“I think I will have to cut short my visit, mom can leave later,” Vishnu said with a deep sigh.
“Why? You have been here only for a week,” Sunder asked.
They were seated on the wooden cots in the veranda. The house belonged to Sunder’s family and Vishnu was cousin brother from his mother’s side.
“The most boring week of my life I have ever spent so far. This is how you spend your time here in the village? It is pathetic,” Vishnu said, shaking his head.
“Come on Vishnu! We are no longer children. Our school days are over. No more carefree and irresponsible life. No more loitering around and fooling around with friends,” Sunder said, attempting to pacify him.
“School friends! Where are they? Who all are here? Let us go and meet them,” Vishnu said and got up. Sunder looked at him and remained seated.
“Sit down Bhaiya! Like you they all have grown up and are busy. They have no time for gossip and rubbish talk,” Ramu said, intervening in the conversation. Ramu was the man Friday of Sunder’s father.
“This man gets on my nerves, Sunder. One of the reasons I want to leave is that I can not bear the sight of him. I am fed up of hearing his uncalled for advice and constant blabber,” Vishnu said looking away from them.
“Ramu Kaka, please go and do something else. Please leave us alone,” Sunder said looking at Ramu, who stared at him, shook his head and left them.
Vishnu sat down and took out his mobile phone from his pocket.
“Give me the phone numbers of some of our classmates who could be here in the village,” he asked Sunder.
“Let me see if I have any,” Sunder replied and took out his mobile phone from his pocket. He scrolled through contacts and found three names and read their phone numbers, which Vishnu stored in his phone.
“That’s all. What about the others?” Vishnu asked. Sunder shook his head and extended his hand with the phone towards Vishnu.
“I believe you. Keep your phone. Let me try and call them up,” Vishnu said.
The first number he dialled, he could hear the ringing at the other end and after a while he heard the voice.
“Hullo, who is speaking?” A rather loud voice spoke.
“Tyagi, this is Vishnu here, how are you?” He replied. The pause lasted for a few seconds, before Vishnu heard him.
“Vishnu! After a very long time I am hearing your voice! Where are you now?” Tyagi’s voice rose in excitement.
“I am with Sunder in his house. Will stay here for some time. Can we meet today?” Vishnu asked.
“Sorry! I am leaving today with my parents to our brother’s house at Delhi. My bad luck. Will keep in touch,” Tyagi replied.
“My bad luck too! Safe journey and enjoy,” Vishnu said and switched off the mobile phone.
He dialled the next number and heard the recorded message that the person cannot be reached.
“Let me try Pandey,” he murmured and dialled his number.
“Namaste, ayushman bhavo, this is Pandey speaking. What can I do for you?” He heard the voice at the other end.
“Pandey, this is Vishnu. I am with Sunder at his house. I want to meet you. Can we come over?” Vishnu asked. He heard the subdued sound of bells and chanting of prayers as he waited for the reply.
“Visnu, my friend. Very happy to hear your voice. You can certainly come and join me in the prayers at the Mandir,” Pandey replied. He looked at Sunder and winced! Joining in the prayers was the last thought in his mind.
“I will, but later. Sorry for disturbing you. Bye,” he said and switched off the phone.
“OK. I am going to finish my book, you are free to do whatever you want to,” Visnu said and picked up the book. He made himself comfortable on the reclining chair and turned over the pages of the book.
Having nothing better to do, Sunder went inside the house and returned after a few minutes.
“I am going grocery shopping. Do you want to come along?” He asked, holding up the grocery list in front of Vishnu.
“OK. I will come with you. I too have to purchase a few items,” Vishnu said and got up.
Sunder called out for the driver to bring the car. To his surprise he noticed Ramu sitting on the front seat. When they had settled down in the rear seat, Ramu turned towards them with a grin on his face,
“Huzoor, I have to run an errand for Maalik (Sunder’s father). The place is 4 miles away. Can the driver drop me there after he leaves you at the grocery shop?” He requested.
“Ok. Now drive on,” Sunder replied.
They reached the fairly large store and found it crowded.
“We have certainly progressed! The one room shop is now a supermarket,” Vishnu remarked.
The driver left with Ramu as they entered the shop. Sunder handed the list to the shop attendant who asked him to follow her. Vishnu walked around and kept looking at the items displayed in the shelves. He was surprised to find them the same as in a supermarket in his town. He picked up a packet containing Gillette razor and a shaving soap bottle. As he proceeded towards the cash counter he noticed a familiar figure standing in the queue. He stood behind him and patted his hand on his shoulder. The person turned around and faced him with a quizzical frown. Soon his expression changed into recognition.
“Oh my God! Vishnu! What are you doing here? You are supposed to be in Kanpur,” he said, holding Visnu’s shoulders.
“My God! Feroz, is it you?” Vishnu exclaimed with joy.
They kept looking at each other until the lady from behind spoke out loudly asking them to keep the queue moving. They made the payments for their purchases, came out of the store and stood in the car park.
“I am here, spending my vacation with Sunder,” Vishnu told him.
“That is fine, we can spend time together. I too am spending my vacations with my parents,” Feroz said.
“I would love to. I was getting bored, so I rang up Tyagi, Pandey and Susheel. All of them are busy. Now that you are here at least I have someone to talk with about our school days and visit our favourite joints,” Vishnu said, holding Feroz’s hand.
“Raj Kumar is also on vacation, he will meet me here in another five minutes,” Feroz informed him.
“Wonderful! I really want to meet Raj, the silent warrior!” Vishnu said.
They moved towards Feroz’s motor cycle where he deposited the items he had purchased in the bag attached to it. They continued to chat, recounting some of their past deeds and also enquiring about their present activities. It was Feroz who saw Raj Kumar and waved at him.
“Vishnu! What are you doing here? Nice to see you,” Raj Kumar said, getting down from his cycle. Vishnu stepped towards him and hugged him firmly.
“Nice to see you, my friend. I am spending my vacation with Sunder,” Visnu said.
“Speak of the devil and he is here!” Feroz remarked, pointing towards Sunder who was carrying bags in both hands.
“Feroz, Raj, where did you come from?” Sunder said and dropping the bags on the ground, he shook their hands.
They got so engaged in their conversations that Sunder did not realize that his mother was waiting for the groceries. It was when Vishnu looked at his watch that Sunder turned around looking for the car, which was parked at some distance, with the driver leaning on it.
He took the bags and gave them to the driver. He told the driver to return immediately after depositing the bags in the house.
“Let us go to Bhaiya ji for pakoras and tea,” Vishnu suggested. They entered a room which had three rows of fixed wooden tables and benches. On each six persons could sit and eat. The boy took their order and soon returned with plates of hot pakoras and tea in glasses.
“So what is the program for today?” Feroz enquired. Vishnu looked at Sunder who shrugged his shoulders.
“OK. Let us first go to Sunder’s house, where we can chat for a while in his room which has all the arrangements for us to view the latest movies , listen to the latest song and even sing with the karaoke. When it becomes a bit cooler, we will do the rounds of our favorite places,” Vishnu said, and looked towards Sunder.
“Can I speak with you separately for a minute,” Sunder said getting up.
“What’s so secretive? We are friends, let everyone hear your story, why hide?” Vishnu asked, pulling him down to sit.
“I can not say it in their presence. I do not want to hurt them,” Sunder replied.
“No issues. Go ahead, I will not feel bad,” Feroz remarked.
“Yes, go ahead. I am quite thick skinned,” Raj Kumar said and smiled.
Sunder sat down, bent his head and held it in his palms. They waited for him to speak.
“Feoz and Raj can not come to my house,” Sunder said, raising his head and looking at them.
A stunned silence followed, both Feroz and Raj looked down, but Vishnu’s temperature rose.
“Is it possible to let us know why they can not come to your house?” Vishnu said, controlling his temper.
“My parents will not allow it,” Sunder replied.
“They had no objection when they attended our high school passing party we had in your house?” Vishnu said.
“They were not aware that Feroz was a Muslim and Raj a Dalit. Ramu kaka told my mother about them and she raised hell. She ordered the room, the plates, glasses and spoons to be washed with soap water a number of times. She kept fast the next day as penance and offered 1000 rupees to the deity in the temple” Sunder replied, keeping his voice low.
Feroz looked towards Raj, whose smile widened and he patted Sunder on his shoulder.
“Then why are you sitting here in their company, eating pakoras and Tea? Can you not tell your mother that the dark and destructive medieval period is over. We are living in a modern era where such thoughts and actions are considered not only disgusting but also are criminal acts,” Vishnu said, shaking his hands helplessly.
“I tried but got a slap from her. My father scolded me and ordered me to stay away from them,” Sunder said.
“So, obey your parents and stay away,” Vishnu said, scorning him.
“I will, only if you say so,” Sunder said with a straight face. Both Feroz and Raj burst out laughing on observing the expression on Sunder’s face. Vishnu too joined them.
“Ok! My uncle and aunt are still in the dark ages! I know my mom, she knows her mind. She will never be influenced by anyone. My late Dad is responsible for the way we think and act,” Vishnu said and shook his head.
“Yes, your mother is a great lady. What an honor for us all. She is teaching at IIT Kanpur after leaving her job at our school,” Feroz said.
“Ok. Let us start afresh. This morning I spoke to Pandey. I think like his father, he too has become a Pujari. Let us go and meet him there,” Visnu said.
By now they all had consumed the pakoras and drank the tea and yet none of them moved from their seats when Vishnu got up.
“What? Come on let us go. If nothing else, we will pay our obeisance to Shri Ram,” Vishnu said.
They reluctantly got up and proceeded towards the car, which had returned and was parked.
The short journey to the temple was uneventful. The driver stopped the car at the temple entrance. The temple looked deserted, they noticed a fairly aged man sweeping the floor in front of its door.
Sunder came out of the car and called out to the man. He asked him to fetch Pandey. Soon they noticed a man wearing saffron colored dhoti and kurta, emerging from the temple. They waved at him signalling him to come and meet them, He waved back and in hurried steps approached them.
“Jai Sri Ram! What a surprise! Welcome! I am extremely happy to see you all,” Pandey said, shaking their hands.
“I told you over the phone that I will come later. Here I am with our friends,” Vishnu said.
“Thank you. Shri Ram ji will bless you,” Pandey said.
“Good. Let us go and get his blessings. Lead the way,” Vishnu said.
With a smile on his face Pandey looked at Feroz and Raj. They nodded and signalled him to go ahead.
After walking a few steps with Pandey, Visnu looked back and noticed that Feroz and Raj were getting into the car and only Sunder was following him. He stopped, turned around and started walking towards the car. Pandey and Sunder followed him.
“What happened? You both are not coming to the temple?” Vishnu asked.
“No, we will rest in the car,” Raj replied.
“Why? You do not want to pray?” Vishnu replied.
“I want to pray?” Raj said.
“Why don’t you then? Come along,” Vishnu insisted.
“Ask him, if he will allow it?” Raj said with a smile on his face and pointed his finger towards Pandey. Vishnu looked at Pandey who with a serious face shook his head.
“But why? Did we not when we were very young play on the footsteps of the temple and steal the eatables offered when no one was looking. I remember, everytime he stole, Raj used to stand in front of the idol seeking forgiveness. You too joined him sometimes,” Vishnu said.
Pandey with his head down listened quietly and did not respond. Both Feroz and Raj signalled with their hands intimating Vishnu to stop talking and go to the temple.
“I allowed Raj to come and worship in the temple last year. It was around midnight he came and prayed for an hour or so. Next day my father met me and demanded to know the presence of a Dalit in the temple. Obviously someone had seen Raj and reported it to him. I had to wash the area around the idol by scrubbing the floor and clean the idol by pouring milk over it. As a penance I had to fast for a week,” Pandey narrated the ordeal that he went through.
Vishnu held Pandey’s arm with one hand and lovingly stroked his cheeks with the other.
“Will you come with us Feroz?” Vishnu asked.
“I can not pray there, so I will remain here and give company to Raj,” Feroz replied.
“OK. Sunder and I will go and quickly pray. When we return we will decide where we should go,” Sunder said.
They did not have to wait long, Feroz and Raj saw them descending the steps in quick time.
“The prasad is much tastier than before. Pandey is doing a good job,” Vishnu said. They entered the car and Sunder handed over the Prasad to Feroze and Raj.
“It is tastier,” Raj confirmed after eating it.
“Raj and I have thought about the next place we should go. How about going swimming?” Feroz said.
“Wonderful idea! It is hot and what better than a nice swim. Let us go to the bridge on Puran Singh canal and dive from it into its water,” Vishnu said, showing excitement.
“We do not have swimming trunks and towels,” Sunder said.
“We did not have them when we skipped classes to swim,” Raj said and laughed. The rest joined him and in this lighter mood they proceeded to their next stop.
Throughout the journey they joked and narrated various stories of their schooldays. They were enjoying themselves thoroughly.
“Sir there is a big crowd ahead, should I carry on driving?” The driver asked.
“No. Stop, we will walk. The canal bridge is not very far off,” Sunder told him.
The driver stopped the vehicle and they got down. They heard loud voices coming out from the crowd. It appeared to them that they were chearing someone. As they came closer they observed that most of the men were armed carrying assorted implements as weapons with them. The shouting was deafening as they weaned their way towards the bridge.
There was a tussle to get as close to the centre of the bridge as possible. Pushing the men aside, they stood in the area which was devoid of anyone barring a person who was tightening a rope around a man’s neck. The other end of the rope was tied to the railing. When the person had finished tightening the rope he held the man by his shoulders and swung him around to face the crowd. Blood flowed from the wounds inflicted on his head and body. The person lifted the man’s head and the crowd gasped when they saw his face. His eyes flickered and painful wails emanated from his mouth.
“Oh my God! It is Rahmat Chacha!” Feroz Cried out loudly.
The person looked up at him with a wry smile on his face.
“Oh my God! It is Ramu Kaka,” Sunder wailed out.
Ramu kaka lifted Rahmat’s body and threw it over the railing.
(To be continued in Part II)