(This is yet another story I wrote some 7-8 years ago. To some extent, it is based on a true story)
No one exactly knew where he came from. Nor did anyone notice that he played with the puppies under the Banyan. It wasn’t that people were indifferent to him. He had become a part of the village’s life. As much as the old Banyan tree that had seen the birth of the village, and as much as the newly born puppies which tumbled around the village temple. All of these had one thing in common, they never made their presence noticeable. Nor that a new wanderer’s presence was anything new to them all the time. They were too busy- men thinking about rains, and cheap liquor; women, about rains and their husbands; and children, just about everything and nothing.
It was the result of a cyclone that threatened to, but never happened to, cross the East Coast, which was somewhere, at least two hundred miles away from the village, that made his presence that day. A strong wind, though lasted only for a few minutes and stopped as quickly as it came, blew over the village and left it cluttered with dry leaves and dust. The temple wasn’t spared too.
Because the temple looked a bit untidy that usual, because he found a very long handled broom, because he thought he should do something about it and because it was a different thought for a long time now, he started sweeping the floor. The work started soon after the morning prayer, carried on till it was prayer time again in the vesper. If the few people who hanged around the temple cared to question themselves why they kept watching him, his eyes and the broom, it would have been difficult for them to answer because they never happened to witness the intent and the precision of a sculptor.
‘Pride’ must have been a very lesser word for what, if it could feel, ‘sweeping’ felt that evening. The priest who came in was happily surprised. Surprised at the way temple looked, and happy because people complimented him for the same reason that he was surprised. It did not take him long to know who did it.
Prasadam was sent to him, which he took earnestly. He was called to the adytum where Lord Venkateshwara, amidst his two wives was receiving his last prayers of the day.
“Our sweeper is getting older, do you want to take her place”, the priest said to him trying to study his face in the tube light which was a recent addition to the temple, “you will be able to have two meals a day”.
“Yes I’ll help her do her work” he replied. It wasn’t the reply but the bum’s voice said that there was more than what he meant. The priest didn’t know that the old sweeper reminded this man of someone. His happiness faded and curiosity took over him. The surprise however remained as he went out of the temple that night.
After the priest left, he walked past the well at the northeast of the temple, back to his choultry that was more towards the southwest. Not that it can be called a choultry, but when small temples were built in the 19th century few blocks would be built around the temple just to allow the pilgrims to take shelter in case they wanted to stay back for a night. No one cared to call these old stone cases of granite blocks any differently. The puppies followed him trying to bite his callused feet with old chappals, while their mother kept a close watch on the puppies and also on him.
There was something, if anyone could notice if they cared to, that there was disturbing in him. His face had a charismatic blankness that made him look like a seer and yet at the same time he was no different than a bum. Even though the old woman was no good, even though the puppies too puppyish and even though the people’s staring got too much sometimes his expression never changed. They thought that he didn’t care.
But, that was he when in public. Otherwise there were too many things that mattered. The plastic bag that contained the coconut, the newspaper piece which read ‘Maoists kill another 4’ that was used to pack kumkum. He couldn’t relate how, men who created recyclable plastic could create a situation to kill each other. There are people and then there are people, people like him who…
He couldn’t go beyond that. But yes there was something that was disturbing in him. And there were people who were worried that this time around, the crop wouldn’t be enough to feed them.
And he had a great way of passing time. His sweeping never made him notice time, but the increase in the number of visitors who talked about temple becoming clean did. He could easily withdraw from the crowd as easily as he would come in. And then he had the puppies, tumbling around, biting him in a play, cuddling unto him when he slept, licking him for no reason.
One day while he played with the puppies he felt that something was wrong and so he looked up. He saw the priest looking at him and so smiled. The priest didn’t. Then he knew that the priest wasn’t looking at him, but was observing him. Somewhere he didn’t realize that the priest’s look was an expression that matched one of his favorite lines from his favorite book “what a magnificent waste”!
Someone asked the priest, ”Aiyya! Are you coming to the rajasthani singers show”. “Yes”, he said and went away.
The puppies resumed playing with him.
Staring into the vast emptiness of the skies, when, one night he was almost asleep, with his own charismatic blank face, it woke him up.
A shrill and a husky voice of a Rajasthani singer accompanied by a Sarangi tune floated over the distant bushes, over croaking frogs, over the creaking crickets, over the silent trees and over the rustling water pond it reached him, and reached something in him. He hated it. The desperation to get back to everything that he had left behind. The separation, which after a long struggle took one form, – sweeping.
“Saroo! Let this old woman talk”, she said it. He heard her. He closed his door that he just opened to enter into his tight shut A/C cabin and turned around. The wrinkles on her face were similar to the wrinkles on her saffron sari. Broken spectacles showed her big eyes, while she held to her bamboo stick as if it were the only thing that kept her alive.
“What?” he came back to his usual self.
“Saroo! My ashram is not mine anymore, they have kicked me out. Now you must only help me”, she said in her accent.
“What what what? Tell me soon completely. I don’t have time”
“Saroo! I’m from Dharmaram. I take care of the Brahmendra Swamy Ashram there. Now your people come and tell me I don’t have rights on it. They are going to put it down. They cut down all my trees. They say I have to go out. Now you only tell me what I should do. I have been there from my childhood and now it is not mine anymore.”
The name Brahmendra Swamy Ashram changed the expression on his face. He listened to her, this time, patiently.
“OK.OK. I’ll see the file. You come back tomorrow”, he said to her. She walked away. That was the first time he noticed her age, her saffron, and her bamboo stick. “See if she wants something”, her ordered the peon, and “call Dharmaraju”. That was the first time the old woman got a positive response.
The “Boss”, as called by his sub-ordinates, was given the file immediately. That was one of the best things about being a Government Officer. But becoming one was a different story – Preparing for exams, newspaper mornings, special classes, and yet, sleepless nights spent undisturbed, even in his sister’s marriage. And when he got the job, settling down, lobbying for promotions, and finally becoming an Officer in Endowments. After all this, one thing hadn’t changed, his habit of reading, previously fiction now only subject files. He kept track of everything he could, through the files. So the “Boss” had no problem connecting to the old woman’s problem.
The land the old woman was trying to save was a piece of 1200 square yards adjacent to the National Highway. The owner, a zameendar in his times, gave it as alms to a priest who made an ashram on it. Both passed away. A child adopted by the priest, ran the ashram after his death. But independence gave a new meaning to the owner of the land. The certificate, which is supposed to be better proof than a word given, still had the zameendar’s name and then went into his son’s piece of share.
What the file didn’t contain, and yet he knew, was that a Sub-Inspector of Police was urging the owner with the certificate to sell it to him. And that was the reason why the old woman was being ‘asked’ to leave the land by the police.
And the file read that the District Collector had sanctioned her, a piece of land under a scheme. But the old woman refused to take it.
“Foolish”, he said it aloud. “These people want whatever they like. What is government there for? At least she could have made it in her name” he thought. What he didn’t know was that the old woman had been to the Revenue Offices as many times as she could, but always lacked enough money to satisfy the needs of the ‘Public Servants’ so that the land could be registered on her name.
And because the old woman didn’t turn up soon, he completely erased the disturbance in his mind caused by the old woman’s arrival that day.
He was returning from a 14th century temple to his home that holiday when he passed the village the old woman lived. He closed his eyes and leaned back onto the cushioned seat of old while ambassador, feeling uneasy.
He suddenly opened his eyes, asked the driver to stop by the ashram. A question had sprung in his mind. The car stopped.
“Why are you rushing?” his wife asked. He didn’t care. He threw open the bamboo gate. He ran in. Someone recognized him.
“Oh…o! You too. Go tell her but she’ll die first and leave later. Go tell her to leave the land. She is in. But you please don’t wear the chappals like the inspector did. Leave them here.”
“No I’m not here to throw her out. Came to see her”, he calmly replied while he took his chappals off…. “Oh! She kept telling me that you would help her saroo. I did not speak nicely with you. Don’t think badly about me. The inspector was very rude to her yesterday,” he said, ”here wash your feet and go in,” giving him a mug full of water…. “Avva!” the person shouted loudly looking into the door, “Endowment Saar came…you go in saar”. He went in…..Coming into the huts from sun suddenly blinded his eyes. Then when he got used to the environment, he quickly scanned for her. She lay in the middle, on a mat. …“Avva!” he called her. When he walked further he noticed that the hut had something cold about it, cold air, cold floor. The other person had come in and stood at the door…. He bent down, gently touched her hand. Cold skin. Saffron sari, wrinkled skin, cold body. He didn’t try to wake her up. He stared at the other person and sat down on the mat. He didn’t say a word because he knew the question that had aroused in his mind was answered.
He didn’t realize until the car stopped with a jerk, that he was in the car and that his wife was shouting. “Stop!” he yelled at the driver. “You go, I’ll come”, he said to his wife.
He never returned.
It was early in the morning, he realized seeing the squirrel squat right in front of him with a half-eaten guava in its mouth. He found people awake early that day, and fresh too. The smell of dung sprayed yards, and sight of colorful muggus told him that it was festival. He didn’t know which.
“Is today everyone’s happy birthday’, a boy asked his dad in Marathi. “Aa Yes re. It’s Ugadi. Telugu people’s birthday”. ’Ugadi’, did surprise him because he realized he forgot when the other festivals went by and so he forgot to listen to the conversation of the child and his father.
The priest sent him a Kurta, a Dhoti and ten rupees. White Kurta & a white Dhoti to wear, 10/- to have his beard shaved.
The day passed with many visitors at the temple, all colorfully dressed, welcoming spring and celebrating the arrival of a New Year. And so, the evening came soon that day. It meant more visitors, until it became a traditional gathering.
The priest read the Panchangam to forecast the future for the year, and also advised which gods had to be pleased. All put together it was going to be a good year.
“You say it good ayya! But every year will not be like the last year. There are so many bad things happening. We don’t know who to blame or who to pray. We are afraid, I am also afraid. Farmers are killing themselves. God forbid, it won’t start in our village” a very old member of the village said. Most of them fell silent.
”No it won’t start in our village.” The priest always looked upto for his long speeches knew he had to reply to this, “We all value our lives. We are farmers. We have our purpose. It will never start in our village if all of us just realize that purpose and…” The priest was stopped suddenly.
“How do you know what is your purpose. Who are you to tell us?” someone from behind asked. It took a moment to the priest to recognize who it was. It had grown dark and a sixty-watt bulb in the temple yard wasn’t good enough. It was the sweeper.
Everyone looked at him. Most of them shocked because no one dared ask the priest that question. Some glad because they wanted to ask the same question but didn’t dare to. The priest had a different expression, ‘anger’.
The priest couldn’t help himself saying, “Who am I to tell you your purpose. No one will tell you. But it’s not the answer that is important. It’s the question. Why did it come? What did it mean? Weren’t you asking me how did I find it? Do you understand what I’m talking? You have discarded your purpose and that is the reason why you are asking. You knew it once, in the innocence of your childhood. Or may be even as an adult. May be you didn’t stand upto it. That is why you are asking”
Both were in a rude shock. The questioner and the one who answered.
The priest consoled the people, “we are all farmers. We are the reason why many people eat. They should eat. But more importantly we should grow food. That’s our purpose…”
The old sweeper, whom he helped in sweeping at the temple and, who lived outside the village in an as much an old hut as her age, saw someone walking towards her with a bowl. All she could make out in the dark was that this man was clad in white, and brought her a bowl of paramannam.
“Who are you?” she asked.
He didn’t answer her nor did he tell her that she reminded him of the dead old lady. He walked out of the village.