By Dev Chaudhry
Baliqutubpur is a small village. Now if you come to think of it, ‘small’ is a relative term, depending on your understanding of the size and your exposure to other villages. But I have often heard it from people that Baliqutubpur is a small village. It was a village of four hundred something houses when this particular tale unfolded. Baliqutubpur is located almost at an equal distance from Gohana, Gannaur, and Samalkha, the three nearby towns, and by mentioning these places as the reference points, I am assuming that you know these places. But to be very honest, knowing these places or for that matter knowing Baliqutubpur is immaterial as far as this kissa, this tale is concerned. Baliqutubpur could have been anywhere in India or for that matter anywhere on this earth. What is more important is that it is my village; even this may not be that important for you but for me, it is! This tale took place in my village and I was a witness to it, you see.
This was also the village, where Shobha lived with her daughter and husband at that point of time.
So the kissa goes like this. There was a woman named Shobha in the village named Baliqutubpur. Shobha was a naain by caste. Now please don’t ask me what a naain is. Gosh, a naain is the wife of a naai, the barber. The naai, Mange, had kicked the bucket some time back (who came up with such an atrocious phrase? Not me, for sure!) before this particular kissa happened.
The year was 1982. India was one year away from winning the Cricket World Cup but the fever of the World Cup was already catching up with all, especially with us, the young ones. We, the young fellas, were excited and knew well in advance that India would win the World Cup because, in our collective heart, we believed that there was nothing in the world that Kapil Dev could not do. This being the time of school’s summer break, we played cricket all day long. Bheema chacha was our coach, umpire, and the arbitrator whenever there was a dispute on the runs scored or on being given out.
This was also the time when the village social structure was undergoing changes (I have a sense that this thing happens all the times). Most families from the lower castes (it is not as if they lived below the surface of the earth), who were a little better off than others within their castes, moved to urban areas.
These urban areas were sucking in people from the rural areas. First, they sucked in the rich, the upper castes (again it is not as if they lived on the surface of the clouds), who were working in government jobs. Then these cities realized that they needed people to serve these government people. So, the next ones to be sucked in were the poor, the lower castes people to serve the upper castes, government jobwallah, to look after their kids, to man the colony gates where these people lived, and to clean the streets, the toilets, etcetera and etcetera.
These towns and cities offered better income, regular work, and immediate payments in hard cash. Though the relationship was not personal based on knowing the other for generations but precisely because of this very reason, the newly formed relationships were much more civil, if not respectful. This new identity (as professional class in urban areas) and new financial position gave people courage to break away from the work they deemed undignified. They refused to pick and clean the pattals, the leaf-plates in the community gatherings like marriages. They refused to shave hair in armpits and on chest. Moreover, naais started coming back to the village to render their services to their jajmans, the benefactors, on Tuesdays, the day when it was believed in the village that even buffaloes did not wet their heads in the village ponds. How could people get their hair cut on that day? But because most of the naais had already moved to Gannaur and Samalkha, the villagers had only two options left, either to wait for Mange to attend to them, whenever he was in good mood or get their grooming done on Tuesdays. Of course, Mange was the more favoured option.
Well, I digress. Let me return to the kissa, the tale.
Mange had stayed put in the village. Mange was one of the most important and sought after persons in the village. Mange was a simple man, a jolly fella you can say. He used to own a shop, a hair-cutting salon in the village. The shop was located not very far from where he lived. For most of the time, Mange worked in his shop. He also visited houses in the village whenever upper caste people (upper not in the sense of physicality; all people lived on the earth only) did not want to come to his shop and rather preferred him to come to their homes.
Mange, a lovely, jolly fella, had one habit, actually two; no, one habit and one oft-said thing. He used to drink a lot and he used to say that he would educate his daughter and make her an afsar, an officer. Mange loved his daughter; he doted on her. She had the best and prettiest of the frocks in the whole village and in the school. He often used to sit by her side at night, when she was fast asleep still holding on to her school notebook or some toy close to her chest. He would sing old Hindi film songs. In those songs, he would compare her to the sun and moon in the sky or a lily in a pond or a fairy in fairyland or a princess in some distant but radiant and lively kingdom, and hope that, one day, she would bring name, fame, and glory to him.
But Mange’s mother did not like his daughter at all. His father had died when Mange was quite young. Mange’s mother remained in a state of shock for several days, when she heard that her bahu, daughter-in-law, had given birth to a girl. She had actually turned her face away when her bahu handed her granddaughter to her to hold in her arms. She had gone in a state of shock. For days, she did not eat anything, she did not talk to anybody, and she did not go anywhere. She constantly, day and night, barraged Mange to bear a son. “There has to be someone to carry on the family name,” she would say. Mange always said yes to her to placate her so that she would eat something. Finally, after few days, she got up from her charpoy and started her routines, and the most important thing in those routines was barraging her son and daughter-in-law to bear a son.
Both Mange and Shobha were happy to have Saroja in their life. People say often such things in hyperbole but Saroja, really, looked like an angel. She looked exactly like the kid on the right corner of the Murphy radio – the chubby, happy, and healthy kid with a cheek to cheek smile, the smile going up to the corner of the eyes, making them look smaller. Saroja was their life. And to their good fortune, Mange’s mother passed away very soon. Saroja was just two at that time. They knew that she would have died a resentful death. So they did the prayers, havan poojan and fed few brahmans (as per their capacity) so that her soul is freed from all the trappings of this world – hate, resentfulness, moh (especially for a grandson), maya (carrying the family name etc. etc.).
Now, there were three members in the family: Maange, Shobha, and Saroja. It was a happy family; the constant curse was gone as far as Shobha was concerned.
As you might have heard, good people are called earlier than others by God to be by his side. Mange left this earthly world for good pretty young when his daughter, Saroja, was still in the sixth class. And when he left this earthly world, he kicked no bucket, though he might have kicked some bottles (this is just my imagination but it is very much possible because bottles were plenty and almost everywhere in that small shanty kind of one room house).
While ruminating about him, my Papa used to get philosophical. They both were fellow-travelers on the journey of revelry and had spent many (or should I say innumerable?) evenings together. There used to be others too of their ilk in these gatherings. I also used to be there because I invariably worked as a bearer during such gatherings, bringing water some time and salad some other time. Actually most of the time I hung around because I liked to listen to the things they used to talk and discuss – the jokes, stories or the social, political issues. My papa is a big-time raconteur of lateefaa, kissa, kahani. He never calls the jokes chutkule or anything else but lateefa (and there is a reason behind this but that story some other time), never kahani but kissa or baat, the tale. Whenever I asked him about Mange, Papa used to say that Mange tumbled throughout his life and tumbled out of it. I knew he was using the words of someone else who had said this about Humayun because Papa was very fond of using these kinds of idioms, quotes, and phrases in his talk.
For some time, Shobha kept the salon open but nobody came. To be very frank, she kept it open because she missed Mange very much and being there she could feel his presence, talk to him and cry, away from Saroja and the world. Shobha had no idea as to how to cut hair or shave the hurly-burly men off their thoroughly unwarranted facial sprouts (no, that’s not what she thought, that’s my, yours truly’s imagination). After some time, she closed the salon and locked it forever, and started doing sundry jobs here and there to keep the hearth warm and house running.
But with such erratic jobs, it was not possible to manage the family. Her situation was known to everyone in the village. Women empathized with her but did not do anything beyond empathizing; men started taking more interest in her welfare. Slowly and slowly, men started coming to her house first to talk about Mange and then to spend their time with her. And she started living comfortably after that (don’t ask me how, I was just a kid at that time, I just heard these things). I often heard that she had started ‘sitting’ with men.
This ‘sitting’ thing raised my curiosity. I increased my rounds in the naai mohalla, which was at the next corner from my mohalla, diagonally opposite to the village pond and the chaupal. Though it could be safely said that by this time hardly any mohalla was left. True, there were many houses but only one house had people in it and that was Shobha’s house. All other families had moved to the towns and cities. I made several rounds of her house but I never saw any man near her house, let alone sitting with her. However, I saw several other women in my mohalla sitting with men, chatting, and laughing. I was thoroughly confused and perplexed by this things called ‘sitting’.
Then, one day on such a round, I saw Saroja, sitting on a cot in front of her house. I had not seen her for quite some time. Her mother had sent her away to the city to stay with her Mama and study in an English medium school. As I saw her, I raced to her and braked on my feet when I reached near her. Breathless but happy to see her, I smiled to her and she smiled back to me. She was reading a thick book, which was in English.
“Bethun, can I sit?” I asked. Without waiting for her answer I sat down next to her on the charpoy and asked, “Have you become an officer?”
“No, no, you silly. I am preparing for it,” she said.
“How can you prepare to become an officer; an officer is an officer,” I said.
“No,” she said, “the officer is not a born officer. Nobody is a born anything. You study, study more, write an exam, and you start reading more to learn about the job if you get selected.”
And then almost cutting her midway, I said, “Mei tumhare saath betha hoon, I am sitting with you.” “Yes,” she said, totally nonchalantly. “I am sitting with you,” I said again while smiling goofily at the same time. “Yes,” she said without looking at me. I was sad and perplexed at the same time with such a tepid response from her. I had thought that this ‘sitting’ thing was something extraordinary. I do not know why people were making it sound such a big thing. I got up and told her that I would be taking her leave, to which she said, “Okay. Study well.” I told her that she knew I was the best student in my class, to which she said, “I know but don’t keep hanging around those good-for-nothing boys.” I told her that I liked hanging around with them, to which she smiled, caressed my head with her soft hand, smiled again, and said, “Okay. No issues. But not too much. First focus on your studies, okay?” “Okay,” I said. I ran towards the village chaupal, still feeling the soft touch of her hand on my head. And I knew Sita, my best friend, must be waiting for me there to go for our daily cricket practice.
Time passed. Shobha’s daughter Saroja grew up to emerge as a replica of her mother: tall, dusky, an ethereal beauty. She was a cynosure of all the eyes, especially those who had helped her mother pass through the tough phase, when her father had died and her mother had no clue as how to cut hair or shave the hurly-burly whatever it was (I just wanted to use the word hurly-burly because I like the sound of it). They first coaxed Shobha, then pleaded, then threatened to get her and her daughter thrown out of the village, lest she let them have access to her daughter, too.
Shobha would have none of it. She clearly told them she would educate her daughter and make her an afsar. However, Shobha was no child and she knew her situation very well; a single woman and mother, how far she could save her daughter from these jackals? As soon as Saroja appeared for her tenth standard examination, she sent her to stay with her brother, who lived in Sonepat, the district headquarter. He got Saroja admitted to a convent school there. He also arranged additional tuitions for her so that she could prepare to get into a medical college.
Now, Saroja came to village only during the summer breaks (and that is when I had met her, and apparently ‘sat’ with her of which she took no notice, leaving me thoroughly confused about this thing called ‘sitting’).
Now, this was unheard off – a naain, a lower caste, a widow, a woman who sat with men, how she could even think of saying no to those men, much more superior to her, much more powerful to her. They decided to act on their threat and called for a panchayat. The village elders were invited to head the proceedings; villagers were asked to come to be part of this highly important panchayat and give their testimonies. They were asked to be witness to a major event in the otherwise dull slow life of a small village. To mobilise people, meetings were held in almost every nook and corner of the village. The planning was underway in full swing. We, the young fellas, knew it all because, Bheema uncle told us all about it, when we learnt and perfected our in- and out-swing just like the great Kapil Dev. He also told us, with a haughty air in his gestures, that he was leading all this. On hearing that, we the chellas, followers of Bheema uncle, whistled, clapped, and danced around him. Then, we picked him on our shoulders and carried him till the pond, next to the village chaupal that day. Bheema uncle was our hero (of course, after Kapil Dev) and we were happy and excited seeing that he was happy and excited, and that finally he was being recognized as the real leader of the village.
I, well, I was not invited but fortunately my presence was taken with a pinch of smirk and I was not asked to leave the panchayat (you know kids are not allowed to join in such meetings but I, at least in my own opinion, was already an elder, full of wisdom; if I could join in the high philosophical meetings in the evenings when my papa held the fort with others on such a high level of discussions, what was this gathering in front of that? That is what I thought and shrugged off their smirk with my condescending smile).
Everybody, well almost, all the men, the naain, and I (I hope now you know why I’m so central to this incident) were there. The village chaupal was jam-packed with people in whites – white kurtas, white headgears, and white pajamas or dhotis. Haryanvi men have a penchant for the colour white (one day I will find out the reason behind it; I made a note in my mind). Then the elders came and took positions on the cots at the head of the gathering, in the left corner of the chaupal. The chaupal is just outside the village, flanked by the village well on one side and the johad, the village pond, on the other side, and is almost covered with neem and jaamun trees. Floods used to be common occurrence at that time in my village. That is why the chaupal was constructed on an elevated space. It was a beautiful place for us children as most of the times it was empty and we used to play all sorts of games there.
The eldest elder, siting at the head of the cots, called the house in order and asked the main complainant to let his plaint be made known to all those present in the village panchayat. Uncle Bheema, our hero, stood up and started speaking after clearing his throat few times. He suddenly became very excited, actually agitated, and nobody (at least I could not) make any sense of what he was saying. Elders started smiling, while all others were laughing loudly. I felt sorry for my uncle Bheema. I knew he was a good man at heart and had always been good with us kids. He had this deep desire somewhere in his belly to be acknowledged as such – a good man, a leader, who was always interested in the good of the village. That is why I thought he might have taken upon himself to lead this fight also on behalf of the village and get the bloody-good-for-nothing naain thrown out of the village. But to my surprise and those of the other kids, he was always laughed at by others. I felt sorry for him and became a tad sad.
The elders asked Partap, another uncle of mine and a much more mature and balanced person, to proceed. Uncle Partap also spoke excitedly, but with more control than uncle Bheema, and with each sentence he pointed towards the naain. Several other people spoke after uncle Partap. They also pointed their fingers towards the naain while speaking. At one point during all this, the naain, who was standing with folded hands and somewhat stooped in the left corner of the chaupal, few feet away from where I was sitting, started to slump as if her 36-year-old body suddenly became very old and was not able to bear the weight of her own body. Slowly and slowly she sat down, her legs awkwardly sprawled. Many villagers objected to this and asked the elders to make her get up. Elders gestured with their raised hands without saying anything, and my guess was that they asked people to calm down and let her as she was.
Many persons spoke and spoke almost the same things, most of which were beyond my complete comprehension. Sitting with men, spoiling young men, spoiling sanskriti and dharma of the whole village, etcetera and etcetera – I made note of those things very carefully in my mind. These were the things I was going to ask Papa in the evening, when he was back from the relative’s house where he had gone to attend an important function. My Papa was considered the most knowledgeable person in the village; he knew everything. He was deemed to be a loving and disciplinarian person, in equal measures. Somewhat similar to Mange, he had taken it upon himself to educate every kid in the village and make them officers.
One after another, someone kept coming and kept speaking. Shobha kept listening (I guess so) and I kept making notes of all the things in my mind to ask Papa in the evening.
Then there was silence for some time. The village elders looked around and found no one else coming forward to speak. There was silence for few minutes. Everybody waited for the elders to pronounce their decision, the decision to throw this haughty woman out of the village.
Then an elder, sitting on the cots at the head of the gathering, on the left side of the chaupal, cleared his throat and asked the naain if she wanted to say something in her defense, in her response. The whole gathering squealed in negative in unison as to how she could be given such a right but the elder held his hand high as if to say, “Keep calm”. You know as is the wont of such gatherings, there is generally someone who will say or do something which will be humane, democratic, balancing. The murmurs continued, subdued though, as no one had the guts to say anything against the elder, and especially when other elders had also nodded in agreement.
That perked up Shobha and brought life in her listless body. I also felt a thrill in my veins, as the drama was taking another turn, and the tension was building up. I perked up on my haunches. Shobha raised her head and started straightening her body. Her veil stretched back and got removed from her face as she stood up. First, she looked towards the crowd and then she looked towards the elders and bowed a little. She opened her folded hands and folded them again to the skies above first and then toward the cots, where the elders were sitting and said, “I only want to say one thing – I want to take the names of all the people who visit me.”
There was a murmur in the crowd; soon the murmur grew into a deafening noise. All the people were speaking at the same time. People sprang to their feet and started shouting – how a naain can be allowed to say things, she could say anything, name anybody, blemish anybody. And more such things on a similar line. People were shouting, flaying their hand while at the same time leaving the chaupal. Soon the place was almost empty. Only seven people were left – the five elders, Shobha, and yours truly. Though I must admit that yours truly was thoroughly dumbfounded as he was not able to comprehend the sudden turn of the events and the abrupt ending to an otherwise lively proceeding.
My Papa was going to have a hell of an evening, for sure, answering my queries.
Dev Chaudhry has been associated with the development sector for last 15 or so years. He has worked with several national and international NGOs. A social scientist by training, he did his master’s programme in sociology at JNU, New Delhi and as a result loves to observe people and their behaviours. He did his Ph.D. in Community Health Sciences from University of Manitoba, Canada and his thesis was on ‘migration and health’. He loves to read all kinds of books but his first preference lies with poetry and fiction. He is currently based in Delhi.
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