Kalu Bhangi

Last Part
  • 20 Jul - 26 Jul, 2019
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

When they reached the farthest edge of the valley, she turned and looked in Khilji’s direction, and Khilji turned his face to the wall and began to weep. When Reshman had left he had wept too, And when Beguman went he again wept, in the same unrestrained way, with the same sincerity, overwhelmed by the same agonized feelings. But neither Reshman nor Beguman nor Janaki stayed for him. And now, after I don’t know how many years, Nuran had come, his heart had begun to beat faster, in just the same way; and every day it throbbed for her more and more. At first Nuran’s condition was critical, and there was very little hope for her, but as a result of Khilji’s unflagging efforts, her wounds gradually began to heal; they began to discharge less, and the bad smell went away, and the swelling subsided. The lustre gradually returned to her eyes and the healthy colour to her wan face; and on the day when Khilji removed the bandages from her arm, then Nuran on a sudden impulse of gratitude threw herself into his arms and burst into tears. And when the bandages were removed from her foot she put henna on her feet and hands and lampblack on her eyelids, and arranged the long tresses of hair. And Khilji’s heart leapt for joy to see her. Now Nuran had given her heart to him and promised to marry him. The headman’s son and the patwari’s son had on several occasions come to see her, and to ask her forgiveness and to promise to marry her; every time they came Nuran would take fright and begin to tremble, and look this way and that to avoid their glances; and she would not feel at ease until they had gone and Khilji would take her hand in his. And when she was quite recovered the whole village turned out to see her. Thanks to the kindness of the Doctor sahib and the Compounder Sahib, their lass was better, and her mother’s and father’s gratitude knew no bounds. Today even the headman had come, and the patwari’s too, and those two conceited asses – their sons, who every time they looked at Nuran felt sorry for what they had done; then Nuran went to her mother and leaning upon her, looked towards Khilji, her eyes swimming with tears and lampblack, and without a word left for her village. The whole village had come to meet her, and the headman’s son and the patwari’s son were following at her heels. Khilji felt their steps, and more steps, and more steps – hundreds of steps passing across his breast as they went on their way taking Nuran with them, and leaving behind them a cloud of dust hanging over the road. And turning his face to the wall of one of the wards he began to sob.

Yes, Khilji’s life was a beautiful and romantic one – Khilji, who had passed his middle, whose pay was thirty-two rupees a month and who could earn fifteen to twenty rupees a month and who could earn fifteen to twenty rupees over and above; Khilji who was young, who knew what it is to love, who lived in a little bungalow, read the stories of reputable authors, and wept for his love. What an interesting, and romantic, and imaginative life Khilji’s was! But what can you say about Kalu Bhangi? Except the following:

1. That Kalu Bhangi washed the blood and pus from Beguman’s bandages.

2. That Kalu Bhangi emptied Beguman’s commode.

3. That Kalu Bhangi cleaned Reshman’s dirty bandages.

4. Tthat Kalu Bhangi used to give Reshman’s boy corn-on-the-cob to eat.

5. That Kalu Bhangi washed Janaki’s dirty bandages and every day sprinkled disinfectant in her room, and every day towards evening closed the window of the ward and lit the wood in the fireplace so that Janaki shouldn’t feel clod.

6. That Kalu Bhangi for three months and ten days regularly emptied Nuran’s commode.

Kalu Bhangi saw Reshman departing; he saw Beguman departing; he saw Janaki departing; he saw Nuran departing. But he never turned his face to the wall and wept. At first he would look a bit perplexed for a minute or two and would scratch his head. And then when he couldn’t account for what was going on, he would go off into the fields below the hospital and let the cow lick his bald head. But I’ve already told you about that.

Well, what more am I to write about you, Kalu Bhangi? I’ve said all there is to say, told all there is to tell about you. If your pay had been thirty-two rupees, if you’d passed your middle – or even failed it – if you had inherited a little culture, a little refinement, a little human joy and the exaltation which it brings, I’d have written something about you. But as it is what can I write about your eight rupees? Time and again I pick up your eight rupees and study them from all angles-four rupees atta, one rupee salt, one rupee tobacco, eight annas tea, four annas molasses, four annas spices – that’s seven-and one rupee for the moneylender-that makes eight. How can I make a story out of that, Kalu Bhangi? No, it can’t be done. Go away. Please go away.

See, I implore you with folded hands. But he still stands there, showing his dirty yellow, uneven teeth and laughing his cracked laugh.

I see I can’t get rid of you so easily. Very well, then. Let me rake over the embers of my memory once more. Perhaps for your benefit I’ll have to come down a bit below the thirty-two rupees level. Let’s see what help I can get from Bakhtyar the orderly. Bakhtyar the orderly gets fifteen rupees a month. And whenever he goes out on tour with the doctor or the compounder or the vaccinator he gets double allowance and travelling expenses too. Then he has some land of his own in the village, and a small house, surrounded on three sides by lofty pine trees, and with a beautiful little garden on the fourth side laid out by his wife. He has sown it with all sorts of vegetables – spinach and radishes, and turnips and green chilies, and pumpkins, which are dried in the summer sun and eaten in the winter when snow falls and there are no green to be had. Bakhtyar’s wife knows all about these things. Bakhtyar has three children, and his old mother, who is always quarrelling with her daughter-in-law. Once Bakhtyar’s mother quarrelled with her daughter-in-law and left home. The sky was overcast with thick clouds and the bitter cold made your teeth chatter. Bakhtyar’s eldest boy came running to the hospital to tell him what had happened, and Bakhtyar set out there and then to bring his mother back, taking Kalu Bhangi with him. They spent the whole day in the forest looking for her – Bakhtyar and Kalu Bhangi, and Bakhtyar’s wife, who was now sorry for what she had done, kept on weeping and calling out to her mother-in-law. Their hands and feet were getting numb with the cold, and the dry pine twigs were slippery underfoot, and then it began to rain. And the rain turned to sleet and a deep stillness descended all around, as though the gate to the abyss of death had opened. The snowflakes kept falling, still, silent, voiceless, and a layer of white velvet spread over valley and hill and dale.

‘Mother!’ shouted Bakhtyar’s wife at the top of her voice.

‘Mother!’ shouted Bakhtyar.

‘Mother!’ called Kalu Bhangi.

The forest re-echoed and was quiet.

Then Kalu Bhangi said, ‘I think she must have gone to your uncle’s at Nakkar.’

Four miles this side of Nakkar they found her. Snow was falling, and she was making her way along falling and stumbling, panting and out of breath. When Bakhtyar caught hold of her, for a moment she resisted, and then fell senseless into his arms, and Bakhtyar’s wife held her up. All the way back Bakhtyar and Kalu Bhangi carried her turn by turn and by the time they reached home it was pitch dark and when the children saw them coming they began to cry. Kalu Bhangi withdrew to one side, and looking about him, began to scratch his head. Then he quietly opened the door and came away.

Well, after all this rummaging around in my memory I’m at a loss. What can I do? Go away now, for God’s sake. You’ve pestered me too much already.

But I know that he won’t go. I shan’t be able to get him out of my mind, and in all my stories he’ll be standing there with his filthy broom in his hand. Now I know what it is you want. You want to hear the story of something which never happened, but which could have happened. I will begin with your feet. Listen. You want your dirty rough feet to be washed clean, washed until all the filth has been washed away. You want ointment to be rubbed on their cracks. You want your bony knees to be covered with flesh, your thighs to be strong and firm, the creases on your withered belly to disappear, the dust and grime to be washed from the hair on your weak chest. You want your than lips to become full and to receive the power of speech. You want someone to put lustre in your eyes, blood in your cheeks, give your cheeks, give you clean clothes to wear, to raise the four walls of a little home about your, pretty and neat and clean, a home over which your wife will rule and in which your laughing children will run about.

I cannot do what you want. I know your broken teeth and your half-weeping laugh. I know that when you get the cow to lick your head, in your imagination you see your life passing her fingers through your hair and stroking your head until your eyes close and your head nods and you fall asleep in her kindly embrace. And when you roast the cob for me so gently over the fire and look at me so kindly and affectionately as you give it to me to eat, in your mind’s eye you are seeing that little boy who is not your son, who has not yet come into the world, and while you live never will come, and yet whom you have fondled like a loving father, and held in your lap while he played, and kissed on the face, and carried about on your shoulder saying, ‘Look! This is my son!’ And when you could have none of these things, then you stood aside and scratched your head in perplexity and all unconsciously began to count on your fingers: one, two, three, four five six, seven, eight – eight rupees. I know the story of what could have happened. But it didn’t happen. I am a writer, and I can fashion a new story, but not a new man. For that I alone am not enough. For that the writer, and his reader, and the doctor, and the compounder, and Bakhtyar and the village patwari and headman, and the shopkeeper, and the man in authority, and the politician, and the worker, and the peasant toiling in his fields, are all needed – the united efforts of every one of those thousands and millions and hundreds of millions of people. Until all of us join hands to help one another, this task cannot be carried out and you will go on standing there on the threshold of my mind, just the same with your broom in your hand; and I shall not be able to write a really great story, in which the splendour of the complete happiness of the human spirit will shine; and the building in which the greatness of our people will reach its highest achievement; and no one will be able to sing a song in whose depths will be mirrored all the greatness of the universe.