Trip to the Fair: Childhood Memories (PART II)
In this concluding installment of a poignant autobiographical story, poet and folklorist Ved Prakash Vatuk writes of a childhood visit to a fair, the realization of an impossible dream due to the desperately poor circumstances of his childhood.
(The first installment of this story appeared in the June 2009 issue and is available at www.siliconeer.com This is the final installment of the two-part series.)
The band of children gathered and shouted, “Ganga Mai ki jai” (Glory to Mother Ganges), “Hanuman ki jai” (Glory to Hanuman), and “Har Har Mahadeva” (Praise be to Lord Shiva), and he shouted, full of emotion, “Bharat Mata ki jai,” (Glory to Mother India), “Mahatma Gandhi ki jai,” which reminded him of the arrest of his brother while shouting the same slogan. He felt heavy in his heart.
After a few minutes they were already walking through the fields outside the village. He recalled that it had been a long time since he had gone anywhere out of the village. He felt so much obliged to his mother and looked back as if to see her. Then he looked around him. All the children were in their best clothes. Some even had new outfits for this day. This he could not have, although his mother had washed his clothes the night before. The others wore shoes, although some, like those of his classmate Keshava, were torn. He had none. He felt bad, but tried to forget it, not to look again.
Suddenly, he heard a boy saying, “I have a rupee to spend today.” He opened his eyes wide. It as Murari, the oldest of the group and a leader to the others. “One rupee,” he repeated several times to himself. “One rupee—sixteen annas—sixty-four pice! How could he?” It was beyond his imagination. And then he heard several voices: “I have fourteen annas.” “And I have twelve.” Everyone except Keshava had spoken. Someone asked Keshava, “How much did your father give you?” Keshava felt somewhat downhearted and ashamed and uttered in a low voice, “Five pice.”
“Five pice!” they repeated mockingly. “And you?” they finally turned to him. He did not expect that, and was not ready with an answer. And yet he had to reply. With great effort as if unloading a big burden from his chest, he said very slowly: “Two pice less than Keshava.”
The children were ready to burst into laughter—they never heard of anyone going to a fair five miles away with only three pice—but Murari silenced them. Their talk turned to other things, but he was deeply hurt. For the rest of the way he remained silent except exchanging a few words with Keshava, his closest ally.
Before they reached the fair it was already noon. They decided to stop to eat their lunch in an orchard where there was a drinking well. He did not dare look at their lunches and painfully swallowed his hard, dry bread churma.
At last they reached the fair. He had never seen a crowd so big except when (at the age of five), his father had taken him to see Gandhi. But the crowd here was quite different from that one. That crowd was quiet, sitting and listening to an old, half-naked man with a staff in his hand—this crowd was moving, walking, talking, doing hundreds of things. His little eyes could not see far, and he felt lost among tall men. The only thing he could see were the big temples built on high places and very high themselves, the highest buildings he had ever seen. He could see the big broad steps—“More than one hundred,” he thought—leading to the main temple. On both sides people sat selling flowers, sacred threads, and other things to offer Lord Shiva. Between the rows of vendors a great multitude of people was ascending and descending.
Skirting around the edges of the crowd, they went to have a dip in the river. He had read about this river and could recognize it on the map of his district. Long ago he had seen it flowing under the bridge where he stood with his father. But it had never been so near. He took off his shirt, felt for his money, and extracted it from the knot of his dhoti, tying it safely in his shawl and leaving it on the bank with the others. Murari was already in the river, swimming far away, and many of his group jumped in and threw water at themselves, saying: “Har har Ganga.” He stepped cautiously into the cold water and shivered. For miles on both sides of him people were bathing, swimming and washing their oxen. He wished he could jump right into the middle because the water near the bank was muddy. But he was too little, and besides he did not know how to swim. He did not like to dive into the muddy water particularly; but it was his religious duty to do so, and with great effort he submerged himself. People were filling their brass jugs with river water to offer to Lord Shiva. He had no jug with him but he followed them, clinging tightly to Murari’s hand. Pushing their way with difficulty through the crowd, he finally saw his little foot on the first step of the temple. Murari stopped to buy some flowers and other things for offering, as well as some sacred thread to use with his father and brother for the coming year. The two went up the long stairway and tried to push into the temple, a small room with the idols—Shiva’s lingam and his Nandi bull—covered with flowers, most of which floated in the water that had been poured over the idols. A big bell hung from the roof and two fat Pandits, garbed only in dhotis, sat on either side. A fat, dirty, six-string thread hung over one shoulder and their foreheads were daubed in red and white. Money, mostly in pice and annas, could be clearly seen in the water surrounding Shiva’s idol. People were offering flowers, water and other things with money, while two priests gave their blessings and prayed. Some of the people had brought Ganges water right from the mountains of Hardwar to offer the god and earn more religious merit. They had traveled on foot all day and for two whole months. After offering the water they made a round of the Shiva idol, and then faced him, bowing with folded hands in the Hindu manner, rang the bell and went out.
He watched Murari following the practice of the crowd and felt curious about it. Although he was the son of a reformist Arya Samaji, for a moment the religious orthodox mind of his mother took over. He untied his money and after much rubbing, rustling and caressing, he decided to offer a pice to pray for the release of his brother and for the reunion of the family in happiness. So he offered his pice, made a round, bowed and asked Murari to lift him a little so that he could ring the bell.
When they came out he could not decide whether he had been right to lose a pice in momentary temptation. But not for long, for they were entering the market of earthen toys. Millions of multicolored toys, their makers calling out, sometimes even grabbing people by the hand. He had no younger brother or sister and he was no longer young enough to play with such toys. “But father used to buy a braid for sister,” he said to himself. He soon found out that he did not have enough money for that. Murari bought something for his sister, and they moved to another part of the fair. An old man wearing a turban which must have been white once was running a kind of Ferris wheel. It consisted of four cages which he pushed around by hand—the whole thing not more than six or seven yards in diameter.
With a few white hairs peeping out of his turban and his disheveled white beard, the man worked, showing suffering on his face but singing continuously: “These fairs of life will always be here, but not we mortals.” Half of his friends jumped on for a ride, four to eight in each cage, and crying “Cheer, Cheer,” joined in the song of the old man. He stopped and watched, yearning to ride, too, but … two pice! What could he do? He turned away and saw the rest of the company laughing and enjoying the merry-go-round, riding horses pushed by a young man standing in the middle. He became more depressed. The noises of the fair—the singing, the sound of flutes, the crowd itself—did not please him anymore. He walked on and passed through many other markets, of canes, of umbrellas, of saris costing a thousand times what he had, and then the circus and the “well of death.” In front of a big tent, two men stood on a wooden board supported by bricks. They were wearing marks and shouted through a megaphone, inviting people to come in and see the wonderful things of the world. Oh, how much he would like to see that. He lifted his eyes and saw a crowd standing around the big high wooden well, staring toward the sky. They were shouting “Bravo,” and the loud noise of a motorcycle—a sound he did not know—shook the nearby ground. He felt a knot through the torn side pocket of his shirt and mused for a long time.
Everyone except Keshava was on his way to the “well of death,” while he could not make up his mind what to do. Suddenly he felt his feet burning in the hot sand. He felt thirsty, his mouth was dry. He asked Keshava to wait for him until he found some water. Keshava pointed to a place where three big vats sat on heavy wooden tables next to each other. Six people sat on chairs nearby and dispensed water from jugs into the hands of thirsty ones, who drank with their cupped hands against their mouths. Half the water ran to the ground and made a muddy pool. He walked carefully through the mud so that he would not slip, and stood for a long time, waiting his turn. Elder people came and drank—no one cared about him, sometimes he was pushed. Finally one of those sitting on the chair shouted at him, asking him if he wanted to a drink of water. He ran towards the man, hurriedly cupped his hands, and felt the water falling on them as if from a little waterfall. The splashing water made him close his eyes and shiver. Most of it ran down the sleeves of his shirt and when he had finished, he was thoroughly wet. Suddenly he felt a sharp pain in his stomach, which they called “pain caused by a drink on an empty stomach.” He sat down on the bank of the ditch for a few minutes, and as he recovered, returned to the place where he had left Keshava waiting for him. The others had also returned and talked about the man who rode around the walls of the wooden well on his motorcycle, taking his clothes off, letting go of the handles, and performing other feats of balance. Someone was boasting of his knowledge of the rider’s family. “They all die some day from falling while riding,” he said. He did not want to take part in the conversation.
Finally they came to the place where salty snacks and sweets were sold. He saw the cups of leaves lying on the ground, the dogs licking them. They had been thrown away by people after finishing their refreshments. The shops were big and signs on their facades declared where they had come from and how famous they were. Some read “Sweets prepared in pure ghee,” while others stated, “Shop which goes all over the country.” On silver plates the different sweets were decorated beautifully in the manner of a Japanese pagoda. The silver leaf spread on them shone from afar. The smell was pungent. The children were so happy to see them that they ran like foxes who suddenly find a hare after a few days’ hunger. He looked around and found that in one of the shops, bits of sweets were being sold very cheaply. “I could certainly have four ounces,” he thought. He suddenly felt such a thrill, felt himself like a prince for a moment, and ran towards the shop, stumbling against people. He reached it, and took his treasure out of the knot slowly and gracefully and cried: “Give me . . . “ But before he finished the sentence, he recalled his brother behind bars, sleeping on the floor, eating bread full of ashes and stones.
“How can I?” he said to himself in horror. “How can I eat sweets when Brother . . .” He could think no further, and two large drops of tears replaced his thoughts. “Give you what?” shouted the shopkeeper. “Nothing,” he said, returning sorrowfully to the others.
Evening was falling, glittering lights were beginning to shine, the lights of which he had dreamed about so long. But the realization of truth did not make him happy. He was apathetic and disinterested in everything, and simply wanted o forget that he was in the fair. He wanted to return home, and the time was near.
When they decided to leave for the village he recalled his mother and sister. “What about them? Won’t they be waiting for me eagerly?” And an impulse of emotions led him to find something for them. He heard someone shouting: “Everything must be sold before we go home. Two pears for a pice!” He ran as fast as he could to the place where the voice came from. Hurriedly he gave the man two pice and said in a clear loud voice: “Four pears.”
He took them in his shawl, tied them and hung them over his shoulder. All the way home he talked little, while the others were engaged in conversations full of their experiences, joyful and lighthearted. They disgusted him. When they reached the village it was already dark, and he felt satisfied—“After all, we have come back.” As soon as he entered his street, he saw the dim light of the clay lamp shining through the window. His mother and sister were waiting eagerly for him, sitting on the front porch of the house. He felt full of joy again and at first ran fast, but soon his steps slowed with some mysterious feelings. He had never walked so much in his life. He was dead tired.
“How was it? Did you have fun?” two voices asked simultaneously.
He did not answer. Something inside was pressing him. He opened his shawl and put four big pears on the hands of his mother. “For you and sister.”
“Oh son!” “Oh brother!”
And before they had learned of the whole story, mother and sister pressed him to their hearts and sobbed. He broke into tears as well, sobbing loudly.