, he thought, ladies had an uncanny path to their daughter’s heart. He decided to talk to his wife that evening.
The wife had suspected Meena’s soft corner for Kaluram all along – her childhood included. Both, when he had worked for them and after he had gone. Personally she had also liked the boy. Year after year, Meena had stacked away her old books which she had stubbornly refused to be sold away to the trash collector. The memory tide was low but always there and when she had been in college at Calcutta and the non existent boy friend had been forced to exist in her stories to her room mate it had made some splashes in conversations between mother and daughter as well. Thus when Govind Singh was in private conversation with his wife and had stated his doubt to her, she had not shown any surprise. She launched herself in great detail about the virtuous daughter and how she was committed to upholding family esteem. But then, as women go, she had contradicted herself by acknowledging her daughters little secret that perhaps her husbands doubts may have, after all, had some solid basis . Govind Singh did not understand what that was supposed to mean. His own confusion had indeed increased.
Those days and particularly so, in rural areas there were practically no covert or overt love affairs. It was becoming fashionable for youth in urban areas to declare their affections for a member of the opposite sex more openly. Govind Singh, like any one else professing old social values, particularly where girls of the family were concerned had denounced this as a bad influence of the Western culture. He now sensed the western virus affecting his own domain. He decided to be more direct and asked Meena to sit with her mother and him-self on a matter of family importance during her next visit home. Meanwhile, Govind Singh had been very tense and had upped his quota of drinks to six per sitting. By the time Meena came home for the usual weekend stay Govind Singh had appeared to have aged by a couple of decades, partly under the influence of problem itself and partly because of the extra pegs.
Meena helped him out of his misery by admitting that she had a childhood crush on Kaluram even now. She was certainly happy that after so many years she had caught up with him again and then added a sentence or two indicating that Kaluram was perhaps the best choice as a family friend. Both Govind Singh and his wife immediately read that to mean the person as a potential family member. Govind Singh fell silent and suddenly there was no agenda point left for discussion. The issue had resolved itself favourable to all. The meeting was reduced to only two members, as Meena excused herself and left the room, her fingers crossed behind her back.
At the end of it all it emerged that Kaluram would indeed make a good Family member and that it was time to take the matter to its logical conclusion.
Actually, Govind Singh was not angered by Kaluram in the first place. He had been irked by Deena and later, whatever had happened it was always circumstances - perhaps Kaluram was only a small time role player. Then when he returned into the drama as Mr K. Ram, Kaluram was always very humble and despite his new financially and socially superior position always helped in what ever way that Govind Singh had chosen. Over the next few weeks he was filled with a sense of gratitude and perhaps a certain intimacy. He was surprised about the origin of the intimacy. Was it, because Kaluram had selflessly helped out in crucial times, or, was it because Meena had mentioned his name as a favourite. Actually Meena had never really said any such thing in words, but she had implied her preference through actions and bias in explaining the whole episode to him. He thought hard about his concluding the undeclared understanding. His wife had always been a poor communicator. She had never opposed any of his actions and loved to be a silent passenger on his train of authority. Even if it was so, why was he in such turmoil over the issue? Govind Singh needed a friend to discuss this, who could he approach? He discarded all his current friends instantly as they may like to make fun of his volte-face concerning Kaluram and to let them in on the fact that his daughter may be in love with the same person was not even thinkable. Those days love marriages were some things that one did not advertise even in urban areas, rural areas considered it as down right taboo – perhaps a family shame.
He guessed that it was necessary to understand Kaluram’s intentions clearly on such an important matter and hoped it was not a one sided affair in his daughter’s innocent mind. Was it that Kaluram was the right person to ask questions to and also satisfy his own inner self? Govind Singh found an opening very soon.
Kaluram’s mother had fallen very sick and he had felt the compulsion of being with her. The old lady had gone to Sasni and had undergone hospitalisation at a private nursing home and later she had been taken to Kaluram’s sprawling residence in town where she regained good health in a few days. During this time Kaluram had taken good care of her and had told her his life’s story. Mother and son found themselves basking in the eternal love of this relationship. They were busy trying to build a bridge between times gone by and today, many stories had to be told and many endearing words had to be said. Those days husbands often never told their wives of the days happening, partly because women were invariably uneducated and particularly because this way they could maintain their superiority over the womenfolk. She told him he had suffered enough for the deeds of his uncle and then by those of his own father’s greed. She was absolutely adamant that he now return to the village with honour. She, as any proud mother, wanted to shout from roof tops not just the return of her son, but also his success in life. It was Kaluram’s life-mission too. So far he had deferred any step so as to remain subservient to Chaudhary, who was a village elder and who, he had to appease. Kaluram thought it would be better if he met Chaudhary over the issue. He was not too sure that Chaudhary him self had an agenda point favouring any discussion.
Thus, when Govind Singh had come to his residence one winter morning, he had been surprised by the warmth of the reception. He was pleased to see Kaluram’s mother there and fully recovered. He and the whole village simply knew that she was unwell and hospitalised. Again the old concept was that if one was admitted to the hospital, one seldom came back alive.
He admitted that he needed advise on certain issues from Kaluram and in turn Kaluram had said that as soon as his points were discussed, he too had certain issues. The two were meeting for the first time as true friends. So far, it was perhaps surface friendship with an aim to solve one issue or another. Kaluram had advised his senior to be open and candid so that meaningful solutions could be derived. Govind Singh understood the import of the request and he had gone over the story where Kaluram had become Mr. K. Ram. He concluded that he would like him to return to the village now and forget the past. This had solved Kaluram’s agenda in full even before he had declared it. The second point had been sensitive and touchy. He found it hard to admit that his daughter was having a soft corner for him and that he was here for making a proposal. In his confusion he had forgotten that the issue was slightly different. He actually wanted to probe the mind of Kaluram if he too had sentimental feelings for his daughter, then it would have been easier to take up the issue appropriately with his parents.
Govind Singh had already blurted out his question without making adequate base for his feelings. Perhaps it was time to put formalities and inhibitions aside and talk to each other as man to man. He restated his case regarding the feelings his daughter harboured for him and very reservedly asked his opinions on the matter. Kaluram was a man of the world and at this time he was lucky too. He went inside and returned with his mother and asked Govind Singh to talk to her; he still believed that such matters were best dealt with by the elders. In one sentence he told them both that he would be happy if the match came through. Then he had retired to his room for a long while. In doing so he too had his fingers crossed behind his back.
Kaluram was poring over an official document he had brought along from the office when he heard sudden excitement and his mother calling loudly from the drawing room. It caused him instant gratification that his mother must have agreed in principle and told the Chaudhary to speak to her husband at their house. Those days ladies always let their husbands take a decision even if they were solely behind the matter. But first she needed to talk and convince her husband and let Chaudhary complete the formalities. She had taken it to be a great honour for herself and the family now that the Chaudhary, the most powerful person she had ever known, was asking for marriage of his daughter to her son. When Kaluram came face to face with his mother, Chaudhary had already left the house. He too had left the room with his fingers crossed behind his back.
Next day, Chaudhary took great pains to inform all and sundry how he had convinced Kaluram to return to the village. He dwelt at length regarding his unbelievable story of rags to riches for the boy. No matter how the listener took it he always grasped the soft corner that Chaudhary now harboured for Kaluram. Most people had learnt, for the first time, the flight and plight of Kaluram right from the beginning from Chaudhary himself. Gossip and revelation of truth was always hard to come by in such a close knit and small community. He also dwelled at length on the contribution of Kaluram towards village welfare measures, but kept the assistance he had received personally under wraps. The fact is that village communities are so close knit that every person is related to another as village brother, sister or whatever. They also cared for each other much the same way, except that the caste always separated them as is all over North India; even then there is a special indestructible bond.
Kaluram’s mother had consulted with astrologers and Pundits for the most auspicious day for the return of their son. The stellar juxtaposition had been seen to be most convenient a week from the time that Chaudhary had returned after meeting mother and son at Sasni and had been singing endless paeans of the prodigal son of the soil. The whole village began to prepare for welcoming the most able person in the village. Actually, this was the truth, as Kaluram had been doing exceptionally well in his business and his schemes for helping friends and family for starting small shops and business had been successful. His scheme for deferred payments for quality seeds induction, land tilling using mechanised equipment and harvesting using combination machines had been a grand success. Though, no one had known that Kaluram was behind all this, yet they knew his company well for his men had been moving about the village in proper uniforms and had put up several sign boards in the fields where such assistance had been provided. With a big secret coming out in the open and to discover their own Kaluram was behind the massive effort, the simple rustic folks were delighted. When ever a group of people got speaking, the topic invariably had slipped to Kaluram. On the other hand Chaudhary had been arranging for a celebration almost at par with Diwali festivities. Already a make-shift tent had been set up for the sweet-meats maker and tractor loads of potatoes, sugar and other things were rolling in daily
For Mr. K. Ram it was a great moment for which he had worked and guided his entire life. It was his ambition to re-enter the village as Kaluram with full dignity for himself and the family. He was convinced that he had met his dreams and as a bonus had been promised a marriage with some one whose memories he had cherished in his thoughts all along. From this moment he knew that he would have to drop all meetings with Meena except those which she may grant in complete secrecy and outside the knowledge of hers and his families. That evening the agitated son drove his even more agitated mother home. It was a grand moment which Kaluram had reserved to be shared with immediate family members only, for Kaluram was returning to the village and his home after over two decades. They wanted it to be a glorified moment next day on the appointed hour sanction on behalf of the Gods by the Pundits. En route to the village, they had picked up huge amounts of sweets that the proud mother wanted to distribute to the whole village next day. By the time they reached home it was getting dark and only a few kerosene fuelled hurricane lanterns were fighting the increasing darkness. Within minutes of reaching home, somehow, news of his return had spread to neighbouring houses. Soon, many people had gathered in the courtyard and ladies began to sing, while men collected on one side and murmured to each other. To keep the darkness at bay someone had lit up a mound of dry wood that would have some day been used as fuel for cooking meals. Now, the orange-red flames were reaching for the skies, perhaps, to get a foretaste of promised festivities that were to follow soon. Every one was told only about the return of the son, the other news of alliance between the two families was to await the stamps of approval of Chaudhary and Jasraj. This was the appropriate moment when Kaluram had informed all present that it was the Chaudhary who had asked him to return to the village. Indirectly, he had upheld Chaudhary’s place in the society and had taken away any ill-reference to him for his forced stay away from the family. At long last the celebrations had come to an end and the family had been left alone. Till late that night young and old family members had each made up their own versions of the remarkable journey of Kaluram.
Kaluram had of course driven back to Sasni at night so as to arrive at the predestined auspicious moment next day.
The sleepy village reeling under a late night was woken up by the film songs being played loudly by tinny loudspeakers even before dawn. Gradually, the crowd began to swell at the tent in the middle of the village. Already the smell of food being cooked was wafting through the air. There were huge pot bellied cooks who were firmly squatted around huge cooking pots and were stirring up the contents constantly. It was winter times and small groups of ladies began to sing welcome songs and punctuated these sonorous rending by burst of giggles and suppressed laughter. The men got together mostly basking in the morning sun and talked in loud voices to overcome the voice of each other and the loudspeaker. The children were enjoying it the best as they ran helter- skelter all over bare foot. The harvesting had been done a week earlier and fields were open and inviting for a game of Gilli-Danda, marbles or just mindless running. Small rubber balls were flying about in all directions, to indicate a group of boys engaged in playing ‘Gend-Tadi’. Any one, who possessed the ball, was free to aim and hit any body else whose penalty was paid by the pain of the impact.
At the appointed hour, next day, a car had appeared in the distance, raising a big cloud of dust in its wake. As it came closer one could see it was decked up with flowers as if to carry a groom bringing home his bride for the first time after marriage at a distant town. Its horn was blazing with glee. Every body moved closer and the women folks stepped up their singing tone to a more passionate welcome. Kaluram stepped out of the car, dressed in a spotless white Kurta- Pyjama. The crowd gave out a roar of welcome and everyone jostled with everyone to get a closer view. Kaluram’s mother and some other family ladies stepped up close to the door. As soon as the worthy son came out of his car ladies began to sing Aarty while his mother moved a thaali with burning incense and lamp around her son’s face; as a traditional welcome. Aarty ceremony is a welcome activity of saying grace with lamps burning pure ghee. The platter also contains roli (vermillion) and chawal (rice) that are applied the forehead of the person being so welcomed. As the mother, and later other senior ladies performed the ritual of moving the thaali, other ladies in the back ground began to sing traditional songs that herald the return of a Hero from a war. There were no hand shakes but a lot of back-thumping. Kaluram had bent and touched the feet of all revered persons with utmost feelings; in return he received their blessings. Every one had tried to speak first and for the first half an hour there was no coherent conversation. Kaluram’s parents had been seated on chairs laid on a raised dais and Chaudhary had arranged for his high seat slight distance. In his mind he was perhaps already treating him self to be a member of the brides side and hence he had to observe a natural subservient attitude. He was doing well for most of the morning he had stayed close to Kaluram’s father, politely making conversation when ever the others permitted.
This set rumours into motion as to why Chaudhary had been so involved. No one knew for sure, but tongues began to wag. Some said that Chaudhary had realised his excess in Kaluram’s case and had thus made good his feelings. Some said he had partnered with Kaluram and the village will soon see double good times. But most people were not inclined to be bothered when so much of good drinking, good food and merriment were at hand.
After meeting and feet touching of his parents and other senior family members, Kaluram walked towards Chaudhary and for the first time he touched his feet. Chaudhary, was totally overcome, with emotions and tears began to roll down his cheeks. No one understood the true import of this side show and every one picked up a new talking point which ultimately started a process of new informal relations of the village’s first citizen. In a far corner bhang was already being served and men were picking large metal glasses and draining them in one gulp. In a short while it had started its effect on those who had imbibed the wonder drink. There was uncontrolled laughter and very loud senseless chattering all around. By eleven food had been loaded on tables and children and ladies were fighting each other to reach for the goodies. They dropped more food to the ground than they had on their plates- this seemed to be the order of displaying ones enjoyment of a good meal. Food remained in plenty till the end but the people who were to eat it had found themselves lost to the effect of good bhang consumed in plenty.
No one could say exactly when the party had come to an end.
Next day Kaluram had wanted to meet with Meena, or at least, call her over the phone from Sasni. He could not; instead he had spent his time with the boys who were his mates in the carefree days of his young days. They would not leave his side and had rounded him to the chai shop by the roadside. They all enjoyed as there were so many things to share from the past. By night the impact of his homecoming had somewhat subsided. He decided it was time to return to Sasni and that is where he went. As he entered the house he heard the shrill ringing of the telephone. He hurriedly picked up the phone- it was Meena. She was, so far, unaware of the latest happenings and had called partly to progress her document and partly to check Kaluram’s response to her own feelings. They spoke for an hour and Kaluram kept his excitement under guard and sought for a meeting next day. He thought it best to break the news in person and to set up a continuing medium of further meetings
Kaluram’s mind had been in a tizzy; it is difficult to explain how a person awaits the dawn of the next day; especially when so much is held by the slender thread of uncertainty weekend to almost breaking point by pent up emotions. When the excitement of getting back home after two decades added to the sentiments of every one had benumbed him completely he was already travelling above cloud nine. In Indian society one retains unbreakable bonds with all and sundry no matter how aloof one has been in time. If now this is peppered with a wait for the lady’s reassuring smile, one is a bad case of insomnia. Kaluram was on this kind of edge and was very grateful when the whisky eventually acted like grand-mother and put him into a light stupor-laced sleep. He woke up with a hammering inside his head, he felt too groggy to get up and went back to sleep right away. The next time he got up when the telephone had shrieked itself hoarse for the nth time. Instantly he knew he was late for what ever he had planned to do. As he forced himself to sit up, he wondered what exactly the cause for all the excitement was and then slowly things began to clear up. The ‘phone had stopped its mad and shrill ringing.
His servant had sensed that he was up and soon walked in with a tray holding pots of tea, milk and sugar. The day’s papers sat partly over a plate of biscuits. There was also a small flower holder with just one rose in it. Kaluram was launched into his daily routine. He brushed his teeth while the servant began to roll out the names of callers who had either telephoned or had visited him during his absence. He heard Meena’s name twice and felt very nice about it. The tea had been poured and he asked to be connected to Meena. Even while the handset was against the servant’s ear, he heard the electronic crackle of a HELLO. He grabbed the ‘phone and initially began gibberish, but soon corrected himself and began to speak excitedly in English so that not much was understood by the bewildered servant.
A half an hour later he left his home for Aligarh.
On his arrival at Aligarh he ran into a surprise. Chaudhary’s car was parked in the portico. He did not know that Meena had asked him to come over fully knowing her father was there or again, perhaps, he had dropped by through sheer chance. He put his finger gingerly to the bakelite switch, hoping it will not make too much noise and he instantly heard its scream somewhere inside the house.
He was instantly hit by surprise number two. The door was held open by Chaudhary Govind Singh in person. He thanked himself for having his dark glasses on and hoped that the expression on his face escaped the latter’s scrutiny. It had not. After the staid looks for years of the man standing in front of him, he was now getting the feel of genuine welcome. Meena had informed him of the arrival of Kaluram and had been unable to communicate the unscheduled arrival of her father to him. Those days, India perhaps, had a tele-density of less than half per thousand; cell phones had not been invented. Kaluram automatically folded his hands in reverence and was instantly rewarded by huge arms encircling his upper torso and drag him inside. The moment was made worst by the binge drinking of last night and now he wished he had restrained himself.
As the two sat down on the three seater sofa, Meena made her entry through a side-door. She was freshly out of her bath and hair was spread over her slim shoulders for drying. She was wearing a scintillating pink printed Punjabi suit and wearing matching rubber slippers on her feet. She had no make up at that time but her freshly bathed skin was glowing from the cold spray of the shower. She stood there tentatively for a while, then her face lit up to see the visitor looking at her with a huge grin pasted on his face. She took it as manifestation of his appreciation for her own breath-taking beauty.
Govind Singh had known why Kaluram was here. It was not entirely the legal document that had brought him here and he was pleased to apprehend that perhaps there was a softer side to the issue. If he had any query in this regard, he knew it was now frivolous. He decided to play along for a short while and had joined them for a round of tea and sweets, then made an excuse and was gone.
If Kaluram had practised a hundred times how he would break the news to Meena, he had no use for all that now. He began trying to repeat yesterday’s grand reception by Chaudhary and all other village folks, but he could never get to a crescendo as he felt she already had known the episode. He fell silent. Meena helped him out of his predicament. She started on the cause of her father’s visit. He told her of his arrival at 4 O’clock in the morning and his subsequent needling about her feeling towards Kaluram. Meena had described him as a very likable, hard-working, shrewd and good looking fast-tracker. The adjectives had been so badly messed up that it would be hard to understand what precise trait was leading. If the father tried to load his own views on her description, she had been illusive and rejected it in favour of something similar. After an hour of talks between Father and daughter, the former had no doubts regarding his basic issue. The girl had indeed a soft corner somewhere in her heart and she had been proud that Kaluram had done so well in life. But, being a young girl of the late 40’s, she had veiled her feelings very well.
Then there was a big pause.
Meena had not mentioned the issue of marriage even once – perhaps she was unaware of it. In her excitement she had attacked the peripheral issues with the élan of a practised lawyer. This gave the impression to him that Govind Singh had not discussed the matter with her. Kaluram tried to interrupt her one sided harangue, obliquely, that their elders had discussed marriage between them. He saw a deep pink taking over her lovely face s she lowered her eyes. After a long silence she simply said that it was the prerogative of the elders. He had no idea about the meaning of her words. He had wanted a better expression, if she herself supported the proposal or was she merely agreeing to marriage as the wish of her father. Meena smiled and let its meanings rest in the lap of the unsaid. She excused herself on the pretext of ordering the days Tiffin and went indoors. Kaluram’s mind was tormented between ‘will she’ or won’t she’, he kept hoping ‘she will’.
She returned with an album of photographs and asked him to go through it while she dressed up. By the time she returned half an hour later, he had gone over the album some three- four times. He had liked some of her snaps while she was in College. Even then all the photos had groups of girls or teachers. He thought that in a beauty contest between all the participants she was the winner. When Meena returned she sat next to him to show some of the snaps again. She was close that he felt very delicate. He had wanted to touch her and was hoping that she may accidentally do just that. Then he sensed the sweetness on her breath and found himself losing control over his emotions. In contrast she had been cool and had flipped to an old photograph taken in the village. She asked him to look at it carefully. Actually, apart from his heaving chest and hyper-ventilating lungs he could not sense any thing else. He said it was a nice snap. She put on an air of feigned temper and asked him to look closely at the background. Kaluram saw the two buffalos busy digging their snouts deep into the mixed hay and goodies, and then saw a small boy facing the other way, milking the buffalo furthest away. He returned the album back to her saying that he could not see what she wanted to show him. Meena giggled uncontrollably for a while and told him that her maternal uncle had taken the photograph and the boy in the background had been none other that Kaluram himself. She admitted that she had retained the photograph all along only for this one reason.
The sentiment behind the photograph and its journey in the life of Meena from childhood to present was amazing. He could not miss out on how keen she had been to show her attachment with the photo and if indeed Kaluram had lived in her memories then this photograph was its mute testimony. It is surprising how simply and accurately one could convey the true sentiment without actually saying a single word. The true import of her excitement now dawned on Kaluram and he felt silly for his insensitivity. This moment was to be most cherished between the two.
The servant announced that the breakfast table had been laid. Meena led him to the table and occupied the chair next to him so as to be able to heap food on to his plate. Kaluram was a small eater and had mostly skipped breakfast. But now he suddenly had an urge to eat like a glutton. Each time he moved the spoon towards his mouth Meena watched with anticipation that he would like the fare. She was doting on him as if the time interval when they were not together did not matter. By the time breakfast was over they had both got accustomed to each other and had wanted the moment to go on endlessly. Kaluram suggested that they drop every thing and live it on the town. She accepted the offer instantly and eagerly.
Earlier, Chaudhary Govind Singh had gone satisfied about his query even though he had asked no question and no one had made a specific reply. The two decided to take their excitement to a vacation in the town. He planned lunch at Jharna restaurant, which was the most expensive restaurant and was mostly patronised by foreigners for its cuisine, bar and swimming pool facilities. This was to be followed up by a film show at Luxour Cinema, which also was a cut above the rest.
The mild winter was fast turning into a biting cold season. A cold wave had been sweeping the entire northern India for over a fortnight. Roads tended to be bereft of traffic till the sun was shining brightly. Even in homes every body stayed indoors till as late as possible. For the family elders it had become a taxing exercise to keep children warm and indoors. Since there was little work in the fields most folks simply had the day’s mission to bask in the sun and if sun did not shine due to cloudiness then it was to gossip with neighbours wrapped in quilts and blankets. These were good times from the point of view of culinary delights. There was plenty of Gur –a brown mass left in huge pans after heating and evaporating the moisture from sugarcane juice that had bits of herbs and dry fruit added to it. Chunks of Gur would be eaten with Bajara-roti or just be nibbled by itself. Then, roasted monkey nuts were irresistible when eaten warm and in the company of friends. The cracking noise of the shells added to the fun. Later, one could eat lengths of sugar cane plucked from the fields and peeled with ones teeth. Lunch time invariably promised the inevitable mustard leaf crushed in herbs and masalas and topped with a handsome amount of clarified butter. This tasted best with thick roti’s made from maize flour. But as the sun went down the horizon and cold took on its steely grip, every body went indoors and once again the streets were deserted. Night was really harsh and every body tucked into the darkness and quilts. Only some brave elderly ladies busied themselves with cooking the last hot meal of the day. Later they would wash utensils in chilly water.
Kaluram came home almost every day but stayed the nights and working periods in Sasni. His work had grown too with the addition of fertilisers and seeds distribution. He had requested Chaudhary and his son to join him. This arrangement had helped business no doubt. Its salutary effect had been to knock down the borders with the hierarchy of the village. The Chaudhary family was given its due position in the society and were viewed as benevolent upper elite. Between Kaluram and the Chaudhary family too the effect had been visible. Every body respected every body. It was not just relationships with either Kaluram or Chaudhary at one end but between just any two village residents. If any body had a problem then it was always a problem for the entire village till suitable solutions had been found. Small efforts put in by the community were now beginning to show as a small dispensary and a toddler’s school.
On a day like this Chaudhary and Kaluram’s father had announced the marriage. News of the engagement travelled from house to house even before the two had fed to the other Laddoos of desi ghee as a mark of acceptance of the offer by both. They were all assembled in Chaudhary’s house and the two families were seated on gadda’s (mattresses) and chandani (milk white sheet). Once the declaration was made Govind Singh’s wife produced a thaali with all puja material, almost as if by magic. As she stepped forward to apply roli to Kaluram’s forehead ladies in the background broke into singing. She picked up the largest laddoo and forced the whole piece into Kaluram’s mouth. He choked on it and every one else around burst into laughter. Then it was Chaudhary’s turn, he stepped forward, embraced his future son-in-law and slipped a heavy gold chain around his neck. Kaluram’s mother picked up the thaali and closed in with Meena. First she embraced her and the applied roli in her hair, an act that conveys her acceptance as a bahu (daughter-in-law) and a family member. She too, magically, produced a red Sari, full jewellery set and some items of cosmetics. This she placed in Meena’s lap. Both, Kaluram and Meena then got up and touched feet of his parents and then her parents.
As soon as the empty plates were removed by the servants, Chaudhary offered to show his palatial house to Kaluram’s father. This was an indication that the boy and girl were to be left together for a while, just in case, they had to query one another, formally. Kaluram had sensed this as a chance to hold her hand for the first time and he hesitatingly moved towards her as soon as the last of the family members had left. Meena smiled and turned to face him squarely and said,’ tell me how you had left the village, again’.
There was nothing to be said and Kaluram smiled, pressing her small hands into his own.