Jambudveep's Blog

May 9, 2010

Chita (The Pyre)

Filed under: Stories — Yogeshwar Shastri @ 4:31 pm
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 This story is based on a real life experience of my maternal grandmother and was narrated to me by my mother and Maushi (aunt). Except the end part and the location of the story,everything else is completely fictional and from my imagination.The names of the characters are fictional as well.But the personalities  they portray were very real.

I wanted to try and do a period piece on a small scale.Hopefully it has come out all right.If you have the time,I would encourage you to read on the Quit India Movement of 1942,how Gandhi & the Congress finally betrayed the people they asked to rise against the British ( they did the same thing in 1947 with the Hindus and Sikhs of  what is now Pakistan).A lot of people left their jobs etc to join this movement and when it fizzled out,had nowhere to go.Ironically when we became free in 1947,the people in the independent government were those who had collaborated with the British!!

I won’t even mention the role of the despicable Jawahar Lal Nehru,a person who used to describe himself as the last Britisher in India (or something to that effect).

Whoops!! I have started ranting ! So without further ado….

 Chita (The Pyre)

By Yogeshwar Shastri

Ahmednagar, August 1942

The heat of summer had given way to the relief of the rains. Ahmednagar was once again transformed from a dusty plain to a veritable nature’s garden. People breathed as sigh of relief as the agonies of summer finally died away.

    Kamala tai looked out from the hospital window at the army parade grounds next to the hospital. Beyond the vast parade grounds was the smashan (cremation ground).

Sitting in a metal chair next to her bed ridden son, the scene outside gave her momentary respite from the worries which assailed her mind.

 An imposing building three storeys high, the civil hospital was made of solid Dakkhani stone. Built in 1882 by the British, it had grown slowly, wing by wing, serving the needs of Ahmednagar and the villages surrounding it.

 In the first floor of the hospital where Kamala tai sat, thick stone walls protected the inhabitants from the vagaries of weather outside. The typical style of Deccani architecture which used readily available stone for construction ensured that in summer the buildings were cool and in winter were pleasant.

 Kamala tai was nursing her two-year old son Bhalachandra, more affectionately known as Balu .Balu was an extremely lively child and being the youngest in a family of three sisters, was the darling of all. This was before he was struck down by a bout of malaria. Admitted three days back to the hospital with high fever, he was continually relapsing into unconsciousness. It seemed as if a malignant force had sucked all life out of the child.

 Today his fever had gone down somewhat but his little body was rendered extremely weak by the stress placed upon it. Even though Doctor Sathe had told her Balu had a good chance of pulling through, her brow was creased with worry as she sat next to Balu.

Kamala tai had not left Balu’s side since he was admitted to the hospital.

Dipping a wet cloth in the water bowl on the small table next to the bed, she applied it on her son’s warm forehead.

 It was now coming towards dusk; she had passed whole of the morning and the afternoon attending to her son. The only change to her routine was the soldiers in the parade ground practising their manoeuvres. Soldiers in their thousands from the army cantonment nearby used to practise from dawn to dusk in the parade grounds. She did not know what war they were preparing for. Her husband Dattatraya had told her that the British were fighting a great war in their homeland and needed Indians to fight for them.

She did not understand, why were our people fighting for the British?

Kamala tai and her family were Deshastha Brahmins, descended from the same hardy stock which had brought down the Mughals and then fought the British till they had nothing left to fight for. Dattatraya or Dattu ran a used book shop in Ahmednagar’s   main market. Even though he had never been to a school, he had a natural knack of finding rare and antiquarian books in markets across India. Things were looking up and he was already thinking of opening a second book shop in Pune, in partnership with his cousin Jagtap (better known as Nana).

Dattu used to visit mother and child early in the morning before opening his shop, coming back for a visit in the afternoon and finally in the evening. Much as Dattu wanted to be near Balu’s side for the night, he could not as they had three young daughters’ at home .Kamala tai’s eldest daughter Gauri was barely twelve years old, but was single-handedly taking care of the house in her absence.

A thought flashed across her mind that Dattu was late today. At precisely this instance an exhausted Dattu came into the room. Dattu presented an imposing figure, nearly six-foot high, with broad shoulders and sharp features. He had a moustache not very different from the one kept by the Rajputs. Before his marriage he had trained as a wrestler in an Akhada in Ujjain. A terror to the rowdies of his street, he was a soft person at heart and very attached to his family.

He was wearing a brown khadi kurta and a baggy white pyjama which is quite typically worn in rural Maharashtra. Although barely in his early thirties, he was balding at an alarming rate.

Looking at Kamala Tai he was struck by how much she had aged in the last few days.

“How is Balu feeling now?” asked Dattu, sitting down next to Balu.

“There has been no change in his condition. He regained consciousness for a few minutes in the afternoon. He kept repeating your name.” with this she began to sob uncontrollably as the pent-up emotions came rushing out in a torrent.

A pall of gloom descended on Dattus face.

Kamala Tai calmed down after sometime and Dattu offered her a glass of water.

Taking out a metal tiffin box from his jute bag Dattu said, “Gauri has sent some food from home.”

“Poor Gauri, everything is one her tender shoulders now.”Kamala tai responded with a deep sigh.

“She is a grown girl now, in a few years she will have her own family,” Dattu replied while running his fingers through Balu’s hair.

“I heard from the nurse that there was some kind of a riot in Tankha-peth today.” asked Kamala tai with a questioning look on her face.

“Not a riot, it was a peaceful march in support of the Bharat Chodo Andolan (Quit India Movement). They were treacherously fired upon without any provocation. A lot of people were killed in the firing. There must have been thirty or forty dead bodies.” Dattus soft voice had taken an angry turn as he recounted the tragic events of the day.

“Did not Commissioner Purandare stop the police from firing?”asked an outraged Kamala tai.

Purandare refused to give his men orders to shoot. He has been suspended from duty for this. Some white man called Jones brought in soldiers from the cantonment. Shot by our own people!! I would not have believed this if I had not seen it happening with my own eyes”, Dattu exclaimed angrily.

“The smashan (cremation ground) is going to be busy tonight”, said Kamala tai with sadness.

“But there won’t be any relations present. People in the market were saying the British have prohibited any relations from attending the last rites of those killed. Jones has ordered the soldiers to cremate the bodies as soon as possible.”Dattu was looking at the smashan in the distance.

Already   army trucks could be seen arriving at the entrance to the smashan. If the parade ground was empty as it was now, it was possible to get a clear view of the happenings in the cremation grounds.

Both husband and wife’s eyes were glued to the macabre spectacle unfolding in front of them. There were four trucks and a jeep parked near the entrance to the cremation ground. Soldiers were unloading bodies wrapped in a white cloth from the back of the trucks. In the cremation ground itself, piles of wood stood ready to act as the pyres.

Today there was no Brahmana present to give the dead the dignity of a proper funeral. Neither were grieving relatives present to remember their dear ones. Instead the bodies were unceremoniously dumped on the wooden pyres and wood piled upon them.

On the signal from a white officer, kerosene was poured on the pyres and they were set alight. The soldiers stood around for some time to make sure the pyres were burning properly. Once satisfied that their work was done, they left as efficiently as they had come.

It was quarter past seven in the evening now and the light from the burning pyres illuminated the parade ground. The scene was so clear that for a second they thought they could see   the outline of a body burning.

Tearing their gaze away from the sight, they turned their focus back on Balu. Both of them finished their dinner from the tiffin box and at half past eight Dattu got up to leave.

“I hope Nana comes back tomorrow. I can stay here in the night then.”Dattu said while leaving.

“Don’t worry, I can manage till then.” she reassured Dattu.

With a last pensive glance at Balu, Dattu left.

With Dattus leaving Kamala tai was all on her own with Balu. The hospital had gone deathly quiet. With only a skeleton staff in the hospital for the night shift, there was hardly any commotion.

In the pin drop silence the ticking of the wall clock resounded throughout the room. For a second Kamala tai thought she could smell something burning, but dismissed it as imagination. Balu’s breathing had become peaceful now.

Looking out from the window she saw only one pyre still burning. The light of the flame cast a ghostly luminescence over the cremation ground. She thought it strange that the pyre was still burning when others had turned to ash.

It was half past nine when Kamala tai went to sleep in the reclining chair given by the hospital.

Precisely an hour later, at half past ten a pungent odour of something burning hit her nostrils. Her first instinct was to check if Balu was all right. Seeing that there was no change in the room, she looked out of the window.

What she saw disturbed her composure. The burning pyre had somehow moved out from the cremation ground and was in the middle of the parade grounds which lay between the hospital and the cremation ground. And it was burning as if the pyre has just been lit!!

Certain that she was dreaming, Kamala tai rubbed her eyes. Convinced she was wide awake, the next thing she saw was the pyre slowly moving back to the cremation ground.

Now Kamala tai’s sleep was gone for good. The atmosphere had suddenly become tense and she could feel a throbbing sensation at the bottom of her spine. A ball of tension seemed to have settled in her belly and she became extremely alert.

Like a ghostly puppet the pyre kept moving back and forth, from the cremation ground to the parade grounds. But all this time it kept inching closer to the hospital.

Kamala tai closed the window and sat next to Balu on the bed. Holding his hand tightly, her gaze was transfixed by the strange spectacle being enacted in front of her.

The hospital grounds were separated from the parade ground by a low lying stone wall which ran along the hospitals perimeter.

It was half past eleven, when the pyre came right upto the boundary wall. Even with windows closed, the smell of burning flesh was unmistakable.

 She could clearly make out the outline of the dead person. It looked like a man, half of whose face had been burnt away. Molten flesh hung in narrow strips on the rest of his body. Half of his body was skeletonised.

 It was a terrible scene; the rank odour of death was stronger than ever.

Kamala tai was not a person who would scare easily. But she knew one thing for certain, whatever being was in the pyre, it was coming to take Balu.

After a few minutes the pyre had crossed the boundary wall and was barely a few metres from the window. She could feel the heat of the fire filtering through the windows.

 At the intensity at which the pyre was burning the body should have turned to ashes by now. But it stayed the same, unchanging.

Tightly grasping Balu’s hand, she sat frozen on the bed, unable to move even a muscle. A silent scream was forming in her throat.

The pyre was right next to the windows now, the brightness of the flame like a thousand suns. The windows were blown open by the heat of the flames. Inside the room the atmosphere had become intolerable, even Balu in his unconsciousness writhed in agony.

Kamala tai could see very clearly the skeleton inside the pyre. Bits of burnt flesh hung on to a grinning skull. In place of eyes were two fireballs. Surrounded by a sea of flames, it pointed its right hand towards Balu.

This was the last memory she had before  she screamed and fell unconscious.

When Kamala tai recovered consciousness she was in another bed in the hospital. Dattu and Nana were sitting next her bed. Dattu’s eyes were bloodshot due to a lack of sleep and constant worry. Nana was wiping his tears with a pancha (towel).

“Where is Balu?” asked a weak Kamala tai.

There was no response from either of the men.

“Where is Balu?”Kamala tai   demanded with all the effort she could muster.

Finally Nana spoke in a voice choked with emotion, “Balu died yesterday night.”

May 1, 2010

The Home Coming

Filed under: Stories — Yogeshwar Shastri @ 4:43 pm
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This was a short story I wrote couple of years back…..

The Homecoming

By Yogeshwar Shastri

Daylight was fast giving way to darkness as the veteran state transport bus sped along the thin strip of broken tar that posed as the highway and cut through the heart of the forest. The glow of its lights danced on the shadows of the surrounding forest which threatened to engulf the road.

Looking out from the sliding glass window which was jammed shut by years of dust and dirt, Sahyadri watched in fascination as in the last snatches of daylight he could see the forest interrupted in places to give way to paddy fields and coconut plantations.

“The forest cover has thinned a bit”, he thought, gets thinner year on year. Some things never change though, the bus is the same, is as packed as before and the road gets even worse every year. Sitting in the back of the bus he could feel every bump and break in the road beneath and wondered how many new craters had the rains made since his last visit home.

His musings were interrupted by the snores of the person on the seat next to him. Looking over the shoulder of the person sitting in front he could see the mass of people and their baggage spilling over into the drivers cabin/space. He wondered how the driver could change gears and focus on the road while chatting up with the passenger crammed into his seat.

More worrying was the fact that the road dropped off sharply on both sides to give way to deep rain water gullies/channels and the way the bus was hurtling along, he was certain it would topple into the gully any moment.

At last after what seemed an eternity, the bus came to a grinding halt being accompanied by a hoarse shout seemingly ensuing from the conductors mouth “Tallikatte!!!”

There was a banging sound as the bus door was thrown open. Sahyadri pushed his way through the mass of humanity to the front and as soon as his feet hit the ground the bus started off into the night.

Standing alone at side of the road, in the pale luminescence of the full moon overhead he could make out the beginning of the wide unpaved mud track which ran perpendicular to the tar road and would take him to his home, three kilometers in the interior. At present it was wide enough to take a small lorry or a tractor but in the monsoons shrunk to less than half its width.

Familiar household sounds and smells wafted through the air from the thatched huts belonging to the farm workers, which clustered around the side of the road and near the mouth of the mud track.

On the other s ide of the tar road was an open clearing which was dominated by an ancient banyan tree with a low platform of concrete built around its circumference. During the day people would sit on the platform under the shade and wait for the bus or just pass the time chatting. But at this time of the night it was deserted.

Pausing for a few minutes to take his surroundings in he started to move along the mud track which was flanked by thin forest cover on both sides. Moving along he could see at the left side of the road, the dark shape of the primary school building .It was a rite of passage for village children he thought, moving from the primary school here to the secondary school five kilometers away in Manchikeri, then to the higher secondary further away finally going to hostel in Dharwad for intermediate.

As he came near to the school he was startled by a shout from behind him. Looking behind to see the source, he saw he could see the figure of a man clad in a traditional dhoti with kurta and a shawl thrown over the right shoulder.

As he came closer, the moonlight cut into slivers by the overhanging branches reflected off his face, highlighting the face of a man in his mid sixties. His gait was rapid and within a few moments he was barely few feet away.

Recognition dawned on Sahyadri and he shouted, “Ram master!”

A smile appeared on the person’s face, gently pushing the creases due to age into the background.

“I thought I might bump into you. I had heard that you were coming on the night bus from Sirsi”, said Ram master, all the while vigorously shaking Sahyadri’s hand.

“I nearly missed it; my connecting train from Bangalore was late by almost an hour. I had to do a nice sprint to catch the last bus,” replied Sahyadri while starting to walk further along the track.

“It’s a good thing we met this way; I’m going to Dharwad tomorrow morning, to my daughter’s house. The only thing to do in retirement is to become a pest to others”.

“I didn’t know you had retired”, exclaimed Sahyadri with an expression of incredulity on his face. His childhood conception of Ram masters as an immortal whose only task on this earth was as headmaster of the secondary school, which was carried well into adulthood, received a painful push. It brought into focus the fact that he wasn’t getting any younger.

As if reading his thoughts, Ram master said with a sad smile, “When you get old, you forget things; it becomes difficult to cope with the stress of everyday tasks. But lets not bother about an old mans groans, tell me what’s up with you?”

As they continued walking, the conversation grew increasingly animated jumping from village gossip to family problems, the hot topic being the financial difficulties in the village brought on by crash in the market value of vanilla. They passed small gaps in the forest on both sides of the road where a clearing had been made to allow lorries to back up.

In one of these clearings they were joined by a dog, the kind kept by the farm laborers, some unknown country breed, which followed them, all the while keeping a cautious distance. Sahyadri barely paid any attention to the dog, assuming it to be following in the hope of getting some crumbs.

Ant hills of various shapes and sizes dotted both sides of the road, rising into space like the towers of lost cities .The track curved gently while undulating up and down following the contours of the hillock. Narrow foot trails trampled onto the forest floor by years of use, radiated outwards from the track at regular intervals. They led to individual houses usually of landowners tucked away in the corners of the forest.

Being engrossed in the conversation, Sahyadri did not notice when the trail leading to his home came into view.

“I believe this is where we part company”, said Ram master breaking Sahyadri’s mental reverie. “Be sure to visit our house for lunch or dinner, whatever is convenient for you. Everybody at home will be very happy to meet you.”

“It’s a pity I wont be able to meet you though”, said Sahyadri, wondering if Ram master would be all right walking alone. Ram masters house lay nearly a kilometer further down the road, where the road was abruptly cut off by paddy fields. He dismissed the thought, comforted by the fact that Ram master was perfectly at home, navigating the track innumerable times over the years.

“Don’t fret over it, we will definitely meet up on your next visit”, replied Ram master starting to move along the road.

Sahyadri waved goodbye and stood for a few minutes watching Ram masters figure disappear around the curve.

He turned his feet in the direction of the trail and doing a brisk walk reached within a few minutes a cluster of huts. These belonged to the farm laborers and the house lay beyond them in a shallow depression cut into the side of the hillock. A deep moat was dug running along the entrance, its purpose being to divert floodwaters in case of torrential rains.

The house itself was a two storied building, the older portions made of timber and mud, intermingling with newer portions made of bricks and cement. The house had a large courtyard with a tulsi plant in the centre and was ringed by a perimeter wall approximately eight feet high, built by his great grand father to keep out wild animals.

The moat was spanned by a crude walkway made of logs lashed together and covered with red mud.

He noticed the dog still following him, making a mental note to ask Anna to feed him some morsels on reaching home. Passing the huts he came across the engravings of the serpent (Naga) gods right at the beginning of the walkway, who stood as guardians to his ancestral house.

Mentally bowing to them he crossed the walkway and began his descent down the steps which led to the wooden door in the perimeter wall.

Finding the door open he made his way across the courtyard to the main building calling out his elder brother’s name, “Ramanna, Rammana!!!”

The main door was thrown open and a tall, well built person rushed to embrace his brother in a bear hug.

“Where is everybody?” asked Sahyadri disentangling himself from his brothers’ hug. He was used to the house busting with activity and the silence puzzled him.

“They are off to Yellapur to attend a marriage. I stayed back as the vanilla harvesting is about to begin. Lets go inside, wash your hands and feet at the tap here and we can have dinner,” Rammanna said, propelling Sahyadri towards the tap.

“I was worried about you coming alone from the bus stop till here at this time. Not that anything happens, but it’s easy to get a nasty stumble on a dark night. Luckily the sky was clear tonight,” Rammanna said while holding the tap open.

“Nothing to worry, I’m grown up now, besides I had Ram master for company along the way”, Sahyadri said, washing his face with his back to his brother.

For a split second there was no reply from behind him. Then Rammanna asked in a low voice, “Did you say Ram master?”

Sensing something, Sahyadri looked behind and saw that his brothers’ face had gone deathly pale.

His hand were shaking as he said, “Ram master died three weeks back”.

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