Red-haired Ghost

May 31, 2012


Vallabh became my friend when I was in fifth grade, although I knew him a couple of years earlier.

Next to our school playground was a farm that belonged to government agriculture school. It always had sugarcane plantation and we never knew what went on behind the cane wall.

On a day when I was waiting at the playground for my friends to join me, I noticed the sugar cane crop harvested and the farm suddenly had a desolate look. I saw a boy with a loosely draped turban, loose collarless cotton shirt and baggy half pant. He must be very disturbed. He was pounding the earth relentlessly for no clear reason. I yelled at him and asked him what was wrong, invited him to come and play with my friends. He did not take notice. Next day, again, the scene was the same. Today, he had a stick and he was poking the fence tirelessly.

In a few days, his anger subsided and he smiled at me. Encouraged, I returned the gesture. He then invited me to come and visit the farm when I had time, but during daytime, so that he can show me around. We agreed for a fine morning and I met him at the main gate. Although the farm appeared smallish from outside, it sprawled and had a nice, straight, red mud road up to the skyline. There was a lush green plantation on either side of the road.  The trees, vegetables and the earth smelled good. He showed me all the farm and filled my pockets with baby brinjals and tomatoes, saying

“Take these home, it is my last day on this farm”.

“Why?”

“Our lease for the Government farm has expired and we will become farmless and homeless in a few days. I am Vallabh, by the way”

“Then? What will you do?”

“We will be moving to a hut and our own land. No problem there, except that it is barren”

“Why were you so disturbed last week?”

“I have to join the school now, because I shall not have any work at home or farm. This is not what I want. Schools must be boring compared to farm labor”.

“This must be true”

I told him where I lived. His family shifted to the new piece of land.  He kept visiting me; usually when they took their bullock cart to weekly market. He indeed joined the school, but admitted to first standard, since he had no formal education until now, although he had the entire math commerce in his head ready to explode. The teacher used to seat him along side another grown up boy, son of a grocery shop owner, who only knew how to write broken letters but not an iota of math. Vallabh got alienated from the other students except me very early, but carried on none the less.

He took me to his new farm. It was quite far away to walk. It was uncultivated until then and therefore large stones were strewn around, the color of the field muddy grey.

Vallabh and his clan dug a well and installed an ox driven water rig. Within no time, a couple of years at the most, his farm was green, courtesy good rains. Papaya and plantain trees started bearing fruits. The ginger, their speciality, in addition to cereals started yield. His farm then became my regular abode for outing on weekends. Vallabh ensured that I never returned empty-pocketed from his farm.  However, there was a strict custom that the visitor was not allowed to touch the trees or plants. I would be asked to stand by when Vallabh or his family members plucked the fruit or vegetables. You could ask for anything, in any measure, but were not allowed to use your hands. That was their job.

There was a problem. You had to cross a stream and a very large mango tree before you reached Vallabh’s  farm.  With weathering, the jet black rocks in the stream had been carved by perennial water in to crevices and puddles. As the saying went, this was the water nymph hang out. Not one, seven of them. Naturally, they did not wear any clothes. If you went by, or swam in their pool, they would curse you. As such, nobody dared to disturb them during day time. Who knows when they will feel like taking bath in the open?

The stream was also said to be a watering hole for tigers. Tigers being nocturnal, and they were in abundance those days, nobody ventured that side after sundown.

Vallabh agreed that there indeed was Tiger menace and he had heard their calls a few times, they used to circle his farm too to see if they could lay paws on the cattle.

The mango tree – just before we reached Vallabh’s farm – was breathtaking in size and shade. I used to sit under its shade every time I visited Vallabh’s farm, whether I needed rest or not. At the least it was a Pee-Stop.  Vallabh said once that this tree was their property, even though disputed. He would always see me off under the tree.

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I was just waiting for summer to arrive. The mango tree had a full blossom this year. While I could, I gathered the fallen baby green mangoes of this tree every now and then. But the ripe ones! Aha! Wait until summertime!

When the mangoes were nearly ready, each was a mouth-watering kilogram sized fruit. On an occasion,I plucked a few with Vallabh watching wearily, brought them home and publicized the news within my friend circle.

Most of them friends went to visit the mango tree the next day…..and came home panting. Some fell sick. Some were delirious.

All of them had seen a ghost with red hair and red clothing atop the mango tree.

I did not believe in this. How could a ghost suddenly appear? So, I went and surveyed the situation  braveheartedly, although from a distance, possibly a kilometer. And indeed, there was a red-haired and red-clothed ghost moving atop the tree. I ran home.

Days went by. The news had spread like jungle fire. Nobody dared to even look at that tree, leave aside going near to it.

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I went to weekly bazaar one day and met Vallabh there. He was tending to his bulls and the cart.

“Did you visit our stall?”

I said I have not.

“This is the first time I have brought our mangoes for sale”

He picked a ripened mango and gave it to me. “Just taste. The flavor is so cocoanut like!”

I tasted that ghost mango. It indeed tasted like cocoanut. I preserved half of it for taking home.

Then I noticed the person selling the mangoes in loud voice.

“Who is that?”

“That’s my father. Who else?  You have met him several times”

But something was different about his father. We bid good buys with Vallabh requesting me to come to farm for a day. I said I shall try.

Couple of days later, my grandma inquired about wherefrom I had bought that cocoanut mango.

“That was Vallabh’s”

“Go get some for the relatives that will come to visit us today”

“I am not going”

“Why?”

“I have to pass by ghost-tree. You remember that red-haired ghost stories?”

“Since when did you stop visiting Vallabh?”

“A few weeks. Since the ghost appeared.”

“Fine. If you are not, I have to go myself.”

Closed door! I took the money and shopping bag and started walking towards Vallabh’s Farm. It took an hour more than usual. I watched the mango tree from all possible angles. The ghost was on leave today. Scuttling the tree by half a kilometer, and treading the stream at the most dangerous place, I somehow reached Vallabh’s place.

After I collected the mangoes, I told him about the ghost stories.

“Oh, that. Those rumors about ghost I have spread.”

His father came out. Now I noticed that his hair was red. Watching my wide eyes, he said,

“I know the red hair and beard look awful. I won’t color them hence forth”

“ No father. You have to color them again next summer. Otherwise the red-haired ghost will disappear”

He laughed and said, yes, that was true. Then he took out a red shirt and red pant from under the nearby hay-stack and said that he will preserve those too for the next summer, just in case.

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First Books

August 13, 2011


I think Bhagwadgeeta was the first book I was introduced to, because Grandpa Anna would not settle for anything less. I just mugged it up with Anna as a teacher, and was sent for a competition of Geeta recitals. Aabajee Deshpande, the examiner, was a staunch Geeta lover and used to distribute copies free to many a muggers like me. Not many had participated in this first competition.

14th chapter was the subject matter. Aabajee let us recite the whole chapter, and as soon as I thought I had finished the exam, he started quizzing by reciting a stanza at random and I had to complete. Then he started reciting the second line of a random stanza and I had to recite the first. Then he started giving one word clue and let me complete the rest. It was interesting (for him), I completed everything well and Aabajee declared that I stood first.  Sudheer was second, who eventually became a good friend.

I came back home tired. Anna came after some time and inquired if I did well. I said I had secured the first rank. Pleased, he said there would be big function and I shall be felicitated that evening. The function was fine, but the prize was not. Because I was presented with a copy of Bhagwadgeeta, of which I already had two copies. I cribbed a lot about it. Anna simply said, “You do not need any prize than that”.

The next year, Sudheer stood first, and I was second, with first chapter as the subject. Aabajee however declared that this year there were Prizes galore, in addition to the Geeta copies. He fiddled with his dhotee, came up with one rupee coin and said,

“Go to the market, buy any books you like and bring those to me. These will be handed over to you in the evening function.”

Sudheer had also received the grant and we proceeded to the market. The book shop was by the street and the books were exhibited on military cots outside the shop. To this day, I did not have any books other than those in the curriculum. Looking at these, I was astounded. How can these be called ‘books’ when they have Kings and Queens and mythological figures on their cover pages? How can they be in a large, readable font than those we read in the class? How can a book have so many artworks when the books were supposed to have only one or two? How can they have attractive covers but unreadable titles?

I must have spent an hour or so in just awe. Sudheer, in between had selected his and had already disappeared.  I was really perplexed as to what to choose and how many to choose. The shop keeper came to the rescue.

“How much money you have?”

“One rupee.”

“Stole it from somewhere? Let me see it.”

I showed him the coin, but did not let it go. He inquired as to what was my name, who was my father, where did I live and a barrage of such questions. When he was satisfied that I had not stolen the Rupee, he selected some books of his choice and dumped them in front of me. Naturally, I was not satisfied. He amassed a second choice bunch, which was also not to my liking. Tired, he said “Choose whatever you want” and went behind his desk.

I had some solitude once more, and I started selecting the books, based on cover colours, that is, discarding.

The final list had Panch Tantra, Aesop’s stories and a book on astronomy.

“Why do you need that blue book with stars? You will not understand a thing there. I also do not.”

“But this is what I want.”

The shop keeper gave me a tired look, and said, “You can have a few more. One Rupee is not yet over.”

Back to square one. I then selected Sim Bonga and Bhilla Veer Kalinga.

“That is it.” The shopkeeper said, “You can have one volume of Kalinga, not all.”

“Fine, I will buy all of these with green and black cover, man with a dagger”

“One volume of Tarzan!”

“But you said a few more”

“You have exceeded one Rupee now”

I handed over my precious one Rupee to him, and he handed me the bundle. “Come again for Tarzan,” he said. I did not need this invitation. I was already hooked.

The transaction over, I remembered that I did not know the way back to home. Sudheer had brought me here and he had gone a long time ago. Crying at my ancestors, the shopkeeper closed the shop and escorted me first to Aabajee and then my house. He did not forget to ask if I indeed belonged to this house, and I was not a thief.

Back home and when the smell of the new books had withered, I understood that buying a book you had liked did not necessarily mean that you will read it immediately. Further, you may not be able to read a book which you have received as a present and that even if you did not understand a word, a picture tells a story better. You have your imagination running wild without the help of words.

I started really reading/ comprehending most of these books, including the blue book, in Standard five or Six. Aunts were enthusiastic earlier on, but got fed up of reading to me the books I had purchased, particularly when I started buying books with every paisa I received or saved and I had mugged up all the stories by listening and still wanted somebody to Read these to me. When the words finally came to me, they were better than pictures, sometimes worse.

I encroached upon Grandpa’s book cabinet and declared one of the shelves as ‘my library’. This included Garibaldi, Agarkar, Tilak, Kalidas, Gandhi, five or six different sized Geeta and even a book called Shrusht Shakti Shastra (Physics- in short). There was also a book on Physiology, with funny pictures, which was promptly removed by somebody and I did not find it afterwards. None the less, I had leafed through it all before it vanished.

The blue book was a revelation. That was when I started deciphering it bit by bit, simultaneously gazing at stars while alone and imagining beyond the drawings and the written word.

Top

May 12, 2011


It was another Saturday. During the Physical Training session, our Teacher told us that a troupe of acrobats will be giving a performance for us.

As it was, Saturdays used to be enjoyable. There would be a prolonged and relaxed Physical Training session, Head Master’s address and then our P Competition. There was an old Behda (Terminalia Belerica) tree in the playground, which had thick snaky exposed roots spanning several feet and with several holes due to years of use. If you aimed for one the P would travel underground and appear several feet away from you. Depending upon discharge, it could emanate five feet away or twelve. Nice subject to compete for! After this session, there would be a crafts class and then a period which usually featured magicians, acrobats, bicycle travelers, sketch artists and similar such who had trotted the whole country and wished to share their experiences.

As a custom. we used to be seated in rows, but not today. We were made to seat in a circle and the acrobats were to perform in the center. Unlike other troupes, this troupe had a number of members – Male and Female. They were all said to be from China, a friendly neighboring country that was discussing Panch Sheel (five principles for good living) from our book and were travelling from village to village, school to school presenting their skills. However, they were in no mood of playing at length the acrobatic show. Instead, they took out Tops from their gunny bag and started spinning them one by one. In the beginning, the size of Tops was about my fist, then my head. Finally, they reached a size of full-grown red Pumpkin. The spinning chords graduated to ropes. The elder troupe member started placing the spinning tops on to our palms, then a taut string held by two of the performers, on the head of one of their girls who brought them down one by one via her forehead, nose, neck, chest, stomach, legs and finally toes. The tops on the string were thrown about, afloat and around and caught back to rest on the string while still spinning. In all, there must have been about thirty odd Tops of all sizes, shapes and colors, spinning at a time, every top immersed in its own separate world. We were speechless. ‘This is what the Top Spin is!’ – we all thought.

 

The troupe disappeared in the thin  air and nobody saw them in the town after that performance.

Naturally, everybody of us started dreaming of becoming a Top-Master, or Spin-Master. The only top I had was of a size of a ground nut. This was a scale model of a Top some relative had gifted.  It could well have been a drawing pin. Unquestionably, it was useless for any of the tricks I saw that day.

I started my mission alone. I surveyed the shops to find if they sold a Top. None had any.  “It is not the season or vacation time” was the explanation. I started begging with the senior friends if they had any. One of them spared one which was battered on one side, of a very soft wood, but had a good steel pin. I had no idea then that this Top would eventually become my trade mark and a surefire instrument for pulling my leg in any verbal quarrel.

Next Sunday, I started very early and went to the newly opened timber mill which had a section for fixing steel rims over timber cart wheels. It was an amazing experience to watch steel rims being hammered from steel ingots, then heating them in coal and cow dung cakes, the manual work in preparing hard timber spokes of cart-wheel section, meticulous assembling of these sections, covering the perimeter of assembled cart-wheel with white-hot steel rim, dipping it immediately in a temporary water puddle and whoosh … steam volcano.

“Want a cart-wheel?” Somebody in a scarlet coloured beard and moustache asked.

I blushed and said, “No, a simple toy Top.”

“No chance when we have enough cart-wheel orders. It is racing season. Don’t you know? Go buy it in a shop. Or bring a chord strong enough to spin the cart-wheel and I shall give you one of these free”

“There are none in the shops!”

“Is it?…. Let me see…. Do one thing. Get you wooden top fabricated from ‘That person’. I shall then fix for you the steel pin.”

‘That person’ was a carpenter who was turning wooden cots and tables. He was squatting, holding his manual lathe between his feet and his wife operated it with her hands. I watched him for a few minutes. He had also crafted a rice pounder, a shallow utensil, a big spoon and a doll.

“Want a cot?”

“No, just a simple toy Top” I said.

“No chance. Too busy; since the snake breeding season is on and people want cots pronto. But you can do one thing…See that timber stall there? Bring a cube of the size you want your Top and I shall make one for you”

‘That timber stall’ was a giant timber depot, not a baby stall. It had huge piles of logs and neatly sawn blocks that nobody could have held in his grip. I wandered and wandered around, hiding from the watchman and looking for a small cube. The watchman caught me eventually.

“Want a log?” He made fun.

“No. Just a cube about this size for my Top,” I showed him my fist.

“Ha, Ha. Not here kid, this is a teak wood depot. Not Top-Wood depot”

“So, what wood do I need for my Top?”

“Any jungle wood, which is hard and dark.. almost black…Acasia, Khair, Tamarind. Not this expensive variety meant for furniture and roofing…. Go to a fire wood depot. You can have waste wood there”

“And where is that?”

“Vegetable market! Where else?….Why don’t you try with ‘That’ cart wheel factory?  They always have cut pieces.”

“But he told me to come here”

“Naaa….Go there.” He closed the subject.

I went back to the cart-wheel factory, this time however hiding from the red beard. Indeed there were blocks of size I wanted and of dark colour. I picked one when the red beard came running.

“Drop that. That is for the wheel centre… What did I tell you? Go there!”

I recited to him the lathe-man and depot-man story.

“Is it?” He said thoughtfully. Then said, “You were told to search it in the fire-wood shop, right?”

“Yes”

“And where can you find the fire wood?”

“In the vegetable market!”

“Wrong! Go to your house. You use fire wood for your stove or not? You will find it there. No need to go to vegetable market.”

Perplexed with all the confusing reasoning, I must have made a stupid or sad or both face. Because the red beard picked up a piece of red wood, threw it while hollering to the lathe-man asking him ‘to do what I was telling him to do’ and smiled at me.

“Get it turned. Bring the top here to fix the Pin”.

Lathe-man was now compelled to turn out my Top. He did it, after all his pending work was over, constantly complaining that his turning tool will need double sharpening tomorrow because the wood was too hard. Once completed, I held the top in my hand, not believing my luck. It had such beautiful red and brown grains spanning the periphery and a bitter scent of freshly turned wood. Must be Acacia. I would need the rope to spin it, not chord, I thought. It was a good two pounder Top.

“Cant make any smaller with this lathe…What are you looking at?…. You got the best top in the world without paying a single paisa!“ said the lathe-man.

This payment part I had not accounted for until now.

The Red Beard gave the top to his assistant for fixing the Pin and then told me to hold his finger. He took me to the back of his workshop where a kid smaller than me was playing with five or six Tops. None had any Pins. He asked me to wait there until he fixed my Top. I went near to the kid but he took no notice. Immersed in his own thoughts he was crudely spinning the Tops one by one and making circles with his fingers replicating the motion. I clapped, started imitating him, but he did not even look at me.

“Dumb and deaf; but fond of Tops just like you. He can play for a whole day like this” Red Beard said watching me.

“He should go to school?”

“School? He can not speak!”

“So what? Let him come”

“That would be too much for him. He does not recognize we parents, leave aside others”

I tried to touch the kid in a friendly way. He promptly retracted himself.

“You can come and play with him, when you have time. He is Rehman….. I suppose you are not paying me anything for you Top.”

He handed over my Top. I thanked him and inquired about the price as if I had money in my pocket.

“Leave it, leave it” He said.

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The household was on fire when I returned back. Nobody knew about this errand. My friends had told Grandma Tai that they had seen me near the Behda tree in the morning, but not after that. Nana Uncle was searching for me the entire day but had no premonition that I would be around Red Beard’s workshop. Most of Tai’s friends had concluded that I had been abducted by the infamous “ghost of the Behda tree”.

Nobody wanted to look at my precious Top. Nobody had any interest in my project; not even the fact that I had not eaten anything for the entire day. Instead, as a punishment, I was banned from visiting the Behda tree; on school days as also on holidays and during vacation! Quite a sacrifice!

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I carried the Top in my bag the next day to school. The pin was so sharp, it tore my bag at more than a few places. Friends were wonderstruck by the sheer size of the Top. They immediately banned this Top from all competitive games.

I was proud of the Top eventhough it became a museum piece. I had to use for competitions the borrowed, weathered Top which soon became a laughing stock, because either it would not spin or spin according to its whim like a drunkard and would lose each and every competition.

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I did not forget my promise to Red Beard and visited Rehman when ever I went that side. He never showed any signs of recognition until after he was some fifteen years old. He had by now acquired a perpetual saintly smile.

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The India-China war broke out not much after the Chinese Top Spinners had visited our school. Naturally, people remembered them in every heated discussion. Some called them spies, some said they could have come from Indian North East Frontier region and not from across the Chinese side. Nobody talked about their spinning skills.

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Image Credit : Google Images

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(Readers are encouraged to read about Autism. I am now convinced Rehman was Autistic.)

Sandals

April 15, 2011


All the family members agreed amongst themselves that I needed Chappals. The valedictory function for primary school was looming at large.

My entire childhood until then was spent running in thorns, nails, mud, water, grass, stones, creatures and insects. Nobody around me- my relatives or friends – really cared for the look of my body parts called feet.  When alone, or when the classes were boring, our favorite pastime used to be picking out from feet those foreign objects or the scales that looked like a second rhino skin. Winters used to be horrible. Although I was forced to dip the feet in lukewarm Sol (Amsul/Goa butter), the next day the feet would be full of scale again and full of blood oozing out of the cracks. But I did not care. Footwear was an expensive luxury. Not that I did not try at Grandpa’s pump shoes, but they must have been a size twelve, difficult to even carry for single step.

Along with the fourth standard exam we had appeared for a surprise scholarship exam. Grandpa Anna and Granny Tai were a touch too confident that I would bag the scholarship. They had also hatched a plan to buy a rubber slipper for me, which was a novelty and fashion those days, so that I look presentable at the function. I had overheard their open door conference, wherein the tempo was being built around the possible prize I might secure.

On a sunny Sunday, I set out with Anna, holding his walking stick, in search of suitable footwear. We stopped innumerable times. Whoever met us came to know that I was going to have new footwear. Most of them pleaded to Anna that it was really not necessary. My heart bits skipped during every such discussion, because it revolved around the result of scholarship exams. I inquired as to why we could not postpone the purchase until the results were out. But he wanted me to look good at any cost. We scavenged through a number of road side leather shops. Nobody had a tailor made kids’ footwear. All the artisans promised that if we order, they can deliver a made-to-order one. But the price was prohibitive. Finally we arrived at a lane of Sindhi shops that had come up recently where the rubber slippers were hanging from the ropes everywhere.  Thankfully, these slippers also were above size seven, one and a half times oversized. We ended up buying potatoes and came back home with a sack on my shoulders hung over Anna’s walking stick.

Next day, Anna took me to my Parent’s town where a fare was on. Anna requested my father to urgently find footwear for me…. Repeat of the same story. I accompany my father, he tells everybody why I needed footwear, I skip beats, we do not find anything and finally return home with a sack of onions on my shoulder.

My mother viewed the proceedings for a day and then requested my father to let go the purchase, since I was getting nervous. My father then said that I should not worry about the cost and announced that he had already placed an order for a chappal with a vendor and I should go and give measurements. So, I went.

Looking at me, the vendor said,

“Chappal is no good. I shall sew a belt at the back so that the chappals do not slip when you walk”

I shrugged and said, “Uncle, you are free to do whatever you think is fine for me.”

He looked quizzically at me, took measurement on a paper and said,

“Lighten up, this is your first chappal, right? I am going to use the best quality leather. What color do you want your chappals? Sandals?”

I did not lighten up, but said, “Red should be fine.”

“Men’s sandals do not look good in red. I don’t have red leather.”

“But I need red.”

“As you please.” He closed the topic.

He had not committed a date for delivery. I was on vacation, had no other business; therefore I visited this leather shop every day. When there was no progress for a few days, first my father and then Grandfather accompanied me to the shop. As if by magic, the next day, he showed me the rough cut. But that was all. Anna had to visit a few more times and tell the sandal-smith the urgency involved before the final trial piece was ready. It was around size Seven, one and a half times oversized.  When I complained, the vendor said,

“That is not for you to decide. Your father has ordered this size, so that you can wear it for a year more… And there is this belt at the back. What difference it makes?”

It was red, but inked red on black. Funny red! But it was my choice and I could not protest. For added value, it had horse shoe on its heel and another steel piece at the toe.

“This will stretch its life further.” He said.

I tried it. Neither I could walk straight, nor could I walk in one plane. The Sandals were biting the feet at several places and the leather was extremely stiff. They were terribly noisy because of the horse shoes. The heavy duty horse shoe nails had pierced the sole right through and were worse than thorns. In all, my feet, gait and walk appeared funnier with the sandals than they actually were.

“You want them or no?”

“Definitely not,” I said and ran home.

But in the evening, my father paid the dues, collected them and brought home the packet while returning from duty. He promptly informed Anna that his responsibility was over.

“Try it,” he said, “And what is this stupid color you have selected? We will have to paint them black ones the function is over.”

“I have tried and they are fine,” I had to say, bowing to him and to the fate.

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The function was in Hindi school. This was the first time I was visiting this building. The auditorium was quite oppressive with all the students filled to the brim. I was glad that the function was on a working day and none of my family members could attend it. I was escorted by Anna’s friend.

“What is that you are holding on to your chest?” He asked.

“My sandals,” I said.

“Sandals? Let me have a look.”

I had to wear those and parade in front of him.

“What a fine craftsmanship and antique design…Not from our town, definitely…. How I have longed for such footwear.”

He introduced me to his son Kanti, who was in the same boat as I was. He was from Hindi school, same fourth standard as I was. We established an instant rapport when we both insisted to his father that we sit at the very back. Here was a huge gathering from all schools, ours the Marathi, the Urdu and the Hindi; also the co-ed schools and the girls’ school.

The results were announced. As expected, I did not receive any mention in the list. The scholarship went to a girl student from Girl’s school. Further she got a prize for bagging 100/100 in maths. In the end, we were called to receive a bouquet for we had topped the Marathi the Hindi school respectively. We went, collected the bouquets and were happy that something came our way.

The function over, we started walking back and then I remembered about my sandals. I had deposited them with Kanti’s father while I went to collect the bouquet. He did not remember any such a thing.

We went back and waited until every boy and girl left the premises and then took a thorough look at every nook and corner. Kanti’s father then went to the organizers and told them about my sandals. They said they will spread the news, it was a small town and nobody can hide a new sandal. Kanti’s father asked us to go home and said he would wait a little longer to see if somebody was honest and returned the sandals.

On our way back, I and Kanti were worriedly discussing the Girl who had scored more than us. We were sure that she will be in our class in the intermediate school, since there was only one school in town. We decided then and there that we will not allow her to top once she is in our school. Still, if she tops, then?….well, we had no answer.

Although they were obscene and therefore distinguishable, the thief did hide those Sandals well. They could not be traced. Although I prayed inwardly that the Sandals may never be found, I, Kanti and his father kept a strict vigil on each and every walking and parked footwear in the town for a year or so, but to no avail.

Anna was quite flustered when he knew about the lost sandals, not so much about my performance, but he took it well in the end, when Tai said that they were utterly unlucky for me and it was good riddance.

Anna did not force me to wear footwear afterwards. Later on, I myself requested for it when I was ready for high school. There was no problem having thick skin over delicate skin or some thorns embedded for spice; actually it was better than constantly worrying about the price of the Sandals.

Peti Charkha

October 29, 2010


When I was through with my cinema theatre business (https://rajeevne.wordpress.com/2010/09/13/theatre-of-my-own/), I had spare time to look at the wooden boxes that I had found stashed in the ‘delivery room’.

One of them was a 2×1 feet timber box securely latched. I brought it out in the open from the dark delivery room, cleaned it and showed it sunlight. After ample washes of kerosene, the latches became pry-able. But I had to take permission from Grandma Tai to force open it. She said, ‘This belonged to Dada. Why don’t you ask him?’ So I asked Dada Grandpa. He just curled down his lips, which I conveniently took to be his permission.

Open Sesame! I forced open the latches. Inside was an old Charkha.  This was totally different from the one my real Grandpa Anna used daily to spin yarn. The flywheel was mounted inside the lid of the box, and the second, smaller wheel as also the spindle holder were all neatly mounted inside the other half. The Charkha looked unused. I tried to make out how it could become functional.  It looked like the flywheel and the smaller wheel had a common belt which was missing. I tried a woolen rope, but it did not work. I ran to Dada. He said that the belt used to be of leather, as he remembered. The one and only shoe repair fellow in the town said that nobody made such belts anymore, that is, after Gandhiji died. The matter rested there, but not my thought process.

On the weekend when Anna was spinning the yarn on his charkha, I asked him why those belts were not available. He said he will check out at Sevagram, Gandhiji’s ashram if they kept any spares. He did write a letter, the reply of which came in a fortnight. The letter said that these Peti (Box) Charkhas are not made anymore.

Anna then tried to dissuade me. ‘Instead, use my normal charkha’ he said, ‘But on one condition that you will make your own Peloo’s (the cotton roll outs from which the yarn would be spun). We had a Peloo plate and press in the house. When they used to be free from household chores, Tai and Anna’s sister Jiji used to press out the Peloo’s in the afternoon while gossiping. The Peloo plate was a slant timber board and the press a smaller timber board with handle. The Peloo- making was a simple procedure. Just take the spun cotton, roll it lightly around a steel pin and roll press. They both tried to train me in hilarious sessions, laughing and naming my Peloo’s. If my Peloo’s came out hollow and soft, they said it is Gokhale Peloo. If it was too tight, they said it was Savarkar Peloo. If I questioned why, they would say that I shall understand when grown up. To simplify, they would also name some in a way I understood – Birbal Peloo, Hanuman Peloo, Gandhari Peloo… and what not. Everybody got fed up with the quality and quantity I produced in a few sessions.

‘Why don’t you ask Anna if you can help him in sifting the cotton instead? That would be easy.’

Cleaning and de-seeding cotton manually was not an easy job either. I could produce only a handful every day. Sifting it with a bow was interesting and I could gain some mastery over it. This graduated me to touch Anna’s charkha. Spinning was of course out of question, and it took a good year for him to permit me, and me to start spinning a reasonably fine yarn.

Anna would bundle the spun yarn every now and then. It disappeared very often.

“What do we do with the yarn?”

“Well, we exchange it for Khadi cloth. Finer the yarn we spin, finer the cloth we get. We have to send it to Sevagram, the Gandhiji’s ashram.”

We sent yarn, the cloth kept coming and Anna wore only those clothes made of ‘our’ Khadi, till his last day. He even washed his clothes himself because he knew how much wet Khadi becomes heavy, and how it was hard for womenfolks to wash the wet Khadi clothes. Even I had to develop muscles before I could attempt to wash a Khadi dhoti or Jacket.

I developed an understanding for why he had only a few pairs of clothes and why he always wore white or black.

Those days, in summer, the water-man used to bring water from the well in buffalo-leather sacks. Once when he was mending his leather sack, I brought out my box charkha and placed it in front of him. I asked him if he could make a belt. He made it in only a few minutes, paid obeisance to the Charkha and asked me to try. It worked. I had my own Charkha now and vehemently fought battles to spin a yarn.

No sooner than Dada heard that the Peti Charkha was up and running, he took it back saying it was touched once by Gandhiji. Since my project of making the Charkha run was over and I received a few accolades for my efforts from Dada, I gladly handed it back to him.

However, I was bitten by the Charkha and spinning yarn for good. It was coveted qualification during our time.

As for forward integration, I chose ‘spinning and weaving’ as an elective hobby in school, and learnt to weave cloth too.

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Anna lived the Gandhian ideology without making a fuss about it. Charkha and Khadi were just one of the visible disciplines. Anna had quit politics after the freedom struggle. He refused offers to contest for the elections for the very first government of the republic and thereafter. But not Khadi.

Simultaneously, he must have been a Tilak follower when it came to starting a school (and then colleges in the name of Tilak) in a backward area.

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It took many days, sometime months to get the Khadi in exchange of yarn, since the cloth would be always in short supply. But Anna would not use imported, light, colourful fabric.

Many of his contemporaries made fun of him for wearing Khadi. But he stuck to his vow.

One of my grandmothers recently recalled an incident. Anna was to go to court to defend a case, when his friend told him that his Khadi Dhoti was torn. Anna said it did not matter. The friend said, it was torn at an awful place and things are visible from the hole. Anna simply said “It is not my body part that is going to defend the case in the court. ‘I’ am going to.”

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(Image curtsey..Google Images)

MiniatuWriting

October 2, 2010


I had a new bench-mate after the corner seat was filled by Paikya. We bombarded him with questions but he himself did not know why he was christened such. ‘May be because we are poor’ he said. It was visible. His head was always shaven clean to save money on oil or cream or lice. His clothes were of Nylon, the new pink colored fabric that had come on market to save washing soap. I could not understand how somebody could be called Paikya, which literally meant ‘that, who will bring money’, or ‘a moneyed person’.  Paika meant money, therefore Paikya?

The third bench-mate was Vishwas, who was in the front seat because he could not be at the back. Agreed, he was the shortest among the class, but the primary cause of his being there was because when it came to teasing teachers, particularly the lady types, nobody could beat him. Whenever lady teachers told us to take down something, Vishwas would sit back, relax and look at them with mischievous smile.

Paikya took down notes starting from the very top of the page, without losing any space in the top margin. This was during the first month. During second month, he started using the left margins also. Later on, he made use of the spaces between the printed lines, and finally all the edges of the page turning the book three times. The teachers – the same teachers who lectured us to write clean alphabets, using spaces – did not seem to mind Paikya’s exercise book. When we exhausted a third of our books, Paikya had used only a few pages. I noticed that he had only one exercise book, while we all had a separate one for every subject. That also teachers did not bother about. ‘It is easier carrying one book than ten, in rainy season’ was his explanation. But even after rainy season, he brought only one.

As if this was not enough, the size of Paikya’s lettering started to reduce. The class room norm was something like 16 point size. But Paikya had started at 10. Over a couple of months, he had successfully reached 4 point size. With the crow-quills and nibs we had, I think, that was the smallest point size he could reach.

Itching fruit (Khaj Koyari) was an amusement, provided you handled it wisely and did not touch it. If you kept even a small piece of it hidden in the desk, whoever touched it would start dancing like angry donkey. The itch would not stop unless you were sent home for bathing. Every term, at least two or three times, this incidence would take place, particularly on girl’s benches and we were sure there would be Vishwas behind it. For Vishwas, Paikya’s note-book was a sure-fire instrument for harassment, because if you misplaced his only note book, he would do anything for you, bring wild cherries, gum, honey or even itching fruit.

We had a three days holiday. When Paikya returned, his point size reduced to 2, possibly 1. We were all stunned. While we were trying to use a calligraphic effect with our nibs by grinding them slant, here was Paikya, who was trying to miniaturize by grinding the nibs from all sides, top and bottom too. Most of us tried, but the nib would crack while grinding. Writing would become impossible, because the nib would eat paper. The secret was revealed by Paikya. ‘For grinding, you needed a best quality nib like those the elders used. These can be found only in dust bins and refuge yards.’ He showed his nib. His was stainless, semicylindrical one, not like the brass, thin nibs we used. After we heard this, most of us could be found on evenings or Sundays scavenging and excavating for thrown away nibs near the municipal building or the civil court, where you could find some. The friends living near these building achieved a ‘most valuable friend’ status.

During the half-yearly exam, some tried to write like Paikya and were failed. Teachers did not understand what was going on and why everybody had started micro-writing. Paikya wrote papers in 12 points and cleared it with flying colors. Paikya was happy about the exam, because he took five supplementary answer papers for every question paper, but attached only one. With the rest, he made a booklet for the next six months. This was noticed by the teachers and he was reminded not to do it again. Watching this, I gave him all my last year’s exercise-books that had empty pages.

Paikya used to bring many an items for me. The honey, cherries and all. He always had many questions about ‘moneyed people’ and I used to answer them to my best ability. He would ask

‘Why rich people wear four clothes, when Paikya can do away with one, or none?’ or

‘Why people wore sweaters when a brisk run does the same job for him?’ or

‘Why people travel on bus or train when the legs do the same job for Paikya?’ or

‘Why there are so many sweetmeat shops when hot bread tastes even better?’

However when I asked about him and his family, he would not say anything.

Taking cue from Paikya, one of the artistic types drew a miniature caricature of Mahatma Gandhi in just one by one inch size, when a class was on. He lied that this was Paikya’s idea and both got bashing from teachers. However, this art form surfed on like a wave in other classes too. Most of us were attempting miniatures during the school time. Soon Nehru, Bhagat Singh, Azad, Patel, Shivaji, Netaji and Rana Pratap  adorned our books or floated on our paper-planes.

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Paikya invited me to his house. He came to pick me up early in the morning. We walked and walked until I was tired and reached an open plateau. In distance I could see our town, just like a pack of card board houses. Paikya stopped. Perplexed, I said,

“What?”

“This is it.” He said.

“The home?”

“Yes. There.” He indicated to a folded tent. “That is my mother.”

She was watching us. We went near and she touched my face with her coarse palm.

“So, this is Paikya’s best friend! We are moving tomorrow,” She said, “there is not enough fodder for sheep left in this part of the jungle. There is also a wolf pack around.”

 I had not heard of any wolves. I said,

“Let Paikya stay, he has been in school for hardly four months.”

“We move every now and then, this place to that. It was my idea to get him into school, but it is not working. We cannot afford.”

“But I like this town. Please tell father.” Paikya said.

“Yes, you have to. Let him be with me, we have a big house, you can go elsewhere.”

“What is the use? He will tend to sheep when grown up.”

“No. No. We can be moneyed people. I will be true Paikya.” 

I spent some time with them. In the end, Paikya tried crying to convince his mother. She showed her stone face and said, it would not be possible.

Vishwas came to know I had visited Paikya’s house.

“You looked at her carefully?”

“What for?”

“She is something.” He blinked one eye.

“That was stupid of you to say. She is Paikya’s mother… ” I said.

“She never wears her saree properly, never covers herself fully. Paikya’s father is number one boozard and does not do anything. Look at her with eyes wide open next time you visit. People visit her place with only one intention.”

“Not for a moment I thought of her any different than other women.” I warned Vishwas, “If you utter this one more time, I will tell the head master. He will bundle you up and throw you out of the school.”

Other friends intercepted our quarrel. Vishwas kept smiling wryly.

That was the only visit I paid to Paikya’s home. Our friendship continued, but Paikya and Vishwas had started fighting every day. 

While others thought big and crafted tender bamboo crow-quills for bigger and still bigger letters, Paikya went in opposite direction and miniaturized his needs. Inadvertantly, deep down, he had influenced us to reconsider ours.

Paikya became irregular, stayed on for that year, but did not arrive the next year. He must have moved on the path to becoming ‘moneyed man’.

Witches

September 17, 2010


There was a rumor in the town. There were witches in action. Young children were dying of unknown causes, there were Sutras (small Jowar portions wrapped in a strip of cloth dipped in turmeric) strewn everywhere, particularly on the road to our school. We would also encounter rice portions with lemons filled with yellow turmeric, red turmeric and pins. An elderly person started complaining that a supernatural pelts stones on his roof during the night. It did not affect us but all the grand mothers in town were in panic. We instead had a new pastime playing with the Sutras and Rice balls.

Grandpa Anna was not much disturbed and things were normal in our house. But other children received strict instructions that they should not cross any Sutra or the rice portions, otherwise it will attract bad omen for the house and invite skin boils. The Bhanamati or stone pelting incidence was taken seriously and a group of townspeople was formed to investigate and stay on guard duty in the night. During his courtsey visit, doctor Grandpa said it is Tetanus that is causing fatalities in children and everybody should avoid injuries caused by rusted iron. Anna took a vow from me to follow doctor Grandpa’s instructions. In rainy season, it was the habit of the barbed wires, nails and tin roof sheets to hide under stagnant water or mud. How can one refrain from these while playing? But care was necessary, since a promise was a promise.

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Slowly, the needle of doubt started pointing towards three women.

To my utter surprise, one was Bhiku’s Aunt. She was elderly caring woman in her forties and used to come to our place sometimes to ask for buttermilk. She was a witch? Something was wrong. People gossiped in hushed voices that she visited the cremation grounds at odd hours.

On a Sunday, I was given responsibility for the first time to shop for vegetables. I was in the weekly wholesale market when I saw her crossing. She did not notice me. The crematorium was beyond the weekly market. I thought for a moment and started to follow her from a safe distance. She kept walking in her own thoughts, without looking around. There was not a soul on that dirt road except us and I had to take special precautions to keep myself, lest she might notice I was following her. The crematorium neared and I was in total frenzy. This was a prohibited area. But she kept walking at brisk pace and went past it. I was relieved that she did not go there. She went further to a desolate household which had a sizeable dairy farm. She went inside and came out after sometime carrying a big container. She started walking back, and caught me while I was bitten by a thorn and had to bend down to remove it.

“What are you doing here?” she said in concerned tone, “Children should not venture here. Do you know this is crematorium?…..Were you following me?”

“Yes.”

“And why?” She said, while removing the thorn in my toe.

I had to tell her the truth.

“Did you also believe in all that nonsense?”

“Of course not…..That is why I wanted to make sure where you went.” This was half truth.

Her container was without handle and must have been heavy. She had trouble holding it on her head. I offered help. She settled down in her pace and started muttering.

“These people have no sympathy for a widow, neither they have courage to charge me in public…..you will not understand the difficulties a widow living at the mercy of her relatives has to undergo….All this gossiping behind my back is killing me, really.”

“You should tell them.”

“Why should I offer justification?…..I don’t need to.”

“Then take the flak.”

“That I am very much taking….. But one doesn’t feel like carrying on for long alone, you know.” She started crying.

“What is in the container?”

“What else? Buttermilk. At least this gentleman obliges. All other households have closed their doors for me.”

We had reached the market place. I handed back the container, she thanked me and left. The market was on the verge of closure. I got a good deal on a leafy vegetable and came back with a bagful of only that. Grandma looked at the vegetables and said,

“Are we a family of buffalos or what? This is buffalo fodder, not a leafy vegetable for human consumption.” But she cooked it and everybody had to eat it. “Next time when you go to the market, take somebody knowledgeable with you.”

Then she inquired as to why I took so much time to return back. I explained. She said,

“What Bhiku’s Aunt said is so correct. Widows have no place to hide, although they want to….If you see her, ask her to collect buttermilk from our house; she does not need to go so far away…..But if I hear from you once more that you went near to the crematorium, I will teach a lesson, for sure. ”

I gave enough mouth publicity of my errand and findings within my friends. People dropped Bhiku’s Aunt from Witch-List. Grandma said that was purely because of me; although I knew that it must have been Grandma’s doing.

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Dhurpada was the second in the list. Her very young son, who was a master footballer of our school, had suddenly died. People said she was paying the price for her bad deeds. Doctor Grandpa kept telling everybody that it was Tetanus. But the rumors about her were growing day by day.

We had a playground beyond our school. It was late evening, the moon had just started shining and I was somehow left behind by my friends. Tired as I was, I was treading the path to my house, singing aloud, at a leisurely pace.

I stopped dead because of what I saw in the twilight a few feet ahead of me.

Dhurpada, and her neighbor! Both were giggling and wrestling. Dhurpada had lost sense of her clothes and it did not seem to matter to her.  Both were so engaged in each other, they did not seem to notice me at all, not even my singing. Ashamed, I took diversion and came home running.

Dhurpada was indeed a witch! Her son had expired only days before and she was giggling and wrestling with somebody. And the man was not even her husband. I publicized the account of that evening everywhere. Somehow, this news reached Anna. He summoned me, admonished me in strong words not to say anything further to anybody about this matter.

I had no mercy for Dhurpada, neither the townsfolk had any. She remained on the list.

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Keka, the third one, definitely could not be a witch! Grandma had sent me to her house last month with a message that she should come and visit us. I knew; Keka was very young, sweet, in late teens, had a rough marriage, expelled by her husband and had returned to her parents only a month ago. When the rumors of her black craft started gaining ground, I urged Grandma that we should call her.

After three or four messages, she came. No sooner than she entered the kitchen, where Grandma was, she started crying.  She kept crying for for a long time, Grandma also joining her in between. It was a rainy afternoon. I was at the front of the house with Anna and we both speechlessly listened to the sounds of her crying; loud, heart-rending in the beginning and sobs later. I could not bear anymore, went inside and sat beside her. She hugged me tightly and a new tidal wave of her sobs engulfed me. I looked at Grandma and she called Anna. I was asked to go out. After another hour or so, she was composed and went away, after hugging me again.

I overheard Grandma telling her friends that Keka’s husband had been brutal to her and she still had bruises on her body everywhere.

Her name was summarily struck out from the list after the womenfolks were convinced.

The rainy season ended and so did the rumors. The bhanamati turned out to be a miscreant’s deed and the stone pelting stopped as soon as the culprit was caught.

On Grandma’s persistence, Grandpa Anna called Keka’s husband, gave him legal scare and he agreed to take her back. But the marriage did not last, neither she was divorced. She came back, this time with a miscarriage and also disability in her leg. Anna engaged a criminal lawyer this time on her behalf, although Keka was not ready, and lodged an offence with a petition for divorce. It was a long battle to get her separated.

I waited for the next year’s rainy season and further interesting rumors.