How Long?

I read a blog about long walks recently: an account of a braveheart’s eighty six miles journey for four full days. I automatically started comparing my long walks with the one I was reading about. My friends Biplab or Arnab used to accompany me on these walks. Biplab had a bicycle, so we had an additional option of double loading on his bicycle too. With Arnab, there was no alternative to pure walking all the time. From Our school to Raj Ghat, that’s where we used to go, Arnab and I.

Varanasi Map

Biplab’s bicycle had longer range. It used to take us up to Ram Nagar or Chandasi. We belonged to a pre-pocket money boom phase. So, we never used to have even one rupee in our pockets combined. One day, we were in Ram Nagar when in the hind rim a couple of spokes of Hero Ranger that Biplab was riding simply bent. We had already crossed the road that leads to Padao. We suspected that the rim was “dial” i.e. spokes were loose and needed tightening. We knew that any repair mechanic would charge much more than what we had. So, we went to a cycle repair shop and told the gentleman there to repair it, showing confidence that we had money. He checked the thing and probably did something to repair it.

We went aside and discussed our modus operandi. Biplab was the better runner, so, he would run. It was decided that I’d take the bicycle and flee. That was what we did. After riding for around one hundred metres, I saw a very fast moving thing overtaking me and leaving my bicycle behind by around twenty metres before I could recognize that the thing was my friend. From behind I could actually see the soles of his shoes rise and overlap his head. I had to yell from behind to stop him before he crossed the speed limit. He stopped, we started riding two in a bicycle. As we could not go back, we agreed upon going to Mughalsarai and then return to Varanasi via Padao. We had agreed upon that, not our bicycle.

We had gone less than hundred metres on the bicycle when the rim of the hind wheel actually bent. Now, not only could we not ride it, we actually had to let it ride that eighteen kilogram giant over our shoulders. We took turns carrying it towards our destination. It was an autumn afternoon and we were sweating and hungry. I remember our detour in search of ber to a nearby garden yielding no results. We somehow reached a railway line, crossing which, said Biplab, we would then have to walk a long way to Mughalsarai.

Why Mughalsarai? Because we had no money and his uncle used to live there. I felt it within that if we went there, I’d not return home at my routine four o’ c lock. That breaking of the routine would raise eyebrows and questions, which, in turn might make my parents suspicious. Now that was one thing I could never afford. So, I explained the situation to my friend and took off, leaving him in the quarter-way. I ran, jogged, walked briskly and somehow reached the highway. I jumped into the empty back of a truck and covered some distance, and then I crossed the Malviya Bridge. I finally was assured of my return in time, as I had travelled the distance between Raj Ghat and my place on foot several times. I ran for almost the whole stretch of around six to seven kilometres and returned well in time.

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Lopa’s Soliloquy

Bhaal is a buffoon and a low life. No one knew him better than his mother and she told me everything about him before liver cirrhosis had succeeded in forcing the fight out of her spirit. No she isn’t ever out of her senses while talking about her son, never. Actually, it is only while talking talking about her sons that she has full command over her senses. It was due to them that her husband had died an early death. How could she forget? They are both family and sworn enemies – the lady and her sons.  How many were they? Eight. She had given birth to eight sons and daughters. Two had not seen even their second birthday – poor souls. Her first born achieved martyrdom, so did her husband.

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She had started cursing her sons from the day of her husband’s death. She could afford it as she had strong lungs then: fresh and healthy. She became an alcoholic as she grew older, and needed hukkah all the time. She used to babble, cursing her sons in two languages and one dialect. The pattern continued even when her lungs had started oozing blood and she needed to cough, raspingly and painfully, with every two minutes stretch of voicing her vituperative malevolence.

She wanted to go to heaven after her husband was lynched. She’s still hopeful. Why do I say hopeful? Because she points it out to us that in Kalyug all the widows go to hell as they can’t become satis in the Congress Raj, as was the case in the British Raj. She’d be equally dissatisfied with the Raj of BJP or CPI too. It’s not that she had not tried to follow the example of her fore-mothers. She had found no abettors. With the 1987 success of Roop Kanwar in Deorala, she became more irritable. After all, someone else had beaten her in the game. So, the lady who couldn’t become a sati and ensure her seat in heaven, was satisfied dishing it out to her two surviving male children in daily large installments.

She is my confidante and best friend. She has shown me my husband’s real face: the ugly face behind his mask of finesse and polish. My children are all blind fools. They learn nothing from us. Rishabh has always been his father’s son, Madhyam is never fully himself, and Nishaad does whatever his father wants him to. Purnima is my only hope, and her son. She’ll give birth to him next month sometime. She’s the daughter-in-law I had always prayed for. Her son will be the first grandson of the family, and I will not let him be like his grandfather, or his father. His great-grandmother has warned me against all kind of weakness: no love, no pity, no softness.

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The Weeping Women

Lajja Devi and Ojaswi Raje had been weeping continually for around four hours. For the first two hours they could be heard up to the first floor corridor. They were weeping silently when Shiv came to take them home. Lopamudra was there too, trying to calm them down. Lajja wanted to stay but Shiv said it was father’s wish that he took the ladies back home. So, home they went, all but one. Lopa was not known as the one who fulfilled the wishes of others, especially if they were Bhaal’s friends. She stayed and waited for her friend Kavita Munshi.

Kavita was the matron of the ward of Oncology Department. They were school friends. Lopa’s father was the Assistant Station Master at Varanasi Cantt for over two decades, and Kavita’s father was his boss. The two girls had grown up together in the Railway Colony, where trains and not the setting and rising of the sun declared when the morning began and when the day ended. Kavita was a spinster and used to live in the staff quarters of the Institute. She had adopted Shekhar, the son of Bindeshwari, her sister’s widow sister-in-law, when he was just an infant. The mother and her son had lived with Kavita since then, in a way adopting her too.

Lopa was a regular visitor to Kavita’s quarters. Her status there was more like that of a sister. She was Bindeshwari’s friend too. Their gossiping sessions were notorious throughout the internal circle of their family and friends. Lopa did not care much for Bhanu, or Rudra, or even Bhaal, for that matter. She had no family life in her husband’s house. Her family was out in the world. There was one more reason that brought her to Kavita’s place. Bindeshwari used to prepare the best fish curry in the world. They had planned the same for the dinner that night. The dinner was quite satisfactory, taste wise and by gossip volume too. The main attraction of the night was the postprandial chat session and that night was the night of full soliloquy. Lopa’s soliloquy.

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The Setting Sun?

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What is the temperature of burning petrol? And of petrol burning clothes? And of petrol and clothes burning with the skin – human skin? None of these questions crossed the human torch’s mind. All his sensory existence was being burnt with his epithelium. No, he could not see that a police party, forty sticks strong, was loosed upon the students. Neither did he smell his burning skin and the outer layers of muscle and fat, nor could he hear the rounds that Mr. Yadav had fired in the air. He could still taste petrol and the street dirt in his mouth, but his mind was not fully registering the taste. No, he was not trying to spit it out. He was sinking in the abyss. The last thing that he registered was the sensation of wetness in his groin region, and then came a hand – God’s hand, to save him.

There was no ambulance to take him to the hospital. The experienced police had cleverly come on foot and horseback. The rikshaw pullers had all fled to save their lives. Bhanu had started losing consciousness the moment Chandra Bhaal had started rolling him on the street and had gone into a shock like state by the time Dayal and Aquib had appeared with their pails of water. Bhaal ordered the two boys to pick Bhanu up and himself took the rikshaw puller’s seat. Thus did Bhanu reach the resident doctors of the Emergency. Some of them had never seen a fourth degree burn outside the textbooks. They got their chance to observe the seeping serum and the charred musculo-skeletal tissues firsthand. By the time Rudra Pratap had reached the hospital, Bhanu was shifted to the ICU.

The sun was setting at around 5:15. They had been waiting there for around five hours. They had been waiting for Bhanu to regain consciousness. Dr. Asthana had arrived at five, two hours earlier than his scheduled round at seven, at Bhaal’s special request. He had come out of the ICU a couple of minutes ago, and was talking to Bhaal and Rudra by the side of the ramp. Bhanu was in coma, he told them, and he had suffered severe burning of the fourth degree. He could not fully tell them the reason behind his slipping into coma, as Bhaal had acted promptly to extinguish the fire and they had used water to douse it. Neither could he tell them anything about the possibility of his re-gaining consciousness. It could happen within an hour or never at all. Even by the most optimistic estimates, the chances of Bhanu’s being normally functional were slim.

It felt like the sun shining over our family was about to set. My youngest son Bhanu, the apple of his grandmother’s eyes, his mother’s life-breath, was not breathing on his own. Dr. Asthana said that they had inserted a tube into him to supply oxygen to his body, as his lungs were not functioning on their own. This is not the first time my son was in that ward. He had been there once when he was only five days old, and on the same date too. They had said that the chances of the infant’s survival were thin. Bhaal had saved his life then. It was a miracle. Even he can’t do anything now. He’s gone to see the good doctor off. He’ll come back at night he’s said. The ladies must be sent home now. I’ll ask Shiv to take them home.

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The Shining Sun II

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10:35 a.m.

5 November 1990.

23 degree Celsius.

West wind blowing softly.

Light drizzle through the night of 4, till 9 in the morning.

Lighting a match stick in the open, extremely difficult.

Cigarette lighter would do it perfectly.

Fishing for that lost lighter in the jeep.

Discovered.

Lighted.

Handed over.

Lit.

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The Shining Sun

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Hindi is a very rich language. Words related to the central functions of life have an array of synonyms for them, available for the users to choose from. There are many synonyms of “the sun” viz. dinesh, dinkar, divakar, surya, suraj, prabhakar, aditya, bhaskar, ravi etc. Bhanu is another synonym for the sun. His grandfather had given his name, with a wish that his grandson’s name would shine like the sun in the firmament. He was not at Lanka that morning, otherwise, he would have witnessed his flaming sun burning his name on the plate of time. Yes, within fifteen minutes Bhanu was to become the most famous man among those in the past seven generations of his family.

He was expected to deliver a speech that would rouse even sleeping stones into a viral pitch of activity. It was not the first time he was expected to speak in front of an audience of hundreds of eyes and ears. He’d been a regular in school assemblies. Yet, he could not get complete command over his faculties. His limbs went limp and he felt like throwing up. He made a sign with his left hand to his friends, the sign that asked them to wait. At that moment of novelty, that moment of anxiety, he could identify with his hero, the one character he liked in the play he was forced go through in his class twelve: Mark Antony. He felt like he was being asked to speak in front of an audience not at all concerned with what happened to him in the end. For them, he was a spectacle, and they had come to watch some human form in flames.

He remembered the three human forms in flame that he had seen burning on the day of Ravan Wadh, year after year, and the excitement on the face of people just before Lord Ram’s aiming his burning arrow. He could see a similar twinkle in the eyes of those waiting for an even more exciting view. Oh, how much he abhorred them! He wanted to turn back, to flee, but his so called friends stood right behind him, blocking all exit routes. No, there was no way back, and there was definitely no way out. The image of blood soaked shirt at the tattered back of the dullah in the procession of Muharram, kept flashing before his mind’s eyes: blood streaming, people screaming and the centre of all attention and cruelty: totally numb.

A speech they wanted. A speech they expected. A speech they’d get. He stood up and opened his mouth. Cheers, deafening sounds of clapping and whistles, wouldn’t let him speak. He opened his mouth again, not to speak this time but to breathe in as much of oxygen as he could. He needed it to clear his mind. Silence of the tense, expecting kind returned and filled the atmosphere. He knew it was his time to speak. He looked at his audience and spoke:

Brothers and sisters, my comrades, we have come here today to send a message to the people in the government. They have done injustice. They have played with our lives and future brothers and sisters. They say that reservation of seats in education and jobs is positive discrimination necessary for providing equal opportunities to all sections of the society. But they do just the opposite by snatching away all opportunities from another large section. You know how they have been repressing all the voices against them. You know that they will try to do the same today. We are physically and numerically superior to them, but we will remain non-violent.

We need to speak loudly today, for they are deaf. We need fires to blaze forth and make light enough for them to see, for they are blind too. And that’s what we’ll do. I have heard that they used to sacrifice human beings in the yajnas in the past. Well, Rajiv Bhai has offered his body to the fire of the yajna against the unjust system, and I will do the same today. Friends, … (Thunderous claps for full two minutes)…Friends, we need to bear it in mind that I am neither the first, nor will be the last sacrifice. I can see many standing among you who will come forward tomorrow, and the fire of the resistance will be kept alive.

With Bhanu stood Deen Dayal, and behind them were several other students who looked, well, nondescript. There was only one who held Bhaal’s attention for more than fifteen seconds. He was wearing black kurta and jeans, and was restless all the time the speech was going on. Then he vanished and was not seen until the arrival of Vishwa Mohan Dubey, the most popular leader of the student’s union. They had been waiting for his arrival. He was the ferocious and notorious President of their union and used to micro-control all student activities in the university. He could simply not allow Bhanu to take the centre stage and was about to launch into his two page script when, through the corner of his eyes, he caught the form of Anish slipping away.

One moment later, his quick mind had already analysed that he had to expedite the things otherwise the whole programme would fail. Anish was notorious for vanishing on the first scent of the Police. He was wanted in three cases of 307 and one of 302 and although he was roaming freely, he was absconding at that time, according to law. The police would be there any given moment. Vim had to forgo his speech and announce that their brother Bhanu was about to make history that day. Vim’s two sturdy friends and two canisters of petrol were in his jeep. On his cue, they brought the cans and emptied the contents over Bhanu.

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The Godfather

They had both started laughing. Chandra Bhaal had known Bhanu since he was just three days old. He had first seen the little Bhanu in the Emergency Ward of SSL Hospital, where he was rushed from his paternal village near Ghazipur. The infant had tetanus, and his jaws were half-locked. He was only five on 5 November 1969 – five days, that is. A thick needle inserted into an infant’s skin was not a thing that Bhaal would ever forget. He would not pray for the child, for he knew that prayers are for fools and imbeciles, and he was neither. He went to the head of the pediatrics department instead, and talked, while Rudra Pratap stood there, praying and helpless.

They talked about the bad times the country had reached due to the critical position of Saturn in Indiraji’s horoscope, about the recent communal riots in Gujarat, and about the test debut of one G R Vishwanath in the match between India and Australia at Green Park. At the end of the talk, the infant in the Emergency Ward was mentioned. Dr. Sahi had instantly understood the real purpose of the prefatory small talk. Chandra Bhaal was a very important person, at least for his whole family. He had saved his career once, and life twice. Now was the time for the first installment of the repayment. It was a difficult case. He knew that the child was born in the village house of his grandfather, and had neonatal tetanus that was nearly seventy per cent fatal in India.

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Well, Bhanu did not join the seventy percent fatality statistics. He survived. Some said it was all because Bhanu’s grandmother had gone without water or food for three days so that Kedar Baba would save the child. Some said that the doctors of SSL Hospital were gods and some called the child lucky. Rudra Pratap knew that the real reason behind the child’s miraculous survival was his friend Bhaal and from that day onwards, the saver of the child’s life was his unannounced godfather.

The term wasn’t used by anyone, but Bhaal performed all the functions of a good godfather. Since that day of 1969, when he had seen that helpless infant in the emergency ward, Bhaal had appointed himself his guardian angel. He was playing this role of his at Lanka that day. Only this time, there were no brown infant eyes looking into his for a moment, pleading for life.

Bhanu was in full form that morning. Wearing a khadee kurta and grey trousers, with a long tika of Sankatmochan on his forehead, he shone among his fellow students. It was an important occasion for the students. One of their leaders was going major league by immolating himself. It was a criminal offense, so there were two constables by the paan shack in the corner. They were sent there not to do anything, but to observe and flee when they smelt danger. Students of BHU had caused a lot of harm to the police in the past, and Ram Asre Yadav, the Officer In-charge of Lanka Police Station had no plan to add two more names to the list of casualties.

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Rudra Pratap’s Friend

He’d always been taciturn and soft spoken; ever a gentleman, my friend Chandra Bhaal. Our houses are in the same muhalla. His father was a freedom fighter and one of the first martyrs of an independent India, and mine had only struggled to establish himself during the British Raj as a comission agent supplying sandstone from Chunar and marble from Jabalpur. Our fathers were never friends. In fact they had never known each other.

I had a father I could never admire nor ever want to keep, and he had a father I’d die to call mine: Shri Kumar Sambhav Singh Ji, the role model I acquired a little late: in my early adulthood. It was because he was his father’s son that I had taken him inside my circle. Well, he became my best friend within three days. He was not Kumar Sambhavji’s son for nothing. He is now the friend, philosopher and guide to my youngest son Bhanu.

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Bhanu wouldn’t take even one step without his Bhaal Cha‘s permission. Things hadn’t always been like this. Twenty five years ago, when Bhanu was in his rebellious late teens and early twenties, he was also an active member of the Student’s Union of the university. In Varanasi, there’s only one university that bears the name of the city, and Bhanu was a proud student of the same. Those were the years of protest against the reservation for SC/ST in education and jobs. Bhanu was one of the leaders of the whole protest thing in his area. They used to go to the university to ensure that the classes had no students within, and to assemble as many as possible for their Anti_Mandal marches.

Bhanu had announced at Lanka on the evening of 4 November 1990 that he would follow on the footsteps of Rajiv Goswami. His friend Deen Dayal, Gopal Das Ji’s son, had come home to give Organic Chemistry tuition to Ojaswi Raje that very evening and had told me to be careful the next day. I didn’t listen to him. He had also informed Bhaal, and he did more than just listening. He sat with Bhanu that night and asked him about his self-immolation declaration. And then, he had listened very patiently, asking questions at the right intervals, for the next one hour and five minutes.

Chandra Bhaal had told me the whole thing in the Emergency Ward of Sir Sunder Lal Hospital through the unending night of fifth November. He had told me how Bhanu had begun with his usual paranoia inducing pitch: “Bhaal Cha, how could you not understand? You, whose father had risked his life for his people and motherland? I was expecting that I’d ask you to convince papa. You have to understand me on this. How long will we be penalized for being of high birth? How long will the politicians sell the future of upper caste students to buy their votes? Do you know what reservation is, and what it will do to the job prospects of Rishabh, Madyam and Nishaad? How will Lata get admission to the University?” And had got the brief, “What’s in it for you?” at the end.

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His Story

Story-telling is actually balancing between telling and hiding: at the appropriate moment and to the necessary extent. Reveal too much, too soon, and the lifeblood of the story is drained away. What do they call the murder of one’s own child? Filicide. So, to avoid filicide, the writer needs to hide(I was going to type “parts of the story” but then decided to leave space for the “play” of meanings). But hiding too much may severe the telling part away from story-telling. That will be self-defeating. In telling the story of Chandra Bhaal Singh, I’ll try to reveal and conceal in a manner beneficial to the process of story telling and appreciation.

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He was born to a father whose dual source of income had been reduced to around half by the time of his birth. Both his parents were from villages between Varanasi and Ghazipur. He was the fifth child of Kumar Sambhav and Kirti Prabha. His two elder brothers had died very young – both before he was born – due to meningitis. So, his parents were doubly protective towards this son of theirs. The father had christened his son Chandra Bhaal, that meant one whose forehead shines like the moon. Quite a name, a prophetic name, he thought – a name distinctive in itself. Kirti had no time for the name-fame-fortune projections her husband used to make. Her son’s being alive and healthy was cause enough for her to be happy.

Now, about Sambhav‘s sources of income: his father Chander Prakash had some agricultural land in his village, along with two mango and one guava orchards, from where used to come around one thousand rupees every year. That too at a time when one could buy pure ghee, enough to make parathas for two, in just one anna. They were rich, in a way, but that was not enough for Bhaal. He was restless and hated his identity that was fixed by his birth, time and locale. He broke through the bondages of birth and locale by altering one and inventing the other. He left his village for Kolkata, and, after some time, started writing “Singh” at the end of his name. His self-invention has a story of its own.

In the human ocean of Kolkata, no one had time for trifles like a stranger’s caste, unless they were going to dine with them, or offer their daughter’s hand to them in holy matrimony. Sambhav was alone, a bachelor, not ugly, hard-working and a teetotaler. So, they were naturally interested in his caste. Looking at him, and the way he outshone his colleagues and competitors, it was assumed already that he was from one of the two castes on the top of the hierarchy: Brahmin or Kshatriya. He had given tacit approval to the Ksahtriya Hypothesis.

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The Festivals that Were: Saraswati Puja

Mother Saraswati is the goddess of wisdom and learning. She wears white clothes, sits on a white swan or lotus and carries a veena and a book in her hands. Hymns in her praise are sung in the morning assemblies of many schools even to this day. There used to be no such assemblies in my school back then. I don’t know the current state as I’d not been in the school in session for more than fifteen years. Our school used to celebrate Vasant Panchami as the day of Maa Saraswati. All the students of art were given strict instructions to bring either a drawing/painting or a craft model to the school, to be displayed in the Central Hall of the school on the day of Saraswati Puja.

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I’m not very good at dimensions, but our hall room was big. So big, that we could actually play cricket within as the boundary as the straight drive was not less than that on the front ground. The idol of Maa Saraswati used to be on the centre stage. The walls on both the sides were used to display drawing by the students. There used to be a row of desks in front of the drawings upon which were displayed a variety of craft models. In the afternoon, there used to be a puja and then prasad was distributed among the students: all students of the school. We used to take our parents to the school to proudly show what we, the students of our school, had done. Actually, most of it must have been done by the parents themselves. I say it because my mother used to make those beautiful craft models for me as I was never good in drawing or craft.

The day used to be predictably good for us students. Out of the three hundred and sixty five days of the year, it was only on this day that the Damocles Sword was removed from over our heads: studying anything was strictly forbidden that day.

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