A woman emerged from the fields as my car approached the village. Balancing a basket on her head with both hands, she was about to step on the road when my driver honked irately, as if to forewarn her on her audacity to cross the road when it was all evident (at least, as far as the driver was concerned) that the car had the first right on the road, not some village woman, even if she happened to be a Brahmin and donned in a golden saree. The shrill sound of honking confused her body and her legs betray. She fell down after a couple of awkward back and forth lurches. The posse of men waiting for my arrival at the village chaupal found it amusing and laughed uproariously.
People laughing at her expense made her lose her cool, and elegance. Furious, she first lunged at the car but seeing the futility and sheer stupidity of hitting a car, she went for the driver (for his neck, to be more precise), all this while spouting choicest of the curses at the driver that only a Haryanvi can do. The driver reciprocated in equal measures (after all he was a Delhiwala; Delhi being Haryana’s cousin from the wrong side of the relatives). I tapped on his shoulder, and he understood that Sahab was satisfied with his performance and repertoire of curses, and that there was no need to overdo it.
Down from the car, I apologized to the woman and asked her to excuse the driver. Red in her face and trembling with rage (or may be due to the sudden spike in her blood pressure), she looked at me more intently than I had expected (because, as I told you, I had already apologized). Feeling uncomfortable, I started looking here and there, not knowing what to do next. But she kept on looking at my face with the same intense gaze.
After a few seconds, she almost shrieked (with ‘anger’ I first thought but soon discarded that notion in favour of ‘excitement’), ‘Viren, you are Viren!’
‘Yes,’ I said and asked, ‘and you?’
‘I am Bhagyawati, remember? Recognize?’ She thrust her face forward and moved it sideways, for me to have a good look at it.
‘No,’ I said.
‘How could you not recognize me, you idiot! Look into the eyes of the person when you want to know someone; eyes never lie,’ she said. Then she gave a jerk to her hand and said, ‘Okay, chhodo, leave that. Tell me what is the Hindi word for rump?’
‘Ch…,’ I stopped midway and said, ‘you! I cannot believe this. Bhagya, it is you. My God what a beautiful surprise!’
‘Now you remember,’ saying that she pretended to lift her sari, way-above-her-knees, as if to show her rump.
This was the game we used to play when in school. We used to memorize difficult (and mostly awkward) words of English to test each other’s vocabulary to beat the other person in the game. And with that objective in my mind, I had once asked her the meaning of rump, assuming that being a girl, she would feel shy and not answer, and I would win. But she answered with a straight face, without blinking even an iota of the eyelids. Seeing my disappointment on not winning, she had lifted her skirt and danced around me, making fun of me and of my English language prowess.
‘Stop that,’ I mockingly admonished her and hugged her and said, ‘Bhagya you? But you look so old, you look like a dadi.’
‘Well, my darling, you also don’t look like my navasa, either.’
We laughed the way we used to do some forty years ago, like children, with open hearts. My driver would have been utterly dismayed with this turn of events, and so must have been the village head, my cousins Rajender and his younger brother Surender, and other people who had gathered at the chaupal to greet me. I asked my driver to help madam sit comfortably in the car and take the right turn to go to the farmhouse, my farmhouse, which was at a stone’s throw from the village chaupal. She hesitated for a moment but then flashed a broad smile and settled in the backseat of the car.
We sat on a charpoy. Both of us were on the same charpoy as if we did not belong to different castes. Bhagawati was a Brahmin, I a Jat. I had guessed that she was a Brahmin in the very first instance when she emerged from the fields because of her sari. A woman in a sari in a Haryana village meant she was a Brahmin, a superior caste; women from other castes did not normally wear a sari.
Soon, the place got filled; all the chairs and charpoys got occupied by people who trooped in from the chaupal. Surender poured tea for everybody. Aha, the same sugary concoction! Surender’s wife must have prepared the tea because he was the one who was carrying the big flask. He knew my love for tea and must have asked his wife to put extra sugar because that is Haryanvis’ way of expressing love – make everything more; more milk, more sugar, more ghee. Initially, Bhagyawati seemed a little awkward, maybe because of sitting among so many men or maybe because of sitting on the same cot with a person from another caste. But she became normal once tea was served. Bhagya did not seem to mind the extra sugar in the tea, she was relishing it, her eyes fixed on me. Maybe she was also seeing her childhood in me; I was, for sure.
I cleared my throat to say something and in doing so, I seemed to have disturbed the silent stream of thoughts running through her mind because she got startled when I said, ‘What a lovely surprise? How come you here? I mean ...’
I had barely started when she cut me with a sharp retort, ‘I did not know you have developed Alzheimer’s at this age.’
‘In case you have forgotten, let me remind you that this is my village too, and I have every right to visit my folks here. Back in childhood, you used to be smart, Viren. Of course, not as smart as me. What happened?’ She guffawed; she was clearly having fun at my expense. The villagers too were enjoying this conversation. Their laughter provoked me, and with a good measure of mocking derision in my voice, I said, ‘You smarter than me? My foot. Don’t you remember I used to beat you in every examination to top the class? You always stood second.’
‘Yes, but I topped the school in the tenth grade State Board Examination.’
‘Ya, only because I had left that school and gone to Sonepat. Otherwise, you would have come second, again.’
‘Yes, but I had to do all the household chores also while all you did was to study and study.’
‘I used to play cricket the whole day. Still, I beat you every year, except in the tenth class exam and that too because I had left the school, thinking - let the poor soul top this time, at least once in her lifetime. And don’t you remember you were able to study beyond the fifth standard only because of me? Don’t you remember?’
The last sentence made her somber. The feistiness disappeared, her voice was mellow when she said, ‘Yes, I remember. And a big thank you for doing that.’
I regretted it as soon as the words had left my lips. I had touched the raw nerve in her. To change the subject, I asked, ‘Bhagya, did you study further?’
‘You know how keen I was to study. I topped the school, too. My father did not want to send me to the nearby village to study so how would he have allowed me to go to the city to study further?’
‘So, no studies?’
‘No. No studies till I got married. By god’s grace, I got an understanding husband. He allowed me to study. I did my graduation through a distance learning program. Gave birth to two children at the same time. Do you tell me what did you do? You must have studied a lot; you were a bookworm.’
‘I liked to read but you know very well that I was not a bookworm kind of person. But yes, study I did a lot. A Ph.D. and then started working in an international NGO.’
‘Oh, what did you do - distributed condoms to poor people or built their self-help groups to end their poverty?’ She said mockingly, which I did not like.
‘Not all NGOs distribute condoms or make self-help groups. But you seem to know a lot about NGOs; how come?’
‘Well, I worked with some NGOs after the kids grew up. Used to get bored sitting at home, waiting for the kids to come home from school and my husband from the office. So, started working with an NGO in Gurgaon, which distributed condoms among construction workers, gave them gyaan on safe sex, to protect them from HIV, and for family control. Also worked in slums on a livelihood project.’
‘Wow, Bhagya. Studying, and having babies, and working!’
‘Yes. You men have got it easier.’
‘Hmmm. You still working?’
‘No. I worked for a few years. But eventually, I stopped liking it and left it. There is no point in sermonizing people when you can’t provide them the basic things like food and decent jobs.’
We got so lost in each other’s stories that we forgot that it was already getting dark, that other people were getting restless, they would all of a sudden get up, start stretching their bodies as if saying – hey you two, enough with your talks, we are also sitting here, some attention here too, please.
They were there to discuss the next day’s program – my main purpose of coming to the village - distributing prizes to meritorious students. Bhagya got the hint and said that she needed to head home before it was too dark. We embraced each other goodbye and promised to meet again. After all, she stayed in Gurgaon, not very far from Delhi, where I lived.
Once she was gone, dinner was served, and the village head walked me through the next day’s plan – the arrangements that had been made, food to be served in the school, names of the three students who were to be awarded, and so on. ‘See you tomorrow' I bid them bye. The driver, Surender, and I were left behind in the farmhouse.
It was about to be 9 PM. Already time to sleep for people in the village. I hadn’t slept so early in years. I, too, lied down on the charpoy. Surender and the driver reclined on nearby charpoys. Agricultural fields all around. Vastness spread far and ahead. The eucalyptuses sway in the leisurely wind. Clear open sky. In a village sky, one could still see the stars clearly; not possible in the city, anymore.
Bhagya, Vikas, and I were recommended by the school for the national scholarship examination after the fifth grade. Vikas, however, could not go because the family with whom we were supposed to stay in the city would not let him stay in their house as he came from an untouchable caste. Lodging in a hotel for three days was beyond the means of his father.
One day, Vikas and I were sitting by the johad, the village pond, waiting for livestock to come home after a day’s grazing in the jungle. He was waiting for his pigs and I for my buffalo and her baby calf. Out of curiosity, I asked him, ‘How do you recognize your pigs out of so many pigs?’
Nonchalantly he answered, ‘Just like you recognize your buffalo out of so many buffaloes.’
I said that a buffalo was big and had distinct features and could be easily recognized. So are pigs, my friend, he told me. Incredulously I said, ‘Really? But they are all so similar, have similar features, small ears, and button-like eyes.’
‘Yes, you can pick them in a crowd of thousands if you care for them, consider them your own.’ He was right; he gathered all his pigs in a huddle in a jiffy. He knew them all and they seemed to know him. They all ran toward him as they saw him.
The day he came to know that he would not be able to go for the national scholarship examination, he remained aloof, and did not talk to anyone the whole day. To be able to talk to him, I walked him to his house. People from other castes avoided going to that mohalla because the people living there were untouchables. Our mohalla was next to the school, in the north of the village; his mohalla was in the south, a little away from the main village. ‘What a messy and dirty place’, my first thought as soon as we entered his mohalla. A stale stench permeated the whole place. Mostly mud houses, just a thatch for a roof. The gully was more like a sewer; pigs were sprawled in the slush of muddy water. We had to hop from one dry place to another on the side of the gully holding on to the walls of the houses to reach his house.
His family behaved awkwardly seeing me in their house. Maybe they were not expecting a guest or they were not used to having people from upper castes in their house. The house itself looked more like a caricature of a house than a real house; two small dingy rooms, one for sleeping for the whole family and the other one for the fodder and the goats to retire in the night. Hardly any furniture there; one small stool, two charpoys, and an old wooden almirah. There was a small courtyard, and a mud wall around it separated the house from the gully. The goats lazily chomped on dry straws in the courtyard. Pigs, I guessed, remained out in the gully. They offered me tea and some snacks. The tea had a strange smell and taste, and was very light in concentration. Must have been prepared with goat milk, not with buffalo milk, like at our home.
For the national scholarship examination, Vikas was replaced by Manoj whose only qualification was that his family had a house in the city where we stayed for three days. On the first day, we were treated like kings but from the second day onward, we realized that something was amiss: no tea and snacks offered in the evenings, the supper, too, pretty ordinary – no vegetable, no ghee on the rotis.
The reason was that while Bhagya and I cleared the test on the day one, Manoj flunked and was out of the national scholarship contention. In the daytime, we wrote the tests and, in the evenings, we sat on the roof, feet dangling below and counted the bogeys of the trains, that passed the house every half an hour or so till we felt hungry and sleepy.
Despite the national scholarship, Bhagya’s father did not want her to study beyond fifth grade. And the reason was that our village school was only up to the primary level. Beyond that, all children went to a school in a neighboring village, which her father did not approve of, for girls.
When I came to know of this, I went to her house to argue with him. Armed with ‘my sisters are girls and they go to that school’ argument. My assurance of accompanying her also did not cut any ice with him. All my protestations and assurances had fallen on his deaf hairy ears. What to do now? The mere thought of having to go to school without her made me miserable.
I needed a better plan. After mulling for few days, I came up with another plan, a plan that was super solid and guaranteed to work - I asked my papa to go to Bhagya’s house to convince her father. I was sure that her father would not refuse my papa because of the influence he carried.
But to my utter dismay, my papa refused to go to their house. His reasoning (which I thought was rather flimsy) was this being their internal family matter, an outsider should not meddle. I was determined to not let my plan flounder so easily. So, I pestered him again and again till he agreed and went to her house. It worked! Bhagya’s father relented. But after the eighth standard, he again refused to let her continue further. He had started looking for a boy for her. We, me and my papa, had to repeat the same routine, me first with my papa and then my papa with her father, and she was able to go to school again.
Since then, I had lost touch with Bhagya as I had migrated to a reputed private school in the city.
‘What a beautiful visit this has been. A reunion with old friends, after so many years.’ My thoughts veered towards Vikas. Did he study beyond school? What has he been doing for a living? Did he live in the village or moved to city for work? ‘Soon after the program in the school, I will go to see him,' I made a mental note. ‘No point in taking the car, I will go alone.’ I did not want to tell anybody about my plan because they would have all but dissuaded me from going to that mohalla.
The next day, a bright day of June, started on a familiar note - another round of sugary tea. I did not mind it much this time because I was excited filled with the prospect of meeting Vikas. After taking a hearty bath at the electric tubewell, I had a sumptuous breakfast of parathas with white butter on top of it. By the time the breakfast was over, it was nine o’clock. Accompanied by the village head, Rajender, Surender, and other villagers, I set out for the school.
The prize function went off well but was tad long for my state of mind. The students sat in rows on the ground. Many Bhagyas and Vikases among students, and someone from them would be here in my place after twenty or thirty years, because he was intelligent or just plain lucky.
Some children sang a prayer, then another group of students sang a few Haryanvi songs, followed by speeches by the school principal, village head and other elders of the village. Prizes were given to three students who had secured top positions in the tenth grade Board Examination. All three were girls. More girls than boys in the school, a fact that made me happy. I pointed this out to people on the dais, ‘All I see in front of me are girls. Good to see changing attitudes of the parents towards educating girls.’ My smile evaporated the next moment when Rajender replied, ‘this is because boys are sent to English medium private schools. And girls to the government school as education here is free.’
After the prize distribution, I made a short speech, extolling the virtue of good education. The words of Bhagya - you men have it easier – kept ringing in my mind.
I wanted to rush to Vikas’s house. But there was still a meal to be served. The main reason behind students’ and villagers’ interest in the program. Only around one o’clock, I was able to get out of there. I headed straight to Vikas’s house, after making an excuse that I wanted to see around the village.
After a brisk walk of fifteen or so minutes, I was in his mohalla. Hardly anything had changed there in the last so many years; same stench, same muddy slush, pigs sprawled in the sewage. Because I had visited his house only once and that too some thirty years ago, I could not locate his house. I asked for directions. I found it surprising that nobody seemed to know him or his family. After I had enquired from several people, I was pointed in the direction of a house. His house.
Hardly any house remained there - just a feeble remnant of the house of the yore. Clearly not the house where I had come with Vikas. The back portion of the house, the sleeping room, had caved in. The boundary wall was all but gone. Stray dogs had made it their home. No goats, no furniture, no Vikas, no nothing.
I asked the lady sitting outside the next house about Vikas and his family. She told me that Vikas died long ago. From tuberculosis, which could not be treated. His father also died few years after his death. After the death of their father, Vikas’s sister, who was married by then, took her mother to live with them in the city. Where, which city, she did not know.
A deep stench took over me, stomach felt queasy, and rushed out of that place. I wanted to get out of there before I started puking.