Yamuna stopped attending school at age eight. That was all the education she was ever going to get. She cried a little because she was a curious little thing, and she had enjoyed attending the village school and thumbing through the few dog eared books there were. She had liked tracing the large alphabets, trying to make sense of the lines and the squiggles, matching them up with the pictures. It seemed to be a doorway into another, mysterious, fascinating world.
Then she ceased, because she was also pragmatic, and understood that her place was in the fields with her mother, and other siblings.
It wasn’t till Badri came back from the city that her urge to learn reared its head once more.
He swaggered into the village, all suited up. The gaggle of children around him grew larger, pulling and tugging at his shiny jacket sleeves. He swatted them off cheerfully.
“Bhaiyya, bhaiyya, brother, brother”, they chanted.
“Shoo”, he laughed, “I’ll bring out the sweets later”
He caught her eye and beckoned her over.
“Where’s Ganga?”, he asked, fiddling with his collar, and looking embarrassed.
“Sister is in the fields with Maa. I only came to fetch their lunch”
“Will you tell her I’m back?”
She examined him and then stuck her tongue out.
“Tell her yourself !”
His yell was still ringing in her ears, as she raced with her little bundle towards the fields.
The sun beat down a little less fiercely in the afternoon upon the small village of Rampur. It was just another anonymous place within the vast expanse of India. Boasting a population of roughly 1500 inhabitants, it’s only claim to fame was that once a holy man had passed through. A well had been dug in his honour, and even in the most scorching of Summers, the well never failed to provide the village with cool, thirst quenching water. The villagers firmly believed it was his blessings that ensured the continuous supply, and so erected a temple in his honour too. As no one knew which of the pantheon of Hindu gods he had actually worshipped, they settled upon Shiva, the yogi god. The temple, aside of the Chief’s house, were the only solid structures of bricks and mortar. The mud huts that clustered together like a huddle of old women, was where the rest of the population lived.
They sat on their haunches, grouped around his solitary chair. She could tell he was uncomfortable, unaccustomed to being treated this way.
“So, Badri bhaiyya, you make good money in the city?”
“Yes, yes. Very good. The Seth is kind to me. He has even given me a room above his garage to live in.”
There was a collective gasp. A room! Their mud huts did not compare.
“I drive his car, fetch his groceries, take his dog for a walk. He trusts me.”
“You’ve done well Badri” In strode Kedar, their village chief and clapped his hand on Badri’s back, nearly dislodging him off the chair. Someone hurried to bring the charpoy over. They placed it in the shadiest spot under the Peepul tree.
“That Master must’ve taught you well, huh?”
The villagers mulled this over as they looked between Kedar and Badri. It was no secret that Kedar had loathed the teacher they all fondly referred to as Masterji. He had been vehemently opposed to the higher education that Master Raju had tried to impart to the largely illiterate village. Kedar had used very trick in the book to sabotage his attempts. From threats to intimidation to the mysterious fire that engulfed the ramshackle structure they called school.
Yet, a few like Badri, had persisted, and gone beyond the basic alphabet. And look where it had got him!
Unfortunately, Raju had eloped with Kedar’s only child Tapeshwari, and all learning had effectively been replaced by Kedar’s incandescent rage.
The timid teacher who had replaced Raju was a lackey, and once again, the villagers learnt no more than signing their names. The female teacher came once a fortnight from three villages away to teach the girls the alphabet. It was a requirement by the regional government to be seen to be educating the poorest. So, Kedar had pocketed the grant money for the school, and allowed the farce of education to be carried on in a hastily constructed one room mud hut that was uninhabitable most of the year.
Now, here sat before him, an example of what might have been, if Master Raju had not been sidetracked by love. An upstart that was being alleviated and placed on a chair!
Badri knew all too well that his return was not going down pleasantly with the Chief.
He quickly stood up and touched Kedar’s feet.
“You are our Mai-Baap. Our father, our mother, our protector. How else could I have flourished, if it were not for your blessings?”
Somewhat appeased, Kedar indicated he should sit. Badri, wisely, chose to squat with the other villagers.
“So, what brings you back after all these years, heh? What has it been- four, five?”
“Four and a half, Sir.”
“You’re a city lad now. What do you want with us country bumpkins?”
Badri looked down at his feet, and mumbled something.
“Speak up!”, said Kedar, annoyed.
“I would like to get married”
And so it came to pass. Ganga, the sister she had always adored, married her childhood sweetheart Badri. It wasn’t without the usual hurdles. Her parents had to provide the dowry. They had very little to offer Badri. He knew and didn’t mind. But Kedar could not allow the opportunity of a wedding pass by without profiting from it. So they had to take a mortgage out on the last hectare of land they owned outright. The rest of the land was also mortgaged to Kedar. It was a win-lose situation and all parties got thoroughly drunk in the euphoria of the moment.
“Eh Badri!”, Kedar slurred into his ear. “Don’t come back, okay? I don’t want you giving these villagers any ideas. You got lucky my boy. Not everyone does. Got it?”
For a moment, as Badri looked into Kedar’s face, Yamuna saw his mouth pucker, almost as though he was going to spit into it. Then he re assembled his face into its usual subservient set, and nodded and smiled.
Yamuna sighed. For once she would have liked to see someone stand up to the Chief. But it was not going to happen. Not in her lifetime.
They all lay together in a late afternoon siesta after the wedding. Her father snored loudly, and her mother coughed in her sleep. Her two younger brothers slept, curled into each other. She could hear Ganga’s breath deepen as even she slipped into slumber. She sneaked a peek at her fifteen year old sister, still awed that she was now married and someone else’s property. That someone else was also gazing at his young wife with something akin to pride and wonderment.
“Badri bhaiyya”, she whispered into the shadowy room.
“Are you still in touch with Master Raju?”
There was a moment’s pause, and then Badri answered. “Yes”, he said, “Yes- but don’t mention it to anyone.”
“Where is he? What is he doing? Does he plan to come back?”
“Yamuna- don’t be naive. There will be a lynch mob waiting for him if he does. Besides, he is happy. He is teaching in a Government school in the city. He has no plans to return.”
“And Tapeshwari didi? How is she? She must miss home. She must miss the Chief.”
“I’m not sure Yamuna. I don’t interfere in women’s business. If she does, that’s their problem, not mine.”
“Badri bhaiya…. will you never return either?”
He turned and gazed at her a minute before speaking.
“Not for a while Yamuna. Not while Kedar still holds his grudges.”
“Why does he not like you?”
“It’s not me he doesn’t like. It’s what I represent. I represent freedom and opportunity. Something that has been denied to the people of this village.”
“Is it because you studied? I want to study. I want to make something of myself!”
“Yamuna, you are a girl. What are you ever going to be? A daughter, a field hand? A wife and a mother? Be content with that.”
Long after they had left, his sister and brother in law, long after the tears had been shed, the trousseau packed, and the couple despatched by the local bus, Badri’s words rang in her ears. A smouldering resentment started up in the pit of her stomach. She did not want to be just a daughter or a wife. She wanted more. She wasn’t sure what that more could be. But she knew that the how would have to come through education.
Still. There was the dream, and then there was reality. Reality was the daily grind of waking up at the crack of dawn, of milking the cows, of filling the buckets with water from the well, of helping her mother prepare the meagre breakfast for the menfolk, of wolfing down whatever remained, and then rushing to bathe and change for a day of work in the fields. Day after day after day of back breaking labour followed by more house work before she could fall into a deep, dreamless sleep. Only to wake up and do the same again the following day and the day after, till eternity seemed to stretch out into one long, hot, dusty, never ending road.
It was in the month of September that Master Raju returned to the village with his heavily pregnant wife. The Chief’s bellow was enough to frighten any brave heart. At first everyone thought that Raju would not survive the night. Yet some of the tears and the pleading of his daughter and wife must have had effect, for Kedar finally relented enough to house them both.
It was customary for the daughter to return home for the birth of her first born child. As Tapeshwari had been the apple of her father’s eye, his rage all but evaporated on seeing her waddle towards him and awkwardly try to touch his feet. Raju was a different story. A cold war ensued between the two men, and some nights Raju would wake up shaking and drenched in sweat, in fear that a pillow was about to descend on his face to snuff his life out.
The baby girl arrived in October, and the celebrations were subdued. Barfi, a cheaper Indian sweetmeat was distributed in the village, instead of the more expensive and flavoursome ladoos.
“Had I chosen my son in law, the baby would have been a boy!”, insisted Kedar darkly.
The baby was sickly, and Tapeshwari, never the most robust of girls found it difficult to nurse or care for her. A rotation of the village women who helped, soon tired of the scenario, and they resumed their own lives and duties. Tapeshwari sank into a listless apathy. Her mother despaired and begged her husband to hire full time help.
“Do you have to be so miserly? This is our child, our blood, and she needs help!”
Yamuna was not their first choice. She was too young, and despite displaying impressive stamina, she was not the most amenable of creatures. Yet with the Autumn harvest nearly upon them, few families were willing to spare an extra pair of hands. Yamuna’s persistence paid off and she was hired for the grand sum of Rs 350/- a month.
“Too much”, Kedar growled but there was little he could do.
The bathing and feeding of the child did not seem like work to Yamuna. She was used to taking care of her younger siblings.
“You are a natural”, Kedar’s wife, Gulabi, remarked as she watched Yamuna oil and massage the baby, who had started to get healthier with each passing day.
“I like babies”, said Yamuna, and it was true. But it was only half the truth. She no more saw herself as a field hand than she did as a nanny. Her only agenda had been to get into the household, and somehow, anyhow, persuade the Master to resume teaching.
Two months passed by with her barely getting a glimpse of Master Raju. For such a young and dynamic man, he had nearly disappeared inside himself, post his return. Fatherhood ill suited him, and he looked like a lost puppy most times. Tapeshwari would not hear of returning to the city. So he was caught in a no man’s land with nothing to do except retreat into his books, trying at all times to stay out of harm’s way.
One late afternoon, Yamuna finally managed to corner him.
“Master Raju, you must come and play with the baby. She has started to smile now.”
He looked startled. “Has she?”
“Yes, yes. Babies are amazing. Like little sponges. They absorb everything around them. Why, even Tapeshwari didi enjoys her more now!”
“Well…well…”, he seemed lost for words.
So he started to come and sit with his wife and baby more often. Tapeshwari blossomed once again, and Gulabi observing the change, would not stop singing Raju’s praises to Kedar.
“What a dear little family we have. Look how much he loves her. Would any of your prospective matches, those no good, land grabbing zamindars have taken such good care of our daughter, huh?”
Yamuna smuggled a few of the alphabet books into the house, on the pretext of showing baby the pictures.
“See how she follows my finger, Master Raju. See? She likes it when I crow like a rooster. Look how her eye turns to the picture every time?”
She appealed to their pride in their child, and saw how quick they were to believe that the baby was no less than a genius. With such subterfuge, she got Raju to start teaching his six month old daughter the alphabet. Tapeshwari would giggle and comb her hair, while Gulabi would snooze on the charpoy next to them. Kedar would glower from a distance, unwilling to upset the fragile happiness that had once again crept into the house. While Yamuna would tickle the baby’s toes, and silently learn as much as she could.
“Tapeshwari didi”, one day she mildly inserted herself into a conversation between mother and daughter.
“Wouldn’t it be nice if some of the village children could come to Masterji’s lessons. He would feel like he was doing something useful again. And baby could have some children to play with too?”
Before Kedar could so much as raise an eyebrow, his front yard was converted into a makeshift school with lessons three times a week. Raju’s long suppressed talents came to the fore again. Soon the syllabus included the times tables, and a few basic books. History and Science started to get a look in as well. As for Geography, even Kedar would lurk around as Raju expounded on the different continents, and the different people that inhabited the world.
“We are only a small dot on this planet. The planet is an even smaller dot in the Solar system…. Imagine how big the Universe is if the size of our village is like that tiny little ant that’s crawling up your leg?”
Word spread of Raju’s classes, and the villagers started to ‘drop by’ for a chat with the Chief. Kedar found his house becoming a thoroughfare, and him becoming some kind of a local hero. Unused to being this popular, he was abashed and alarmed in equal measures. Things came to a head on the day of the annual village celebrations. Where in previous times, he would have led the prayers with the local priest, with a largely recalcitrant populace mumbling along, this time it was a joyous occasion with him being carried on the shoulders of the villagers to the temple.
“Our village has been blessed by Goddess Laxmi herself! “, the priest exclaimed.
“Saraswati” muttered Yamuna under her breath, for while Goddess Laxmi denoted wealth it was Goddess Saraswati who symbolised learning.
Twenty years later when a government councillor finally decided to visit the village of Rampur that had been making waves in the media, he was astounded to see a flourishing place with three times its original population. With a 90% literacy rate, the villagers employed the latest agricultural techniques, alongside their own rural experience, and their harvests were rich and plentiful. The young men that left for the cities often returned with funds and acumen, ploughing it back into their own lands, enriching them further. Badri and Ganga were amongst the first to return, happy to shed the frenetic pace of city life and return to a gentler, kinder, more welcoming land than they had grown up in.
Kedar’s statue adorned the square. It was freshly garlanded every day, and visited once a week by his family. He was widely acknowledged as a pioneer who had recognised the necessity of education amongst the poorest. His grand daughter was a teacher in the local school, which had grown far beyond its humble origins. Master Raju was the much revered Principal. He remained his unpretentious, good self and still enjoyed teaching the youngest in the school. “Catch them young!”, he’d say and laugh uproariously at his private joke. His own expanding brood had given him life skills that books themselves never could have. He often wondered at the transformation in his fortunes, yet superstitiously, never examined it too closely.
The old priest would tell anyone who wished to hear it that it was the holy man’s blessings that had transformed the land.
As for Dr Yamuna Jha.
Wife, mother, anonymous patron of Rampur. Stem cell researcher, living and working in the US. Delving into recombinant DNA methodology, finding treatments for hitherto incurable diseases, she was too busy to remember what had rekindled her indefatigable ambition.
Like a comet she blazed on, and in her wake, all else lit up.