An oven-baked silence.
The sun, like an inverted arrow, seemed to pierce the bosom of the sky scorching everything. Like a burning oven.
It was so hot, so humid!
Such blazing heat that all around there was a deadened silence. Not even the sound of a sparrow chirruping. The birds were also exhausted, thirsty and silent.
Anyhow, at this moment he was outside the village, ploughing his field.
When his eldest son Kartar was killed, he was prostrate with grief. He had been like a tree felled. Lying flat on the ground with dead arms stretched out. Dead! He felt as though he himself was a corpse lying on the bare earth.
Finally, one day Mangal Singh pulled himself together. ‘Come on, Mangal Singha. Kartar has gone now. Perhaps he had to pay debt to me carried over from a past lifetime. Or he had to collect a debt from his mother and me! When the account was cleared, he went on his way. If you sit about helplessly, who is going to feed the rest of the family? God? God is relaxing, Mangal Singha! Sleeping comfortably in his blue heaven. He is not coming to help you. Get up. And get moving!”
It was the season to plough for the new crops. It was the time to upturn the earth and soften it. Hard work.
He had not really thought about God. Ever. He must be someone or other, Mangal Singh had resolved. Enjoying the heavens He created! Sleeping in carefree repose. Waking in the soft dew-drenched glow when the sky is washed clean and the sun begins to shine again and there, far away, the seven-coloured swing can be seen.
Bebe used to say that God makes the rainbow so He can swing on it.
Actually he didn’t have much use for God, particularly after Kartar’s death. ‘If He does exist, there is terrible chaos in His accounts. Otherwise how could he kill a young lad who had not even seen the twenty-second spring of his life? Even a village patwari sometimes bungles the accounts, and that One, Mangal Singha, in his heaven must have a whole sky full of account books and ledgers! What can He do with everything brimming over? He must have lost control, Mangal Singha!
‘That is, assuming He tries. Otherwise, what work does He have, Mangal Singha? To swing on the seven-coloured rainbows, sleep like a king on his soft bed of puffy white clouds, and stroll about in the blue skies? If he had to work the plough in the middle of this blazing afternoon, then the little sod would know what kind of a world he has created and how much credit it does him!’
While he was ploughing, and encouraging the bullocks with little ‘tchch tchch’ sounds alternating with smacking kissing sounds, every now and then he looked towards the dusty path that came from the village. Yes, at this time of day, the path always ‘came’ from the village. In the evenings the same path ‘went home’ towards the village.
‘Basant Kaur is taking a long time today to bring the food. I’m so thirsty it feels as though there is a thorny keekar growing in my throat. If I have water now, my stomach, which is like a burning oven, will rumble like a thundercloud and simply vapourise it. Then I won’t be able to eat anything! And then Basanti will make me feel guilty — ‘I’ve taken so much trouble…’ she’ll complain and sniffle.
Just then he became aware that far, far away, there was someone on the footpath, not in the direction of the village but on the other side. Coming from outside the village.
‘Who can this be, Mangal Singha, walking in this burning heat?’
Isn’t it strange…? Earlier when people saw anyone approaching from a distance, they would be very curious. Curious and happy too, like children. They would want to know eagerly whom the person was going to visit in the village. Whose guest he was, whose Mama, Chacha, or brother? Or perhaps the visitor was from the paternal family of some young wife! It wouldn’t matter whose guest he was. He would not have been allowed to proceed before acquaintance was made and he had been offered a refreshing drink.
How times have changed! Now the sight of a stranger strikes fear. Raw, naked terror! One human being is frightened of another. ‘Mangal Singha! A lion is not frightened of another lion walking by even if it should be ten times stronger. But human beings. ..!’
Now the far-away outline of a human figure was acquiring some detail. A distant hazy picture was coming into focus.
The man was wearing old style juttis on his feet, shabby and dust-laden. Every step raised a little puff of dust. Every time he took another step, the dust followed, hugging his feet. It seemed as though he had walked a long distance. His footsteps were heavy, as though he was exhausted. There seemed to be an increasing weariness with each step.
His clothes – kurta pyjama – were covered with dust. A carelessly wrapped cloth around his head passed as a kind of turban.
And there was something on his shoulder too! A sort of a bundle. Perhaps he was a small-time trader, a salesman; the kind who buys some cloth, or bangles or groceries from the city and then walks to nearby villages to sell his wares. Perhaps it was only a thick coarse cloth he carried to protect his head from the heat of the sun, and to wrap himself with at night.
His head was bowed as though he was measuring the miles he had walked. Or even his steps. He looked down towards his own footsteps and the dust he raised. In his hands there was a khoondi, a heavy stick that he seemed to be dragging along. His face was deeply creased. He was quite old. He appeared to be very weary and weathered by the vagaries of time.
Mangal Singh’s first reaction was to say nothing and allow him to go on his way. ‘Whoever it is, what do I care! These are bad times, Mangal Singha! Who knows who he might be! What if he has a gun, an AK 47, hidden in that cloth bundle? Don’t acknowledge him, Mangal Singha. Be indifferent like people are these days, and let him pass.’
The old man came nearer, and standing on the boundary of the field, fixed his gaze on Mangal Singh.
The intensity of his gaze was such that Mangal Singh could not ignore him.
“Can I have some water?” he asked in a mild, deep voice, barely audible perhaps because of his exhaustion, or perhaps because of the dust choking his throat.
There was a round earthen pot of water, steadied on a square wooden frame, under the sheesham tree. Mangal Singh stopped ploughing. He unyoked the bullocks and unhitched the plough. Clucking at the bullocks, he led them to the shade of the tree and said, “Walk across, Bapu ji. There is no shortage of water. Drink as much as you want.’
‘Let him quickly have his fill of water and go wherever he is headed,’ Mangal Singh thought to himself.
Stepping through the soft ploughed earth, the old man came into the shade of the tree. Mangal Singh filled the small brass bowl from the pot and offered it to him. It was then that he looked hard at the bundle that the old man was holding close to his chest.
Mangal Singh felt a terrible tightening in his innards. He had held the bag containing his son Kartar’s mortal remains in exactly the same way when he went to Kartarpur Sahib to immerse the ashes. Who knows if the old man has also…and he felt his heart melting.
All of a sudden he felt speared by fear, the sharp point grazing. ‘Mangal Singha, there could also be explosives in the bag!’
He then tried to calm himself. ‘Perhaps he also has a Basant Kaur who packed some food for his journey – she may have given him missi parathas to eat when he got hungry. And if she made missi parathas then there should also be mango pickle wrapped in them.’ And he smiled inwardly.
‘O Mangal Singha! No one on earth can cook like Basant Kaur. Is there any other woman in the world who kneads the mixed wheat and gram flour with fresh butter for the parathas? And who puts chunks of spicy mango pickle to go with it?’ He almost chuckled at the thought of Basant Kaur cooking parathas on the crackling firewood in the chullah.
‘Never mind. If the old man wants to eat his food here, under the shade of the tree, then I’ll give him lots of lassi which Basanti will be bringing. That will be something for him to remember us by!’ Then cold logic took over.
‘But Mangal Singha, what if he is not a Punjabi! Instead of missi rotis in his bundle, he may just have roasted gram, or parched rice, or cooked rice, or who knows what else! I can’t quite make out from his face where he is from. Well, what difference does it make to me…? But if he is from outside, why is he wandering around here in the villages of Punjab along these dusty roads where danger lurks even at high noon? There is nothing left here now…. Even the Bihari labourers are now deserting Punjab….Nor does he look as though he is capable of doing any physical work. At his age he should be relaxing in his own home, sitting on a charpai in his own courtyard. This is no time for him to be roughing it out in a strange land being torn apart by violence.’
By this time Basant Kaur had put before him a round basket of rotis and a small pail of lassi. He didn’t even know when she had come, or when she sat down next to him. She too was looking at the old man.
Mangal Singh split the onion with a sharp punch of his clenched fist. He took out the rotis, wrapped in an old worn out but freshly washed piece of white cloth. The aroma of the pickle escaped and was wafted in all directions.
He took two rotis, placed on them half the onion and a chunk of pickle, and held them out to the old man. The old man silently accepted them and gently breaking off bite-sized pieces began to eat.
The difficulty was that there was only one brass bowl, placed face down, on top of the earthen water pot in which he had served water to the old man earlier. Basant Kaur filled it with lassi and handed it to the old man. He drank from it – glug glug glug – till it was empty.
‘A thirsty throat, Mangal Singha,’ he chuckled to himself, ‘is as vigorous in an old man as it is in a child.’
Then Basant Kaur washed out the bowl with a little bit of water and, filling it again with lassi, put it down in front of Mangal Singh. He too gulped it down at one go. To make sure that they didn’t run short of lassi, Basant Kaur then filled the bowl with water from the pot and drank that.
While he was eating, the old man did not look even once at either Mangal Singh or at Basant Kaur. She of course thought that he must be an acquaintance of her husband because when she had reached there, both of them were sitting together under the shade of the tree.
When both the men had finished eating, Basant Kaur returned to the village.
The old man remained sitting under the tree, holding the bundle tightly close to his body, and looking down at the ground as though he were counting the ants walking in the packed earth.
It was Mangal Singh who broke the silence. “If you want to lie down, shall I spread the sheet under the shade?”
The old man didn’t reply and Mangal Singh took his silence for assent. He spread a thick sheet right there under the shade of the tree. The old man got up. He put that bundle down on the sheet very carefully and gently as though there was something in it which he feared might break. Then he stretched out, placing his head on the bundle, and shut his eyes.
‘The poor man! He seems exhausted…’ thought Mangal Singh.
His first reaction was, ‘Poor fellow! Let him sleep.’ But then it suddenly occurred to him that there might be something dangerous in the old man’s bundle. Perhaps bombs! That’s why he placed it so carefully on the ground!
He couldn’t help but ask, ‘‘Where have you come from, Bapu ji’?’’
The old man opened his eyes. His eyes held an age-old despair. But even then there was a strange hypnotic power in them, a kind of luminous glow. Like the soft light from a lantern in a far away darkness.
In silence, for many moments, he looked at Mangal Singh with those sad eyes from which the tremulous glow continued to emanate.
“Where are you going?’’ Mangal Singh asked again.
“But a person who travels under the mid-day sun must surely be going somewhere!” Surprise and suspicion were both growing in Mangal Singh’s mind.
‘‘Nowhere in particular. I just set out. I was feeling restless, so I set out on a journey.’’
‘‘Journey to where’’?
‘‘Nowhere! Just…. I just had to leave and come away!’’ There was a tired resignation in his voice.
“What is your name, Respected One?”
‘‘My name is God.’’
‘Wandering in the sun, the old man has lost his mind, Mangal Singha!’ Mangal Singh thought as he smirked under his moustache. But he asked with a straight face,
‘‘God, whose name is Wahe Guru?’’
‘‘Call me whatever you want. I am God.’’
‘‘Then dear God, what are you doing in this dust-filled godforsaken place?’’
‘‘Just!’’ He shrugged. ‘‘I got restless, so I took some time off’’.
‘‘You have to take time off? From whom? Who do you need to ask?’’
‘‘Myself. Who else!’’ The old man mumbled in a disheartened way. His voice was tired but crystal clear.
‘God? How can this be, Mangal Singha! God who lives in comfort in the skies! The One who walks among the stars! The One who lights up the Sun and the Moon! He who enjoys the seven-coloured swings! This old man is pulling my leg!’ All these thoughts rose like bubbles in Mangal Singh’s mind, arising and dissolving.
It was as though God read Mangal Singh’s mind. He said, “No, I am not fooling you. I really am God. I saw and wondered why on earth I had created this world! Man devours man here. Such a thought never crossed my mind when I was creating the universe. I see now what chaos I had created! How monstrous they have become, they whom I created in my own image! I couldn’t bear my loneliness any longer. There is nothing more terrible than a depressed lonely person, and that goes for me too.’’ Tears choked his voice. ‘‘Me! God!’’
‘‘But God jee, if you saw that, you could have brought everyone to their senses with one strike of your staff. Why did you need to take leave?’’
‘‘No, I got tired. They take my name and proceed to kill each other. So I thought that if I take leave, then perhaps they will stop murdering each other.’’
‘‘Will this slaughter stop? Will this madness of destruction of humankind by man himself come to a halt?’’
‘‘Who knows!’’ God said, his words barely audible. And he sighed deeply.
‘Poor man, he has lost hope. He has become terribly disillusioned,’ thought Mangal Singh.
‘‘As disillusioned as disillusioned can be! I’m so exhausted. Have you an extra bed at home? I’ll sleep outside in your courtyard at night. At dawn I’ll go away.’’
‘‘But I still have work to do. I have to finish ploughing the field.’’
‘‘Never mind, my good man! Continue doing your work. I’m quite comfortable here under the shade of the sheesham tree. I’ll take a nap and then we will go to your home.’’
Mangal Singh could not understand what was going on. He got up and took the bullocks to the little canal that trickled through the fields. They drank till their bellies were full. When they lifted their heads again, it seemed as though their polished horns gleamed brighter in the sun. He then fed them and continued with his ploughing talking all the time with himself. He argued whether the stranger lying under the sheesham tree was merely a demented old man, ignored and humiliated by his young sons and his daughters-in-law, or whether he might actually be a terrorist. Bur can such an old man be a terrorist?
‘Why not, Mangal Singha! He can be a messenger of terrorists! A gun-carrier! A bomb carrier! He could be anyone….! But why do his eyes shine with such magnetic innocence? Why is it that I rather want to believe him?’
The sun had set. He unyoked the bullocks, put the plough across his shoulders and said to the old man: ‘‘We should go now. It will soon be dark. These days it is best to reach home before nightfall. The times are very bad.’’
So the old man slipped on his juttis, flung the cloth over his shoulders, clasped the bundle close against his chest and started walking with Mangal Singh.
‘O God, take care of me. If he is an informer or a terrorist, is it wise to take him home?’ Mangal Singh was thinking. The times were bad. In such times people become suspicious and full of fear.
“Are you seeking protection from me? Are you asking me to keep you safe from terrorists and the police? I’m sorry. Now I’m not in a position to grant anything to anyone any more. I’m taking time out. I’m on vacation,” the old man said.
‘That’s strange!’ Mangal Singh thought, quite taken aback. ‘How does he come to know what is in my mind?’
On seeing that same guest whom she had seen in the afternoon walk in, Basant Kaur, without a word, put in some more flour into the paraat and started kneading the dough. Happy and content to have a guest to look after and serve with hot food.
All of them had their dinner.
A bed was placed in the courtyard. A khes was spread on it.
The old man took off his juttis, dusted them, and slipped them under the bed. Then, holding the bundle upright, he patted it gently and put it at the head of the bed. He then lay down, placing his head gently on the bundle.
“If you won’t take it amiss, may I ask you something?” Mangal Singh said to him, softly.
“What do you have in the bundle which you don’t let go of for even a moment?”
At last a soft little smile settled on the old man’s face. His eyes shone a bit brighter and his voice was like honey – sweet, soft and friendly.
“Not much. A handful of stars, a wisp of a cloud, the sound of birds chattering early in the morning, newly sprouted shoots, leaves of grass, a few dewdrops, about a cupped hand’s worth of running water from streams and rivers, the first gurgling of an infant in a cradle. And some dreams. I thought I should save these at least.”
He then shut his eyes, his head sort of snuggled into the bundle, and went to sleep.