The Village by the Airavan - Part 1

As the boat slowly wade its way through the sluggish waters of the Airavan river, the first rays of the Sun brushed across Motli's eyes covered under wet jute rag. He stirred awake and sat up. The boat's owner Juddi Kaka was slowly paddling the oar across the water, hymning a silent tune to himself. The image of Juddi, oar in hand paddling towards the Sun emerging from a dip in the Airavan made for a spectacular sight. On other days, Motli would have broken into a wide smile at such a beautiful image.

Motli was making his way back home, Ganeshapur, after finishing his second year of college in the distant town of Ahmadnagar. The son of the village school-teacher, Motli had shown an early interest in academics that the elders and children at Ganeshapur found oddly amusing. 'Arre, whatever will you do with a degree? Anyways you have to come back and pick up cow-shit in the mornings!', his uncle Manesh would often bellow after a hearty lunch made my Motli's mother. Motli's mother also felt that he was needed to take care of their lands. 
She never quite forgave his father for choosing books over her ancestral lands and leasing out the lands to strangers for upkeep. She did not wish for another generation of her family abandoning their God-given fields. Motli had never understood her emotional, almost spiritual connection with their fields. As a child, she would wake him before the stroke of dawn to inspect the budding paddy shoots and sprinkle them with holy waters. 

Unsurprisingly, Motli's father encouraged his academic interests. Ramesh Pant was the kind of man children could take for a ride. One look at his bald, bespectacled face and every new kid's eyes would gleam at having found a target for his pranks. As a boy Motli had been ashamed of his father's soft-spoken nature and delicate mannerisms. His numerous uncles and cousins were almost universally brawny and loud. Yet as he grew older, Motli found his opinions about his father changing drastically. For his 12th birthday his mother presented him with a wooden toy of a bullock-cart, while his father gave him a second-hand copy of Robert Stevenson's 'Treasure Island'. His mother had scoffed at the gift, exclaiming, 'Are you trying to make our boy like you? Nose always buried in some book. Motli will grow up to be a strong boy like our Manesh!'. Unlike most boys in the village, Motli had learnt the English alphabet and grammar from his father, who in turn had studied the language under Father Frederic Smit, a Catholic missionary who had spent many years in Ganeshapur managing the local parish. 

Much to the silent delight of his father and the unfiltered dismay of his mother, Motli fell in love with the book! He read it cover to cover four times and could be found at any time of the day with the book in hand. Finally he approached his father and requested for another book. His father chuckled and said, 'Don't tell you mother. There is a small library in Ghazinpat. You can take my membership card and cycle and fetch yourself a new book each month.' Many years and many books later, Motli passed his tenth grade exams by topping the school and decided to enroll for junior college in Ghazinpat, the nearest town. It would mean staying at the college hostel. One lazy afternoon, as the entire family was idling after a heavy meal of plantains, Motli broached the topic. 

'Hear this atrocity! My son, my only son, the only who should set fire upon my dead body wants to leave me and become a town-wallah! How much I have sacrificed for him, but having read a few books, he is suddenly too good for his mother!'. Manesh, who enjoyed his sister's cooking very much indeed, joined in, 'What is the use of junior college? Here we were, hoping our boy Motli will fetch us a good daughter-in-law with a fat dowry to sire more hands for the fields, but you want to leave! Look at your cousin, Badru. He is just a year older than you but already has one boy, with another on the way. Now, that's a boy his elders can be proud of!' Motli turned towards his father who was staring at the tulsi plants in the backyard. His father finally said, 'I have some money saved up, we leave for Ghazinpat in a week.' 

That had been 4 years ago. After junior college, Motli found convincing his parents about moving to Ahmadnagar for college much easier. His mother refused to talk to him for weeks and Manesh and co., seemed to have resigned in their cause for him. Ahmadnagar was over 500 kms away and since Ganeshapur could only be reached by the Airavan, Motli found an easy excuse to avoid coming home even during the holidays. Instead he would spend his college breaks working in the college library as an assistant. It gave him plenty of time to read as much as he wanted and just enough money to afford his hostel room and meals.
A week back, Motli had received a letter from home. He casually dropped it in his bag and forgot to read it till late at night. Letters from home were not rare. His mother, after her initial rage, would write once a fortnight without fail, always demanding him to return home. All her letters were the same. Motli could almost imagine her sitting in the verandah dictating her misery to Manesh's fourth son, Pappu as he would scrawl across the paper in his childish handwriting. Oddly, this latest letter was not written by Pappu. It was in his father's hand. His father never wrote to him. Every letter from his mother would end with a verse or two about his father's best wishes and blessings. Motli tore open the envelope and hurriedly started reading the letter.

Dear Motli,
I trust you are well. From Pranesh, the post-man, whose son also studies in your college, I found out that your examinations are over and you are having a 2-month vacation now. Why don't you pay us a visit? Your mother is missing you very much. The last time we saw you was during Diwali of last year. While I understand that your education is very important and understandably, occupies much of your time, you must make some time for your family as well.
Manesh's elder son, Pravinla, has been blessed with another boy. Your mother is, understandably, ecstatic for her nephew but is now demanding a grandson for herself. She often blames me for turning you away from the family way and often goes entire days without speaking to me. I try my best to make her understand that while family can wait, education cannot.

Anyways Motli, I wish you could come home for a few days at least. Please send a telegram to Ghazinpat post office if you can indeed make it here. I will be going there in a few days.
May Lord Ganesha always light your endeavours with his bountiful wisdom.

Your father.
Ramesh Mohan Pant. 

 
After reading the letter, Motli was beset with conflicting emotions. On the one hand, he was overcome by guilt at having been apprehended by his father for not visiting home during the holidays. He felt sorry that his father had to to listen to his mother's venom day in and day out. On the other hand, Motli felt a tingling of suspicion. Why send a telegram to Ghazinpat post-office when Motli could just write back home? Why was his father so keen on knowing whether Motli could come home soon? But guilt won over suspicion and soon he set about sending a telegram stating he could come home for a few weeks and would start the day after.

The way to Ganeshapur from Ahmadnagar involved two train journeys and a boat ride. In Maninpet, a transit railway station, Motli ran into his old school friend, Parinder who now worked as a deputy clerk in the station. Upon seeing Motli, Parinder embraced him vigorously, as he would often do for no reason, and broke into a wide grin, 'You lucky dog! All your studying seems to have paid off eh? Madhumathi! Of all the girls in the village! You lucky lucky dog!' Motli stared back at his friend in confusion, 'What are you talking about? What Madhumati?'
'Don't you know? Your family has made marriage arrangements for you with Madhumati, Sundesh Kaka's only daughter. Not only are you going to get a pretty bride but also all of Sundesh's lands after his time! What a match!'
Motli froze on his feet. Now he knew why his father had written to him instead of his mother. They knew that the only way Motli would come home would be if his father requested him to. Motli felt stung by his father's betrayal.
Behind him, the train bellowed its decision to start moving again. For a second, Motli considered ditching it and returning back to Ahmadnagar. He could not marry now! He still had one more year of college and after that he wanted to become a lecturer in a big city, maybe even Bombay! How could he abandon all that to settle down in a village? No matter how pretty the girl or how fertile her father's lands, his dreams cannot be abandoned!
But Motli knew that he could never disrespect his father by not showing up after messaging otherwise. Besides, the betrayal made him seek an explanation or at the very least, an expression of anguish from his father's eyes. So he ran back to the train and sat down at his seat, seething with rage.
After his initial temper has subsided, Motli began to recollect about Madhumathi. Since he had been away for a long time, he had no idea how she would look now. In fact Motli had known her during just one summer. Many years ago, during the Ramnavami celebrations in their village square, Motli had played the role of Hanuman and she had been Sita. As they enacted the scene from the Sundar Kand where Hanuman offers to take back Sita across the oceans and into the arms of Rama, Madhumati went off-script and remarked, 'as if you can lift me with your puny arms!' The gangs of elders who had lined up around the square to watch the play broke into guffaws and Motli, red-faced at having been embarrassed by a girl much younger to him, silently vowed to break her arm the next chance he got. But as usual, Motli sat down with a book later at home and totally forgot about Sita and plunged into the city of Venice.
She must have grown up by now. Even as a child, Motli had found her to be an intimidating figure, God only knew how much she had grown by now. A sweeping worry suddenly engulfed Motli, 'what if she is taller and stronger than me? what will everybody say?'. He immediately scolded himself for even imagining that. Of course, he was not going to marry her! The minute he reached home, he would announce his intention to break this proposal and leave before his mother or Manesh could even try talking to him.
Over the remainder of his journey, Motli tried his best to come up with a fool-proof plan for breaking this proposal and rehearsed the lecture he would give his father about importance of truth in relationships.

Finally Joddu Kaku dropped him off at the bank, a short distance away from Ganeshapur. Instead of hiring Kallua to take him home on his bullock-cart, Motli decided to walk. The morning was just cold-enough to demand attention and as much as Motli hated the village, he did enjoy the early morning walks across the adjoining fields.

As he slowly made his way across Binty Zamin's paddy farms, he met his second-cousin Smriti. She seemed to be in great hurry and jumped up when she saw Motli. 'Arrey Dada! What are you doing walking? I thought you will be in Kallua's cart.' When Motli expressed his idea for a walk, she said, 'Walk all you want later on. Now you have to go somewhere!'.
'Now? Smrithi behen, I am very tired after the long journey, can't we go after I have had a bath and a meal?'
 

'No! No' She is waiting by the Kali temple and ordered me to send you there even before you reached home!', Smrithi gushed out in a conspiratorial tone. 

Motli immediately sensed whom she was referring to but for the sake of innocence, he inquired, 'Who is waiting?'
 

'Madhumathi didi! She found out from Sundesh Nana about your coming today and told me to fetch you. In return, she has promised me 20 raw mangoes from their tree this summer!', Smrithi grinned with great delight!

Motli's mind was in a whirlwind. Asking to see her betrothed even before her father had formally met him was a scandal of astronomical proportions. Why, she would be branded a libertine for just speaking about him at her household before the marriage! And what about Motli? His uncles would brand him desperate and his mother would lament him for letting the family name down. 
First of all, why would she go near the Kali temple? That dilapidated structure had been abandoned decades ago and was even considered haunted by many.  How could a woman of the household even think of going there? How could he explain delicately through Smrithi that he could not possibly come and see her?

Even as his mind was buzzing with options for escaping this indelicate proposal, he could not help a smirk. This was the Madhumati he remembered, putting him under the spotlight when he would rather shrink into the confines of a book. He could not let her expose him the fool again. He would go! 

Convincing himself, he gave a strict telling-off to Smrithi to not tell anyone about this business and stormed off towards the Kali temple. He would deal with her first and then his parents!





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