It was 7’o clock in the morning. I was standing on the veranda staring at the mountains lining the fields far away across the road in front of my house. The ecstatic picturesque made me forget about the situation at hand for a moment. Today my brother, Nitesh was not coming to school. Apparently he had cooked a stomach ache excuse, the same one that he had been using since five days. Nitesh was his name only on school registers, rest of the world knew him as Kalyan Ji(Kalyan means welfare and ji for respect). The story behind the etymology of his name was that when he was born, some uncle said he will serve for the welfare of others ergo Kalyan but how he got the “Ji” title was a mystery. Every time he was summoned the inbuilt respect followed immediately. The situation was that my brother had successfully played the stomach ache card that I failed to pull out. So here I was waiting for my sister, Manisha to get ready while Kalyan Ji was sleeping peacefully and also passed a goofy smile as I passed by him. I have two more elder sisters but they live with our Uncle whom we call ‘Bade Papa’. So we are two brothers and three sisters and it was the quest for a boy child that ruined the family planning of my parents. I was much of a bonus after my brother.
Ours was a semi government school and the only primary school in Hiranpur, a small town in the tribal area of Jharkhand. The distance of our school from home was not much so we used to walk. We had our own mile stones to calculate the distance covered, first came the lake then the main transformer, which was newly installed, a left from there and few more minutes of walk there was “Saraswati Sishu Mandir” our school. A big entrance gate that was opened partially when the only school rickshaw came in and out, rest of the time a small sub gate was open which one had to bend down and cross if your height was more than three feet. That small gate had been responsible for thousands of head bumps over the years every time when someone was in a hurry to enter or exit. It was a small school with a series of five classrooms on one side and an open field parallel to it for assembly and physical training purposes. Only two classrooms had solid roof, plastered walls, cemented floors and a light bulb or a ceiling fan which I hardly remember. Rest of the classrooms had mud floors, coarsely plastered brick walls and slanting roofs. A giant wood log was placed centrally over the three classrooms forming the main support of the superstructure and bamboo sticks filled rest of the space on which chimney roasted, semi- cylindrical shaped clay toppings were arranged in an orderly manner. A carpet was laid on the floor for the students and there was a chair for the teacher. The teachers had to be addressed as “Acharya Ji” with their name as a prefix and the students were referred as “Bhayia”(brother) and “Behen”(sister) with his/her name as a suffix. For example: “Bhaiya Suresh”, “Behen Pooja” and “Suchit Acharya Ji. At that time it was every child’s dream to sit in the ironically proper classrooms which were for 4th and 5th standards. The story doesn’t end here. We had to pray three times, one in the morning assembly then during lunch and third before going home. Sometimes I wondered they manufactured saints instead of students.
When we came back from school we saw Kalyan Ji studying his ass off in the guest room and gave no reaction when we entered. We sensed something was wrong and went inside to ask mom about the situation. As it turned out, he was busted by Dad for his fake ache. Dad knew he was faking, he always knew, he had a talent to sense our lies but he gave us chances to recover. Five chances it was for my brother and on the sixth day after we left, he simply told mom to escort Kalyan ji to school. Mom took Kalyan Ji to school and came back but as she was about to knock the door she turned and saw Kalyan Ji standing behind her. Mom always had a habit of calling Dad when she wanted one of us to be punished as she thought the punishment might not be that effective if she gave it herself. Dad was in education department and had a zero tolerance towards let’s say Kalyan Ji types. He always came out with something innovative and scarier every time to make sure that it never happens again in future. This time he came hurrying out and after hearing mom’s version of the story he took Kalyan Ji’s school bag and threw it with so much power that it crossed the main road in front of our house with books and copies flying out of the bag in its entire trajectory. Then he gave few tight slaps to Kalyan Ji and vociferously said- “you don’t need to study again”. It was only after mom’s intervention he left him and went inside. This was another peculiar habit of mom, when she thought the punishment was enough, she intervened. Poor Kalyan Ji was sitting on the floor crying while a neighbourhood uncle collected his stuff from across the road and tried to console him but in vain and since then he was sitting in the guest room without uttering a single word. We started giggling after the story and it was more fun because this time the victim was only one of us which wasn’t something usual. We were mocking Kalyan Ji now and then while eating our lunch, rice, daal and potato curry but Kalyan Ji was not giving any reactions.
In the evening we asked if he wants to play and he shook his head. We tried to convince him but he was still not talking so we set off without him to play pahaad-pani with neighbourhood kids. It was our one of the favourite games. The rules were very simple; if you are standing on a pahaad you are safe and if you step down from it you are in danger. Everyone runs from one pahaad (in literal sense it stands for a mountain but in our game it meant any elevated place) to another except one, the thief who stays in paani( which actually means water but in our game ground served as paani) all the time and tries to tap whoever comes down from pahaad. If you are tapped then you are the new thief. We played every day till sunset and then everyone returned to their homes unless there was a post-game discussion which resulted in some extra delay. When we came back home, saw Kalyan Ji was sitting in the veranda on a wooden bench, we knew he was itching to talk to us but he said nothing. It was only after Dad came home and sort of placated him with his bargain of frooty and sweets, Kalyan Ji started talking and things went back to normal.
Hiranpur was a mix of village and town. Most of the people lived in houses with mud walls and hay stack roofs. Only Market place area and some residential areas had all the houses with brick walls and concrete roofs. The place where we lived had several houses and large open fields. We lived as tenants on the ground floor in a rented house, a two story rectangular structure whose breadth was much less than its length. The sequence of rooms was veranda-guest room-bedroom-kitchen and common backyard for the two floors and at the end a circular well, the only source of water for all purposes. There was plastered floor around the circumference of the well for taking baths and washing clothes and there wasn’t any pulley and rope arrangement, it was just a bucket and a rope. So for fetching every bucket of water the rope has to slide down the concrete edge of the circular wall around the well and it was the most inefficient way of fetching water not because it took more effort to pull the rope but the constant sliding on the concrete edge often resulted in the rope breaking off and the bucket gave a laughing splash before settling in the base and disappearing. The pulley arrangement was not something Dad could not afford, the main reason behind this condone attitude was the “Bihari rule” which says “don’t act on nothing unless the beneficiary is you and only you” and here the second floor tenants were also the beneficiary ergo say no to pulley.
None of my sisters or Kalyan Ji was born in Hiranpur. We moved here when I was one or two and there was approximately two years gap each as we move from Kalyan Ji’s age to my eldest sister’s age, so it actually took a decade to manufacture all five of us. Dad was a government employee holding the post of school inspector and mom inevitably was a housewife. Dad worked from 10 am to 5 pm “officially” and one of Dad’s job was to pay a surprise visit to the schools once in a month, test the eligibility of teachers, file a report of the situation and even suspend someone if found guilty. Now, even though Dad was not a corrupt officer, this post had high returns. Often Dad’s victims dropped by our house with boxes of sweets, fruits and even chickens( the live ones) which even after Dad’s firm refusal to accept they left it in the veranda tying the chicken to one of the legs of wooden bench and left. Sometimes two-three chickens were tied to the legs all clucking in unison and Dad’s peon, Si-Prasad (as his name was pronounced) took care of killing and cutting of the chickens. Si-Prasad was average heighted, a little fairer compared to his other dark complexioned tribal counterparts, square faced with a moustache slightly wider and thinner than that of Charlie Chaplin’s and knew both Hindi and the local Santhali language. He came home twice in a day, once in the morning and then in the evening otherwise he was ready at Dad’s service whenever summoned. In the morning he fetched us water from the well while we took bath and sometimes took us to school. In the evening he was handed a list of items to be purchased from the market including groceries and other stuff. Apart from these he was sort of our male nanny when Mom and Dad were not around.
Some days when mom and the neighbourhood aunties decided for a long evening stroll, we went to the small hill beside the High School twenty minutes away from our house. It was a beautiful place, soft green grass covering the entire hill and was surrounded by series of mountains big and small from three sides. The hill gave an eclectic view of Hiranpur. We played on the hill running up and down while mom sat with other aunties at the foot of the hill discussing the recent controversies in the neighbourhood and women’s talks. It was wiser to return home at the verge of sunset as Dad came home any time after sunset. The droom drooom sound of his Rajdoot made his presence known to us even before he needed to step down from his bike and knock the door. It was like a siren to us three. No matter what grave endeavour we are into at that moment within fraction of a second all of us would start studying with utmost concentration.
Electricity was a rare commodity in Hiranpur and if every component responsible to carry the electricity to our house worked fine then we had a maximum of 150 volts that too only during nights and if God was too merciful then also during day time on weekends to watch Shaktiman and Ramayan, our favourite shows. Well we kind of adulated Shaktiman during that time and when its telecast was shifted from Sunday to Saturday, all hell broke loose. Though Saturday was a half day in our School but Shaktiman started just after the last bell so we had to run all the way down to home galloping at our full speed as we could not afford to miss anything. Ramayan was our second favourite soap and there was a special arrangement made in the guest room on Sundays as many people from the neighbourhood came to see it because we had a colour TV that was not a common thing in those days and not to mention I was very proud of it. The TV was set up in the bedroom in way such that anyone can have a clear view sitting in the guest room or let’s say from the part lying in the vicinity of the bedroom- guestroom common door. This arrangement was also beneficial for us as sometimes when something good was coming up on TV and we were compelled to study, we would sneak to the door when Dad was not watching us.
Kalyan Ji was two years older than me theoretically but practically he was just like me, same height and same structure. The only factor discriminating us was colour, me being fairer. This look alike (physically obviously) outcome never benefited us. Every goddamn dress was bought in pairs and we were mocked by our neighbours. If not in pair then if my brother’s shirt is light blue, mine would be dark blue that’s it. I seriously never understood the concept of buying in pair thesis may be it was the bargain they got for buying in pairs. I happened to be at one of the conversations between mom and a shopkeeper and this is what I recall.
“Ek ka kitna Bhaiya?” How much for one? Mom asked picking up a shirt.
“125 madam.” Shopkeeper replied sycophantically.
“200 lo aur do piece de do.” How about two for 200.
Now you be the judge. Though this bargain worked I don’t think the shopkeeper would have said anything if she had picked two different ones in the same price range. Our dressing was only like a side salad, main course of our problem during those days was our height. Both of us were the ones standing front in the assembly line and from my experience no one likes to be the first one, be it in a VIVA, be it in the roll number, be it in the Roadies task or be it standing first in the assembly line.
Besides all our little problems, life in Hiranpur was bliss but this chapter of our life was soon going to get over as Dad got his transfer letter and we had to move to Patna, the capital city. All of us were excited and at the same time none of us wanted to leave this place, this house even though it was a rented one but we never felt it wasn’t our house. The house in which we three spent our early childhood and learnt so many basic concepts of life and it was soon going to be over and left behind. I remember the slate and pencil on which I traced and retraced a b c d and ka, kha, ga, gha with Dad holding my hand and walking me through the alphabets. When I was three, I used to memorize what Manisha and Kalyan Ji was taught by the tuition master and some days after hearing Dad’s siren I started reciting the whole thing even holding an inverted book. That was the hold of Dad over us.