India is a vast country, a big country having its own peculiarities - peculiarities of Indianness. Peculiarities of Indianness can not be described in words - it is to be seen to be believed.A village consisting of, say, one hundred households, would be living as a big joint family, even though each household would be separate from the other of creed, caste, sub caste, dress, festival, worship, food habits, dialect, occupation and all other possible differences,yet,all united in good times or in bad times.70 per cent of India's vast population lives in about seven hundred thousand villages, big or small - all included.
This is a story of one such village, may be mine, may be yours.It may be any village anywhere in the world.
The household at Shyamlal.
Shyamlal died about 5 years ago of a fever that came intermittently. Rahim Chacha(grandfather), an old man of about ninety,still erect and active,the only physician of the locality,a hakim,checked the pulse,eyes,tongue etc.of Shyamlal and opined that the disease is a saitan (devil) who often do not follow the command of khuda (God). He gave some herbs with strict direction how to use, but advised the family to depend more upon Lord Krishna(God) instead. Shyamlal died suffering for about a month -- leaving behind his wife; Radhabai; a daughter of marriageable age, two grown up sons, two cows - one milching, one ox, eight palm trees, one jackfruit tree and one broken bullock cart. Even after his death, the family pulled on without much difficulty because they had eight hands to earn.
Household of Rashid Khan.
Rashid Khan was staying in the Muslim bustee (a small settlement), not far away from Shyamlal's house, only a big mango orchard in between separating their respective settlements. His ancestors had arrived in India from far off Afghanistan about a thousand years ago searching military/warrior jobs under Indian kings.The local king gave them jobs and land to settle. He was an old man of above 80 years, thin, erect and tall as any Afghan would be, with flowing white beard on his face and a skull cap on his head. He was staying with his wife, Rehena; an equally old woman; and their granddaughter, Shabnam, a girl of about 18 years, as beautiful as a drop of dew on a lotus leaf - justifying her name. Both their son and daughter-in-law had died just after Shabnam's birth of the same disease that killed Shyamlal. He had about two and a half acres of land, which his ancestors had given to Shyamlal's ancestors for cultivation with a condition that they both would share half the produce.The unwritten agreement is being honoured even today. Rashid Khan has never bothered to locate his land.Such was the trust between the two families. Besides his land, he had five goats, a flock of chickens, a tamarind tree and two drumstick trees.His family was also pulling on without many difficulties because rice provided by Shyamlal used to be adequate for a year.
The story is a simple one, but, made complicated by persons unknown to the villagers despite the will of the concerned families.
Shabnam eloped with Gopala, elder son of Shyamlal in one new moon night.Since both, the boy and girl knew each other from childhood and since both the families were living like one, the villagers were not worried much.They searched here and there, in their relatives houses in other villages and not finding them assumed that they had fled away to the city.The matter somehow reached to the police; who came to the village, inquired about the matter and knowing both were adults and there was absolutely no communal angle to the case; did not act.There was not much ripple in the respective families either. Rashid Khan said, "If that is the desire of Allah, the merciful, be it so, who am I to object. Anyway, Gopala is a good boy."Similarly, Radhabai, the mother of Gopala said, "Shabnam is a good girl.If that was what Lord Krishna (God) wished, who am I to express unhappiness."
Then came another twist to our story.
In one fine morning, the head of a dead cow was found on the road leading to Lord Siva(God) temple.The villagers saw that, thinking a hyena might have dropped the head there, threw that in a local burning ground which was in no time scavenged by vultures.
There was no ripple in the village.
Then came the third calamity to the village, the third twist to our story.It was this third twist and the events that followed motivated me to write this story.
Both Rashid Khan and Gobinda, second son of Radhabai did not return home one evening - Rashid Khan from the local hata(a local market generally gathered once a week especially during afternoon hours) which was about 3 km from his house and Gobinda from his land which was beyond a forest stream about 2 km from his house. The villagers searched.They found Rashid Khan, dead, under a banyan tree, a little away from the road, and Gobinda, dead, near a clump of bamboos on road side.They thought Rashid Khan died of old age and Gobinda by a snake bite.There was no ripple in the village except that the wailing of the families continued for days together.
However, there were high turbulent waves somewhere at a far away place.Three incidents in three months involving two communities of different faiths entered like fish-hooks in the throats of different elements in the town.Hordes of men and women came, they came by motorcycles, auto rickshaws, motor cars, they came carrying different flags, wearing different caps, they told different things - some told about repression in the past,some told about repression in the present,there were meetings in the hata ground,if by one group today, by another group tomorrow.There were processions, if by one group in the morning, by another group at the evening - to the utter bewilderment of the villagers.
The government woke up.Apprehending communal tension, dispatched police force and deployed administrative machinery.The routine procedure was followed as per law book.With the arrival of the police force, the hordes of mischief mongers that settled in the village like a swarm of locust; to a great discomfort to the villagers; vanished. Since nothing happened in the following week, the government declared "the situation brought under control taking strong measures." The administrative machinery and police vacated.The government decided to pay Rs 25,000 to next kith and kin of the deceased to placate the situation.
One darshan(seeing an august personage) is enough.
He was a top civil servant, the Commissioner of that division.You can award him all the good adjectives that a government servant should have, like-strict, tight, honest, tactful, prompt, unbending, principled and above all gentle and sensitive. He had an uncanny ability and confidence in tackling any problem straight rather than following the snail slow official procedure.For that, he was feared, obeyed, respected and admired.He had his share of derision and bunch of antagonists too. Twenty transfers in thirty-three years of service was a testimony to that.
He had to disburse Rs 25,000 to the next kith and kin of each family - to Rehena Bibi, wife of Late Rashid Khan and to Radhabai mother of Late Gobinda for the mysterious deaths of Rashid Khan and Gobinda. That was his last working day and also his last official assignment.
The Commissioner with his entourage consisting of district level officers from administration, police, revenue etc reached the village at mid-day on a Thursday.
They reached Rashid Khan's house first which was directly on the way. Rehena Bibi was plucking ripe tamarind fruits by a nagee (a thin long bamboo with a hook attached to one end) when the entourage arrived.
Seeing so many Sahebs ( respectful address to very high ranking personalities), she was dumbfounded.
One police officer came forward.With an authority matching to his profession demanded,
'' Is this the house of Rashid Khan?"
"Yes, hazoor (Sir)."
''Where is he?''
" He is dead.Everybody knows it."
"He died natural or was killed."
"Killed? Persons who came from the sahar (town) were pressing me to say that. He was an old man.Of course, he died naturally under a banyan tree.Why should somebody kill him hazoor ?"
The police officer was going to interrogate further to prove his competency before seniors when the commissioner signalled him, no.
Then came forward a Revenue Officer.
" So, you are the wife of Rashid Khan?"
"What's your name ?"
" Rehena Bibi hazoor."
"Show me your identity proof."
Rehena Bibi looked at his face blankly "Identity proof? I can not understand that hazoor."
"Any document that will show, you are Rehena Bibi."
Rehena Bibi looked at his face, looked at the police officer and slowly murmured," I am standing before you hazoor. If I can not be my identity, how can a paper be ?"
A thin smile momentarily flashed on the lips of the Commissioner.That was an experience to him to stand face to face with "innocence."
Very softly he told her, "Yes, you are Rehena Bibi. All right, the Government has directed me to hand over you a cheque of twenty-five thousand rupees towards compensation for the death of your husband, Rashid Khan.You will put your tipa (fingerprint) on a paper and will get the cheque.An officer will come tomorrow, he will take you to the bank, you will deposit the cheque there and the money will be yours."
The woman murmured twenty-five thousand rupees several times as if calculating how much that would be, then without waiting a moment clearly told without a trace of hesitation,
" Saheb, my mian (husband) had a natural death, nobody killed him.How can I take that money ?Khuda (God) will be angry.My husband never wanted ill-gotten wealth. We are poor, sure, but not dishonest.How can I take money which my husband would not have approved?Anyway, when he is not there, dead, when my poti (granddaughter) is not here, what I will do with that money? Shyamlal's household provides us rice. I have five goats and some chickens.See the tamarind tree and drumstick trees, laden with fruits.I sell them.I can manage.I do not need your money."After a little thought continued again, "Give this money to Radhabai, Gobinda died the night my mian (husband) died. Her husband already dead. Gopala has fled away.She has a marriageable daughter.This money will be a great help to her.You know the present day boys, they do not work, want cheap money, want dowry.Give this money to her Saheb. She can utilise it''. Then slowly moving to a corner of the house, opened a worn out tin trunk; looking as battered as she was; searched inside here and there, pulled out a thin gold chain " Saheb, with my poti was gone, I have no use of this chain.Please take it.Give it to Radhabai. She can give it to her daughter during her marriage.Do not tell her that I have given it. Her self-respect may not allow her to accept. Tell, the Sarkar Bahadur (government) has given that for her daughter.Without a trace of hesitation, she handed over the chain to the Commissioner.
Holding the chain in one hand,the cheque in another,looking vacantly at the two cocks that were chasing each other in that room,another experience,another incidence;an incidence that had no connection with this,that had all the connection with this, depending on how you look at it; came alive into his memory - an incident about 34 years back.That was his interview for the final selection to Civil Services.He had done extremely well in the written examination.The lady; a board member; asked,"The Soul of India lives in its villages - explain the essence of it." That was what Mahatma Gandhi observed way back in the second decade of last century.He had explained the quote, he had explained it so vividly, adding pinches of wisdom here and flashes of emotion there, that, the board had felt "the Soul of India" in flesh and blood appeared before it.He could give life to that quote.The Chairman even complimented his in-depth knowledge on Gandhi thoughts.Thereafter the interview was easy. He was the topper that year. That day he could present the "Soul of India" "live" before the board without realising what Gandhiji actually meant.
Looking vacantly at the two cocks that were chasing each other still, looking vacantly at the openings in the thatched roof through which light was coming through making the room fully illuminated, looking vacantly at the fruit-laden tamarind tree, looking vacantly at her wrinkled face - beaming in contentment despite stark poverty, looking vacantly at the pair of eyes, shining like diamonds - the shine coming out of her innocence,he realised, what he explained so vividly that day 34 years ago,was standing before him face to face in flesh and blood. With a heart throbbing with excitement and boundless joy, ignoring the moisture that had deposited in his eyes,he bent down,bent down slowly and touched her feet- touched the feet of The Soul of India.(touching the feet of person is offering the highest respect for him/her in Indian/ Hindu culture.)
He offered the gold chain back to her,"I can not take it like this.I need Radhabai's permission.I will request her to accept this. Excuse me, Mother."
He came out in slow steps without looking at the old woman again.
One darshan (seeing a revered personage) is enough in a lifetime.
Headed for the next destination, Radhabai's home.
Radhabai was milking her cow when the entourage arrived. They were already at her courtyard when she saw them.She got up.Fear gripped her.The police officer in her characteristic style asked,
"Are you Radhabai?"
''Ji hazoor''.(Yes Sir.)
''What is the name of your son who was killed?"
"Killed? No, hazoor. He died of a snake bite. That often happens here. He was my second son, Gobinda.''
" Your other son eloped a Muslim girl. What's his name ?"
"Gopala, hazoor. He fled away with Shabnam, granddaughter of Rashid Bhai (brother) - good fellow, died on the night my son died."
" Fled away with a Muslim girl ?"
" True hazoor. A beautiful homely girl. Nice girl. But Muslim .........." She hesitantly stopped.Then with a tone having unshakeable clarity told."We cultivate their land, that is since generations, we give them half, never cheated, you can ask Rehena bhabi (wife of elder brother), they eat the same rice that we eat, Shabnum often beings drumsticks from her home, tasty, we eat that - we eat what they eat, they eat what we eat... still a Muslim girl ?"
Again a thin smile momentarily flashed in Commissioner's lips - again another experience to stand face to face with " innocence". He cut short the police officer. He explained Radhabai what he had explained to Rehana Bibi and also conveyed the desire of Rehana Bibi that she wanted to give the gold chain to her daughter for her marriage.
" Saheb, my son died of a snake bite. He was not killed. How can I accept the money? That would be a sin, that will push my son to hell.Can I push my son to hell for money? Can you?Yes, I need money for my daughter's marriage.I will sell the bullock cart.I will sell the bull if required.I can manage.Of course, I will take the gold chain.I will give that to Shabnam when she would return with my son.She will look beautiful with a gold chain.I will tell that to Rehena bhabi when I meet her.I will give my gold chain to my daughter. I need money, but, I can not accept your money.That would be sacrilegious."
He returned back.
When he was about to enter inside the car, Radhabai came running carrying a small theki(earthen pitcher) and her daughter following, carrying a jackfruit. Offering him the theki, she said, "Saheb, there is ghee(clarified butter from the milk of cow) in it, pure ghee. I have prepared, fresh.Add few drops to your rice, you will relish it, take it please and this jackfruit, ripe, she has cut it just now for you, children will love it also.'' She thrust the theki into his hands while the daughter put the jackfruit in the car.
The most powerful civil servant, who, they say take a decision at the fraction of a moment, stood dumbstruck, stunned, undecided.Seeing his hesitation, the old woman told, " Son, nobody goes empty handed from a mother's(house).Otherwise, mother's love would dry out. Mothers give, children take.Take it."He looked at her face,happy and content, looked at her eyes,sad with losing a son,happy with finding a son,looked at the theki, full with a mother's love,looked at the jack fruit,as big as a sister's love,looked at her(girl) face,innocence immortalised, looked at her eyes, expecting the blessings of a big brother - accepted the theki, " Yes mother, I forgot, mother's give, never take."He slowly bent down, very slowly, touched her feet- touched the feet of Mother lndia.
The drops of tear that rolled down his eyes were tears of happiness, tears of satisfaction, tears of fulfilment, that, on the last hour of his long service period he ultimately found what he had been searching since that day of the interview - The Soul of India, Mother India.
Slowly he entered the car.He did not look back.
One darshan is enough for a lifetime.
He was still thinking about his school days when they used to shout ' Bharat mata ki jai." (Victory to Mother India) on each Independence day without knowing who Bharat Mata was, he was still thinking about his interview about 34 yeas back when he explained "Soul of India" without realising what Gandhiji actually meant, he was still thinking the simplicity of village life, he was still thinking about the innocence of the women he met, he was still thinking about the "half-naked seditious fakir" who shed his cloth to clad his mother, he was still feeling elated at realising the meaning of the quote; that he vividly explained in that interview board, thirty-four years ago;at the last hour of his service career, when, the lady probationer sitting by his side hesitantly said, "I am confused Sir, why did you touch the feet of those two women ? Certainly, they are not related to you.I saw tears in your eyes.I am confused." He looked at her face, looked at the road ahead,scores of village folk,men,women,children,returning from a day's work, gossiping among themselves,happy and content despite the stark poverty they face, despite the hardship that grind them,and replied,"You have a long way to go, a very long way." Pointing to the scores of people continued, ''do not administer them only, identify yourself with them,work for them,work with them,serve them with all your energy,with all your commitment,with all your zeal,with all your conviction,with all your courage,passionately,I am sure,even if that would be the last hour of your service period, you will realise why I did touch their feet.''
The lady nodded her head, "Sure Sir, I will follow what you advised. I will find it out one day."
All the local newspapers screamed next day, "both the woman refused compensation as that was a pittance compared to life''. There were hot discussions in TV channels too, everybody blamed the government for its apathy towards poor villagers. Even one weekly newspaper went to the extent of accusing the Commissioner of taking a bribe of one thekiof ghee and a jackfruit in lieu of promising an enhancement to the compensation.
The Commissioner vacated his allotted bungalow same evening and headed straight to his village.He leads a simple village life sharing the happiness and sorrows with others.
He keeps track of those two families.
Gopala and Shabnam returned home after eight months.There was no ripple in the village. Radhabai presented the gold chain to her daughter- in-law which Rehena Bibi had given.She looks more beautiful with the chain hanging around her neck. Both the grandmothers got a grandson two years later. They have named him Aman (peace). If you ask Aman, who his favourite grandmother is- he will kiss both his grandmothers. Radhabai got her daughter married next year.Presented her daughter the gold chain that she got from her mother when she married.The Commissioner attended the marriage ceremony. He presented a gold necklace to his new found sister and another to Shabnam.
The lady officer works hard.She has identified herself with them through her commitment. She works for them, works with them day and night. For her morning does not come, the evening does not come, a day does not come, the night does not come, Sunday does not come, the holiday does not come, the only thing that comes on her way is work, work, and work. She is loved, adored, admired and respected by them.Future will tell if she can realise what the Commissioner realised that day.
A soul does not have a religion.
How can the Soul of India have a religion?
A mother does not have a preference.does not have a favourite.
How can Mother India have a preference/ favourite?
The culture of India is the culture of its villages. Gandhiji visited many of them. Interacted with the villagers. Read their hearts. Pure as gold.Clean as dew. Warm as winter sun. Cool as a moonbeam.Therefore only he could observe,''Soul of India lives in its villages."
'' Is it not applicable to the whole of the world ?"
With persons like Radhabai and Rehena Bibi living in villages can the " Soul of India" live anywhere else? With persons like Radhabai and Rehena Bibi leaving in villages can there be a divide?
To the youth of the world, with a quote from a letter (1931) written by another great man of last century, Einstein, " You have shown through your works, that it is possible to succeed without violence even with those who have not discarded the method of violence."
Can not we ensure peace?
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