TODAY KHANDU WILL BE released from jail. This may not be a piece of news important enough to merit the morning’s headlines, but important for the people of Chandipur, nevertheless. The tea-stall dwellers had little else to talk about over the last few days. The bus-stand was agog with suppressed excitement. Children ran out into the muddy street, at every pretext, to eagerly scan the northern horizon, for the main road through which Khandu will enter the village, ran along that direction. Bnuchi’s mother had forgotten to add salt in her Daal, as she was engrossed to hear to the exploits of Khandu, as being related with a lot of fanfare and justified exaggeration, by Lebu’s aunt. By mid-day Khandu, by the word of mouth, had become a sort of a local hero.
“Do you remember how I once spanked Khandu for stealing guava from my tree?” Nripati removed the hubble-bubble from his mouth to ask. The smoke from the tobacco burning like Vesuvius in full eruption atop the age-old contraption traversed the wrong way and Nripati, called Khuro or Uncle by all the villagers, young and old alike, choked over in a paroxysm of coughing.
“Arre Khuro, of course we remember,” said Kelo, the tea-stall owner. Nripati had a sizable amount of money unpaid in his permanent account of credit at the stall and Kelo was not ready to take any chance at all.
“Khandu was an out-and-out rascal in his younger days, if you don’t mind me saying so,” added he. “Now he has outgrown it all, I dare say.”
“Kelo, pass me your match-box, will you? There’s a good man.” Moinuddin drew on his bidi with great fanfare. He was the local primary school teacher, known as ‘Master’ to all. “Don’t speak so lightly of Khandu. He’s a veritable hero now. Can’t you see?”
“Huh! Hero! Don’t give me, Master! A crook is a crook is a crook.” Nripati added profoundly in between coughing bouts.
“Whatever he is, he has never harmed any of our Chandipur people, has he?” asked Haren, the grocer, giving a tentative sip to his tea, served scalding hot by Kelo. “He is our very own, and that’s that,” added he, blowing into his earthenware cup to make his tea cooler.
Khandu was no political bigwig. He was no satyagrahi, either. He was a common criminal – a muscle on hire, it can be said. Yet he was becoming a veritable hero in Chandipur. But this is not a slur upon the good name of the peace-loving, quaint, little village. The reason was that nothing ever happened here. When Mangala, the cow of Haradhan the tailor , had calved, it had made headlines in the village. When Ranga Babu had brought the first transistor radio from town, half of the village had gathered in his court-yard from an hour ahead, merely to listen to the evening news. The battery operated radio was a tremendous hit in the village that had no contact with the concept of electrification, even though it was quite some time after Independence. It was not surprising that Khandu had created more than ripples in the placid waters of the village tank.
Khandu was a tough guy, though thin and wiry in appearance, the exact opposite to what a goon on hire was supposed to look like. But he was in great demand by all patrons within a radius of thirty kilometres from Chandipur. The simple reason was that he was a magician with bombs. This art of bomb manufacture was given the status of a cottage industry by Khandu. He was an institution on this subject. None could match his quality nor his speed at getting the job done.
Pari was an orphan. She was brought up by her maternal uncle, as her mother, who was abandoned by her husband when she was just three months pregnant, had died in the throes of childbirth. She had grown up to be a beautiful girl, and was well accomplished in all household chores, including sophisticated ones like sewing and embroidery. Fair skinned and well endowed physically, she was a treat to the eyes of the village youngsters. Pari basked in the attention she received. But as luck would have it, none of the suitors appeared to touch her mind and heart before she met the bombstar Khandu.
It was the month of August. The heat was oppressive and days sultry. Even then there was no paucity of gaiety in the villagers as it was the time of the village fair. A brand of Folk Songs, known as Bhado Gaan, was a very popular item in this fair. Khandu was a great connoisseur of music. He never missed any Bhado or Baul mela if he could. The night long musical soirees were something he loved most. In such a village fair, Khandu had sat enthralled with the lilting beat of drums, when his survival instinct suddenly rang a thousand bells inside his head. He felt, though he was not very certain, that someone was looking at him. The hair at the back of his neck became erect like that of a ferocious canine and he steadily turned his head around, avoiding any jerky or abrupt movement. Then he saw her. A pair of dark, doe-like eyes was gazing at him, appraising him, reaching out to him. He had seen Pari. Eyes locked, hearts reached out. Background music in the form of Bhado Gaan became inconsequential now.
The show was not over yet, but Khandu had stood up. Tottering to maintain his balance in the tightly packed audience, he found his way out on tip-toes, careful not to put his foot into the lap of some squatting lover of folk song. From the Ladies’ section, another person too flitted out. Pari could hardly contain herself.
“I am Khandu,” said Khandu, eloquently introducing himself.
“I know you. Who doesn’t?” quipped Pari.
With these master-pieces of introductory lectures they ambled along through the rest of the fair ground. They marveled at the toy train, gawked at the high Ferris wheel, laughed at the frolicking clowns, bit tentatively into the hot cutlets, smeared their mouths with candy-floss, and in general enjoyed themselves silly. Spring reappeared in August.
By the time they found themselves back in this world, it was already quite late. The night was dark with only a wan sliver of the moon fighting a losing battle against the darkness. Pari and Khandu lived not very far from each other. So they matched steps on their way back home, only holding each other’s hand to give moral support. On the way they had to cross close to a bamboo grove. The bamboos were standing erect and black, with their heads nodding knowingly in the gentle breeze. As movements they were innocuous enough, but to the trained eyes of Pari, they were sinister. She was loaded up to her tonsils with local folk-lore and knew for certain that this was the place which teemed with ghosts on moonless nights. That there was an apology of a moon in the sky escaped her notice and she clutched at Khandu like a drowning girl finding a straw.
“O Khanduda’, I am scared,” she declared in a tremulous voice.
“Why? Oh, the ghosts? Don’t worry dear. They all know Khandu,” came the intrepid reply.
Then as if to reassure her, he bent down. Even in the darkness his lips found hers with unerring accuracy. Pari regained her courage, but lost her heart.
Soon enough, Pari got further evidence about the heroism of her beau. The youngest son of Pari’s neighbor was running high fever. There was no doctor within a ten kilometer’s radius. Everyone had to rely on the acumen of Tarini Doctor, the local quack. But in this case, even Tarini had given up as all his medicaments failed. The crowd of onlookers was visibly saddened, till someone had an immense brain-wave.
“Call Bishwambhar,” suggested someone from the back of the crowd.
Now, Bishwambhar Ojha was not a person to be trifled with. He had a towering reputation in the locality as a scourge for all ghosts, living or dead. He was a swarthy middle aged man, with flowing jet black beard and shoulder long hair. A dhoti of blood-red silk was his only attire, with a red piece of cloth draped round his shoulders. His very appearance evoked awe. He was reputed to have a couple of ghosts as his servants and at around midnight he played chess with the king of ghosts himself. He was a man of few words and communicated mainly through grunts.
Bishwambhar came in with two assistants in tow. The onlookers looked at this emaciated duo with awe, totally convinced that these two were the two ghostly servants they had heard so much about. Bishwambhar gave a glance towards where the sick child lay swathed in blankets and declared that a hostile spirit had taken up residence in the body of the boy. As he laid down the tools of his trade, in the forms of a grinning skull, a pair of long bones, an urn of incense, a broomstick and other necessities, he declared in a sepulchral tone.
“I shall invoke the denizens of the netherworld now. Only with the help of these strong spirits shall I be able to drive out the evil spirit that the boy is harbouring. But, beware! When those spirits respond to my call and come within me, I may go berserk! If at that time any queasy or ungodly person comes close to me, the spirits may attack him forthwith. And I can’t guarantee what will come pass then! Better, you all leave.”
Few left, though. No one wished to be branded as ‘queasy’ or, worse still, ‘ungodly’. Pari too, stayed put, crouched in one corner of the room. A hundred wild horses would have failed to drag her away from the rare spectacles. Bishwambhar scowled this way, then that, and finally settled to light up a small pyre on the floor, into which he dashed a handful of incense, filling the small, crowded room with white smoke and a sweet odour.
It was at this juncture, that Khandu entered the room. He had gone to Pari’s place in search of her and on hearing that she was in her neighbour’s place made a beeline straight to the room where she was cowering with other teenage girls of the neighbourhood.
Khandu was a worldly man. At a glance he understood what was happening. He may be a crook or an outlaw, but he could not stand these sorts of emotional blackmail by playing on people’s superstition. He crouched down low in the front row of spectators. Unknown to all, before he took his place, he had grasped a knobby stick, about a couple feet in length.
Bishwambhar uttered vicious sounding chants, severely unintelligible, and began to whirl about like a tornado having a fit. His chants rose to a crescendo and he smashed his fist into the ample tummy of the local quack doctor. He yelped and fled the scene. An exodus followed. Bishwambhar’s red-rimmed eyes began searching for the next victim, as his spirit-sodden breathe vouched for the fact that he was indeed loaded with spirits of the wrong kind. He eyed Khandu and advanced. Pari shrieked. Bishwambhar raised his right hand to strike the skeptic Khandu down, but Khandu was more than a match for this witch-doctor. He too whirled around and brought the knobby stick smack against the temple of the man in red. Bishwambhar was out cold. Then before anyone could react Khandu had jumped up, picked up the sick boy, thrown him across his shoulder in a fireman’s lift and had scampered away. He was no more to be seen for the next three days, nor was the fevered boy. It was after three days, both returned to the village. The boy, it appeared, was cured. Khandu had apparently shouldered the child and ran on to the main road. There he took a bus for the nearest town and got the boy admitted to a hospital. Pari was all the more proud of her beau.
That very evening Khandu went straight up to Pari’s maternal uncle and asked for Pari’s hand in marriage. Her uncle coughed, hawked, looked this way and that, held a closed door meeting with his wife, Pari’s aunt, and finally gave his grudging consent. The grudge was not because Khandu was not a worthy groom. Neither it was because of their affection for Pari. But the sole reason was that they were being deprived of the service of an unpaid domestic help. However, uncle had to bow down to the inevitable and the couple got married within three months. Pari’s happiness knew no bounds.
They did not go for honeymoon. But there was nothing strange in their not going. There were three strong reasons behind their not going. The first reason was that the concept was not very clear to them. The second reason was that, even if it had been clear, they could hardly afford it. The third reason was that their house was right at one end of the quaint little village with no one around to disturb them. So they had themselves to themselves, with their green, their shrubs, their trees, their flowers, their fruits, and their crystal clear tank. In fact they had all that was needed to keep a young couple in bliss. They had each other for company, and that was their honey and that was all the moon they needed.
Of course, they went to the nearest town quite often, just to let their hair down a bit. They relished the hot and sour Phuchkas sold in the town square and the fish cutlet in the tiny restaurant with fishy odour. They went to the cinema hand in hand, and sat there looking into each other’s eyes in the dark, rather than at the silver screen. They bought trinkets for Pari, like a few bangles and ear-rings, with a sari or two, for good measure, and sometimes a sandal for Khandu. Over and above, they were truly happy with each other.
But Pari’s happiness, unfortunately, proved to be somewhat paroxysmal, as Khandu had to go away quite often for professional reasons. Added to it were the frequent interactions with the guardians of law. All this made Khandu stay away from his wife, often for quite a stretch of time. This was the only put-downer in their otherwise lustrous love life. But one could not have all one wished for. They were quite happy with what they had.
Three years passed by in this way, but the couple was still childless. In a village this was a scandal. Tongues started wagging. The old women of the village blamed one or the other, for what they termed as ‘sterility’. Wherever Pari went she faced wry comments and sometimes tirades to this effect. This was unpleasant. So, one night, lying still, huddling towards each other, tired after all amourous calisthenics, Pari could contain herself no longer and spilled out to Khandu that what she had been hiding in her heart so long.
“Ramu’s maa has a scalding tongue,” said Pari.
“Why dear? What did she say?”
“She was asking about how long we have been married.”
“That is none of her business. Everyone knows how long we are married.”
“Yes, that’s true.” Pari lay still for a long, long time.
“Isn’t it time when we plan for having some children?”
“What? What?” Khandu had fallen asleep in the meantime.
“Oh, yes. Children. Yes, that’s interesting.” Light snores told Pari that Khandu had already fallen asleep. She too turned over to sleep, but sleep eluded her. She planned that she would take the matter up again in the morning.
Mainly it was Pari’s anxiety that goaded them to go to the town once again, but this time to seek medical help. The elderly doctor took their history, examined them, prescribed several tests, took a pinch of snuff, sneezed majestically and pronounced both of them to be perfectly healthy after studying the test results. What the poor General Practitioner missed was the fact was that Khandu generally missed the most fertile part of his wife’s cycles due to his professionalism or his escapades of daring.
Chandipur lay plumb in the centre of the area politically dominated by the opposition. The ruling party had their own mechanisms functioning like a well oiled machine, but the opposition was sometimes rusty and militarily was no match for the rulers. Khandu’s services were, therefore, much in demand from the opposition bench. This was no problem, as such, for Khandu. He was satisfied professionally and was secure economically. Only once in his illustrious career was he apprehended by the long arm of the law.
Khandu was on his way to a client with about half a dozen of his finished products in a gunny bag. He was whistling as he walked as this was the last of his consignment and he expected that today he would be paid for his efforts. He was planning that on the way back, he would drop in at the confectioner’s to get some sweets for Pari, who was famous for her sweet tooth. But his reverie was cut short by the sudden appearance of an apparition in uniform.
“Let’s see what you have there in your bag,” demanded the law.
“Oh, it’s nothing sir,” replied Khandu with a toothy grin. “Only a few coconuts for my Pishima.”
“Coconuts? Are they? Well, let me have a coconut then.”
Khandu was arrested and taken to the police station. His actual crime was a bit different from what the records showed. He was recorded as carrying bombs. This was physically found to be correct. But his real offence had been that he had not enough money on him to oil the palm of the constable who had caught him red-handed. Khandu was bundled unceremoniously into the lock-up and left there alone, to contemplate on the world from behind the bars, not that there was much to look at though, for the police station was old and decrepit, with a couple of tables and a few worn-out chairs and a couple of racks overflowing with old, forgotten files. The black-board o the wall showed statistics of crime, but the figures were at least a decade old. Hours rolled by. Pari, in the meantime had begun to grow anxious and Khandu began to get anxious feeling that Pari must be getting anxious by now, when the elderly, black telephone rang. The Officer-in-Charge picked it up and began mumbling into the mouth-piece with a number of sly looks towards Khandu.
Tapanda was a resourceful man and very well connected. Though he belonged to the Opposition Party, he had a number of cronies in the ruling bench as well. Moreover, he was the local elected Member of the Legislature. In short, he was not to be trifled with and it was common knowledge that there was a strong possibility that a change of Government was in the offing. The police was just a tool in the hands of those who ruled. So, the Officer-in-Charge found it prudent to pay total heed to Tapanda when he called in his protégé’s protection. He was Kahandu’s chief patron and it was his party office that Khandu was taking his products to. The phone call ensured Khandu’s release in a trice, while the official report nestled cozily in the depths of a strategically placed waste-paper basket, where all such trivia were thrown in.
That day, when Tapanda’s interference had saved his skin, it was evening by the time Khandu reached home. Pari had overcome her anxiety to get her daily chores done. She had just completed the evening rituals of showing the light to their household deity at the Tulsi shrub and was blowing into her conch-shell, when she was surprised by a pair of strong arms embracing her from behind. Khandu’s close encounter with the law had made him all the more amorous. He rained kisses on the exposed neck of his dearest and turned her around. Pari was flushed and breathing heavily. She was feeling the familiar warmth and the welcome sweet wetness.
“Not here, you oaf!” she chided. Khandu laughed and carried her over to their bedroom-cum-living room-cum dining room and plumped her down on bed. At this juncture, someone called him from outside.
“Who is it?” Khandu was intensely displeased, and why should he not be?
“Tapanda has sent me with a new commission. Come on outside.”
“Come back later,” Khandu grunted his reply.
“Are you coming or not?” The intruder did not have any manners!
“Do you think that Tapanda had intervened just because he likes you handsome face? The elections are coming. A lot’s going to happen.”
Pari pushed him off the bed and motioned him silently to make himself presentable.
This was Khandu’s life!
There was one thing Khandu was afraid of most, and that was the police. He was not afraid of any being, spirited or dispirited, but the men in uniform gave him the quakes. He was genuinely afraid of being apprehended and being sent off to jail for a stretch, leaving behind his lovely wife alone, pining for him. Once it had happened, just after his marriage, the couple was sitting together, hand in hand, head to head, beside the tank behind their house. It was a full moon night. The air was balmy and fragrant. They were saying nothing to each other, but were sitting in comfortable silence, watching the floating moon breaking up into thousand pieces of luster, as each ripple rolled over, when a headlight of a jeep lit up the scene and broke their reverie. Khandu was startled out of his wits. Out of reflex he jumped right into the water and swam away. Later it turned out that the vehicle was not a police jeep at all, but a jeep belonging to the Irrigation Department. Khandu had got wet all over for nothing and sneezed all through the night for his pains.
On another occasion, and this was before they were married, Khandu was sitting on the steps of his house in peace, mending his torn shirt. It was late in the evening and the light was failing. So, Khandu set his stitching tackle aside and stretched and started humming a latest Hindi love song. Dusk had set in. In all the households chonch shells were being blown to welcome the evening. A pall of faint perfume of incense was hanging over the whole village. All was quiet and serene, when Pocha, the youngster, came running in. “Police,” he mouthed. He was out of breath from running over a long distance. Khandu jumped up and in reflex ran away from where he sat. He vaulted over the low wall separating his house from that of Podi Pishi’s and dived into the heap of straw kept in a corner of the compound after harvest time. He pulled bunches of straw down to cover his face and lay there absolutely still. Podi was a mild mannered elderly lady who lived alone next door. She was affectionately called Pishi or Aunt by all inhabitants of Chandipur, young and old alike.
It was fortunate that Khandu had escaped to where he was, for the police had indeed come to look for him. There had been some quasi-political disturbance in the vicinity and a great number of bombs had been used by both sides. It was quasi, because some land encroachment issues involved. And true to form, the bombs used by both warring factions were of Khandu’s manufacture and Khandu’s name had come up in the police enquiry that followed. Hence, the raid today. But, even in their weirdest dreams the police would never have the idea that Khandu was hiding in the elderly Podi’s house. So, Khandu felt that he would be safe from prying eyes.
From his hide-out amongst the straws, Khandu could hear the crunch of heavy boots and gruff voices calling out his name. He also heard Pocha’s voice answering to some questions the police were asking. He prayed that Pocha had the fortitude of hiding the mended shirt and sewing things he had left behind on the steps. He was hard put to stop sneezing as a strand of errant straw tickled his left nostril. Then he dozed off.
When he awoke, the police appeared to have gone away and it was dark and quiet all around. He must have slept for well nigh four solid hours or so! Khandu felt an irresistible urge to evacuate his bladder, full to the point of bursting. But he had not kept Podi Pishi in mind.
Podi was out with a lamp doing her usual rounds of her grounds before locking up for the night when she noticed the straw heap quivering.
“Got you, now,” muttered Podi under her breath. “You foul dog, every night you come to my straw heap to commit nuisance and befoul it all by your faeces! I got you today.”
She grabbed a bamboo pole lying handy nearby and tip-toeing upto her quarry, whacked him soundly on his head with a resounding crack, even as Khandu was peeping through in preparation of beating a hasty retreat. The yelp that followed was human enough to make Podi drop her pole in amazement. The night’s sojourn had earned Khandu a tender swelling on his head and a full belly, as Podi had compensated her slip-up by giving him a mouth-watering dinner.
Tapanda had summoned Khandu on a special mission. He was commissioned with a large order to be supplied with utmost secrecy and urgency. Khandu started to work at a feverish pace from dawn to dusk, while Tapanda’s men came in at regular intervals to carry the goods away. Soon the last lot was done and it was near evening. Tapanda’s man had said that he would be back in the morning to take away the last bagful. Khandu washed his hands and feet in contentment and hung the bag of goodies up on a nail, in his multipurpose room, well beyond reach of his wife. Then he went out to Quddus Mian, of the neighbouring village, to bye a fat chicken. Tonight he was happy. He would show his wife how to cook a real delicacy.
Khandu hummed a toneless tune all the way to Quddus Mian’s place and back. He had come to a momentous decision and was all the more happy for it. A few nights ago, Pari, with tears in her eyes, had begged him to change his vocation and he had willingly agreed. Later he had fixed up a respectable job for himself as the local grocer’s shop. All people in his village loved him. He had landed this job quite easily, though he would have been happier if the pay was better. But, never mind, one could not have all one wished for. They would pull through.
A wonderful aroma pervaded the whole house and the neighbourhood as Khandu began to demonstrate his prowess of a different sort. Both he and his wife were crowded in the small kitchen. The spices were fried and Khandu released the marinated pieces of chicken one by one to be fried next. Both were happily smiling, not at the prospect of a sumptuous dinner, but at the closeness they were enjoying now. The old nail, which the bag was suspended from, gave way a little bit, unnoticed. Khandu poured a measure of water in the well fried chicken and spice, and covered it to boil. He loved his chicken tender. While the dinner was stewing, Khandu decided to while the time kissing his pretty wife. The old nail gave way further. The stew got hotter and so did the kissing couple when the nail gave way altogether. The bag dropped to the floor. The resultant bang was so loud and vicious that the whole wall and part of the tiled roof got blown away. Apart from Pari, Khandu had only his chicken and his kitchen he could call his own. A chunk of tile landed on Khandu’s head and knocked him out cold.
This was the second time the law had got better of Khandu. But this time no helping hand was there to bail him out. He got a year’s imprisonment for all his troubles, which were soon cut down to half its length for good conduct. Pari was inconsolable in her grief at the prospect of facing the world alone. But she was a brave girl and knew that she would live threw her ordeal.
But, whatever it was, Chandipur was not ungrateful. Khandu had given the inhabitants something to talk about after a long, long time. The villagers responded whole-heartedly. They knew how to look after their own. Willingly they took up the mantle of guardianship of Pari, who became a sort of celebrity on her own. Many times she had to relate to the womenfolk, the details of what had come to pass that fateful night and it all passed into the archives of local folklore. The elders of the village gathered together a bunch of volunteers and together, they rebuilt the portion of Khandu’s house that got unfortunately blown away on that fateful night. The grocer gave Pari all things she would require during the time Khandu was cooling his heels in jail and reassured her that the job will be Khandu’s whenever he returned.
Khandu ducked out of the small gate on the main gateway of the District Jail, like a hero in a popular Hindi film. He emerged into the sunlight, yawned like a minister during a boring speech in the Assembly and stretched like the Hindi film hero he had seen in the dingy cinema hall in town. But unlike the hero, there was no garland-bearing follower waiting for him. Just Pari was there, waiting for him, with all smiles. Garlands and cheering followers were superfluous now. His Pari was there, he needed nothing else.
“You had enough?” asked Pari.
“Yes,” replied Khandu, all smiles, as he embraced his darling, little wife.
“Then let’s go home. It has been repaired. But now I want a gift from you.”
“What gift?” Khandu was curious.
“I want a baby girl.”