Thursday, April 9, 2015
(दूध का दाम)
Nowadays in big cities there are plenty of mid-wives, nurses and lady doctors, but in the villages it is still the ‘bhangi’ women who rule supreme in the field of midwifery; and this is not going to change in the near future. Babu Maheshnath was the village zamindaar, an educated man, and he recognized the need for change but there was no way he could overcome the difficulties. No nurse was willing to come to the village, and even those who were willing demanded such heavy fees that babu sahib could only lower his head in defeat. He did not have the courage to approach a lady doctor, fearing that he would have to sell half his property to pay one. Therefore when a son was born after a succession of three daughters, babu sahib had to turn once again to Gooddar and his wife. Children are generally born at night, and when one day at midnight a messenger came to Gooddar’s door and shouted so loudly that the whole neighbourhood woke up. After all it was not a girl that he should call in a faintly voice.
Gooddar and his wife had been waiting for this auspicious day for months. Both feared that if it was a daughter once again all they would get was the customary one rupee and a sari for Gooddar’s wife, Bhoongi. Both husband and wife had argued and betted on this subject many times. The wife would say, ‘It’s going to be a boy this time, most certainly a boy. Otherwise I won’t show my face to you. All the signs favour a boy.’ The husband would assert: ‘It’s going to be a girl, only a girl, plain and simple, and if otherwise I would have my moustache shaved. Yes, my moustache shaved.’ Gooddar perhaps hoped that by whetting his wife’s wish for a boy he was clearing the way for the birth of a boy.
Now Bhoongi said, ‘Go and have your moustache shaved. I was telling you it’s going to be a boy. You wouldn’t listen. Now I’ll clean off your moustache, right from the roots.’ Gooddar replied, ‘All right, good woman, do it. Do you think it wouldn’t grow again? It’ll grow again in just three days. But I tell you I’ll take half of what you get.’
Bhoongi waved her thumb at him, handed over their three-month old son to him and walked away with the messenger.
Gooddar shouted at her, ‘O listen, where are you going? I too have to go to greet them. Who’ll take care of this fellow?’
‘Just lay him down to sleep on the ground. I shall feed him when I come back,’ replied Bhoongi and walked away.
At Maheshnath’s Bhoongi now began to be fed lavishly. In the morning she was given milk laced with dry fruits, in the afternoon she was given puris and pudding; and again in the evening and at night. Gooddar also got plentiful to eat. Bhoongi was able to breast-feed her own son only once or twice in a day. Her son was fed on ‘other’ milk, her own milk was reserved for babu sahib’s fortunate son and this did not stop even after twelve days. The malkin of the house, Maheshnath's wife, was a plump and stout woman but for some reason she was unable to lactate. During the infancy of her three daughters she had lactated so profusely that her daughters suffered from indigestion because of overfeeding, but now there was not a drop. Bhoongi was both the nurse as well as the breast-feeder.
The malkin would tell Bhoongi, ‘Bring up my child, and I’ll give you enough for you to live on it for your life time. I’ll have five bighas of land written in your name. Your grandchildren would live on that.’ On the other hand, Bhoongi’s own son, feeding on ‘other’ milk, suffered from repeated indigestion and was becoming weaker every day.
Bhoongi would tell the malkin, ‘Bahuji, I’ll ask for bangles on your son’s head-shaving occasion.’
She would reply, ‘Don’t threaten. You can have them. Gold or silver?’
‘Wah bahuji, people would make fun of me if I wore silver bangles.’
‘All right, you’ll get gold ones.’
‘And at marriage I shall have a necklace for myself and a bracelet for Gooddar.’
‘You can have these too, but let God first show us the day.’
At home, after the malkin, it was Bhoongi who ruled the roost. The sweepers, the cook, all the servants in employment accepted her authority. On one occasion she had rebuked even Maheshnath, but he had laughed it off. It was about the bhangi community. He had said: Come what may, bhangis can never be civilized.’ She had retorted, ‘Malik, bhangis can civilize even the big people. They don't need civilizing.’ On any other occasion Bhoongi would have faced dire consequences for making such remarks, but this time he laughed loudly and said, ‘Bhoongi, you’ve said something very thoughtful.’
Bhoongi’s reign lasted only a year. Gods objected to the boy being fed on a bhangi woman’s milk. Motaram Shastri went to the extent of prescribing expiation. Breast-feeding was stopped but the talk of expiation was laughed off. Maheshnath gave a dressing-down: ‘Expiation? What an idea, Shastriji! Till yesterday he was feeding on a bhangin’s blood, and now he has become polluted. This is your dharma!’
Shastriji straightened the tuft of hair on his head and said, ‘No doubt till yesterday he grew up drinking a bhangin’s blood. That he grew up eating flesh is also true. But that was yesterday. Let’s talk of today. In Jagannathpuri the touchables and untouchables sit together to eat, but they don’t do it here. During an illness we too eat with our clothes on, we even eat khichdi, babuji, but when we get well we have to follow the prescribed rituals. Everything is different in an emergency.’
“This means, dharma keeps changing, now this, now that?’
‘What else. A king’s dharma is one; the people’s dharma is another. A rich man’s this, and the poor man’s that. Kings can eat whatever they like, with whomsoever they like, and marry whomsoever they like. They’re not bound by anything. They’re their own masters. The prohibitions are for the middle wrungs.’
The idea of expiation was given the go-by, but Bhoongi was dethroned. However, she got so many gifts that she couldn’t carry them home by herself. And she even got the golden bangles. She got not one but two saris, and not the cheaper ones she was given at the birth of daughters.
The same year Gooddar was consumed by plague and Bhoongi was left alone. But she carried on her life somehow. People were waiting to see Bhoongi also go her husband’s way. But no. A bhangi proposed to her, and also a chowdhary, but Bhoongi went nowhere. Five years went by and her weak and sickly son Mangal was growing up. He looked a pigmy compared to Suresh, Maheshnath’s son.
One day Bhoongi was cleaning out a rainwater drain at Maheshnath’s house. It had been blocked by dirt for months and water had spilled into the courtyard. Bhoongi had thrust a long bamboo into the drain and was ramming it in. She pushed her right hand into the drain, and the next moment she withdrew it with a shriek. At the same instant a black snake rushed out of the drain. People ran after it and killed it, but they could not save Bhoongi. They thought it was a water snake and not be venomous. So they became complacent. When the venom began to spread through Bhoongi’s body and her head began to reel they realized that it was not a water snake but a gehunun, a deadly poisonous one.
Mangal was an orphan now. The whole day he hung around Mahesh babu’s door. There were plenty of scraps left in the thalis of the household which could feed ten boys like him. There was no dearth of food at all, but he resented that he was served in an earthen bowl. Everyone else ate in fine utensils, he alone had to eat from an earthen bowl.
Although he had no sense of this discrimination, the village boys teased and humiliated him. No one played with him. So much so that the jute mat on which he slept had also become untouchable. Mangal had set up his home under a neem tree in front of Mahesh babu’s house. All he had was a ragged piece of mat, two earthen bowls, and a used dhoti that was once Mahesh babu’s. Winter, summer or rains, in all seasons the place was equally comfortable; and the child of destiny, Mangal, facing the scorching heat or merciless cold or pouring rains, was not only alive but also stronger and healthier than before. His only companion was a dog, Tommy, who, having been driven away by the cruelty of his own tribe, had come to take shelter with Mangal. Both ate together, slept on the same mat. Their tempers matched and both understood each other well. They never quarrelled.
The dharma-abiding villagers were amazed at babu sahib’s generosity. That Mangal should be staying at a distance of just fifty arms length from his door looked a complete violation of dharma. What a shame! If such things were to persist it would soon be the end of dharma. We grant that a bhangi too is a creation of God. We all know that we should not be unjust to him. God himself has been called ‘the saviour of the lowly’. Yet one must not transgress the limits prescribed by the society. One is reluctant to go to his door. One has to go to him since he is the master of the village. But it is very disgusting.
Mangal and Tommy were great friends. Mangal would say, ‘Look, bhai Tommy, move away a bit and make room for me to sleep. You’re occupying the whole mat.’ Tommy would make friendly noises, wag his tail, and instead of sliding away come closer and ride on his chest and start licking his face.
Every evening Mangal would once visit his home to cry for a while. In the first year the thatched roof had collapsed, then a wall and now all the walls stood dilapidated. This was all he had inherited; and its memory, its attraction and his affection for it drew him towards it again and again, and Tommy always accompanied him to this ruin. Mangal would sit on one of the jagged top of a wall and reflect on his past and dream of his future, and Tommy would jump again and again and try to sit on his lap, but without success.
One day some boys were playing a game. Mangal also came there and stood at a distance to watch. It is not clear whether out of pity or whether they were short of a partner, they decided to include Mangal in their game. No one was going to come here to see.
‘Oi Mangal, will you join us?’
Mangal replied, ‘No bhai, if the master sees me, he’ll peel off my skin. And you! You’ll wash your hands off it.’
Suresh said, ‘Oi, no one is coming here to watch us. Come on, we shall play the horse and the rider. You’ll be the horse and we shall ride on you and make you run.’
Mangal expressed his apprehension, ‘Tell me whether I shall play only the horse, or get a chance to be the rider too?’
This was a difficult question. No one had thought about it. Suresh thought for a moment and said, ‘Just think. Who’ll let you ride on his back? After all you’re a bhangi.’
Mangal too hardened his stand. He said, ‘I don’t deny that I’m a bhangi. But you have grown up feeding on my mother’s milk. I won’t play the horse unless I am also given a chance to be a rider. You people are so clever. You’ll enjoy riding while I keep playing the horse.’
Suresh shouted at him, ‘Mangal, you’ll have to play the horse.’ And he ran to catch him. Mangal also ran. Suresh went after him. Mangal ran faster. Suresh tried hard but his body had become so heavy through over-eating that he began gasping for breath. He stopped and said, ‘Mangal, come and play the horse, or I shall thrash you when I catch hold of you.’
“You’ll also have to play the horse.’
‘All right, I too will play the horse.’
‘You’ll back out. You play the horse first and I’ll be the rider. You can be the rider after that.’
Suresh had really wanted to trick him. He spoke to his companions, ‘Look at his crookedness. After all he’s a bhangi.’
The three of them encircled Mangal and forced him to bend down on his hands and feet. Suresh at once jumped upon his back and said, ‘Come on, my ‘tik, tik’ horse, move.’
Mangal moved some distance but his back was on the point of breaking due to the weight. He gently lowered his back and quickly moved on one side. Suresh fell down and started howling.
His mother heard his crying .Whenever Suresh cried his mother could hear him from a distance because his crying was so peculiar, like that of a narrow gauge steam engine. She called her maid and said, ‘Go and check. Suresh is crying. Find out who has beaten him.’
In the meanwhile Suresh himself came rubbing his eyes. Whenever he cried he always came to his mother for support. And she would wipe his tears and give him some sweets to eat. He was eight years old but quite dull-headed. Over-indulgence in love had done to his mind what over-eating had done to his body.
Mother asked, ‘Who has beaten you?’
Suresh replied, ‘Mangal has touched me.’
Mother could not believe her ears. Mangal was such a quiet boy that no one expected such a mischief from him. But when Suresh swore that he was telling the truth she had to believe him. She called Mangal and rebuked him, ‘Mangal, why’re you beginning to misbehave? Don’t you remember, I had told you not to touch Suresh?’
Mangal replied in a lowered voice, ‘Yes, I do remember.’
‘Then, why did you touch him?’
“I didn’t touch him.’
“If you didn’t touch him, why was he crying?’
‘Because he fell down.’
Such brazenness! She ground her teeth in anger. If she thrashed him she would have to immediately go for a bathe. She would have to hold a stick in her hand to beat him, and the current of pollution would pass through the stick and enter her body. So to avoid this defilement she hurled abuses at him as many as she could and ordered him thus: ‘Get away from here. If ever I see your face at my door again I shall drink your blood. You’re feeding yourself on free food and becoming mischievous.’
Mangal felt no remorse, but fear, yes. Quietly he picked up his two earthen bowls, folded the mat and tucked it under his arm, put his dhoti on his shoulder and walked away in tears. He vowed never to return. He might die of hunger. So what? Why live like this? He had no place to go. Who would give shelter to a bhangi? So he walked towards the ruins where the memories of pleasant days had given him solace. Once there he burst into tears. Tommy also reached their searching after him. And the next moment they forgot their pain.
However, as the brightness of the day mellowed, Mangal’s sense of self-respect also weakened. The hunger that makes a child restless was devouring his flesh. His eyes fell again and again on the earthen bowls. Had he been there these would have been filled with sweets left uneaten by Suresh. Should he eat dust here?
He consulted Tommy, ‘What’ll you eat? I’ll lie down on hungry stomach.’
Tommy whined and seemed to say: ‘We have to face such humiliation for the whole life. How shall we manage if you give up like this? Look at me. If someone hits me with a stick I run away howling but I come back to him after a short while wagging my tail. Bhai, we two are born for this only.’
Mangal replied, ‘All right, then you go and eat whatever you get. Don’t worry about me.’
Tommy replied in the dog language, ‘I won’t go without you.’
‘I won’t go.’
‘Then, I too won’t go.’
‘You’ll die of hunger.’
‘And you’ll keep alive!’
“There’s no one to mourn my death.’
‘The same here. In my youth the bitch I loved jilted me and went away with Kallu. Fortunately she took away here litter with her. Otherwise, who would have fed five of them?’
The next moment hunger opened up another line of thought. ‘The malkin must have been looking for us, Tommy.’
‘What else. Babuji and Suresh must have finished eating. The kahar must have emptied their plates of the refuse and must be shouting for us.’
‘Lot of ghee and sweet cream is always left over in Babuji and Suresh’s thalis.’
‘The whole of it must have been thrown away on the pile of garbage.’
‘Let’s see if someone comes in search of us.’
‘No one would come. We aren’t purohits, to be invited respectfully. They would shout “Mangal-Mangal” once and then the whole food would be thrown into the drain.’
‘All right. Let’s go. But I’ll hide myself and if no one calls my name I won’t stay there. Let that be clear.’
Both of them moved and came and stood close to Maheshnath’s door in a dark corner. But Tommy had no patience. Quietly he entered the house and saw that Maheshnath and Suresh had settled down to eat. Quietly he sat down in the courtyard, though apprehensive of being driven out. The servants were talking. ‘I can’t see Mangalwa anywhere,’ said one. ‘The malkin had scolded him. Perhaps, that’s why he has run away.’
The other said, ‘Good that he has been driven away. We won’t have to see a bhangi’s face first thing in the morning.’
Mangal moved further into the dark corner. His hope now sunk into deep waters.
Maheshnath finished eating. The servant was helping him wash his hands. Now he would smoke his hookah and then go to sleep. Suresh would go to sleep listening to a story from his mother. No one thought of poor Mangal. No one cared to call him.
Disheartened, he stood there for some time. He was about to leave, heaving a long sigh of disappointment, when he saw the kahar carrying the left-overs in a leaf. Mangal came out of the darkness. He could not control himself.
The kahar said, ‘Oi where were you? Come, eat it. I was going to throw it away.’
Mangal replied in a pathetic voice, ‘I have been here since long.’
‘Then, why didn’t you call?’
‘Out of fear.’
‘Ok. Now eat.’
The kahar handed over the leaf to Mangal. Mangal looked at him, his eyes filled with cringing gratefulness. Tommy too had come out. Both of them sat under the neem tree and began to eat from the leaf.
Mangal, patting Tommy on his head with one and, said, ‘See how terrible is the fire of hunger. What would we do if we didn’t get these disdainfully thrown-away scraps?’
Tommy wagged his tail.
‘Suresh had been fed on amma’s milk.’
Tommy wagged his tail again.
‘People say, no one can pay back the price of mother’s milk, and see this is how I’m being paid back!’
Tommy wagged his tail once again.
(Hindi, Hans, July 1934)
Posted by tcghai at 11:59 AM