1927 | 11,233,916 words
Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....
Some years ago I had occasion to go to Hosalli, a village of great historic interest, miles away from any considerable town. It is now twenty odd miles from the nearest railway station, but then it was a hundred. So completely cut off was it from the greater world of the city that no news of the city would reach the quiet agricultural village before it was at least a fortnight old and nearly forgotten by the city itself. Isolated and self-sufficient was Hosalli. But quiet, peace-loving and hospitable were the people themselves, and they still observed the old world traditions of kindness and courtesy towards strangers.
I was staying with Mr. Banappa, a big farmer, and a very influential man indeed in the village. For did he not represent his village twice a year in some Assembly or other in the capital? And had not the Subedar Sahib (in those days almost a potentate) done Mr. Banappa the honour of attending his son’s wedding and blessing the married pair?
The people of Hosalli were celebrating the birth-day of one of Hosalli’s great sons, one who was supposed to have slain a cruel tyrant in years gone by, and to have saved his village from the ignominy of servile dependence. It was an interesting show, and I, a town-dweller, to whom such shows were novel, watched the proceedings with great curiosity.
A rough wooden platform had been erected in the very centre of the village, under the broad spreading boughs of an ancient banyan tree. A fairly large gathering had been drawn from a couple of neighbouring hamlets by the beating of tom-toms and by official criers, and the whole population of Hosalli, men, women and children, seemed to have gathered there. It was indeed an impressive show, and nearly five hundred people–no mean audience, considering that they had been drawn only from a couple of small hamlets–had assembled under that immense tree to watch the drama of Hosalli’s hero enacted, and they evinced great appreciation of the show, which, of course, had begun an hour later than the scheduled time. The acting, and there was not much of it, was extremely amateurish, full of extravagant gestures and foolish rhodomontade. Added to all this, the plot of the play was most crudely conceived. The man who donned the hero’s garb whirled his tin sword to the general embarrassment of all the other actors crowding on that narrow stage, gesticulated wildly, and yelled hysterically. But despite the crudity, or perhaps because of it, the audience was in raptures over the show, and excitement ran high.
The hero started asking, though he asked nobody in particular,
"What did Bhimla Naika do,
The hero of a hundred fights?"
and the chorus, including a large part of the audience, made answer,
"He slew the wicked Poligar,
He slew the tyrant Poligar."
So it went on for half an hour, like a sort of litany, the hero questioning and the chorus giving answer. There was great excitement during this harangue, the audience rose from their seats and yelled out the chorus. Never did I see such mass hysteria anywhere else. Their passion was at white heat, and they raved like religious fanatics.
But there was one person who was sitting beside me, a withered ancient, who kept quiet during the demonstration, mumbling to himself inaudibly. Only the movement of his thin lips showed that he was mumbling. He alone of the audience seemed not to be moved by the tale of the tyrant and of the saviour of the common people, who rid the country of the tyrant. The old man appeared absent-minded and preoccupied with his own inscrutable thoughts. And suddenly he gave a sharp exclamation of impatience. A more than feverish excitement had surged over the assembly after it had worked itself into a fit of fanatical fury, and the audience rose as one man and cheered the hero ecstatically. The old man beside me was making gurgling noises in his throat in an effort to suppress his impatience, but in vain. For suddenly he spoke, He spoke in a voice of penetrating shrillness:
"Don’t speak of Bhimla Naika, you people! He was a coward!"
I cannot possibly describe the impression the old man’s words created on the assembly. The actors ceased in the middle of a particularly thrilling episode in the hero’s life and stood mute, while the audience instantly froze into a silence that tingled. There was a short lull, and then an authoritative voice broke out:
"Silence! Who cried out just now? Who was it?"
None spoke. Then the same authoritative voice rapped out like a rifle report:
"Who was that man? Turn him out!"
All eyes were now turned on my neighbour who was still mumbling to himself indistinctly and seemed to be supremely unaware that he had created a sensation. An urchin gave answer to that man of authority who was obviously an officer of the village:
"It was the old man, sir. Old Boriah."
"The old man, was it?"
He approached my neighbour, and harshly he asked, "So Bhimla Naika was a coward, was he? And you are the hero? You know a lot about him, don’t you, you old good-for- nothing!"
The old man looked up, and in a quiet voice, as if he was already half ashamed of his sudden outburst, replied, "Yes! My son. I knew him."
All attention was focused on that old man, and there was scorn and contempt, out of all proportion to the occasion, in the village officer’s rejoinder:
"You knew him, you! Why, my poor old grandfather, you could never have dared to approach our great Naika!"
The audience, greatly incensed at the old man’s having interrupted the show with his almost profane remark, joined in derisive laughter at his expense.
"Turn him out. Turn the old fool out," roared a few of the extremists, the left-wingers of the assembly.
But the village authority only said to my neighbour, "You poor old fool, don’t speak like that again. And….do you understand? Our Bhimla was a great man, a very great man, a hero among heroes."
The old man had already subsided, and he only murmured, "Let be, my son, let be."
The show went on as if it had never been interrupted.
I was greatly intrigued by this incident, and I made up my mind that I should know more about the celebrated Bhimla Naika as well as about my old neighbour, who alone, in the midst of numerous admirers of that redoubtable warrior, had dared to call him a coward. Also, he had said he had known the popular hero in the flesh, and if I was lucky enough I might get the information I wanted from him. The old man must have had some peculiar and sufficient reason for hating the hero so much. Perhaps the memory of some great unkindness done him by Bhimla Naika still rankled in the bosom of this all but dead creature.
I asked Mr. Banappa, my host, about the old man Boriah. Mr. Banappa showed surprise at my curiosity in such an un-worthy subject, but, as I insisted, he said, "He is a good-for-nothing, and he is very old. In fact, he is so old that nobody in Hosalli remembers him younger. He must have come here when he was quite old. For, they say, I don’t know how or why, he does not belong to this village."
I talked to him about the man claiming to have known Bhimla in the flesh, but my host seemed not to be interested.
"He might have known Bhimla Naika," he just muttered, "he is old enough to have known him."
His obvious lack of interest did not suit my mood of curiosity, and so I desisted from querying him further.
The next morning, quite accidentally, I found the old man Boriah near the well opposite our cottage, basking himself in the early morning sun which was just warm enough. He was sitting hunched up, his head on his knees and his arms embracing his thin legs round the shins. There was a large dog at his feet. I approached him. He did not seem to notice me even though I was so near him that I could have touched him from where I stood. I had never seen so old a man in all my life. The light of day showed him in all his decay. There was something fearful to me in his extreme decay. It was as if one had been brought face to face with the broken remnants of some remote and obscure past. There is always something profoundly impressive in the last stages of physical decrepitude, that makes one see the littleness altogether of this great human species. The old man seemed the very personification of all decay.
He looked up startled as I touched him lightly on the shoulder to rouse him from his trance-like attitude. Instinctively the dog at his feet, old and starved and toothless, a fitting crony to his master, rose up and barked feebly at me, as if he resented my familiar address to his master.
"You are Boriah, aren’t you? Do you remember me? I sat by your side at the show, you know, last night."
He did not reply, and blinked with his almost sightless eyes as if I had not been questioning him.
"You told us you had met Bhimla Naika, didn’t you? Well, how long ago was that?"
I waited impatiently for his answer, and was about to repeat my questions when he spoke in that hollow voice peculiar to toothless old men:
"Eh? Who told you that I had met Bhimla Naika?"
"Why, you yourself. And do you remember him?"
His answer was surprising: "I wish I could forget."
It was difficult to elicit satisfactory information from him, but the difficulty only whetted my appetite to know more.
"I want to know the true story of Bhimla Naika," I said, "I want to know it from one who knew him alive. Will you tell me?"
"Bhimla Naika?" he pondered. "What do you want to know about him?"
"Everything, please," I said eagerly, "everything you can remember of him."
It took a lot more of persuasion on my part to induce him to give me his first-hand impressions of the great Naika. And then he began in a slow and monotonous voice, which however would get quite vehement and emphatic when any incident in the tale happened to warm up the old fellow. Then his ordinarily even and placid voice became shrill and penetrating, and he would gesticulate feebly with his skinny hands. There were sudden breaks in his narrative, and it frequently took some time to induce him to continue.
"Know then," he began, "that the times of Bhimla were troublous. There was not a single ruler of the land but a score of bloodthirsty tyrants. The reign of the sultans was just then over, and Feringhees had not yet subjugated all the petty chieftains who had cropped up like mushrooms after the sultans’ reign had been brought to an end. They were almost all tyrannical, but there was one Poligar who was the worst of all those devils on earth. No man could be quite safe from him, and no woman either, least of all a beautiful girl. He was rapacious, and lecherous, and he had immense power to do evil. You can imagine the cruel tyranny under which our men groaned but were too impotent to resist. There was the Patel of this village then, and his only daughter was beautiful." Here he paused, and after a few moments continued, "How beautiful she was, and how courageous! There were no women who could compare with her in looks and few men in bravery. Oh, her beauty, none could resist it. None. Such was she."
His voice rose in its shrillness when he thus described her, and a wistful look came over his wrinkled face, as though he were living his dead past in memory and it saddened his heart to know that the greatest blessing the world had to offer him was already in the grave. He must have cared for her, I thought, or even loved her as a man loves but once, for it was while dwelling on her qualities that his tone became impressive, and a spirit of tenderness crept into his voice.
"It was her the Poligar desired for himself. But you must know that he was of a lower caste and it was only the strength of his following and his own arrogance that made him dare suggest the match. It was very much resented, but who could resist the all-powerful? Only Fate. And Bhimla was his Fate. It was he the maid desired for her husband, but her father was weak and timid and dared not consent to the match for fear of that dog Poligar. But he also hesitated to give her to the tyrant, for he feared being an outcast. But what could the feeble old man do? He was caught between his two fears of the Poligar and of his caste. So he dodged the issue for a time, but how long could he do that? The Poligar was incensed at the delay and he planned to raid the village one night and carry away the Patel’s daughter for bride–or worse. This shameful attack was planned secretly and should have succeeded had not secret information reached Bhimla. Such was the people’s admiration for him that he could raise a small army in a single day to resist the intended siege of the village. There was fierce fighting, and though Bhimla killed the Poligar in single combat, his men failed to thrust the invaders. Bhimla’s men were put to flight, and Bhimla himself fled to the hills with a handful of his followers to plan a greater resistance. He had left word with the maid he loved that, though anything might happen, she should have faith in him, for he would raise an army, put the Poligar’s army to flight, and rescue her.
"Though the Poligar was killed, his brother led the charge afterwards, and after the inadequate following of Bhimla had been forced to flee, there was great carnage. The old Patel was put to the sword and the maid who had been the cause of the tyrant’s death was captured. It was first suggested that she should be dealt with the same way as her father. Well for her had it been so, and well too had it been for Bhimla. But the Naik, the Poligar’s brother, thought of a cunning thing. He wanted Bhimla. He wanted to wreak his vengeance on him for the death of the Poligar. So he said! ‘The maid shall be ransomed by her lover; she shall tell me where her lover lies hid, or she shall die.’
"This vile alternative was put to her, but it could not shake her firm resolve. She treated his worst threats with scorn and never divulged Bhimla’s hiding place. No torture could drag that out of her."
He paused for some time, and I could see that he was a prey to the most devastating emotions. His usually sedate and expressionless voice rose to a shrill pitch or sank into a scarcely audible murmur as each different passion swayed him. It was plain that he was moved beyond words while dwelling on this sad part of the story.
"What happened to Bhimla? Did he not come and give himself up to save the girl?
The old man groaned, "Would to God that he had!" and relapsed into a perfect silence.
"Did he never come ?" I asked.
He moaned, "God forgive him, but he came too late."
"Could he not save the maid?"
"She would not save herself. She just did not care to do that, not she, She, she was brave, she was brave."
"Why didn’t Bhimla go earlier? He might have saved her by giving himself up."
There was a short silence and then a whisper that I could hardly catch. "He wanted to save himself. He wanted to live at any cost, that was why. At any cost, even the death of the girl."
"That was why you called him a coward at last night’s show?"
" You are right, you are right. Alas for him, he was a coward."
But that could not convince me. It sounded highly improbable to me that a man, who had been hero enough to oppose the vastly superior forces of the Poligar to save the girl he loved from being ravished, should have feared to give himself up to save the same girl from being killed.
"Why did he behave like that? He had been so brave in fighting the Poligar’s army. What happened afterwards?"
"Who knows? He himself could not have known. How should you know?"
Yes. Who can predict, thought I, exactly how a man will behave in given set of circumstances? Man’s nature is such a bundle of contradictions. But was the old man really conversant with the entire story? Perhaps he had not known Bhimla Naika at all.
"What happened then to Bhimla? Was he caught?"
"No, sir, he escaped. He left his country, and for forty years, f-o-r-t-y y-e-a-r-s, he wandered all over the northern country."
"And–?" I queried anxiously.
"He went , sir."
"Went ? Where? To his native village? Did he come to Hosalli after all? And did the people recognise him?"
"No, no. He was supposed to have been slain by the Poligar’s brother in that very skirmish, though his body was never found. And now when he returned he was so changed in appearance and–"
"Did you meet Bhimla after his return? How long has he been dead? And did he himself tell you the story? You seem to know it so minutely."
"He is not dead, no, he is not dead," was the surprising answer.
"Then where is he?"
"He is here, sir. Here. Right in front of you."
"You? Are you…..are you the great Bhimla Naika then?" He was silent; but, as if in answer to my query, the refrain with the chorus floated down my memory:
‘What did Bhimla Naika do,
The hero of a hundred fights?"
"He slew the wicked Poligar,
He slew the tyrant Poligar,
He freed the angel maid."
I sat there watching him. But soon the old man rose, painfully clutching at his knees with his hands, and hobbled slowly in the direction of the village, closely followed by the dog. I watched his melancholy figure as he walked out of view. I do not remember how long I had been alone in the company of my thoughts, when Mr. Banappa came to me and enquired of me with a smile, "So you have been listening to that old man! Well, what has he been telling you?"
"Nothing interesting," I said, absent-mindedly, "nothing interesting at all. Just some old wives’ tale."
"They are always like that, these old men," Mr. Banappa generalized, "They live, and live on, like banyan trees, and learn nothing. That man, for example, old Boriah, must be a hundred years old, and he might die any moment, but I am sure he has never really lived. Uneventful year after uneventful year has passed him by, and in experience he is still a child. His must have always been such a dull life. Well, those very days were dull. But, nowadays, motor cars and railway trains make life so interesting and truly worth living. The other day, for instance, when I was in the city….."
And whether I liked it not, I was in Mr. Banappa’s little world again.