“Hey! Rise, rise! Don’t snore. Rush to the river. Meantime, I fire the oven,” said Zarina shaking his man who lay half-naked on the mud floor. The day was extremely hot, and the night merciless. People perspired in profusion day and night. Frequent baths gave them a fleeting relief.
Jabbar yawned and wallowed. He then stood up with a jerk, and his eyes soon fell on the calendar where the portrait of the leader was hung. He is tall, bald, nose sharp, cheeks glossy, and eyes brilliantly shinning. Suddenly he flung the napkin on the floor, rushed to the portrait, kissed and muttered, “O! My leader! Our leader! Years we cherish to see, and today our dream is a reality!”
And like the days of the festival villagers from early morning swam the river, dressed their best, and queued before the bus. For window-seats they cried and clashed. The scene was extraordinary. It happened once in a blue moon. The bus would leave at 9 a.m. from school ground.
It was mid-May. Today the leader of national repute would address a gathering in the district town. The roads leading to the Kranti Maidan were polished, and the trees and poles of both sides of the roads were wrapped with the party flags, festoons, and hoardings. The flags were fluttering at the whisk of wayward wind. Passers-by all wore a cheerful look. The offices and the shops were almost deserted. Villagers crowded each street, and they were shouting slogans and milling mirthfully toward the Maidan.
“Where’s my son?” coughed and asked an elderly party worker, a farmer, tall, lean, a widower of the village.
“Oh! Father, take the stool, he’s coming. Take a cup of tea, meantime,” insisted Zarina pulling veil over her face, and the oven was belching smoke, blackish, grey.
“No need daughter. Another day. Just tell my boy to take the festoon to be pasted on the bus. Ah! Forty one rainless days, and this blistering heat!” the old farmer got up and trudged toward his fence, wiping beads of sweat over his forehead with a napkin hanging from his scraggy neck.
The bus was packed like sardines. The workers yelled for half an hour. And when the tide of initial excitement ebbed away, they searched for the driver. They were vexed, and abused his parents by swearing the names hundred demons. Then a gaunt man with blunt nose, drunk, came tumbling and horned and horned. The conductor boomed the bus thrice and it began to roll. A thick smoke and dust free flowed around.
“Uncle, it’s a lifetime chance!” beamed Jabbar. His eyes were tinkling, and ears red.
“Yes, Jabu,” nodded the elderly man solemnly while pressing tobacco on his scabbard palm. He thumped the dust thrice and offered a pinch to Jabu, and looked outside. The houses and trees were gleefully running behind. And through the open window air brushed the old man, and he soon felt drowsy.
“Uncle, it’s morning, and you’re sleeping!” cried Jabu impatiently and blabbered, “look at the ponds, fields, houses, shops, children! It’s beautiful, full of life! Nobody hangs blinders before our eyes. That’s freedom! Ah! Allah is gracious!”
“You’re not a palaver! I suppose. You are a farmer. You have deep roots!” the man uttered with lips tight, and again fell asleep. And a minute later he straightened to the seat and blared, “Jabu, is it the first time you see fields, ponds, cattle, kilns, children, beggars? Huh! And for freedom who is in bondage? British left decades ago. Why does the question of freedom arise? Our land is free! You can go wherever you like, and do what you like! Close eyes. The day isn’t for chattering!”
The bus lumbered past the festooned road. Newly fastened flags were fluttering, and the life size cut outs of the leader seen everywhere and he seemed to be blessing people with a holy posture. Party activists from the hood of the bus shouted slogans, battered drums, clapped hands and sang in cohesion, and waved hands to the passers-by and occasionally made obscene gestures to a rustic young girl or a fat housewife.
Finally it stopped with a heavy jerk at a corner of the Maidan. The sun was overhead. The field was flooded with all sorts of vehicles, and the people were all excited. A group was going this side another that side, women screaming, children crying, hawkers hawking chanas and plastic toys. Villagers urinated here and there under the bush, and on the sands. Their motley attires gave the city a sudden raffish look. City men looked at the villagers as if they were men of circuses, and just freed from its tent!
“Uncle, uncle, we’re at Kranti Maidan. Let’s brush quickly,” Jabu said with excitement and briskly fumbled for his pocket mirror. He combed, dusted from head to toe, and made him up for the rendezvous.
“Oh! The bus is empty! Where have they all gone leaving us in the lurch, Jabu?” rued the old man.
“Why? They all blare and you snore like a fat drunkard! You are a nonchalant old haggard, and you claim yourself a party worker! Tell me why have you come in the city? What’s night for? Phoo!” indignantly Jabu queried, and spat through the window.
“Calm my boy, calm! Give ears to the speakers. Why shall we hurry?” coldly argued the old man, and put a betel leaf into his mouth and rolled it quietly.
“Ok! Sleep at the bus then! I’m going…” Jabu angrily said and hurriedly came out of the bus. He set his feet on the dust, and his eyes glistened. A sea of people was waving through the sprawling sands. The ground was abuzz with the shouting, chanting, and slogans. Mikes blared, vehicles horned. And the leader was yet to arrive. The dais was wrapped with festoons and flags and flowers. A bevy of beauties were waiting to touch the feet of the leader, and be blessed for life!
“Hey! Stop. Don’t’ move a pace further, raise hands,” grinned a tall, well built three starred uniformed man, and immediately a swarm of young constables with bamboo sticks in their hands rushed to Jabu, and carried him to the police corner.
“Who’re you?” mockingly asked a young constable.
“Oh! A Bangladeshi, I see!”
“Sir, me from Sonamukhi village. Truth I tell. Not a word I lie. Believe me,” pleaded Jabbar with folded hands.
“Show aadhar card then,” casually the constable said.
“I forget it, sir.”
“It’s okay. Voter card please.”
“I don’t have the original. But a photocopy…” Jabbar fumbled one of his pockets, and took out a crumpled paper.
“Take it sir.”
“No photocopy please. Show the original,” coldly said the constable.
Both were silent for a while.
“Okay, what you do, Babar?” enquired the constable again.
“Me not Babar, sir. I’m Jabbar.”
“Oh! Sorry! What you do Jabar?”
“A farmer sir,” benignly he said.
“How much land do you have?” mechanically asked the constable.
“Not a decimal sir. I am a landless farmer. The landed peasants hire me in season, and in off season I work as a mason in Gujrat, Bengaluru, Kerala, etc.”
“Why have you come here then?” the constable asked with an expression of prejudice.
“I am part-time party worker sir, and I love our leader. It’s my dream to meet him. And Allah opens eyes, and the chance came today. I’ll go and handshake with my leader. From the day his arrival is announced, sleep eludes me. Please let me go sir. In a minute our leader will come. Please sir, please,” Jabu said at a sweep, and knelt before the constable. Under the sweltering heat his voice has become dry, hoarse, and weak.
“Hey! Chatka, take him to the corner and tie him to a pole,” ordered the constable, and the water- boy dragged him to the corner.
Meanwhile the leader arrived escorted by thousands of police officers garnished with state of the art guns and delivered his golden speech. People were enthralled, and they made wounds on their palms by continuous clapping. For half-an hour the city looked a cemetery. The shops were shuttered, and in offices some old clerks were dozing under the whirring fans. Even the street dogs were not found; a week long special drive was jointly carried out by the municipality and local police station to make the city dogs-free. Birds left days before. Only some jackdaws were still clambering in a nearby heap of leftover where flies incessantly buzzing and feasting.
“Please sir, please, let me go…time is running out…,” bid Jabu with tears in his eyes.
“Don’t cry. It’s forbidden. People come here to cheer!” warned the water-boy.
“Let me go sir. If not on the dais, please let me have a full look at our leader. And I’ll slave you for life,” cajoled Jabu.
“Slave sir. I mean servant sir.”
“Who needs a servant at home? Myself is a servant,” he looked confused.
“Okay, let that go. Please give your hand, sir.”
“Why? Are you a palmist?”
“Yes sir, a bit…”
“Fine. Tell then what waits ahead…?”
“Yes, uh…have a beautiful wife, and she cooked well, father mother dead, sister widowed, a neighbouring boy tries to make inroad in her life in your absence…big danger, fire lies here….” murmured Jabu cautiously studying the intricate lines of the water-boy’s hands.
“Danger! What danger?” the water-boy sprang to his feet, as if a fire caught him.
“No need to worry sir. A way I find…” Jabu laughed a harmless laugh.
“Sir, you go home at nine and come at early morning. Right?”
“Right. Doing it for last ten years. It’s usual,” claimed the water-boy.
“Usual it was when your parents were alive, and your widowed sister had not fled home. It’s unusual now,” Jabu thumped him. “Okay, give me a smoke, I’m dying for it.”
“It’s forbidden here,” claimed the water-boy.
“Ah! Crying forbidden here, smoking forbidden here! How do you live here, man, no, sir?” languishingly he anguished.
“Try not to play clever. What’s the way?”
“Oh! I forget it,” Jabu scratched head, and his eyes fixed on the ground. He kept silent for five minutes, and claimed, “Difficult sir, arduous. Let’s see.”
“Okay, do you love your wife?”
“Every night we made love.”
“Night…?” fiercely Jabu asked, and shook the water-boy in sheer rage. Then next he became a child again and urged, “Hear me first, then reply. You’re a nice young man and have a beautiful wife at home, you agreed earlier. Am I wrong?”
“Okay, keep eyes on my eyes, and confide, “Does your wife love you alike?”
“How do you know?”
“Why? Her belly day by day is ballooning.”
“That’s bliss. Please visit home at some awkward noon, and make love. You know days compliment nights. And if you are burnt then, pine not. That’s the ways of life, sir!”
“What do you mean, man?” flabbergasted he was.
“I mean what I mean. Fencing around a beautiful garden is good! But watering and weeding out are welcome moves! Oh! You’re sweating profusely. Be aired and cool, sir.”
The water-man unfastened and knelt before Jabbar. He dusted himself, and rushed to the crowd.
When he swam ashore, leader left the dais, and being escorted by hundred sleek, milky white dark-glassed cars. And the crowd was waving behind. Some eyes shone brilliant, and some were shaded with shards of tears.
Jabbar retreated to an empty corner, littered with used bottles, crumpled papers, discarded plastic cups. The sands whirled at the thrash of million feet, and the Maidan was hazy, smoky, dark, and lurid. He saw the waves of the people, and he suddenly felt as light as a feather.
The darkness soon wrapped the field, and the sands were cold. The bus no 2139 was ready to roll. But Jabbar didn’t come. The old man guarded the seat. Good and evil thoughts were playing on his mind. Standing party workers—intoxicated jubilant, garrulous, kept eyes on the empty seat with a vulture’s eyes.
Then the old man shrieked, and the workers were shaken to the marrow. He shoved away the passengers and warned the driver not to inch a stride.
He rummaged the field alone, and found him lying swooned, and his body was smeared with dust and sweat. He cried, a most horrible cry, and the co-passengers rushed toward the corner. He sprinkled waters on his face, and patted him. Some messaged limbs and others stomach. Then slowly Jabbar came to life.
Next morning he slept till noon. Zarina rose early when the cocks crowed. She bathed, cooked, swept the yard. She tossed his man and pleaded, “O, my dear! Why do you hide from the sun? It’s blazing outside, and the river rippling. Up and swim, and tell your story. Have he hugged you? Have you touched his feet, and been blessed?”
Jabbar tightly pulled his legs and head close to his breast, and muttered for a while, and lay like a twisted log till evening.