Posted in Cultures, Kolkewadi, Short Stories

Gulab Rao’s Lands

Today was cloudy. The sun was playing hide-and-seek with the clouds, but was more inclined towards hiding than seeking. Gulab Rao was also similarly inclined. He sat on the khat under the shed. The four sturdy wooden pillars of the shed had been hammered into the red fertile soil. The roof had been thatched with layers of dried up leaves stitched together. Not a ray of sunlight – even when the sun did peep – penetrated the thatching. Gulab Rao had taken off his shirt and hung it on the little stem that stuck out from the pillar. There was an enormous aluminium kalshi nearby that was overflowing. Gulab Rao had dipped his towel into it and used the wet towel to keep his head cool. Literally as well as figuratively. He had already fainted twice before. Now he had been instructed to stay here and entrust Vikas with the task at hand.

A little boy appeared out of the red stone house behind Gulab Rao. He carried a glass of water for the old man. The boy’s tattered shorts threatened to tear off his frail body as a strong gust of wind engulfed the hill top. There were certain benefits of being positioned on the hill top. One, there was a comfortable khat, thatched shed and abundant water. Two, the monumentous Sahyadris sheltered them from the heat. Three, an occasional breeze or gust of wind passed through. Four, Gulab Rao had an eagle’s view of all the lower land being surveyed along with the people surveying it. Five, to access the higher mountainside lands, they would have to pass Gulab Rao on their way up. This meant, he was always up-to-date with the going-ons.

Gulab Rao rubbed the dirt and sleep from his eyes. After scratching his belly and adjusting his seat, he was now ready to monitor the ant-like people going about their business in the fields below. There was no real structure to those fields. Surveyor sahab’s map ls showed perfect rectangles and triangles, but real fields aren’t shaped that way! Fields in Maharashtra had been traditionally divided by placing gigantic boulders on every land limit, and joining them with a stone bund. Some plots were divided by growing specific long-lasting trees. In the midst of this, the white spots scurried about with tall red flags. The surveyor sahab’s yellow plain table was positioned in the centre of it all. Raju Shinde’s young daughter was holding an umbrella over the surveyor sahab and his plain table. Dressed in a bright yellow t-shirt and bright red cap, the girl looked like a flag herself. Surveyor sahab could just make her stand at the different ‘fixed points’ of the land. Gulab Rao was wondering why the girl had come today. He had thought she would be tired after yesterday. Besides, she didn’t really have any business here – not in the fields, not in the survey. But here she was, holding maps, carrying the umbrella and offering water to everyone.

Gulab Rao’s thoughts were cut short as the wind carried snippets of a heated argument up to the hill top:
‘This is wrong…’
‘We know our lands…’
‘What do you mean one more landowner?’
‘You’ve made a mistake…’
Gulab Rao got up. He wore his shirt and slippers, and made his way towards the source of this disturbance.

Earlier this morning, surveyor sahab had decided that Raju’s mountainside land was to shift about 20 metres into Gulab Rao’s current area. A heat wave passed through Gulab Rao’s body even thinking about it. He paused a moment to steady himself. The amount of area that each of them had would remain the same but Gulab Rao didn’t want even an inch of his current land limits to shift. 20 metres! That was the first time Gulab Rao had felt faint today. All his rice fields would go into Raju’s possession if the limits shifted by 20 whole metres!

By the time Gulab Rao reached the group, the men were drinking tea and the argument seemed either settled or paused. Gulab Rao accepted a cup of the sweet liquid – not his preferred choice of drink – and sat in the shade. The silence reigned as everyone was engaged in drinking tea. Surveyor sahab was busy at his plain table. As soon as the tea cups were collected back, the silence was broken. Amidst all the clamouring, Gulab Rao gathered that everyone thought surveyor sahab had made some miscalculations, thus leading to recalculations.
Surveyor sahab moved away from his plain table with the big map and a pencil in hand. Everyone fell silent. Surveyor sahab asked one of the helpers to pour white paint on a rock. Breaths were being held. Surveyor sahab walked right across to the other side. White paint was poured. Sahab declared these to be the new limits. Screams, shouts, insults, insinuations – the Sahyadris were rattled by the uproar a group of four to five men made. Only two people didn’t make didn’t make a single sound – Gulab Rao and Raju Shinde. Gulab Rao’s mind was racing. These new boundaries, if declared final, would mean that four whole plots of land that belonged to Raju would become his. The entire plot that Raju was setting apart for building a house would become Gulab Rao’s. Gulab Rao’s heart fluttered dangerously. He got up hastily. The world blacked out and came back to him in circles. Gulab Rao suddenly felt someone hold him up. His eyes focused on Raju Shinde supporting him. Gulab pushed him away and sat down. Everyone was surrounding Gulab Rao. Raju took this opportunity to go talk to surveyor sahab uninterruptedly. The girl went and whispered something in sahab’s ear. Gulab Rao tried to say something but the air had been knocked out of his chest. Surveyor sahab was back at his plain table. He took the helper boy and poured white paint onto a few more rocks. This was the limit now, he said. His previous calculations had been made with the wrong ‘fixed point’. So close! Gulab Rao had been so close to gaining possession of four whole plots of Raju’s land! They had been snatched away from him! That Raju Shinde, what had he spoken to surveyor sahab when everyone had been distracted? Gulab Rao’s feeble protests of ‘that was the true limit, not this’ went unheard. Damn Raju, he was taking away Gulab’s land.

Gulab Rao wasn’t really talking to anyone. Vikas, in his stead, signed the documents stating that the new limits had been accepted by all the shareholders and neighbours of Raju’s land. Gulab Rao was ushered into Raju’s big car at the end of the day. Gulab Rao was to be taken to Alore to check his blood pressure at the hospital. Gulab Rao sat there without any protests. He was a whirlpool of emotions – anger, guilt and anticipation. Upon reaching Alore, Gulab Rao stayed in the car, unsure of what to say. Rane, Raju Shinde’s friend, turned from the front seat and held out another fifty rupee note to Gulab Rao. Just like yesterday. Accepting the money, Gulab Rao alighted from the car and made his way to bar. There was no better medicine for his blood pressure.

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Posted in Cultures, Kolkewadi, Short Stories

Gulab Rao waits

Gulab Rao didn’t mind. He sat on the cement bench right next to the narrow road. Let them take as much time as they wanted.
The tree that provided shade to both, Gulab Rao and his cement bench, swayed as a rare summer breeze raced down the length of the village.

Gulab Rao freed the end of his banyan which had been tucked into the elastic band of his old black trackpants. He lifted his vest above his bulging belly, moved his hands backwards to flick the vest on his back skywards and stretched his hands above his head. His stomach, back and armpits could now all partake the cool air of the breeze. If he hadn’t made these adjustments, Gulab Rao would still have been well-ventilated. The number of holes in his vest were only challenged by the number of holes in his trackpants.

The breeze stopped abruptly. Damn this heat! Gulab Rao remembered when the summers weren’t as hot as they were now and the temperatures didn’t rise higher than 30°C. Of course, that was before the tar roads, cement houses and motorcycles. Back then, mud and cow dung kept the walls cold and the temperatures down. Gulab Rao turned in his seat to look over to the one house in their wadi that was still made of mud and cow dung – Kishore Rao’s house. Poor people. All the people in their wadi had built new pakka houses made of brick and cement but poor Kishore Rao couldn’t afford to build one. His wife still layered the walls of their Kaccha house with cow dung.

Gulab Rao’s laugh gurgled out of his throat, got blocked by his buck teeth and escaped in little whistles through the 5 rupee gap between his two front teeth. He let his frayed blue-and-white rubber slippers drop from his feet to plop on the road and swung his feet carelessly. He smiled contentedly. Gulab Rao’s house had been the first in the village to become pakka. He had had a streak of excellent produce from his mango orchards. To top that off, he had found a customer from Mumbai who visited Kolkewadi every year. After the first time he bought a 100 mangoes from Gulab Rao, the rich man became a permanent customer. The rich man made Gulab Rao rich, and with that money he built his pakka house. But that was over 30 years ago.

Now another rich man was in Kolkewadi, but he hadn’t come to make Gulab Rao rich. He had come to steal from Gulab Rao. In all his life, no such thing had ever happened. A bead of sweat had formed on his brow. He wiped it with the back of his hand and flung it away. The water sizzled and evaporated the second it touched the road.

For over a 100 years, this land had been theirs. It had been passed on generation to generation, firstborn to firstborn. Now this Rajesh had bought the neighboring land and was getting it measured. Why Raju felt the need to get it measured, Gulab Rao would never understand. He only had to come ask, and Gulab Rao would tell him the exact boundaries of the entire land around them. Not even Gulab Rao’s younger brother Vikas could question his authority. Gulab Rao owned most of the land around Kolkewadi and had lived here all his life. Now this Raju had to come into the picture out of nowhere and start getting the government involved. What was the need, asked Gulab Rao.

About half a month back an official notice reached the house. It said that the land was going to be surveyed for three days of May and all the neighbours of Raju’s land should be present on those days. This morning, Raju brought the surveyor sahab in his car. In his big car with AC and a lady that spoke directions. The surveyor sahab walked around the land, asked all the land limits of each neighbour, then set the plain table and started taking measurements. The land that had been measured this morning wasn’t adjoining Gulab Rao’s. That would be tomorrow, and tomorrow Gulab Rao would definitely be present to make sure none of his land was given away to that Raju. So what if he was also a Shinde? While Gulab and his family had lived in Kolkewadi all their lives, Raju’s family had left for Mumbai when Raju was a little boy. And now suddenly, out of nowhere, Raju was back in Kolkewadi with his big car and hefty wallet changing things that hadn’t changed since Raju left for Mumbai all those years ago.

Naam liya shaitan hazir – Speak of the devil and the devil appears. Raju Shinde’s big car appeared on the road’s bend. Gulab Rao shifted in his seat – trying to fake nonchalance, but excited. Gulab Rao watched the car like a hawk as it passed by. It passed by! Gulab Rao’s excitement turned into dejection and dropped into his stomach. A few metres ahead, the car came to a halt. The little ball of dejection soared back from Gulab Rao’s stomach to his chest. The old man rose from his cement seat, slipped his slippers on, tucked his banyan back into his elastic belt and ambled towards the car. Bastards. Making an old man walk all this way. As he reached the car, a window slid down. Rane, Raju Shinde’s friend, held out a crisp fifty rupee note. Gulab Rao took the money from Rane and tucked it safely into his pocket. As the car caught speed and vanished from view, Gulab Rao took to the road as well. Eventually, he would reach Alore – the market place – where he would order his daily drink. But today, he would not have to pay for it from his own pocket.

It made the wait worth it.