By Haris Ahmed
A small village in the hinterlands of Jharkhand
“It’s simple, child. You go there, pick up some coal, return and we pay you five rupees every day,” said the stout middle-man, Vishnu, beamingly. “So, children, pick up your shovels and get to business. We’ve enough work at hand,” added Vishnu as he looked towards the line of eager children. “I guess five is enough. This way I’ll help my mother.” As he was engrossed contemplating how he’d inform his mother that he finally intended to leave school for this menial job, a sharp voice pierced him. “Pick up the shovel, daydreamer!” This was his school buddy, Bikram, laughing as he disappeared into the dingy mine. Ajit finally ran towards Bikram and patted him affectionately. All these years they grew together, ran through the rickety lanes of his village, haggled with the hawker over sweet-meat, fought over the best rag they could wear to school, and danced in the first monsoon rain, smelling the earth. Ajit’s father was a local peasant, who worked on the field of zamindar sahib. As the Naxal menace spread like a wildfire across the lands of Bihar, many villagers deserted zamindar sahib’s land. They chose dignity over eternal shame, indigence over suffering, and freedom over eternal servitude.
One year ago
The ground was ripe for a mass insurrection in the countryside. Taking cues from their peers in neighbouring Bengal, disparate bands of Adivasi militias were beginning to coalesce. As they grew both in numbers and popular support, the writ of zamindars that until now ran uncontested was in serious jeopardy. Obsequious and submissive, these were the same people who for centuries had toiled on the fields of rich land-owning castes. The victims of one of the most humiliating socially sanctioned subjugation schemes in the garb of religion and social hierarchy, they saw a source of retribution in the form of an ‘armed uprising’ to right this grievous wrong. Through the summers of 1968, hundreds of disillusioned Adivasi youth would join the rank and files of fledging Naxal militias across the land. The blaring loudspeakers asked villagers to forsake this slavery.
The primary school abutting the village common pond
“Let it be known to all, the people of this land have risen against subjugation, that we shall take back what is rightfully ours. The fiats of zamindars shall be struck down forthwith and tyranny shall be answered by bayonets. You, the people of this village, bear a moral obligation of joining your comrades in this war for our people, our land and our honor.” Thundered the bellicose Maoist leader, a veteran of Telengana revolt in 1946. As he finished, an eerie calm swept through the crowd that had gathered to hear him and his lieutenants. Soon a motley group of villagers, from the lowly peasants to disaffected youth, would enlist themselves for the Naxal cause. One among them was Ajit’s father, a small time peasant. Having lost his monsoon crop to drought, his sixth in last eight years, and defaulting on the moneylender’s loan, there was nothing to lose and everything to gain.
24 July, 1969: A mud-thatched shack at the end of the village
It has been one full year since his father left home. Often Ajit was overcome by bouts of fiendish nightmares: men clad in green barging into his home, dragging out his mother and sister towards the raised platform of the sacred pepal, proscribing them as Naxals, and finally shooting them point-blank, as they beseech them for mercy. Each bout of such a nightmare would leave him sweating and panting profusely. He’d then doubly check his mother and ten-year-old sister just to reassure himself that he wasn’t losing them this way.“Why’d father do this to us? How could he disown us this way?” Little to eat and hardly anything to cover them with, fate couldn’t be more callous. He had often heard elders say, “Time heals all”. As days turned into weeks and weeks into months, one monsoon gave way to the next, the pain of having a father, who chose to desert them to bring about a ‘revolution’, slowly subsided. There goes the scoundrel! The one whose father deserted him! Sure, his mother must be an immoral coquette. Enraged, he’d often wallop boys at his school, who hurled such imprecations at him. Slowly, even this fit of rage softened. No more would he hit them, no more would he bounce back with his own salvo of invectives. Rather he would quicken his pace and cut through the next alley to avoid any further confrontation.
A knock at the door
“Go check, Ajit. It must be your buddy, Bikram.”
“Let me check, mother!”
It’s been a routine since past one year. Bikram would often drop by his home in the evening, sometimes for homework and at other times simply to prate. His infectious cheerfulness and a bagful of gossip – from secret liaisons to the nugatory reason behind zamindar’s straying buffalos – he had everything ready. Lately, his prattle was the only thing that would bring smile to faces at Ajit’s home.
This time it was altogether different. Bikram had come to help his pal, as they finally planned to tell their families that they had dropped out of school and were working in a coal mine for past one month.
As Ajit swung the door open, he knew it was going to be difficult. Over the past year, his mother grew obdurate, never allowing him or his sister to venture out after the dusk. She was always quick to remind them, “Only until dusk, else I’ll welcome you both with this cane.” At times he felt that the nightmares were actually contagious; even his mother was possessed by them and that’s why she won’t allow them to stay out late. This time he prayed that she would understand he only wished to shoulder her responsibility, that he wasn’t a coward like his father.
Bikram jumped in beamingly, “So, how’s everyone?” Walking in slowly, he exchanged a glance with Ajit. This meant only one thing. Bikram had his way at his home and it was Ajit’s turn now. Busy with her chores, Ajit’s mother blurted out, “You both ought to be preparing for your exams; killing your time in fields surely won’t help.” Bikram fell silent, as if there was no way they could broach their new ‘job’. But Ajit knew that it was now or never; he won’t let his resolve dissipate so easily “this time”.
“Mother, I’ve something important to tell you.”
“What’s it, Ajit?” His mother asked as if it was yet another fatuous demand for a fancy toy. She was ready with a barrage of admonitions and, this time, the ever-grinning Bikram surely won’t be spared either.
“Mother, I and Bikram aren’t going to school anymore. We left last month; we’ve joined a coal mine. The guy, Vishnu, pays us well; five rupees a day. You earn twelve and I’ll bring five, which makes it seventeen; you’d no more need to ask from Uncle and that wretched sahukar.”
In a fit of pique, she slaps him.
All these years and despite all odds, she had always ensured that her kids won’t turn into some petty urchins like the hundreds of children in the village, who were stuck in the vicious cycle of penury, bereft of a future of their own. She had worked for extra hours in the fields, preparing the fallow land, clearing all those bushes on the far side of the field, and sometimes even working as a maid at the zamindar’s home. In all this, she had always prayed that she’d save enough to send both of her children to school, hoping someday they’d break free of this fiendish life at this Naxal-infested village and someday things would change for the better. How could then she bear the sight of her child slipping into the same abyss, where she lost her husband?
“Enough of this nonsense. Bikram, you better go home. It’s too late and your mother must be worried.”
As Bikram slipped out through the wooden door with quickened steps, Ajit knew that he was left to fend for himself.
“Mother, Vishnu pays us well. It pays more than any other job here in the village. It’s far better than going to school. We’ve got no books and the teacher rarely teaches us anything. He says there’s this big wave of Naxals marching towards us through the woods and soon everything would be crushed; no zamindars, no moneylenders, and no slavery. We’d all be free like those villagers in Bengal and …”
As he struggled to pick up words, his mother cut him short. “All these years, Ajit, I did everything I could to ensure that my children are well fed and have everything they wished for. That’s why I wanted you at school, to break free of this wretched curse of indigence. Do you know why I meekly swallow all those invectives of the zamindar and the moneylender? Do you even realize why I don’t retort when the village women heap aspersions at me? It was all because of the hope that I’d be able to give my children a life free of things I’ve suffered. This day, the purpose is defeated. You have fallen into the same quagmire as your father. Those big talks of some godly revolution are simply fatuous. Even if the Naxals were to extirpate every zamindar of this land and end our servitude, these wretched ones themselves would be the first to usurp power. Then things would be far worse than they are now. What do you think became of your father? He’s dead Ajit…He’s dead. I don’t want to lose you…you never know when these Naxals or the police might come in…you never know… and these days everyone’s after coal. They’ll take you, Ajit; I won’t allow this.”
Ajit had never seen his mother so weak even when his father deserted them. She’d always say, “I’ve these kids to look after. I’ve no time to cry for what’s gone.” Broken, shattered, and pleading tremulously today, this wasn’t the mother he knew all his life. Ajit wished he had never chosen to leave school.
Meanwhile at Vishnu’s office
As the dusk unspooled itself beneath the usual monsoon clouds, Vishnu settled to complete some final task of daily accounting: 157kgs of coal removed; 1500 rupees paid in wages to workers; 300 rupees for transportation. The more diligently he reviewed his daily expenditure, the more he realized that his profits were fast plummeting. If he didn’t divest himself of this risky business, he’d soon be either bankrupt or shot by the Naxals, whose demands for levies were increasing every month.
“Sahib, the Commander has come,” informed his assistant, Prabhakar, in a hushed voice, knowing well his master won’t be pleased at the sight of the Naxal leader.
Even as Vishnu steadied himself, the commander barged in, flanked on either side by two armed Naxals, “Vishnu, I know you’re a hard-working businessman. I’d really regret burning down your beautiful office. You leave me with little choices; this is the second time you’ve defaulted on payments. I hope you owe me some explanations.”
Vishnu trembled as he pushed aside his chair and tried to stand firm, gathering all his strength and courage. He said, “Sir, it’s been tough for the past two months. The profits have come down steeply, many villagers are fleeing. Everyone’s going to the towns. There are rumours of impending raids by the government forces. I’ve only a handful of workers left, mostly children. Don’t you worry, sir, the payments would reach you by tomorrow evening. I’m arranging them.”
“I take you for your word, Vishnu. The money must arrive tomorrow evening; else my men know how to settle you and your business.” The commander left with this warning as his guards flung the door open.
As Vishnu saw the commander and his men disappear in the dark, he realized his helplessness. It was all in vain. Even if he were to arrange for loans through the rich moneylenders of the village, he won’t have enough to pay the commander. Banging his fist on the wall, he said, “Prabhakar, get everything ready; we’re leaving for the town tonight.” He knew this was his best bet, if he could escape in the cover of dark. By the time the Naxals would set their hounds in pursuit, he’d be safely in the town.
“You won’t get a single penny from me commander…not a single coin,” mumbled Vishnu to himself as he began emptying all his drawers and safes.
The following morning
“Mother, I’ll try convincing Vishnu. He’s a good man. He’d surely understand and allow me to leave.” As Ajit tried placating his mother, he knew deep inside none could be trusted here and certainly not Vishnu, the man who deceptively goaded him and many other children into this sordid business.
Vishnu’s coal mine
As Ajit and Bikram walked into the mining zone, they saw chaos spread everywhere. Workers were squabbling over coal. A fracas near the far side of mine turned into a full-blown brawl between two groups.
Ajit soon realized why everything appeared chaotic. “It’s all yours people, take what you can. We’ve liberated you and your children from Vishnu’s tyranny. No exploitation, no slavery, no master. Henceforth, you’re the rulers of your destiny,” declared the dreaded commander. He came with his abominable death-squad, known across the land for dispensing people’s justice.
As the commander continued with his homily, two armed Naxals threw Vishnu amid a rancorous mob, baying for his blood. “This coal digger thought he’d get away with his loot. It’s you who deserve everything; it’s your sweat and blood. Take back what’s rightfully yours.” The crowd began hurling stones at Vishnu and soon he lay lifeless in a thick pool of blood.
The crowd roared and cheered in frenzy. Ajit was ambivalent. With Vishnu’s death, he knew that he was free. But deep down he felt there was something amoral and dastardly unfolding here. He said to his friend, “Bikram, it isn’t safe here. Let’s go home.” Bikram nodded.
Dozens of green trucks rushed towards the mining zone. Hundreds of security forces and counter-insurgency militias began pouring in through the northern side of the precinct. The Naxals and many villagers were caught unawares. What followed was an indiscriminate butchery. Not a soul escaped, including Ajit and Bikram.
Two years later
Every day she dropped off her daughter at the municipal school without fail, as she went to attend her work as a maid. These two years had taken a toll on her health. Emaciated and a husk of her earlier self, she kept going only because of her daughter. In the bustling city of Calcutta, there was always something to distract her: the elegant bazaar, motley hawkers selling sweetmeat and an assortment of other delicacies. Here she’d often forget her past; a husband who abandoned her, the killing of her son and her subsequent flight from the village as the security forces went on a rampage.
“Mother, you promised me that dress last month. Take me to the bazaar today. No excuses.”
Sometimes, these tantrums would get on her nerves but, often, she’d bear them affectionately for her daughter was her world now.
Haris Ahmed is pursuing his B.Tech (Electronics) from the University of Delhi. As a passion, he writes short-stories and articles concerning social issues of India. Haris is a self-proclaimed Dan Brown aficionado. His works have appeared on HuffPost India & Countercurrents.org. He blogs at: The Insight. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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