The river was low in its banks. The brown swirl of water flowed sluggishly, chuckling quietly over the submerged mud banks in its course, where its smooth surface wrinkled, as a frown corrugates a human face.
It was the dry season. There was little water to be had, so the river was gentle. When the rains began it would be a different story. The placid, mother tender waters would change into a raging white fanged fury, racing through the riverbed and beyond it, sweeping up everything, spreading ruin, death and devastation.
Of course, the rage also meant life and fertility. Rich silt from the upper reaches would spread over the drowned land, saving it from sterility and slow death, enabling generation after generation to wax and wane, bringing their hopes to despair and, in their despair, bringing hope and promise of plenty.
Life and death, the river held out both, in fitful, capricious succession, reckoning nothing of individuals. Only the race, that aggregate, conglomerate of a complex unity, seemed to have a place in its seemingly endless, endlessly renewed cycle. It had always been this way as far the greybeards could remember, and beyond them, the ghosts of their forefathers whispered.
On the bank sat a young boy, idly swinging his legs in empty space, watching the morning unfold. He picked up a small, round river pebble and threw it into the water as far away as he could. There was a soft plopping sound and a few ripples, quickly smoothed over as the river swept on its unhurried way. The boy looked behind him to see if his cows were still there. Their white flanks glowed softly in the growing light, the quiet of the morning broken by the musical clinking of neck bells as they cropped the rich grass by the riverside.
The boy counted them carefully, painstakingly...eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen...seventeen. They were all there, all looked quite all right.
It was bright enough now for everyone in the village to have woken up. Faintly, the sound of a voice raised in a clear shout came to his ears. The boy wiggled his bottom on the bank, adjusting to a more comfortable position, and took up a flute lying by his side.
It was a simple, rude instrument made of bamboo garishly painted, which his uncle had picked up at a fair some two years ago. The boy had been delighted with the gift, cherishing it, playing it constantly until the sharp, slightly shrill tone had mellowed into a softer, richer sound. Most of the colour had flaked away with constant handling, except for a band of bright blue at either end.
The boy put his lips to the blowhole and began to play, a simple village song the same uncle had taught him, a tune he had played hundreds of times, but never tired of. He passed on to a more complex air, concentrating hard to make sure that there was no mistake. He did not hear the man coming up behind him, heading towards the river.
"Krishna, here already? Youre very early today, arent you?"
The boy looked behind him and saw the man towering over him. When he realised who it was, he scrambled to his feet hastily, and straightening his dhoti, dropped the flute and stood with his hands folded in front of him.
"Yes, sir," he replied respectfully. "I got up earlier than usual and came out here, thinking I would get a chance to play my flute. My uncle is trying to teach me a new tune on it."
"Ah, the flute, to be sure. I am told you play it very well for your age. When youre older well see what can be done. Perhaps we will send you to the city," he smiled.
"Oh no, Sir. I hear terrible stories about it from my brother. I think Id be more at ease here, where everyone is known and everything in its place."
"More of the boys should be like you, " he said half-jokingly." Then we would have less prosperity, but also less of this accursed restlessness. Well, be happy, son, be happy," he rumbled as he walked away.
* * *
Dhug, Dhug, Dhug, Dhug...came the sound of grain being pounded in the large mortar with a wooden pestle. The woman was in early middle age. She had the worn look of someone who has too much physical work to do and too little strength for it. The sun was already high enough to light up the dim, low-roofed room as it spilled in through the doorway and the chinks in the roof. Her face was sweat-streaked with the effort, the greying hair plastered wetly to her head.
"Lakshmi, Oy Lakshmi," a voice shouted from outside. "The postman has come. Theres a telegram for you. Come quickly. Hes waiting."
The woman ceased her work and, muttering to herself with annoyance, walked out of the door. When she saw the small crowd milling around the postman, she quickened her steps in alarm.
"What is it," she asked the postman in agitation. "Is something wrong, then? Is it from Babu?"
"Yes, its from the city, all right," the postman said soothingly, proffering the missive.
"What could the matter be," she asked distraught. "We got his money order only last week. What could have happened between then and now?"
"I dont know, sister," the postman replied. "Why dont you open it and read it?"
"I cant read anything, much less English. Why dont you read it out to me, Postman babu?"
"Yes, read it," the crowd echoed. They all wanted to know what it was about and were prepared to rejoice or offer their sympathies, whatever was required.
The postman cleared his throat importantly, took a pinch of snuff from a small tin in his pocket and put it back. He took out a pair of glasses from the same pocket. These he settled on his nose and solemnly tore the envelope open. He extracted the single sheet of paper and read slowly, with frowning concentration.
"Why dont you tell us quickly," the woman was almost sobbing in distress. "What has happened to my son?"
"It says your son," he paused weightily.
"Dont torture the poor woman," someone in the crowd suggested. "Tell her the worst quickly."
"Your son," ignoring the interruption, "is coming home for a few days. He will be arriving, in fact, by the 10.30 bus today. He sends you his respects."
A wave of disappointed relief ran through the crowd.
"Why didnt you say this earlier," asked someone. "She would have been spared all this anxiety."
The postman looked indignant. "If you hadnt kept interrupting, I would have done it much quicker. But no. You had to snatch the words even before they left my throat. Bloody vultures, the lot of you."
"Never mind, sir. We are always like this. But what is the time," the woman asked.
"It is 8.45 precisely," he said cocking his wrist and squinting at the dial.
"So late? Theres no time at all," she said hustling. "I must get Krishna immediately. Krishna, Krishna," she said raising her voice. "Wheres that boy got to now, I wonder."
"He went out early with the cows, auntie. Took them grazing, he said," a small boy piped up.
"Cows, Cows," she muttered in exasperation. "That boy is worse than a stud bull. Nothing but cows on his mind. And how do I get hold of him? Its at least a mile to the river and who will do my work when I am away?"
"Shall I go and fetch him, auntie," the little boy asked. "You can get on with your work then."
The womans face brightened. "Yes, you do that, my child," she said stroking his curly head. "Say his brother is coming home today and that his mother wants him here at once. Be careful how you go, eh."
The little boy ran off towards the river and the woman went back into her doorway. Soon the rhythmic sound of pestle hitting mortar filled the air again.
As the little boy trotted towards the river, he could, after a while, faintly hear the sound of a flute being played. He made straight for it, calling, "Krishna, Krishna," in his shrill, fresh voice. There was a large tree growing near the bank and there, his back resting against the bole, Krishna sat playing his flute, oblivious of the rest of the world.
It was only when the boy was quite close to him that he heard the call, shrill and clear, splitting the silent sleep-laden air like rain on a hot, dusty day.
He put down his flute and turned, waiting for his caller to show up. The little boy came running, a little breathless after his exertions.
"Krishna, your mother wants you to come home at once. Your brother is coming home today and she says there is some work for you to do."
"My brother? Very sudden, isnt it? Did she tell you why? He was expected only a couple of months later?"
"No. But the postman brought a telegram and he read it out to her. He said he would be coming by the 10.30 bus and he sent his respects to your father and mother."
"And mother wants me home right away," he murmured. Hoisting himself to his feet, he said, "Come along. We have to round up the cows. Will you help me," he smiled down at the little urchin.
"Oh, yes," he cried eagerly and sped off, yelling at the startled cows, running round and round like a terrier, trying to get them together in a bunch. Krishna was more leisurely about it, standing and calling in a peculiar, two-toned bellow, a signal that it was time to go home.
One by one they all trickled in. When the last one had joined the herd, he picked up his stick and the two set off, the little boy alternately skipping and walking, the herd trailing peacefully ahead, bells ringing, the occasional recalcitrant being firmly shooed back into place.
Seeing the boy still maintaining his perpetual motion dance, Krishna asked him, "Dont you ever get tired? Even on such a hot day?"
"Oh, no. Why should I? I eat enough. Besides, my father said the heat wont last long. The rains will come soon. Look, the mango tree is full of fruit. Lets help ourselves to a few."
"No. It belongs to Janardhan babu and when his watchman catches us hell beat both of us."
"Just one," the boy pleaded. "Besides, theres no one around," he added cunningly.
Krishna looked at the tree, laden with ripe yellow mangos. The weight of the fruit had bent some of the smaller branches groundwards. He looked around cautiously and walked tiptoe to the tree. Stretching up, he was just about to lay his hands on a particularly luscious mango when a voice called out, "Hey, what do you think youre doing? Think its your fathers property, eh? Be off."
"Sorry, uncle," he said contritely. "But the fruit looked so good that I was tempted. I thought you wouldnt mind."
"Oh, its you Krishna." The man grinned suddenly and stood up. "All right. Take a couple. But mind you dont do it again. If you want any fruit ask me in future."
Krishna took two of the largest, ripest looking mangos he could find. He bit into one and as the juice dribbled down his chin, mumbled, "Very sweet, uncle. Your mangos are really good."
"Best fruit for miles around, I always say," he replied proudly. "My one tree yields twice as much as anyone else. Youre on your way home, are you? Back too quickly, isnt it? Anyway, give my greetings to your father."
"My brother is coming home today. So mother called me home earlier than usual. I suppose Ill have to go home and fetch him from the bus stop."
"Your brother, eh? More than a year since I saw him. But I remember him very well. Biggest young rascal I ever saw. Couldnt keep him out of my trees. Always stealing, whatever the season. Worse than a troop of monkeys. He taught even me a trick or two," he chuckled reminiscently. "Ah, well, they say stolen goods always taste sweeter than those honestly come by. By the way, if you want to go to the bus stand, ask my brother. Hes going into town with the cart, so he can easily give you a ride.
"Thanks, uncle. Ill ask him," he said stripping the skin off the fruit he had been sucking all this while and getting his hands on the stone inside. As he stepped out of the shade of the tree, mango kernel in one hand, whole fruit in the other, the little boy skipped out from behind a bush, saying, "What took you so long? Oh, youve already finished one. What about mine? Is that all," he asked in dismay.
"First things first, little man," Krishna said handing over the fruit. "Let me tell you, though, that old uncle Ganesh was very much there." The little boy was busy gobbling the mango, but his eyes went round as he heard this.
"Also, he caught me, and then relented, giving me two mangos to eat. But what he said finally was that if he caught you hanging around here, he would take the skin off your back and nail it up as a warning to everyone else." The child was too busy gorging to pay any attention to this threat.
Krishna sighed and said, "All right, lets get going, or my mother will be wondering and worrying." They set off again, driving the reluctant cattle, arriving home smeared with mango syrup, contentment oozing from every pore.
As soon as his mother heard the tinkling of bells and the occasional lowing of a sleepy cow, she left her work and rushed outside. The cattle streamed past her, heading for the corral, while Krishna and the little boy watched them go.
"So here you are at last," she said in a fretful tone. "What took you so long, may I ask? Were you on the other side of the river?"
"No, no. Weve been hurrying home, honestly, mother," he said dabbing furtively at his face in an effort to get the tell tale sign of mango off.
"Youre smelling of mangos," she said accusingly. "Have you been eating mangos?" Krishna just hung his head and mumbled something inaudible.
"What a boy," she scolded. "Here am I wondering when youre going to come home and doing a hundred tasks to prepare for your brothers arrival, and you take time off to eat mangos. Where did you get them?"
"Ganesh uncle gave us both one each," he said in a small voice, glaring at the urchin who was looking saintly and solemn even though he had the thiefs ring of mango stain around his mouth.
"All right, never mind. There are many things to do and we cant waste time arguing about this matter."
"Can I go now auntie," the urchin asked.
" Eh, oh, yes, no, just wait," she said and disappeared into the house. She came out a minute later with a piece of jaggery and gave it to the boy.
"Take this and go and play now," she said patting him on him on the head. He skipped off happily, the lump of jaggery clasped in one grubby hand.
"Now, what do you want me to do, mother," Krishna asked. "I can go to the bus stand with uncle. Hes going to the market in a short while. "Ill just go and find out, shall I?
"No, no thats all right, but you can do one more thing. Your father is out in the fields. Just go and tell him Babu is coming and ask if there is any vegetable that can be got for today. I dont know how, but he has to manage it." Krishna turned away and went.
It was going to be another searing day. As he walked towards the fields, Krishna scuffed his toes in the dust that lay thick and powdery on the track. He wondered what his father would make of the news. Strange, that his brother should send a telegram. It had never happened before. He felt a faint thrill that his house should have got a telegram. Trust Babu to do things in style despite their fathers continued sermons on economy. But what could the reason be? He shrugged and left the matter to his elders to work out.
The fields lay on either side of the track. Brown and dusty and dry, it was hard to believe that the earth yielded two, sometimes three crops or year. But now was the fallow time, when everyone waited for the rains to come. Only the vegetable patches were green at the moment. That was where he would find his father, among the greenery he cultivated for his master.
The figures crouched close to the ground, weeding among the rows and rows of vegetables. The sun was sucking the moisture out of the earth, leaving a network of cracks, which eventually flaked off and dispersed in a fine dust if the field was not tended.
The trowels bit into the earth, turning it over and uprooting the weeds. They were shaken, to free the roots of the mud, and stacked in little piles to be cleared away when the work was done. It needed very little skill, but a lot of time and patience and had to be repeated several times in a season.
There were three of them in the patch, stripped to the waist, dark brown bodies running with sweat, a thick cloth wrapped round the head to keep out the worst of the sun. Squatting on their heels to rip out the weeds, they moved forward at the squat, like large ungainly birds the colour of the soil they tilled. Slow, methodical and tireless, they reminded Krishna of the seedeaters he saw everyday, hopping heavily as they foraged among the mango trees. He had no trouble picking out his father among them.
Standing on the edge of the field he called out, "Father, our Babus coming home today. Mother sent me to tell you that. She said she wants some vegetable for the evening meal," he said in a rush.
"Whats that? Babus coming home, is he? And how do you know that? Did someone come from the city?"
"He sent a telegram."
"Telegram, eh? What sort of foolishness is this? Where did he get the money to send it."
"I dont know father, I wasnt there. But the postman read it out and our neighbours say its true. Anyway, mother sent me with the message, thats all I know. I was tending the cows before that."
"All right, all right," he said irritably, standing up and unrolling his turban. He wiped his face carefully with it and then slung the cloth across the shoulder. Turning away, he spat and asked, "What time is he coming?"
"I dont know. The usual midday bus, I suppose. The telegram said 10.30, but uncle Karun told me that its never less than one hour late. Hell have to walk home from the canal bank. I suppose hell leave his trunk with the shopkeeper."
"What did you think? That well meet him with a band and garlands? All right, you can tell your mother that Ive got the news and go back to your work. The cows need minding and if you dont get back there soon, someone will tell me all about it."
"Father, may I go to the canal bank? I can easily ask someone to keep an eye on the cows. Anyway, theyre at home now because I took them back. Our cousin Gopi has agreed to do it. Ive already asked him. Besides, uncle Girish is taking his cart to the town and he can drop me off at the bank and maybe pick us up on the way back?"
He looked excited and expectant, poised for flight on the instant of assent. The old man was about to refuse when his eye strayed to the boy, so eagerly awaiting the verdict. Perhaps he was softened by the breathless expectancy or perhaps by an old memory. He merely nodded and grunted, "Tell your mother before you go. And dont waste the whole day about it. Make sure your cousin looks after the cows."
The boy skipped off, tucking up his dhoti to make better speed. The dust rose around his heels as he sprinted, sweaty and breathless, back to his house. The door was open and the inside was in deep shadow, but he did not bother to go inside. He just bawled, "Mother, Im going to see Babu at the bus stop. Father said I may go, and now I have to run and find Gopi to look after the cows. Im going on uncle Girishs cart. Hes going to the town."
His mother emerged from inside. "Did you tell your father I wanted vegetables?" she demanded.
"Yes, I did. But he didnt say anything to that."
"And where are you going now? I need you here to do some things for me."
"Didnt I tell you Im going to the bus stop to see Babu? I have to run to catch uncle before he leaves. Im coming back," he shouted and ran off.
The cart creaked as it slowly made its way along the rutted track. Krishna, sitting in front with uncle Girish, was resplendent in bright blue trousers and red shirt. His hair was slicked down with water and his feet were bare. He had a little small change in his pocket and felt that the world was in his hand. As the cart struggled along, the reluctant bullock being urged along with a stick, Krishna was content to listen without a word as Girish swore vilely at the animal.
There was never any need to talk, anyway. The only thing that ever animated the man was a poor monsoon or a good one. Krishna never could understand why. A poor monsoon meant that you went hungry and a good one that you were sure of at least one meal a day. The difference was of course considerable, but wasnt there anything else to talk about? So he held his tongue, and squinted through eyes narrowed against the sun at the flat, dusty fields on either side of the track. The grass on the verges was cropped to a thin, withered stubble, the fields themselves bare and dusty. He could hear the pock-pock-pock of a diesel driven pump somewhere in the background, drowsy and soothing, as if signalling the futility of any work on this hot morning.
He woke with a start as his head cracked against one of the corner poles. The bullock still plodded on patiently, nodding its head as it pushed against the yoke, driving the cart forward through the ruts, jostling and bouncing its occupants. Uncle sat silent, slumped over, the reins slack in his hands, the stick at his side, content to wait for journeys end.
"Working you very hard, are they," he asked. "Cant sleep at night, eh?" Krishna said nothing. He was still a bit confused and not properly awake. Moreover, his head was ringing from the crack.
"Whats the matter with you, boy? Has someone stolen your tongue? Dont you know when someone asks you a question?"
"No, no. Its just that I was thinking of something and then I feel asleep. Are we far from the bus stop, uncle?"
"At least half the way still. Dont worry, no bus is going to be coming for at least an hour," he said looking at his watch. "Youll be there well in time to meet your precious brother. What your father was about, letting you go like this, I dont know," he grumbled. "Next, I suppose youll be getting Sundays off."
"But there isnt so much to do, uncle. The cows look after themselves quite well. Im there only to keep an eye on them. Anyone can do that well enough."
"Yes, thats the trouble of it," he sighed. "Too many youngsters doing too little for their bread. There isnt enough work to go around and there isnt enough land. What we have weve split, sold or mortgaged to the hilt. The result is people like you, who dont know what to do with their time. So you play that flute of yours."
"Whats wrong with that?"
"By itself, nothing. But what are you going to do with it? It wont fill your belly and it certainly wont till the land. What you should do is study. But where will the money come from? Your father can barely keep the land going, what with the interest on your sisters marriage."
"This morning, uncle, the master told me that he will speak to father about me. Maybe hell send me back to school."
"That old fart," Girish snorted. "If he kept his snout out of other peoples troubles we would all be better off. Hes swallowed most of the village land already. A little more and hell probably choke to death on his meal. Do you know what your father pays the master, as you call him? Two hundred rupees a month as interest on the loan he look for your sisters wedding. Besides which he labours on that bastards fields for nothing. So the master wants to do something for you? Probably to place you as overseer to make you watch your father work."
"But he was the one who arranged for Babu to get a job in the city. He didnt get anything out of that, did he?"
"So thats the way of it, eh? Did your father tell you that, boy?"
"Yes, thats what he said."
"I never asked him. There were so many other things to talk about that this matter never came up."
"Yes, Im sure of that," the older man said drily. He cocked an eye at the boy, sitting quietly with his hands in his lap. Moved by a sudden impulse he ruffled Krishnas hair and said, half to himself, "I hope your father knows what he is about."
Krishna felt unaccountably depressed with all this talk. Girish uncle had crystallised an unease that he had felt for quite some time. It would rise up now and then, but somehow, with no one to talk about it, and in the general somnolence that his task as cowherd encouraged, it had never taken a definite form. But now the questions were leaping through him, producing a sense of dread, as if he were making a long journey through a hopeless land, in a quest that led nowhere.
He fumbled at his waistband for the flute he always carried, but he had forgotten to bring it. He sighed and slumped back into his seat.
"Have you lost something." uncle asked, seeing the movement.
"Only my flute," he returned shyly. "I seem to have forgotten it."
Girish looked at him closely. "Oho, so you have thought about it too. Thats good. An encouraging sign. But whatever the answer, it lies outside the village. Theres no hope here. Unless you want to become one more landless labourer, wearing torn clothes all your life and eating what your masters give you as charity."
"What about fathers land? That is there surely. Can we not farm it?"
"By the time your father pays off his debt, there may be enough to cover the cost of the funeral. That sweet-talking, rumble-voiced fraud has got most of it anyway. Hes got an eye on the rest thats left. It wont be long, you wait and see."
The silence fell again. A lone crow flying over the fields cawed loudly, in sharp discord with the creaking cartwheels. In the distance he could see a man walking across the fields. The sweat trickled down his back, dyeing his nylon shirt an even deeper red. As the wheels turned steadily he tried to survey his vague discomfort. But no answer came, only the questions his uncle had posed. Soon he gave it up, abandoning himself to the day and the rhythm of the cart.
"Were almost there, Krishna," uncle Girish said as the bullock trudged up the last few metres of mud track and climbed on to the narrow ribbon of metalled road down which the bus would come. "Ill drop you off at the canal side and you can wait there until the bus comes. Dont leave until Babu arrives. And if you decide to walk home just leave word at the teashop. Ill be two or three hours yet. The bus should be due in half an hour." The cart rumbled off with its load of vegetables as Krishna jumped off.