Part Four: The Harvest
A study in four parts of the human impact of the new seeds and methods of cultivation in Ghungrali-Rajputan, a prosperous farming village on the Punjab Plain in Northwest India
The tractor and the huge red cutting machine came over the road and into Charan’s fields, a great crawler moving like an insect, with the incredible strength of an insect. It crawled into the wheat field; the diesel engine puttering while it stood idle, thundering when it moved and then settling down to a droning roar as it began to reap the golden wheat. The thunder of the engine’s three cylinders, with a pressure of eighteen hundred pounds per square inch, sounded throughout the plain as the fuel exploded and produced heat, converting chemical energy into mechanical energy and providing a power stroke to the reaper’s great knife, which slashed back and forth eight hundred strokes each minute. The four red-painted rakes rotated like a fallen windmill, guiding and sweeping the wheat into the great knife and beyond into sheaves on the ground. And Charan was proud of the straight lines it reaped, proud of the giant tractor on his land and proud of its power. When it stopped for a moment, he grasped a stalk of grain in his hand and thought how could he buy such an iron machine. Then the driver thundered the engine and started off again, tracks falling and curving, rakes sweeping, knife cutting and the sheaves of wheat beginning to make their dotted pattern on the earth.
Few men save Charan’s neighbors came to watch the reaper for it had been learned that morning that Basant Singh was bringing a real combine to the village in a day or two. It would need only two men, a driver and one other, to harvest Basant Singh’s forty acres of wheat and was one of twenty that had been shipped from Bombay fifteen days before. Although there had been two demonstration combines in Punjab the year before these would be privately owned. There had been a tussle between Basant Singh and another rich farmer for the machine that was coming, since two had been ordered but one would not come until September. The two Jats had approached some ministers in the state government and it was finally decided that the other man would get the first combine but he would have to cut Basant Singh’s crop and then his own. When Charan learned Basant Singh would have a combine he thought, “But Basant Singh must have known he would not need labor this harvest for many weeks; why had he played such a lead role in the boycott of the Harijans?” And Charan cursed Basant Singh for helping to cause so much suffering when he himself was not really involved. But Sadhu Singh had said, “He is a man who doesn’t like to take risks,” and shrugged, “It is his affair; why should we bother our heads?” But Charan had replied, “There are real hypocrites in this village.”
Sadhu Singh, for his part, was delighted to see their wheat reaped; the first in Ghungrali to be cut. He pranced around the fields like a child with, a new toy and when Verma, the university engineer who had constructed the reaper, came to observe it and test its operation, Sadhu Singh hugged him with a happy roar of laughter. “It’s working splendidly, Vermaji,” the old man chuckled. “See our neighbors’ ears flapping. We are always ready to try anything new. We used to get half-price seeders for two-hundred-fifty rupees and we sold them to all our friends. Many people said they were no good. Harrumph! Now those gossipmongers are repenting. But that Block Development Office is too much of a burden these days. One officer wants one bottle, another five bottles.” The old man and the engineer laughed and slapped each other on the back as if the foibles of the bureaucracy were their own private joke.
“We have to do our best to provide you good farmers with machines to do your work,” Verma chuckled, “now that these laborers are harassing you.” And Sadhu Singh, as long as Verma stayed in the fields, was very much the farmer, his stout figure strutting back and forth from the well to the reaper to the mown fields, shouting at the laborers and seeming very much in command. The laborers had divided into three groups, moving up the fields behind the reaper to gather in the sheaves into bales. Two of these were Mazhbis from the village, brought early in the morning by old Chanan and the third were the Hindu migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, whom the Punjabis called “bhaiyas.” The outsiders, who were of much slighter build and who did not enjoy the rich Punjabi diet of wheat and milk and eggs in their villages, were not able to keep pace with the Mazhbis and fell behind, completing a row of bales in exactly twice the time. Then, each time Charan or Sadhu Singh was out of sight, the outsiders would slip over to the shade of a tree; drop their sickles and crouch, smoking bidis until they saw one of the Jats approaching.
“Suka!” Sadhu Singh shouted from the well to Charan’s oldest son, who was serving as water carrier for the workers in the fields, “Suka, you’re hovering around those bhaiyas with water and there they are, sitting under that tree doing nothing. Why don’t you go to the field and give old Chanan water? He had to run all the way back to the well just for a drink. They’re still sitting. O, now they haven’t finished their bidis yet!” The old man stormed out towards them, arms waving, and the youths from outside leapt to their feet and started baling again. “Those bhaiyas!” Sadhu Singh fretted to Chanan, who was directing the Mazhbis. “They don’t know how to make bales.”
“Some of theirs may break loose,” “they left two bunches over there,” the Mazhbis agreed.
“They can’t learn anything,” Sadhu Singh huffed. “It’s wasting your energy to tell them.”
“This boy doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t do anything wrong,” Chanan said, defending one of the outsiders who had chosen to work with his group rather than his fellow villagers from Uttar Pradesh.
“If you have to teach them each and every thing, how can they work in your absence?”
“Look at this boy,” Sadhu Singh agreed. “He works very good and he’s one of them. Those gossip mongers over there don’t want to work.”
“The cutting machine is good,” said one of the Mazhbis.
“Yes sir,” said Sadhu Singh.
“It leaves some on the corners,” said another.
“What’s wrong now?” Sadhu bellowed. “Can anybody dare to say anything is wrong with it? You don’t even lose a single grain.”
The Mazhbis worked in two groups. One, led by old Chanan himself, included Amarjit and Surjit Singh, two brothers with lean faces and broad shoulders who were staid and important-looking; in builds, in their long uncut beards and in the expression of their whole persons, they resembled those warriors depicted on Sikh calendars and, indeed, were part-time priests who officiated at the marriages and other ceremonies of the Mazhbis in all the surrounding villages. These two were very traditional, saintly men like old Chanan himself, and hardly spoke except when their work made it necessary.
“We’ll go from this furrow to that furrow,” Chanan directed as they started work that morning. “Take care of each stalk. Try to pick up each and every sta1k. Don’t make the sheaves too big because we’ll have to carry it ourselves to the threshing ground. Some poor person like me will be struggling to pick them up. Even if it’s only a stalk, pick it up. Don’t bother if it has grains on it or not.”
Charan, approaching, called, “Just make small bales so that one man can lift by himself.”
“I told them,” old Chanan grinned. “Charan will be sitting on a charpoy and ordering, ‘Go, boys, lift yourself.'”
Charan, sounding rather like a genial host, laughed, “Tell me, boys, whosoever gets tired I’ll replace him and he can rest.”
“Hurry, boys, hurry,” Chanan called, bending over a bundle.
“We’ll select three points where we can bring the bales together in great piles and feed them into a thresher. Father will bring a machine from somewhere. We’ll also decide in which field we’ll sow cotton. O, don’t scatter so much grain,” he called to the outsiders. “If you find a sheave is too heavy, don’t take it all but come back for the rest.”
“O, keep the bales light,” Chanan said. “You have made it real heavy this time.”
“A strong man can lift heavier than that,” said one of the bearded Mazhbi priests, Amarjit.
“But a strong man can also tell a weak man, ‘Just lift two or three, I’m going to answer the call of nature,'” Chanan said. “Suka!” he called to Charan’s son, “Bring water!”
“Right now?” said Suka, who was sitting in the shade, playing with a stick in the dirt. “Yes,” Chanan called, shaking his head at the boy’s laziness. Suka went to the well and filled a bucket and came back, setting it on the ground with a thud so that much spilled out and snapping in a sullen voice, “Now you wanted water, take it now.”
All the Mazhbis squatted on the ground before holding out a glass for Suka to fill. “It’s dangerous to drink water while standing in the hot sun,” explained Amarjit.
“You men,” Charan across the field could be heard shouting to the outside laborers, “Move your limbs. Bring those also. Do you want water, young men?”
“Just take care of your bhaiyas,” Amarjit chuckled. The Mazhbis resented outsiders working in the fields instead of their friends, the Chamars.
Bawa, a son of Bhoondi the barn cleaner and a younger brother of Sher, who had not come, approached them from the other Mazhbi group, which was made up of young men, who were among the most cheerful, wisecracking and vulgar in the village. “That machine has many problems,” Bawa said. “It throws bunches away and every time you have to gather them up.”
“0, machines are awful,” said old Chanan with unexpected vehemence. “It’s very difficult to make good bales from a machine.”
“Hey, why is this bhaiya here working with Punjabis?” Bawa asked of the one outside youth in their group. “Hey, boy, are you a Punjabi? You should have only Punjabis, Chanan.”
“Have you come here for tying bales or just to gossip,” Chanan said.
Bawa laughed. “Those bhaiyas were asking me where I was from. I said my district was Rajasthan and my village was Fuck Them All.”
“You just get back to work and don’t worry about those bhaiyas,” Chanan said, but adding loyally, “O, I can’t unwind this rope. Probably those bhaiyas wound it.”
Bawa, who had a rich infectious laughter and never stopped joking, rejoined the youths in his group, shouting down the field to the outside laborers, “Go and tie up your dhotis. I’ll take you to Fuck Them All Village.” He began gathering sheaves with speed. “Hurry up, boys, we have to beat those bhaiyas.”
Charan, who was with the youths from Bihar and Uttar Fradesh, told them, “They are just trying to engage you in talk so they can pass you. Pay no attention.”
“They don’t have enough guts to beat us,” Bawa told his group in a loud voice so the outsiders could hear. “We are known as Punjabis. We can eat up a live bhaiya. Look, that one bhaiya has only worked five minutes and now he is taking water again.”
Charan, holding the water pail, called, “Anyone who wants water should ask for it.”
“Just leave a little drop on their pigtails,” Bawa shouted, for some of the outsiders had shaven heads with a single lock of hair at the crown, as was the custom in some Hindu villages.
“Don’t make the bales so big,” Charan said. “They are too heavy.”
“Five of you won’t be able to pick up that bale,” Bawa called, provokingly. At this the five outsiders began to grumble amongst themselves. “Ah,” Bawa told his cronies, a tall boy called Darshan and Chanan’s son, Kapur, “Now they want to abuse us.”
“There are no more ropes,” one of the Hindu workers told Charan.
“Go and get some from the well.”
“Yes, run. Run,” Bawa called even more provokingly, and then swearing at a sheaf that had slipped from his grasp, “O, I’ll rape you!”
“Don’t pull the stalks with your hands,” Charan told his group. “You’ll cut your hands.”
“O, we don’t bother about our blood,” said the tallest of the Hindus. “Just let them work on their side of the field and you work on yours,” Charan told the outsiders. “That Bawa’s a dangerous man, don’t let him pick a quarrel. He can eat a live pig’s testicles. They are of that caste. These Mazhbis are very fond of meat,” Charan laughed. One of the Hindus had cut his finger pulling on the stalks. “You have too much blood to waste, boy. One foolish man named Shekri was cutting the same branch on which he was sitting and a stranger came along and said, ‘Beware, you’ll fall.’ Shekri said ‘O, go away, it’s none of your business.’ The branch broke and Shekri came down. Then he got up and ran after the stranger calling, ‘You knew when I was going to fall. Now tell me when I am going to die.’ The stranger wanted to get rid of this foolishness, he said, ‘You’ll die when you spit blood.’ Now Shekri was a weaver and one day he bit a red thread and chewed it and spit it out. He thought it was blood and ran around telling everyone, ‘O, I’m dead.'”
Charan roared with laughter and some of the Hindu youths halfheartedly joined in. “Don’t cut jokes with them,” Charan said. “We’ll cut jokes within ourselves. Don’t curse them. Speak only words to them they’ll understand.”
“Bring that at once!” Bawa bellowed from across the field.
“See, he’s ordering us about!” said the Hindus.
The tallest of them clenched his fists and waving them at Bawa, shouted angrily, “Don’t think you’re so brave!”
“O, no, don’t say that,” said Charan.
“Bring that at once!” came Bawa’s shout again, this time louder and more commanding.
“No, no,” Charan went on hurriedly, silently cursing Bawa, one of the hardest working Mazhbis. “They’re talking among themselves. Why do you get angry? He’s calling his man, ‘Bring that at once.’ They may be laughing or weeping. It’s none of our business. I tell you, boys, it’s none of our business. I have told them not to speak to you. I just turned my back and you pick a quarrel. In Punjabi, we always say like that, ‘Bring that at once!’ It’s a difference of language. You don’t understand Punjabi.”
“An Englishman also once mistook our words and got mad,” Darshan shouted over to them. “We were laughing and he thought we were abusing. There must be some word like that, ‘Bring that at once!’ in their language.”
“Bring those bales,” called Bawa.
“Shall I bring more still, you foolish?” Darshan answered.
“See, they are talking among themselves,” said Charan.
“We are working for a rich landlord,” said one of the Hindus. “How could these people dare to say anything to us?”
“Absolutely,” said Charan. “Nothing they can say. Bilkool nahi.”
“If we get angry in this foreign land, it’s difficult for us to work,” said the tall Hindu.
“Now smoke your bidis,” Charan laughed. “Within half an hour we’ll have tea. You’ll feel fresh. Have bidi after tea, you’ll feel fresher. These young men working together in the fields. They will always be talking about someone’s wife, someone’s sister. You know how they talk. Don’t get angry over minor things.”
When the outsiders went to smoke, Charan went over to Bawa and told him, “Listen, Bawa, you stay four acres apart from these bhaiyas. Otherwise, I’ll play hell with you.”
Bawa laughed. “O, he was showing his big eye at me. If you weren’t here, I would teach him a lesson.”
“No, but they are not so strong,” Charan said. “See how they go so slowly. A man with stamina can work and crack jokes at the same time, but a weak man will work meekly and say nothing and get angry.”
“These bhaiyas are only here because their women dragged them out of their houses, right to Punjab, and said, ‘Earn some money to buy us saris,'” Bawa laughed again. “They are sheep, these bhaiyas.”
Sindar, who had heard the shouting from his well, could not resist coming over. He told the Hindu workers, “This is the thirteenth month of the year, boys, and if you’re afraid to work now, you’re in trouble. If somebody commits a murder in Punjab, he does it because of his bumper wheat crop, he can afford to spend half his profits on a lawyer.”
“How many have you killed?” one of the Hindus asked the tall, fierce looking Punjabi.
“I never had a bumper crop so how could I commit a murder?” Sindar replied, giving them a sample of his logic. “Somebody once poked somebody’s bottom but he was a Qazi, you know, a Moslem priest, and he was doing his prayers and without being disturbed he just reached back and gave a rupee to that man and the same man poked another man’s bottom but the second man was a Punjabi Jat and he cut the man in two. The poor fellow thought he could make another rupee. We tell anyone who bothers us we are Jats and will cut them in two. We are not Qazis. It’s like a dog who gets mad and goes on biting people along the way and all of a sudden he bites one man who with a sword kills that poor thing.”
“Sometimes you get mad,” said the tall Hindu.
“That’s true,” Sindar said. “Everyone gets mad but I never get mad just because I don’t understand a language. If you cough and the doctor gives you pills for diarrhea, you won’t be cured. You have to speak the same language as the other person.” After that calm was restored and when Charan went to drive the reaper so the driver could rest, Sindar followed along, supplying expert advice and insuring the path was clear.
That evening Charan let the Hindu laborers go, turning them back to Tara Singh and the 13-member committee. Both he and old Chanan feared a fight between the Mazhbis and the outsiders and Chanan agreed to provide more men, eleven Mazhbis from the village in all. When he returned home Charan found his sister, Surjit, anxiously waiting for him. She said her only laborer, Buldev, her husband’s nephew had run away just before the harvest and aside from Saroop Singh, her husband and their two teenage sons, Pala and Kaka, they had no men to cut their wheat. Their village was on the edge of a jungle some twenty-seven miles to the south of Ghungrali, most of the local Harijans had land of their own and it was too far from a railway station to get any migrant labor from Uttar Pradesh or Bihar. Surjit was desperate as she had fourteen acres of wheat sown earlier than Charan’s and it was already too dry and shattering in the fields. After years of struggling because of her husband’s opium addiction, Surjit had finally been able to have all her best land sown in the new high yielding wheat and now the prosperity or ruin of her farm hung in the balance. Charan said he would see what he could do to save her crop; perhaps he could get the Mazhbis to agree to go and cut it, although it meant defying the 13-member committee by taking what few local laborers there were outside the boycotted Chamars to another Village. [Note: See RC-4, “The Thorn,” for the background of Surjit, her family and Buldev, whose further adventures will appear in a later sequel].
But Charan determined he would somehow save Surjit’s wheat crop, even if he had to spirit the Mazhbis away in the night. But he told no one but his father of his plan.
Returning to the cattle yard, Charan now felt the weight of another twenty-acre farm on his shoulders, in addition to his own fifteen acres. He checked the tractor to see if it was ready for a trip by night and found Suka had not oiled the clutch plates as he had been told.
“Suka,” Charan asked his oldest son who was lying on a cot reading from his schoolbooks, “did you oil the clutch plate?”
“You are very good at saying ‘yes sir,'” Charan sternly told him, “but you have not oiled the clutch plate. I could feel it when starting the engine.”
“No. Sir, I’m sure I did.”
Charan was grieved that the boy would lie to him on something so important since had he started out to Surjit’s village in the tractor’s present condition he could have ruined the clutch. “Look, where did you get the oil, my son?”
“It was here in this little tin.”
“You are lying. I checked it in the morning. It was empty.”
“O, no, yes, now I remember. I took it from that bottle hanging on a nail in the veranda.”
“You are lying again, my dear son. You are a big liar. Is that what you’ve learned from those books. O, Suka, Suka. Instead of telling me the truth, you treat me like a fool. You should be ashamed of your dirty face. I could see there was nothing in the bottle. I saw it in the morning and these two new cans of oil are sealed. And yet you told me you oiled the clutch plate. If you go on lying and behaving in this way, you won’t reach anywhere in life. You are a shameless creature.”
Suka remained silent, turning his eyes down to his books. He wanted to be an army officer or an engineer and loathed the fields, loathed the village. Charan knew his son regarded him as a dirty farmer who worked with his hands and the sweat of his brow and a heavy drinker besides and so he was ashamed and could not bring himself to discipline his son or speak to him further. He knew Suka was also keeping bad company at school. Not long before he had found a sword and scabbard hidden by the boy in the well house and more than once he had caught Suka staying away from home an entire night. He had confided in his father, but Sadhu Singh, who regarded his educated grandson as an ally in family quarrels with Charan, had refused to believe it. And so now Charan suppressed his uneasiness over Suka, laughed and waved at some friends on the road and went to join them for a drink.
All the village knew that Charan’s oldest two sons – his youngest two and Rani, the beautiful little girl, were mere children – were slothful, disrespectful to elders and had proved disappointing to Charan. Oh, Charan would say of Kulwant, his second son, “this boy has a real head for farming.” But in truth, both sons, when their father was out of sight, would refuse to do physical labor and voiced contempt for those Jats and Harijans who did. These boys, schooled in a neighboring town, would never understand, praise, curse or beseech the land as their father or Mukhtar or old Chanan did. They would never crumble the clods of earth in their fingers and let the dirt sift past their fingertips or touch the seed and watch it germinate day by day and lust for its growth. They had no prayers nor curses for the land or the weather but yearned to leave the village for the city, where they would join that growing army of half-educated young Indians who find they are neither fish nor fowl. Pritam would say, “What we reap is what we’ve sown.” And for many of these village youths whose aspirations had left the soil, the harvest would be bitter.
The Mazhbis were aware of Charan’s problem and as the reaping went on they would observe, “He has sent those boys to cut fodder but they won’t finish in fourteen days. We had better send someone to do it” or they would call, “Bring some ropes, boys, hurry up” and when nothing happened, say, “Those boys will never do any work unless their father is around. Look, now they are eating berries and we are crying for rope to get the harvest in.”
The Mazhbis were the most cheerful of all the villagers, save possibly Sindar, and as they worked in the hot sun, almost overcome by the heat and the monotonous burnt gold of the fields, with the put-put the reaper’s tractor engine droning on nearby, they joked and laughed the whole time in the group where Bawa and Scooter were baling. And Charan, anxious they be contented and stay with him to cut Surjit’s wheat, was also sober and happy and very much the genial host, bringing water to the field, or pails of buttermilk of hot chapatis and dahl or vegetables. “Hindu mother’s dahl and a Moslem’s meat and a Sikh’s chapati,” he would laugh. “He who doesn’t eat this will repent afterwards.”
This morning there is a dark leaden mass creeping over the sky toward the sun and the sound of a far away rumbling. “There is a danger of rain and a possibility of hail today, brothers,” Charan observed, watching the sky. “These days though, the clouds carry more wind than rain. Brothers, what do you want? Don’t feel shy. Do you have a glass of water? Do you think the lassi’s too thick?”
“Where are the bhaiyas?” asked Bawa.
“I sent them back to Tara Singh. He knows who needs men. One of the bhaiyas was short tempered and the way you joke, Bawa, I didn’t want anything to happen. Moreover, our three Punjabis are worth six bhaiyas, more milk? Scooter Sahib? I’ll go and soak some ropes.”
“One person from our group is gone,” Chanan called from across the field. “Send us one person.”
“We’ll send Suka,” Scooter grinned. “You want a sickle, Suka? It’s hidden deep in my shorts. You’ll get it when it’s dark. O, look that dark cloud comes running. If it rains it will make things worse. O, O, move cloud. Somebody hand Suka a partridge head. He should hold that tight. It shouldn’t fly away.”
“Don’t talk rot with me,” Suka said sullenly and stomped away.
“No, my boy, I didn’t mean anything. But just wait till after dark,” Scooter laughed.
“The other day I went to Scooter’s village,” said Bawa, bringing a sheaf. I tried to give something to your sister. But she wouldn’t take it.”
“Now hold the other end of the rope and pull, Bawa,” Scooter said. “Pull. O, now you broke the rope. I told you not to pull so hard. But you are fond of pulling things hard.”
“Your sister was willing to give but her old lady didn’t want her to give,” Bawa went on, grinning as he always did.
“Two yards of khaki for a priest’s shorts.”
“You talk too much. You should put ropes to your tongue,” Suka called, bringing back a pail of water.
“Why? Have I raped you?”
Across the field Chanan was watching the sky. The clouds by now covered the sun and soon afterwards there was not a speck of blue in the sky. It grew dark.
“Once we were cutting your wheat from this field Charan,” old Chanan said, “and a hail storm came. By the time we reached those trees the hail was hitting our heads.”
Amarjit groaned, “Don’t remember hail storms. They’ll hear us and come.”
“Our Giver seems quite happy this year,” said his brother, Surjit.
“This wind is gusty,” said Charan. “It changes direction.” The first rain dropped, big and heavy, like dark dots on the dusty stubble. A big drop fell on Charan’s cheek and glided down like a tear to his chin. “The rain has begun,” Charan said, kicking at the dust with his bare, bony feet.
“Some of the Jats will be really afraid now,” Scooter called. “Their wives will tell them, ‘Now little Pritam’s father, go and arrange some Harijans to cut your wheat. You must cut it at once or we’ll starve.'”
“You see those clouds. The Jats will lose their appetite for this boycott.”
“Boycott, boycott,” called Bawa (the Punjabis use the English word, “boycott.”). “That word is a full mouthful.” He pulled on the rope with Scooter, knotting it tight around a bale. “Scooter, you talk too much. But I can just put you under my arm and we’ll have a round of the village. I’ve gone to Scooter’s village and seen his sister. She’s real juicy.”
“You don’t have juicy sisters here,” laughed Scooter. “But I’ll accept any of yours.”
“Scooter is not a permanent laborer for anyone,” Bawa went on. “He wouldn’t be able to stand working for a whole year. The Jats would break his bottom. Then he’d forget his jokes. When you speak that boycott, your whole mouth gets full of it.”
“You just go on tying bales instead of discussing the boycott!” old Chanan called.
“The Chamars have withstood the boycott, that’s true,” said Banarsi, another Mazhbi who had joined them, “But if it was a Mazhbi boycott, we’d be running to the Jats with folded hands saying, “Sirs, we are your children.”
The rain was pattering down now but the wind had disappeared. For a time the men work silently, the only sound, the patter of rain dropping like fine shot on the reaped wheat and parched ground. A flash of lightning gleamed over their heads and the washed trees at the well, stirred by a gust, dropped a perfect waterfall on the bullocks. The thunder was gradually abating and it’s rumbling moved far away beyond Bhambadi.
“Your prayer worked well, Charan,” Bawa said. “O, Uncle, I think Charan last year had that neighboring field with the small tree.”
“No, no, that’s another’s land. There was a small tree in this field but you cut it down, didn’t you, Charan? This wheat is sown in a single crop field, but that other is double cropped.”
“This wheat is thick and heavy.”
“They didn’t sow anything before in this field.”
“No, it’s single cropped.”
“Now the wind has started blowing again,” Charan said, watching the northern horizon. “But there’s no more danger of heavy rain.”
“Don’t put that sheaf on your shoulder, the wind might carry it away. This wind is not even. It makes a whirlwind here and there.”
“When you’re reaping or baling there should be a hot sun.”
“No, it should be cool.”
“Hurry, we must beat the others” “Here, bring that bale.” “You hold mine and I’ll hold yours.” “O, the rope broke.” “Was it mine or yours?” “Scooter, yours is rusty because of old age.” “Hurry, hurry, bring the bales.”
“You will see,” laughed Scooter, working faster to beat old Chanan’s group, which had caught up with them in the next row, “we’ll make them spit like stallions. Those Sikh priests like Amarjit are very tricky. They know so many ways to bring women round their beds. They’ll tell them, ‘O, dear little girl, unbutton those trousers.’ If she’s foolish, she’ll unbutton theirs. But if she is clever, he can say, ‘O, no, my dear, I meant those trousers hanging there on the wall.”
This made Amarjit, who seldom spoke, chuckle. “Now, look,” said Bawa, “our Sikh is in high spirits again.”
“Let’s go.” “O, hurry up, hurry up, those boys will pass us.” “Pull it further.” “Bring, bring, hurry, bring the sheaves.”
“Don’t worry,” Bawa called, “only the Sikhs will rule.”
“O, they won’t,” Scooter disagreed, “because they’ll be too busy combing their long beards and in the meantime, others will create mischief.”
Bawa laughed, “There was a knakl game going on and two Sikhs came and immediately the knakl players ran to them and said, ‘O, perhaps we are in a barber’s house.’ Another said, ‘Why? How do you think so?’ And the first player said, ‘You can see their big tool bags and they want their hair cut.'”
“Pull that rope.” “Bring, Bawa, put it here.” “Stop, O, stop.” “Come, come quick.” “Now we have to ply our strength.” “Don’t let them beat us, boys.”
“Wah, wah,” Charan cried, “go, boys, go.” A bright patch of blue appeared in the sky. Both groups of Mazhbis worked frantically now, trying to finish the row first and racing, as they always did when they came abreast in baling.
“Bring, brother.” “Hurry up.” “Hold mine tight.” “Hold it, Bawa, hold.” “Now, boys, watch out, they should not complete before we do.” “After all, we are bearded men and they are children.” “Take care your beards don’t get tied in the bales.” “Hurry, hurry, hurreeeee.” “Don’t worry, we’ll bring them to their knees.” “What will they think of us if we don’t make them piss in their shorts??” “Bawa, come hurry, we will make their shorts wet. Will they remember us? Just wet their shorts. When they reach home, their wives will ask ‘What is the meaning of this?’ And they’ll…” “Don’t talk so much, Scooter.” “Bring one more bale.” “Ah!” “Finished!” “Now we have shown our strength to those old men!”
When both groups of Mazhbis reached the end of the row a1most together, the sun peered from behind the clouds and flooded the golden field the trees and the sweating men with its warm light. The dark menacing cloud had gone far away and taken the storm with it. The air was warm and fragrant and there was a scent of freshly cut grain. The men sat down for a rest and breathed in quickly before the heat came back again.
“It’s good nothing has happened so far with the boycott,” Charan said, pouring water into glasses or their outstretched palms. Now it’s only talk. Sometimes these things can lead to murders on both sides. Sometimes the parties have nothing to eat in their houses and must bring in relations from outside to decide. And then whatever is decided they must accept without reasoning. It can get very bad. Look where Bihar is. And people from there say ‘Let’s go to Ludhiana District in Punjab to cut wheat and earn some money.’ But, look; people in our own village fight each other. It’s nonsense.”
“Yes,” agreed Chanan. “People don’t realize the importance of this area…”
Bawa chuckled. “If they brought both committees together, they’d be thirteen men on a side. The Jats and Chamars could wrestle, one-to-one. That would settle it.”
“They won’t listen to anybody,” Chanan said. “They had that meeting on Bisaki and we couldn’t even hear the prayers in the Gurdwara, they were shouting so.”
“One Chamar’s son borrowed two rupees from a Jat for opium and he gave him,” said Banarsi, to show all hope was not lost.
There was a drone overhead and they all looked up to watch a helicopter pass high in the sky.
“Is it going over our village?” Amarjit asked.
“Yes,” laughed Bawa. “Go and find out if they brought some mail for you from the Prime Minister.”
“Say whatever you want,” said Chanan. “Nothing is a better ride than a train.”
“You can start riding me if you like, Bawa,” Scooter said. “You are dragging your tail like a dog.”
“No one will ride you instead of your sister.”
“O, that helicopter has gone God knows where.”
“The pilot has gone to take tea with Scooter’s sister,” said Bawa.
“Come, brothers, back to work,” old Chanan said and they started baling again.
“This wheat is starting to shatter today, but we’ll do our best to save it.”
“Hurry up.” “Bring, brothers, bring.” “Pull the rope ahead.” “Bas!” “Don’t stab me with your sickle.” “Yesterday this field was green; now they say it is shattering.” “These days wheat changes color every day.” “Yes, Bawa, one more sheaf.”
Bhoondi, the father of Bawa and Sher, came wandering up to the men; he had been cutting fodder in a nearby field. Scooter called to him, “We have heard there are about five hundred men arriving in the village.” “Bah,” Bhoondi scoffed. “Do you think the men are growing on trees? Who told you?” “Someone sent us a telegram.” “Then send a parade to them and arrange a big reception. You act as if they were sparrows, not men. Where would these Jats get 500? They will be lucky to get fifty.
“Banta could not be successful with his wife last night,” Chanan’s son, Kapur, called out.
“Now I understand why he was in that bee’s nest this morning,” Scooter laughed. “Honey is good if you want to make two trips a night.”
But the poor man looks like he was kicked in the testicles last night. And you make such a remark.” Banta, a thin, older man, ignored them.
“Where do you want this bunch?”
“O, bring it. Don’t just be Indira Gandhi’s nephew and stand there.”
Darshan came back from the well. “Here, now, they want me to cut fodder,” he said with disgust.
“Who? What?” Scooter asked.
“You keep your black mouth shut,” Darshan was angry. “You don’t know a damn thing about it. They are like this. One day Charan brought me to cut fodder and sent Suka and Kulwant with me, but this Suka kept lying on the charpoy and I had to cut seven bales by myself. Finally when his father came Suka came running and took a sickle and started cutting as if he had been cutting since morning.” He stopped as Charan was approaching.
“Hurry up, my brothers,” Charan called. “The reaper has already finished the last field and is headed back. We have only this field and that to bale. You have already finished more than half. And on that side, the old men have also been running like railway engines.”
“Yes,” muttered Banta. “The old men are better than the young in every respect.”
“They sleep with their wives more than we do,” laughed Bawa.
“They are real bulls,” Scooter joined in. “When they start they won t stop for four hours. If you could see Banta last night. How he was begging and his wife kicked his bottom. You won’t believe how miserable this poor fellow was begging for what was once his. But that was some time ago, eh, Banta?”
Bawa said, “I have been where they charge one anna if it’s as big as a donkey’s and half an anna for smaller sizes.”
“What for half an anna?” asked Banta.
“You wouldn’t know because you are no size whatever,” said Scooter, with a laugh. “Yours is like a lady finger. Maybe even smaller than that.”
“O, Bantee,” Bawa went on, “don’t tell us a lie. Tell us the truth? Have you ever satisfied your wife? What can she do with a ladyfinger? She won’t even know you are there.”
“Today we should carry our loads home because if you wait until after threshing Charan will be miserly with us. You can never rely on Jats,” said Darshan, a tall muscular youth. “When you take your loads every day it does not hurt them, but if you take at the end they will moan, ‘O, these laborers are now carrying away a full acre of wheat.'”
“You are a fool, Darshan,” said Bawa. “They don’t do like that.”
“Yes,” said Scooter. “He thinks they may not even give him a single bale of grain. He doesn’t believe even his father. He thinks his father has borrowed something from someone the night his mother conceived him.”
On the evening of the third day of reaping, Charan told the Mazhbis to make extra large bales, twenty-seven of them, which would be their payment, a bale for each day worked.
“These bales must be really big ones,” he told them. “Don’t hesitate. Now before this was my farm and your labor but now, take it, my wheat is in your hands and be generous with your bales.”
Chanan directed the men in making a large bale of sheaves and then asked, “Just look, Sardarji, is it all right?”
“No. Put some more on. Don’t say tomorrow that Charan was a miser. Put some really huge ones.”
“No, no, Sardarji,” old Chanan chided him. “We are not that greedy. These are enough. We know you are a large-hearted man, a real lion. But we must not exploit your generosity.”
“No, no,” laughed Charan. “Suppose a whirlwind comes and enters my field from that corner and goes through this corner. That can easily carry off five bales. What then? Now I know these grains will go into someone’s mouth. To fill his belly.”
“Who will carry such huge bales, Sardarji?”
“Don’t worry. I shall leave these in my trolley at your houses. I’m sure you deserve these big bales. This is no untruth. Now shall we save my sister’s wheat, boys? What do you say? You’ll get the same there, all right.”
“We five are ready to go,” said old Chanan, speaking for himself, the two priestly brothers, and his son and one of theirs.
“If you take hay you will get twelve kilos of wheat and if you take only grains, you will get fifteen kilos. Or if you want such a bale that also suits us.”
“Now we must work,” old Chanan told him. “But we shall decide our terms and let you know by evening. But we are ready and ready to go, the five of us.”
“Jats have to be large-hearted, because they have to face nature which is sometimes cruel to them,” said Scooter.
“Well, young men, what about you?” Charan asked.
“You ask the elders,” said Banarsi. “What do they say?”
“They are ready,” said old Chanan.
“Then we have no objections.”
“I’ve heard there are fifty outsiders in this village already,” said Amarjit.
“Just think of it as a question of food and water,” said old Chanan, “and don’t be angry. Maybe it was written in God’s book that they, these fifty men, will eat and drink water in Ghungrali.”
“Charan is too generous to us,” said Surjit.
“Why should we complain if he is too generous?”
“All right, Sardarji, God will give many times more than you have given us.”
Charan laughed. “What do you say, you rascal. God may give me more trouble than I have given you?” Charan roared with laughter then said, “Listen, boys, then it’s all decided. We must leave in the night. There we have twenty-five bottles awaiting us and a pig who is in our name.”
“Just see,” said Chanan, “those Chamars passing on the road are cutting in another village. Why can’t they work in their own, village?”
But Charan, happy to have the Mahzbis consent to go, had begun carrying and tying bales, singing in English, remembered from his schooldays:
Twinkle, twinkle little star
How I wonder what you are
Up above the world so high
Like a diamond in the sky
When the blazing sun is gone
There is nothing shines upon
Then you show your little light
Twinkle, twinkle all the night.
“Agh-gh, this rope is like an elephant’s penis,” complained Banarsi. Just then, a stranger, a Jat from another village, came across the field and stopped by Charan. “Did you cut this field with a reaper?” he asked.
“Yes, they took it back to Ludhiana so we are just finishing bailing,” Charan replied.
“What about the Harijan trouble in your village? Is it over?”
“No, who told you?”
“Some men were reading in the newspaper that it was all settled,” said the man. “I come from Isaru. There was some mention of Tara Singh. That Tara Singh made a settlement with the Harijans.”
“Tara Singh is President of the Jats’ 13-member committee, but I don’t think there’s been any settlement. That news must have been sent by the police. So this is another news we read than that what has happened.”
“I have heard another machine is coming to this village.”
“You mean a combine?”
“Yes. A combine. They say that it is no good. It grinds those which are a little green or those which have moisture, I came to see it for myself.”
“O, it may be. But one thing is important. Before using a combine you should be sure that there is no moisture in the wheat. It should be perfectly dry.”
“I think this boycott will go on for quite a long time,” said the stranger. “If it isn’t lifted now in the harvest how can it end?”
“It is just a political game,” Charan told him. “There is really nothing in it which remains to be settled. Both sides agree to the same thing but both have made it a question of honor. Nonsense.”
“Yes,” said the stranger, shaking hands with Charan and going off, “that is true. These things will be of no use to anyone.”
Dusk was falling now and the men worked quickly to finish the last row. An old lady, a beggar, came across the field and hands outstretched to Charan, cried in a trembling, frail voice, “God will give you more and more. You may have so much fortune you may not be able to count even. Your children will be hale and hearty and flourish like roses. You may enjoy a long life.” Charan gave the woman several large bundles of wheat. She bowed and said, “God bless you my son.”
For a moment Charan looked over his fields, at the racks and sheaves of his own wheat, the last of it lying in swaths still as the Mazhbis moved up the field, and he felt very satisfied. “Make your piles of bales and leave everything where it is,” he called to the men as they reached the end of the row. “It’s all settled. We’ll start at five.”
“No,” said Chanan. “Better to go before the village stirs. We’ll start when the moon comes over our beds.”
And so, an hour before dawn, the Mazhbis crept through the sleeping streets of Ghungrali and gathered in Charan’s cattle yard. They piled hay in his trolley and climbing aboard as he started the tractor engine, roared off down the road before any of the Jats knew they were going.
Charan and the eleven Mazhbis spent three days in the fields of Surjit, cutting her fourteen acres of wheat and saving her fortune. Her husband, Saroop, a handsome but haggard-looking man addicted to opium, was formally the master and worked alongside the others in the fields, but the Mazhbis knew that in reality everything was in the hands of Surjit; she bought and sold, nothing was done without her consent.
They made the trip to her farm near the village of Bhadson, twenty-seven miles south of Ghungrali, in three hours and arrived just as the sun was rising over the fields. Along the Grand Trunk Road crept flocks of crows. Screaming and cawing rose from the high branches as they passed and then, as they neared Bhadson, trees no longer obscured the view and they could see the sky and country far ahead. The Mazhbis had seldom traveled so far from the village and as the tractor and trolley bumped along the country road they looked all around them with curiosity. Through breaks in the semi-transparent dust, the world exposed its fairness; the white mist lay unevenly around bushes and haystacks or wandered in tidy cloudlets, clinging to the surface as if not to cut off the view. Surjit’s farmhouse, in the midst of a great sea of brownish, over-dry wheat, could be seen all the way from a large canal and in the ditches beside the road little bushes tripped and hindered the vagabond wisps of dust and the men covered their heads and noses in their shawls so as to breathe freely. Half a mile away rose a dark green belt of jungle.
It was hotter than Ghungrali and, perhaps because of the nearness of the jungle, a scorching wind which blew day after day from the south or the absence of big shade trees on the newly cleared land, the sun seemed to shine more fiercely. The air was thinner here, the sky whiter and dust was everywhere, settling like pollen on their wet shirts or bare shoulders as they worked. And by late morning a gray haze of dust would spread over the sky and the son would be a livid white. Hot winds would unceasingly stir the wheat and from the edge of one field after another fourteen men moved forward, the Mazhbis, Saroop and his two sons, Pala and Kaka. There was no reaper here and the Punjabis cut the grain as they always had, slashing their sickles at the ripe stems, grasping one handful at a time, advancing slowly, rocking from side to side on their haunches, steadily, on and on to the end of the field, crouched low and nearly buried in the sea of wheat. Sometimes they would look up, as a vulture or hawk glided on the wind high above them and some of them would tie rags over their mouths and noses to keep out the dust and with only their grimy wet foreheads and eyes showing would look like dacoits. And all day long the sickles flashed brightly and rhythmatically, all together making the same sound: grrch, grrch, grrch, and from the glint on their sickles, their wet faces and backs and the way they gathered up the swaths into sheaves after cutting, one could see how suffocating and oppressive the heat had become.
As they worked and became hotter and their muscles more tired, the younger men talked and cursed more, their laughter became louder and their language more vulgar. And the older men like Chanan and the two Sikh priests became quieter and more solemn. Charan himself, who had not mown wheat for many years, had never seemed happier than with these Mazhbis, and he ran back and forth from the house, carrying water, tea, little cakes of sweet brown sugar, pails of buttermilk, steaming hot chapatis, kettles of good rich potato and pea curry and sometimes even ice, for Surjit was as generous as the Old Lady was penny-pinching and back at the house, she spent the days over the hot hearth preparing the best food she could for her deliverers.
And as they worked the voices of the men rose from the wheat: “Move on, O, brave men. Try to be fast.” “O, these thorny weeds, O, my father, if you put your hand on one, it will make you scream like some scorpion has bitten you.” “This wheat is quite dry.” “With a good sickle it is easy to cut.”
Charan laughed and joked all the time, hovering around the mowers with water or food. That field seems to be water logged. Perhaps Saroop Singh is keeping ponds in his field. Maybe to take a bath when he feels too hot here.” “You must appreciate my arrangements,” laughed Saroop. “Look, I have a real good bathing tank in my field because I know my brother-in-law will be coming. And he may need to take bath after all the hard work.” All the men would laugh, and vie with each other for the audience’s attention. “Once Bawa’s uncle came and showed Bawa his penis,” called Banarsi, “and he asked, ‘What is it, my dear nephew, a dove or a snake?’ Bawa immediately said, ‘O, Uncle, it is a snake but only a very little one.'” “O, shameless creatures,” one of the older men would call, “look at your elders are around and you cut such filthy jokes. Now better you stop this kind of talk.” And the youths laughed and Saroop called, “O, Bawa, today you don’t speak at all. You should have been yelling.”
“Today they have not shown me anything. How can I yell?”
“Come, come to me, I shall show you right here.”
“In the presence of all these men? No. I feel ashamed. Now I’m not a boy without a beard.”
“O, Bawa,” Amarjit joined in from a few rows down. “Our Sardar is a large-hearted man like Charan. You will have everything. He is not a miser. Don’t worry about seeing things. Keep working.”
“Now race with me,” Kapur called to Darshan. “Beware, I’m coming like the wind. Hurry.”
“Come,” shouted Banarsi. “I’m also running like a dust storm if you are the wind.”
And Darshan would start to sing, rocking on his heels as his sickle flashed quickly in the light.
I’m dancing like a peacock
And my bells are jingling
You appear from somewhere, my love
Like a great white pigeon
I’m dancing like a peacock
My love, my bells are jingling
I’m cooing like a female pigeon among the dancers
Come from somewhere like a great white pigeon.
And down the field other, more raucous voices would rise in song:
She rose from the pond
Like the opium pipe’s jet flame
The soldier’s wife presses hard
Against the stone pillar of the temple
That bastard gave me a false two anna coin
After crushing my tail the whole night
“Whose share of the land are we cutting today?” Charan called. “Your sons must provide us with a good feast today.”
“It’s little Bara’s today,” Saroop laughed.
“Ah, he’s in charge of poultry and we must eat up his hens this night. He will find two missing in the morning.”
“Yes, the next share is Pala’s. He’s in charge of the pig. Kaka’s is last. He has the young buffalo.”
“Let’s start with the pig!”
“No. We’ll have a real feast of hens today.”
“O, uncle said, ‘I told you, you would not listen to me, now you must get up and go to Charan.” Banarsi started to sing in a high, squeaky falsetto.
“Wah, wah!” laughed Charan.
“I lay on my charpoy and told uncle, ‘O, my ribs are aching, my spine is aching.'”
“Then what happened?” Charan shouted.
“Then auntie said, ‘Don’t go, dear, don’t go with them to Bhadson.'”
Charan laughed with delight.
“Then Charan came and yelled, ‘Get ready, Banarsi, we are leaving.'”
“So that was the story?”
“So uncle said, ‘You’d better go. Or Charan will be giving me a hard time all year.'”
“Do you not think our Sardar is not marvelous?” old Chanan called.
“They say purchases are always like the purchaser.”
Banta laughed. “They also say that old Chanan’s heart is also marvelous.”
“You have not seen my heart yet,” Charan called. You will know when we have our roast pig.”
And as they neared the end of a field, the men would begin to race, their sickles flashing across the width of the wheat. “Come boys, show your strength!” “Shabash, shaba-a-ash!” “They used repeat God’s name, ‘Ram, Ram, Ram,’ while they cut.” “Don’t slow us down by talking. Just go ahead, quickly.” “Come, come, my dear sickle, you have been prepared by a gypsy woman.” “Beware, Bawa, they should not catch us.” “Hurry, hurry.” “Boys, boys, boysssssah! Shabash!” Shabash, make the parrots fly!”
“Boys, be silent now, don’t use vulgar language. Sister is bringing tea.” And they would move to the shade of a tree and rest.
“We won’t leave,” old Chanan would say as Surgit poured water into his glass, “until Sister says, ‘Now I can’t afford any more food for these men.'”
“I won’t say that ever, Brother,” smiled Surjit. “You can stay here as long as you wish. I won’t run out of food. After all, I am Charan’s sister. I have the same blood running in my veins.”
And the men, exhausted would 1ie down flat on their backs. Always the landscape was the same. The fields faded into the white distance—one saw not the end of them. The bands of reaped wheat, the empty fields of stubble and the patches of wheat still standing, the crows and sparrows flapping their wings over the plain. As the second day replaced the first and then it was the third, the air became even more stagnant from the heat and stillness; submissive nature stupefied into silence. Sometimes there was not a breath of wind, nor a cheering cool sound, nor a cloud so that the hot breeze, stirring the furnace heat, was a relief when it came. And Darshan, heavy with opium the Mazhbis took to get through these hot harvest days, lay in the grass and high above, black dots appeared in the sky and as Darshan followed them with his eyes, the dots became great gliding black birds with outstretched wings. Vultures, he thought, something must have died.
And during the rests under the trees everyone would tell a story. “I have given up smoking for the last thirteen years,” old Chanan would begin. “Before that I used to smoke like mad. I had four hookas, which were really worth seeing. One had a long silver nozzle, about six fingers long. That used to give me a wonderful feeling, smoking that hookah. Apart from it I had a beautiful pipe with a cover, which I used to carry in my pocket. In one pocket of my shirt I would keep that pipe and in the other, a silken bag full of tobacco.”
“He would cover his pipe end put it in his pocket if someone would ask him to lift a bale or something,” Banarsi remembered.
“He is right. Sometimes whenever I used to help someone I would put it upside down on the ground. Help the other man and pick up my pipe and again start smoking. But you know why I gave it up? There’s no other reason. Once I was going to Majri smoking my pipe. A boy on the way asked me to help him lift a bale. I put my pipe upside down on the ground and after helping that boy I went and picked up my pipe and had a real long puff. So it should not go out. But as soon as I puffed I had a terrible cough and could hardly breathe for two minutes. At this, I threw that pipe with all my full strength and left it there in that field. But when I reached home that evening I thought, ‘What is wrong with the pipe? It is not the pipe’s fault.’ So from there I went straight back to the field with a cool mind and found it. ‘Better I should present that real nice beautiful pipe to a friend,’ I thought. So I gave it away. Since then I never smoked again although I did for many long years.” Chanan paused, reminiscing. “O, Bawa, what are you doing with that pail? Have you been to Mangewal, you behave like an idiot?”
“Mangewal is famous for idiots,” said Amarjit, beginning his own story. “They once had two men traveling on a train. One came, he put his suitcase down and after him another man put his suitcase on top. The first man was to get down first and he took the top suitcase. Then the second man noticed and said, ‘Brother, this is my suitcase and the other one is yours.’ The first man replied, ‘Look, brother, there was no other suitcase when I put mine down. So the upper one must be mine.’ The second said, ‘We will decide about the suitcase later but tell me, aren’t you from Mangewal?’ The first was surprised, I will give you my suitcase if you will tell me how you learned the name of my village.’ The second told him, ‘Your actions, dear brother, they were enough.”
And always the conversation wandered back to the boycott in Ghungrali. “It will be settled by the time we reach the village,” the two priests maintained.
Charan was more doubtful. But he said, “It will have to end one day or another. They may reach some compromise or there will be some murders. But ultimately they will have to stop this foolishness.”
Old Chanan sighed, “Now the times have really changed. Twenty years ago Jats wouldn’t drink water from a Harijan’s well. There is still one Jat in our village who does not drink water from the well of a Harijan; he says it is impure.”
“He is a fool,” said Charan seriously. “You know sometimes our laborer brings food to the farm for us from our house. I know the Jat you speak of. He is unhappy about this too. That we should eat food, which is touched by Harijans. He is an idiot. He should come to me one day and I’ll carry some chapatis and tell one of the Harijans to bring another bunch and then bring along a Brahmin priest just to carry a lunch for that Jat. If that fool can tell me looking at these three different lunches who carried which then I’ll agree with him. I don’t see any change of color in the food of a Jat or a Harijan. Human beings are human beings.”
But old Chanan frowned. “No, Sardara, we are not happy now with all this equality.”
“Why?” asked Charan, surprised.
“Why? In olden times after working hard if you sat for some time to take rest, the Jats had to bring water and serve as. But now a Jat will keep sitting and tell some Harijan to bring water. He takes a full rest and the Harijan has to run from here to there. I’ll give you another example. Once I was going to my in-laws and on the way I met a Jat from their village. He gave me a basket of food to carry. Whereas some years ago no Jat would ever think of letting his food be carried by a Harijan. I told that Jat, ‘Nehru is our real enemy. Would you have allowed me to touch that basket of food twenty years ago? Let alone ask me to carry it? But now you think we are equal.’ Damn these new laws. The government thinks they are favoring us. The fools don’t realize they are putting the Harijans under great pressure.”
Old Chanan paused and frowned; shaking his head at the way things had changed in his more than sixty years. “There was once a boycott in Mendipur. It lasted for a year. Once I met a Jat on the road and I asked him, ‘What do you get out of this boycott? I saw you carrying a dead calf to the dumping ground. And I saw two Harijans from your village bring bales of grass from another village, which is insulting to them and insulting to you. Don’t think I’m just a passerby. I’m a Mazhbi from Ghungrali. If you want to talk to me, you can come anytime!'” And old Chanan watched the sky in silence, where a large eagle was soaring and soaring, scanning the earth for victims.
“Have you heard the new thing?” said Bawa. “That some of the Chamars burnt Tara Singh’s effigy and the women beat his likeness with sticks and cried, ‘May he die, may he die.'”
“Who says that?”
“Nonsense,” Charan said with some vehemence. “You know there are troublemakers in our village who have an interest in making gossip out of every little thing.”
“That is true,” said old Chanan. “But if the leaders don’t act sensibly how can the people know what is going on or what should be their attitude?”
Charan laughed. “It is all the fault of that star with the tail. It wanted to show its power and that star has chosen Ghungrali as its victim.”
“Yes,” answered the Mazhbis seriously. “Yes, yes.” “That star was an omen.”
“Today if they treat us well with the pig, they will get the whole of their wheat cut.” Charan grinned. “Now it is up to Saroop Singh. If he feeds us better, he will get all his cutting down. If he doesn’t, he will be cutting himself whatsoever is left after this afternoon.”
“Don’t worry about food,” Saroop said, chuckling. “They are now not your men, Charan, they are mine. Rather they are my guests and I must treat them as guests. They shall have whatever they want to have. This Banarsi is a colorful person.”
“Tell me who is not colorful out of this gang,” Charan laughed. “Everyone has something about him.”
“It may be anybody but I can’t leave anyone with their crop not cut,” old Chanan said. “We’ll finish your job, Saroop Singh.”
As they returned to work, Chanan told Amarjit, “We won’t accept that Purnawallah’s offer of marriage for my son.”
“Why? What is wrong with them?”
“We know what their sister has been doing. She is a whore. She has relations with her own son-in-law. She is the enemy of her own daughter.”
“Is it true?”
“It is known all over. I have no interest in insulting them.”
“You know that Chamar friend of yours didn’t invite me to his son’s marriage,” Darshan said from the next row. “And they had been coming to our house all the time.”
“Never believe the Chamars,” old Chanan advised. “They’re nobody’s friends. Stay with your own caste. Chamars will be your friends if you go on serving them tea, but if you go to their houses and ask for tea, from that day on they’ll not look you straight in the eye,” Chanan was fiercely opposed to the erosion of the caste system.
“Yes,” echoed Darshan. “They are a greedy lot, uncle. Where there is tea, the Chamars are your friends.”
“Darshan took too much opium, called Kapur. “See how slow he cuts.”
“He has a ghost in him.”
“You had that same ghost yesterday.”
“You boys can’t beat Banarsi,” Charan called, “You have to have killed at least two hundred pigs to beat Banarsi. Moreover, you have to have the heart to stab yourself. Banarsi, how many pigs have you killed up to now?”
“Maybe five hundred.”
“And why did you stab yourself?”
“O, some personal thing. I brought an offer of marriage for my brother from my wife’s sister and my parents refused. So I got very drunk. Thank God, that boy, my cousin, was there. We told the police I stumbled on my sickle. Otherwise I would be working for God now and cutting his crops in Heaven.”
“And you used the same dagger for yourself which you used for the pigs?”
“The very same. I wanted to be the five-hundred-and-first.”
In mid-afternoon, the village mistry or carpenter came to sharpen the mowers’ sickles. As was the custom in Punjab, the Mazhbis laughed and made jokes about him since he was from another village. The mistry, a young, slack-jawed and dull-headed man, bent over his work and tried to ignore them.
“O, what is this, Mistry?” Bawa said, after his sickle had been sharpened. “It used to cut before. Now it has almost stopped.”
“Do you think he is here to sharpen our sickles? He wants his half yearly grains from this harvest.”
“He looks a very weak young man. He needs to be sharpened himself.”
“You should help him, Bawa. Put some energy in him.”
“We will if he agrees,” grinned Bawa. “He doesn’t really know how much extra energy these Ghungrali wallahs have. If he needs some he should come at midnight. We all will give him a drop of energy, each one of us.
“Do you have a stomach ache, boy?” the mistry called to Darshan, who had stopped cutting and was resting in the ditch.
“If you have a stomach ache, come with me. I shall set your stomach right. Only you will have to spend a night with an old man in our village. He is a real good doctor. He applies Home Medicine at midnight. Are you ready?”
“I don’t want that medicine,” groaned Darshan. “I have plenty of that kind.”
“O, Mistry, Mistry,” called Kapur. “Come here. I shall show you a bird I found in the field.”
The boys stopped joking as Surjit approached, bringing tea. “Here, Mistry, now you have tea because you have quite a little way to go,” she called.
“Have some tea, Mistryji,” the boys echoed her.”
“No, no, I have to reach home. I must reach home come what may,” the Mistry said and fled the cheering Mazhbis.
“O, Jats, you can’t compare with us,” called Bawa. “Look Kaka is bringing a tiny little bunch of fodder and our man Kapur is carrying a big bale.”
“You know what tricks the neighbors have been playing?” Surjit said, as she poured the Mazhbis tea.
“They are feeling jealous because we are getting our wheat cut and there is no fighting among you.”
“Some Jats come every day since you are here and feel jealous about us,” said Pala. “That we are getting our wheat cut without any trouble.”
“Let them come today,” said Darshan. “They will remember us. Do whatever you like with me if they ever dare come to your house again.”
“What will you do?” Pala asked.
“You see, there was a man in our street. He used to make noise every day. One day I served him tricky tea. Believe me from that day on he never showed his face in our street. Do you know what I did? I put a real big handful of Zarda chewing tobacco in his tea. It made him scream and he could hardly manage himself.”
“Yes, Sister, some people are mean like that,” said Amarjit.
“Brothers,” Surjit said, “everyone around us is jealous because we are finishing so early. You see, this is the first year I’m having as much wheat as all my neighbors. Before people used to graze cattle in our empty fields. Now Pala has sown all this land.”
“So you are really killing a pig?” Amarjit said. “But that pig is of the type that can never be real big. It’s a runt.”
“But,” Surjit smiled, “thanks to all of you, this year we’ll get us a real nice kind of pig. We want to keep one for winter. Maybe a pair might be good.”
“A pair? Then you can have dozens when we come to cut next year.”
When the men returned to work, Charan and Banarsi remained stretched out dozing under the tree, loathe to return to the scorching sun. Charan who was half asleep, muttered, “Banarsi, do one thing or another. Kill the pig or go to work.”
“Yes, yes,” Banarsi rolled over in a drowse. “I’ll cut wheat.”
Charan roused himself with effort, feeling it was important the work in Bhadson end with a big feast. “O, Banarsi, now get up, my dear, get up.”
Banarsi groaned. “You are putting me on heavy duty.”
“Go and boil that drum full of water.”
“Don’t be angry, my master. I’m going to do whatever you want me to do. Is it really important that I should kill the pig?”
“Yes. It is certain. You will do it. Maybe Surjit is boiling water a1ready. You go and take charge.”
“Faster!” “Hurry!” “Shabash!” “We’ll beat them, boys.” the cries rose from the wheat field and by evening al1 the wheat was cut but a single acre, which Saroop said he and his sons could easily finish.
Then, at last, when the sun was about to descend towards the west, and the plain, the fields and the air were no longer suffocating, but took on a tolerable coolness, the Mazhbis carried their sickles to the farmhouse and flopped down on cots strewn about the yard, too exhausted to talk. Old Chanan came last of all, calling, “Boys, give me your sickles. Let us try and collect them all.”
“Here is mine,” said Bawa. “It has a joint on its back that has been mended. Why, brethren, do you want to take bath with cold water or hot?”
“Where is your sickle, boy?”
“I put it in the trunk box of the trolley,” Darshan said.
“O, good, you are the wisest of all.”
The Mazhbis wandered around the yard, stripping off their sweat-soaked shirts and pajamas. Two neighbors, a young Harijan couple with a baby boy, who had helped Surjit prepare the pig, a big vat of spicy gravy and vegetables and a mountain of hot chapatis, were resting on the veranda, drinking tea.
“Oof!” said the young wife. “I can’t make any more chapatis. I have a broken hand today.”
“Why?” said Charan, noticing the girl’s friendly smile as he started taking bottles of liquor out of the house, “What is wrong?”
“Yesterday he beat me and hit me with a sickle.”
The young husband buried his nose in the tea glass.
Charan laughed. “Why did you beat your poor wife, O, donkey?”
“What should I have done?” the husband protested. “Played with her? She wasn’t doing her work.”
“He hit me with a sickle on the ankle,” the young wife grinned.
Charan laughed and went to see to the Mazhbis bath water. Like a genial host, he called, “Now, brothers, I shall get hot water for you. It’s my duty. I’m sorry I didn’t have it ready when you came. Now light the fire and heat a drum of water. All right, brothers.”
“O, Charan,” called Amarjit. “What will we say to the 13-member committee when we get home tonight. They will say, ‘You are running about in other villages and here we are short of men. Instead of bringing in other willing men from outside, you are taking them away.'”
“That Charan will have to explain, not us,” said Chanan. “We will tell them to ask Charan Singh who took us out.”
“Ho, ho, don’t worry. Wahiguru Ji! God is great!” Charan laughed. “It will be all right.”
“The fire is coming out of the pit.”
“Sprinkle some water if it tries to come out?”
“Where is that oil we used last night?”
“Now shall I take bath here at the pump?”
“I’m just finishing. You can follow me. All right?”
As the Mazhbis stripped down to a towel and poured hot water over themselves, wiping themselves down with their hands and then rubbing oil over their aching muscles, Charan poured drinks for old Chanan and Banta.
“Listen to me,” said Banta, who was on his second glass, “Charan treats me like a father. It is a high honor to me. I’m a poor man and he is our master. But the way he treats us, it is more than enough.”
“Charan, you’re one of the finest men in the world,” old Chanan told him in a serious tone.”
“You know Surgit drinks but not his brother, Amarjit,” said Bawa, wandering over, his face and shoulders glistening with oil and water and waiting to dry. “O, Bawa, you are a naughty boy,” Banarsi called as Charan poured Bawa a big glass of liquor. “Be sober and enjoy your life.”
Bawa downed the glass in one gulp and held it out again for some water.
“We are here because of Charan’s good tongue,” said Amarjit, joining them. “The way he treats us we can sacrifice our lives for him. He is a gem of a person.”
“It is like Hazur Sahib, that famous Gurdwara in Maharashtra where work is worshiped. Everyone serves best according to his will,” Charan said, pouring more drinks.
“Yes,” said Amarjit, stroking his long beard. “It is like Hazur Sahib. Where men work there is God. Our Guru respected work and we are all laboring men.”
“Is the moon rising?”
“Yes, it is rising. How red it is tonight.”
“Brothers,” said Surjit passing around dishes of curry, “you have cut my wheat. I have depended on you so much. Here, I’ll bring some pickled chilies.”
“Where are all the sickles?” someone called.
“Don’t worry,” answered Charan, “you will have each and every sickle. If one is missing you will get new ones from me. You know, brothers, I have seen many ahwats in my life,” using the word Punjabis have for describing wheat cutting done by friends or relations in return for an evening feast, “but I have never seen an ahwat like this. We’ve been three days without a fight.”
“Yes, these boys are all real good workers,” old Chanan said. “No one has run off to answer the call of nature all the time or made other excuses. There is an ahwat in the fields over there today. They are simply yelling and drinking. It may be they are not working at all.”
“Ah, those,” said Surjit. “I don’t want them to cast their eyes on all this pork we are cooking. They are jea1ous and might cast their evil eyes upon it. O, Brother, I have seen bad days here but now we have a fine wheat harvest thanks to you.”
Charan poured another round and still another, with great roars of laughter. Saroop had brewed twenty-five bottles of liquor from brown sugar, a brew which numbed the brains of those who drank it, just as if they were suffering from concussion. And now the Mazhbis sat around in a great circle around Charan, drunk, exhausted, satiated and looking as rascally as any Romans at a bacchanalia, especially some of the younger ones who had not yet wrapped their clean turbans on but sat around with their wet, uncombed hair and wrapped in shawls like togas.
Charan was drunk now and he leapt up and with a great roar of laughter cried, “I’m at your disposal now, my beloved ones. Now you will have a pig. We won’t serve it in plates. We’ll put it on the big platter and put it here in the middle of all of us.” And Surjit brought a large white blanket and spread it on the ground before them and the men left the cots and settled down in a circle on the cloth, sitting cross-legged or legs sprawled out every which way, with the row of bottles before them. It was dark now; as the fire flickered on their faces there were only the fields and the star-filled sky around them and the sound of birds waking each other from sleep and the croaking of angry frogs.
“Now let me serve my friends,” Charan cried, and suddenly, in the faces of the Mazhbis, in the whisper of the birds and the frogs, in the flickering firelight from the hearth, in the deep blue sky and the rising red moon, was discernible to Charan a great beauty, youth, vitality, revival of strength and a thirst to live. “Drink up,” he shouted, “enjoy, for we live only once!” And Charan waved his bottle drunkenly and so bursting with laughter water came into his eyes, he cried, “I’m not only happy, but super happy! Happiest of all the world! If you want me to show my happiness I can jump up to the sky.”
Surjit called, “Charan, brother, some Jats have come to see you.”
“He can’t go.” “No, no.” “He must feed us.” “We won’t let him go,” the Mahzbis shouted and Charan stayed as Pala brought more bottles. “Here,” cried Charan. “Have you ever seen so many bottles? These are young ones of the last. Who wants more?”
“Those dogs are looking,” Surjit said in a whisper, as the Jats stood at the edge of the yard before going. “They’ll have heart failure if they see our big kettle of pork. How they are looking with their big eyes.”
Just then Pala came, straining under a huge platter of pork and gravy, which he set in their midst. “Do like this,” Pala called. “Come and take whatever you want. Go, mother, and bring chapattis,” and the Mazhbis fell to eating like birds of prey, leering and seizing and stuffing down as fast as each could, for few of them had meat but three or four times a year. After eating, many sat as if paralyzed, from the food and liquor, with foolishly happy expressions on their faces.
Pala rose and in a load voice declared, “Brothers, you have worked hard and done everything for us. I’m too glad. If I did something wrong I think you will excuse me. I’m a poor man. I did to the best of my ability and reach. I think what I served was very poor food. If I’m guilty, please pardon me.” Some of the men cheered, others just grinned and Banarsi spilt his drink, then rolled his eyes at Bawa next to him as if he had done it.
“So, let us start for Ghungrali,” said Amarjit, who was sober. And the Mazhbis scrambled around in the darkness searching for their possessions while Charan started the tractor.
“Where is uncle’s bag?”
“What have you to do with uncle’s bag? Are there some sweets in it? Just go ahead and get yourself in the trolley.”
“Now, boys, are you ready?”
“The food was real good,” cried Banarsi, “Believe it or not my belly is so full a wheat field may start growing up by the time we reach Ghungrali. People will say there that we have wheat fields in our bellies. Wah, brother, wah!”
“Yes, all set. No, I’m missing my blanket somewhere. It was just here. Who has taken my blanket, boys? Speak out.”
“O, your charpoy has eaten up your blanket.”
“Fool. Drink says the blanket is missing when it is right before your eyes. You are sitting on it. Open your eyes and see things clearly.”
“O, yes, uncle, here it is. I have it.”
“Boys, bring some fresh hay to sleep on.”
“Pala, run to the cane field and bring some dry hay.”
“Go. Bawa, Kapur, Darshan. Help him.”
Charan asked Surjit if they shouldn’t stay on to finish the last acre in the morning. The drink had made him drowsy.
“No, no, brother, we are grateful for this big help you have done for us but you shouldn’t delay these men,” she protested. “First, they are eager to return to their homes and secondly we haven’t enough milk for tea in the morning. We have run out of flour and butter and I had to borrow four kilos of flour from the neighbors for this evening too. Now it is all fine. Everyone is happy and has a good feeling and everything. So you should go.”
“All right, as you wish, Sister. I was only thinking it might be good if we finished that acre.”
“No, no, we can do that ourselves. You follow my advice now, Charan.”
“All right. I’ll tell everyone we’re off.”
“Now tell us if you want to keep us for another day,” Banta called drunkenly from the trolley. “Maybe for two more days. Don’t say later that we ran off to the village.”
Charan started the tractor engine with a roar. In the darkness, someone stepped back on a covered basket lying on the ground. “O, who has done it?” cried Surjit, wearied and confused. “O, God forgive me. Someone has crushed these poor little things.”
“O, God, what a mess someone has made,” Amarjit called from the trolley. “Tell me why can’t they see things.” There were baby chicks in it. “Forget it, brother,” cried Surjit, recovering. “Only two are lost. It was an accident. What has happened has happened.”
“Is everyone in the trolley,” Charan shouted from the driver’s seat. “We are leaving for Ghungrali now.”
Pala and Saroop walked around the trolley, shaking the hands of all the Mazhbis and Surjit came running to give each a piece of brown sugar, a gesture of good will in the Punjab, calling, “Here brothers, take this and sweeten your mouths. Godspeed on the journey home.”
“Is everybody ready? Shall we move?” Charan called. “Count our men, Amarjit.”
“Move now. Everyone is here.” As the family called goodbye and stood waving, Amarjit said, “A Jaikara, I’ll yell a religious cry,” and his voice shouted out into the night:
“Jo Bole so nihal! The Sikhs shall rule!”
And everyone roared back, “Sat Sri Akal!”
“Jo bole so nihal!”
“Sat Sri Akal!”
But the boycott had not ended as they had hoped. When they reached Ghungrali they learned some of the Jats and Harijans had met under the banyan tree two days before and had agreed to settle their quarrel when One-Eye and Nirmal had approached.
“What is this mischief?” One-Eye cried. “Who has called this meeting? Why this discussion?”
Among the Harijans, Gurdial had been sitting silently and it was Mukhtar who answered the one-eyed man. “We wanted to settle this thing. So we are having a discussion.”
“That is what we want too,” hissed One-Eye. “But you’ve never come to our terms.”
Nirmal joined in. “Why are you talking about a settlement when we are bringing men from outside.”
“No,” said Mukhtar. “Call the other Jats. We have just about settled everything. If you don’t open the boycott now, it may go on forever. Let us into your fields and we will consider the boycott issue over. Some of the Harijan families are badly hurting for fodder.”
“No, no!” One-Eye turned wrathfully on Bhapur Singh, a young Jat, who along with Dhakel, old Pritam and several others had been involved in the discussion. “Who called this meeting?” he demanded, in a threatening tone.
“No one,” said Bhapur Singh. “It wasn’t arranged. Some Harijans were passing. We called to them. They said they wanted to reach an agreement with the Jats. We said we badly needed their help in the harvest.”
“Come aside,” said One-Eye, taking the Jats apart from the Harijans. “Look, you, don’t seek an agreement. That is the work of the 13-member committee. You tell the Harijans if they want they can call a meeting in the village and invite the committee. Or I will.” One-Eye turned back to Mukhtar, Gurdial and the other Harijans under the banyan tree. “Now you call a meeting if you want to discuss a settlement” he called, “and we’ll come. You make your demands and we’ll discuss them.” Then he hissed to young Bhapur Singh, “We’re keeping an eye on you,” and stamped off, with Nirmal in tow. “I think that was some sort of mischief,” he told him as they moved away. “There are some who want to prove to the Harijans they are nice, for political reasons. Like the Sarpanch. But we keep a strong eye on them. I’ll show them. No Harijan’s family will even glean in my fields. I’ll leave the grain to the sparrows. You notice Gurdial Singh didn’t speak a word. He looked kind of exhausted. He feels if the boycott goes on and on he’ll be elected sarpanch.”
“If the boycott’s over,” One-Eye went on, “we have no objection, provided everything is decided in detail, daily wages, threshing charges, cutting charges, even food. And that’s up to the committee. Don’t worry. Basant Singh is with us. He’ll always stand with the Jats. You know, if anyone goes so low as to curse fifty others and praise him, saying you are a real gem of a person, Basantji, he may help you. But really he doesn’t need help from anybody, even for money. He is very fond of praise, though.” One-Eye stumbled and cursed the earth. He went on in his sickly, sweet voice; “We must watch those two, Mukhtar from the Harijan side and the Sarpanch from the Jat side. They want an immediate settlement and no more fussing. That Bhapur Singh just wants to earn good will from both sides. We must be careful not to let these Jats and Harijans loose from our fingers.”
The morning after his return to Ghungrali, Charan went to the fields of the Sarpanch, where he had been invited to take part in an ahwat or a day’s voluntary harvesting by friends and relatives as was the Punjabi custom. Except for Basant Singh, no one in the village had been able to get a cutting machine as Charan’s father had, and as the wheat dried and hot winds blew in from the deserts of Rajasthan, the situation of many Jats was getting critical. Many, like the Sarpanch and his brothers, had appealed to all their relatives and that day many of his in-laws had come from two nearby villages, bringing with them their sons and laborers to cut the Sarpanch’s wheat.
As Charan approached the Sarpanch’s well, he found his uncle, Sarvan, talking to One-Eye, whose own small holding neighbored his friend’s land.
“Are you cutting here today?” Sarvan was asking the one-eyed man.
“They didn’t invite me,” One-Eye hissed. “Don’t ask so many questions before you offer me a glass of tea.”
“Have you brought no more men from outside” old Sarvan asked querulously. “I need some badly.” Although a member of the 13-man committee, Charan’s uncle had been pushed into the background.
Seeing Charan, One-Eye drew him aside and said in a low voice, “Charan, now we’ll have to talk to you. We have an objection.”
“What objection?” Charan’s voice was hard since he had been expecting such an attack. “Bhadson is my second farm.”
“O, I don’t say anything,” One-Eye whined, “but your own friends are objecting too much.”
“Bring those friends of mine to me. Let them talk to me straight.” Charan rose to his full height, towering over the one-eyed man. “Don’t convey messages in that sneaky manner. You say whatever you have to say to me. I’ll answer your questions.”
“No, no.” One-Eye’s voice rose to a high whine. “I don’t say anything. I was just telling you the truth. Your own best friends are talking against you.”
“You forget about them,” Charan’s voice was harsh. “They should come and talk to me straight. Don’t try to play the messenger and try to give an evil twist to their words. Now you come out with whatever you want to say, Mohinder.”
“No, no, Charan, I don’t have any objection. I even don’t know where you were. I was not here in the village.”
“Then shut up, keep your mouth quiet! Don’t always make things worse and stir up trouble. Do you think my sister’s farm is not my responsibility?”
One-Eye was groveling now. “Now, Maharaj ji, don’t shout so at me. I fold my hands before you. I didn’t mean anything.”
“All right. Go your way. But never again try to twist things around. You will make us quarrel. All of us are friends and we respect you as a Jat, that is all.”
As One-Eye hurried down the road to his fields, shaken by the encounter, the father of the Sarpanch, an elderly grey-whiskered man, came up and shook his hand. “It is good, my son, you are here. We don’t need anything except your presence. You go and sit under the shade of a tree on a charpoy. But be here.”
“Don’t worry, uncle,” Charan smiled. “I’ll be here all day. I can’t cut because of my chest but I’ll serve as waterman.”
“No, we have others for such jobs. You just be here, that’s all.”
“Uncle, it is my duty to be here. Tell me anything you want me to do. Don’t hesitate.”
Just then Nirmal approached. “So you are back, Charan,” he called, in an accusing manner. “Here people are bringing men from outside and here you are taking our men to other villages.”
“O, listen to me,” Charan said impatiently. “That is not just some other village. That is my own farm in a way. You know I ploughed those fields, I sowed them and now it was my duty to reap the wheat. Now tell me, did I do wrong? Are you all mad here in Ghungrali? Whosoever asks me, ‘Why did you take men to Bhadson?’ will get the same answer. Just now your great Mohinder was asking the same thing. I have satisfied him.”
“Now, Charan,” said Nirmal in a placating voice, “you fly out of your c1othes in a minute. We are just talking. You know everyone is coming to us and asking for more men. After all, we have to satisfy every one of the Jats. The day before yesterday we managed to get about thirty men at the station. Served them tea also. In the meantime two Jats from some other village came. They offered them extra tips and free cigarettes and food and tea four times a day. We were furious with those Jats and One-Eye started yelling at them. When the bhaiyas heard us quarrelling, all of them disappeared somewhere. So that is the labor position over here. I wish I’d never heard the word, ‘boycott.’ Now for the last three days there is a great rush. Everyone rushing at us and asking for men, men, men. Tell me, what should we do? We have a limited amount of men and the demand is ten, twenty times more.”
Charan’s voice was again harsh. “Yes, yes. I know that. You people should better appreciate me. I don t ask you to give me men. I arranged my Mazhbis with my personal effort. Now, look, I’ll be needing men if father comes with the threshing machine tomorrow. You can’t give me any assurance. What right have you got to tell me I can’t take men outside this village?”
“O, you are really terrible,” groaned Nirmal. “I didn’t mean anything except I heard you took men to Sister’s.”
“They were eleven. All of them Mazhabis. I took them on lavi. I told them before leaving that they will get the same amount from my sister as they got from me. Moreover, Bhadson is my own farm—my second farm.
“No, all right. You did the right thing. It is your duty to help Sister. You have done good. Good. Be a happy man. Enjoy your life.”
“You know that Mohinder came to me and told me that my own friends were critical. I knew what he meant. He was trying to stir up trouble between us.”
“Leave him, Charan. Who doesn’t know him? He is that way. He must make everyone quarrel. That is his strategy.”
“I pressed him hard. Now he won’t dare to talk with me and say own friends are making things worse for me. I told him to either produce such friends or keep his mouth shut.”
“You did well. He deserves that kind of treatment. He has made many good friends into enemies. I don’t understand. What does he gain by that sort of gossip?”
“It is his way,” Charan said. “He is an evil soul. You know the saying, ‘A one-eyed man is always dangerous. Charan laughed and then Nirmal joined him and suddenly the two of them were laughing and shaking hands and slapping each other on the back as if they had heard the funniest joke in the world.
Just then the Sarpanch appeared, saying, “No, Charan, I won’t shake hands with you.
“Because you are working here and too sacred. We’ll feed you good.”
“O, don’t insult me. It won’t be the first time I’ve eaten good, my mother used to feed me the whole day until I was three. You can still see her udders,” Charan gave a huge laugh.
“Have you noticed before?” The Sarpanch joined in laughing. “Even today they have no milking buffalo. They make tea out of her own milk; she is a real twenty-four hour queen.”
“It’s true,” roared Charan. “She’s not like your mother, who’s as small as a goat. She could hardly feed a baby sparrow. Here just see my body though it is half what it used to be. Even then I’m as big as any two of you. It’s all because one old woman had pails of milk.” And Nirmal joined in and the three friends laughed and laughed and spent the rest of the day helping to harvest the Sarpanch’s crop and getting very drunk together that evening.
And One-Eye, cutting wheat in the weed patch that passed for his fields, watched the three friends enjoy themselves and told his laborer, “That Charan and his father are real crooks. They’ll try to eat up Charan’s sister’s land in drinking. Ah. What have they done to that poor girl, and now they want that she should depend on them for everything. They have played tricks on her and m1sused her property. For years Charan and his father have been taking money from that farm of hers and using it to buy drink.” One-Eye sighed and removing his glass eye so only a dark emptiness remained, looked at his sharecropper with something of a virtuous and pious expression. “But why should we talk? It is their own folly.”
And across the village, and beyond to the fields of Bhambadi on the other side, Mukhtar and two other Chamars, buried in a sea of wheat, are mowing wheat, their sickles flashing, their shirts wet with grime and dust and their faces burnt and glowing in the hot wind. It is the field of a Hindu Pandit from Bhambadi and the three of them have taken a contract for 68 kilos of grain per acre after threshing, more than they had ever gotten in Ghungrali.
“We had just about reached a settlement the other day when those two troublemakers arrived,” Mukhtar was telling them. It was the second farm in Bhambadi where he worked. At the first a Jat from Ghungrali had come and threatened to jump in their employer’s well if he didn’t send them away. Now the Bhambadi Jat came and apologized every day since he hadn’t been able to hire anyone else and Mukhtar and the two others would cut his fields afterward. As the best reapers in Ghuagrali, they were in great demand.
“What will you do if the boycott goes on, Mukhtar?” one of the Chamars, a man named Uttam asked.
“I don’t know. I’m thinking of going to a town and trying to get a job as a daily laborer in a factory. But I’m hopeful the boycott won’t linger on many days more. One thing is certain. The government gives help to Harijans and I shall try my best to give my son a good education. Like my parents were in favor of my studying as long as I pleased, but you know I had to abandon studies and come back because I couldn’t pick up the English language. I was very poor. [Note: Mukhtar had completed nine years of schooling which made him one of the best educated Harijans]. But I’m determined my son should not follow in my footsteps. My children will not become sharecroppers or daily laborers. I’m sure of one thing, no matter what happens. My children will not work for Jats. They may be electricians, factory workers or mechanics even if they don’t become educated gentlemen, but I will never let them work for the Jats. Never.”
“This wind is nasty. It spoils everything. You can’t work with high speed.”
“No. I’ll try to make my son a real gentleman, well educated and well fixed in life. What I couldn’t be, I’ll make my son that.”
“Eeee, this wind.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Mukhtar said, working with a steady rhythm as he grasped the stalks with his left hand and slashed at them with his sickle in his right hand. “Now here we are not under any binding or anything. We are masters of our own will. If the wind doesn’t stop we will take rest until it does.”
“It won’t stop so soon once it starts,” said Uttam.
“Very well, we shall be working and try to do our best. Maybe God will hear us and be kind enough to end the wind.”
For a time they worked in silence, then the third man said to Mukhtar, “Your Charan never came into this boycott trouble. He has always played a good role. He still wants both parties to reach some settlement.”
“You can’t find a man like Charan for ten miles around,” said Mukhtar, with surprising heat. “He is always for the poor. He says, ‘What is wrong if these poor people earn some grain? They are also like us Jats. They are human beings. They also want to share in the village’s prosperity.'”
“Basant Singh is always for himself,” said the muscular Uttam. “He doesn’t care at all what effect his doings have on the village. He only knows his personal business should flourish. Now his combine has been taken away by the other party after cutting eight acres only.”
“Serves the bastard right.”
“Now he has hired fifty men from U.P. at four rupees a day.”
“That is less than one-fourth what Charan is giving the Mazhbis,” Mukhtar said.
“As they say, ‘Money makes the mare go,'” said the third man cheerfully. “It is true with Basant Singh. He is not concerned with anyone except his own little family.”
“We could have reached a settlement long ago if it wasn’t for him and that Mohinder and Nirmal. They want to play their own little game. They are really nasty fellows.”
Just then an old man of extreme age came up beating on an old battered drum. “Jai Ho, Sardarji ji,” the old man, who resembled rather a walking, white-whiskered scarecrow, greeted them. “You may have victory, Sardars. Your roots may go deeper and deeper. You may have battalions of sons.”
“Old Uncle,” Mukhtar shouted to him, “This is not our land. We are just Chamar laborers. The master of this wheat is in the village.”
“O, don’t worry. Never mind,” the old man sighed. “It is all right. May you have success in your work, brothers.” And he stayed and beat on his drum for a long time. After some time, Mukhtar called to Uttam, “Charan is a man of silver.”
“I always heard he was a drunkard and abused his workers,” the other replied.
“Yes, he drinks and curses both,” Mukhtar agreed. “But he is also a man who is always true. He stands for the right thing and disagrees when there is injustice and for that you cannot find a better man in ten, nay, fifty miles around.”
Then Mukhtar fell silent, cutting the wheat with his sickle and thinking. And he thought, not of his work but only of the boycott and those who were responsible for it. His thoughts were bitter, cruel end angry. He passed sentence not only on Basant Singh, Nirmal, One-Eye and Gurdial, but on Charan, Dhakel, old Pritam and all the ordinary, decent folk of the village who let themselves be manipulated by the others. For without them, were not the troublemakers nothing? For two days he had such thoughts, and gradually he began to feel contempt for them and sorrow for them in his anger. And so, when he and Uttam met Charan one day on the road his words were unexpectedly harsh.
“Listen, Little One,” Charan called from his bullock cart, “the cutting is almost over. It is better if you reach some settlement and come back to work for me on daily wages.”
“We are trying to settle,” said Mukhtar as they came abreast.
“Then what is wrong?” Charan asked. “This dispute was over cutting wheat on the thirtieth bale and now cutting is almost over. If you quietly start working for people on daily wages, everything will be all right.”
“Will it?” Mukhtar asked in his harsh new voice. “Will it be all right then, Charan?”
“Are you mad? If you want that someone should come to you and beg forgiveness and ask if you are ready to work for me than I shall come this evening. If that is all, I shall come and ask you.”
“No, Charan,” said Mukhtar. “If that was all there would never have been any trouble.”
“That’s what I mean. That now we should end all this nonsense. It has been more than enough now on both sides. What has happened has happened. I mean, there shouldn’t be any more trouble.”
“Look around you,” an anger growing inside him, Mukhtar’s voice rose. “Look around you; do you think it doesn’t hurt us to see the crops of our village shattering in the fields? Do you think it will be all over if only everyone apologizes to everyone? Do you think this village will ever go back to what it was or Basant Singh or that one-eyed person will let it, or if not them, others? Do you think the Harijans can ever again trust the Jats in this village to always give them the right to gather fodder for their cattle undisturbed? Do you really think that any Chamar will ever trust his future in the hands of the Jats, Charan? Do you? Can we go back?” And Mukhtar’s voice had risen to such a pitch that Uttam tagged on his shoulder and said, “Let’s go, Little One.” And as they moved down the road Mukhtar was angry, with such an anger as he had never known. Time would pass, and the trouble in the village, but Mukhtar’s anger perhaps will not pass, but remain in his mind all his life long.
Charan stared after them, speechless. Of all the villagers, Mukhtar was perhaps the best farmer, although at twenty-three, he was young enough to be Charan’s son; and Charan knew he had such a skill and knowledge of the land as his own sons would never have. And Charan stared after them a long time, numbed by the knowledge that Mukhtar was right.
In the lives of all men, there are times for pausing, reflecting and taking stock. And this Charan did until the threshing machine arrived, spending the days at his well, cutting fodder, preparing the threshing ground, working alone and, in the afternoons when the hot winds rose to a furnace heat and the sky was gray with flying dust, he dozed and thought and thought, lying on a charpoy in the pump house, his only companions two sparrows who had made a nest in a water pail and flew in and out the open window, feeding their young. And Charan reconciled himself and added his missed opportunity to break the boycott to all his other follies and failures.
And then the threshing began and he was busy again.
Between three and four o’clock in the afternoon.
Charan had just fallen asleep. The door of the pump house burst open and Scooter, breathless and gasping, shouted at him, “I didn’t believe it! But I saw them, I saw them! By God, I have seen with my own eyes!”
“Stop shouting,” moaned Charan from his sleep. “Go and cut fodder.”
“I have seen with my own eyes. Different kinds of stones flying through the air. They say it is the ghosts of the Moslems. No, no, Sardarji. They came and told me my brother-in-law had a spirit in him. He doesn’t speak. He was just lying there. And when I came out of his house the stones started flying. Perhaps it is a genii.”
“O, leave it. You ere just making gossip.”
“You won’t believe it, I know. But I have seen those stones flying through the air like the wind.”
“Nonsense. Go do your work.” Charan yawned and turned over, mumbling, “Yes, yes, you always see.”
“By God, I have seen them with my own eyes.” Scooter wandered off, muttering incoherently to himself. “I didn’t believe it myself. But now! It is a genii or a ghost.”
Charan rolled over, trying to doze off again. For some days tales of ghosts and flying stones had been sweeping the village. Almost no one had been hit, but since all the incidents took place in the Chamar quarter of the village there was uneasiness this new mystery was somehow tied to the boycott. Charan didn’t sleep, however, because almost immediately there was the sound of an approaching tractor; Sadhu Singh was arriving with the threshing machine.
The old man always came through. Charan marveled how his father did it. He remembered once Sadhu Singh had been waiting in Bija for a bus dressed in khadi or cotton homespun, popular during the days of Nehru when the Congress party was in its zenith. The bus had been full and the conductor rang for it to move on when the driver saw Sadhu Singh standing outside end said, “Haven’t you noticed that old man had nine yards of khadi wrapped around him? He could get us fired. He is a khadi prasad. They could stop this run if we don’t pick him up.” From that day on Sadhu Singh wore khadi for many years; then when the Sikh Akali party took over the state government, the first thing the old man did was scramble around to find a suitable dark blue turban, the party’s emblem. He no longer wore homespun; Gandhi and the Congress party no longer possessing the old luster in the Punjab.
There was an argument outside and Charan roused himself. Two mechanics were unloading the threshing machine, a grey iron drummy, and Sadhu Singh and a government agricultural officer were standing by, offering advice.
“What the hell?” Sadhu Singh sputtered angrily. “Your man, this mechanic here, says it won’t work.”
“We forgot to bring the pulley. One costs twenty-five rupees.”
“Don’t worry,” huffed the old man. “We are not weavers. We can buy ten pulleys if need be. Maybe if it costs us a hundred rupees. It doesn’t matter. We like to offer our services to test out all these new machines for the government. It is our civic duty. Mr. Verma was experimenting with his new reaper here this year. No one else would allow Verma to test it on his farm. I told him, ‘Vermaji, you just bring your machine for testing. My farm is available to you.'”
“That machine is a failure,” the government man said. “No farmers are using. If the irrigation bunds are high, it can’t cross them.”
“My good man, we have the right size bunds. We were preparing for that test the last six months. Some persons can’t afford to bay pulleys. But we can have dozens if you like.”
“Did you buy this tractor for 13,800 rupees?”
The old man laughed in a jolly roar and slapped the government official on the back. “Yes, you know everything. Ho, ho, ho.”
Charan brought out the pail of baby sparrows to show the men. Sadhu Singh glanced at it without interest.
“I’ve heard the university has a great big thresher this year,” said the government official, a slight, weary-looking Hindu.
“O,” Sadhu Singh’s interest perked up. “Have you seen it yourself?”
“No. I only heard about it.”
“Now,” said the old man, authoritatively. “Will this go? Will it run?”
“Yes, it is fine, father,” Charan said, helping the mechanics.
“Ah, tell me,” Sadhu Singh asked one of the mechanics. “What are those rings?”
“It’s inside the bearing. So it stays tight when it’s working.”
“O, yes, I see. Sadhu Singh leaned over the machine, pushing this and that, and getting in the way of the workingmen. “Now, sir, tell me, what is that?”
“Please sir,” said one of the mechanics. “You won’t understand. It is very complicated. You will have it going. Just stay out of the way.”
“Ooop! You are very hot, boy.”
“No, sir. You’re interfering in something you know nothing about.”
The old man became alarmed the mechanics might not fix the machine properly. “O, alright, my son,” he chuckled amiably, “do as you like. I was just curious whether you were having any difficulty in getting it to work.”
“Let’s see your pulley. It’s twelve inches. Look, Charan, you fix it like this, not like that,” said the other mechanic.
“Yes, yes, you are a real mechanic,” chortled Sadhu Singh, casting a withering glance at the other. “Tell me, who takes such an interest as this man? Ho, ho, ho.”
“Where do you get your tractor serviced?” the government man asked.
“Agro-Industries.” Then, Sadhu, feeling as a good farmer he should add something more, pulled a figure out of his head. “They charge twenty rupees.”
“O, they’re cheating you. The general rate all over is twelve rupees.”
“Err, err,” and the old man looked indignant and imposing. “Then you enquire sir. Maybe they’re over overcharging us.”
Charan kept silent, holding back a smile but he was relieved when his father went off with the men for tea in the village; it was always risky when Sadhu Singh played his good farmer bit.
Threshing began the next day and again Charan was ahead of the whole village. The Mazhbis, who had been cutting the wheat of other Jats, returned, and old Chanan, Darshan, Kapur and Amarjit first used hoes to cut away the stubble at the threshing ground and then swept the bare dirt clean with cotton stick brushes. Charan brought the bullock cart to the fields and put the iron drummy on it while old Chanan erected a curtain of jute bags sewed together to prevent the chaff dust from blowing back on the two men who would feed grain into the drummy’s steel hammers. The other Mazhbis brought bales from the fields, stacking them in an enormous pile and finally they were ready to begin.
Charan climbed on the tractor and started the engine, with a shout, “Wahi Guru Ji! God is Great!” and he put the tractor into gear, the belt began turning on its pulley and with a loud roar the hammers inside the drummy began to beat and old Chanan and Darshan, working side by side, began pushing in the reaped wheat. On the other side of the machine, Sher, who had finally decided to abandon the Chamars and had joined the rest of the Mazhbis, stood with a wooden fork; he tossed the grain and chaff that came out of the machine into the air to further separate them. Amarjit did the final winnowing by tossing smaller amounts up in a wooden scoop. And gradually two great heaps began to form, one larger and white as mother-of-pearl, and the other, smaller and a milky, light-brown, Charan’s wheat harvest.
And because of the deafening din of the drummy, no one spoke while at work but thought among themselves and during rests for tea and lunch, gossiped and joked as the Mazhbis always did.
And always the talk would center on the boycott.
“Last year some cut on the 30th bale,” old Chanan said, “but it was difficult. If one person can make just thirty bales and take one, it would work. But one person can’t do that by himself. Perhaps a strong man can for two days but on the third day he’s exhausted. The wheat Charan is giving us each day is worth sixteen to twenty rupees. Some Jats want us to take only ten rupees a day in cash.”
“Basant Singh is only paying those U.P. wallahs four rupees a day, I heard.”
“The machine is well set,” old Chanan went on. “At this time the wind is from the east, but we don’t know what God has planned for the rest of the day.”
“Yesterday the wind blew from every direction.”
“Bahadur Singh is angry with me,” said Chanan.
“He’s also angry with me,” said Sher. “He says we don’t help him. He had forgotten how much we helped him before.” Sher turned to Charan. “Now, Sardar, you were the best man as you got your wheat cut first. But you see we are at a loss working for you at threshing. You know now we have to ask someone for a bullock cart to collect our bales. Some are lying somewhere and the rest lying somewhere else.”
“You’ll get my bullock cart right away.”
“You know my father has been working in your barn the last five years. No one can say we’ve done anything wrong or dishonest.”
“No one would say that,” said Charan.
“But you know I asked Amar Singh for some ten kilos of corn. He said, ‘We feed you and you work for someone else.'”
“That’s bad. He should not have said that.”
“There is much ill will in the village,” sighed old Chanan. “You know what the Chamars say? They say, ‘We were not used to going out of our village. But now we are used to it. Now we don’t care even if the Jats don’t open their boycott for ten years. We don’t give a damn for the Jats.'”
“Who says that?” Charan asked.
“If you had boycotted me and ordered me to stay out of your fields, Charan, I would be saying the same thing,” old Chanan told him. “You know Tara Singh used to say, ‘Now we will set the Chamars right.’ But if this trouble goes on, nobody will even be cleaning the Jats’ barns.”
“How can we afford to make the wives of the Jats clean them?” grinned Sher. “Now we don’t even let them touch even a spot where there is a little dirt. You know we Mazhbis always pray for the best, for the Jats’ cattle.”
“Why not?” said the old man. “It is true. We always pray for their cattle. If they have no cattle, they will not ask us to clean their barns.”
“I heard that Fateh Singh broke his electric fan with a stick,” Sher went on.
“Why? He was against an ahwat his sons invited to cut their wheat. Fateh Singh said, ‘I wanted my sons to reap themselves since they were in favor of this fool boycott. Let them enjoy the taste of the boycott and work for a change. Why do we need this bloody ahwat?’ And so he took a stick and smashed the fan in front of his sons.”
“You know Bapu’s family were looking at us when we were coming here,” said Kapur, Chanan’s son. “They were looking at us with their full eyes wide open. They are having to cut their wheat themselves and looked exhausted.”
“You know, Charan,” old Chanan said, “we did well to go to Bhadson. Otherwise your sister could never have managed.”
“Yes, it was a real success,” Charan shouted across to Suka, who was beating the bullocks with a stick. “Stop that! O, don’t you see what you are doing? You are a Jat’s son, not a weaver. Why can’t you handle bullocks?”
“Hush, Charan,” said the old man, alarmed by Charan’s anger. “He is a child.”
“Child? When I was of his age, I used to support the whole family as a laborer in the fields. You say he is a child. Well, let’s go back to work, men.”
“Charan has been generous to us,” old Chanan told Sher as they walked back to the thresher.
“Everyone has to be more generous than before,” said the younger man.
“You see, when we went to that jailbird, Kaka Singh the Bandit, he told us frankly, ‘Listen boys, here lies my wheat before you. Take whatever you want, use your hands with generosity but I don’t want to hear from one Jat in the village that I am a miser to laborers. It is a question of my honor and self-respect. Now tell me frankly how big bales you want. You are allowed to take that. The worst thing would be if I heard anyone in the village saying I was unjust to the Harijans. Take as much wheat as you want.’ And you know, he was in a way giving us a big honor. That didn’t mean we should start looting the poor man. Whatever was right we took and he always came forward to put two more sheaves on every bale we made for ourselves.”
“That was the reason he could get men from us,” said Sher. “Why? Because he was generous and decent with us and in return we did our best for him. Charan is cut from that cloth also.”
When they reached the threshing ground, old Chanan asked Charan, “Is the combine coming back to Basant Singh’s?”
“I heard that other man is keeping it in his own village.”
And now it was old Chanan’s turn to speak angrily, “Yes. Here the Jats don’t allow Harijans even in their field so how can they allow that combine machine to come to this village?” For the old man, like Mukhtar, had also read the handwriting on the wall.
While Charan and the Mazhbis had been away at Bhadson, the harvest in Ghungrali had reached its peak but the efforts of Nirmal, One-Eye and the other members of the 13-member committee, despite all their boasts, had failed to bring more than thirteen outside laborers to the village. In desperation, most of the richer farmers went to Uttar Pradesh themselves and brought back men, so by the last few days of the reaping there were about two hundred outsiders in Ghungrali, not many more than in past years when there had been no boycott.
For most of the Jats of Ghungrali, this meant they had to cut their wheat themselves. Many, like Charan’s uncle, Sarvan, had joined forces with a neighbor. In Sarvan’s fields six men, Dhakel, Sindar, Gurmel, two neighbor youths and Sham, their sharecropper, were cutting, between the two farms, twenty-eight acres, which would take them more than ten days.
After a week, Dhakel, with his frailer build, became exhausted and worked quietly, hardly speaking; Gurmel for the first time began to feel he was growing old. But Sindar, who had not run away before the harvest as everyone had expected, turned out to have surprising stamina and a zest for work. Throughout the scorching days, through dust storms and whirlwinds, Sindar kept cutting with a vigor that surpassed all the others and, Sindar being Sindar, never stopped talking or telling his vulgar stories.
“Work with an energy! Show your strength!” his nasal voice would rise from a sea of wheat. “God has made our bones of steel.”
One day Sarvan managed to get some of his in-laws from a nearby village to come and help cut several acres and Sindar, although meek enough during the work, could hardly wait until he was out of earshot of the other villagers to declare, “Today we have stomped on their bottoms. These ahwatias. They can’t even look straight in our eyes. They won’t forget us for the rest of their lives. Do you think it is a joke to compete with people like us? We know they are the best but we are better than the best. These dogs, they took seven chapatis each in the morning whereas we took only one chapati each. Now they won’t look towards Ghungrali. They will tell even their grandsons not to compete with Ghungrali wallahs.”
Sometimes Gurmel would become irritated by the incessant flow of words and say, “Don’t worry about us. Worry about yourself.”
But to Sindar this was just an opening. “What do you say? Why shouldn’t I worry about you? You are like my own seed. And I have real beautiful seed. Anyone want to borrow it I can lend to the whole of the world. My one discharge will make all the women in Ludhiana District pregnant. O, my hinges. They hurt. Oof!”
And when Dhakel would lag behind, Sindar would joke, “Do you know why he is tired? He was raped by all of us last night. He was drunk and couldn’t even tell what was happening to him. In the morning he asked, ‘Who spilt milk on my pajamas?’ The poor man doesn’t know that he will give birth to twins before the next harvest season.”
And Gurmel would join in, “Then he will be a gainer. He will have two more men working for him next year.” And Dhakel would laugh and call in a half-hearted way, “Do you know what happened to you last night, Sindar? In fact, it was you sleeping on my charpoy. Now you be ready to give birth to twins next year.”
Or Gurmel would complain, “Why do you talk all the time?”
“O, Deaf Man, have you seen my sickle dance?”
“Dance! It creeps like a tortoise.”
“You say tortoise, then I doubt if you have eyes in your face. Didn’t you see the day that ahwat was here? Those, my sons, will remember me for ages. You know a tiny skinny body came up to me and started showing his feats with the sickle. But when I showed him my hands, he didn’t stay there for another second. He went as far from me as he could.”
“O, yes,” Gurmel called. “I saw you running ahead of all of them. Look what Sindar is talking. Any person who doesn’t know him he will probably believe his big gossip.”
Sindar was indefatigable. “O, Deaf Man, you can try your hand any time you like. You will be even an acre behind me, I bet. My body is made of steel. Whatever may happen, we will be working. Only after finishing this mowing shall we take care of our bodies. Only then we shall think of getting ourselves fixed. O, I rape their sisters, after this we must get drunk for two days. Only then will my body be in tune again.”
If the wind blew, Sindar had a comment. “This west wind is good because it doesn’t bring dust storms with it. See the doves have started crying. It proves there won’t be a strong wind. Maybe. But one thing is certain. It will be real hot today – burning hot.”
Or someone would mention city women and he would be off again. “Yes, those women who work hard always have easy births. But those wives of the babus in the cities, those who always keep sitting and not working at all, when they give birth to a baby, they cry at the tops of their voices. Then they cry, ‘Hey, Ma, save me this time. I won’t let my husband touch me again.’ But ten days after giving birth they start winking at passersby and again get pregnant and again yell at the time of delivery.” And all the time he would keep cutting the wheat, field after field. “O, I rape his sister. I would be better off if I were a woman. I could sit inside all day. But you know at midnight you get a foot-long penis inside you. Then you say, it would be better if I were a man. So what God has made, it is all right.”
An airplane passing overhead always brought a reaction. “O, throw some bombs on this village. You know you can’t get medicine at hospitals these days and if you go traveling you can hardly get a ticket. God knows where these battalions of people are coming from. There should be a big bombardment of this country and wipe out at least half the population. If you ask my opinion, you should wipe out everybody who doesn’t work. They are a sheer wastage of food grains.”
And back to the ahwat: “That bunch of dead old ladies. They can’t beat me. By God, if you give me a good sickle I shall cut equal to four of them.”
Or: “This boycott could end tomorrow or it may go on for ten years. But I say they should reach some settlement – this way or another. Firstly, those poor men will be earning their food and the Jats will get the help they need. What is happening is very bad. After all they are workers. They can use their hands anywhere and earn their food. I say, it is a sin to hurt poor people.” Then, without a pause, “Don’t worry, Indira Gandhi has announced that she will provide cars for six thousand rupees and motorcycles will be as cheap as bicycles. No one will buy motorcycles even. Whatever may happen I’ll buy a car then. Then I will be going to answer the call of nature in the wheat fields in my car. Some twenty years ago if a man had a bicycle people would say, ‘O, he must be a rich man.’ Now every child owns a bicycle. People don’t think twice but go and buy bicycles.”
Sindar had sympathy even for the outside laborers: These Jats get the poor bhaiyas before sunrise and leave them after sunset. But there will be a law soon when you won’t be allowed to work more than eight hours. The Jats say ‘Shabash!’ and the poor bhaiyas are tired. Dead tired. Who will cry for the Punjabi Jats if these bhaiyas could work like we do? After eight hours working you will be able to put on new clothes and have a good shot of whiskey. Now these Jats – I rape their sisters – they reach the railway station at midnight and grab these bhaiyas and put them to work after only giving them a glass of tea at dawn.”
One day a family of beggars from Rajasthan came to them while they were working in the field and Sindar told them, “We won’t give you anything unless you work. If you work we will give you food and two rupees more than ordinary workers. But we don’t give to beggars. Why can’t you work?”
“God will give you more,” cried an old lady among them. “We are hungry. We are from a country which is ravaged by famine.”
“I won’t give,” said Dhakel, angrily. “Why should you work if you can get by with begging? Run from here!”
One of the beggars was a young woman. “O,” said Sham, the neighbor’s sharecropper, “She can serve our purpose. Give her as much as she likes. Then we’ll enjoy her today.”
“Please give us some wheat,” the young woman said. “God will give you more.”
“You can take a big bale if you make our boys happy,” grinned Sindar. “Stay a while. Ten minutes. How many children do you have?”
“God has given us four.”
“And where is your husband? If he can produce children he can work. I will give you a full bale if you please our boys.”
“Yes,” Sham joined in, “nothing can go wrong if you please our boys.”
“Shall I tell you what is what?” called Dhakel impatiently. “Run away from here!”
“I can’t stay, Sardarji,” the woman told Sindar. “You see my relations here with me. It is in the hands of God.”
“Then you won’t get anything,” grinned Sindar. But he gathered up three large sheaves and gave them to her. “Now run along. Don’t delay our work.”
“You idiot, Sindar,” called Sham. “You should not have given her. Only then could she be useful to us.”
“O, you fool,” Sindar said. “I was cutting jokes. I didn’t mean anything except a little joking. Here, bring that rope. Show your strength, men. O, I remember one time in Isaru. We were threshing. A real good girl came along to beg some grain and she brought two more girls back the next day. We had three trips each. How they were jumping like springs underneath. All were happy and all were the gainers. Then there was one time in Mal Majra village…”
And so the days passed, Sindar rambling on and on, the sickles flashing in the sea of wheat, stalk by stalk, row by row, field by field and acre by acre the wheat was cut; and gradually Ghungrali changed under the hot white sun and the gray fog of dust. The rocks and sheaves lay row upon row in the stubble fields or the new-mown wheat would lay in swaths as the men gathered to pick it up; every day there were clouds, it was dusty, the white mist gathered in the distance like a blizzard of snow, the hot wind blew in sodden gusts and never seemed to rest and the earth became hot to the touch and the air dry in the nostrils and the heat of the Punjab plain rose higher and higher.
And day by day, in Charan’s fields, the threshing went on, the white clouds of dust, wheat and chaff tossed in the air casting a luminescent light over the men, the put-put of the diesel engine droning on and on and the pile of precious grain growing and growing. And the men worked carefully in the hot wind and sun, winnowing the wheat so as not to lose a single grain. Now the whole countryside grew bare and flat with only stubble fields and the dark green foliage of the baked trees and when the dust cleared as dew fell at dusk or in the early morning, a man could see for miles and miles. Once the wheat was cut and gathered in, the sky seemed larger and the earth more spacious and the men working in the fields began to ponder on their own significance and the meaning of it all.
Late afternoon. An hour before dusk. The men have gathered under the shade of the withered oak trees at Charan’s well and he is pouring the last tea of the day. Sindar has wandered over and Charan calls to him with a laugh, “Tell us some gossip.”
But Sindar is in no mood for gossip. “I have been thinking,” he said, “that it is a sin to hurt poor people. God will surely punish our village.”
Charan laughed. “A sin? What is a sin? No, who is the best cutter in your field?”
“Everyone is good. Ask Gurmel,” Sindar replied, gesturing toward Charan’s pump, where Gurmel had followed him to take a bath.
“Come now,” Charan went on. “All the five fingers can’t be equal. Tell me which finger is the longest among you.”
“When we start competing, some cut more than the others, that is all.”
“Who was that woman in your field? A gypsy?”
“From Rajasthan. Begging for wheat. She said, ‘There are relatives around. Otherwise I would stay.'”
“In my eyes,” called Gurmel from the well, “the greatest sin is the rape of a virgin girl. Or if someone comes with great hopes and you say no to him. That is also a sin.”
“The real sin is if you sell someone’s bones and eat them up,” answered Charan. “If you take unnecessary labor by force and refuse to pay for it. Or if you borrow money from your daughter and don’t repay it, these are sins. One sin is if I have inherited property and I sell it for my personal interest, ignoring my children and forcing them to beg or go wander on the roads.”
“A man does so many sins in his life,” mused Sher, lighting up a bidi.
“I think that if you just look at someone with a bad intention, that is one of the sins.”
Gurmel’s two little boys, fascinated by the strange grown up talk, leaned on Charan’s charpoy and listened with wide eyes.
“There is one sin worse than any,” Charan went on, frowning. “To show friendship with a person but in your heart you want to destroy him. It is like helping a man in real need. If he has no friends or relations, he is shivering with cold and you provide him bedding and make him comfortable, that is a true virtue. But there must be no personal gain at all. If you do something for your own personal gain or to look good to your friends, then it means nothing.”
“Ho, what is all this about sins?” the Sarpanch called, coming up the road. “It is a sin to throw stones in the village, I know that. I went to the Chamars today and told them, ‘Will you stop this nonsense or will I bring the police here? Then you’ll forget about all these ghosts you are telling about.'”
“Sardarji,” said old Chanan, greeting the Sarpanch, “this stone throwing is all in that particular area.”
“They don’t throw at other houses,” said the Sarpanch, “They’re afraid they might be caught.”
Old Chanan said, “I have not seen these flying stones they speak of, but I have seen that strange star though. With a long white tail. They call it the star with a tail.”
Charan said, “It is said when such a star shows up, disaster will come to the village.”
“It has affected our own village,” said Chanan.
“It appeared before the boycott started.” The Sarpanch laughed and Charan and the Mazhbis joined him.
“There was that boy who drowned in the pond, long, long ago,” said young Darshan. “A man was coming along in a cart and went into the ditch. He said the bullocks had seen the spirit of that boy.”
“He was drunk.”
“Let’s go and start working,” said Chanan.
“Let’s just have a cigarette and then start working,” said Sher. “It is better in the cool of the evening.”
“We Jats are not worried about time,” said Charan, laughing. “Here, have some more tea. Chanan? Kapur?”
“These whirlwinds will be more and more these days if it doesn’t rain,” said Sher.
“Don’t worry,” grinned the Sarpanch. “The whirlwind will take your share of the grain.” He turned serious. “There is one family who took no part in the boycott and I suspect all his Chamar neighbors are throwing stones at his house and don’t want to be caught. So they invented this fool story about it being the ghosts of the Moslems.”
“They say that star appeared over the village in 1947,” said Darshan.
“There are clever people behind this stone throwing,” the Sarpanch went on. “I don’t want to bring the police in as the police would come and beat some people and that wouldn’t be good. They all say its ghosts, not men.”
Sher had an inspiration. “Most of the stones are around Gurmel’s house,” he told them in a low voice. “Hey, Gurmel,” he called, “O, Deaf Man, you are telling us ghosts threw the stones. But here your sons are telling us, ‘My mother threw the stones.'”
“Yes,” Charan joined in on the trick, “Your son told us just now that his mother threw two stones.”
Gurmel had just poured a pail of water over his head and he shouted back, his eyes closed and dripping wet, “No, it was I. Not she. One day I hit that loose woman who has the love affair with a stone. First I saw where she was standing and I threw a stone.”
Everyone laughed and there were shouts of “Now we know!” “So, it was you!”
“Here comes the big ghost,” Charan laughed.
“We were angry.” Gurmel, realizing he had been tricked, was red with embarrassment and he kept splashing water on, not knowing what else to do.” She threw one stone back into my house. I threw back not two but twenties.” Everyone roared with laughter. “So you are the ghost with two legs?” Charan shouted. “Wherever they fell stones came flying back from all the houses. Then everyone joined the stone throwing. It has gone on now for two hours every night.”
“O, don’t say anything to your sons,” called Sher, “because we gave them tea even and they wouldn’t tell anything.”
“It happened too with Scooter,” Gurmel went on. “Some stones landed in his brother-in-law’s house and he went around telling everyone it was ghosts.”
“And here you were the ghosts,” laughed Sher.
“The day before yesterday we got some more stones and threw them back last night.”
“Don’t beat these boys because we tricked it out of you.”
“No, we told our children to talk to no one.”
Charan roared with laughter. “Here moves the great ghost of Ghungrali. This is a two-legged ghost. One two-legged ghost taking a bath.”
“It’s good you didn’t tell anyone this story. All the village thinks its ghosts.”
“Gurmel, who started the story of the dead girl?” asked the Sarpanch, laughing with the others. “Someone told me the spirit of a dead Moslem girl was throwing stones.”
“But how can stones reach so many different houses?” asked Sher.
Gurmel laughed with embarrassment. “You can throw a stone up to an acre. It can reach the tenth house even.”
“Today Laxman will be throwing,” said Sindar. “He got hit in the leg last night.”
“No, it is over now,” said Gurmel, putting back on his clothes.
Old Chanan said, “Gurmel’s father came to me last evening and he is saying everything in the name of God that ghosts were throwing the stones. How can you believe people? Here his son was throwing.”
“Well done, Deaf Man, well done,” Sindar laughed.
“O, be careful of your bidi, Sher. This hot wind is dangerous.”
“Yes,” said Old Chanan, “It would be the greatest sin on earth if you set fire to the wheat fields.”
“Yes, that’s the greatest sin of all,” agreed Charan. “You know, some years back, that village, I don’t remember it’s name, caught fire and the whole wheat crop was destroyed.”
“Sins,” sighed old Chanan. “It is better to speak of virtues.”
“A man who loans money without interest is good,” said Sher, anxious to keep the conversation going.
“If you have money and the man is real needy and it’s a genuine case, it’s up to you,” said Charan. “One who helps others is definitely a wise man. But a man who can get a loan without interest is even wiser.”
“It’s good to scatter grains for birds,” said Darshan.
“The birds can feed themselves,” Charan said. “They are not beggars. They’ll come themselves and pick grains. Sometimes they enjoy only berries and sometimes they enjoy grains. One year I sowed a late variety of wheat. It was the latest of all. But as soon as the sma11 little plants appeared, those battalions of birds came to attack and eat them. One sparrow would eat at least fifty sprouts because they were so sweet. And fifty plants means fifty kilos of wheat. I mixed some Folidol insecticide with some wheat grains and scattered them over the field. The sparrows would eat the grain and die. So they stopped coming to that field. I don’t agree with killing all sparrows like they tried in China but in my case those fifty to hundred sparrows could go to another field.”
Sher lit another bidi. “Man says when he is alive, ‘This is mine, this is my property, my wheat, my sparrows to do as I like.’ But when he dies he only gets six feet of earth. I believe in heaven and hell, but the they’re here on this earth. We don’t get the comforts of life, we have to work like animals for the Jats – we’re passing through a phase of hell. But everyone must work for his bread. An idle man won’t stay long out of mischief. I believe in reincarnation. A person who does good things in life, I think his next birth will be comfortable somewhere.” Sher paused and slyly grinned. “Let’s presume Charan, he is a bad man. He drinks. He does many bad things. Well, in the next life he’ll be in my place and I’ll be in his. And now I’ll be taking work out of him with a whip.”
“When you are dead, then everything is finished,” said old Chanan. “There can’t be anything after death and yet…”
“No,” said Charan emphatically. “A rich man after death, he can have a good grave. But after some years people forget who was buried there. They think it’s just some great god. The children were playing on the Moslem graves yesterday right at our door. They didn’t understand who was buried there or if they were rich or poor, big or small. But we can’t make a formula for human existence.”
“Some people say we become ghosts or angels,” said Gurmel. “But I think you don’t become anything.”
“Everyone has his own theory on life after death,” said the Sarpanch. “People have a belief that there can’t be any chickens without a hen sitting on them so there must be a God. But now they use electric incubators. Similarly, a man is a seed, a fetus, a child, a man, and in the end, like the chicken, he dies. And nothing happens. Like some insects come out in the rainy season, where does that life come from? The conditions existed that made possible such life, that’s all. Our religions give these slogans so people won’t commit sins and do immoral things. They have cleverly cooked up all these things like heaven and hell. But personally I don’t believe any of it. When you have nobody around to whom you can show your happiness or anger, you can praise or curse God and satisfy yourself.”
Charan interrupted. “It’s a person’s own personal opinion. I have four sons and it’s not important if all of them have the same views. Rather it would be surprising if they do.”
“Women are more superstitious,” said the Sarpanch. “There was this family in the village. They felt as long as they kept reciting the Granth Sahib in their house, nothing would happen. As soon as they took it away, stones and dirt would come flying.”
Sher laughed. “They must live near Gurmel.”
“I don’t believe in heaven and hell either,” said Charan, very seriously. “It’s like this. Man has this piece of steel working as an engine. But if he is missing some screw that machine will stop working. Similarly our body, if something goes wrong, it stops. When the engine stops it doesn’t make noise any more. The same with a man’s voice. There is no spirit that speaks. There is no life after death and no one is reborn like Sher says. Once you die, that’s the end, then and there. There is no difference between animals and men, except the man can think how to feed himself. But when he dies, it’s like you took the Mobil oil out of the engine. Take it away and, bas!, it stops.”
“I don’t know,” said Gurmel, frowning. “We tried to cut one field twice before and somehow with our internal disputes we didn’t get around to it for several days.”
“We cut it yesterday,” Sindar joined in. “So it was written we should cut it yesterday.”
“Sardarji, there are many mysteries, ” said Old Chanan. “One night some years ago, when my wife and father were alive, I was lying awake. It was a cold night but for some reason I had brought my charpoy outside. My wife and father told me, ‘Bolt the door from outside.’ I said, ‘All right, I’m here if you need me.’ I slept and then I awoke. I got up again and looked at the stars. Then I felt something and I turned around and saw my wife. I didn’t speak to her. But she appeared to be standing at my bedside looking down. I kept looking at her and wondering how she had come out. Then she went away and I went back to sleep. But the next morning, the door was still bolted from outside. My wife told me, ‘We were inside all night; we never asked you to open the door.’ And after a year she died. I have no superstitions or anything. But I can’t explain it. She was alive then. It was no dream. I saw her.”
The conversation had grown too gloomy for Charan. “There goes a whirlwind,” he exclaimed, with a laugh. “Now he’s going toward the village. He’ll convey a message to Ghungrali, ‘Now you end this boycott and out your wheat. Otherwise, I’ll destroy it.'”
And they all watched as the spiral cloud of dust twisted down the road and fled over the fields, drawing after it bits of straw, insects, and feathers. The loose swaths of wheat scattered every which way and as the darkening twirling column rose it lifted several of Dhakel’s bales into the air.
“Look, look, how it tosses those bales like feathers.”
“Look at that piece of paper. It is going higher and higher in the sky. It’s in the whirlwind.”
“Look how it tosses the bales.”
“O, the paper is going higher and higher.”
“O, yes, I see it also. High as the birds. There it goes.”
“Yes, it goes toward the village.”
“O, O, there it goes. Now it goes upward. Here, look, O, it goes toward Chakohi.”
“Yes, I’m also seeing. Now it goes toward Ghungrali again.”
“Now leave that paper, boys. It may go up to ten miles in the sky. We must go to work,” said old Chanan.
“Yes,” laughed Charan. “Someone is waiting for that piece of paper because he has to write a letter.”
“Don’t you even believe in God?” Sher asked.
Charan grinned. “Who knows where God lives?” He looked at the faces of Sindar and Gurmel, the Sarpanch, old Chanan and the Mazhbis, one to another. “Maybe God is within all of you.”
Sindar followed the other men to the threshing ground. Sunset was not far away and the dusty evening sky cast a pink glow on the men’s faces. Old Chanan, who had found an old forked stick he had left on the side of an irrigation ditch during threshing the year before, gave a cry of pleasure as he found it again. He said he would use it to push wheat into the drummy since in the fading light it was dangerous to do it with one’s bare hands.
“If you are so careful with this one little stick,” Sindar said, “you can save real weapons, kirpans and spears and gandasas, for years together.” Then Sindar, hanging his sickle on his left shoulder, kneeled by the wheat, picking up a handful and letting it sift pleasurably through his fingers.
Old Pritam approached through the gathering dusk. “This machine works well,” he told Charan. “Ours is an old one. It can hardly finish what you do in a few hours in two or three days. But here yours is. You have finished almost one acre since mid-day. Can you thresh for us? We have some bales sitting over there.”
“How many are there?”
“About twelve hundred.”
“You shouldn’t rely on me because from here I’ll have to go to Bhadson and do my sister’s crop. Then after that I can help you but the chances are very few that I’ll finish within another week or ten days. You shouldn’t depend on me.”
“All right,” the old man said. Pritam felt weary and confused that evening. He and his sons had worked hard to cut their wheat, he had always believed in hard work, but somehow these days, with all the new ways and mechanization, it wasn’t any longer enough. “We’ll make some other arrangement,” he told Charan. “But if you can help when you return, my son, it will be good.” The old man moved slowly back to his own fields and Charan was sorry as he watched him go; he had never known Pritam to utter a harsh or mean word in his life, not even in the old days in Pakistan.
Then Charan went back to the well to join the Sarpanch for a drink; he had several bottles hidden away in a haystack for the Mazhbis to have when they finished their work. On the way he told his son, Suka, to help the Mazhbis carry the rest of the bales to the threshing machine and he observed how the boy stumbled under the load and fell against the bale heap as he tried to unload it; and Charan shook his head and felt ashamed of the probable heir to the fields around him. The Sarpanch called out; he was already washing out the glasses under the pump and Charan hurried so that they could have a couple of strong drinks and be in a genial mood before the others joined them.
At dusk in Ghungrali, all the crows leave the village in great cawing flocks for their nighttime roosts in the treetops of the fields. No sooner does the sunset and a dusty mist enwrap the earth, than the troubles of the day are forgiven and forgotten and the Punjab plain breathes evenly and deeply. The monotonous silence lulls one to sleep like a cradlesong. You move along in the bullock cart, half-dozing when suddenly, from somewhere, comes the short alarmed cry of some unsleeping bird and you wonder what it is. The dark shadows of the trees and haystacks look as if they were hiding something unknown and fearful; to the east, all over the horizon near Bhambadi, the sky is flushed with reddish light, and it is difficult to tell whether someone is burning a cane field or it is the moon preparing to rise. The horizon is as visible as in the daytime, but its whitish mists sift into the gray smoke from the village fires and the whole plain seems hidden in the smoky mist.
Then you pass a heavy growth of bushes and hear the bird the Punjabis call the Chakowree, for it calls to someone, “chkrrreee, chkrrreee;” sometimes it laughs or engages in hysterica1 screaming as if it were terrified. It is of the owl family but who calls to whom and what makes it so afraid, no one knows. The villagers simply believe its cry is a warning of danger, of evil spirits in the air.
There is a smell of hay as you go along and dried up grass, scorched by the sun all day or, rising mysteriously from some hidden bush, the fragrance of Queen of the Night; it is a heavy, sweet and delicate smell and comes only after darkness.
Everything is visible through the mist, it is difficult though to make out the color and feature of objects. Things look different from what they are. You drive along, the bullock cart creaking in and out of the rats, and suddenly you see standing before you on the side of the road a silhouette resembling that of a man; it stands motionless, waiting and holding something in its hand. Is he a danger, has the trouble in the village taken a sudden turn for the worse? The figure approaches, gets taller and now it is in line with the cart and you discover it is not a human being after all but a lonely bush. Similar motionless shapes are dotted about the fields, peep out from behind the giant stacks of bales, hide behind the well houses and trees; they all have a resemblance to people and fill one with suspicions and fears.
As the moon rises, the night grows pale and dim. The mist seems to disappear, the dust settling with the fallen dew, the atmosphere becomes clear, light and wan, everything becomes distinct and by the roadside you can even distinguish the separate stalks of stubble. Often the cry of the terrified or astonished owl is heard. A few last stray crows, forlornly flapping their wings, caw overhead.
old Pritam’s bullock cart creaks gently along in the dimness; he looks up at the pale star-sprinkled sky where there is not a cloud, and he senses why the warm air is so still, as if nature itself was waiting alert and afraid to stir. Pritam is in no hurry and his cart moves alongside a huddle of dark figures, their bare feet padding softly in the dust of the road. A man walks in front carrying a small boy in his arms; he is followed by several women and children carrying bundles of wheat on their heads. Pritam has recognized young Mukhtar, the Chamar, but for some time neither has spoken and the only sound is the gently creaking cart, the breathing of the bullocks and the whisper of bare feet. It is Pritam who breaks the silence.
“It is not good. The way we are treating each other. But I think it will be all right very soon.”
Mukhtar makes no response. His eyes are on the sky, which seems so immense and limitless tonight as it must from the sea and he is filled with a sense of awe and wonder and newness now that he has made his final decision to uproot his family and move away from the village. And he whispers to the little child in his arms, “For you will be a gentleman, my son.”
“Now you go to other villages,” old Pritam goes on. “We mind it very much.”
And Mukhtar, in the anger of his knowledge that both he and Pritam are growing as archaic to the needs of the village as the creaky old cart itself, can think of no reply.
“Look,” Pritam continues, “we have to feed your children. Your daughters are my daughters and your sons, my sons. And we must see that they are fed.”
And Mukhtar replies gently, “Yes, you are right, Sardarji. But we must work outside the village.”
“Yes. It is written in fate. But it will be all right in a few more days, my son.”
“Yes, it was written that we should cut the grain of another village.”
Together they move toward Ghungrali, past a Moslem grave and stubble fields and toward the lights of the houses. And when some night bird flies noiselessly over the ground and the great banyan tree looms up ahead, there come into the minds of both the old man and the young all their memories of the village. And then in the whisper of the breeze through the grass, in the shadows of the banyan tree, in all they see and hear, there is beauty. But both Mukhtar and Pritam also feel too much tension and grief, as if the Punjab plain acknowledges that she is rich and fruitful but not without much sorrow.
And in the fields, Charan and the Sarpanch sit drinking and joking in the heavy darkness at the well. Suka stumbles under a load and curses his father and old Chanan works patiently and steadily, pushing the sheaves of wheat into the grinding jaws of the iron machine with his fondly discovered old stick.
And so we leave them, Mukhtar to his anger, Pritam to his memories, Sindar to his dreams and Charan to his laughter. There may be a heaven and hell or there may not. Who can know? Or does? The tractor’s engine finally dies and Chanan puts down his stick and looks at the sky with an expression of gratitude that the day, thank God, is over and he is going to rest. But as our friends are lost in the dense obscurity of the night, Charan’s laughter drifts one last time across fields strewn with reaped wheat and the whole Punjab plain seems to shimmer in the silvery moonlight, one thing seems certain: if there is a heaven, old Chanan is sure to go there.
Received in New York on June 8, 1970.
Ghungrali-Delhi-Singapore, June 5, 1970
An informal comparison of Ghungrali’s farmers with those recently studied in neighboring Uttar Pradesh state
The first major study in India to learn more about its progressive farmers, the typical owner-operator who has emerged in the agricultural revolution, was made earlier this year, sponsored by the Uttar Pradesh Agricultural University and supervised by Chadbourne Gilpatric of the Rockefeller Foundation staff in India.
The study was made of 403 families in one area of one state, where as in Ghungrali in Punjab’s Ludhiana District, ample water and the services of an excellent agricultural university were available, which does not characterize most of rural India. The study was divided into ten groups, from farmers with less than 9 acres to those with more than 30 acres, from those with incomes of only 2,000 rupees to those with incomes of close to 80,000 rupees a year, from those considered “less progressive” to those considered “progressive,” in the sense of being the most advanced, efficient, productive and innovative.
Ludhiana District is considered the premier agricultural district India and although Ghungrali is by no means its wealthiest or most advanced village, I thought it would be interesting to give readers some basis of comparison by noting how it lined up with the Rockefeller study on several points.
More than half of the progressive farmers studied in Uttar Pradesh now own their own tube wells; in Ghungrali this would be 100 per cent. Two-thirds of the U.P. farmers’ disposable income went back as investment into agriculture, which was about the same in Ghungrali. In U.P., 65 per cent of the progressives had electricity; in Ghungrali all but 11 of the 65 families had electricity. The remaining farmers, who included Gurcharan Singh, will get it within a year. In U.P., of the progressive farmers, 97 per cent applied the new dwarf wheat seeds, 98 per cent used chemical fertilizer, and 63 per cent owned independent irrigation equipment. In Ghungrali it would be 100 per cent for all three categories. In U.P., however, 38 per cent owned tractors and power thresher equipment, while in Ghungrali, this was only 22 per cent.
As in U.P., the most advanced farmers in Ghungrali had more education (Two youths from Ghungrali were getting doctors’ degrees abroad, one was receiving a medical degree in India, and eleven from the village were enrolled in colleges or universities altogether, including two girls, both daughters of Surgit Singh, a former sarpanch of the village) and they traveled more and had more contacts outside the village, especially at local government levels and at the university. The bus and tractor, not the bullock cart, were the chief means of travel outside the village except for bicycles to the neighboring communities.
As in the U.P. study, home improvement ranked high in “consumption expenditure” after farm investment, with clothing, marriages and dowries, food, education, travel and medical expenses following in that order. In Ghungrali, while home improvement was still at the top of the list, I would have to put consumption of alcohol in second place. Although this did not appear in the U.P. study, estimates of expenditure on drinks in Ghungrali ran as high as 250 to 200 rupees a month in some families, or a substantial proportion of income even though only around $40 to $25 at the legal rate. But liquor expenditure in most families ran well ahead of food, education, travel and medical expenses. This did not mean that Ghungrali was inhabited by alcoholics; far from it.
Liquor consumption usually took the form of a ten-rupee bottle of government distilled “orange” or “raspberry” liquor shared among two or three persons. The amount of alcohol thus consumed was considerably less than one would get in, say, two normal-sized martinis in a Washington or New York home. My own feeling is that drinking, since it occurred equally heavily in the Mauritian fishing village I studied, may be common in rural communities the world over where the people engage in very strenuous physical labor day after day.
As in the U.P. study, agricultural labor accounted for nearly half of all farm working expenditure. In Ghungrali, since August of 1969, daily laborers received four rupees plus tea and one meal a day in winter and five rupees in the hot summer months. Permanent laborers had no fixed rate but received an average of 1,400 to 1,500 rupees per year plus the usual tea and one meal a day. Fertilizer expenses ran to 20,000 rupees per year for the most progressive farmer in Ghungrali, who had 54 acres. Tube wells formerly were the highest investment priority; since all of Ghungrali’s farmers now have them they have been replaced by a desire to purchase tractors, power threshers or, as a joint venture, combines.
In contrast to the progressive U.P. farmers, who supplemented their incomes if they owned tractors by doing work for others, the renting out of tractor services was virtually non-existent in Ghungrali. This seems to be an important difference since in U.P. 27 percent of the progressive farmers who own tractors did custom service for others at an average gross return of 4,100 rupees.
In Ghungrali, the major source of useful knowledge was Punjab Agricultural University; in UP the university ranked third behind extension agencies of the government and demonstrations. Although 92 per cent of the U.P. progressive farmers visited their block development office once or more a month; this practice has largely fallen off in Ghungrali, possibly because of the high degree of technological advance among some of the village farmers themselves.
Productivity of major crops in Ghungrali was almost identical with, of the farms studied in U.P., 11 quintals per acre in the new wheats and 8 quintals in hybrid maize.
Gross agricultural annual income per farm in Ghungrali ranged from around 3,500 per ten acre farm to 10,000 rupees per 20 acre farm and just over 20,000 rupees for a 30 acre farm, more or less the same as U.P., for farmers in the best or progressive category. As in UP, about two-thirds of each farmer’s disposable income went back into their farms—into buildings, irrigation, electricity, animals or land.
A word on population: The Jats, by custom and law, must divide up their land among their children, formerly only sons but recent central government legislation gives daughters legal claim as heirs also. This provides a powerful disincentive to having large families and three or four children was the rule among the Jats and Charan’s wife had had a loop insertion after five children. Among the Harijans, on the other hand, the dependence of the family on male daily wage earners provides a strong incentive to have as many sons as possible. Bhoondi, for instance, with four working sons, or Gurmel, with six working brothers, were comparatively well off for this reason. Thus, Harijans tended to have very large families in Ghungrali. Because of Ghungrali’s peculiar history, however, the full impact of overpopulation was not expected to be felt until the current younger generation reached adulthood.
ahwat – a day’s voluntary harvesting by a farmer’s friends or relatives followed by drinks and feasting
baithak – men’s quarters or sitting room
bidi – a cheroot
chapati – unleavened bread
dahl – lentils
dhoti – covering of man from waist down, a white cloth draped as trousers
ghee – clarified butter
hazri – breakfast
dahuli – scoundrel, fool, wastrel (pronounced “doolee”)
dacoit – professional bandit
hookah – water pipe
gandasa – weapon, a long staff with axe-like blade attached
khadi – cotton homespun popularized by Mahatma Gandhi
khir – rice and milk pudding
kirpan – sword
kila – one acre plot
lanedar – head of a large family
lassi – buttermilk
lavi – traditional payment of harvest labor in which laborer carries home all the wheat he can bear on his head each day
ma – mother
mama, mamaji – maternal uncle
mantra – spell or charm
neem – native tree
pagri – turban
patwari – village accountant
rabi – winter season crop as opposed to khaki, the summer season crop
roti – bread, same as chapati
sadhu – holy man
tehsil – administrative unit, like county
thanedar – police sub-inspector
zamindar – landlord, property owner
Note: The Sikh equivalent of Mr. is Sardar, its more honorific, Sardarji, or more rustic, Sardara. It is used by Jats or Harijans addressing Jats; it is never used addressing Harijans. Another frequent mode of address in the village was Bhai, or Brother and Bhain or Sister, used among all castes.
(To avoid possible confusion over family relationships, castes and names, a short guide to the principal characters follows. Few ages are given; an oddity of the rural Punjabis was their indifference to age; almost no one knew his birth date and few knew their precise age. Partly this can be explained by the peculiar sense of time in the village, where there were no Sunday’s or weekends but continuous flow of workdays governed by the changing seasons. One quickly lost track of the date or day of the week).
Jats or Landlord-Farmer Caste
Gucharan Singh (Charan), 39
His wife and five children: Suka, 16; Kulwant, 14; Kuldip, Rani and Narindar
Sadhu Singh, about 60, Charan’s father
The Old Lady, Charan’s mother
Sarvan Singh, Sadhu Singh’s younger brother
Dhakel Singh, his son, 23
Surindar Singh, (Sindar), 29, nephew of Sadhu and Sarvan Singh
Surjit Kaur, Charan’s sister, 41
Saroop Singh, her husband, 45
Their children: Pala, 18, kaka, 16, Guddi and Bara
Buldev Singh, 18, his nephew
Pritam Singh, 70, Charan’s neighbor and distant relative
Surjit Singh, his son
Mamaji, Charan’s maternal uncle, about 70
Charan’s friends: Pritam Singh, the sarpanch or village chief, about 40; Nirmal Singh, member of the 13-man Jat wage committee; Pritam Singh (Prit), bullock cart racer; Kaka Singh (The Bandit)
Basant Singh, around 50, the richest and most progressive farmer;
Surjit Singh, his ally and the former sarpanch and
Sudagar Singh, his brother
Mohinder Singh (One-Eye), a poor farmer, general-secretary of the village cooperative society and member of the 13-man committee
Harijan, Formerly Untouchables and Now Landless Laborers
A. The Chamars* or former leather-working caste
Mukhtar Singh, Charan’s laborer, 23
Gurmel Singh, Dhakel’s laborer, about 40
Gurdial Singh, a prosperous poultry farmer, about 40 (Note: Not to be confused with another Gurdial, an elderly Jat who appears briefly in a streetlight).
Peloo, Charan’s stable hand, 26
B. The Mazhbis* or former sweeper caste all are Charan’s part-time laborers
Chanan Singh, 60
Kapur Singh, 17, his son
Kishan Singh (Bhoondi)
Sher Singh and Bawa Singh, his oldest sons
Amarjit Singh and Surjit Singh, part-time Sikh priests and brothers
Banarsi Singh and Amru Singh (Scooter)
(Note: The designation of “Chamar” and “Mazhbi” has been illegalized by the Government of India and replaced by “Ramdasia” and “Balmiki” respectively for all official purposes. In village usage, however, the traditional designations remain except for formal transactions such as court cases, police dealings, village elections and so on. A former designation for “Mazhbi” was also “Chura.”
©1970 Richard Critchfield
Mr. Richard Critchfield is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner on leave from the Washington Evening Star, Washington, D.C. This article may be published with credit to Mrs. Critchfield, the Washington Star and the Alicia Patterson Fund.