19 September, 2012

Nayi Naveli Soch

We Are Born
“Breathe in, heavily, yes, now push.”
“Push harder; breathe, yes, yes, good …. good”. Silence. A sweet cry.
Somewhere, a mother is ecstatic and a father proud.
Somewhere else a mother is scared and a father angry.
In Lyallpur a boy is born, in Amritsar a girl.
In Lyallpur, this birth will be followed by drums of liquor being rolled out with the distribution of sweets to friends and family.
In Amritsar, it will be followed by attempts to end a new life.

September 27, 1907 was marked by a quiet and sunny afternoon ensued by the birth of two beautiful children. But as darkness prevailed, darkness prevailed upon humanity, reflecting upon the differences between the births of two sexes. On this day, Bhagat Singh and I were born few miles away from each other, and both of us grew up to be revolutionaries - he by actions, I by thoughts.

Baba’s Witch
Once again a bright morning had started with a mourning. My father, Hardeep, was displaying his usual sorrow of not having a son to work with him on the farms. And on noticing an expected ignorance to this repeated act of his by his wife Kuldeep, he did next what he knew would make her flinch, would make her cry and in turn would make him content.  

I was in the bedroom, the only ‘room’ of the house when I heard Hardeep’s tone drift from irritation to fury and the thudding sound of his chappals signaled his movement towards the room. In a matter of 10 seconds I hid my book under the bed, wore my chappals, ran to the bathroom and locked myself in it. Once inside, I wondered if this was my fastest attempt to escape his wrath or the one I made day before. Before I could come to a conclusion, a combination of shouting and banging the door pulled me back to face a reality which had now been a part of my life for 8 years. 

“Come out, Come out now!” he roared. “Baba, I’m taking my bath”, I replied. “Look! She has mastered the art of lying at 7!” The timbre of this statement made me realize that I had given him a reason to beat me up, again. It wasn’t that my irrational father ever needed a reason, me being a girl was enough. Also I realized he didn’t know my correct age. “She is 8 now, not 7”, my mother replied calmly, “and she doesn’t lie, she is just scared of you. You should leave; you are getting late to go to the farms”.

“No. I’m not going to leave until this little liar comes out. Are you listening? Come out right now! If you make me wait, you will only add fuel to fire,” and he thumped on the door. “Since the time you have entered my life, all you have done is eat up all of my savings without any contribution! Come out right now!”. “That is because you chose to make her sit at home, even depriving her of any education.” mother argued still maintaining her calm. “What is education without values? She’s lying at the age of 7! She doesn’t even deserve any education”, he retorted. 

With a tone of disgust mother replied, “Blame it on her genes. A person who can kill for gender is moral-less, and one who can’t remember his child’s age, shameful.” What she said was true but sometimes truth can be dangerous and this was one of those times. I heard Hardeep’s chappals move away from the room and I knew he had gone to fetch his stick. All these years had taught me that anything said or done after this point will be of no help. So quietly, I came out. Mother was standing in the room and in her eyes I saw what I had seen before - a helplessness carried forward from past experiences, nonetheless mixed with a determination to try to protect me today.

Before Hardeep could enter the room with his stick, mother and I had spoken in silence - we had told each other not to worry. “Oh! You are out. Come here you witch!”, half way through his sentence Hardeep had held me by my arms and hit me on the back. I know now it hurt mother more than me. This was followed by her struggle to pull him away from me, at which she succeeded after a minute, which felt like a century. Hardeep only stopped beating me, the abusing continued; he picked up his tools, and left for the farms.

Every time being beaten I would hear myself shout, “Baba, please don’t!” and it would make me wonder how could such a soft and sweet voice not melt someone’s heart. He must really hate me, I would think. I was certain even at 8 that the only ‘important’ job Hardeep does or ever did was to go to the farms. Being at the farms reminded him of the loss of a helper in the form of a son, which somehow led him to believe that his most important job was to kill me - a job he persistently failed at but never gave up upon.

I was sitting in the backyard on the floor, sharing my space with the glaring sun, noisy birds and mother, who was seated on the charpoy and trying hard to make my hair look less attractive by tying them into a plait. The morning incident had left us unperturbed owing to their frequency and yet it was at the back of our minds. So I asked her directly for the first time, “Ma, why does Baba hate me so much?” 

Mother tried her best to explain, “Naveli, your father wanted a son who could help him on the farms, earn a livelihood, and later shoulder the responsibility of your parents.” “I could do all of that,” I replied quickly. “Yes, you are capable and so is any other daughter, but they are incapable to accept a girl,” she said with a frown. “Who are they?” I asked. “People like your father.”

My understanding from this conversation was that the only reason Hardeep was in a desperate want of a son was because he thought I couldn’t do what a ‘son’ can. In my mind I plotted a plan where I would surprise Hardeep on the farms and prove to him that I could do the job of a son. And then he will realize that all these years … “All these years I have tried everything to make him understand that a child, irrespective of the gender is a gift in itself. When I failed at my persuasions I have tried to protect you from him,” mother was talking more than usual.

“Before your birth my worry was to give birth to a healthy child while Baba worried about the birth of a handsome son. Once you were born that worry of his culminated into anger, a feeling he has not let go of. I remember clearly you were in my arms the moment he first looked at you, and from his stone-faced look one could not tell if he was looking at a child he wanted to embrace or a daughter he wanted to kill. His actions gave that out. He snatched you away from my arms and hurried outside the room.” By now mother had stopped plaiting my hair, and her eyes swallowed by gigantic tears were narrating the story, or maybe living it.

“With the little energy I had, I cried for help and for him to stop. A small and noisy argument took place outside the room and finally Raman mama bought you back into the room and into my arms. I don’t remember when did Hardeep leave, all I remember is holding you close to my chest and fighting hard to keep my weary eyes open until morning came along. I was sadder than scared, for I doubted if we will ever experience the joy of a family.” Tip. A tear fell from her chin and ran down my forehead. It felt so replete as if it carried down the weight of all her sorrows. Only if that was possible I would take it all away from her.

Naveli, meet Bhagat
The horrific stories of my fathers' innumerable attempts to end my life did not deter me, and my plans of surprising him on the farms remained intact, success at achieving my goal was still in question. A part of this uncertainty is what drew me closer to play this very precarious game.

The atmosphere of my house was always found in extremes- very quiet or very noisy. This happened to be a peaceful morning when mother was busy in the kitchen and Hardeep was getting ready to leave for work. I too was getting ready - mentally preparing myself to do what might be the ‘bravest act’ in the history of my 8 years. I was to secretively follow Baba into the farms keeping a more-than-safe distance, hide behind a huge tree and walk into the farms such that by the time Hardeep would notice his daughter, she would already be busy working.

What essentially adds color to childhood is inexperience and makes it a period to cherish. The unnecessity of ascertaining the feasibility of a plan that ultimately ensures its failure, giving birth to a memorable story which would be narrated to your children and grandchildren, over and over again. My plan was to become one of these ‘funny stories’, and for me, an important lesson. Hardeep left, mother got occupied with everyday chores and then with a lot of determination, I left. Soon the shortcomings of the plan started to surface. 

My most favorite asset then, were my parrot-green colored chappals, with small red bells attached to them, which became an obstacle in achieving my much desired ‘quiet chase’. So my decision to remove and hide them behind a tree amounted to my first mistake - the path was too hot and filled with pebbles. If this were to be the road to Baba’s heart, making me walk barefoot on it was a good way to kill me, someone tell him. But I continued to walk behind him realizing that no distance away from him was ‘safe distance’. Since it was always Hardeep who chased me, with me chasing him for the first time the grass on the other side felt as dangerous as red, if colorful at all. This physical and mental suffering in the form of a long focused chase ended once Baba entered the farms and started working.

Past 30 minutes were so fully consumed in paying close attention to Baba’s every move that when reality struck I was taken aback. What surrounded me was an infinite display of yellow - a color I detested for its brightness until now. For me the only other manifestation of such an endless vastity had been the blue sky, but today it was as if the farm was welcoming me to discover where yellow marked its boundaries and where blue began.

“Khrr Khrr”- once again, it was Baba responsible for wrecking my dreams as he started his tractor rather raucously. I immediately became conscious of the fact that I needed a tree to hide behind and that nowhere in the vicinity was there a tree big enough to veil a girl of 4”2’. Just when it looked like my ill-prepared plan was falling apart I noticed that the wheat crops were tall enough for me to take refuge in them.

There was a need to revise my plan and so I made myself comfortable in between the harvest which evidently indicated Baba’s perfection at his only 'important' job. With time passing by slowly I thought about the inveterate torrid weather of Amritsar, the safety of my atypical chappals and the possibility of a rare insect running over me. I was hot and scared and hence unable to concentrate on devising a new scheme. Baba would be doing this all day so I did have little time for resting my mind.

“Red ants are very dangerous. If they bite you, you can get blisters. And there are lots here”, a soft voice warned me. As if it hurt my puerile ego to accept that these ‘words of wisdom’ came out of a boy of about my height and age, I heard myself say, “I know. I’m not scared of them.” “Neither was I, until one bit me”, he replied.

There. Inexperience - and a story to tell. 

He told me about the first time he got bitten by a red ant on his feet and the swelling made it difficult to even walk properly for two days and how he became a laughing stock amongst his friends when they found out the reason of his absence from their everyday game of cricket. I laughed, he followed, and it was then that I noticed his eyes -sometimes as serene as flowing waters, sometimes as scintillating as burning fire - even at 8, you won't miss it.

We were engrossed in long chats and a game of stones when I happened to look around and was stunned not because it was dark or I had forgotten about the plan, but because I had forgotten about Baba. Quickly I got up and started to leave thinking how could a ‘game of stones’ with a boy I hardly knew for 8 hours make me forget the ‘game of wrath’ with Baba for 8 years? Who was this boy? I didn’t even know his name. When I turned around he was still playing with the stones. “What is your name?” I screamed. “Bhagat,” he screamed back.

The thoughts in my mind matched the pace at which I was running back home. Will I reach home before Baba? What will I tell Ma? Where was I? Will my chappals be waiting for me? No. My chappals were gone. But there was no time to grieve. So I ran as fast as I could and banged on the doors of my house. “Where were you?” Ma was loud but not shouting, “and where are your chappals?” I rushed to my room to change my dirty clothes. “Ma, today I met Bhagat and we played a lot. I lost my chappals. Please buy me new ones”, I said it in one go. “You will put both of us in great trouble someday”, resting herself on the charpoy she asked me smilingly, “What kind of chappals do you want?” “Same as my old ones, but in yellow”, I said smiling and hugged her.

The Seeds Are Sown
Na appeal, Na dalil, Na vakil - Amritsar, as the rest of India, was outraged at the introduction of this cryptic phase of what was famously known as the ‘Rowlatt Act’. It gave Britishers the authority to search and arrest people without any warrant, to detain them without any trial and to try them in special courts without any right to appeal. And so as per Gandhiji’s request a nation-wide hartal was being observed today, on the 30th of March.

Patriotism is a not a situational emotion, it should endure at all times. But with the current degree of British oppression it was at its peak - I too was fasting. Morning had passed away with ease but by afternoon I had started to feel nauseous. We were in the kitchen where Ma was sieving wheat and I was pretending to be busy reading, but finally gave up the act and told her I couldn’t bear to fast any longer. “I told you it was not necessary. But since half the day is already over you might as well wait a little longer. It will be an accomplishment you and I will be proud of,” she said. Her simple sentences worked like a magic spell. But I was not in the mood for magic. I had not asked for advice or even permission, I only wanted to eat. I kept my book tried to fall asleep with an empty stomach in the faultiest of rooms, the kitchen. Ma must have noticed my quiet disappointment so she continued talking in an attempt to keep me engrossed and forget about the food. 

“Britishers are like octopuses. Masters of disguise - came to India as traders, took over as rulers. Smart, because it was a long and well-concocted plan. Cowards, because they panic at the slightest hint of danger. And short lived, because soon their tyranny will come to an end. Bharat is changing.” I understood little of what she meant. Next day we got the news that since all Indian states could not receive the news of a nation-wide hartal, it had been postponed to the 6th of AprilI felt very cheated, knowing little that in the days to come one of the most significant chapters in the history of the nation was to be written - with blood.

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