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Children of Nithari: Stranger than Fiction

These are stories written by youngsters from the Nithari village. They transcended childhood trauma and deprivation for many decades. The column starts with a story by Sharad Kumar in Hindustani, translated for us by Grace M Sukanya

Sharad Kumar is a 22-year-old engineer / artist from Nithari, Delhi, currently in the final year of his B. Tech in Information Technology. He has also performed as an actor and singer for various college productions. He has been associated with pandies’ theatre group since 2010. His performance at the American Center, Delhi, with 40 more children from the school Saksham, Nithari, was the audience’s pick. Working with younger children in Nithari, teaching them Physics, Maths and also, how to perform on stage, he hopes to be able to give back to the community he comes from. His desire: quality education and opportunities to children from under-served backgrounds.

Stranger than Fiction

When it had begun, it had seemed it would just be for a short while and would get over quickly. But it had now been three months since the lockdown had been announced.

Mumbai’s streets were so quiet that it seemed the multitudes had been anaesthetised. Only the sound of dogs continued to disrupt the silence of the alleyways. Even the air felt cleaner.

But there was still one pollutant left: the virus. 

The corona warriors worked away at their jobs as though this was the battle of Mahabharat. Excepting a few people, everyone was busy waging a personal war.

On national television, people initially behaved admirably. But now they too showed symptoms of being infected by the virus of television rating points.

Mritunjay, an ordinary hawaldar, took time out of his busy schedule to lay out his gamchha and rest on it, as he did every day, and started knitting a dream from the past — his grandfather’s memories.

He traveled back in time to an era when the British Empire extended to almost all parts of the world.

*

Somewhere far away from the Indian sub-continent, Mritunjay’s grandfather, Dirghayu, was a soldier in the British Indian Army. Due to the circumstances of that time, Dirghayu and his compatriots were beholden to do the British’s bidding, waging war in trenches, pits, and holes for their colonial masters.

Meagre rations, living in squalor with rats, snakes, and other parasites, were all part of their war time trials. Standing every day in the cold water and the wet mud of waterlogged trenches had started taking its toll. With each passing day, Dirghayu’s legs were becoming more painful.

Then, one day the commander’s voice had announced the beginning of war, and everywhere cartridges, canons, and weapons poured forth rivers of blood. Perhaps, because of his name, Dirghayu, meaning the long-lived one, the hawaldar’s ancestor had been blessed with good luck and courage. He survived the enemy gunfire, the terrible living conditions, the horror of warfare, and managed to win the British their victory. The Commander was happy with his performance and decided to send him back to his homeland.

Back in the Indian subcontinent, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre had just taken place. General Dyer’s order to fire at point blank range on a peaceful prayer meet had shocked the empire to its core. The cruelty of the British Raj had been increasing since Gandhiji’s successful Champaran Satyagrah. Some political parties had taken to violence and arms, challenging the British to a direct conflict. 

The Spanish Flu too, was at its peak. Millions of people had lost their lives. The death count was rising every day. Some scientists had estimated the death toll at as much as 5% of India’s entire population. 

Economy and communications had collapsed. The rulers, in an attempt to veil their incompetent handling of the pandemic, had busied themselves in passing a variety of bills and ordinances. The only relief forthcoming from them was a lockdown.

The people in the Indian subcontinent were faced with starvation, unemployment, lack of education, and an utter lack of services.

Seeing the country in this state, Dirghayu realised there were three more battles that he had to face: (i) to provide for the comforts and security of his family; (ii) to take precautions against the spread of the Spanish Flu; (iii) and, to continue to work honestly for the British government without compromising his principles.

One day, Dirghayu’s son asks him, “Why is the Spanish Flu known as the Spanish Flu?”

Dirghayu, who has had a little education, and had gleaned some information from the company of the British officers he served, told him: “It is because the Spanish were the first to report it, but people’s mind-set is such that they started calling it the Spanish Flu.”

Then his son suddenly changed the topic and asked him, “Why are you opposed to Gandhiji and the other freedom fighters?”

Dirghayu, shocked, attempted to circumvent the issue by proffering a false excuse: “Gandhiji has gotten the flu, and he must not be allowed to spread it to other people through these huge public gatherings. This is why I am opposed to them. In any case, my priority is the safety of you people. I have to earn money so I can look after you!” 

“So, if you had been there at Jallianwallah Bagh, would you too have fired at the crowd?” 

At this, Dirghayu was upset. He scolded his son, telling him to focus on his studies instead of asking unnecessary questions.

A few months later, however, Dirghayu faced a challenge that could lead to his losing all the three battles of his life simultaneously.

Dirghayu was summoned by the senior officials of the British Army. They told him that they had been informed by their secret services that some university students were involved in a massive conspiracy against the Rowlatt Act passed in 1919 to allow indefinite incarceration without a proper trial.

They gave him two options: He could either give up his post in the army and be dismissed in disgrace, losing his right to a pension, or he could arrest the mastermind of the conspiracy: his own son.  

Keeping his priorities in mind, Dirghayu chose to give up his post in the army even though he knew he would not be able to support his household without that money. Without the army pension, his fight against the Spanish Flu would also slow down, and he would have to face the problems that the many had to face in the subcontinent.

However, he gave his son some money, and managed to send him to a safe place.

He was brought in for questioning by his own colleagues. They cajoled him, coaxed him, threatened him, even tortured him — but he refused to give up his son’s location. Eventually, the authorities gave up and let him go.

After his wife’s death, he was left alone but he has managed to conquer at least two of the battles he had set forth for himself.

Night and day, like a Spanish Flu warrior, he was engaged in helping people, getting them medicines, arranging food for the poor, encouraging the sufferers to live, and helping them out in any way required as he fought against the devastation wrought by the disease.

But perhaps he could not win this last battle. His name had protected him so far, but he met his end at the hands of the Spanish Flu.

*

Suddenly, Mrityunjay was woken up by the voices of his colleagues.

They were asking him: “What are you dreaming? You seem to be lost in your dreams.”

He said: “Perhaps this is not a dream, but the reality. After all these years, things are still exactly the same.”

Glossary & Notes:

Gamchha – a cotton towel

Hawaldar – a police constable

Jallianwallah Bagh massacre: Click here to read.

Champaran Satyagrah: Click here to read.

Rowlatt Act: Click here to read more.

Spanish Flu: Click here to read more.

Grace M Sukanya is a 28-year-old filmmaker based in Delhi, India. She is interested in creating arts-based educational interventions for children that respond to socio-political issues. She has been associated with pandies’ theatre since 2020.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL

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