January 30, 1948 is an important date in modern Indian history. Who’s to say what the course of this nation might have been had that day gone differently. Here is a short story I wrote with that historic incident as the backdrop.
I don’t do serious fiction often, so your critique on the story, especially if you don’t like it, will be greatly appreciated!
The Young Man pats the inside pocket of his waistcoat to make sure that the package is still secure. He feels comforted by the touch.
It is a late-January morning in Delhi. The air is crisp, clean and cold. The sun has been up for a couple of hours, pushing forth its ample light yet feeble warmth around the dew drenched verdure. The birds have been at play all morning, noisily shouting cryptic and repetitive instructions at each other. The sky is a freshly minted blue, almost speckless, except for a large spillage of three shades of white towards the west.
The Prayer Meeting is about to commence momentarily.
The two uniformed sentries at the Birla House gate keep a lazy eye on the human mass that is unhurriedly making its way to the prayer hall. One of them makes eye contact with The Young Man as he passes him by. The Young Man folds his hands in greeting which the turbaned guard acknowledges with a quick nod followed by a head gesture as if to say, ‘Please keep moving’.
Amid the sounds of slow shuffling feet, The Young Man looks around him. The ambience is of solemn but affected reverence, the kind that usually manifests on its own in the presence of inordinate greatness close by. He sees men and women of disparate breeding and faiths. Most are wearing white, the universally endorsed colour of deference. And also, purity, especially the kind that is shaped from homespun yarn. To him, it seems that for these people, Khadi is not merely a token of sentimental remembrance or exhibited gratitude, it is more a representation of their inner conscience of humility and simplicity. He looks down at his own kurta. It is light brown, mill produced. He feels a sudden flush of annoyance, of not having picked a garment that would have allowed him greater congruity with his surroundings. But what am I to do, he thinks to himself. This is a special day, and he wants to look his best regardless of the testimony that his vêtements might affirm.
A couple of people behind The Young Man are overheard talking about not going straight to the prayer hall. They discuss staying outside in the garden itself. “You see, he will come through this path on his way to the hall,” says one. “We will get a better view if we just wait here then. I might even be able to touch his feet!” surmises his partner excitedly.
It is clear to The Young Man what he must do.
A few more minutes pass. The arriving crowds keep making their way from the outside gate to the prayer hall, eventually thinning to a trickle. Ever so often, a few, mainly enthusiastic young bucks, break from convention and congregate around The Young Man and the two others who started this satellite assembly. There is a now a reasonable number clustered around The Young Man.
“Are you certain that he is going to come this way?” asks The Young Man to a grim looking fellow standing next to him.
“Yes. He is going to emerge from there,” the man replies, turning his head and pointing to the large building with an arched entrance flanking the left side of the garden. “He always follows the same route.”
It appears that the grim fellow has been here before. He sounds quite certain.
“I have been coming here every day for the past several days,” the grim man confirms voluntarily. “It’s the same walk, the same time. Every morning.”
The grim man seems a trifle lost in thought. Pre-occupied. Conflicted, almost.
“It is my first time here,” The Young Man says to continue their dialogue. “I hope I have the fortitude to accomplish what I have come here to do today.”
The Young Man’s words seem to shake the grim looking fellow out of his thoughts.
“We all wish we have the fortitude to accomplish what we have set ourselves out to do, don’t we?” he says. “Unfortunately, not all of us are as strong as we think we are.”
“I think we are all strong,” retorts The Young Man. “It’s just that some find their strength sooner than others.”
“Then I guess if you have the conviction, your time will come,” the grim fellow responds. “Perhaps today.”
Then adding wistfully, “Or perhaps tomorrow. Maybe even next year.”
The Young Man looks at his grim companion who seems lost in thought again.
Several more minutes pass. These ones in silence.
The sudden sounds of commotion on the left flank are unmistakable. A group of people, centered by the dhoti clad man everyone has come to see, emerges from the arched entrance, causing an immediate stir among the crowd waiting in the garden. A few break away and run towards the prayer hall, wanting to be the ones to herald the imminent news to those waiting inside. Most others, including The Young Man and his new acquaintance, stay put and peer at the emerging party expectantly.
“Here he comes!” The Young Man says, stating the obvious. The grim fellow is stiff and says nothing.
The Young Man again notices his new acquaintance’s face. It appears to be a picture of tumult, as if a million conflicting emotions are waging an unruly battle – one whose outcome is far from certain.
As the emerging party strides purposefully towards the prayer hall, the animated assembly in its path parts to either side making way. The worn, elderly man in the middle folds his hands in greeting as he flashes his warm toothless smile – a smile that has not infrequently brought the mightiest to their knees. His mesmerized audience can do little more than mirror the old man’s greeting and bow its head in obeisance. Many eyes moisten. A few tremulous hands lurch forward to touch the coarse homespun shawl covering the frail man.
Now only a few steps away, The Young Man, who has prepped for this moment in his mind a dozen times, freezes with anxiety. His leaden arms wouldn’t move and the words in his head splinter into pieces at the tip of his tongue. His skin goes sallow. The biggest moment of his young life is upon him, and yet, his body and soul seem to abandon him, leaving him bereft of action or thought.
The dhoti clad man and his troop are merely a breath away now. The moment is about to be lost.
Right at that instant, as if in slow motion, The Young Man notices his grim companion break away from his side and walk directly on to the path of the old man’s pack. He falls to his knees, drops his head and folds his hands, bringing the group to an abrupt stop.
“Brother, Bapu is already late,” says a kindly voice.
Two frail arms start to bend forward to coax the man in their path back to his feet. It is perhaps just the nudge The Young Man needs to rediscover his voice.
Rediscover his Conviction.
As his grim faced partner rises and steps away, The Young Man assumes his place.
“Bapu, I have travelled for several days and nights from Champaran to meet you. You may not remember this now but many years ago, when you launched your first satyagraha from our village Motihari, you stayed at my grandparents’ hut. And despite our caste and our poverty, there was only one person in that entire village that you would accept water from. It was from a little child. Do you remember her? That was my Mai.”
“Today, I am the first Harijan in my state to clear the Indian Administrative Services exam. And my Mai felt that the first person to solemnize my achievement with a piece of sweet should be you.”
The Young Man quickly fumbles into the inner pocket of his waistcoat and brings out a small package. His nervous fingers tear open the modest newspaper wrapping.
“No one in our village will bless my success before you do. Bapu, won’t you accept some gur from our house?”
The frail old man, his eyes now wet, extends his bent fingers towards the offering and takes a piece of jaggery. He places his other hand on The Young Man’s bowed head. The Young Man closes his eyes as if silently partaking unspoken blessings.
Time appears to be still for several moments.
“Bapu?” repeats the kindly voice of Bapu’s companion.
With polite folded hands, the human impediment in the old man’s path withdraws, and the troop resumes its brisk pace towards the prayer hall.
The assembly around The Young Man starts to break up, too. Most follow the departing group, quickly falling in brisk step behind them. A few remain, unsure of what to do next. One of them stares hard at The Young Man.
“You froze,” the grim fellow says finally. “I figured I had to stop Bapu so you could do what you had to. After all, you had come a long way for this.”
The Young Man merely nods his head. The two men stare at each other for another moment, instantly reliving perhaps the singular experience of their lifetime. Then, both smile.
“Isn’t it strange that we have not yet introduced ourselves to each other? I am Nathu Ram Godse from Poona. What’s your name?”
If you liked this, you might also enjoy another short story I wrote a while ago. That also had a historical backdrop and was titled – The Littered Sky. Click this link : http://reekycoleslaw.com/?p=382