A Lagaan to be Paid
Inspired from the epic Bollywood movie Lagaan
Note: Due to copyright issue, character names are changed. However, if the reader has seen the movie he will easily be able to relate to the characters.
The naked children remind me of them ─ splashing water over each other, closing their eyes tight when the droplets try to invade into their eyes, jouncing like mad and laughing like the morning coo of careless birds. Thin red ribbons wrapped around their waist which have rather beautified their naked bodies than symbolizing tradition or superstition. How I have missed this country! This mad rush, this underlying harmony in total pandemonium; this is what I love most about India.
It had been fourteen years, and Beth was returning from fourteen years of self-imposed exile. But there were differences, differences between the epic exile of Sita in Ramayan and this. There Sita was with her love; she loved and was loved back. Mortal lives, most of the time, don’t follow epics.
I am Beth and India is like home to me. But things have changed. I can’t see people travelling in bullock carts or handcarts with an umbrella-holding-servant now. Roads are reigned by roars and honks of motor cars. Still, need a lot to travel; to Champaner. It’s been eons that I’ve seen him. What other reason do I need to come back here? How would he be now, how many children has he fathered? Wonder if he remembers me now. No, don’t think so.
Beth travelled for hours; her eyes were distant, lost in lovely thoughts. How he always mispronounced her name and well, she was not so good too. Sometimes Jagat becomes Jaghaat or Jaghaah. Smirked and she’s realized her co-passengers were becoming curious. She wanted to travel in local train, where she would be able to get closer to Indians, their earthly scent and oddly simple thinking. But a British Mem was not allowed to do that. After all, a ruler couldn’t be allowed to sit with his natives, who were not as simple and tolerating as was in 1893. Sabotages, murders, highly united groups with complicated plans had shaken the entire British Empire. Though Bengal was in lead of all these extremist activities, British took action for India as a whole. But as a ruler they were too clever, and thus they divided Bengal into two expecting a subjugation of uprising. That decision backfired; causing tumult and more extreme rendezvous by rebellious groups. Somewhere, an eighteen years eight months old boy had happily accepted death sentence for his involvement in a plan to assassinate some magistrate. He failed in that mission bombing mistakenly his wife and daughter instead. It was an exemplary incident that ignited more violence and unrest. It was 1908 and previous hatred and abhorrence of the British to natives had transformed into fear and vengeance.
My friends in England rejected me as soon they have come to know that I am in love with him. Hearing his name from my mouth, their face contorted; as though some filthy stinky food had been stuffed into their mouths. I can’t believe I’ve called them friends since my childhood. But forget that past. I am here now, and I am happy that I’ve left England for good.
She reached her residence, the mansion where she once lived and how merrily she had lived! She entered her room and closed the doors. In balcony, she breathed to her lung’s content. That smell, it was different; so different from England. A heavy, moist affection engulfed her, mixed feelings of pain and nostalgia overflowed in her heart and rolled down from her eyes. She hugged the sturdy pillar in balcony, closed her eyes; humming a tune that was very close to her heart.
Hm..hm..hm.hmm.la.la. What a song! Lila is so good at making songs out of nowhere. She is perfect for him. I had to leave. After they won the cricket match in 1893, I left and reached my home in England and no sooner had I entered England than I felt a void inside me. It was maddeningly rueful; I couldn’t concentrate on anything. Friends came; they insisted me to go to plays, concerts and all. But the only thing I liked was cricket and India. Mother and Father even considered consulting a psychiatrist, for they thought I was ‘infected’ with black vices of India. With constant state of depression and indifference I had to become a vagabond. I also could have chosen to kill myself. That would have been far easy and much quicker. Sadly, I wasn’t brave enough to do that.
The first thing that came into Beth’s mind when she thought of leaving her home was: she must visit India. People warned her, advised her to take a better place; like Paris or Russia or Greece. But they were neither cursed with unquenched love nor blessed with enigmatic beauty of India. After taking rest and a little food she decided to take a tour of Champaner, the village that made her fall in love with India and him; her Jagat.
Though basically it was a hot and solemn place, but it had beauty. The cliffs, the wind, the moon and the village. Wearing a white frock dappled with polka dots, she reached the village with expectations to see few familiar and grateful faces again. But it was not in a state she had expected. The whole village was empty, with furnaces still burning, cottages open like some monsters with their mouths agape; waiting for her to enter in anyone of them, only to be swallowed. She lingered around inspecting some broken bamboo sticks or a burned saree or a bloodstained lower edge of thatching. It was noon and heat was already burning her skin. She stood there and looked around, as though if she concentrated better, she’d discover some pranks were being played at her; like all the villagers already knew she was to arrive and prepared a surprise to welcome her. Her tongue poked out a little and touched her lips, and it became parched to moist her lips. She gulped air in her throat and went further into the deeper much familiar realms ─the opening where Lila used to dance and villagers used to celebrate ─ and then she trotted further, towards Jagat’s cottage. With repeated look backs, she stepped forward, wiping her face. As she neared Jagat’s home she heard dull thuds. Heart skipped a beat. She hid herself in someone’s cowshed, with putrid smell of rotten cow dung burning her nostrils. She clutched a bamboo pole nearby, suddenly feeling cold and nauseous. Thuds came closer and louder when she tried to listen more carefully. She couldn’t help but peep to witness something horrible, something she didn’t want to see. It was blank, bright and beautiful as daylight. Nothing. Then a light tap on her shoulder. She shrieked. It was so deafeningly high pitched that even vultures that were circling atop her head flew a bit higher. The fact that the vultures were waiting for her couldn’t touch her mind; she was more petrified and attentive to turn back and see the one who blessed her with the mortifying touch.
Beth found her finger was not trembling, for she at once recognized the tapper was none but one poor British soldier who looked like was on patrolling duty from his outfit.
“Madam, what are you doing here? You must not roam around in these places. Not in daylight and definitely not in night.” The warning and advice both were incapable to reach her. She numbly followed the soldier as he led her to the mansion.
With further interrogation and investigation at the mansion, Beth came to know what happened at Champaner.
As British kept increasing tax even when rain decided not to be kind enough, people started pleading. But they ignored their plight and sent more men to collect the tax forcefully; and things got out of control. Villagers’ pleading first became complaint and then protest. They started capturing British men and vandalized their tents and offices. In return, British took stricter actions. They went with armoured army in the village and captured married women. They striped and tied them with their striped dresses on a platform, summoned their husbands and children to gather in front. Husbands screamed, children squealed to see their wives and mothers raped in turns with critical commentary on their wretched bodies.
Uproar emerged. Unsparing slaughter spilled blood on earth making grass flowers and catkins bloom red. Villagers crept inside offices and slit throats and stomachs inserting chaos in every pore of every living being there. In return, a more elaborate and ruthless action was called by British officers and the village was set to fire a few days before arrival of Beth. Only vultures to feed themselves on charred corpses and dogs to chew the blackened bones and then again to be eaten by vultures dwelled in Champaner.
Many escaped their morbid fate when the village was burning to ashes, with Jagat leading his fellow farmers and families to a desolate far corner of their village. They stayed all night up, moaning for their burned houses, sons, daughters and fathers and groaning holding on to their own burned flesh. The yellow gleam at horizon reminded them of their fuming heart, ticking like a time bomb only to burst any moment. They stayed hidden there for days without food or drink.
Hearts ablaze, survived farmers decided to plan something bigger, harsher. On the other part, in the mansion, Beth was aware of the recent developments in her much loved Champaner. In the night, bribing few servants and ignoring their warnings, she went to the hiding spot of the villagers.
He must be old and matured, wouldn’t be boyish like before. How will he react? Will he even recognize me? Will even they? Oh my goodness, what have happened to this place? Have they gone mad? How can one burn a whole village? Do people know outside of this state? Wouldn’t people become more rebellious from this heinous incident?
Mumbling on her own, she didn’t know when she had reached to the scattered group of bodies littered on sand. Had their chest not elevated a little, she would have thought they were corpses. Only few half-asleep persons registered that someone arrived. Suddenly, the whole clan woke up and started shouting, bringing out spheres and swords. They seized her and roped her near the fire. With this unexpected outburst, Jagat came and silenced all. The moment he saw Beth, he ordered to free her. They protested but at last freed her reluctantly. Few others recognized her too and felt ashamed to welcome her like this. But most of them doubted her to be a spy from British searching there hiding spot. Jagat asked her to sit and have some water and then apologized for not having anything else to offer.
“Don’t say sorry. I know your condition,” Beth replied looking around.
They discussed about everything, about how British showed their brutality, how they carried away protests and how their happy lives were ruined.
“You must return to your country. India is not safe anymore,” Jagat said. “We are happy to see you Memsa’ab, but you must go.”
Jagat stood up. Beth stood up too, with anxious and pleading eyes. Her heart was praying for him to understand her real reason for coming in India. But he went to sleep instructing his friends to show her the path to return. She followed him anyway and kept her hand on his shoulder. He turned immediately and then hid his face ordering his men, “Take her to her home.” His eyes were shimmering with tears.
They almost forced her to return, and while talking with others, she came to know many things; like Jagat studied hard to get a better job at British administration but was refuted; like he was the best English speaking person in the village. And suddenly she remembered that her proposal in English many years ago was not obscure to him anymore.
He knows. He knows that I love him.
Then she realised he intentionally forced her to return. Her heart ached. Further enquiry revealed blacker truth of Jagat’s life. It was then she remembered Lila. She hadn’t seen her around. Lila was not burned in the recent incident, rather shortly after their marriage, she slipped and fell into the village well. It was noon and none was around to save her. She died with her first child inside her.
Jagat loved her and her only.
It was hard for her to accept the truth.
In her bedroom, Beth cried till her eyes swelled, roamed around muttering indistinguishable words and shouting to her servants without any reason. Miles apart, Jagat changed sides several times in his bed; heart pounding. Next day was crucial as they planned an attack on the British. Swords, spheres, kerosene-filled pouches and drums were ready to be used. He couldn’t sleep.
Next day arrived with more determined and calm Beth. She had decided about her life. She would return to England the next day after meeting Jagat for the last time.
The afternoon sun filled the sky with ochre and Beth went to meet Jagat. As she came closer, she saw a row of burning torch approaching towards her. She froze and was too dumbfounded to decide what to do next. She ran towards the mob shouting and screaming to stop. So excited those mob were that they jumped with thrill and joy to see their first prey, a white skinned lady. They ran with swords and before Jagat could know what the matter was, a sphere already pierced though beside Beth’s navel. Jagat shouted and threw them from Beth with abusive words and he clutched her within his arms. Her face remained agape struggling to breathe and tears were rolling down from her eyes. She gripped his hand for the first and last time.
© Anirban Nanda
This story has been published under Readomania’s ‘To be Continued…’ contest where it has received special mention by the jury. You can find the story in Readomania here.