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All the surroundings have gone desolate. I don’t know why peacocks don’t cry any more.... Day before yesterday, the feathers of the wild fowl lay scattered all over the road. It used to flutter around that big acacia tree and settled in the same tree every night.... How bright and sharp coloured its feathers were! .... In the morning the feathers lay scattered on the road. God knows which hunter found him or some dog or cat got hold of him.... It was the last wild fowl that had this acacia as his shelter.
This village was destined to be demolished. But its residents were not willing to vacate it at all. The expanding city was almost touching it. Many notices had been issued ordering the villagers to clear out. But most of them had not been allotted any space to resettle. Some of them had been running dairies from their premises and some other had set up small businesses within the city. And a few aged people were too attached to the village to leave..... High Court and then Supreme Court.... After the final notice, a thundering bulldozer appeared on the ring road around the village.... The village was in turmoil. Men and women desperately tried to salvage their possessions and carry it to some safe place.... driving their cattle and opening the door of the coops.... the chickens fluttering their wings and squawking in alarm.... the goats bleating.... trunks, utensils, cots... pushed, pulled... men, old, young... cursing, crying, shouting... running away....
“May god destroy you all, wipe you out... may you die... those who uproot us!” Bhanto Mehri was shouting, cursing; a reincarnation of goddess Kali; her hair dishevelled, mouth foaming, she was staggering away, beating and pushing her goats.... The granny of the ‘loudmouths’, badly out of breath, was leaving ...dragging her cot.... the bellowing buffaloes were time and again coming back to the same spot. The mud huts, houses made of bricks, the wheat-chaff piles, the dung-cake stacks were disintegrating under the thrust of the bulldozer as if some big tornado had hit them....
They were saying new flats would come up here, big showrooms would be set up, metalled roads will be laid.... At first some people tried to stop the bulldozer; and then squabbling, blaming the government, they took to salvaging their belongings from their homes. Watching their houses collapsing, staring at one another’s face and observing the gloomy faces of their parents, the stunned kids moved about.... They felt a strange restlessness. Despite the parents’ warnings they started following the bulldozer. “Look, Kalu’s room... there it goes” Bhinda shrieked.
“Curse on you, O you shameless!” Kartaro scolded Shinda.
“Look there Dheeré... your kitchen... it goes... dher, dher, thaah...” the boys could not help laughing.
“Vé! What makes you so happy seeing our house destroyed?” Dheera’s mother was furious.
The boys were by now drenched in sweat, running like mad, trying to go faster than each other, helping people take out their belongings from the next houses and pulling them to outer road.
All through the night the dogs whined, sitting on the mounds of debris they kept on howling in a strange manner; mewing cats roamed around the demolished village; .... Bhanto Mehri’s rough voice, sometimes she appeared to be shrieking, and sometimes crying... then clapping and guffawing aloud... a frightening sound.
By the day-break the contractor arrived accompanied by workers carrying saws and axes to chop off the peepul, banyan and neem trees of the village. The workers are the residents of the village who have become urban labourers.... The government has been very kind to the residents of this village: they all have been given temporary jobs....
“Vé! You will all be damned, don’t chop off the peepul....” Bhanto Mehri is shouting raising her arms. For a moment the workers are shaken.
“What is the matter?” the contractor asks authoritatively.
Immediately they look at each other.... and the axes begin to chop.
“Your mother...” someone is cursing the stem for being too hard.
With eyes full of anger they look sometimes at the sky, sometimes at each other or the contractor, spit onto their corn filled palms and smoothen them, strike the trunk again and again, wipe their sweat, they are badly out of breath....
Now they stand around the pitcher full of water. Kartara is saying, “That was our house; that neem was planted by my great grandfather... look how thick its trunk is! ....My mother used to sit under it with her spinning wheel.... Grandmother used to make hanks of yarn under it...”
“Come on, get going” the contractor calls out.
“Your mother...” Kartara curses him under his breath.
Bhinder and Shishu laugh aloud. They have raised their axes ... directed at the trunk of the old peepul tree.... Peepul is very hard... Kartara, Bhinder and Shishu are out of breath.
“Vé! The whole clan will be wiped out... don’t cut the peepul, it is a sacred tree” Bhanto Mehri passes by shouting warnings.... It is said she has gone crazy, first the wells were closed and then the hotels took away the work traditionally done by her Mehra community. Her son also took up a job in a hotel... now lives in Chandigarh.... Bhanto did not go there, perhaps she went but has come back, she did like it there... she lives in her shack in the village... a bit crazy, sometimes she heats up her bhathi, the public hearth for roasting corn. No one comes for getting the grain roasted... people laugh at her, but she continues to feed the fire.... sometimes she would run the pot in the roasting pan as if she were roasting grams.....
“Vé! Lachhoo come, see how fine the popcorns are!” she continues to sieve the sand.
“Come Tai give us some corn” passers-by mock, laugh at her.
Her husband Lachhoo Mehra... he had a big herd of goats... firstly as a water-carrier he would supply water from the well to the whole village... and then he took out his herd... towards the acacia groove... the goats would love young acacia saplings, munch their fresh shoots... Lachhoo would start singing hymns to the Goddess and then verses from Bego Naar, the folktale... there would be none to interrupt, none to stop... the land is common to the whole village, shamlaat... some others tending buffalo herds come there, tall grass under the young acacias.... The buffaloes graze, the boys wrestle each other, play Kabbadi ... one or two take turns minding the cattle.
“Why Taya, you have gone old but habits are same” boys teased him when he sang verses from romantic folktale Mirja... But when he sang hymns to the Goddess Mother, he went ecstatic and started dancing and jumping around in a trance....
“Oye you stupid! These your sisters-in-law...” the farmer owning the neighbouring field would come mercilessly beating and driving his herd of goats. Lachhoo looked at them and the frightened bleating goats came and stood around him. He would pat every one of them, caress and embrace them... would find that one of them has cut on its leg and another on its body... the tears appeared in his eyes and he was unable to speak... Bhanto counted the goats when he went back home... one goat or lamb would be missing... counted again and again... would lose count in the process.... a fight ensued... he thrashed Bhanto... pulled her hair... the house would be in chaos.
“May you be wiped out, Vé! Gehlu... May you die... you robbing me of my goat!”
“Listen villagers, listen, today he has stolen my goat, tomorrow he’ll try to lay his hands on my daughter, I’ll cut him to pieces.... considers himself a big shot... you mean Jat!” Bhanto went on cursing Gehlu, carrying in her hand the long stick used for tackling the goat-herd....
“Chop you off like the soft shoots of acacia” she would start running around calling him names. Lachhoo ran after her.... chasing her, he abused her in filthy language... Bhanto would run farther away....
At night, mutton would be cooked in Gehlu house. The pot sizzled, and the scent of frying meat could be smelt in half the village. Mutton dishes would be served in many houses... Gehlu after drinking would rush towards Bhanto’s house.....”
“Oyé you... I.... your daughter...” he abused her in filthy language and threatened to kidnap her daughter.... Bhanto retorted fiercely... Lachhoo pulled her back by her braid and locked her in...
In the morning, Lachhoo went to his house to lodge protest ... begged other respectable people to help... cried, whined, the panchayat met....
“No! This amounts to cutting the poor man’s throat...” some rival of Gehlu would come out in Lachhoo’s support.
“My lord, that is right...”
“His goats have ruined by mustard crop.... I’ll claim damages” Gehlu made his move.
“Yes, bai, he is a devotee of the Goddess... when he reaches frenzy singing the hymns, he does not remain in his senses....”
“This has to be admitted our Lachhoo is a real devotee...”
“I noticed him day before yesterday at the time of night long prayers, he completely lost himself in dancing...”
Ever body laughed.
“Okay Lachhoo, you should take care of your goats....” the Sarpanch advised him. And making fun of Lachhoo, the Panchayat would disperse.
On the occasion of every marriage in the village, Lachhoo would slaughter a few goats and cook so delicious mutton that everyone was left liking his fingers... his mutton was very popular in many surrounding villages.
But slowly the city hotels took away from him this business also.
Lachhoo’s goats went on disappearing one after the other and finally they were all gone... and then one mid-night he committed suicide... hanging himself from a branch of the acacia tree in front of his house.
X X X
“Bravo! A little more effort!” the contractor is encouraging the workers.
“Well done! Cut off the young acacias... only the few... that remain.”
Tiny agile birds are chirping, dancing in the air in a flurry... around the young acacias, where their nests are... where their chicks are... who opening and closing their beaks look rather helpless....
“Sardarji, these tender chicks evoke a feeling of pity...” Sheru says stopping his axe.
The contractor has gone away ignoring him completely.
“Shame on such a job! ...simply killing the innocents... where will be salvation after all this!” Kartara has wiped the sweat from his brow.
“Look at these weaver finches crying... see what cacophony they have created... O God! ...what a job assigned to us!”
Neglected, crushed chicks lie among the broken down nests in the felled acacias in the village shamlat... shattered eggs lie scattered and weaver finches clamour above.
“Bai, this is real brutality...”
The women, come to get some hay for the buffaloes, stand helpless... Both Baba Lekha and Chetu look at ruined, devastated shamlat... return to the village tapping their staves, walking with their backs bent.
The young kids are collecting weaver nests.
Bhanto Mehri has come back again, she keeps coming back... she does not go anywhere.
“Oh God! May they be wiped out completely...” sitting by the cut down acacias and broken nests, she has started pouring out her sorrow.
“I say Tara has brought a truck...” someone conveys the news.
Kalu, Golu and Manna are all hurriedly loading things on to the truck... some other villagers are standing nearby... they are talking about lands, enquiring about prices.... When the truck leaves, they all look sad; some have tears in their eyes.
Bhinda, Mehna and Bilu come from somewhere far away... they are out of breath... they say the estate office people have locked the buffaloes in. They beat the animals mercilessly. Bellowing buffalos run back, and they hit them with sticks... they have taken away some seventy to eighty heads of cattle with them... Look here, Jungy is injured, they twisted Jora’s arm... Gehlu has been hit on the head, he is in hospital... we have just come to inform that he may die... Gehlu’s wife goes running crying bitterly... aged parents head somewhere tapping their walking sticks... Bhanto Mehri comes running like mad exclaiming ‘Oh God!’ and scolding someone’s children....
They say now the estate office people are demanding fine. Starving buffalos would die of thirst... the milk would dry up... Sweating profusely, scampering here and there... trying to find some little ornament to pawn with Dharmu, the money-lender.... borrowing money at exorbitant rates of interest, they have left for the estate office... They can’t understand why they can’t feed their cattle in their own lands... It is still lying vacant... only a few bungalows have come up....
“This is tit for tat... Look at Gehlu, he stole and ate Lachhoo’s goat... now those men...”
A mild whirlwind hits the ruins and crosses the metalled road... the sharp bright feathers of the wild fowl get scattered all over the place...
“That neem remains to be felled” the contractor says to the workers, “come on, man, come on.”
“Get your axes ready then....”
“Come on great-grandson, chop off your ancestral neem...” Sheeshu has a jibe at Kartara.
“It is so thick, bai....”
“Here, nothing would be left intact” Kashmira guffaws.
“Come on, hurry up” the contractor is in a hurry.
The workers have got their axes ready.... And spitting on his palms, angry Kartara is frantically chopping the neem... He suddenly has a great burst of energy, splinters fly off the neem...
The workers have left after their finishing time... The young children are subdued looking at the felled neem... then they start digging up little neem saplings that have sprouted on their own under that tree...
“Bibi, look... neem saplings.... where to plant them?” Preetu is asking his mother.
“What? We have no courtyard of our own any more...” Preetu is a surprised a little, realising that.
Amru’s granny, sitting on the debris of her house, is pouring out her grief uttering wains... a dog is howling some distance away....
All the pups of a bitch have died buried under the rubble. Now the dogs are dragging them around.... vultures are hovering above... a rat has disappeared under the debris.
Gehlu’s grandmother has come to Amru’s granny. Both of them covering their foreheads with their shawls are grumbling about something... on verge of crying... who knows whether the meals were cooked or taken at night or not... women and children are all trying to find something from the ruins of their homes... Finding some small object, the children happily run to their mothers to display their finds....
Tents have sprouted during a single night all along the circular road around the village... putting together their broken hearths, the women have set alight the dung-cakes and put the pulses in pots to cook... gloomy-looking men sitting nearby are slurping hot tea from the bowls...
The children have got hold of a stray donkey.... they have tied a broken can to its tail...
Some people from the village had gone to the hospital to enquire about Gehlu’s health... they have just returned... they are quiet and gloomy.
“Look! since many days dogs were howling at night... at sadhu’s mound.” Ambo, Karo, Beebo and Bhanti sitting on the rubble are talking and sighing.
“Once I happened to wake up at midnight... an owl was hooting from tamarisk tree....”
“These things long for ruins, friends....”
Jeeto and Rano brought some kittens from somewhere... they have not opened their eyes as yet....
“Look! From where have you brought these...?”
“Their poor mother is dead.”
“Oh my God! I am gone!” Bhanti’s heart aches with pity as she commiserates with them. Rano has brought some milk from her mother in a small bowl and now she is feeding them drop by drop with a piece of cotton....
The boys hit the donkey with a stick to make it run... the tin rattles... the boys enjoy and laugh freely.
“Ni, look, as if a marriage is taking place...”
“Ni, yes. Look how our Kalu is running around...”
“They haven’t been to school for three days now...”
“Look there! ...Kalu is riding the donkey...”
“Ni, he sits facing backwards...”
“Shame on you!” they all guffaw with delight.
“Vé, paint his face black now....” Ambo shouts aloud.
The bowls have slipped out of the hands of men drinking tea, the women are doubled with laughter... shouting, laughing, dancing, clapping boys are chasing the donkey... -----