Chapter 5:  Mahna And The Red Blood Maltas


Christmas holidays always found Opana back in Kandan Sian and at the chatthi ja/y'and the tot/an wala khoo. Attached to the khoo was an orchard of blood-red maltas, a kind of hard-skinned orange. The severe winter evenings were spent at this orchard, sitting by a smouldering fire inside a hut made from leaves and listening with rapt attention to Mahna's throaty voice telling the wonderful stories of 'Alif Laila'. Mahna was an orchard contractor. He came from a rugged and hardy stock of Arains from across the river Chenab. He, with his two brothers Fazla and Fakira, would drift in during September or October when the trees were laden with new fruit. They surveyed the fruit and entered into a contract for the entire yield of the season. Thereafter they were the undisputed owners of this orchard till the end of the season. They tended the trees and fruit and kept watch day and night against squirrels, night marauders and village urchins. They harvested and marketed the fruit after delivering the part agreed upon for the owner's consumption.

Mahna was dark, handsome and debonair. He belonged to one of the tribes which according to gazette notification, was classified as 'criminal'. Opana's memory of him, however, is that of a gentle and happy man who could tell endless stories. After the evening meal, a sizable group of village boys walked to the orchard shivering through the cold, crunching the frost under their feet. Mahna welcomed them with genuine warmth. A winter night all alone in an orchard can be very lonely. He would offer them some of the choicest blood-red maltas, cutting each into half with a small axe which he always carried with him. They would then huddle into warm blankets in front of the fire while he chanted couplets from the legend of HeerRanjha. Though the boys understood hardly anything, the atmosphere was highly charged and they all listened entranced.

HeerRanjha is the story of two feuding tribes that lived on the two opposite banks of the river Chenab. Heer was the beautiful daughter from the tribe called Sials and Ranjha was the youngest son of the tribe of Mirzas. On the instigations of his bhabh/s(t\ie wives of elder brothers) Ranjha ran away from home with the resolve to win and marry the beautiful Heer. He crossed the river and met Heer. It was love at first sight but Heer's parents refused to give the girl to their adversaries, the Mirzas, and instead married her off into another tribe, the Kheras. The lovers managed to elope and other episodes followed. The story ends in tragedy with both lovers dying through the machinations of Heer's uncle called Kaidu-Langa, the lame man, who poisoned Heer. Ranjha fell on her grave and died instantly. The legend was written in verse by a famous poet in the early twentieth century, Waris Shah, and was used as text for Punjabi! language in the Punjab University for many years. The qabar OM grave of Heer still stands in Pakistan on the bank of the Chenab. It stands roofless and open to the sky but, they say, the rain never falls on the grave of this girl.

Sometimes Mahna played on his twinflutes, mattian, to the tunes of Mirza Sahaban. (Mattian is an instrument with two; flutes joined together by a flexible thread, both pipes held in the mouth and played in synchrony). Mahna's mannerisms were very fetching and the lilt in his voice or his flutes very catchy. This was followed by some fantasy story. He picked up the threads from yesterday's theme and led his listeners on to a new adventure with Punj Phoolan Rani, the queen as light in weight as five flowers.

One evening her consort put a small love letter for her under the mattress. As soon as the queen lay down on the bed she turned to the Prince to ask him, "What is Your Majesty's command?" Mahna asked his audience, "How did Punj Phoolan Rani know there was a message for her?" When the boys fumbled for an answer, Mahna came up with the answer himself: "She was so sensitive that she could even feel a piece of paper beneath her mattress!" It would be quite late by the time the boys returned to their homes and the comfort of their own quilts.

Mahna, poor fellow, just because he belonged to a legally gazetted criminal tribe, was always a suspect with the police. One day, a theft was reported in a nearby village and the police beat the innocent Mahna mercilessly for days on end. The third-degree methods of the Punjab police are well known and he was subjected to all those. Some of the indignities were inflicted on him in public and the boys wept bitterly seeing him being brutally assaulted by the sub-inspector, mauling his prostrate figure with the heels of heavy boots. Not even the Honorary Magistrate lifted a finger to save him, though everybody knew he was innocent.

Those winter days in Kandan Sian were truly delicious. In addition to all the fruits, winter is the season for carrots, raddish, sugarcane, sugarcane juice and that delight of the Punjab countryside - gur, or jaggery, hot and fresh from the oven. The days were bright and sunny, the sky was pure blue and there was nothing to do the whole day but roam through the fields, gorging on everything. Carrots have to be pulled out, washed, held by the leaves and plunged into the pot in which t\\egur\s simmering. A few minutes of this immersion produces steamed £i/r-coated, carrot—a treat out of this world. Onward then to another field where the wheat crop is just starting to ripen. The farmer here offers another delicacy — abu. Abu is made by roasting tender ears of wheat over an open fire and rubbing them between the palms to separate the husk from the seed. This lightly roasted, still juicy wheat-seed is referred to as abu and it is a delight to eat.

This is the season for lazing. Everything is just peaceful. The crops are all sown, harvesting is still far off and occasionally one hears snatches sung from Heer Ranjha, Mirza Sahaban or Sohni Mahiwal filling the air. Sohni was a beautiful Punjabi girl who fell in love with a foreigner called Mahiwal. He was a trader and came in regularly from across the border, riding his camel at the head of his caravan. Sohni would cross the river Chenab to meet her lover, holding an earthenware pitcher as a buoy to ferry her across. Her parents did not approve of her love for Mahiwal and one day Sohni's sister-in-law switched her pitcher with an under-baked pitcher as she set out to cross the river. The 'Kachhaghara' half-baked pitcher, crumbled in the water during a storm and the poor girl was drowned. Mahiwal too lost his life, diving into the river trying to save her.

The river Chenab runs through all these love stories and people refer to the river with lot of pride and affection as the 'river of lovers'. There is the poem, 'Merephull chhanan wich pane'which says: "When I die, please put my bones in the Chenab, for I am a poet of love. The 'Ganga' is a river for piety and does not care for love's sacrifice, but the Chenab understands."

During the harvest season,Opana sometimes accompanied his father or elder brother to the fields of their tenants to collect the family's share of the crop. Accompanied by Jagga, the official dharvai, the man who measures out cereals, and leading a pack of donkeys to carry back the load of wheat, they would set off early in the morning. Through the various fields and clusters of homes that they passed, threshing and winnowing were in full swing everywhere. They talked about the yield and quality of the wheat. The dharvai would put a few seeds in his mouth and chew, and deliver his judgement on the quality. Conversation then drifted to assessing the year's yield — a farmer of course always assessed his yield as poor. When they reached their fields, the tenants would be ready with the wheat, all threshed and neatly stacked. The normal share of the landlord was a fixed quantity per acre of land. Tenants who had had a good yield did not grudge handing it over and Jagga could start measuring it straight away. All transactions of wheat in the villages were done by volume — the measure was known as a daroopa and the contents weighed approximately three seers and a half.

So, Jagga would sit down, first invoke God's blessings and then start off the count — barkat, dune, trigghar(onz, two, three) — and so on till he reached hundred. Hundred cferooyrasweighed approximately eight maunds which was called a mani and this was the landlord's share per acre of land. In the years of good harvest this left twelve to fifteen maunds per acre with the tenant. The tenants looked on with wistful eyes as the golden brown piles of wheat dwindled under the onslaught of the dharwai. As soon the count reached hundred, the kumhar, the donkey man, started loading his donkeys and Jagga began

During the harvest season, Opana sometimes accompanied his father to pull on a fresh heap. All this was done very quickly giving the farmer little time to brood over this process - the snatching away of the fruit of his labour, just because somebody else owned the land as property, as merely a material passed down from his ancestors. The intimate partnership between a man and the land he had tilled to produce food was somehow being negated by this transaction in commodity. However, once the wheat was loaded and dispatched and die act completed, equanimity returned. Before parting, the farmer offered some vegetables and some fodder for the cows and buffaloes. All these were accepted as a matter of right and the procession slowly made its way back to the village.

Dealing with a dishonest tenant was much more fun. Well before the day fixed for threshing and handing over of the landlord's share, the tiller would secretly thresh and put away some grain. On the day the landlord arrived for collection there would be a miserably small pile of quite healthy wheat on display, but somewhere if one looked carefully, there would be an equally si/.eable quantity of husk lying around. These two facts — that the wheat was healthy and the husk in plenty, gave his secret away. Of course, nobody accused him bluntly of cheating. A landlord could exercise the discretion of varying the percentage of the total yield in case it was not upto standard. The dharvai would quickly assess the quantity lying in the pile and advise the landlord about the appropriate percentage to be claimed. The play of hagglingwould then start. The tenant would plead and entreat, place his turban at the landlord's feet in supplication, profess eternal and unswerving loyalty, and would promise to make up the shortfall next year. A bargain would at last be struck. The dharvai would then build up the heaps on the basis of the agreed percentage and much depended on his dexterity in measuring out the grain — the wily tenant was no match for the more wily dharvai, who could easily add to the landlord's share by another surreptitious five percent. Everyone would then be satisfied; the landlord, because he has almost taken his proper and full share; the farmer, because he thought he had cheated the landlord out of his share; and the dharvai, because he now gets paid in kind both by the landlord and the farmer for having measured the latter's share also.

This was a sort of a game of one upmanship generally free from rancour. The parties knew each other and knew all the tricks involved, but none of them came out into the open. A certain bonhomie prevailed - even if a forced one. Such charades were quite common and formed an integral part of village life.

Tenants, who were unable to dole out the minimum that was agreed upon, made it up through other produce, like vegetables, fodder, cotton, or sometimes free labour. A Punjabi farmer is a proud and self-respecting individual, and a landlord has to deal with him with tact and understanding. He cannot be pushed too far and he will not bear insult or disgrace. Though a tenant, he regards himself as lord of the land he cultivates and always puts in his best effort. He has a large heart and is quite generous to lagis— barbers, sweepers, or other similar menials who, according to tradition, are given a small share from his produce. He is, however, quick to take advantage of any chink in the armour of the landlord. He gives the impression of being 'dumb' but is quite shrewd and observant. The Punjabi saying 'jat hua yhamla kliuda noon lagae chor'(the jat pretends to be a simpleton but can fool even the gods) very aptly describes this facet of his character. He is exceptionally hard working, never idle, never shirking and is always cheerful even under yoke as tenant or hired hand. He really makes the land yield gold by dint of hard work. This is the secret of the Punjabi farmer's Wellbeing and Punjab's record as a surplus state in agricultural produce.