FICTION : The Old Man In Search Of A Grave By Sri Rohith Rajam
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Dhamayya came to the city not to get rich but to bury his son.
He stuffed his dead son in his tin trunk and took the train to the city. The rusted tin trunk was, for Dhamayya's family, a symbol of family honour. The tin trunk passed from father to the eldest son along with land. Their great-grandfather was gifted with this souvenir as dowry.
Dhamayya never thought that he would be the cursed one to get rid of the trunk. But he had no options. His son, his only son Ayogi, was dead.
Death was never a significant problem to Dhamayya. People frequently died in his village. The problem that stung him was that he couldn't find a piece of land to bury his son. There was the village graveyard, but the Panchayat recently banished Dhamayya's family from the village. Banished people don't get graves. They kill you but don't want to bury you.
Dhamayya owned some land, but it was forcefully taken away, the documents seized by the village Zamindar. The Zamindar was a powerful man who had contacts in important places and ate dinner with important people. He sponsored cock fights and settled human ones. The police of the village belonged to his caste. It was with the Zamindar's money that most of them became Khaki men. Many freelance goondas always offered their services to the Zamindar free of cost, expecting gratitude later. The Zamindar was wealthy and educated. He was renowned as the only person who could read the only English newspaper delivered to the village by the conductor of the village's only bus.
It is not that the village was underdeveloped. With roads and electricity, Coca Cola and a B-grade cinema theatre, it was pretty globalised. Democracy penetrated enough, and there were families there who proudly said, "Three generations of my family cast their vote for the same party, for Zamindar Saab."
It was a symbol of loyalty to vote for the same party throughout your life, and anyone who did otherwise was shamed and accused of betrayal. Election campaigning was merely public entertainment.
There were not one but two schools in the village. One was exclusively for children belonging to the lower castes and one for the higher ones. The school children often played cricket against each other, and the matches often ended up in fistfights and bloody mouths. The costly-dresses who owned cricket kits mostly won the argument as the ground belonged to them. Landlessness is powerlessness.
But Dhamayya's son, Ayogi, didn't lose his life for a cricket match. He once played cricket, and his role was crucial. Whenever the ball was lost in a dirty muck of rainwater that collected near the playground, it was always Ayogi who had to pull up his pants and enter the waters. They thought he was naturally resistant to diseases that easily affected people on the top rung of society.
Ayogi was a married adult now, had a voter card and thus an identity. During elections, politicians came to his house, drank buttermilk and gave enough money.
Ayogi also had a job in the nearby city.
Indian villages are living symbols of paradoxes and contradictions. It was not a perpetual enmity between the top and the lowest castes. Though they fight, they do have tea together near the paanwala's shop and discuss politics and local scandals. The women from both categories discuss daily serials when they meet at the Sai Baba bhajans. When Ayogi was a child, he still remembered how he and his friends were welcomed into the Zamindar's home, watched Sunday films together and listened to cricket commentary on the radio.
The village was neither good nor bad. It was neither always sunshine nor a moonless night. It lived in the twilight zone of morality where none spoke politically correct language.
Their language was beyond the Constitution.
They lived by a much better philosophy called Karma which answered every question and decided everyone's duty.
It was just that Ayogi's wife gave birth to a son the very day the Zamindar's second wife bore him a daughter. The first wife was called a Desert Womb; she was barren, and now this news only added to her fright. The entourage in the Zamindar's house was disappointed and pitied their owner's bad fortune. The Zamindar's family cursed the wives and their parents.
The elections were near, and the Zamindar dreamed of proudly showing his political heir from his balcony like a World Cup trophy. His dashed hopes made him angry, irritated and he didn't like the food that night. He went to his first wife's room and hit her hard. That was when he heard the crackers and the drumbeats.
Dhamayya's family, along with their castemates, were proudly celebrating the son's arrival. They drank toddy, sang and danced. One among them shouted, "What the Zamindar couldn't do, our Ayogi could." The shout became a slogan, like a rallying cry.
The slogan reached the Zamindar. First, they dare to contest elections, and now they celebrate in mockery. The village needs a good beating. He needs to regain his power, his masculinity and his manhood. "Just because we need their votes, that doesn't make them our equals," thought the drunk Zamindar.
The goondas were hired, and the police paid. The next morning, when Ayogi's wife came into the street with water, she saw her husband lying motionless with blood on his pants.
Dhamayya was enraged. He sent his devastated daughter-in-law and the newborn grandson to her parent's home. Dhamayya and his caste men did protest but to zero effect. History punched on them a black birthmark. The British had branded them as dacoit tribes, and the label had stuck since.
What could they do? The goondas were hired, and the police paid. The system had a bloodline of its own that tailed back to the birth of History and the advent of Gods. It only needed to be greased frequently, and it worked like a miracle with no technical glitches.
As a consequence of their protest, documents disappeared, and most of their lands were seized. Dhamayya was banished. He begged for a grave for his son.
None cared. So, on election day, Dhamayya stuffed his dead son into his tin trunk and took a train to the city in search of a grave.
Not before casting his vote.
Before the hired goondas killed him, Ayogi travelled to the city daily.
He worked there in a rice mill factory and bought new clothes for his father. He once purchased a tape recorder which became a local sensation. It led to a taboo being broken as none from their caste believed they could own such a piece.
Ayogi was born to live in a city. He never romanticised the smell of rainy mud nor the bullock cart travels. He was a practical man. He bought health insurance for his father, and he himself never drank much. Ayogi wanted to shift his family once he got married. He preferred pollution to poverty.
Dhamayya was recollecting his son's words sitting on Ayogi's dead body in the rail bogie. The train was overcrowded with no place to move. The men hung to the sides. He placed his tin trunk on the aisle and sat on it with two other people. He talked to nobody.
The train was congested. So was the railway station. Police hit the sleepers on the platform. Police drove away the sellers on the walkways. The bus was packed, and so was the city. There were no people, only crowds. None looked at each other.
Ayogi had a shack in the city slums, which he shared with his rice mill friends. Sometimes, he chilled there along with them when it got late at work.
There were some things to get from the place. Dhamayya felt at home when he finally reached the spot. It resembled his village. He entered deep, enquiring everyone of the desired location. But he couldn't find the shack. City beautification was happening, and giant bulldozers crushed everything to the ground. The driver in the bulldozer felt like an emperor. He had power on his side.
For the first time after his son's death, Dhamayya cried. He cried not out of agony but of his inability to find some land to bury his son. It was, after all, such a big world. Finally, with a bleeding heart, he made a decision.
In the middle of the night, Dhamayya went near a water source in the centre of the city and in that calm darkness, he prayed to the sky and threw the tin trunk into the water.
"Only if I get enough dowry we can rent a small house and live in a city.
For that, I need to get a decent job. My son will study in an English medium school with a tuck uniform. My body will be buried only in a city. Never in this pest-infected land," Ayogi's words echoed in Dhamayya's heart as he walked back.
Ironically, he felt heavy after dropping the weight.
He was a powerless old man. But he would have been happier had he
known that, back at his village, the Zamindar lost the election by just one vote.
Author bio :
Sri Rohith Rajam is from Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh. He is always curious about how writing and storytelling act as modes of communication. He has an MA in Communication from the University of Hyderabad, specialising in Print and New Media. He wishes to write stories based on the narratives of folktales and oral methods of storytelling.