Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Stopping at Nothing

         Bholanath's bulls froze as though a red traffic light had just lit up right in the middle of the paddy field. Anxious to get the ploughing done before the day got much hotter, Bholu slapped them smartly on their backs. But the bulls refused to budge. He let go of the plough's wooden handle and walked to the front; there was no one and nothing blocking their path.
         Bholu pulled out some fodder from the bag around one bull's neck and offered it to them. Uncharacteristically, both bulls shook their heads. Now thoroughly irritated, Bholu delivered a hefty kick to their rumps. The bulls bellowed and veered off to the left, yanking the plough clear out of the soil and dragging it behind them.
         'What kind of mad behaviour is this!' Bholu wondered. He took the bulls to the farthest end of the field and came ploughing from there. Five, six of the runs went off well. But as the bulls approached the centre of the furrowed paddy field, they came to a dead halt again. He walked around to the front once more and checked the ground closely. No pits, no stones.    
         Absolutely nothing.
         Bholu got back behind the bulls and whacked them with his thin stick and shoved and pushed – 'Hirrrrr…huuuuuuuiiiiii….'
         This time, wide-eyed and snorting in terror, the bulls turned to the right and went galloping off across the field towards the village.

         Bholu, his wife and their bulls lived in a little thatched hut at the outer edge of Keri village. The paddy field was just a five minute walk from home.
         The bulls feared Bholu. Bholu feared his wife.
         'Now you're blaming the bulls? Lazy fucker! Can't earn two paise even! Arre, look at Chandu, such a smart man. Only because Chandu comes to our help, we are okay.'
         To avoid listening to his wife's harangues, Bholu rose next morning at the break of dawn, fed and groomed his bulls and went with them to his field. But once again, the ploughing did not go well.
         Bholu dug up the left side of the field and then the right side. The area in the middle remained untouched. The bulls simply refused to go there. Bholu tethered his bulls to a tree at the edge of the field and went to his neighbour's house for help.
          'O Madhu! Madhu, re!'
         Madhu emerged from his hut.
         'Please lend me your bulls.'
         'What's wrong with your bulls, then?'
         'Nothing. I will bring them back soon, in two hours time.'
         'Take them, then.' Madhu scratched his head and went back inside.
         Madhu's bulls knew Bholu and he had no trouble harnessing them. They trotted willingly ahead of him as he turned them towards the field. But as he led them to the island of unploughed soil the new bulls began lowing, and with an eerie keening sound they too stood their ground a few feet away from the spot where Bholu could only see thin air.
         A smack with the stick didn't help. A butt kick didn't either. After Bholu had slapped them several times, the bulls slowly reversed and went back the way they came.
         Bholu scratched his scrawny buttocks and pondered the situation.
         'Eh, Bholanath!' He heard a familiar voice. Madhu came by, smoking a bidi.
         'What's going on, bhai?'
         'They are not willing to do the middle.'
         'Hettt! I will show you,' Madhu said. 'Ehhh Kallyah…ehhh Lonngya …ahurrrrr …. hirrrrrriaaaaahhhh!'
         But though Madhu danced and waltzed with his bulls this way and that, the same thing repeated itself. So Madhu and Bholu went home scratching their heads.

         That evening at the village tavern, Madhu shared the story. Everyone sitting around with their pegs of feni had a comment to make.
         'There must be something in Bholu's field…'
         'Someone must have buried some gold there…'
         'Something is trying to get onto Bholu…'
         'The way Chandu tries to get onto Bholu's wife…?'
         'Shut up, mad fellows!' Shembu the witchdoctor roared from a darkened corner. 'What are you chattering about! Don't you see what's happening? Bholu's field lies at the border of the village! Where do you think the Guardian lives?'
         A hush fell on all those present; they exchanged worried glances. Madhu even poured a little feni on the ground, to appease in advance any spirit that chose to appear.
         'Things are not going well in the village these days…' The witchdoctor stood up with widened eyes glowing like coal embers. 'Just a few nights back, as I was walking along the edge of the village, I saw a great blinding light above the trees.'
         'The Guardian can turn night into day…!'
         In the other corner, old Bhikumam said with a gaptoothed smile - 'Arre, there's nothing there…'
         'Maybe the Guardian has been angered,' said Shembu, without heeding the old man. 'Bholya, did you make your sur-rontt offering this year?'
         Bholu shook his head. There wasn't enough gruel to wet their stomachs at home, where would he come up with toddy and bakri for the sur-rontt!
         The night wore on. By the time they left the tavern, stumbling and colliding with the doorjambs and with each other, everyone had agreed they should do something about Bholu's problem.
         That night an offering of toddy, coarse bread and incense was placed at the foot of the Tree of the Guardian of the village.

         The next evening, the villagers accompanied three pairs of bulls to the field. One after the after, the bulls and the villagers maneuvered and dodged round and round the field like football players. The ominous middle patch of land about ten to twelve feet across remained unscathed. None of the bulls would lay even the shadow of a hoof there, even though Shembu the witchdoctor had prayed at the spot for a whole hour! The villagers returned home, greatly mystified.
         As Bholu approached his house, Chandu, the headman of the village panchayat, emerged from within. Just behind him, Bholu's wife came to the door. She saw her husband and was briefly taken aback. Then she uttered a forced laugh.
         'Look, Chandu has brought bananas. What a good man, no?'
         'Ye, Bholya!' Chandu said. 'Something funny is happening in your field, I hear?'
         The whole village knew that Chandu ran a numbers gambling business, and poked his finger in everybody else's house.
         Bholu went in without saying a word.

         That night, a lot of feni flowed at Sazulo's tavern.
         'The Guardian's belly is not filled with the sur-rontt,' the witchdoctor proclaimed. 'We will have to offer him something more.'
         'A cock?' Sadu the barber volunteered.
         'I have a hen,' Madhu stepped forward. 'You can pay me anytime, Bholya…this badness can affect the whole village, that's why I'm…'
         Bhikumam laughed from his corner. 'How can nothing affect anything!'

         Chandu tipped off the schoolmaster.
         The schoolmaster tipped off the local journalist.
         The journalist spoke to Kamarbandh.
         Doctor Kamlakar Kantak was indeed a brilliant and intelligent scientist at Panjim University, but the college boys as well as the outside world knew him better as 'Kamarbandh Kantak'. He was so brilliant that he could speak at length ex tempore on any topic. Just the other day he had delivered a powerful lecture at the National Institute of Oceanography on 'Goan Fish Curry'. And in the Kala Academy's Black Box Theater the day before that, he had spoken for an hour and a half on 'White Holes'.
         When Bholu went to the field in the morning, he found a crowd had already gathered there. Chandu, the schoolmaster, the local journalist, and Dr.Kamarbandh were all there, talking loudly. Off to one side, Madhu and the other villagers were getting ready with a hen, some chillies, salt, and a lemon.
         Kamarbandh observed the curious case of Bholu's bulls. Amazed, he too kept running in circles around the field.
         'There is certainly something here,' he admitted at last.
         'Shall I publish that?' the journalist asked.
         'Someone has done some magic here,' said the witchdoctor darkly.
         'Some thing has affected the field,' said another villager.
         'Someone is sitting on Bholu's head.'
         'The way Chandu…'
         'Shut up!'
         Dr.Kamarbandh and his men spent a good couple of hours walking and running around the field. The villagers trotted around behind them and finally sacrificed their hen. By noon everyone returned home for their siesta.
         As Bholu entered the house, his wife berated him – 'Today also you have come early, good-for-nothing fellow!'
         Bholu understood. Chandu had been busy with the journalist and the scientist, or by now there would have been delicious chikoos in the house.

         'How will the bulls go there! The Guardian is still sitting at that spot,' Shembu the witchdoctor said that night to the villagers huddled around the warmth of Sazulo's feni. 'We will have to give him some greater honour.'
         Madhu came forward again and got ready to put up a goat.
         Bholu's debt was mounting. He fell into a resigned silence.

         As soon as Bholu arrived at his field the next dawn, he abandoned all thoughts of ploughing for the day. Some thirty scientists and fifty or so journalists had massed there. Dr. Kamarbandh had rigged up a large instrument in the center of the field and was carrying out tests on the earth below. One of the doctors came up to Bholu and began closely examining the rear ends of Bholu's bulls.
         Close to Dr. Kamarbandh's machine, the villagers were preparing to sacrifice their goat. Chandu pranced to and fro between the two groups.
         'These damn fellows should be driven from here,' Madhu told Chandu. 'They come to this holy land and make such a noise!'
         'Get these lunatics away, man!' Kamarbandh said to Chandu. 'Such a significant event has taken place here and these nuts are dancing with a goat!'
         The hullabaloo continued through the day.
         At about four in the afternoon, Kamarbandh let out a triumphant yell. All the scientists gathered around the machine's screen and began to jump about in joy.
         'Look!' Kamarbandh shouted to Chandu. 'There is something on this spot! We can see it on this screen. Like a flattened ball, about eight feet long and five feet in height.'
Bholu, Madhu and the other villagers were puzzled. They could not see anything in the middle of the paddy field. Chandu too did not understand why the scientists were jumping about, but as head of the panchayat he knew his responsibilities: he stood up and began to give a speech.
         'Our village will become known all over the world now,' he pointed out. 'From now on, if anybody wants to do anything here, the government will have to support our panchayat with help and money. If our village is going to be famous, we also must progress and prosper!'
Then Chandu went to the assembled villagers and made another speech. 'Let us build a great temple here in honour of the Guardian,' he said. 'I will propose this to the panchayat, and they will pass it. These doctors and the government will give us money. And I will build it.'
By the time Bholu reached home that evening, his wife was grumbling and fretting restlessly. Bholu understood. Chandu had been totally occupied in the progress and prosperity of the village. Otherwise there would have been a basketful of ripe papayas in the house by now.

         In four days time, Bholu's paddy field turned into a fairground.  Two to three hundred people were camped out there. Scientists and TV crews from all over the world were busy at work. Having collected some money from the government, Chandu and the villagers began constructing a temple close to the point of interest.
         The landlord whose field Bholu was tilling received a hefty compensation from the government.
         The scientists tied a rope around the mysterious spot and cordoned it off from the public. 'The object here must be an extra-terrestrial entity,' Kamarbandh told the reporters. 'What it is, where it has come from…all this we must find out!'
         'I have named this entity 'Kamarbandh Bandhkamar',' he continued. 'We must crack open this closed capsule and see its contents. To do this, we must lift it from here and take it to our laboratory for further study.'
         Hearing this, old Bhikumam standing by with his hands behind his back cackled.
         'How will you take away what is not there!'
         One of the scientists brought a rope, but found nothing to tie it to.
         Another brought a crane, but there was nothing to lift.
         They sprayed water on the ground.
         Then they passed an electric current through the spot.
         And they subjected the ground to all kinds of radiation and vibration.
         But nothing changed.
         Man could walk on that hallowed ground as much as he liked, but no bull, dog or cat was ready to even sniff or shit on that spot.

         The whole world was shaken. Newspapers blared the news; TV channels aired endless speculations.
         Thinking the world was coming to an end, some people left their homes and went into the forests.
         The American President blamed the Iranians for the incident and bombed them.
The schoolmaster took leave.

         By the evening of the fifth day, two thousand people had gathered. Donations flowed in for the temple and Chandu danced back and forth to near exhaustion. That night, Chandu told Bholu to guard the temple property and left him asleep on the temple's unfinished veranda. By the time Chandu reached his own house, it was nearly dawn.

         When Bholu rose at daybreak, he saw his bulls sleeping soundly in the midst of all the ropes and machines and cameras. On seeing the bulls there, the scientists ran to their screens.
         'It's gone! It's gone!' they wailed.
         On hearing of this, old Bhikumam shook his head. 'How did what was never there go away!'
         The villagers flocked to the mandd, the sacred ground. They rejoiced that the Guardian had risen satisfied. The pace of the temple work increased; a large amount of money had already been raised; more poured in. Chandu bought himself a car, though he could not drive.
         The scientists rolled up all their equipment and left, deeply disappointed. The people who had retired to the forests believing the world was coming to an end reluctantly returned home.
         Dr.Kamarbandh received an international award. He called a press conference to deny reports that he was being considered for the Nobel Prize, thereby helping to spread the rumour wider. The Goa government increased his salary threefold. His memoir entitled 'The Pointless Inquiry of Kamarbandh' sold out in three months. He quickly got to work on a new book, 'Fish Curry and Kamarbandh'.
         On the little patch of earth that Bholu once tilled, a grand new temple arose. At the inauguration, the chief guest placed a garland of flowers around the necks of Bholu's bulls. They went to garland Bholu as well, but Bholu was not at home, so they garlanded Bholu's wife instead. Later in the night she placed the garland around Chandu's neck.
         In the very next elections, Chandu stood as candidate and was elected as a Member of the Legislative Assembly. Bholu's wife went to live with him.

         The chief committee of the Temple of the Guardian declared that Bholu's bulls were holy. They were taken from Bholu and thenceforth fed and clothed by the temple. Bholu would get up in the mornings and begin fondling the bales of hay that had been left behind but were no longer needed. He began roaming here and there. One day he disappeared. Nobody bothered much.
         But every Shivratri, when that glorious religious festival rolls around, the temple rousers can be heard chanting and singing:
         Jai Bholanath. Long live Bholanath. Long live…


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