There 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!