At the door of their hut, in front of a dying fire, both father and son were sitting silently. In side the hut Budhiya, the son's wife, was writhing in the pangs of childbirth. Her painful and heart-rending groans shook them both. It was a winter night. Nature seemed to be plunged in silence. And the whole village merged with darkness.
Gheesu said, "It seems she won't survive. I am exhausted. Go and see her."
Madhav got irritated, "Why doesn't she die soon if she has to? What can I do?"
"Hey! You are really heartless. You have spent one year of martial bliss with her and now such faithlessness!"
"I can't see her restless and rolling about in agony."
They were chamars, a low caste amongst Hindus, and defamed in the whole village. If Gheesu worked one day he would rest for three days. Madhav also shirked work so much that if somehow he worked for half an hour, he would waste one hour in smoking chillum, a clay pipe. Therefore they didn't get work anywhere. Even a handful of grain in the house would prevent them from going to work. When they literally starved, Gheesu would climb a tree and cut some wood. Madhav would sell it in the market. As long as there was money in their pockets they wandered about hither and thither. Only on the verge of starvation would they be compelled to cut wood or look for work. In that village of farmers there was no dearth of work for hard working people, but because of their slothfulness, nobody would venture to employ them unless they were in dire need of workers and would be satisfied with the work of one labour by engaging two. Had they been sadhus they would not have required any self-restraint nor strict discipline for cultivating contentment and patience. This was their nature. Strange was their life. But for a few earthenware utensils, there was nothing else in their house. With just tattered rags to cover their nudity, they carried on their lives free from worldly cares, burdened with debt. Though abused and beaten, they were not remorseful. So miserably poor that they could hardly pay back their loans, people still lent them something every now and then. During the season of potatoes and peas they would pluck them from others' farms, roast them and eat them, else they would uproot upto five or ten sugarcanes and suck them in the night.
Gheesu had spent sixty years of his life with this tendency of living hand to mouth. Madhav, too, like a dutiful son not only followed his father's foot-steps but brought more credit to his father's name! Now, sitting beside the fire, they were baking potatoes which they had dug out from someone's field.
Gheesu's wife had died long ago. Madhav had got married a year ago. Since then his wife had laid the foundation for some order in their house. Either she would grind corn for others or she would cut grass and manage a seer of flour to fill the bellies of these two shameless creatures. Since her coming the two had continued to grow lazier and haughtier. If someone called them for work, they would shamefacedly demand double the wages. And now the woman who had cared so much for them was dying of labour pains and they were waiting, perhaps, for her die so that they could sleep comfortably.
Digging out roasted potatoes from the fire and peeling them Gheesu said, "Go and see how she is now. She seems to be haunted by some witch. Here the village exorcist too demands a rupee!" Madhav feared going out of sight for that would allow Gheesu to quickly devour a major portion of potatoes. So he pretended, "I'm afraid to go inside."
"Why are you afraid? I'm here with you."
"Then why don't you go yourself?"
"When my wife died, I did not move away from her for three days. But won't your wife feel shy if I go in? She always veiled herself from me and now you ask me to go and see her uncovered body! She might be beyond herself to care for her body. In my presence she might not throw up her hands and feet freely."
"I am worried if she delivers the baby, how shall I manage things. Ginger, jaggery, oil....there is nothing in the house!"
"Everything will be taken care of. Those refusing today, will call you and give you money tomorrow if you have God's blessings. I had nine sons. We had nothing in the house, but God somehow saw us through."
In a society where the condition of those who work day and night was as bad and deplorable as of these two, and people who knew how to exploit the poor farmers grew richer, the development of a mentality such as Gheesu's was not surprising. We would say Gheesu was far more intelligent than them. Instead of joining the band of those stupid farmers he stayed in the company of contemptible idlers. It is true he did not have the strength to follow their policies and rules. This is why the whole village reproached him while the others in his group were leaders in the community. Yet there was one solace for him. Though he was poor, he did not have to work hard like other farmers, and people did not take any undue advantage of his simplicity and helplessness!
The two picked up the baked potatoes and started eating them piping hot. They had not eaten anything all day and now they didn't have the patience to let the potatoes cool. They burnt their tongues several times. Though the outer surface of the peeled potatoes was not hot, but as soon as they bit deeper, they burnt their tongues, throats and palates. Their safely lay in not retaining the hot embers in their mouths but sending these down to their bellies where there was adequate cooling material. Therefore they quickly swallowed the potatoes and in doing so their eyes were filled with tears.
Gheesu then remembered the marriage party of the Thakur which he had attended twenty years ago. The satisfaction that he had derived from the feast was one of the memorable events of his life. It was fresh in his memory till date! He exclaimed, "That feast was unforgettable." Since then that kind of lavish food had not been served. Hot poories fried in pure ghee were served to everyone big and small by the bride's family apart from sause, raita, three fried vegetables, one vegetable curry, curd and sweets. I can't express in words how delicious the food was! There were no restrictions. People ate so much that they could drink no water. But still the bride's folk went on serving hot, round and fragrant poories in your leafplates. You told them you didn't want more. You put your hand over your plate to stop them but they insisted on serving you more. When we had rinsed our mouths they offered us betel leaves and cardamoms too but how could I eat then? I couldn't even stand straight. Quickly I lay down on my blanket. How large hearted the Thakur was!"
Relishing the food in his imagination Madhav said, "But now people don't arrange such feasts."
"How can they? Those times were different. Now everybody practices thrift, don't spend on marriages, don't spend on funeral rites. Ask them, where will they stash things collected from the poor! They won't spare us in collections while in expenditure they economize.
"How many poories had you eaten approximately? Twenty?"
"More than twenty!"
"I would have eaten fifty".
"I too hadn't eaten less than fifty. I was a stout young man at that time. You don't seem to be half of what I was."
They drank some water after finishing their potatoes. Then covering themselves with their dhotis and their feet tucked into their bellies, they slept beside the fire like two large boas coiled up. And Budhiya was still groaning.
In the morning when Madhav went inside the small room, he found his wife dead. Flies were humming over her face. Her stony gaze was fixed upwards. Her whole body was besmeared with dust. The child in her womb had died. Madhav rushed to Gheesu and then both started lamenting loudly and beating their breasts. Their neighbours came running to console these unfortunate men according to age-old custom.
But this was not the time to lament. They had to worry about the shroud and the wood. Money had vanished from their house as flesh disappears from the nest of a kite.
Both the father and son went to the landlord of the village. The sight of them repulsed him. Several times he had punished them for stealing and breaking promises. He asked them insolently, "Hey Ghisua, why are you crying. Now-a-days I never see you here. Seems as though you don't want live I this village."
Prostrating himself on the ground, Gheesu wailed with tears in his eyes, "Master, I am in distress. Madhav's wife passed away in the night. She had been writhing in pain the whole night. Both of us remained by her beside. We did out best to save her but she betrayed us. O Master, there isn't anyone to provide us our daily bread. We have been ruined! Our house has been deserted! I am your slave, sir. Who else will help us in duly performing the last rites, except you? Whatever we had, we spent on her medicines and treatment. Your kindness alone will help us in carrying her mortal remains for the funeral rites. Whose door can we knock except yours?"
The landlord was kind-hearted but he knew it was useless to pity Gheesu. He thought of snubbing Gheesu who never turned up even when summoned and today because of his selfish interest, he was flattering him. "Lazy, basely indolent," he thought. But this was not the time to show his resentment. Fretting, inwardly, the landlord tossed two rupees towards Gheesu, without uttering a single word of consolation. He did not even bother to look at Gheesu. It seemed as if he was freeing himself of a burden.
Because Gheesu got two rupees from the landlord how could the trader or the moneylender dare to refuse him. Moreover he knew how to blow the landlord's trumpet. Someone gave him two annas, another four annas, and within an hour Gheesu collected a handsome amount of five rupees. Somebody gave him grain to buy the shroud. Meanwhile some people started cutting bamboos for the pyre. The tender-hearted woman of the village would come to have a glimpse of the corpse, shed a few tears at its helplessness ad go away.
When they reached the market place Gheesu said, "Hey, Madhav, the wood for her funeral has been arranged."
Madhav replied, "Yes, the wood is enough but what about the shroud?"
"Let's go ad buy some cheap cloth."
"Yes! Moreover, it will grow dark when we cremate her. Nobody will notice her shroud."
"What an evil custom! One who never gets a rag while living requires a new shroud when dead to cover the body."
"Shrouds are burnt away with the bodies."
"Yes, nothing remains. If we had these five rupees earlier, at least we could have given her some medical treatment."
Both ventured to guess the other's feelings. They walked here and there in the market from one shop to another and saw many kinds of fabrics-cotton and silk-until it was late in the evening but nothing appealed to them. It grew dark and then God knows how, inspired by some divine force they found themselves in front of a liquor shop. They entered the bar as if led by some predestined plan. For some time they were in a dilemma. Then Gheesu went to the counter and ordered. "Sabji, give us a bottle too."
Then they ordered some snacks and fried fish and sat in the verandah drinking peacefully. In quick succession they gulped down many earthen cups of liquor and soon became intoxicated.
Gheesu said, "What would she have got even if her body were covered with the shroud? Ultimately it would have burnt with the body. Nothing would have gone with her."
Madhav said looking towards the sky as if requesting the deities to witness his innocence, "This is a worldly custom. Why do people custom. Why do people give thousands of rupees to Brahmins? Who knows whether or not it is received in the other world? Rich people have money. They can squander it. What do we have?"
"But how will you answer such people? Won't they ask where the shroud is?"
Gheesu laughed, "Hey, we'll tell them the money slipped out of my waist pocket. We couldn't find it. People might not believe us but they will give again."
Madhav also laughed at this unexpected windfall and said, "Poor woman! She was really good! Even after death she fed us well."
They emptied more than half a bottle. Gheesu ordered two kilograms of poories, sauces, pickles and fried liver. The food shop was across the bar. In an instant Madhav rushed forth and swiftly brought all the food stuff in two leaf-plates. A rupee and a half more were spent. Now very little money was left with them. Both were eating their poories with all the grandeur of a lion eating its prey. There was no fear of any accountability, no anxiety of infamy. They had already conquered all such feelings.
Gheesu philosophized, "If our souls are exhilarated, won't it bring her God's grace for this righteous deed?"
Madhav, bowing his head in reverence to the departed soul, heartily agreed with his father-"Yes, she would be rewarded certainly. O God, you who are omniscient, give her a place in Heaven. Our heart-felt blessings are with her. It was because of her that we could eat such food today, which we had never tested before in our lives."
But in an instant a feeling of doubt crept into Madhav's heart, he asked, "But father won't we too have to go to the other world one day?"
Gheesu did not answer this innocent question. He did not want to spoil this state of bliss by reflecting about the other world.
"If she asks why we didn't cover her dead body with a shroud what will we say?"
"What a silly question!"
"She will definitely enquire."
"How do you know she won't get a shroud? Do you think I am a fool? Have I wasted sixty years of my life without any experience? We will certainly get her a shroud and a fine one too. Take it from me."
"But why don't you tell me who will give it?"
"Those very people who had given us the money. But this time they won't give us cash."
As darkness grew and the stars shone brighter, the gaiety in the bar also increased. Some were singing, some bragging while some embracing companions and some carrying earthen cups to their friends' lips.
The atmosphere was heavy with intoxication, the air with headiness. Many who came there got drunk in a thimbleful. More than the liquor it was the air which inebriated them. People were drawn to the place by the troubles of their lives. For a while they forgot they were living or dead or neither living nor dead.
Both father and son sat sipping their liquor. All glances were cast at them. People thought how fortunate they were! There was a full bottle of wine between them.
When satiated Madhav gave away the remaining poories to a beggar, who had been hungrily eyeing them. For the first time in his life, Madhav felt the pride and joy of giving.
Gheesu said to the beggar, "Take this, eat plentifully and bless the departed soul. The one who has earned it is no more. But bless her from every pore of your body. Your blessings would certainly reach her, after all it was her hard-earned money."
Looking towards the sky again Madhav said, "She will certainly go to Heaven. She will be its Queen."
Gheesu stood up and as if floating on the waves of joy, he affirmed, "Yes son, she will go to Heaven. She never troubled or suppressed anybody. Even while dying she fulfilled the greatest ambition of our lives. If she doesn't find a place in Heaven do you think these rich people will? They exploit the poor and purge themselves by bathing in the holy Ganges offering its water in the temples."
But soon this feeling of reverence died. Fluctuating moods are a trait of intoxication. Now came a phase of grief and despair.
Madhav said, "But father she suffered all her life, enduring sorrows till her death."
Covering his eyes with his hands, he started wailing.
Gheesu consoled him, "Don't cry, son. Be comforted that she has been freed from the web of worldly illusion. She has been relieved from all cares. She was fortunate to have broken all the ties of illusion and attachment early in life."
And standing up both started singing together:
"O Enchantress, why do you dazzle us O Enchantress!"
The eyes of the other drunks were directed towards them, while they were singing in a carefree manner. Then they started dancing, springing, jumping, falling and swaggering. They acted and enacted their emotions through the movements of their faces and hands and ultimately, having no control over themselves, they fell down, completely drunk.