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