The Magic Maker

Jharkhand_March_2011 059There was a certain moistness in the air – not moist as in wet but that calm, moist feeling of a breeze that just brushes past. The outside was dark – pitch dark but a picture-perfect one …..dots of fire flies, misty smell of some unknown wild flower and a faint sound of the drum. He smiled to himself. How vastly different this was from the life he was used to! The deserted cottage- often rummaged by snakes and foxes hardly resembled the comfort of his city home….

“Food is ready Dada! “, Pande called out from his ‘kitchen’ – a dilapidated shed attached to the main building.

Serving two-plateful of piping hot rice, potato curry and boiled eggs, Pande cautioned again, “ Have your food fast and then we’ll wind up. The kerosene is too little to let the lamp burn beyond another hour!”

“Hmm…But what about the person who stays in the adjoining room? When will he come?”

Pande smiled. “He is a police-man – the local Darogababu! He has his own timings…But thankfully, due to his presence we can rule out dacoits from our list of predators!”.

He was amused. “Do the dacoits harm the villagers too?”

“Hardly”, Pande explained, “There are five villages atop the hill – all tribal villages – the villagers hardly come down to the plains. They are so poor that it would be a sheer wastage of energy for the dacoits to climb all the way up and bring back nothing except drums!”

They laughed together. “But….”, Pande added again, “They do face a lot of exploitation. There is a group – you can call them mafias in a way. They ride on horse-back, go up the mountain and buy sack full of string beans from the villagers!”

“But, isn’t that good? They have a ready buyer!”

“Would have been good if they had paid money for the entire lot….instead they strike a deal with the locals – a sack full of beans in exchange of a handful of tobacco!”

“Tobacco! Just a handful of tobacco?”, he couldn’t believe his ears.

“Yes….They know that the tribals would hardly come down and they are too fond of their tobacco. So they let go of the entire lot of beans for just a palm full!”

Dinner was already over and Pande hurried to finish off with the cleaning before the flickering lamp would dissolve into darkness.

The sound of the drums grew louder and the light dimmer. He looked at the strange play of shadows on the walls of the old building.

“Welcome to Life!”, he told himself.

**       **      **     **     **     **     **     **

A bike-ride uphill is always difficult and the one down-hill is risky! But he loved risk. The day hadn’t been bad.  A round of dance to the drum beats did the trick! The villagers laughed and clapped seeing the ‘City-Babu’ match steps with them. He knew that was the only way he could break the ice. So, reminiscing the moments, the road downhill seemed rather a happy one for him….till he felt a nudge. He had almost forgotten about his co-rider.

“There…there goes one of them!”, Pande whispered into his ears. He looked ahead. A few steps ahead of him was a horse rider – an over filled sack adorned the horse-back along with the rider. Though the face wasn’t visible, the posture of the rider spoke of umpteen pride and nonchalance!

It took three and half seconds for him to decide the next step. Bit by bit he accelerated his speed, careful not to go over-board at the same time.

“What are you actually trying to do Dada?”, Pande whispered.

“Shhh…just hold me tight!”, he whispered back.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly!  He couldn’t help but wonder!

The motorbike gained speed and within seconds he was right ahead of the horse-rider. With careful manoeuvre he placed his bike face to face with the rider. Face to face! Startled at first, it took just seconds for the rider to regain composure.

“What kind of a joke is this?”, the rider barked.

“Not yet! But it will soon be if you do not stop exploiting the poor people!”, he hissed back.

“What do you mean, you two-penny fellow?”

“Note down this day…this moment rather…from  this moment onwards you will never venture to go up and carry on with your business. And not just you, convey the message to your friends as well. The house down below is mine, which I share with the local Police chief….if you have any unsettled business,  meet me there!”.

He was shocked, taken aback, bewildered…..at his own voice, at his own mannerism.

Who gave that strength in him? Who instilled that confidence?

There was complete silence except the rustle of the breeze. He looked straight – eye to eye!  The confident look of the rider changed every moment till he turned ashen – a hint of genuine fear swept past his face.

With a push and a thud the sack fell off the horse and in a jiffy the rider had galloped away into the oblivion!

The beat of his heart which he had almost kept locked was finally allowed to beat in mirth.

Guru, how did you do this?”, Pande, who had maintained a stony silence so long, finally spoke up!

He really didn’t have an answer but he knew he had to speak up!

**     **     **     **    **     **    **

“So, who all among you want to join me?”, he spoke loud enough for the crowd to hear.

A lot of hands went up – mostly young ones! He felt happy. His eyes searched for the ‘squirrel-boy’. It was the little boy who had actually helped him get the break-through. He had accidentally discovered the boy –hardly six to seven years – hunting squirrels in the wilderness. It was the little boy who told him that the children of the villages never study because they had no school in the vicinity – they would play and hunt squirrels and wild rats all day long. This had actually given him an insight into what was to be done.

He had hardly spoken for a minute or two but his speech was convincing enough for the people to think of having a school in their very own village. The elders were skeptical but there was no dearth of enthusiasm among the youth. Many of them willingly came to the forefront.

“Tell us what your plan is and we shall help you in every way possible”.

He smiled at them. “You have a lot of free space here, don’t you? Will you all be willing to give a piece of that land for building a school?”

The elders looked at each other – there was still a fair amount of doubt in them. But, sensing the bubbling enthusiasm among the young ones, they too had to relent.

“Okay, then we’ll have our school right here – in the heart of this village. And now I need two more things – just a bundle of hay from each house of the village and a few strong hands to help me build the school. “

“Yes, yes, yes”, the crowd chorused.

**    **     **     **    **    **    **    **    **    **

Five schools in a week! He let out a sigh of relief, keeping an eye on the bubbling cauldron all the while. The Khichdi – a mish-mash of rice, lentils, potatoes and locally grown vegetables, all provided by the local people, boiled away in tiny spurts of volcanic eruptions.

“Mmmmm….smells so goooooood!”, the squirrel boy exclaimed, almost thrusting his nose inside the cauldron.

“A few more minutes boy….then the plateful of food and the school will all be yours”, he laughed.

Meanwhile the village headman had already begun the inaugural function. Pande showed him how to hold the scissors. With shaky fingers he cut open the discoloured ribbon at the entrance. The entire village erupted into spontaneous applause. A few enthusiastic ones beat the drums as loud as possible. The little ones danced to the beats.

Being nudged by others, the village head-man stood on a raised platform to give the very first formal speech of his life.

“Friends”, the headman spoke, “ From this day on, our children will have a better life. No one, and I repeat, not one child of our village will be without education. For centuries we’ve remained cut-off from the rest of the world….ignored, shunned and discriminated against. And now, we have a tool to make the change. And we will all ensure a better life for our children”.

There was a few seconds of stunned silence. Even the head-man himself couldn’t believe that he spoke so well. Then the cheerful applause and drumbeats drowned every sound in the vicinity.

The bubbling cauldron too had been pacified to a small simmer – ready to be served.

**    **    **    **    **    **    **

The night looked different – the velvety, bluish-black texture had a charm of it’s own.  He sniffed in – the sound of wet soil was unmistakable!

“There is rain somewhere nearby and soon it would start pouring here too!”, Pande explained, giving touches to the left-over Khichdi. Thankfully the villagers had cared to send some with them, otherwise it would have been hard to arrange food for dinner. The stock of rice was already over and there was no time all these days to replenish the stock!

The heady scent of the wild, wet bushes made him happy. He remembered his mother, his home….

Guru, food is ready!”. Pande passed him the plateful of Khichdi and a half-burnt omlette!

He was already hungry and didn’t wait for the food to cool down.

Looking at him, Pande gave a smile of content. “ It was sheer hard work all these days. And now you can relax a bit!”

“Ha! What a joke! The work has just begun Pande!”, he said, trying to toss the hot food around his mouth at the same time.

“No wonder they have given you the special name.”

“Special name?”, he was curious.

“Yes, the villagers have given you a special name. They call you – the magic maker!”, Pande said – his voice brimming with pride.

**   **   **    **    **   **   **   **

For many, many years after that and for many, many more people he has been the silent catalyst for a positive social change.

For the rural people he is The Magic Maker.

To me, he is my hero – my father!

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Tagging Tagore

delonix-regia-332879_1280My fingers worked fast on the keys. I knew I had to finish the work before deadline. And it always is  a challenge competing deadlines with a talkative kid seated next to you. Old nail-polish bottles, paper boats, one-eyed, dressed and semi-naked dolls, hair brush, racing cars – every piece of possible tools of distraction aka attention was strewn around but my eight year old was hell bent on having ‘serious conversation’ . Ranging from the plight of fire-men to the possibility of settling down in moon – she had tried out every topic under the sun and beyond. I tried to keep up with the flow with ‘umms’ and ‘hmmms’ – struggling to avoid typing ‘pencils’ instead of ‘penury’. Just then she veered her attention to a fresh new topic.

“Do you know whose birthday it is on the 8th of May?”

“Umm?”

“Rabinna Tangon”

My speeding fingers stopped for a second. Raveena Tandon? Did I just hear Raveena Tandon?

“Rabina who?”, I asked.

“Arrey, Rabinna Tangon – the old man who wrote nice-nice songs….the ones you sing”, she clarified.

“You mean Rabindranath Tagore? In Bengali we call him Robindronath Thakur – that is exactly how you should pronounce. But what about him ? Are you all going to celebrate his birthday in school ?”

“No, not us. The seniors will sing and dance to his songs. And guess what?”

“What?”. I got excited at the possible probability that perhaps my daughter was selected to perform.

“We are having a HOLIDAY! Yay! “, her eyes shone at the prospect of a holiday.

I sighed. My mind reeled back to my childhood!

Come May and it was time for a special meeting of our secret club – Seven Star Golden Club which had not more than six members. My uncle, who was hardly two years senior, would take out his prized possession – a worn-out collection of Rabindranath Tagore’s songs and poems. Having cleared his throat he would declare, “Friends, this year we shall celebrate the birthday of Tagore in a grand way! This year we’ll try out new songs!”

“And the play? Will it be the same play this year too?”, one of us would just throw in the question as softly as possible – avoiding a direct eye-contact with uncle.

“Hmm…ofcourse. ‘The Postoffice’ is a hit play and we shall not divert from that”, he would announce. The sad reality was that even if he had wanted there was no alternative because his book contained only that single play and no more.

“Rather, we shall practice some new songs which we shall sing. And think of two dance pieces which you all can perform”.

So ‘new songs’ it would be. The first few lines would go fine – with our uncle ‘fine-tuning’ the music now and then. The problem would crop up beyond the first few lines. Invariably he would have no clue about the musical bit and would add his own touches till one of us would helplessly declare, “But doesn’t the song sound different with every practice?” The frown and ‘you-are-not-fit-to-be-here’ looks of my uncle would make us apologize and continue with the practice till the ‘fine-tuning’ would go terribly off the mark! And then finally it would be decided that we would simply ‘recite’ the songs instead of singing them!

Rehearsals over, small invitation chits would be passed on to the family members – inviting them for the special occasion. Chairs and every possible seating arrangements would be dragged out from every home for the ‘guests’ to sit and an adult would be coaxed to clean the courtyard for the special performance.

While we would struggle tucking our sarees as tightly as possible , though still looking like pregnant women in their final trimester, our uncle would invest his time giving final touches to his art-work – a portrait of Rabindranath Tagore!

“But they will publish a lot of his pictures in the newspaper. Can we not use a cut-out from there?”, the ‘stupid’ younger ones would dare question.

To this, he would just let out a smile – thumbing down their foolishness. Just before the programme would start, he would present his work of art – placing it at a high table for all to see. A cross-breed between Karl Marx and Albert Einstein, it would hardly resemble Tagore! While the adults would reserve their comments to, “Ahem! Not bad!”, some of us would struggle too hard to suppress our giggles!

And finally our show would start! Interspersed with wrong dance steps, forgotten lines and tripping over each other’s sarees, the show would never fail to marvel the audience –with each of them contributing to the pant-as-you-sing-and-dance numbers. Some of the adults would also share interesting anecdotes about Tagore – nearly converting the song and dance programme to a serious discussion about Tagore – till one wiser one would moderate the situation and bring it back on tracks! The programme would end with a huge round of applause and pat on our backs. But we would still wait patiently for the ‘final bit’. The ‘token of encouragement’ would drop in one by one – in the form of coins of ones and notes of two or five – if we were lucky enough! We were not supposed to be greedy and grab but humbly bow our heads and accept the ‘kind donations’!

And then we would run! The destinations varied but the objective was always the same – some snacks for the starved souls! The coins would clamour on the counter of the shopkeeper and metamorphose into little packets – small, square ‘Bablu’ biscuits (why Bablu and who Bablu we had no clue!), tangy-salty mixtures and jet-black balls of grainy tamarind sweet (which seemed over-adulterated with saw-dust!). We would grab the packets and rush back home – keeping our eyes fixed on the greying sky! And while we would be half way home, a Norwester would invariably race in with us. We would stop and take shelter under one of the tin shades and watch the ‘dance of nature’. The grounds would winnow out little balls of blinding dust; the orange-red petals of the Gulmohar would spray- paint here and there, the dusty pollens of mango flowers would match steps with the blowing wind till droplets of rain would calm down the mad frenzy. We clutch on to the soggy packets, watching nature celebrate Tagore’s birthday. The blinding rain afterwards would be the final touches to the grand celebration –of which we were a small part!

So after all these years it baffles me as to why, a person who was ever active all his life, would be chained to the confines of a holiday? And it really pains me to think that the one who had made it a mission to promote unconventional education system would be a subject of analytical dissection in the exam papers?

It really is time to make our following generations look at our heritage and culture beyond the confines of text-books and calendar holidays. Otherwise it won’t be long before TAGore is lost in the maze of HashTAGs!!

And how I really wish my daughter doesn’t spend Tagore’s birthday watching Doraemon and Motu-Patlu!