The Village by the Airavan - Part 1

As the boat slowly waded its way through the sluggish waters of the Airavan River, the first rays of the sun brushed against Motli's eyes covered by a wet jute rag. He stirred awake and sat up. The boat's owner, Juddi Kaka, was gently running his oar through the muddy waters, hymning a silent tune to himself. The Airavan, the widest of rivers, was all around them. The image of Juddi, oar in hand, paddling towards the rising sun emerging as if from a quick dip made for a spectacular sight. On other days Motli would have broken into a wide smile at such a beautiful image.

He was on his way to Ganeshapur – home — after completing his second year at college in the distant town of Ahmadnagar. The son of the village-school’s only teacher, Motli had exhibited an early interest in academics that most elders at Ganeshapur found amusing. 'Arre, whatever will you do with a degree? Anyway you have to come back and pick up cow-shit in the mornings!', his uncle Manesh would bellow after a hearty lunch cooked by his elder sister, Motli’s mother. Motli’s mother too believed that his attentions ought to be on the family’s ancestral lands. She had never forgiven her husband for choosing his books over her lands and leasing it to strangers for upkeep — an act of betrayal against their divine endowments. Motli had never understood her emotional, almost religious, connection with the fields. As a child, he would accompany her at the crack of dawn to inspect the budding paddies, sprinkle them with holy waters, and pray for a healthy Monsoon. If the rain gods were kind and the harvest was bountiful, they would offer two stout goats for sacrifice at the temple of Kaala, Ganeshapur’s guardian deity. If the rains were too healthy, the Airavan river would arise from its habitual slumber and flood everything — fields, homes, school yard, cowsheds, and Kaala. When the waters receded, as a child, Motli would try cheering up his mother by performing back-flips in the kitchen or presenting her with the smooth pebbles the Airavan left behind. As he grew older, he instinctually understood that this — the prayers, the rains, the harvests, the floods, the reconstructions — was the only life she knew and the only thing that will cheer her up is the next crop.

Unlike his mother, Motli’s father, Ramesh Mohan Pant,  encouraged his academic interests. He was the kind of man his students could take for a ride. One look at his bald, bespectacled face and every new kid’s eyes would gleam with mischief. As a little boy Motli had been ashamed of his father’s soft-spoken nature and delicate mannerisms. His numerous uncles and cousins were uniformly brawny and loud. Yet as he grew older, he found his opinions about his father changing drastically. For his 12th birthday, Motli’s mother presented him an axe and a wooden toy of a bullock-cart. His father gave him a worn copy of Robert Stevenson’s Treasure Island. His mother scoffed at the gift, ‘Are you trying to make our boy like you? Nose always buried in some book. Hummara Motli will grow up to be a strong boy like Manesh!’. Motli had learned the english alphabet from his father, who had studied the language under Father Frederic Smith, a Catholic missionary who had spent many years in Ganeshapur evangelizing his God’s word to disinterested farmers. Much to the silent delight of his father and the overt dismay of his mother, Motli fell in the love with the book! He read it cover to cover four times and was found for weeks afterwards, at any time of the day, with the book in hand. One day he surreptitiously approached his father and gently asked, ‘May I have another book? One with animals?’. His father chuckled and said, ‘There’s a library in Ghazinpat. You can take my membership card and bicycle and borrow a new book each month. Don’t tell your mother!’.

Many years and many books later, Motli topped his school in the tenth-grade examinations and decided to enroll for junior college at Ghazinpat, the nearest town. One lazy afternoon, as the entire family was idling in their shaded courtyard after a heavy lunch of plantains and rice, Motli broached the topic. ‘Hear this atrocity, oh Kaala! My son, my only son — the one who should set alight my dead body — wants to leave me to become a town-wallah. How much I sacrificed for him, but having read a few books, suddenly he is too good for his mother!’. Manesh pitched in, ‘What use is the junior college? Here we were, hoping our boy Motli will fetch us a beautiful daughter-in-law with a fat dowry. Look at your cousin Badru. Just a year older than you but already has one boy, with another on the way. Now THAT is a boy his parents can be proud of.’ Motli turned to his father who was staring intently at the tulsi plants dancing in the heat. He met Motli’s beseeching gaze and said, ‘I have some money saved up. We leave for Ghazinpat in a week’.

That had been four years ago. After junior college, Motli moved to Ahmadnagar for college. His mother threatened to disown him and refused to talk to him for months. Manesh and co., shrugged — resigned at last to his ways. Ahmadnagar was over 500 miles away and since Ganeshapur could only be reached by boat through the Airavan, Motli had an easy excuse to avoid coming home – even for the holidays. Instead he would spend the breaks working at the college library, a job that gave him plenty of time to read and just enough money to afford his hostel room and meals. A week ago Motli had received a letter from home. He had casually dropped it in his bag and didn’t get to it till later in the night. Letters from home were not rare. His mother, once her rage had subsided, would write him often. All her letters were the same — a mixture of questions about his diet and pleas for him to return. Motli could almost imagine her sitting in the verandah, dictating her misery to Manesh’s fourth son, Pappu who would dutifully scrawl across the paper in his childish handwriting. Oddly this latest letter was not written by Pappu – it was in his father’s hand. Motli tore open the envelope and hurriedly started reading…

Motli beta,
I trust you are well. From our post-man, whose son also studies in your college, I learned that your final examinations are over and you have a two-month break now. Why don’t you pay us a visit? Your mother is missing you very much. We haven’t seen you since last Diwali. Education is important, and understandably, occupies much of your time, but family is important too.

Manesh has been blessed with another son. Your mother is ecstatic for her brother but demands a grandson of her own. She blames me for turning you away from the family way. I try to make her understand that while family can wait, education cannot. Anyway, I wish you could come home for a few days and cheer up your mother. Please send a telegram to Ghazinpat post-office if you will come.

May Lord Ganesha shower your endeavors with his bountiful wisdom.
Ramesh Mohan Pant.

After reading the letter, Motli was beset with conflicting emotions. On the one hand, he was ashamed at being apprehended by his father for not visiting home during the holidays. On the other hand, he felt a tingling suspicion. Why send a telegram to Ghazipat when he could just write home? Guilt won and soon he set about sending a telegram that he could come home for a few weeks and would start the next day.

To reach Ganeshapur from Ahmadnagar, Motli had to take two trains and then a boat. The first train journey was uneventful. In Maninpet, a transit railway station on the second, he ran into an old school friend, Parindar, who was a deputy clerk at the station. Upon seeing Motli, Parindar embraced him furiously and said, ‘Motli, you dog! All your studying has paid off, eh? Madhumati – what a girl! You lucky, lucky dog.’ Motli stared at his friend in confusion and replied, ‘What are you talking about? What Madhumati?’. ‘Don’t you know? Your family has arranged for your marriage with Madhumati, Sundar Babu’s only daughter. Not only are you getting the pretty girl but also all of Sundar’s lands once he’s gone. Wah rey, what a match!’ Motli froze on his feet. His mother knew that Motli would come home only if his father requested. This explained the curious insistence on a telegram. The frigidity of his father’s betrayal washed over him; he shivered. Behind him the train blared its impatience to depart. He considered ditching it and returning to Ahmadnagar. How could he marry now? He still had one more year of college and then he wanted to become a lecturer in a city, maybe even Bombay! How could he abandon his dreams and settle down in a village? But Motli knew he couldn’t disrespect his father by not showing up after messaging otherwise. Besides, the betrayal made him seethe for a look of anguish in Ramesh Pant’s eyes. He ran back to the train just as it started moving.

After the initial shock subsided, Motli began recollecting about Madhumati. He had been away too long, he had no idea how she looked now. Their paths had crossed just one summer many years ago. During the Ramnavami celebrations in the village, the children had reenacted the scenes from the Sundara Kand where Hanuman, the monkey god, visits Sita, the wife of Lord Rama, while was imprisoned by Raavan, the King of Demons. Madhumati was Sita. Motli was Hanuman. In a crucial scene where Hanuman offers to carry Sita across the oceans and into the arms of her lord, Madhumati went off-script and remarked, ‘As if you can lift me with those puny arms!’. The gangs of villagers who had lined up around the square broke into guffaws and whistles. Motli, red-faced, poignantly attempted to salvage the play — silently vowing to break her arm the next chance he got. But after the play, as usual, he sat down with a book and forgot about Sita’s wisecracks and plunged into a story about a merchant in a watery city called Venice.

Wow, she would have grown up by now. Even as a child, she had been tall and broad shouldered. A sudden worry swept over him, what if she were taller than him? He immediately shrugged away the question, admonishing himself for the concern’s hidden implications. Of course, he will not marry her! The minute he reaches home he will announce his intention to break this proposal and leave. For the remainder of the journey, Motli concocted and rehearsed the solemn lecture he would deliver his father about the importance of truth in relationships.

Ganeshapur’s sloped, red clay roofs were visible in the distance as Juddi Kaka dropped Motli off at the bank of the Airavan. Instead of hiring Kalua to take him home on his bullock-cart, Motli decided to walk. His mood was foul but he always enjoyed walking through the fields on a brisk morning. As he ambled his way through the paddy farms, he ran into his little cousin, Smriti. She seemed to be in a great hurry and jumped in shock when she saw him. ‘Arre Dada! What are you doing walking? I thought you will be in Kalua’s cart.’ When Motli expressed his love for an early morning walk, she replied, ‘Walk all you want later on. Now you have to go somewhere!’. ‘Now? Smriti-behen, I am very tired after the long journey; can’t this wait till I’ve had a bath and a meal?’. ‘NO!’, Smriti screeched. ‘She is waiting by the Kali temple and wants to see you before you go home’, she added in a conspiratorial tone. Motli asked, though he knew the answer, ‘Who is waiting?’. ‘Madhumati-didi. She told me to fetch you. In return, I will get twenty raw mangoes from their tree this summer’, she grinned.  

Motli reeled in discomfort. Asking to see her betrothed even before her father had formally met him was a scandal of astronomical proportions in Ganeshapur. Even talking about one’s betrothed before marriage was sufficient to be branded a libertine. Did she even consider Motli’s plight? His uncles would brand him a desperate loser. His mother would lament him for dragging the family name through mud. Also, why would she go to the Kali temple? That dilapidated structure had been abandoned decades ago and was even considered haunted by some. How could a woman of a decent household even think of going there? How would he explain to Smriti that he could not possibly accede to this indelicate request?

Even as his mind was whizzing with such thoughts, a smirk escaped him. This was the Madhumati he remembered — putting him under the spotlight when he would rather shrink into a book. He could not let her expose him a fool again! He would go! He gave a strict telling-off to Smriti to not tell anyone about this business, deposited his bags by a nearby tree and stormed off towards the Kali temple. He would deal with Madhumati first and then his parents.


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