"ARE the embankments done?" Shanu, who was trudging homewards, called out to him."Yes."
"When is the Sowing?" though he knew the answer well enough.
"Don't you know?" Pandhari tossed the question back at him as he dried his hands on his loincloth. He picked up his shirt from the embankment and tossed it over one shoulder, placing his towel across the other. Drawing out a beedi from the packet he passed it to Shanu and as he lit it for him asked, "When do you sow?"
"Haven't finished ploughing the field breadthwise, yet.""Why so late?"
"What's 'so late' about this? Same every year. You finish first... we follow.""You should sow first one of these years.""Why? Will I get more yield?""You'll get more time... to hoe and weed..."
"To fool the people... throw dust in their eyes..."
The breeze carried the smoke from the beedi into Shanu's eyes and he began to rub them.
"As though we care what people say! Do they feed us!"
"They don't support us... we're not dependent on them.""Then?""Such people might cast an evil eye..."
Shanu blew out smoke. He cast an eye over Pandhari's patch of land.
"Your land is well prepared. Better than in other years," he said."Ploughed it four times in all."
"Ploughed mine twice, but the soil hasn't broken up well as yet."
"Maybe you should hoe it and break up the clods by hand."
"Are you joking? Where would I get labour for that sort of work? Who'll work for us?""Why won't they work for you?"
"All right, they'll work. But you don't get labour like you used to in the old days. Earlier, all you had to do was to feed them well and give them enough to drink, but today they work only for daily wages."
"Yes, is there anything left of the past? The firangis went away and so did everything that was connected with them... those loaves of bread, that easy life. Today even men are measured by money."Pandhari quickened his pace.
"You are fortunate, that way," Shanu said, scratching his head."Hmm."
"At least you own that patch of land. But what about us? If the Bhatkar doesn't want us we have to pick up our belongings and move."
"I didn't buy this land... it belonged to my ancestors."
"So what? You have to be lucky to get such an inheritance. We have parents and ancestors too, but what have they left us? It's as though we were born from these stones."
"You'll come for the Sowing tomorrow, won't you?""Tomorrow?"
"What have I been telling you all this while, then?""But...""But what?" Pandhari walked on.
"Is the ceremony in honour of the Spirit of the Lake over?""I don't know.""It's tomorrow.""So?""No one sows his field before that."
Pandhari was speechless. He hadn't remembered this when he'd set the seeds to sprout for the Sowing. He felt as if he had just emerged fresh from the bath only to have a lizard fall on him."But my seedlings are ready..."
"So what? Sprinkle a mix of cowdung-water over them, they'll keep for a week.""But the arrangements..."
"Look... go ahead if you want to. But remember, these rituals are to appease the Spirit of the Lake. They've been performed since time immemorial. Don't you know what happened last year in the upper vaddo?""What?"
"Someone ploughed his field before the jalmi performed the rituals and made offerings to the lesser spirits. Everything went off well and they got back home. Then suddenly the strong, healthy young bull that drew the plough was racked with convulsions and fell dead.""But that animal was bitten by a snake.""Nonsense. The Spirit of the Lake took him."* * *
"Don't bother waiting for those rituals," Yeso laid a hand on Pandhari's shoulder. "Now look here Pandhari, why would the Spirit of the Lake want to do you any harm?"
He lifted the glass of feni to his lips and drained it in a series of gulps, the way one drinks rice-water in a house of mourning. Then clearing his throat noisily, he spat a large gob of spit on the reed matting that formed the wall.
"Ei! Yeslea! Get out if you want to spit, you bastard!"
Dada, the owner of the country bar turned his bloodshot eyes in their direction.
"The Spirit is benevolent to all. And spreads its grace to all alike." Yeso continued to try and convince Pandhari, paying no attention to Dada's wrath.
One by one the regular drinkers began to arrive at the bar and the hum of conversation grew louder. Dada peered at each newcomer by the dim light of the lantern before drawing out the bottles from the cupboard. He poured out a quart, or a little more, into each glass. The glasses began to clink, more and more men crowded into the room and they sat at the tables shoulder to shoulder, leaving wet rings on the table by the foaming glasses till they merged and formed a single moist blur.
Quite a few men sprawled on the verandah outside the gadi, sucking on slivers of salted mango with evident relish. Some of them had brought along the shell fish they had caught in the flooded fields, tucked into a corner of their loincloths. They lit a small fire and roasted the shell fish as one would roast the seeds of the jackfruit. Cracking the hard shells open against a stone, they blew on their fingers as they ate the steaming meat. Then, wiping greasy fingers on their loincloths, they trooped into the bar to quench their thirst.
Yeso grabbed Pandhari's arm and hauled him to his feet.
"Why are you sitting there like a corpse? I tell you, sow the field tomorrow. I'll take care of the Spirit of the Lake."He dragged Pandhari into the gadi."Two drinks here," he ordered forcefully."Do you have the money to pay?""Oh! What sort of a man do you think I am?""One who cannot pay.""Can't you see this body of mine?""What do you plan to do? Auction it?"
Dada screwed the bottle shut. Yeso's breath caught in his throat."Have I cheated you, ever?""That's enough, Yeso," Dada raised his head."I say pour two quarts at once!""The money first.""I'll pay tomorrow.""Come tomorrow, then.""I'm telling you, I'll pay tomorrow."
"I'm telling you, too, I'll give you the drink tomorrow.""I swear by my father, I'll pay tomorrow."
"Your father has left you nothing. So you're quite willing to swear by him... never mind if he dies...""I'll pay after the harvest."
"The harvest?" Dada laughed out aloud. "I won't get a single grain of paddy even if I wait for the next ten harvests!""How can you say that?"
"Where will you bring the paddy from? Whose field will you rob? Has your father left you any land?"
"Does that mean we aren't human?" Yeso was crushed.
"Of course you are. You're flesh and blood too. You talk so much... and then you beg for a meal."
"Pour two quarts." Pandhari cut in roughly, shouldering his way through the throng.
"Two? For whom?" Dada glanced at him, surprised.
"Pour two quarts." Pandhari didn't look at Dada.
"Here." He handed the glass in his right hand to Yeso and raised the one in his left to his lips.
"May I drink this now?" Yeso raised the glass mockingly above his head and then drained it in a single gulp. Dada paid no attention to him busying himself with the other customers. He added two quarts to Pandhari's account and checked the figures in the book, tallying them with the notes and loose change in the drawer.
Pandhari and Yeso settled down in one corner of the sompo, but Yeso was in no mood to sit still. "So that's settled then, you sow tomorrow," he exclaimed, slamming his hands down on an imaginary table, almost losing his balance in the process.
"That's what I'd thought..." Pandhari still hesitated.
"Who dares to object, then?" Yeso thumped his chest as though to indicate that they would have to deal with him, almost toppling over yet again.
"I'd really forgotten about those rituals... till Shanu mentioned them..."
"Of course! Who else would make such inauspicious predictions but that man! He takes after his father who would do anything to ruin a man... set another's haystack on fire without lighting a matchstick himself! That wretch was up to no good till the very end and now Shanu does the same. You can judge the crop by looking at the seed!""But that's not his fault."
"It's never his fault. Says whatever comes into his mind... irresponsible...!"
"Who cares what he says?" Pandhari got to his feet, brushing his hands across his seat.
"May his house be ruined. Come on, now. Invite whoever you want for the Sowing tomorrow. I'll come at daybreak.""Will you bring the nivolo?"
"Why do you worry? Yes, I'll bring the nivolo.""Do you have one?""No, I don't.
"Then? Don't bother. I'll ask someone else. Just come early."
"Don't worry. I'll come right now, if you want."
Pandhari hailed a couple of labourers who had come to the gadi for a drink and told them to come to his field the next day. He asked one of them to bring the nivolo and told the other to bring a bundle of fifty plantain leaves.
"Come. Let's go now," Pandhari grasped Yeso by the hand.
"Listen." Yeso thrust his face into Pandhari's face instead of his ear. "Want some more?" he asked, as though the gadi belonged to his father."Who, me?"
"If you want more, I'll get you as much as you want."Yeso tried to push Pandhari indoors."No. I don't want another drop."
"All right. Don't have any more. Tomorrow is the Sowing. Go. Take some rest. Don't sit up now.""You go home too. Don't drink any more."
The question of who would bother to give him anything to drink didn't seem to trouble Yeso.
"I swear... by my father... won't drink any more. Have enough to spend on drink if I want... not just loose change either. May not have too much but I do have my self-respect."
ENDNOTES: Vaddo: cluster of houses forming a part of a village. Sompo: a crude porch. Nivolo: a wooden tool used to scoop out water from the field.