Saturday, January 14, 2012

The Light of Bygone Days

Sukath Choudhary is dead. So is my father. But my village, thrown carelessly on the map of Bihar state of India is still there.

I love my village for it nurtured me and saw me through my wonder years. And it has zealously treasured my memories. I still remember the half naked grazier locked in verbal duel with my father. My father offered the man some money to graze the family cow. "Don't try to fool me with these pieces of paper, after all, I have guarded your cow in the blazing sun for months together", Sukath shouted throwing the money back at my father. Father was a bit bewildered. But an archetypal villager that he was he soon sensed that Sukath was alien to currency notes. So he handed him a few coins instead. "Yes! now you have given me genuine money. I will purchase tobacco with it.

Sukath Choudhary lived in the world of his own. It was the world of cows, calves and bulls. He talked to bovines and they responded to him. He lived among them all the time. Sometimes on the bank of the canal and sometimes in the barren fields on the outskirts of the village (Daraily Mathia in Siwan district), he was seen amidst hundreds of cattle.

He did not remember when he started spending all his time in the company of the longhorns. "My parents enlisted me to look after the cows even before I began to wear clothes !" Sukath told me. My curiosity drove me to explore about the herdsman in his late 60's.I frequently saw him escorting the four-footed at the canal. It was in mid 1970's when I was in my teens. I initially thought Sukhath had hundreds of cows and calves in his possession. No farmer in my village owned more than three to four cows. One fine morning I found the answer of my own queries when my father asked me to take our cow to Sukath. Sukath was the caretaker of the cows of several other farmers besides those of to his own. Every morning I took our cow to Sukath . And every evening I used to bring the creature back home. This routine enabled me learn more about Sukath. Clad in a soiled dhoti and holding a baton on his shoulder, Sukath was always lording over his animal kingdom. Sukaths knowledge of words was limited to "hat...hooh....aaha...hurr" which he frequently uttered to command his subjects.

He had little time to interact with other people of the village. His day began at the crack of the dawn. With a bundle of sattu (powder of fried grains) on his back, Sukath left home with his four-footed friends. And he returned home after the sunset to sleep by the side of cattle at his door.

I remember another story associated with Sukath. and the helcyon days of my childhood. I still enjoy telling it to my children. A village lad, Mangru opened a tea stall on the canal on the outskirts of the village. Mangru had graduated in preparing tea while working as labourer in a restaurant somewhere in Punjab. Most of the old people in my village were not aware of this "hot" beverage then. Sukath was walking lazily along the canal while his cows were grazing in the nearby barren field. Mangru offered an earthen vessel with tea to Sukath. Sukath readily took the vessel and raised it to his lips. And then all hell broke loose.

Sukath started beating Mangru with his baton. "You have given me poison, it burnt my lips, I will not spare you", Sukath was screaming loudly. The shopkeeper, bruised and battered, somehow escaped with his life. Other people gathered around to convince Sukath that tea was not a poison. It is consumed slowly, it would not burn his tongue. But Sukath was not convinced.

Mangru was my neighbour. The same evening I saw Sukath standing at Mangrus door. He was holding a vessel full of milk. "Come out Mangru", he shouted. Mangru, still bruised hobbled out. Sukath said: "Take this milk, boil it, add haldi (turmeric) to it and drink it. You will be relieved of your aches." Then he explained, "I beat you because you were playing a prank on me. You are now a grown up man, stop playing tricks on old people". Mangru accepted the milk meekly and peace was restored.

Sukath had no enemies. His needs were limited. He was more than content with his bovine friends. He was closest to what I know of a happy man.

Recently on my visit to my village, I heard Sukath had passed away. He had three sons. His eldest son died of tuberculosis. The second son died in a road accident. The third Harekrishna is alive. Sixteen year old Harekrishna is married to the 32 year old widow to his eldest brother. He is an active member of a an underground naxalite outfit which has gained grounds in my village.

"Clever people fooled my innocent father, they paid him only a rupee for an entire month of grazing their cows", says Harekrishna adding: "I am not going to carry on what my father did. He led an animals life".

Unlike his late father Harekrishna is aware of his rights. He works as a farm labourer. "But no one dares to pay me less than the prescribed wage." Harekrishna and his generation is aware of currency notes and coins. His father would be an anachronism today.

Several tea shops and paan shops have come up along the canal. People are aware of tea and paan. They keep their cows in shed or nearby their doors. There is no Sukath to lead the herds.

But with passing away of Sukath, peace and harmony have also disappeared from my village. It too is plagued by trouble and unrest like several other villages in Bihar state of India.

The upper castes and the lower castes are war path. The society is divided. People do not gather as they used to. Friendliness and good neighbourliness has been replaced by distrust and suspicion.

The baton that Sukath carried is out of fashion now. Firearms have replaced it. Mangru is still alive. When reminded of Sukaths assault on him, Mangru becomes nostalgic. He says: "Babu (gentle man), do you remember how Sukath bhai offered me milk after beating me." And adds: "The injury caused by guns will not be cured by hot milk and turmeric

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