There’s a Carnival Today

By Indra Bahadur Rai

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Gleaming black from the rains, the Cart Road knocks against many cliffs, bluffs and sloping hills, joining Lebong, that flat patch of land in the north, to dusty, clangourous Silgadi bazaar. Cart Road. This artery that makes life flow through the mountain districts. Landslides tug at it for four months in the monsoon; its mud top tumbles and it is buried; ancient sal trees lay their bodies across the road in an act of civil disobedience. The mountain-dwellers then set out to fulfill their duty, securing the walls, clearing the soil, hacking off the male pride of the trees. Countless ox-carts, train trolleys, Jeeps, buses, cars and trucks are this road’s daily passengers. A train vanishes at each turn in the forested density of Sukna, playing hide-and-seek, like an unsightly lover, with a Jeep. The Jeep leaves it behind and speeds on, as though it were the truth of the world. When, trailing behind at a feeble pace, and pausing, the train climbs the Bataase hill and can’t see “him”, she emits a deep, smoky exhalation, shrieks, soaks the ground with hot tears. It must be masculine pity that compels the Jeep—which, like a bumblebee, goes anywhere—to love the train, a woman who must follow a fixed route. When, at some point, the two are able to meet as in the aligning of two planets, a truck transporting loads of coal, potatoes, tin and cigarettes views them with a split personality—one eye blazing red with desire, the other soulless with fear.

With a honk of warning, the truck descends from the road carved into the chest of Giddhe Pahara. Seen from above, the truck looks like a burgeoning emotive life-force as it speeds single-mindedly through the endless, lonely turns below Kharsang. During the monsoon months of Asar and Saun, the fogs eradicate the division between night and day from Panchan to Ghoom, evoking the earth’s ancient past. The driver must wipe away the trickles of moisture that form on the window, and ascend each slope with supreme patience. The truck is the labourer of society; it is half of its driver’s soul. For its owner, it is a small factory that earns him a living. The truck has no home, nor has it a place to rest and close its eyes. It spends the night on the roadside, occasionally sheltering in someone’s courtyard. A single tent guards its life on a dark, terrifying night of slanting rain. Tomorrow, once again, it must sustain society and civilization by transporting a one-ton load one hundred kilometres away. Each paisa multiplies tenfold every time each of the truck’s four wheels turn, touching the ground. It is a slave bought for ten thousand.

The red truck approaching Kagjhoda, No. 3761, is Janak’s.

“If you don’t sell it, it’ll provide for you,” Janak’s father had told him. The old man had just bought a car that year, an Austin of an old model that seated four people. The car used to ply between the bazaar and Ghoom.

The old man had a teashop near the train station. Janak’s mother would sit in that shop with potatoes, boiled soybeans, beaten rice, sweet puffed-rice balls, buns and paan. Drivers would come there at nighttime to drink. They played cards. The old man would collect money to keep the lights on.

Massive brawls would erupt from time to time; the drivers would end up in blows—some would go to the hospital with cracked heads, or to the police station for doing the cracking. “My house isn’t for hooking in gamblers, no more cards from today!” the old man would fume. The card games would resume gradually, four or five days later. The old woman held on tightly to money. Other than the flat gold jewellery on her ears, the old couple made no display of their wealth.

When Janak passed the matriculation exam, many people offered to help enlist him as a constable in the police department, but the old man shook his head in refusal. The British bank manager had raised the hope of finding work right here—he’d already told him, in broken Hindi, “We see, achha!” Dressed in a red felt cap and a white shirt done all the way up with hooked buttons, the old man would boast, “It’s because of what the Sahib said that Janak is studying in Calcutta.”

Janak received news of his father’s death in Calcutta, in his second year of studying banking. The colleges had been closed, since the day before, to celebrate CV Raman’s Nobel Prize victory. Janak put off a plan to visit Dandi, the site of Gandhi’s Salt March, and returned to Darjeeling to support his grieving mother. Her composed bearing and serene countenance took him aback.

The Ghewa-Sange mourning rituals took place. After everyone, including the lamas, had left, Janak’s mother called him over and said, “How many more months of study do you have? Even as he died, your father told me to educate you, he said: Make that one pass, do so for certain… So go, go and pass quickly, and come back. There’s so much work to do after that…”

Upon saying this, his mother wept that night, when no one else was at home.

Janak couldn’t even recognize his mother when he returned home eight months later. Thin, sickly, elderly. What had happened to her girth? It alarmed Janak. But there was the same serenity on her face. She sat at her accustomed spot in the teashop till Sita arrived.

Now, after accounting for every last paisa at the bank, Janak would come home exhausted at seven or eight in the evening, yet he would still tell his mother about the commotion and uproar taking place outside.

Draped in a chequered red Highlander shawl, his mother would say, “How could the British ever quit a Raj so grand? That’s just people talking. Would they really quit a Raj that they made their own through so much warfare, intelligence and effort, just because people demand it? The British made all these cities, roads, buildings; how could they just stop caring and leave?”

Displaying great tenderness towards his mother, Janak would try to explain. “Our country is our home. You tell me, Aama, what would you do if a thief were to enter our home?”

“Me? What would I do? You’re the one who wouldn’t beat him up and chase him away: what could I do?”

“No, you mustn’t beat anyone, Aama. Non-violence…” Janak would tell his mother about Gandhi. “You must have faith in humanity and love everyone, even a foe, understand, Aama? You must lovingly conduct a satyagraha and make him realize his mistake. Do you know, Aama, that demands grounded in the truth have the power to bring about a complete transformation in the heart of a guilty man? And even if by chance he becomes harsher or more oppressive or cruel, we must observe the vow of civil disobedience, and not be enraged or seek revenge. Do you understand now, Aama?”

“I don’t understand. I don’t understand a thing.”

One day, fifteen or sixteen summers later, after a huge struggle, India became independent. Its liberated moments began ticking away from midnight onwards, when half the world was hushed and asleep. Millions of joyful banners were going to flutter from each house all over India the following day.

“Janak, is our country really free, then?”

“That’s what they say.” Janak had changed.

“Thank the Lord! My life has proven meaningful,” his mother said.

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