Chapter 3: The Village Left Behind

 

The village of Kandan Sian had no electricity, no fans, no ice. Days were very hot. Water-sprinkled earth and hand-pulled pankhas provided some respite from the scorching heat and cold water from earthenware matkas was the only relief for parched throats.

At odd moments over the years, memories of childhood spent in Kandan Sian village wafted into Opana's mind. He was about eight years old, he remembered, and the family had moved from the small town of Daska to Kandan Sian, as for every summer vacation.

In Kandan Sian, Opana's father, Amar Chand, a practising advocate, busied himself settling land problems, attending to the feuds of his large family and mediating in a number of petty village disputes. Opana's mother busied herself supervising the spinning, weaving and dyeing of household linen, repairing kitchen implements and 1 such other household chores. His two older brothers got busy flirting;; with village belles and young cousins, in organising swimming parties-! in the canal some two miles away and most of all joining in the night-long open-air vigil or behak'm company with young peasant lads of the village. During a behak, the household cattle are taken out and tethered in unploughed fields.

During the hot and humid summer nights it gets too hot for the cattle to stay in their pens in the village and this open air tethering brings relief to the animals and much merriment to the lads who provide guard against cattle thefts which were so common in villages and the youth enjoy the free space in which to expend their boisterous energies away from the elders.

After their evening meal the young men of the village carry their string cots out to the field and arrange themselves in a wide circle around the tethered cattle. As long as the evening light lasts, they play lusty games of kabaddi, wrestling or grip-strength matches. As the night descends, the games give way to earthy songs and smutty jokes. Through the night they keep watch over the cattle. The tinkling of bells, lowing of cattle, snatches from songs or rhymes, peels of laughter and, a little while later, some mumbled talking in sleep, some imaginary chasing of robbers, characterized these behak nights. The fields got manured, each in turn, by cattle droppings. The venue would shift every day in order to rotate the manuring.

Opana and his younger brother, Vepana, were too young to join the behaks and so had to organise their own plans for their afternoon recreation during the midday siesta hour. They both feigned sleep for the benefit of their mother. As soon as they heard her gentle even breathing from her curtained room, they were off. Treading stealthily, they opened the creaking door, pausing to make sure that there was no change in her breathing and sped away, heedless of the scorching sun overhead and the oven-hot earth beneath.

The rendezvous was a narrow thatched lane called the chatthi gali where the swallows roosted in the roof. Others from the gang were already there. The game they played involved catching these birds, one at a time. Armed with dried antlered stems from the cotton plant, manchhitti, some eight boys took up positions in two columns at each end of the gali. Two boys looked out for the birds and two others were posted as sentries to warn against an approaching uncle or aunt who may report their adventure. (In a Punjab village, every man is chacha, or paternal uncle, and every woman is bhua, paternal aunt.

Wives of chachas are inevitably chachis. In the mother's village all the menfolk are mamas, maternal uncles, their wives mamies, and in general, the women of the village are mausis, maternal aunts.

A signal shout from the lookout alerts the two boys nearest to the entrance. The bird dives in, looks for a gap between the cotton stems only to sail straight into, the second line of defence which being in a darker part of the street is better camouflaged. Down comes the bird, resting on its belly staring with its round frightened eyes at the hand that scoops it up. Swallows have tiny clawed feet, meant for hanging from a perch or from their nest of feathers and not for sitting on the ground or on a perch. If grounded, the birds cannot take off as their legs do not provide that first thrust to make them airborne. They need to dive off their hanging perch to take wing.

There is another shout but the next bird, sensing danger, has made a frantic turn-about and sailed to safety. In about an hour the boys have four birds in hand one has broken a wing in its scuffle to safety. The lightest among the lads is then hoisted on to shoulders of two others to return the wounded bird to its nest as it was believed that it would heal itself in due course.

A shrill whistle from the sentry in the east^//always brought about a quick scramble for cover behind a dilapidated stairway in a nearby ruin. The ruin was reputed to be haunted and only recently Basantoo had seen a dark figure looming there, hair cascading to the knees and two teeth projecting like fangs. He had heard it singing and calling: "Aaja Aaja, makhan khaja (come in, come in and eat some butter)". Such things, however, happened only in the evenings and it was assumed that dains, witches, did not come out during the day.

And so, that day, Opana and his companions hid behind the archway of the ruin just as Chacha Amra's cough echoed in chatthi gali. Chacha Amra was a lambardar or village headman, a widower of thirty years standing, and a terror to the boys. Legend had it that at the age of thirty five he had married a ten-year old girl who thereafter had been enticed by village urchins to go for a swim in the village pond (charda chappar) and was drowned. Chacha Amra could  not afford a second wife as all that he had earned in life had been spent to pay the bride price for his child bride. Doomed to eternal widowerhood without ever having consummated his early marriage, he had sworn everlasting revenge against all boys under fifteen.  Anyone caught would be subjected to a sound thrashing and be reported.   

After Chacha Amra's intrusion, and the operation having yielded three birds, the venue for the bird-catching operation was shifted to Totian wala khoo - a Persian well which discharged its water into a small tank that had parrot-shaped outlet-pipes.           

Totian wala khoo belonged to Opana's grand uncle. An imposing  landlord and Honorary Magistrate, he held court in Sialkot once a week. He would ride out on his spirited horse with Jalal Nai, the barber, running alongside the entire distance often miles to Sialkot.

On arrival, the master would stretch out on a cot to rest while Jalal massaged his master's legs to ease the tiredness. The same routine was followed on the return journey.

It was approaching Savan, the fifth month of the Indian calendar which heralds the monsoon. The first showers were eagerly awaited to heal skins covered with prickly heat that came from gorging kharbuzas or cantaloupes, and the rashes brought on by green mangoes. It was generally believed that a bath in the first rain taken under 'seven roof gutters' would cleanse the body of prickly heat and rash. Children would cast off their clothes and rush to bathe under seven roof gutters, unmindful of the dirt and muck washed down from the roofs by the first showers. It was sheer enjoyment both for children and adults alike, all the people congregated on the rooftops the women wrapped in their saris and the men wearing just loincloths.

The four Sundays in the month of Savan were observed as 'fair days' in Punjab. Normally the fair was held near a pond in some open shamlot (village common land). Swings were strung up across trees and young girls and boys enjoyed themselves. The mithaiwala (sweetmeat seller), the grocer, the churiwala (bangle-seller), the juggler, the jhulewala (who offered mechanized swings rides), the kulfiwala (iced-milk seller), the sharbetwala (seller of cold drinks) and all kinds of vendors and showmen flocked to the fair. There was much singing, jostling, joking, ogling and swinging all afternoon long which ended only at sunset with promises to meet again the next Sunday.