by Namita Waikar
Suraj set down the earthen pot of his wife’s ashes and crouched next to it outside their mud and brick home. The cracks on his bare heels seemed like the rudiments that grew into the fissures on the hardened muddy surface they pressed underneath. Raising his eyes to the walls of his home he recalled the number of times they had been reinforced with a fresh plaster of mud by his wife. The chink-chink of her red and green glass bangles reverberated in his ears, tormenting him with memories of their conjugal life. Sighing, he stood up, dropping those thoughts and suddenly feeling much older than his fifty-eight years. About to go into the hut, he paused facing the doorway, his numbed mind prodding itself to think. He turned left and slowly walked about four feet on the right side of the entrance to the house, scratched the surface of the earth with his toenail, making a mark. Walking around to the back of the house, he picked up the axe lying there on the ground. He returned to the mark he had made moments ago and brought the axe on to it. Within minutes, there was a hole in the ground, just large enough to hold the contents of the earthen pot, which he then poured in slowly. The ash, dutifully fell into the hole. The lightest particles rose up and hovered in the air, cheerfully like laughter.
It was suppressed laughter, released slowly, that one could only hear from very close. Meira was watching him twirl his grey moustache in the barber’s mirror, sitting on the high blue chair at the corner of the street that sloped off a bustling wide road, the Ballygunge Phari in Calcutta. It was the only time they had left their village for a short visit with their two sons, who worked in the city as construction labourers. The barber had run off to answer nature’s call. Suraj had been eyeing that almost throne-like chair every morning as he and Meira passed it, on their way to the food stall. The stall was frequented at mealtimes during the day by rickshaw-pullers, taxi drivers, auto-rickshaw drivers, workers, labourers and others like them, who could afford to buy freshly cooked delicious food only at one of these stalls that dotted the street corners in many areas of the city. The barber’s mirror was large and rectangular and hung from a black iron nail jutting slightly upward from the tree trunk it had been nailed into. The branches of the neem tree spread out generously giving shade to the customer sitting below in the chair and letting in stray beams of sunlight through them to aid the barber’s neat work. The barber had found a spot for his business that was made for him. Finding the chair unattended, Suraj had given in to his desire of occupying it ever since he had first noticed it. But his indulgence lasted barely three minutes. Soon, noticing the barber ambling back to the spot, Meira released a tiny shriek of fright, pulled at her husband’s sleeve in quick warning and ran to the food stall while Suraj slipped down from the chair, as the barber stood in front of him, with a threatening look in his eye.
‘Ssaalaa’ hissed the barber at Suraj’s back.
Through out that day as they worked, husband and wife, side by side, Meira bit into the edge of her saree releasing that suppressed laughter. After some time when he stopped sulking, Suraj joined in the laughter too. Until the stall owner, irritated by their non-stop laughter yelled at them to be quiet. After that, all they could do was look into each other’s eyes and share their silent mirth.
When all the ash had been poured into the hole, Suraj gathered mud from the heap dug-up earlier and spread a handful of it over the ashes. He left a few inches of empty space above it. Then he walked to the woods nearby; his bare feet instinctively avoided stepping on sharp ends of twigs and unwieldy stones jutting up from the grassy undergrowth. Mango trees resplendent in their spherical spread of branches and leaves, a pair of tall palms leaning eastward, a casuarina standing by herself, amid stocky shrubs and bushes were witnesses to his silent mourning. Among the grasses underneath the foursome of tamarind, amla, fig and peepal, there were tiny heads of daisies – white, blue and yellow – dancing at random. Suraj walked through them, crushing some heads under his feet as he found what he was looking for on the other side of the stretch of grass; a leafy branch of night jasmine that he snapped off with the twist of an expert hand. He was pleased he had found it and would have smiled under more pleasant circumstances. Retracing his way back to the house he planted the bare end of the branch in the hole and filled it up with soil. He sprinkled water around the sapling and washed his hands as he did it, moistening the soil. He was tired. Reclining against the wall of his home he stretched his legs out. The last drops of water dripped off the new plant as it danced in the breeze that rode the amber rays of the setting sun. Suraj plucked out a blade of grass and nibbled at it as he remembered how Meira would blow air gently on his temples and forehead when their hands ached from shaking the hand fans on hot summer nights. She was with him even now, all the time. Their life together replayed in his mind continuously like the progression of day into night into day. Meira had always been beautiful. Her frailty was an indivisible part of her beauty. Like all marriages in their village, the elders in their potter community had fixed their match too. Meira’s parents had given their daughter to Suraj, six months after his parents had died in the devastating floods. Business was slow for a potter and the loss of his parents had brought sorrow in young Suraj’s life. His meagre earnings were just enough for sustenance. After he got married, Meira’s beauty brought in all that was missing in his life until then. The inside of their short and tiny brick home turned into a dream world, a paradise, the first time he held her in his arms and noticed her long eyelashes. The dark brown eyes that looked into his, enticed him from that moment. She had closed her eyes when his hand touched her neck as they slowly stretched themselves on a straw mat, made gentle love and consummated their marriage.
He had worried about her health when she gave birth to their two sons within the first few years of marriage. Soham was their first born and had inherited his mother’s laughter and beauty. Mohan, born a year after Soham had grown tall and rugged like his father. Ten years ago, still in their teens, the sons had left the village and migrated to Calcutta. There was nothing in pottery they had said. They worked on construction sites in the enormous city, plastering bricks with concrete mixtures of cement and sand.
Suraj and Meira had visited them a year later. They enjoyed a little while working in the food stall, working side by side throughout the day. But that work lasted for barely three weeks, until the two men who worked there regularly returned from their emergency visit to their hometown. After that, Suraj and Meira could not get any work there. Staying at home all through the day and eating off their sons’ earnings was not something they enjoyed. Life in their tiny, shanty home in the Calcutta slum was suffocating. They missed the vast green grasses and the open fields. The fresh country air and fragrance of burned earth, as they baked the pots. Within a month, they had returned, leaving the sons behind, back to their own world. The coming back home was like a second lease of their youthful days. Their passion was rekindled and they found newer, untried ways of sharing pleasures. Their own surprise at finding themselves again in each other’s eyes and mouths, ears and necks, arms and legs, backs and chests and fingers, toes and lips multiplied their love for each other, with each other and for their togetherness. They lived in a new world, a dream world, rebuilt within their small mud and brick home. In the evenings they walked in the woods, sometimes like children, sometimes like lovers. It was in those days that Suraj and Meira found their night jasmine. The tree of their love, the queen of the night, Raat ki Rani, that showered fragrant flowers on to them as they lay in embrace under it.
That dream world had now ended. It was consigned to the small plant that would grow over her ashes. There had been a typhoid epidemic in the village and Meira had been severely ill. Suraj had taken her on the distressing journey of over five hours to the nearest town hospital from their village of Beralpur. Their village was near Gaya in Bihar, but not near enough to reach easily and quickly. So the villagers traversed a long and torturous route to reach the nearest town of Beralganj which had a government hospital. The road to Beralganj went through the mountainous Beral hills. It was a long distance and a longer ride on the state transport bus, during which, Meira had succumbed to the rising fever. After she was gone, life was completely altered for Suraj. He had given up making pots. He went for long walks through fields and the woods, avoiding the paths that he had walked on with Meira in the years that she had lived. Wandering deeper into the forest, aimlessly, he tried not to think of what he could have done to save his beautiful Meira’s life. He could have got her to the hospital faster, had there been no range of hills standing obstructively between the village and the town. But such was nature’s way, nature’s justice. Man had to abide by it, he told himself. In the forest, Suraj spent hours watching birds build their nests; weave their abodes from nothing but bits of grass, twigs and leaves. Early one morning, he watched a mongoose pounce on a snake that was going about its winding way through grass. The fight went on for several minutes, making Suraj crouch closer to the combatants. The mongoose finally held the serpent by its neck, in an unwavering grip, until the snake stopped undulating. It then carried the carcass in the bloodied grip of its mouth and went into a hole, burrowed into the ground from the side of a large muddy lump between a rock and the earth. Suraj sat up, amazed at how nature had shown him the way. It was also the only way out of his growing despair.
He knew now, that there could be a path. There could be a faster way to reach Beralganj town, to the hospital in time of need, if only that path came into being. In the village, he spoke to other men, who dismissed his idea as the mumblings of a grieving man. He spoke to them again after some days and they shunned him completely after that, as a mad man. He was then on called pagal Suraj, the man who had gone mad. Children called him Pagal Chacha instead of Suraj Chacha. Young women hid their giggles in their saree ghunghats as they passed him by. Only Roshanbai, the old woman who lived in a hut some distance away from his, probably understood him. They had never before talked much to each other. But one morning, she stood outside his house as he sat there, squatting and looking into nowhere. She scolded him.
‘What are you staring at, you buddhau?’
‘Nothing, buddhima. What work do you have with me? Leave me to my madness.’
‘Madness? Arrey wah! Who talks of madness to a mad man?’
Asking that question in her loud, gruff voice, she laughed. Suraj looked up at her then. The old woman stared into his eyes, purposefully, and her eyebrows rose up in question. Noting that Suraj had fallen silent, she went on.
‘And who has stopped you from chasing your madness? Show the world your full madness or show them that you’re not mad. Show them something. Do your work. Don’t sit there in your yard all day like a crybaby. Pagal!’
Suraj decided to enquire with the government authorities if a tunnel could be built through one of the hills. If it was, he thought, if ever the need arose, others would be able to get to the town hospital faster. The first time he approached the district collector’s office, he was shooed away by the policeman at the gate. He went there again the next day. The policeman shooed him away again, this time, he also swore he would arrest him if he saw him there again. But Suraj went once again only to be driven away. Then he went there a week later. He found a different policeman on guard and hoped to be allowed to go inside. Suraj stood in front of the policeman and folding his hands asked to be allowed to go inside. This policeman struck his legs with a baton.
Suraj went back home, limping a little and slept through the rest of the day. The next morning he woke up with a new energy. He took out the pickaxe from his gunnysack in the corner of the hut and rubbed it gently on a moistened stone. Rubbing it repeatedly, for over an hour, he sharpened his pickaxe and walked to the hill. He stood there motionless for what seemed like hours, but what were in fact, just a few minutes. He fixed his eyes on a spot and unfurled energy into it. So began the digging of the hill. At the end of the first day, as the sun descended in the west, Suraj watched his own shadow darkening the cove he had dug. The disappointment at the smallness of the entire day’s effort was reduced a little by that extra depth added by the shadow. For the first time since his wife died, he slept well that night and woke up next morning to the chikketi-chakketi of birds. There was no time to cook. Instead he made the easiest meal. He first took sattu, the mixed grain flour and stuffed it into a glass bottle. Then he stuffed small lumps of jaggery into it. He added some water to it and shook the bottle to make a watery paste of the contents. This would be his meal and drink for the day. As an afterthought, he added a pinch of salt and grabbed four dried red chillies from a bowl covered with a clay lid. He broke the chillies and pushed them into the bottle. Biting on a chilli used to make Meira more eager and their love making more fervent. Wiping his lips, he erased the trail that thought would take and walked into the morning. It was early hours yet and Suraj kept at his digging for several hours before the sun spread its heat on his head and back.
The cove he was digging grew deeper and taller that day. It was his second day.
‘What are you doing man?’ A passer-by asked Suraj on the third day.
A few more people asked the same question.
Suraj wondered if they were all blind.
A couple passed by and the man asked the same question. Before Suraj could respond, the woman snapped,
‘Can’t you see? He is digging!’
The hard physical labour had unexpectedly brought back his inherent humour even as Meira continued to preoccupy his thoughts. A week later Suraj realised it was not worth going back home every evening. So he carried in his left hand a gunnysack of grain flour in which he had thrown in a clay bowl. On his right shoulder, he balanced two clay pots of water hanging from either side on a rope tied around the long narrow necks of the pots. That evening he went on digging after the sun went down and fell asleep exhausted just before midnight.
News of Suraj’s activity spread through the village. A week later, at the council meeting of Beralpur, a resolution was passed to make him stop the digging. Bhisham, a small-time contractor said such activity was illegal. It had no government permission. The council members hopped onto bullock carts that afternoon and a couple of men, including Bhisham, rode ahead on their phat-phatting, smoke emitting motorcycles, determined to stop the illegal digging of the hill. When they walked up to the opening, a bevy of humming fleas welcomed them as did the stench of faeces and decomposing rats. The head of the council, an elderly man, covered his nose with the flapping edge of his dusty white turban and retreated. Others followed. Bhisham tried to walk into the deep excavation but a fresh onslaught of fleas and dragonflies made him give up.
The next day, some villagers who sympathised with Suraj decided to send him food.
Malati, Suraj’s neighbour and a friend of Meira, called out to her son who was sling- shooting pebbles into the boughs of a tamarind tree. Bunches of fleshy green tamarinds pelted to the ground. Malati picked up a few while the rest were captured by her son and his friends. She would add it to the fiery dal that evening. Putting her arm around her son’s shoulders she cajoled him to carry a food packet to the hill and put his slingshot to good use.
Packets of thick millet roti, with green chillies and onion tied up in old cloth were flung inside with a slingshot. A day later, four men joined Suraj to clear out the opening. For there was a lot of mud to be brought out of the developing tunnel; the villagers were afraid Suraj would die inside, smothered under the piling heaps. After several hours, the men spotted Suraj at the other end. Digging ferociously. He has gone completely mad they said. The word spread in the village. Suraj had gone Completely Mad. No more Pagal Suraj, he was now called Sampooran Pagal.
The four men pushed the mud and pieces of rock out of the way. But they had their own work to do the next day and soon Suraj was left alone again. It was a long, lonely, almost uninterrupted labour for Suraj. Eventually he returned home after some days. He didn’t know how many days had passed, for he had lost track of time, of day and night, of weeks. Some of the villagers were relieved that he had returned among them into the sane world. Old woman Roshanbai saw him one day, as she passed his hut on the way to her own.
‘Pagal!’ was all she said and shook her head at him. Suraj was beginning to like his title of mad man. He slept all day and walked the woods in the evenings. It went on this way for many, many, days.
But again it came to an end and he went back to his task. He changed his digging routine to suit a new steady pace. Working from dawn to dusk, Suraj returned each day. He took a day off sometimes to sleep all day or swim in the shallow river on the other side of the village. Someone, usually Malati or some other neighbour left him one or two rotis and an onion and green chillies near his door on such days. Months passed and then years and everyone gave up noticing the progress of Suraj’s digging. It was just a daily madness, a strange occupation of a madman. Some of the villagers joked about him. Said he liked to roll in his own faeces. Many laughed at such jokes. Most of the villagers now just ignored Suraj. When he was not digging, he wandered through the woods, digging up roots, plucking fruits, killing bird or rodent with his sickle, anything he could take, to fill his stomach. On one such wandering in the woods he came feet to face with the mongoose. Suraj liked to think it was the same mongoose, the snake killer and nature’s agent, who had shown him the way. He crouched to the ground and put his hand out to touch the hairy friend. But the mongoose, naturally, scurried into its hole, much before Suraj could touch the creature.
In the afternoon of the twenty-ninth day of the month of May, twelve years after his hands had first lifted the pickaxe and hit the hill’s surface, Suraj stood motionless, as a sliver of light darted in through a crack in the rocky surface and pierced his left eye. Minutes that seemed like hours passed, in the wonder of that unexpected moment. At the end of that moment, overcome by a sudden burst of energy, Suraj hit the hard surface, with a renewed vengeance. It took him the rest of the day and half the next, to make a way through the hard rock, the hardest thus far, to reach the other side of the hill. When he did reach it, the sun was at its peak. Shining down from right above him, Suraj looked up at the brightest star of the day sky, the sun god and his namesake. Suraj looked up at the sun and laughed. Laughed wildly aloud like he had never laughed before, not even when his beautiful Meira was living.
The sound of his laughter ran through the trees and dry grass and over the scorching earth. His laughter would have rung through the ears of the villagers had anyone been around that hot afternoon. But they were all indoors, catching some respite from the heat.
None were around him. And no one would have seen the sky spinning above Suraj, as he stopped laughing and fell to the ground. The villagers slept that night oblivious to their loss. The night jasmine planted on Meira’s ashes had grown into a tree through the digging years. That night the jasmine tree was in full bloom and bursting fragrance. It showered flowers to the ground outside Suraj and Meira’s hut, just like its parent had showered on them in the woods, years ago, night after night after night.
A village stringer heard of Suraj’s feat and wrote about it in a local newspaper. That paper got carried to Gaya and found its way as a wrapper of groceries into the hands of a reporter there of a slightly bigger newspaper. The chain of growth of the news continued spreading, slowly but steadily, until a sub-editor in Patna, the state capital of Bihar, was moved by the achievement of one lone man. He wrote a report about Suraj’s digging feat and followed that with an opinion column two weeks later. Until this time though, all the news of Suraj’s digging was in the Hindi newspapers. From there, it made its way into a local English daily. That progressed into a national English newspaper.
Six months later, even government officials could no longer be unmoved by what was one lone man’s grand feat, especially after a photograph of Suraj and news of his marathon tunnel digging crusade made it to the front-page of two of the largest national newspapers; no small achievement for something that started from a rookie village stringer. Visits and inspections of the tunnel by the Public Works Department followed. Members of the State Assembly constituencies of the region vied with each other in honouring the dead man. Clearing up and widening of the tunnel followed and a road was built through it. That cut down the travel time from Beralpur village to the government hospital in Beralganj from five hours to just over an hour. No less than the Chief Minister of the state inaugurated the new road. Laddoos were distributed in a noisy function, with colourful paper buntings flying in the breeze and children running between attentive adults. When the Chief Minister gave his speech, the children stopped and watched curiously, understanding that the madman of their village had now become famous. But soon, they got bored of the speech and went back to play, stopping only to grab more laddoos, when they could.
Namita Waikar is a writer, translator and the managing editor of the People’s Archive of Rural India, where some of her work is published. She is a partner in a chemistry databases firm, and has worked as a biochemist and a software project manager.
Moving and evocative , told with deep empathy
Loved this. Reminded me of Life and Times of Michael K, though less bleak and more uplifting. Also, the awareness of the flora and fauna adds a wonderful shade to the story.