By Dev Chaudhry
I, the potential topper of the Haryana School Education Board, wanted to purchase a pen, actually the best pen so that I could show my jalwa in the examination and be the topper (to be very frank, every student in that school was a potential Board topper; the school was known to produce the Board toppers). So pretty naturally, I decided to go to the Sardar’s Pen Shop, famous in whole of Sonepat for its pens. The Sardar (nobody knew his actual name; at least we did not) sold only pens; no other stuff such as books, notebooks, pencil or any other such thing.
On a pleasant winterish afternoon, I set out for the Sardar’s shop, accompanied by my two closest friends, Jagbir and Surender, who, though equally aspired to be the Board toppers, were not there to buy any pen or anything; they just wanted to be out of the school gate, which was no less a gate than the gate you might have seen in the movie Bandini.
The Sardar’s Pen shop was not very far from our school. If you have been to Sonepat or if you are from there, you will know that Shambhu School is just next to that Other School (we do not take the name of that school and they do not utter our school’s name, and there is a story behind that but let us leave that story for some other time), and further down in the north of the school is a railway track. An under-bridge connects this side of the city to the other side of city. Just across the railway track, there used to be a small bus stop where the bus, which plied between my village and Sonepat, made short stopovers and I generally used to get down at that place. But whenever my elder sister, who was pursuing her graduation in a college in Sonepat, was there with me, I went all the way to the Main Bus Stop with her. In such instances, my duty, as per Papa’s instructions, used to be to go to the Main Bus Stop in Sonepat with my sister, take a rickshaw from there to her college, drop her there, and then walk back from her college to my school.
Oh, while writing this, I just happened to remember that on one such occasion, when we were on our way from the Main Bus Stop to her college in a rickshaw, someone sitting on a road-side chai shop whistled and said ‘Desi or Dalda?’ My sister replied, ‘Desi’, and raised her right hand high in the air in a slap kind of shape and said in a cold but angry voice, ‘Chahiye kya? Do you want one?’ The boy who had said ‘desi or dalda’ promptly said, ‘Na ji. Jao ji jao. Go sister go’. I did not understand much of this ‘desi or dalda’ thing that had just transpired. I looked at my sister in anticipation for an explanation. In response to the query in my eyes, she just smiled and patted my head with her left hand as the rikshaw moved further down towards her college. Generally I used to get annoyed when elderly people touched my hair while giving blessings because they always ended up spoiling my well-done hair but, that day, it felt good and kind of reassuring.
Well, this is a problem with me; when I go back in memories, I reminisce, and I digress. Let me return to the main story.
To go to the Sardar’s Pen Shop, one did not go towards the railway track, one went in the opposite direction. From the gate of the Shambhu School, one went right. As one leaves the Bandini gate of the school and move right, there was the district library on the right side and several bookshops on the left side. As one moved further on that street, say after two hundred meters, one would reach the main sadak. A market welcomed you there, with shops on all the sides, people all around, standing, talking and haggling with the shopkeepers over the prices. But, for us students, two things mattered in the busy market; one, there used to be a thella on the left corner and just next to that thella, there was a video parlour which exhibited mind bewildering posters of Hindi movies on standees next to the gate. The video parlour was not some fancy place; it used to be a small tiny shop where movies were shown on a small television set. The thellawala sold the most enticing stuff – samosa, pani poori, chaat and other such spicy and forbidden food items (forbidden because our school principal had told us that it was bad food and had warned us against having that kind of food). He, however, had said nothing about the video parlour.
To reach the Sardar’s shop, one had to go further on that main sadak, which ran parallel to the railway track; the two separated by a row of shops. After, say, a kilometer, there used to a chauraha. Once on that chauraha, one saw the railway crossing on his left and just ahead on the right, the Hindu College (whose main gate was so tiny and unimpressive that it gave no hint of the kind of college it was or the space it had inside). On the right side of the chauraha, one would see (at least at that time there used to be) a huge Banyan tree (it could very well have been a Peepal tree also; I had never been able to distinguish between a Banyan and a Peepal tree, at that time). Next to that tree was the Sardar’s Pen Shop. The Sardar, as I told you, only sold pens, nothing else; no curriculum book, no notebook, no nothing. Just Pens. And his pens used to be the best in the ‘whole of South East Asia, if not in the whole world’, as Surender used to describe it. Surender had a penchant for going over the top while describing things he liked, and he always used South-East Asia as the reference point and not the world or the globe. We never understood why, but we always chuckled when he said ‘in the whole of South East Asia’ in his assertive voice, proficiently synchronized with the flourish of his right hand.
I bought the pen. I did not feel any need to try or check the pen because for us the Sardar’s name was enough. While coming back, we involuntarily (hypnotized by the glittering film posters) and surreptitiously (so that nobody sees us) entered the video parlour to watch a movie where Rajanikanth played triple roles. The video parlour was jam packed. There was no place left to sit. We could barely find some space to squeeze ourselves to lean against the wall. The movie had started already but it did not bother us much. We started enjoying the movie from the word go as we entered that small heaven of a place called video parlour. Everything seemed magical in that dark and cramped room where the only light was of the light of a small television set seated on an old, rickety wooden table. Once the movie was over and as we neared our school, we felt scared (what if someone had seen us) and guilty because we were given permission only to go out to buy the pen. We told ourselves that the principal had warned us against eating street food from the thella but had not said anything about the video parlour. In fact, to come out fully clean, we were forbidden to watch the movies also. Our principal had told us that they were bad for our character. But to be very frank, he had talked of movie theatres only while saying so, never uttered the word ‘video parlour’, we again reasoned among ourselves. After all, we were shown a movie every month in the school, and that is where we had seen movies like Bandini, Madhumati, and Shaheed.
It was already very late by the time we reached our school. Pretty happy and confident that there was no power in the world which could stop me from becoming a Board topper, initiation ceremony of the pen was held with much pomp and show in my room, with all friends gathered around. But the pen turned out to be a dud, simple pure and utter dud. Its nibh, the tip, was so broad that it was fit only to sign the property deeds or write notices on the school noticeboard. Certainly, this pen was not for writing thousands and thousands of words on the examination answer-sheets. Some friends, gathered there, said that this was not a good omen. Hearing that sank my heart, which pushed the tears from deep down to my eyes. ‘How could he?’ I mumbled feebly while trying to hold back my tears. Seeing me in this condition, friends gathered in the room suggested to go and attack the Sardar’s shop the next day. A quick wordless mutiny spread in the whole room. It was decided that we all would go to the Sardar’s Pen Shop the next day as it had gotten very late that day, and there was no chance that we would be allowed to go out of the school at that hour.
Next day, the D-day, during the breaks, we kept on discussing our killer moves for our battle with the Sardar. There was, though, something different about that day. Teachers wore a somber look. They did not teach anything. They gave us this or that class work to do. They talked slowly, walked slowly and looked pensive (they were walking as if suddenly cobwebs had grown up in their feet, and they were not able to disentangle themselves from them and walk freely). We were perplexed but happy as we got lot of time to think through the things we were going to say and do to the Sardar in the evening. Our plan was simple – he had broken our trust (and heart) and we were going to hit him on that point only through our smoldering, burning barbs. We had planned to create a huge ruckus to insult him and spoil his name to teach him a lesson so that he never dares to cheat anyone in future.
By the evening, we got the news that Indira Gandhi, India’s Prime Minister at that time, was killed. Our school, where almost hundred percent teachers were Brahmin (there was just one teacher in the whole school who was not a Brahmin, and he was from my village, and responsible for my coming to this school), was in shock and utter despair while the students, mostly from rural areas belonging to peasant class, were jubilant.
We had to abort the plan to go to the Sardar’s shop that day as the school was completely locked down. We came to know that the Sikhs were being massacred in Delhi and other parts of the country. There was no way we could have breached that Bandini gate that day. We were told not to go out, the situation was tense outside in the city, and that a Curfew had been imposed in the city. We had never heard of this word before so we took out the dictionary and looked for its meaning. It sounded ominous and scary: ‘a law which says that people must not go outside; the time after which nobody must go outside’.
The whole city was under the Curfew. The school gates were closed shut. All other points of escape from the school from where the ‘adventurous’ students used to sneak out to go to the market to eat the junk food on the thellas or to see movies were manned by the additionally hired guards. But all this could not stop news and rumours to reach the students. We heard harrowing stories from the milkmen, dhobhis, and the guards about the massacre of Sikhs – that people in Delhi were going from house to house and taking out the Sikhs and killing them; that people were being burnt alive by putting tyres around their necks; that train bogies full of dead bodies were coming from Delhi and other areas. We climbed the rooftop of our hostel and kept a vigil on the trains coming from Delhi. When these trains passed over the ‘under bridge’, the nearest place to our school beyond the Other school, we were not sure as to what we had seen in the bogies – some of us saw people sitting, resting and sleeping while others claimed that they were the dead bodies.
And then we got the news that people from the rural areas had started thronging the city in large numbers in tractors and trolleys and in whatever mode of travel they could manage to come to the city, to see the Curfew. The word spread very fast that ‘Sonepat me Curfew laga hai; there is Curfew in Sonepat’. Just like us they had never heard or seen a curfew in their entire lifetime (and, worse, they also did not have the benefit of having a dictionary with them); they started coming to the city from the hinterland in hordes.
The Armed Forces had a tough time in controlling such a huge and enthusiastic crowd of people. They had never seen such huge crowds, almost mushrooming from all corners in to the city. Lakhs of people descended on the city in just few days. The soldiers were thoroughly and utterly un-prepared for this. What we heard through the creeks of the school gates and the cracks of the school walls was that the soldiers made murga of all of them, told them that this was the Curfew, and sent them back to their villages. People, who had come to see The Great Curfew (they had imagined the Curfew to be something like The Great Gemini Circus), were mightily disappointed with this turn of the events.
After a week or so, the situation became somewhat normal. Though the Curfew was lifted after three days only, we were not allowed outside the gates of the school for several days. There were no classes either but we were given homework. Teachers patrolled the hostels throughout the day (and night, we suspected this). There was no way we could have sneaked out of our rooms, hostels and the school to go to the Sardar’s Shop. Like the wounded soldiers, confined to the barracks and not allowed to go to the battle field to avenge the wounds, we bided our time. All our ammunition was ready and tasks were assigned to all. Jagbir, a master in the theatrics, was supposed to start the fight by shouting in loud voice and banging at the counter. To convey the deep disappointment, Surender’s role was to keep nodding and muttering to himself with occasional grunts while taking off and putting on his cap, on and off. I was supposed to stand sullen, like a hugely aggrieved person, to come in the end and act out the scene like Dilip Kumar – starting slowly, in low and mellow tone, almost chewing on every word and then ramping up the tempo in the end – talking of ‘relationship’, ‘ trust’, ‘love’, ‘respect’, ‘breach’, ‘hurt’, and ‘dhokha’. It was all planned and rehearsed several times behind the closed doors of the hostel room when the patrolling teachers were not around.
Finally, the day came when the gates were opened. The students, with a heavy dose of ‘do’s’ and ‘don’ts’, were allowed to go out. We three set out for the Sardar’s shop as soon as the main Bandini gate opened at five in the evening. We just had two hours to go, settle the scores and come back. We walked fast but steadily, measuring our steps and rehearsing our respective roles in a final rush.
We reached the Shop and took our positions. Jagbir at the counter leaning forward with his hands on the counter. I by his side with facial expressions as if I had just read an obituary, and Surender pacing to and fro, just behind us, occasionally making tch tch sounds of disappointments (this was his own improvisation; ‘the ‘tch, tch’ was better than the grunt that we had planned’, I thought).
We were ready to launch our attack but we did not see the Sardar in the shop. A young smart looking man was at the counter. With this changed scenario, Jagbir hesitated for a moment and threw a glance in my direction. I gave him a ‘yes’ nod with a side twitch of my head, and he was on his mission. ‘Where is the Sardar?’ thundered Jagbir while hitting the counter hard with his palms.
‘What happened, bhai saab?’ the young man implored.
‘Where is the Sardar?’ roared again our front man.
‘What happened?’ he again implored, ‘you tell me, I will take care of it’.
‘We will only talk to the Sardar, not to some aira gaira nathu khera or his some side lackey. Call him,’ said Jagbir, his palms firmly planted on the counter.
‘You please tell me, I will take care of it, whatever the matter is. I request you,’ said the young man, almost prostrating on the counter, which threw Jagbir ‘off’ from his role. He left the counter and turned around towards me. I guessed this was my turn to get into the act. I had just put my right hand on my chin to get into a brooding and downcast mode when Surender, all of a sudden, came from behind and said in chaste Victorian English, ‘you know this shop is deemed the numero uno in the whole of South East Asia and you have no compunction doing this kind of nefarious and lowly undertaking with us.’ Clearly, the accent and the flourish with which it was said was too much to comprehend for the young man. He not only looked exasperated but bewildered too.
Worried that he might start quoting Shakespeare or something like that and ruin the whole plot, I pushed Surender behind with a smooth nonchalant sweep of my right elbow, and took the centre stage on the counter. I planted my hands on the counter, looked straight in the eyes of the young man, and said (melancholically, and in Hindi), ‘You know, this shop is famous for pen, for the best pen. Everybody trusts Sardar and this shop so much that we have bookshops next to our school but we come here to buy pens.’ I had not even set into my act of long monologue properly when the man interrupted me and asked, ‘Please do not harass me anymore; tell me what you want’. The word ‘harass’ enraged me no end, and I hollered at the top of my voice, “Harass. We are harassing you. You have harassed us. We come to your shop in good faith and trust that we will be valued here as human beings who come because of old relationship and trust. We come here because we trust that our needs will be taken care of; that we will not be cheated; that we will not be swindled’. I caught the young man by the collar and shouted, ‘Bring out the Sardar from wherever he is hiding. He will have to come out and answer as to how he could do this – how could he throw that relationship of years out of the window in a flash, how could he break our trust – just for a small tiny puny gain?’
At this point, the young man burst out in tears; just standing there, with hands slumped on his sides, and tears rolling down from his eyes voluntarily, as if they had been kept captive for ages and suddenly someone had opened the sluice gate. ‘Mei hi hoon Sardar; I am the Sardar…I am sorry I broke your trust…..Please forgive me. Give me the pen, I’ll replace it,’ he shouted hysterically amidst hiccups and crying.
I felt as dumb as a stone for a moment, not knowing how to react and what to say. Finally as on cue from the sixth sense, I said, ‘But your beard, turban, and all?’ Hearing this, he hid his face in his palms and slumped on the counter, leaving out a shriek of a cry from somewhere very deep within. Two three shopkeepers from the nearby shops ran towards him, held his head up, and put a glass of water to his lips.
I took my pen from the counter and we left the shop, without saying anything. Nobody spoke anything on our way back to school. We had never had such a long journey in our life before. A senseless journey with dead feet and lead laden hearts.
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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