The old jheel was a jheel only for the old namesake. It must have been so in the old days, but now for all purpose and poise, it was as flattened a piece of earth as a palm. The favourite and only place in the otherwise congested JJ Colony for Wasi and his friends to hang around and play. Whenever they were not in school, they were at the old jheel, playing cricket, marbles, running and catching, and what not. It was here, on one fine morning, where Wasi saw it for the first time in his life.
‘Wasi, come. There is a bulldozer at our jheel,’ Asif and Sahu blurted out in unison, out of breath and half bent, with their hands on their knees, furiously huffing and puffing to take in as much breath as they could.
‘Bulldozer? What is a bulldozer?’
‘Don’t know. It is a big, very big tractor type thing. Big people out there called it a bulldozer.’
‘Bulldozer...that’s a funny word.’ Wasi stopped conjuring up an image in his head of a hefty wrestler trying to dodge a bull in an arena when he heard Asif screaming with panic again.
‘We came running as soon as we saw it. It is digging up our pitch and the surrounding area. How will we play our match today?’ There was an urgency in his voice. It was Sunday, and they had planned to play cricket the whole day.
‘Let us go to Vicky’s house. His father is a bada aadmi. Let us request him to do something.’
‘He is right there; overseeing everything. He only called for it because apparently it is good for the jheel and the area.’
They ran to the old jheel. On their way, they gathered other children of the mohalla. Bhoora, Balu, Shams, Shafi, Noora, Shaqi, Billu, Amar, Kapil, Naresh, Asad, Chakri, Chintu, Pappu, Asif, Sahu, Wasi, and several others who had joined the train of the running kids through the gullies of the JJ colony—all reached the old jheel.
A healthy crowd had gathered in a haphazard circle around the jheel. Wasi and gang squirmed their way through the legs of the people to reach in the front. What a sight it was! Spellbinding and heart-breaking, at the same time.
Right at the centre of the old jheel, where the cricket pitch used to be, was stationed a humongous creature, unseen by any of them in their life—restless, moving back and forth, emanating deep guttural sounds and copious amounts of grey fumes; strewing the air with fuel fumes and kicking up gusts of dust. They were glued to the sight of the rhythmic raising and swooping down of its trunk. Each time, it roared like an elephant, swooped its trunk with force, and dug deep in the earth. With one swift scoop, it plucked a huge chunk of earth from the belly of the lake, and deposited on the side of the lake in a smooth sideways movement.
It went on for the whole day. The belly of the old jheel getting bigger and deeper with each scoop and the mounds on the side becoming bigger and higher. They parked themselves on the mound to have a better view. The cricket match was all but forgotten. The bulldozer worked for several days, and it became their favourite pastime. They would halt for some time there on their way to school, and spent the evening there after school. The mounds on the sides of the jheel, which now touched the skies, became their new playground. They would run up and down these hills, chase each other, roll down in a row or just stand at the top with puffed chests and hands raised in a salute.
Soon, the dredging was over. Huge trucks arrived to take the sand and dirt away. The fun part was over for them.
Now, as we know and as is its wont, time passes, whether one wishes or not. In this case also, it passed; manifested in the fact that Wasi was now a grown-up man. So were his friends. And the colony and houses too—from single storey in those days to double storey, with some even having risen to three storeys.
This morning, he found out that even the bulldozer had grown. More muscular. Taller. Uglier. A Monster. When raised, its snout could reach up to the skies, way above the houses, way above even the minarets of the masjid. More power, more heft; he also found out that they now arrived with much fanfare, escorted by people in uniforms and helmets, brandishing batons and assorted arms.
From early morning, the bulldozers, seven and counting, working in tandem, escorted by flanks of armoured police and the rapid action force, moved from one thella to another, from one shop to another, from one house to another. Oblivious to prayers, cries, joined hands, tears. Swooping down furiously, turning everything in their way into rubble. Plucking out them, their belongings, their shops, their houses from the belly of the mohalla.
Little did he know that this time around, they were the dirt, needed to be taken out, to render the place pure and pristine. Time passes, and time changes.
(This appeared in the print edition as "Dirt")
Dev Chaudhury is a writer. He earlier worked for the UN Population fund