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.