Wilderness

Ala Singh was now growing old. But he had as yet enough of his old self left in him to hold his own in village assemblies, to look after the water course when it was his turn for canal water or to protect his fields from damage by mischievous and irresponsible graziers. Now and then he could even spare one of his ploughmen for some other work and himself take the plough. His face showed no wrinkles. On the other hand his plump cheeks above his white flowing beard still retained quite a lot of their youthful freshness.
Yes, inspite of his old age Ala Singh was very much alive. And everyone knew this-people in his house, his village and the neighbouring village. He attracted enough notice to be a subject for conversation in the villages around. He was as if carved in their very air. No outsider visiting these parts could escape a mention of his name. Strong and large boned, another one like him did not exist in those villages. Once when at an Amritsar fair he had wanted to wear an iron bangle the symbol of his Sikh religion, none could be found to fit his wrist. When the canals came he left his old profession of cattle grazing and took to agriculture. He laid the foundation of a new village near his land. He contacted a big officer of the Posts Department and had a post office installed in his new village. This represented the zenith of his influence and power. It gave him rare satisfaction to remark to his in-laws who did not have a post office in their village: “We get your letters in no time but our letters to you get buried in some underground labyrinth and you never seem to get them.” A big landlord in the next village subscribed to a Sunday newspaper. Since there was no post office in his village he used to send a man on horseback to Ala Singh’s village to save waiting for the postman to bring it up. In the journeys of this horseman, Ala Singh read his own victory. Even a big landlord like him could not get a post office in his village, “Where is Rahmat riding to?” he would invariably accost the horseman. ‘Going for Malik Sahib’s paper, Sir”, Rehmat would answer to which Ala Singh would add “oh, it is a Sunday to-day” and then feeling himself a master of all he surveyed he would walk off like a turkey cock.

But now-a-days a strange wind appeared to have blown over the village. Instead of the old quiet and orderliness under the village Chaupal where he used to be free to stage-manage things, there were now all sorts of noises and confusion. Quite unmindful of his presence some youths played cards and even quarrelled among themselves. Or else, someone with a knowledge of the letters would start reading out from a newspaper for the benefit of the villagers and continue this for hours together. When all ears were attuned to the news where was the room for general talk? Somehow Ala Singh always found it hard to follow the sequence of events read out from the papers. He could never make an intelligent or amusing remark about them. So often he would be irritated into saying, “These are all lies. They dump here the lies of the world. How can they know everything about every place?”

Nobody ever took Ala Singh’s outbursts seriously but he himself believed that things were very much out of gear. If the Chaupal was to be used for propagating lies, he reasoned out, why not have the village priest read out the Panth Parkash or Raj Khalsa there. Ala Singh was fond of this because when the priest sang out the revered verses, calm would be restored. In this quiet atmosphere his powerful and lordly person easily dominated everything. It was only his voice that rang out now and then. “You mind reading this again, Sir?” “Shall we have the import of this couplet please?” This new artificially created atmosphere gave him real solace. But the assistance of the priest, like that section 144, could be called in only now and then and not everyday.

Sometimes there were heated political discussions. The participants would get excited as if somebody was going to attack their house. Ala Singh did not appreciate the points of difference between the debators. He had sat in political conferences held at village fairs but somehow the points brought out there escaped his grasp. These younger people read newspapers and magazines, met political workers and discussed everything with everybody. The worst of these discussions was that even the menials and artisans joined the landowners. In such a case the menial instead of sitting on the ground or on his own separate charpoy came and sat with the landowner. Once in a while in the course of the debate he even humiliated the landowner. For Ala Singh this was a vision of the Hell. Why these people persisted in debating things in the face of such humiliations, he could not tell. For himself he never joined these discussions. Not that anyone had ever insulted or interrupted him. He rather failed to understand what it was all about. Under his own Chaupal be sat a dumb spectator of everything.
Now and then there was a political conference in some village. The speakers baulked at the police officers at their very face. “The police has no business to eat at villagers’ houses,” they said. “They should carry their own meals with them.” Ala Singh was not a toady but he could not cheer the speakers who talked like this. Not that he was afraid, but because the jump was too big for him-mentally. He had seen days when to say anything against a Zaildar-leave alone a police officer, was to invite trouble. The political workers met the Deputy Commissioners and police chiefs and instead of being grateful for the interview granted to them they publicly criticized the views expressed by these officers. These utterances found no echo in Ala Singh’s heart. All the same a realization was creeping in on him that he was not in the front row and there were people ahead of him who were the real centre of the footlights and whom he could not possibly catch up with.
In the village were some ex-army boys-Azad Hind Faujis and others. These boys had seen generals and ministers and kings. They had learnt to fire rifles and guns and to drive armoured cars and tanks. They had met the Americans, the British, the Chinese and Negroes. They had visited Russia, Egypt, Italy, France and England. They had been the hopes of several nations. To their broadened visions Ala Singh did not appear a very great man.

All this was staggering for Ala Singh. He had not known any but the highest place in his village and was not prepared to accept any other. He struggled hard to retain his hold. When he come to sit under the Chaupal be exercised his memory to produce gripping tales for the entertainment of the new generation. He talked of old fakirs and miracle workers whose tombs lay in nearly villages, of the fathers and grandfathers of the youth and middle-aged around him, of their races and wrestling matches, of the coming of the canals and the railway. But the stores of such stories would soon be exhausted. Humming noise would presently break out in a distant corner, then increase in volume and envelope Ala Singh’s personality which had appeared to dominate the scene a minute before.
One day there was a talk of putting up a candidate for an elective seat on a local body. Because of his old age and experience things like this fell quite easily within Ala Singh’s province. And to him the subject appeared to offer no problems at all. “Last time the membership went to Sheroke people; this time it should be ours,” he pointed out. “We have more villages than they have but they should at least give us half the share”.

This proposal, which sought to distribute political power in proportion to the strength of the sub-castes was greeted with amused laughter. Nobody thought much of it, instead they began to talk of party tickets, their policies and programmes, of broad and narrow angles of vision. Why these people preferred party tickets to their own kith and kin was a mystery to Ala Singh. He could say nothing. Those around him were marching joyfully on new paths which were not even visible to him. How could be keep company with them? Ala Singh gathered up his wrap and stick and left the chaupal.
At his farm he met the one man he had most wanted to see. It was Mangal Singh from the Canal Colonies. They were old friends who had played and grown up together. Mangal Singh had now taken land in the Canal Colonies and it was rarely that they met. They talked of cattle and crops, of lands and neighbouring villages and of good old times.
“Let us go to the village”. Mangal Singh suggested, “we will sit under the Chaupal and talk and listen and meet people”.
“No, we better stay here” Ala Singh burst out. “The village is gone completely to the dogs. There is no man living there, only a set of excited urchins who make noise. They neither talk sense nor listen to it. To me it is an utter wilderness. I am not going there. No, not I.”

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