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It was mostly in his clothes, inside the pockets of the ragged shirt, inside the folds of the pajama1 made stiffer by the harshness of the preceding days, and inside the katchera2 that had bound his loins that Dharam Singh brought the desert home. Thick golden sand -- that surviving skeleton of the soil -- loosened itself on the floor when he undressed, with a sound that reminded his wife, Sardaari, of the struggle of coins in a jute sack (the association stayed flimsy, not materializing into a specific memory despite the moments that she dedicated to its recollection). "A man never returns as he goes," she said afterwards. Some of it also fell from his beard, a bush of abject black and white hair. Now, with the oncoming festival of baisakhi3, the emergence of more white hair was imminent, for spring was the time when Dharam Singh’s beard gained in cloudiness. Naked except the turban and the kara2 on his wrist, he stood in the centre of a small circle of sand taking tired long breaths through his parched nose. His clothes, his kirpaan2 and his scant luggage lay in a heap on the floor. His eyes were abstracted, wanting to be moist, but
1 2 a pair of loose trousers tied by a drawstring around the waist; worn by men and women in some Asian countries The five symbols of Sikh religion are: Kesh (uncut hair, usually tied and wrapped in the Sikh Turban, Dastar.) Kanga (wooden comb, usually worn under the Dastar.) Katchera (specially made cotton underwear as a reminder of the commitment to purity.) Kara (iron bracelet, which is a symbol of eternity.) Kirpan (curved sword, comes in different sizes, in Punjab Sikhs would wear the traditional curved sword, from one to three feet in length.) An ancient harvest festival celebrated across North Indian states, especially Punjab
A look at the longest scar gave rise to a unique tenderness in her heart. his cracked feet making weary sounds. Water now. No water now” he said. and pressed closer. A while later snores started fluttering up to the roof – a low thatch blackened with the soot from Sardaari’s chulha4. Lying down.. for they were laced with dreams. which immediately became cumbersome and turned into a kind of fatigue that women knew better than men. trying to remember something good in the hope that a memory could turn into a pleasant dream and prepare her better for the morning. Sardaari. a posture which in its nakedness seemed childlike to Sardaari. Dharam Singh’s long hair fell carelessly around him. he took a turn on a side. now slightly jagged owing to the sagging of his skin. Stipples of dried saliva outlined the bristles of his moustache and his lower lip. After many circles. “There were more sons in us” she whispered inaudibly. “Hh. Umpteen scars crisscrossed his torso -. recollections of past mixed with absurdity. Laying down behind his back – less scarred than the front -. and buried her nose in his hair. She picked his clothes and possessions from the floor and put them on a chair. Her dreams. then swept the sand into a single pile.” she sighed and began untangling his turban. seeming to be listening to his own words. “There are miracles in the desert. as if still in solitude. ran them softly over these lines. with his knees bent one over the other.straight lines that the Mughal swords had drawn on his body in the wars of his life. She felt difficult. because of its depth the mark of this wound was still straight and taut. revolving around him languidly. always began with a flash of lightning in the darkness of sleep and transported her to Dharam 4 a cook stove heated by burning wood . after rubbing the beard clean with her long fingers. the morning that never changed.the desert had left no tears in them. but she couldn’t amass the energy to throw the small lump of desert outside.she moved her right arm over his body. to his chest.. Sardaari’s snores were light and broken. Then he walked towards the bed-spread in the corner of the decrepit hut.
and grown discomfited at that hazy vision. even before understanding death. Sardaari walked onerously in the hut with an incommunicable sadness that could be attributed to her premonitions. still getting used to the weight of various weapons. at the age of 15. at which Dharam Singh. Sardaari. displaying therein an admirable liking for noise and violence. “Short lives and long deaths” she said imprudently. already exasperated by her frequent portents. the swoosh of arrows. and that his beard and general bearing grew to their adult limits. often looking in fascination at writhing bodies coming to terms with the last bits of life escaping them. gave birth to a son. the thud of enemy limbs and heads to the ground. and also to Dharam Singh’s frequent forays into a frontier which she always imagined to be in a desert. 5 The dynasty that ruled most of the Indian sub-continent from the early 16th to the early 18th century . he rampaged through a battle scene killing dozens of Mughal5 soldiers. A year later. On one of Dharam Singh’s rare stays at the hut. inheriting the clairvoyance that was characteristic of women. each round adding fresh scars to Dharam Singh’s body. when his beard was only incipient and his wrist. * Dharam Singh participated in his first war at the age of 16. he married Sardaari Kaur. had not yet gained enough in size to hold the kara that it was to wear later. an event which filled Dharam Singh with joy but did not seem to add to her happiness.Singh’s belligerent youth. the cries of an onward cavalry march – all these created in him an amateurish excitement in which. Unnecessary wars and unstable reconciliations continued. she had foreseen cruelty in the life of her baby. in a brief moratorium between two back-to-back battles. as if the purpose of marriage was to aid the leap from boyhood to manhood. It was in the same year that. the tinkling of swords. The boom of cannons. she blurted out some of this sadness.
her mornings always trudged with a turpitude that greyed over her eyes like a dream about to begin. not deterred by the thrashing. and on which she too had rested. she had also understood the necessity of this toil.” At that very moment Dharam Singh. Why do you blacken your tongue with what you say then?” Sardaari. Why don’t you poison us with poppies?” he cried. replied with a stoicism that was to get etched in her temperament. Slow in shedding the smells. sights and reminiscences of the previous nights. doing it now with a skilled hand. and the dangerous detachment of a man who has given up on other things in life. In its place was . would be all for him. She blinked profusely to bring a semblance of truth to her vision. * The morning that never changed returned. this resistance between deep reality and dreaminess had to be borne every time she woke up with a stale yesterday mouth. was not there. grey spectre always lingered longer than she wanted. And thus. with a bit of an apologetic swagger: “We will beat the Mughals before his time. Protecting Punjab and killing those who defied the claim of his Sikh gurus over it. the bed-spread on which Dharam Singh had retired to last night. Today. “Look at your face. he dedicated himself to a life of doling out death. “There are no winners and losers. even before he knew love. he decided. With a heavy heart. and then added. but the blank. to get other colours in her eyes. made speechless partly by her insolence and partly by the suspicion of truth in what she had said. you fool. decided not to have any more children.got angry and beat her with a stick from the peach tree in front of their hut. and Sardaari found herself in a routine trance. Wars don’t end anymore. with which she had accepted many other finalities of life.
on the day of baisakhi. made increasingly haggard due the burden of her premonitions. Dharam Singh. It consists of a wooden frame bordering a set of knotted ropes. * Before being stricken by the plague of polio that would eventually engulf the whole of Punjab. He was in a constant struggle with the Sikhs of Punjab. was to be overcome. by the passion of politics. She found herself staring at these now. Two days later. After his death in 1707. their son. “Aurangzeb7 is dead. and now history will fly” he sang sitting on a branch of the peach tree. war resumed in its greatest might and Dharam Singh was summoned to the frontier. Rumaan was stricken with a fever so strong that his eyes rolled in a delirium similar to the ones induced by opium. at the strange age of 8. now dissolving. this son of mine” Sardaari. and in her confusion she attached a higher meaning to these. the Mughal empire gradually began to shrink. 6 7 a traditional Punjabi name for a woven bed. Rumaan Singh. some strings of which were broken and hazily hanging below the interwoven mattress.a shimmering chaarpaee6. munching on raw peaches in the season of spring. with blurry threads pleading forth from ends. The hanging jute strings. not remembering the moment of her waking up. although after his death these struggles intensified as Punjab became even more important to the shrinking Mughal empire . She thought of them as remnants of an erstwhile rope. The chaarpaee. at home for the longest period since the first war. grew confused at this song and the strange warmth it evoked in the left part of his chest. could not reply. stirring. were scary to her. On the very day of his departure. now emerging. getting an itch all across his face. now broken because of the burden of memories. seeking nothing but a decaying death. was the one which had years ago caught her by surprise. Last notable Mughal emperor. He approached Sardaari with a puzzled pride: “He will be a great warrior.
The mothers. Pained immeasurably (while also accepting the happenings of what she had already foreseen. birds avoided the many trees. even before the morning had had a decent chance to witness the high sun. the village was made bereft of all its crippled and healthy off-springs. Then. in addition to the grief arising from the certain death of her son. another early morning. the village was raided by a Mughal regiment. when the birds had quite notably forgotten to chirp. few of them even bared their upper halves. did not want to rape the women this time. Mothers of those boys who had most recently been stricken by the plague also argued that the boys were useless -. like most mothers. and even the dogs ignored the ritual of barking. and when the motive of the raid was clear. a strange terror that evokes itself when one’s darkest premonitions manifest themselves. no chulhas were fired. the 8 crutches . was now tied to for the remainder of his short life. who had initially responded to this raid with an aggression almost befitting their husbands.Rumaan recovered from the fever. deviating from what was their wont. And soon. they could never pose any threat to the Mughal Empire – and should therefore be spared. below the peach tree. Sardaari. when the children were being dragged away from their hands. but with a leg shrunken to the point of almost withering away. they supplicated the soldiers with heard-rending wails. soon realized the futility of it. inviting the soldiers to rape them instead of taking away the children. For the next two days not a single sound emanated in the village. and could not walk anymore without baisakhis8. But nothing could change the inevitable. feeling. but instead snatched the children away from each house. was left with bared breasts in the front of her house.they could never really become soldiers. along with most children of his age in the village. Then on that rotten morning. The soldiers. Sardaari was particularly disgusted at this coincidence – that the same word was used for the festival of spring and the crutches that her son. at least in idea).
though. But his unprecedented delight also brought with it a recklessness. The mothers spent the whole morning looking for the arm or leg that belonged to their child. unaware of the secretive raid that the Mughal forces had crafted from an alternate route. * The morning that never changed continued. At the frontier. The confusion of the crippled legs took a violent turn. tied to a chaarpaee. a foolhardiness that had never before been a part of his combat. and even the healthy legs were sorted quickly and amicably. Sardaari was among the few mothers who did not have the gall to participate in this hunt. a sharp Mughal spear pierced his belly. “Some parts are being returned” they announced. bandaged. who looked at the fellow Sikh soldiers with a morbid surprise on her face. Dharam Singh was chopping heads and limbs in frenzy. on the evening of the day when the limbs had been returned to the village. the rest of it – the staff – sticking out. Never before had he felt such exaltation in the delights of violence. fixed. he was brought back from the frontier to Sardaari. .mothers still lolling between the grief-induced blurring of sleep and awakening. Unconscious. the Mughal regiment returned with jute sacks filled with chopped limbs. and thus. The premonition of his death had never occurred to her. a totem from her past. which she thought to be her present. It would continue for a little longer till the strength of sunlight wiped away all indecisiveness. injured beyond hope of survival. Arms were the lesser problem. and sobs turned into resounding shrieks whenever two mothers laid their hands on a crippled leg that they both thought belonged to their child. its blade lodging completely inside his body. and Sardaari could move from the charpaee on which she now found herself sitting on. Irritated by the disappearance of the bed-spread. and the emergence of the charpaee. she looked around for Dharam Singh.
the pile of sand still lay in a miraculous. * . inside. preserved heap.From the open door of the hut. Nearer. neat. a remaining stub of the long-dead peach tree could be seen jutting out from the ground.
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