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The Peepul

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by Smarak Swain 09:16, 12 Sep 2005 (UTC)

Azad Hall

IIT Kharagpur

Kharagpur, W.B.

India

john galt

smarakswain@yahoo.com



Location here refers to a well—the school well—with a small circular concrete platform, the name borrowed from a small Oriya medium, government aided school that came up years after the well and already forms the source of various other landmarks—the school pond, the school Peepul whose roots have already trespassed the concrete platform’s borderline leading to a long narrow crack on its surface, the school stationary and the sweet vendor who disappears as soon as school ends.

The Sun is, at this time of the day, maintaining a low profile on the western front despite its outsized red form. This form isn’t usually distinct to the human eye, but because we are in a village with a clear sky, its presence is felt with ease. On the platform are sitting an octogenarian and a boy of not more than ten. The old man cuts out a fragile figure, with a frail body and half of the teeth missing from the jaws, rest rotting with tobacco. The kid is fiddling with a walking stick, belonging to the old man.…

“You study in English medium, don’t you? Yes, yes … your father studied in an Oriya school. English was also taught in his school. He would come home after school and greet me and his mother in English. Obviously, we didn’t understand a bit, but he sounded really funny … no not the village high school. This high school came up ten years ago. Very few children from this village used to study those days. There is a small town five kilometers away and your father used to study there. He and some others from the village would go to the school on foot. You don’t believe—but why? Yes, five kilometers on foot though I sometimes left him at his school on my bullock cart.

“You remind me of your father when he was a child … yes … you look just like him, though he wasn't as fair as you.… Oh no, that’s not the reason. Your grandmother was very beautiful when she was young. It is just that village boys are of dark complexion. They play a lot under the sun, completely bare-chested. My childhood? Ha ha ha … I don’t remember anything. It was so many years back that I don’t remember a bit … my age … ha ha ha—must be more than eighty, may be eighty-five. Studies? Yes I did study. Only members of my family were educated in the whole village at that time. My grandfather was the zamindar and a servant used to carry me to a missionary school in Kanhapura village on a cycle. At that time we had two of the three cycles in the village. Studies were pretty boring. I left school after seventh grade though—why are you laughing? Anyway, no one pretty cared about studies then. We had vast stretches of fields and grandfather used to get a hefty portion of taxes collected for the white people.

“Those days were the most glorious days of our family. Family tree—what is that? Oh you mean the ancestors. My grandfather’s grandfather was a commander in the Gajapati’s army—what … you don’t know Gajapati? He used to rule all over Orissa … yes, yes—king. Not exactly king. Gajapati means the King-of-Kings … yes a Maharajah. There were many kings under him. Did you know, that the king of Narasinghpur is related to us? My great grandmother was the then King of Narasinghpur’s daughter. Now? Yes, there is still a King there though no one cares for him. The government that came after the white people did no favour to the kings. To some extent, the royalty were also responsible. They maintained their exorbitant living standards even after losing their income from taxes. The present King is only remembered on Durga Puja festivals, when the King has to perform certain rituals in the Shakti temple of Narasinghpur.

“What? So that’s what you study—that the British were villains. Gandhi … yes Gandhi was a good man. I had heard many tales about him in my time … but you don’t understand. You won’t know the hardships I have been through when the British left. The new government abolished zamindari and cut off our only mode of income—taxes. Savings? We had a lot to go peacefully for three generations. We had, at that time, thirty cows and twenty attendants in our house. You should have seen how we patronized every festival that took place in the village temple. The village was ours and all land belonged to us. After the British left, we found we possessed only thirty acres and that isn’t enough for a joint family of my father, his three brothers and family of each. Intoxicated by status and show off, my father and uncles gave generous dowries on marriage occasions. Every festival was celebrated with the same splendor as before. Soon, we found it hard to make ends meet. We had the palatial house but couldn’t afford people to attend to the huge house. What is the use of cows if you can’t sell milk? I remember my eldest uncle was skeptical about selling milk as a source of income. Such type of business is too lowly for us.

“You are born in better times. Even your father was.… I never made him feel the deficiency of money … what? He said he had to struggle a lot in life? Rubbish. I made him study in school and later sent him to a university in Cuttack city … scholarship? What is it … study without money. Tell him if he doesn’t remember, I used to spend more than ten rupees per month on his fees and books. I used to send him more than hundred rupees when he went to study at Cuttack … don’t disparage that saying ‘only’. An acre of land used to be five hundred rupees then. Why doesn’t he pay for your school fees? And I have heard fees are really high in English mediums. You know what; it is in the nature of children to forget the efforts parents make to raise them.

“Don’t peep in there. The well is very deep and dangerous … but you aren’t Dharama. He was born here in this village and I know you don’t even see a well in the town. Don’t go close to the well. Come, sit here near me. Tell me about your city … yes I have been there many times though. You don’t remember? I went to your city just a year ago.… I didn’t stay long. I kind of don’t like that environment. This place is best for me … your grandmother? She can happily stay at any place. When your father and uncles weren’t born, she used to go to her mother’s home for long durations … weeks, sometimes months. Stop her? As if she cared for my decisions. She even came face-to-face with my mother on a couple of issues … like? Oh you won’t understand. She is such a nagging woman—you are not going to tell this to her—she always tries to find fault in me. Just last month, she picked up a row with me in front of everyone in the house … sweet? She is sweet to you grandchildren who come in a while, not me. She sure was very beautiful in her youth. In fact she is a good woman. Can’t you see how she manages the household, even at this age? The only two people she ever grudged on are me and my late mother. Why I married her? What type of question is that? My mother and uncle had gone to her village to see a girl for me. They didn’t like that girl, but on the way back, were introduced to her. My mother liked her and instantly fixed the marriage. I was then eighteen and she was thirteen … not legal? Why, everyone that time used to marry early. Yes … Babita aunty was born three years later.

“Your father? He was born when I was thirty five or something. I don’t exactly remember. His birth brought good luck to me. The harvests were very good that year. Not only that, I bought a new cycle and two acres of fertile land—the fields at the rear of village pond … I will show you tomorrow. He wasn’t like other village boys, the noisy type. He was a studious child. You know, he was only the third from our village to go to Cuttack to study. People still recognize me as 'Kanta's father' … ha ha ha … he made me really proud when he became an engineer. Everywhere people were talking about him. Horoscopes from prospective fathers-in-law kept pouring in … his marriage? Didn’t you ask him or your mother? Many people in our village and neighboring villages were offering handsome dowries, but I rejected all. I wanted an educated daughter-in-law worthy enough for my son. I sent Babita aunty, her husband and Prasanta uncle to your mother’s house in Cuttack when we heard of her. Your father was shown a photograph of her and he seemed pretty impressed. The only one not satisfied, albeit the most important, was your grandmother. She sulked for a couple of days because I didn’t care to consult her. The truth is that her sister had arranged another bride and she had given her word. But I didn’t care. That was perhaps the only time I looked like the head of the family, making all decisions.

“Santu! Move away from the road. A bullock cart is coming … what funny request is that? Okay, I will ask Dharama to take you on a ride … don’t be stubborn. That is not our cart … yes you can whip the oxen, but not these. We have our own. You are a very naughty kid … you don’t have to be furious! Okay then you aren’t a kid. Now come, sit here like a good kid—I mean … uh man. Tree … what tree? Oh this peepul. It is a very old tree … planted? Uh … I think … why I never thought about this. It has always been here, giving shed to women who come to take water and gossip for long hours. This is the perfect cool spot you can find to enjoy your evening. Ghosts? Who told you that? Ha ha ha … yes it is really huge but I haven’t seen any ghosts on this tree. I wonder why it doesn’t form a part of my nostalgia. I think … I think it has always been here. The school? It was made a few years ago. But, but the tree—how long has it been growing! I almost every evening sit by this tree and keep thinking of the old days.

“Philosophical? You are bored … ha ha … no dear it’s just that I got carried away. You turn senile with age … ha ha ha. Why is it that I don’t find a change in the tree … it was the same when your father was born and when you were a baby. It is still the same—strong and majestic, never compromising. Yes, you were also a baby once, a very cute baby … ha ha ha. You have even peed on me. No, not lying … you are hungry? Okay let’s go home. Your grandmother had ordered me to get you home by seven … ha ha no not ordered—requested. Wait a minute … don’t you think this tree has seen and known more than … no it’s becoming late. Let’s go home.”

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