|That morning a woman from our neighbourhood told my wife that the big Sardar’s son-in-law had been killed. Somebody had brought them the news late last night. The family had left for the son-in-law’s place soon after. On hearing the cries some women from nearby houses had gone to the Sardar’s house. The son-in-law had died in a car accident. He had been to attend the betrothal of a friend. A singing girl had been invited there and she entertained the company till late into the night. Since she had an appointment at another place next morning the son-in-law drove her to the railway station a few miles away immediately after the function. On the way back, his car struck the edge of a culvert and he died on the spot. Some said the bridge could not have been seen in the fog, others said he may have dozed off. But what was the use of all this now. A sharp pointed piece of iron had broken loose from the steering wheel and had pierced his forehead killing him immediately. Even before he could be extricated from the car seat he was dead. He was still in his night clothes. |
The sardar’s big house was on the other side of the road while we lived in the street on this side where small houses in a line touched each other. There was no one in there now. The large rectangular house was built the old way. The lower storey had sheds for animals; the family living on the upper one. A car could be seen standing in the big gate in front. When the car was not parked in the gate, it yielded view of an antique horse carriage with a broken wheel lying in a corner of the courtyard. Outside the gate was a wide platform where villagers who came to see the Sardar rested on charpoys.
For many days after the incident the big house was lonely. The Sardar’s family had not yet returned. Most of the people who usually visited the house for their work had heard of the sad happening. They knew, therefore, that he would not be available or could not be bothered. Those who had not heard did come but went away on hearing the news. The servants tended the cattle and answered the callers.
After some days, the Sardar came back to his house. The mourners now began to arrive in large numbers. Relatives and friends came crying; casual acquaintances walked in silently. The Sardar would utter words of solace for those who wept. People from the villages came in groups. Women pulled long veils and wailed in tune under them. Some men gave out loud cries while others were quiet. But no one had seen the Sardar weep. Some said grief had stunned him. Others said he was a man of great courage.
We were new to the town. I did not know the family. Since they were rich, there was no question of our being intimate with them even if we had tried. The woman in our neighbourhood who had brought us the news knew them because she coached their child.
But my wife suggested that since their loss was so great we should also visit and condole with them even though we did not know the family. So we went. The mourners were sitting on the ground in the courtyard in two groups. One group sat on a rough and bare mat on one side. A mere look could tell that they belonged to the lowest class. For the other group there were shining white sheets. I being a white collar man, sat myself among those on white sheets. My wife went inside where the other women were. I did not have to speak because the others were making enquiries. How did it happen? Where was it? How many children did the son-in-law have? We learnt that he was married six or seven years back and had two children, one four years and the other two.
All this while the mourners on the bare mat sat silent. Who was there for them to talk to? None of the family sat among them. And there was some space separating them from the white sheets and the persons sitting on them. I suddenly realized that they looked very different too. I had never seen the likes of them in a group before. What was it that made them look different? Gradually I knew. Their features did not stand out on their faces. The eyes, the nose, the lips were all impassive and with faces smeared expressionless as it were, they sat still and quiet. Even otherwise they could not have made their presence felt. They seemed only too anxious to withdraw into their own shell like a tortoise. But there was this difference. In his merrier moments when not conscious of any danger, the tortoise pops his neck out of the shell and enjoys the sun sitting on a log of wood floating in the pond. But being rational these men had always been scared and withdrawn.
It would not have been proper for them to talk among themselves either. No one in particular was looking at them and they were not looking back at anyone. The only obvious link between them and the others was the sunshine.
Who were these people? The Sardar’s tenants? Or may be some village menials ? How could I tell ? After sometime they whispered something among themselves and stood up together. An old man stepped forward, came up to the Sardar in the other group and asked for leave to go.
“Stay for a while. Have your meals before you go,” implored the Sardar getting up. “You have to go a long way. Why go without food ? .
“No we don’t feel like eating really. We ate before we came. If we needed anything we could have asked for it, Sardarji.”
“No, no,” said the Sardar and went upstairs to order the meals. They kept standing there. All of us were looking at them. What else was there to look at?
“You will be asked up soon. I have told the servants,” said the Sardar coming back.
“Why all this trouble? Such terrible time too!” said the old man.
“It was His own will. A man has to suffer also,” said the Sardar putting up a brave face.
“That is true. You may pull through. This is a life-long sorrow. But one thing I can tell you from my own experience. The sight of your two grand-children would wrench your heart every time!”
The Sardar was silent. But his face now showed deep signs of grief and inner pain.
The old man said, “A few years back my son-in-law died too. Of typhoid. He also left behind two children. Several years have passed. Even now whenever I see them I am overcome with grief and tears flow down my eyes.
The old man looked straight in the Sardar’s face – his brother in suffering. For a moment the Sardar stood quiet, his eyes turned to the ground. Then throwing both his arms on the old man’s shoulders, he began to cry and was convulsed in sobs.
|(Translated by the author from the original in Punjabi)|
220, Sector 35,