Ramesh stretched and opened his eyes. The first rays of sunlight were beginning to illuminate surrounding hills as he slowly turned his head to study familiar landmarks. This was his usual custom. The mud hut with its thatched roof caught his eye briefly and he reminded himself again of the need to replace thatch. The hut was badly leaking again and monsoons would soon be upon them. They would have to walk long distances to harvest palm branches for that purpose and the men were easily diverted as they contemplated the work involved.
From his outside cot he observed shapes of women already drawing water from the village well and quickly turned to see if his sisters were emerging from their hut to join these women at the well to draw their daily family supply of water for cooking. Glancing to the right he noted his father and brothers were still sleeping on their cots.
He swung his legs over the side of the charpoy and stretched again. Slipping feet into chappels at the foot of his bed he headed for the banyan tree at the centre of the village under which was a shrine to the goddess Kali. There he offered worship intoning words in Sanskrit which, though the root of his language, he didn’t fully comprehend. Those words had been handed down from timeless ages. Finishing worship, he turned his attention to the lair of the sacred village cobra known to them as Nag. Not seeing the cobra emerge he offered Namaste and headed back to his hut.
In his absence the men were up and preparing to head to the river to bathe. Ramesh joined them and they sang Bengali songs as they made their way to the river. It was dry season so water had receded from monsoon levels. They made their way across pebbles for some distance before reaching water’s edge. Several men were already bathing naked. Rivers were sacred so these men joined in songs of praise as they bathed and dipped under its waters.
It was understood women of the village should not go to the river at this time of day while men were bathing. Later they’d arrive with loads of washing which they’d beat against rocks to dislodge any dirt, then hang clothes from thorn bushes which grew in abundance at village edge. At that time of day, they shared the river with fishermen and children herding buffalo into the river for their morning soak Some of the boys rode on their back fighting and laughing as they enjoyed their morning dip.
But even they were subject to a taboo. They were not to be seen or heard further up at the river bend which was the preserve of a higher caste. Going there would involve beating at the least and it had been known for their caste to be killed if they contaminated the area around that higher caste village.
But they too had their taboos. The lowest of the low were the untouchables. This class were permitted to clean outside toilets of the richer villagers but must be careful their shadow did not fall on any of the higher castes on pain of death. The elaborate cleansing ceremonies those higher castes would have to endure was a serious matter and untouchables needed to know their place.
Ramesh never gave it a thought. It was ingrained in all where they stood in the social order and Ramesh was quite content with his life and place in that system.
During planting and harvesting seasons every man in the village was expected to work fields of the rich who owned surrounding countryside. Their wages would buy rice to see the family of seven through months they were not needed in fields. Their diet was supplemented by gourd growing around the hut and a few native vegetables with an occasional fish or their shared portion of a bakri not belonging to the village which had wandered in for a visit and been slaughtered for a combined village feast. There were severe penalties metered out to those who killed an animal owned by members of his village.
Ramesh was responsible to care for the family cow and its calf. A cow was a major investment, and it could take years of savings to own so great care was taken in caring for a cow. Beside that the cow was sacred and having one ensured good fortune attended those who owned and cared for the animal.
Occasionally Ramesh would attend school when not needed in the fields and he prided himself being able to read and understand newspapers occasionally thrown out by richer villagers after they finished with them. Paper was a prized commodity and carefully collected and stored when found abandoned. He would read them over and over to his father and younger brothers who listened spellbound to news that may have happened many years ago.
Evenings were spent with the men of the village. Those of importance would sit in the centre surrounded by those of less importance with boys. Women watched from a distance as their men listened to programs on All India Radio faces occasionally visible as burning logs cast their flickering light in that direction, or they sang loudly late into the night until the veins seemed to pop from their necks.
Occasionally government employees would visit the village with doctors. Lectures would be given in those evening sessions and men enticed to undergo a vasectomy in exchange for a prized battery operated radio or other enticement. It was government policy to limit population and these government employees had a quota to meet. Sometimes the vasectomy was involuntary where men under the influence of village produced illicit arrack would wake up with a hangover and a battery operated radio as a memento. Word spread this operation would make men into women so after a while adult men of the village would leave temporarily when they heard another government visit was imminent.
But these visits built into Ramesh’s mind there was another world out there. A world which produced radios and watches and the different clothes these visiting government officials sported. Along with other village boys he examined the Ambassador cars these men rode in and dreamed of owning one.
All of a sudden one day he came to the conclusion he could be part of that world. That realization caused him to be diligent in attending school. The teacher told him of schools where a limited number of students would be given free board and education and sensing Ramesh had the capacity to learn and succeed made quiet arrangements for him to be given a chance at one of these schools in the city.
Then one day arrangements being made he packed his few things in a cloth bag and trekked to the nearest road with a few borrowed rupees in his pocket accompanied by the teacher. His family barely noticed his departure. One less mouth to feed went through the minds of each.
The teacher gave the bus driver a few rupees and a note indicating where Ramesh was to be delivered.
That evening Ramesh found himself in a dormitory with other boys, most younger than himself. He wondered at the clean room, the first full meal he’d ever enjoyed, the kaki uniform given him on arrival and the loss of his cloth bag and village clothes which had been confined to the rubbish heap.
He slept fitfully in his new bed, the top of a double decker bunk bed. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he remembered the friendly atmosphere of his village. They would be around the fire singing at that time of night. But then he dried his tears and determined to take advantage of this fulfilment of a dream. Someday he’d visit the village in his own car.
“© Copyright Ian Grice 2016 All rights reserved”