Thursday, March 12, 2009


Jai and Jaya weren’t quite awake yet. They’d left Surajgarh’s painted havelis at dawn in their rented Innova and were trying to catch up on some much needed sleep. They were there to usher in their first wedding anniversary; now returning to the humdrum of domesticity and their old lives that lay about 300 kms away in Delhi. As the Innova sped along the narrow highway, past brown fields, the driver noticed two swirling dust clouds, the first and bigger of the two about 200 meters away to the left, and the second one, much smaller, another 70 metres behind the first one. The dust clouds were heading towards the highway… the driver, Mohan, in his 40s, had been on this route before but didn’t know what to make of the dust clouds rushing towards the road… and them. He braked hard… and ‘wham!!’ the swirling cloud had rammed into the Innova’s left flank. Jai woke up with a start as did Jaya… “Who… who’s at the door? The milkman?”… “No, honey… we aren’t home yet”, said a rather tense Jai, squinting through his glasses and the dust. “We’ve hit something, or rather something’s hit us”. “Gaai hai sahab”, said Mohan as the Innova rolled forward… “A cow… but she seems to be fine”. Jaya turned over her left shoulder to see the visibly stunned cow pick herself and continue trotting across the road and onto the other side, picking up momentum as she went along. “Yes, she seems to be fine” thought Jaya, and then saw the other dust cloud hurtling onto the highway and then stop in the middle of the road. As the dust settled, she could see it was a man… he had a stick in one hand and a rope in the other… for a brief moment he seemed to be waving the stick but the next moment he was gone… she turned to her right and there they were again, two clouds of dust streaking across the horizon. The highway was empty again, a long black ribbon running across a copper landscape. And that was that, they thought…

Fifteen minutes later, they’d returned to their dreams when ‘thwack! thwack!!’… a series of loud thumps and Jaya wakes up again... “a cow again, Jai?”. But Jai seems even more tense now. His handsome nose is glistening with beads of sweat. Something’s wrong, thought Jaya. “No, not a cow this time honey; it’s the milkman instead”, said Jai. Their Innova had stalled in the middle of the road, near a village, and all around them, Jaya could see faces pressed against the glass windows. Children, teenagers and grown men, all staring into the van, scrutinising its occupants, especially Jaya. Mohan had to stop because the milkman they had seen running behind the car, having presumably secured his cow, had jumped onto a motorcycle and given chase. Along the way, he enlisted the services of a few more villagers on a couple of tractors and a jeep. The milkman named Khari, overtook the van, swerved in front of it, forcing Mohan to brake hard while the tractors came up alongside and blocked its flanks. The jeep then boxed it in from the rear. Khari pulled his bike onto its stand, walked up to Mohan, opened the door and snatched the keys. The couple was shocked. Khari was tall, gaunt and his hard veined arms, the long twirled moustache and the brass earrings, all seemed to suggest a man of proud and powerful bearing. Mohan was cowering in front of him, his hands folded in submission, apologising for having accidentally hit “gau mata”. Jaya protested, telling bystanders their side of the story… “why does he have to apologise Jai,… bhai sahab, the cow ran into us and not the other way round. I feel sorry for her but it was this man’s (points at Khari) fault. He shouldn’t have been chasing the poor animal …”. Jai tugged at her shoulder, trying his best to ‘silence’ her. “Shh… it’s not about right and wrong here. We need to play along and not upset these people… Mohan knows how to handle them.” Then Jai took the newspaper he was reading, rolled down the middle windows and stuck a sheet on each side to keep the scores of staring eyes from burning holes into them. Then he pulled out a shawl and handed it to Jaya … who frowned… “you’re wearing a sleeveless dress honey… no reason to give them more than one reason to hold us back, is there..?” Jaya reluctantly wrapped the shawl around her.

Meanwhile, Mohan was pleading with Khari to let them go but to no avail. Another passerby who was hauling cattle feed on his tractor trailer stopped when he heard about the accident, saw the dented flank and concluded that Mohan hadn’t been at fault. He rebuked Khari, demanding that he let them go… the air was thick with the fumes and the fusillade. Khari felt the tide turning, and so insisted that the couple return with him to his village so that the panchayat could take a decision. In spite of the man on the tractor trailer defending them, the three, not being in a position to negotiate, reluctantly acquiesced and were escorted back to the village by the retinue.

Jaya had heard horror stories of criminal elements in these parts waylaying travellers and leaving them with little else but their lives… sometimes not even that. Jaya was apprehensive about all that a woman could be apprehensive about. True she had her husband with her but what could one man do against this band of tough yokels. Fear was creeping in on them and most of all on Mohan. He knew that the driver was always the first and most dispensable casualty in such a situation. But Jai was doing a good job of holding his nerve… “People here are usually courteous to women… just be respectful and things should be fine” he told Jaya. She wasn’t really encouraged by what she’d heard but for once, unlike the days when they played scrabble, fervently hoped that he was right about this one.

The Innova rumbled into a field next to a collection of rubble and thatch settlements that struggled to look like a village. A gaggle of children and tall turbaned adults gathered around the van and Khari dashed Jaya’s last vestige of hope - Yeh laydiss ne dekha… mainey haath dikhaya par ruki nahin… andhi hai kya.” The ring of villagers drew closer while the driver kept apologising, expressing concern for gau mata. “Kharab laga hamein bhi… gau mata ko chot lagi…” Not once did either of the two men, Mohan or Jai breathe a word of defiance. Apologetic and respectful, the men had so far managed to keep Khari and his cronies from raining blows on them. But Jaya, who’d hitherto been rather feisty in her protest had withdrawn into her shell … The crowd inched closer around them. While the driver stood outside the car trying to placate the villagers, a terrified Jaya erupted, “They are crooks! What was our fault? Of all the cars in the world, why did the cow have to run into ours? I hate this place and these people out there… they want money (she’d heard murmurs that the cow was worth Rs 25 thousand)…these louts… look at the way they’re staring at me…” and she choked back her tears and wrapped the shawl tightly around her. Jai too was feeling edgy. Emboldened by the people around him, Khari’s voice had grown louder and his gestures wilder. The villagers hadn’t taken sides yet but Jai knew that it’d only be a matter of time. He’d heard stories of how these people often act like mediators and then fleece luckless travellers off all they have. But he was prepared to give money to get out with his dignity and his wife. Just when they were sure that Mohan would get thrashed and they’ll have to beg for mercy, and pay their way out, Khari disappeared into the crowd. Seeing him disappear, Jaya muttered, “He’s gone to cook up some new mischief, perhaps discussing how much they could get from us…” There was a knock on the window. It was Khari. Jaya wasn’t sure if she should, but Jai motioned for her to open the window. Khari seemed a different man. Sheepishly, he handed them glasses of water and then opened the door and motioned for them to sit on a string cot. The crowd followed them to the cot where Khari brought them cups of tea and a crumb of milk cake… lavish fare given their austere circumstances. They were bemused and Jaya was suspicious – “Maybe they’ve mixed something in the water”. So, Khari went past the crowd and returned with a rope in his hand, at the other end of which was a beautiful dun Tharparkar cow. “Bhanja gaai ko dikha laya, memsaab. Doctor ne kaha, gaai theek hai. Main gareeb hoon… bas ek gaai hai… isiliye….” The couple, especially Jaya, was embarrassed. They tried to offer him some money, but, he refused. “Arre nahin… par unpadh aadmi hoon… gussey mein bahut keh diya… maaf kar do… takleef dee aapko… sorry… time ho toh aap khana kha ke jao… Gaai theek, sab theek!”

Half an hour later, the Innova was back on the long black ribbon to the horizon, their stomachs full and their hearts both light and heavy…



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. A very nice well written one. I read it in TSI and came here to say two words
    "GOOD JOB"