( #TalesFromPaharpur: Story 1 Part 1. #BlogchatterA2Z series will include a number of stories set in a fictional Indian village of Paharpur. Here is the 1st part of story 1)
We were waiting near Kalindi river to receive the government official. Budhia was the first to sight him on the other side of the river.
“Look, sahib has arrived,” he exclaimed and stepped into the river to go to the other side and guide him to cross the river. He was not at all concerned that the only garment he was wearing, a half pant, would get wet. Of course he was carrying two towels – a dirty one for his own use and a new one for the sahib. It was July and the river had waist deep water.
We could see that the sahib refused to use our towel. He had got his own. He removed his shoes and changed over to the towel. Budhia offered to carry all his items, but he handed over only his small bag. Carrying his shoes and the neatly folded pant and shirt in his own hands he stepped into the river following Budhia.
Our village Paharpur was half a kilometer from the river. All our villages in this southern part of Odisha had the same pattern. The street road was from east to west flanked by row houses. Paharpur was no different.
We let the sahib lead us. He was already familiar with the village and the house of Chandra dadi.
She was already waiting for us on the verandah of her thatched house. It was a small verandah barely three feet by six. The walls as well as the floor had a coating of cow dung mixed with mud. She had put a mattress on the floor.
Chandra dadi offered a lota of water to sahib to wash his feet. The sahib removed his shoes and washed his feet on the stone steps of the verandah.
He got himself seated on the mattress made of dried date palm leaves. Bhola, another of our companions, volunteered to go to his own house and get tea for sahib.
Budhia said, “Chandra Ma, what is the problem with you? See, how much pain sahib is taking to get you the pension. It is after such a long time that we have got a kind hearted sahib. Or else, who would come to our village just to see that an old lady like you, whom all relatives have abandoned, gets her widow pension? The thought of walking three miles from the main road and crossing a half flooded river is itself so daunting for the town people.”
‘”God will bless you to sahib ji. All your children will flourish. You will live to be hundred,” she said.
‘”You are like my own mother, Dadi ji. Why are you reluctant to put your finger print? You deserve to get the pension. Nobody has seen your husband for five decades. I have made all the papers ready. Just allow us to put your finger print and you will start getting your pension soon. It is not much. But you are old. The pension will take care of at least your medicines.”
“I know sahib. You are so kind hearted. But I also know that he is alive. My heart and my soul tell me that he is alive. How will I answer Chitragupta in the other world for receiving something what is not truthfully mine?”
My Grandfather Loknath Misra arrived on the scene. He could not stand straight and used a walking stick. We helped him climb the verandah and sit on the mattress.
He urged, “Chandra bhabi, I have seen with my own eyes what happened to Damodar. Do not hope against hope. Let us for the time being accept that he is alive. Then also, what is the harm in accepting the pension? Anyway, you would have got it, had the voter card not shown your age as fifty five instead of your actual age which is now well past sixty. You married fifty years back. What was your age then? Twelve, thirteen, or fourteen? Bhabi, I pray that you consent. Don’t think that after you start getting the pension our village will forsake you. Sixty rupees a month is a big amount, bhabiji, it is a big amount.”
‘It is not about money, Loka. Who does not need money? Especially, a poor old lady like me who doesn’t have any support from her own relatives. This village has been very good to me. That is why I did not go back to my own village even after all of you told he would never come. But my heart says he is alive. My soul says he is alive.”
Everyone was silent, maybe trying to work out a response to her insistence. She continued, “After five years, anyway my voter card will say I am sixty. I will wait. I am so sorry for the sahib. How kind he is. You are all so kind. But please……”
She begged and started to weep, tears rolling down her wrinkled face to compete with the July rain that had started falling on the muddy village road. She could not talk further and covering her face with the end of her sari she ran inside.
We all fell silent for some time. The rain started to pound. Bhola had come with tea. My grandpa and the sahib were seated on the mattress while we were standing huddled in one corner of the verandah.
Chandra Dadi’s confidence and belief that her husband was alive had infected us so much so that we also started believing he was alive. We pestered Grandpa to tell a different story.
“Boys, there is no different story. Like a parrot I have been telling this story again and again, maybe for a million times.”
Sahib said, “You tell us the story again, Grandpa. Anyway, it is raining so heavily. I have to wait till the skies clear.”
Grandpa spat the tambakhu out, cleared his throat, and started, “When the tax imposed by the British became too much, most of us sold the little land that we had and with that money we left for Burma. Damodar and I stayed in the same camp initially and worked in the rice fields of the same owner. Then one day I discovered that he had left. I did not know where he had gone. There was no way to confirm. Those day.. no letters…. no phones. Only when someone cam form our village we got the village news. Same way only when one of us went home we could send some gold or news through him.
After one month Damodar reappeared. He had a few friends with him. It was evening and we were going back to our camp after the day’s work. My surprise made me to shout when I saw him, but, he gestured me to keep quiet. I was sharing my camp with two others from our nearby village Kantakpur. He pulled the three of us and said in a low voice, ‘I have joined the Army of Subhash Chandra Bose. We are fighting to free India from the British. It is the same Britsh whose heavy tax made you sell your land and come here to this foreign land to work as labourers. They have made you labourers from owners. If we don’t fight, our children will continue to be slaves.’
We had heard that many of the Indian labourers were joining the Army of a person called Subhash Chandra Bose. His words aroused anger in us against the British. But it was evening and we were too tired to make a drastic decision that would change our lives. We told him to come and spend the night with us.
He said that he and his companions had put their lives at risk to come there. The British spies were everywhere and if they came to know, the life of all of us would be in danger. If we wanted to join them we had to make a decision then and there and leave immediately.
One of his companions said that Damodar had become very close to Subhash Bose and he was one of those privileged few who travelled with Bose. If we joined we too would be admitted to the close circle of Subhas Chandra Bose.
We wanted to join them. But we were not so sure. We needed time to make a decision. But they did not have time. Finally, we too decided to join them.”
By that time the rain had begun to slow down. Grandpa realised that he did not have time to lengthen his story.
(To be continued)