Thursday, December 2, 2010

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“Ramappa, Veeranna, you are still hanging out here! Come on! Hurry up! He has already arrived and the procession has begun! Where are the people you promised to bring?”

Lingaraj gulped down the remaining portion of his favourite rum and wiped his mouth by the back of his palm before looking at the person who was excitedly shouting at some people who were busy too gulping down their own brand of liquor. It was Suresh who was yelling, a recent drop out from a degree college and a political aspirant. He wore a brownish Khadi shirt without collars and white pajamas. The gold chain that he wore around his neck was peeking out and shone brightly against the background of his dark skin. There was a big crowd today in the wine shop that was licensed only to sell liquor and not to serve it on its premises. Parashuram Kalal, popularly known as ‘Parsu’ the owner of this lucrative business, could flout the rule with such impunity because the number of the beneficiaries of his shop that included quite a few local authorities, outnumbered those who opposed it.

Lingaraj fumbled in his trouser pocket trying to find out if he had money to buy himself another quarter bottle. A quarter-bottle was just another drink to him and he foolishly took pride in it and liked to boast about it to all those who cared to listen to him. All he could find was a ten-rupee note and a few coins. He went to the counter and asked Parsu for a top up of half a quarter of the cheap rum placing the note on the counter. Parsu smiled at him and gave a sealed quarter bottle and returned the money too, saying, “Sawkar, you needn’t pay today. Doctor is coming to Hoovinakere for the first time after election, you know. He is paying for all”

Being addressed as Sawkar, which is reserved for the rich people and landlords, brought a contemptuous smile on his face. If there was any sarcasm in Parsu’s tone, he could not be sure. However, at the mention of doctor he felt a pain deep inside him, a pain in the neck that had become a part of his life ever since he was forced to shoulder the burden of a huge extended family. He wanted to return the bottle in protest and felt like shouting “I don’t want any charity from your doctor” but he didn’t want to create a scene. Instead, he silently took the bottle and sat on a bench nearby. At least half a dozen people hurried after Suresh speaking to each other at the top of their voice and totally ignoring Lingaraj sitting there. As the cacophony died down and a soothing calm and silence descended, Lingaraj lifted his head to find that but for one old man in almost rags greedily licking the pickle that was supplied to the customers free of charge, all others had left and Parsu was silently counting money on the counter and making entries in a ledger.

Yes, a lot of people ignore me these days; in fact all the people including my own family, ignore me, thought Lingaraj; I don’t give a damn who ignores me, he tried to console himself. He swatted a fly that was constantly hovering over his head, cursing it loudly. Parsu looked up and said, “As soon as the summer begins, these bloody flies swarm the place. Very difficult to rid of them.” Lingaraj didn’t care to reply. True, the bloody flies… always swarm the places where they get crumbs, nay where there is rotting filth, like these people who are flocking to welcome their dear leader, only because he is throwing crumbs at them. They call him doctor, ugh bloody doctor. He took eight years to study Ayurvedic Medicine, to complete a course of just four years! He then began prescribing allopathic medicine without knowing either the causes of the disease he was treating, or the medicine he was prescribing. Even an RMP is a better doctor!

A lanky man wearing a dirt-stained dhoti and a tailor-sewn banian with a pocket just above the abdomen entered and taking a glance at Lingaraj went straight to the counter and greeted Parsu, placing a twenty on the counter. Parsu knowing fully well each customer’s requirement gave him a bottle of whisky with a glass. Lingaraj wondered how the stranger’s dhoti could resist the gravitational pull on his slender frame. “How are things Basanna? No work today?” Parsu asked him in a friendly manner. “No,” replied he wiping his mouth with an end of his dhoti, “All the workers have gone to welcome Gouda who has become some chairman of some government corporation. People were saying that he is now just like a minister”.

It didn’t escape Lingaraj’s notice that the new customer was deliberately saying this loudly and was glancing at him sidelong, obviously accusing him of not being a part of the welcome party of the doctor. Lingaraj was irritated that people simply didn’t mind their own business. The stranger’s name was Basavaraju perhaps, and so was the name of the doctor in whose honour the whole village was gathering and bringing him in a procession, as if he was a god. Everyone used to call him Basu when he was still young, why even when he was practising medicine, most village elders and some youngsters, who were close to him, also addressed him so. In a few years the number calling him by name has dwindled and now he is addressed as Sawkar, Annavru, doctor sahebru, or simply sahebru.

The sound of the beating of huge drums and exploding of crackers was gradually increasing suggesting that the procession was nearing the liquor shop. Lingaraj started looking at the street desultorily. In the last less than a decade, quite a few new RCC buildings had come up on either side of the street, but the street itself had remained as narrow and filthy as it was back then. Some shop-owners had constructed slabs over the gutter carrying stinking sewage, but at other places it was open spreading the rotten smell in the air. Lingaraj saw a young girl of about ten passing in the street and was reminded of Maramma, whose father he’d tried to console this morning. What a tragic end for the little girl! ‘Tchu tchu tchu,’Lingaraj made loud sound feeling pity.

The unfortunate girl was only daughter of Peeranna and Lakshmi, both landless agriculture labourers, living in Maidur, about five kilometers from Chandapur, in a thatched hut that the couple themselves had built from jungle-wood poles and mud. She’d never been to school, never played with friends or dolls, never wore new clothes, never seen anything outside the little village she was born in, never been to a movie house, never eaten colourful sweetmeats that were displayed in glass jars at the only grocery store in the village, never knew how milk tasted, let alone ghee or curds, but she never complained. Till a little brother was born about a few months ago, she accompanied her parents everyday to different farmlands, and worked with her mother. Though frail and malnourished, she worked almost as hard as her mother in the fields and helped her mother cook rotis at home. Of late she was cooking on her own as her mother could hardly free herself from the newborn.

Lingaraj had been to Maidur the previous week after hearing about the tragedy that had struck Peeranna, with whom he had come to be attached closely though Peeranna was only a labourer toiling in what had remained of his huge chunk of land near Kuppekere, a tank refilled every year more by the backwaters of a barrage than by scanty rains. Peeranna, a tall and sturdy man with a handsome face, was a very hard worker, knew how to read and write though he never attended any school, never over-indulged in habits, either good or bad, was contented with whatever he had or would get, and was at least a decade younger than Lingaraj. Shy and tight-lipped with everyone, he would never speak ill of anyone and he reminded Lingaraj of a bull, which was his family had reared and which was his pet animal during his childhood. At least the bull could be aggressive at times, but Peeranna was never.

By the time he reached Maidur, the body had undergone postmortem and had been handed over to the family and the village elders and friends were advising Peeranna, who was silently shedding tears, to complete the last rituals as quickly as possible. Nobody knew if Peeranna did or did not have any relatives for none knew where he’d come from. Everyone thought he was migrant labourer who would leave as soon as the working season would be over, when he had first appeared along with his wife and Maramma, who then was only a few months old baby. But Peeranna had stayed on and had built a hut for himself outside the village, and had settled down there gradually growing roots. His wife had sprawled under the dappled shade of a small neem tree and was surrounded by women who were wailing.

Some of the people came to Lingaraj the moment they saw him and gave him the details. The previous day the younger child had taken ill and Peeranna and Lakshmi had been to a clinic in Hoovinakere, while Maramma was left alone in the hut to cook dinner. The kerosene lamp placed on the window accidentally fell on the girl spilling the kerosene all over her clothes and she was quickly engulfed by fire. The dry straw used to cover the frame of the door and parts of wall too caught fire. At first the girl was so shocked that she just didn’t know what to do except yelling for help which couldn’t be heard by anyone for quite a long time as the nearest house was located not less than fifty feet away. When finally help came, it was too late and she’d collapsed. Much later when she was taken to the government hospital in Hoovinakere all that the doctor present could do was to declare her dead.

Lingaraj was at loss of words to console Peeranna for his own grief was no less than that of the latter. And he had never been good at expressing himself and he felt that those who could use words and sentences, gestures even profusely were actually not as sincere as their words sounded. In fact he was enraged at some local leaders who visited along with a village level official, took some signatures from Peeranna saying that he would get one lakh rupees from the government as compensation for his loss. Could the death of a cute little daughter be compensated by money? One of them taunted Lingaraj too saying, “Peeranna, you are fortunate that Sawkar is here, he would certainly talk to his brother and help you get the compensation! Won’t you Sawkar?” obviously alluding to his conflicts with his brother. Some did not even hesitate to say loudly that since the girl had died an unnatural death, instead of cremating she had to be buried and some special rites needed to be performed so that her soul will rest in eternal peace instead of being hung between this world and the one above. Women from the village who had gathered were wailing as though singing a sad tune out of pitch, without even a drop of tear in their eyes. All this though unbearable, he had to put up with and keep his face free of any trace of wrath. Then he had other things to worry about. It was hardly any secret that Peeranna didn’t have even a penny on him and all those who had gathered there could not perhaps have been able to help him out. Moreover, he was sure that Peeranna wouldn’t extend his hands for alms, whatever the situation. So he took over the whole thing and arranged for the last rites of the girl and had left watching the tears of gratitude, apart from grief, in the eyes of Peeranna, thinking that the world is not fair, not fair at all.

He felt a pain emanating from his chest. “Bloody sour belch!” he cursed and tried to ignore it. Of late he had lost all appetite for eating and was eating very little or nothing at all while he kept drinking liquor throughout the day. All his lands had been lost to his habit of drinking and a couple of acres of land that he retained was being cultivated on crop share basis by his neighbour, who was kind enough to lend him money as and when demanded without questioning; ‘for old times’ sake’ the neighbour used to justify his action whoever cared to object. Last week Lingaraj had received his share of money for the current year, which was only a couple of thousands of rupees after deducting all earlier advances that he had received. He had spent most of that for the funeral of the girl and today he was broke.

People had started avoiding him like a plague, in fact running away even from his shadow because he was always drunk and had taken to the habit of asking for some money indiscriminately from everyone, be it a college going boy, a farm hand, a coolie or a government clerk. Ha ha! Even Peeranna is more respected than I am today, though they all call me Sawkar! Why don’t I feel ashamed of myself? My family used to be the richest in the village, in fact in most villages in the neighbourhood. Until my wife died in childbirth, I used to wear a gold chain of five tolas, a Titan wrist watch and Bata sandals. How happy I was then! Never expecting childbirth to be a killer, I had been preparing to be a father and had thrown a party to at least a hundred people. Wasn’t that the first occasion when I drank liquor? The bitter taste, the rancid smell and the hangover had all led me to decide that I wouldn’t touch it again in my life. But that was not to be. It stuck to me like the iguana to the wall. The birth of a child was the only opportunity when I could have brought pleasure to my parents…

To be continued...