Nalin Verma is a veteran Indian journalist, media educator and author. Nalin has written The Greatest Folk Tales of Bihar, a book of Indian folk tales and Gopalganj to Raisina-My Political Journey, memoir of Indian leader, Lalu Prasad Yadav.
My sweetheart was in my arms offering me to kiss her hibiscus blossom like lips. She had come to me after fifteen years when I had met her. The phone rang breaking my sleep. The shrill note had robbed me off my cherished longing to kiss her, leaving me viciously upset. “Hello my friend! Good morning. Let us have coffee together”, I heard Annabel telling me in phone from the other end. She had spoken softy but I was in foul mood. Had it been someone else I would have screamed at her. But Annabel was a friend from England and was researching on Amrapali— the legendry courtesan of Vaishali-- the first republic of the world. Annabel had engaged me to guide her with her project and we had travelled from Delhi to Vaishali in Indian state of Bihar. We had stayed in a motel. The motel had red bougainvilleas blooming on the walls in front of it and water lilies smiling in a small pond in the backyard. The balmy breeze coming from the river Ganga--a kilometre in south—had cooled the ambience. Perhaps, the sylvan surroundings around the motel, located in the tranquil landscape away from the hullabaloo of the cities—Patna across the Ganga in South and Hajipur along it in the East—had lured Annabel to stay at the facility. It was quite normal for the researcher to fall for the place. For my own personal reason I was against staying there. She prevailed upon me citing its apt setting and necessary comfort to do the work. It was, by all accounts, the best location for the purpose she had travelled that far for. I had no solid reason to back my objection. With heavy heart I had stayed at that motel. The manager had allotted us two separate rooms on the first floor. The venue haunted me. It had come up on my shattered dreams. The emergence of the motel had snapped my link with my sweetheart forever and I hated the place. Had I known that it would attract Annabel, I would not have come with her. The six fit well carved and glossy marble statue of Amrapali ornately put up in front of the motel had attracted Annabel when we were driving on the highway. She had got down staying there. I had said, “We should stay in Patna and travel to Vaishali to visit Amrapali related archaeological sites as planned earlier”. Annabel countered, “But why? We can travel to the ruins where the sage Gautam Buddha got the eternally beautiful Amrapali in his order from here more easily. The best preserved pillar of Asoka—the Magadha king and Buddhist—is also close by. Its location is apt for our work”. Annabel had painstakingly collected materials on Amrapali by visiting the archives in Delhi and London. She had come to visit the place related to her project. She was driven by the ambition to throw new light on the life of Amrapali and make her mark as a scholar in the study of the legendry courtesan. To me my sweetheart was above Amrapali. She was not a historical figure. She didn’t figure in any literature and couldn’t have been a topic of research. She lived in my heart and I—a failure in life—couldn’t have flaunted my love for her. The beauty of Amrapali had impelled the powerful Magadha king, Bimbisara to invade and ravage Vaishali for her. My sweetheart was no less than her but I was not a Bimbisara. She was a poor gardener’s daughter and I, as an ordinary person, as ordinary can be. I had fallen in love with the gardener’s daughter when I was eighteen years old.
After getting admission at a Patna University’s college, I was allotted a room at its hostel right on the bank of the river Ganga. The hostel had fifty residents but I had Indra and Kamal as my close friends. We had befriended a middle aged boatman—almost forty years old—who ferried us in his skiff in the river. He sang songs to propitiate the river when he worked with his oars. He accepted whatever we offered him for wage. He anchored his boat and joined us lighting bonfire and cooking litti-chokha—baked lump of rounded dough and mashed potato on the sand.
We also had a hermit for our company. We called him as ‘Sanyasi ji’ who lived in a small Shiva temple on the bank near our hostel. He had the bun of his matted hairs on his head and his flowing jet black beards came down to his hairy chest. He was neither young nor old. It was hard to tell his exact age but he appeared to be in his mid thirties. He swam like a flying fish in the river and helped us learn swimming. He had a cow that gave milk and he cooked pudding of milk and jaggery every morning to offer to Lord Shiva and shared with us. What enticed us most was he smoked marijuana in chillum and shared with us. When he inhaled through his feast with chillum tucked in it, red flame leaped up from the top of the pot and cloud of ash colour smoke came out from his lips and nose-holes when he detached it with jerk.
The hermit had rectangular slab and round pestle of stone with which he crushed and pasted cannabis buds and leaves, plucked from the bushes along the river bank. He mixed the paste with jaggery and dissolved the mixture in water and milk in his big brass tumbler which had arch like handle. Indra and Kamal who had joined the college, a year ago had cemented their bond with the hermit and enjoyed smoking marijuana and drinking ‘thandai—solution of cannabis leaves, jaggery and milk. They acquainted me to the hermit and he began loving me. I knew swimming but I had tasted the marijuana and cannabis for the first time. I felt like flying and my thoughts wandering wildly when I smoked marijuana for the first time. Indra and Kamal helped me sleep in my bed. I was normal only when I got up after eight hours or so. “It was your first experience. You will be used to it if you smoke twice or thrice”, the hermit told me next day. He, however, warned, “You should drink thandai and smoke marijuana on holidays. You are a student; you should focus on studies”. I said, “You smoke and drink regularly”. He said, “I am a sanyasi; I have shunned the worldly life. You are a student and I would like you to do well”. The hermit would say similar words to Indra and Kamal. He would tell us the stories about how the Ganga had emerged from the head of Lord Shiva and how Parvati got married to him. He would tell many stories about how the lion which had Parvati riding it, the ox that had Siva riding it, the rat that had his elder son Ganesha riding it, the peacock that had his younger son, Kartikeya riding it and the serpent that Shiva garlanded lived together in a family. He would tell how Shiva drank poison, controlled the monstrous ghosts and demons and drank thandai and smoked marijuana had survived through the ages. He was repository of enchanting stories which we rejoiced listening from him. On a Sunday we boarded the skiff to go for picnic across the river. “I have got wheat flour, potato, salt, dried cow dung cakes and woods. We would light the bonfire and cook food on the sands”, the boatman said, working with his oars in the river.
“We will procure tomato, green chillies and green ginger leaves from the farm fields across the river to spice up our food”, Indra said. My friends were used to picnicking in the river but it was my first experience with them. Indra belonged to a priests’ family whereas Kamal was the son of a judicial officer.
The boatman had chillum with him and Indra and Kamal had marijuana leaves plucked from the bank. “We will stay there all through the sun. We will cook, eat, smoke marijuana and leave the place before the sunset”, the boatman said. It was March—neither too hot nor too cold. The river was calm and pleasant. We reached the northern bank in two hours. The bank opened to vast swathe of plains with the fields of glossy green heart shaped betel leaves, golden wheat and yellow-green mustard and maize plants swaying in the breeze. There were thatched houses and huts at distance. “You are here for the first time. Go out and explore the landscape”, said the boatman. Indra, Kamal and the boatman got busy arranging the fire woods to cook litti-chokha. I walked down the jig-jag lanes capped with mustard, wheat and maize plants. The travel beyond the two fields of tall maize plants and a banana grove took me to a garden full with hibiscus, calendula, red and pink roses, dahlia and marigold blooming majestically. The bougainvillea blossoms and its green creepers had spread on the bamboo sticks that had cordoned off the garden. A young girl with a straw basket coloured in red, green and pink in her hands was moving in the garden. I walked close to the flowers. The basket looked like a blossom. The girl wore ordinary blue top and a white pyjama covering her from neck to ankles. She had a yellow scarf wrapped across the mango shaped mounds on her chest but she was dignified in her movement. She had bumblebees like big dark eyes. Her lips were as fresh as hibiscus blossoms washed by the rain. She had pink cheeks and her shining tresses snaked down to her slender waist.
I stood on the edge of the garden. She pretended not to notice me and was busy plucking calendula and marigold flowers. She looked a little younger to me. She had a few freshly plucked blossoms of hibiscus and dahlia in her basket. She hopped on her nimble feet to catch a dragon fly that had perched on the bougainvillea creepers where I stood. Her smouldering eyes met mine. “Are you looking for flowers? I will give you basket-full of flowers at a rupee”, she said. I said, “I can buy if you give your basket to carry the flowers”. She said, “No! I can’t give you the basket”. “Can you give me the basket if I pay extra money?” “No, the basket is not for sale”. She turned away, sprucing the leaves with a small scissor but I stood there. After a minute, she came back to me with a pink rose blossom, its green twig delicately held between her thumb and index finger. “You can take this flower. If you put it in a water filled bottle, it will not dry till the morning”, she said, stretching out her hands towards to me. I took out a one rupee note from my pocket and offered it to her. “No, I won’t accept money for this. You can take it for free”, she said, kindly. I was tempted to touch her fingers but couldn’t dare to do it. I took the flower and said, “Thank you very much”. “It is not a big thing. You have come from far away. I haven’t seen you around earlier”, she said. “Is it your field? Do you come here every day?” “The field belongs to the landlord. My father has planted flowers on it as a sharecropper. I come here to spruce the plants and pluck a few flowers to sell at the Ambadevi temple”, she said. “I will like to meet you again”, I said. “You can come over here at this time. You will find me”, she said. I was happy that she didn’t spurn me. I didn’t make too much enquiry about her parents for I thought that she might get suspicious about my intentions.
“Thank you very much, I will come again”, I said and gently walked away holding flower twig between my thumb and index finger in front of my eyes. I turned twice to look at her; she also looked at me. “Where did you get this beautiful flower from?” Indra asked when he saw me. “There is a garden at a kilometre from here. The girl who was working in the garden gave me”, I said. “Yes, yes. There is a flower garden beyond two maize fields and a banana grove. I have seen it many times”, Kamal said. “The litti-chokha is ready. We were waiting for you”, the boatman extricating littis from the mound of fire and mopping the ashes on them said. Indra and Kamal had swam and bathed in the clean waters in the Gagna. We together ate litti-chokha in our cupped palms and drank water from the river.
The boatman filled the chillum and lighted it sharing with Indra and Kamal. When he offered it to me I said, “I will take it next time. When I took it last week with the Sanyasi ji, it had tanked me”. “Okay! No problem”, the boatman said, respecting my wish. I kept looking at the rose flower held between my fingers as the boat moved back with the boatman working his oars. The girl had entered in my thought and I felt certain responsibility for her. “She was like a blossom freshly washed by the rains. She gave me flower and offered to meet me again. She was kind to me. I will do something for her”, I thought. Indra and Kamal had dangled their feet in the waters and enjoyed the fishes stroking their skin. Terns and storks were flying up in the sky.
As the skiff reached the midstream, the boatman broke into a song: “O Mother Ganga I Will Make You Offering of Yellow Attire Bless Me Meet My Husband” It was an old folksong in which a woman prayed Mother Ganga to unite her husband with her and promised to worship the river with yellow cloth when her prayer was responded. The boatman didn’t seem to have such a wish; he loved its rhyme that it suited to his way of singing. The burble of the river stream served as music to his dulcet voice.
But I, somehow, felt connected with the song.
I gathered a Coca-Cola bottle from a bush behind our hostel and washed it with clean water; put the twig in it and the blossom perched on its top. I kept it at the table in my room. The mud stuck bottle was lying there for some days. I had not given thought to it. Now, it was a precious thing for me. Under the influence of marijuana, Indra and Kamal had slept in their rooms but I had fixed my graze on the bloom. “Is the blossom more beautiful than the girl’s lips? Are its petals prettier than her fingers?” I mused.
Next Sunday, the superintendent of the hostel offered to take us to the site of the longest road bridge coming up on the Ganga, four kilometres east from our hostel in his car. The Superintendent’s daughter Zara, doing her post graduation in Economics and four years senior to us, was fond of driving. She was friendly to Indra and Kamal who had had introduced me to her. She loved when Indra and Kamal approached her for getting their confusion cleared on certain topics. She relished when the junior students praised her for her knowledge on her face.
We could see the tall pillars of the upcoming bridge from the edge of the river bank near our hostel. Indra, Kamal and I sat in the backseat, Zara in driver’s seat and her father beside her—we reached the site within half an hour.
The site had several trucks and trolleys loaded with iron rods, stone chips, and cement bags. The whir of the stone crushers hit the ears. Hundreds of workers carried muddied materials in oval iron trays on their heads. Dozens of machines were digging the earth and work was going on in full swing. There was a bustling bazaar on the streets beneath the construction site at a little distance. Over with walking in the chaos of the whirring machines and workers, the Professor guided us to the bazaar which had cauliflowers, egg plants, potato, bottle gourds, onion and yellow banana, litchis—special to Hajipur—unripe mangoes and ripe guavas on sale in makeshift huts and carts strewn on the earth. There were black polythene canopied shacks selling thin towels, vests, glass bangles, and lipsticks, talcum powder in round cases of tin and nail paints.
The bazaar had a food outlet selling tea, samosa, loafs and vegetables cooked on charcoal fire. It was roofed with corrugated clay sheets and saccharum munja grass. The Professor guided us in the stall. We sat on the wooden benches and he ordered loafs and curry of cauliflower for us. It was about 1 pm and we were hungry. We got engrossed in eating.
“The food is fresh and tasty”, Zara said. The Professor said, “The Bridge when completed will be the biggest revolution. It will be 5.575 kilometres in length connecting Patna and Hajipur and will serve as the lifeline between north Bihar and South Bihar”. Zara asked, “When will it be completed? I am happy that I can drive our car from Patna to our home in Muazaffarpur. I can’t wait for its completion”. The Professor said, “It will be completed within six months. Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi will inaugurate it. It’s her pet project. The people of the region will never forget her for building the bridge”.
The stall owner who was wearing a greasy vest and pyjama joined the conversation and said, “We have been asked to remove our shops. My village has been acquired for widening the road. If you come next time you may not find my shop. We are destroyed”. I had a gush of pity for the stall owner. Zara, Indra, Kamal too got sympathetic to the vendor serving us food with so much love. A boatman, thin towel on his shoulder, entered the shop and ordered a tea. “We are destroyed. Who will ride our boats, once the bridge comes up? The policemen have asked us to remove our huts and boats from the river bank. I was born on this bank and grew rowing boat which I had learnt from my forefathers. What we will do after the bridge is built”.
Zara asked her father, “What will happen to these vendors and boatmen?”
The Professor said, “These illiterate people are unable to see beyond their nose. The bridge—the biggest development project in post Independent India—will open many scopes of employment and earning. Moreover, the government will rehabilitate them. It’s not that they will be dumped in the river”. The food seller was not convinced.
“Saheb! The policemen are breaking our houses without telling us where we have to go. We have so far not received a penny and are being asked to shut our shops. We have lost our sleep”, he said.
A group of vegetable sellers raised slogans outside the shop and the policemen caned them. “This is the problem in India. The people are backward and illiterate; they create hurdle in development work and there are certain political leaders who encourage anarchy”, the Professor said.
Zara was excited that she would get to drive her car from Patna to Muzaffarpur when the bridge was completed. The Professor said, “Zara! The small hurdles will not stop the bridge. You will drive us together in the car to Muzaffarpur through this bridge in our next trip”.
I was getting bored with all these talks. Indra and Kamal who belonged to Buxar which was connected to Patna with rail and road were not excited about it. They came to the hostel in train or bus and the bridge was of no use to them. I came from Siwan district of north Bihar and the bridge would have made my life easier. I could ride a bus in Siwan which could straightway bring me to Patna through the bridge. But I enjoyed travelling in steamer and boat. I loved seeing the river in flow and dolphins jumping on the surface. The bridge would shorten the travel distance and save time but I didn’t care for time.
Zara discussed about the economics of the bridge with her father sitting by her side as she drove back. We were whispering about smoking chillum and listening to the stories of the Ganga, Shiva, gods and ghosts with the hermit. It was examination time. Indra and Kamal were in the second year and I was in the first year of Intermediate in Science --known as I. Sc in the curriculum. We were supposed to clear all the papers to get promoted. Indra and Kamal were quite studious. In their free time, they smoked chillum but studied hard for the examinations. They were conscious of their grades and marks. I was interested in just passing the examinations. I enjoyed the company of the hermit more. Apart from the stories of Shiva, Parvati, Gods and ghosts, the hermit knew how the lion got to serve as the vehicle of Parvati, how Ganesha and Kartikeya chose rat and peacock to ride on and why lion which was Parvati’s vehicle didn’t eat the ox which was her husband’s vehicle. He knew about all gods, demons and ghosts who participated in the Shiva’s wedding procession at the door of Himanchal—Parvaty’s father. He also knew about Gautam Buddha and his several years of penance to attain enlightenment at Bodhgaya –100 kilometres south of Patna. I loved the sing song manner in which the hermit told the stories.
The examinations were over by May and summer vacation was declared. We planned to go for the boat ride ahead of leaving for our homes. The University would re-open in July—middle of the monsoon when the Ganga was in full flow. It was risky to ride boat in heavy rains and swollen river. During the rainy seasons, the river submerged the fields across it. There was a long wall along its course in our side that protected us from the floods. I was longing to meet the girl. “What should I give her when I meet her?” I thought over and over. I thought of two things: a book with picture of flowers or a colourful umbrella.
A day ahead of going for picnic I discussed with Indra and Kamal about the gift. “I want to buy a gift for the girl who had given me rose”, I said to my friends. Indra smiled and said, “Is she very beautiful? Does she love you?” “I don’t know if she loves me but she is beautiful and I love her”. Kamal said, “We should go to Patna market to buy something worth giving”. Patna market which was at walking distance from us was known as the Piccadilly of India for its shops in fashion wears. They rejected my idea of gifting book or umbrella.
“The umbrella will be of no use to her. It can’t save her against heavy rain or the harsh sun.”, Kamal said. Wiser and more practical Indra said, “What will be the use of the book with picture of flowers for the girl who lives in real flowers? Moreover, a village girl, she might not be reading books”. Kamal suggested that I should by buy a necklace like the one that Zara wears. Indra objected, “Zara wears a costly gold necklace that we can’t afford. If we buy an ordinary necklace it will lose its glaze and look dirty after sometime”. Indra saw a watch shop and said, “We can buy a wrist watch for her. The wrist watch is a useful as well as fashionable. You can make her learn how to read time in the watch if she doesn’t know. It will be cheap and best”.
I liked Indra’s idea and we entered the shop. Indra asked for the complexion of the girl and when I said she was fair and had pink skin in her palm and fingers, he picked up a gold colour dial with black strap. It cost fifty rupees. I had thirty rupees in my pocket. Indra and Kamal contributed ten rupees each and helped me buy the watch that the shopkeeper gave me in a dainty case.
The sun was harsh when the boat proceeded next day. The boatman asked us to dangle our feet in the river and sprinkled water on us. He anchored the boat near a Peepal tree with thick foliage. Indra and Kamal got into their shorts and dived in the river. “You can go to the girl. We will swim for two hours”, Indra said. The boatman got busy arranging the fire woods in the tree shade. “It’s 11 am. You can return in two hours. By that time, litti-chokha will be ready. I will cook litti-chokha and will let Indra and Kamal swim their heart out”, he said.
I climbed up the bank and walked in the vast swathe of undulating sand. The wheat, mustard and maize crops had been harvested but the clusters of wet shrub huts nestling the betel leaves were there on the way to the flower field. The flower garden was two patches of betel leaves and a banana grove away. With a white cap on my head and the wrist watch held in my right hand I took to brisk walking in the prickly fields. Two cowherds, long bamboo batons across their shoulders and untidy turbans in their head escorting a herd of cows and buffalos, crossed my path. “Will she be there in the garden?” I asked to myself, praying Lord Shiva which the hermit worshipped to get me meet her. The garden emerged as I walked beyond the banana grove.
I could see the creepers and flowers but the girl was missing. The garden was still two ploughed fields away and I had my heart in my mouth when I didn’t see her. But she emerged from behind the trunk of oleander tree covered in pink and red blooms of bougainvillea as I walked closure. I sprinted my way to her and felt like hugging the girl wearing a yellow kurta and pink pyjama but I checked my temptation. I hadn’t dared to touch her fingers when I met her last and I was not sure how she would react to my excitement. She came at the two meter tall fence to meet me. “I had seen you but hid myself to surprise you”, she said, with bewitching smile. I had met her after two months but her eyes and lips were as fresh as I had seen them. She appeared willing to talk to me this time. I raised my fist and showed her the watch. “It is for you to wear”, I said stretching my hand beyond the fence to give her. She guided me to cross the fence and escorted me behind the creepers of bougainvillea. She spread green leaves of oleander and hibiscus on the flour and asked me to sit down. She sat down facing me at a meter away and said, “It’s a village. The people don’t like girl and boy talking to each other. That’s why I have brought you in the cover the bushes”. “You are so wise”, I said, looking in her eyes. “Don’t stand up. The cowherds might be grazing cattle beyond banana leaves. We will be in trouble if they see us”, she said. When I gave her the watch, she said, “It is so nice but I don’t know how to tie it in my wrist”. I held her wrist and tied the strap around it; the muscle on it was as soft as wheat dough rounded in milk and honey. I held her wrist in my palm and softy pressed it. She let me keep her hand on my palm and looked lovingly in my face. She had winning eyes. I looked at her without speaking for a minute.
“I too have brought something for you”, she said opening a small wrap in the corner of her scarf. There were three yellow bananas and a bunch of velvety litchis in the wrap. She peeled off the prickly skin from a litchi with her rose petals like fingers and nails and put the soft pulp in my palm. “Eat it, it is sweet and juicy”, she said. “I am coming after two months. Did you bring the fruits every day”, I asked. “I do visit the garden every day and bring the fruits to eat. Visiting the garden, plucking the flowers and sprucing its leaves are my routine work. It’s not that I visited it especially for you but I waited for you. You had told me that you would come again”, she said.
She peeled of another litchi and put it on my palm again. I tried to put it in her mouth with my hand. She blushed and pushed herself back. I didn’t insist further. I peeled off a banana and extended it to her lips. This time she opened her mouth and cut half of the fruit taking it in. I put rest of the banana in my mouth. She smiled and said, “Aap bahut pyara ho (You are so lovely)”. “You are the nicest and the prettiest”, I said. “I presume you are a student and study in the college across the river”, she said. I said, “You are right! I study in the college at Patna”. “You will become a big saheb, one day, and will marry a Memsahib”, she said. “I will marry you. You will be my memsahib. I won’t marry anyone else”, I said in a spontaneous gush of desire for her. “I am a gardener girl. I can tell you everything about the flowers but can’t read and write. How can you marry me?” “You are you my queen. You are beautiful than all the flowers. I love you”, I said. She looked intensely in my face. I could see the stream of tender feelings for me in her eyes. “By the way”, I said, “Tell me about the flowers”. “The portulaca is unique. It blossoms the more the more the sun gets hot. It shrinks when the sun sinks”, she said. I said, “You are no less than portulaca. The sun makes no difference with the glaze on your face. I haven’t seen anyone as beautiful as you”. “If you won’t mind, I will tell you what I like and what I don’t”, she said. “God ahead and tell without any hesitation!” “I am a gardener girl; I sell the flowers in the Amba temple for living. I have to meet the priest every day to give him flowers. I don’t like him because he looks at me as if he will devour me with his eyes. I don’t want to sell the flowers to politicians either. I fear their eyes”. “What do you expect from me?” “I will grow flowers for you and decorate your home but you will never make me sell the followers to that priest and the politicians”. I said, “I won’t let the priest and politicians to cast their shadow on you. You are my loveliest flower and you will do whatever you feel like. My Love! I won’t ask you do anything that you don’t like. I am feeling blessed that you have thought of marrying me”. I was amazed by her knowledge not only of portulaca but many flowers. She knew the behaviour of all the flowers—marigold, dahlia, roses, bougainvillea, jasmine and oleander which were there in the field.
She said, “I have come here for the last time in the season. Tomorrow, my father will clear off the field which will be inundated by the river in the monsoon. He will plant the seeds again in October after the rains go. The flowers will bloom in January/February and I will begin coming here again”. I said, “We too will go home in summer vacation. We will return in July when the monsoon will be in the full swing and the Ganga will be swollen. I will come in January and we will work out on our marriage”. “My father was looking for my groom, this season. But the marriage season is over and he will stop searching it now. I will wait for you”, she said.
I said, “Discuss about me with your father; I will meet him when I come next”. She was perplexed and said, “No, I can’t discuss with my father. He will get angry. I will not show the wrist watch to him either. I will show it to my elder sister who is married and has a baby when she comes next month. I will tell her about you and she will talk to our mother. She understands me”.
I understood that she was interested in me and she would work to facilitate our marriage in her own way. I asked about her village. She raised her index finger showing me a village surrounded by mango, guava, banana groves and bougainvillea and jasmine creepers at some distance. “It is the village of gardeners. All of us have planted flowers at our doors. We have beautiful huts with creepers of bougainvillea and jasmine spread on them. There are butterflies and dragon flies of various hues. The trees have nests of honeybees. You will enjoy the fragrance of flowers and honey at our village”, she said.
She was seated a meter away from me but had placed her palm in my palm. Her palm was like red hibiscus blossom and nails like pink calendula petals.
She said, “It’s already late. My mother might be looking for me”. I expressed the desire to kiss her lips. She blushed but allowed me to touch her cheeks and eyes with my fingers. “Wheat and mustards have been harvested and the fields are bare. You never know! A cowherd can spring up and see us and we will be in trouble”, she said, promising, “I will let you kiss me when you visit next time and we have tall maize crops around. We will go in the thick of the maize field and I will let you kiss me as long as you wish”, she said. She gave me a red marigold blossom and softly pinched my nose with her thumb and index finger. I caressed her lips and cheeks and parted.
While returning I looked back till she disappeared beyond the banana plantation with the basket full with blossoms on her head. She also turned to look at me. The sun was up in the sky and its rays beat down the earth but I felt a cool fragrance caressing me. It was, perhaps, the happiest moment in my life. Indra, Kamal and the boatman welcomed me with litti chokha under the Peepal shade. They were happy that I had met her.
“What is her name?” Indra asked. I was embarrassed because I had not asked her name. “No problem! Call her by the name of Flower Girl”, Indra said.
We ferried back to our hostel. Next day, Kamal and Indra had taken the train to to Buxar and I had boarded a steamer at Mahendru Ghat to cross the Ganga and alight at Pahleja ghat from where I picked up train to reach my native place on the Bihar-Uttar Pradesh borders known as Purvanchal region of India.
--4-- I lived with my grandfather, a fantastic folktale teller and avid newspaper reader at my village. The monsoon had broken out and peasants ploughed muddied field to sow paddy seeds. It rained intermittently and black and gray clouds hovered in the sky. The peasants sang ballads of Allha-Rudal at our door in the evening and grandfather explained to me the story of the heroics of Allah-Rudal—legendry warriors of their time. Our college was to open on July 20 and my grandfather informed me that the bridge on the Ganga—known as Mahatma Gandhi setu-- had gone operational. He had read in the newspapers that the Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi had inaugurated it and I was no longer required to take the train from Siwan to Pahleja Ghat as I could board a bus that would drop me near my hostel. I boarded the bus.
I tried to look towards the bank across our hostel from the window as the bus hit the bridge but it sped past the 5.575 kilometre bridge within five minutes. The river was swollen and water had spread all over on what were the dried fields. I could see the top of some tall trees and roofs of thatched houses that looked like floating in water from the speeding vehicle.
Indra and Kamal who had reached earlier welcomed me at the hostel. The sun had gone down and after lodging my bag in my room, we went to the hermit. The hermit was happy to meet us. We were seeing him after over two months. He shared chillum with us and gave us pudding to eat. The hermit was unique. He didn’t talk to those who avoided him but he was not bitter to anyone. He never bragged or boasted. The hostel superintendent hated him because he thought that by making the students smoke chillum he would spoil them. He scolded us for meeting the hermit but Zara relished teaching Indra and Kamal. Since I lived with them, she couldn’t have ignored me though she was more comfortable with them. One evening Zara invited us for snacks of fried egg plants, potato and tea. Zara told me, “Indra and Kamal have spoiled themselves by smoking chillum with that wretched hermit. You are relatively new to the hostel and you should avoid getting addicted to chillum”.
“Okay, I will keep your advice in my mind”, I said on her face but thought of discussing it with the hermit.
“The Professor and his daughter advice us against keeping your company and smoking chillum”, I said to the hermit. The hermit said, “Keeping my company and smoking chillum are two different issues. You can choose your friends according to your own like and dislike. As a Sanyasi I have good wishes for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you come to me or not. As regards smoking chillum, excess of everything is bad. You are a student and as such you shouldn’t do something that comes in the way of your studies. Yes, there are several herbs and plants in the nature that enliven our mood. It will give you joy if you use them judiciously and it will harm you if you indulge excessively in its pleasure”.
The hermit never spoke anything against anyone. He was egalitarian in his outlook. He always encouraged us. I had scored reasonably well in my language papers but poorly in mathematics. I asked the hermit, “I don’t like solving sums and don’t do well in the subject” The hermit said, “You should pursue what you like. If you enjoy the languages you should focus on it and leave out what you don’t enjoy”. “If I don’t score well in the sums I can fail”. He said, “Never think in terms success and failure. It’s meaningless. Focus on your interests and be honest to yourself. Be happy and leave the rest to Lord Shiva. I became a ‘sanyasi’ when I was eleven years old because I was interested in exploring the meaning of our existence. I do what I want to do and you should do what you want to but we shouldn’t hurt others”. I had no reason to leave the company of the hermit whose words solaced me and he never spoke anything against anyone. Zara and the Professor, one day, took us to Muzaffarpur through the bridge. The four-lane approach road –capped with street lights—had come up on the bazaar we had eaten loafs and cauliflower at and shops of vegetables, bangles, towels, nail paints and talcum powder had vanished. The boats and boatmen were missing. “The bank is cleared off encroachment”, the Professor said. Zara was enjoying her drive.
“The loaf and cauliflower that we ate at the small hut was very tasty”, Indra reminisced. “But it was not clean and hygienic. Zara had pain in her stomach that evening”, the Professor said.
“We will stop at a decent restaurant on the highway across the bridge to have our meal”, Zara said.
All of us were served naan and chicken curry in clean plates by a decently dressed waiter at the restaurant.
“More and more such restaurants will come up on the road with the bridge coming up”, the Professor said, elucidating on the perspective of development. We were more interested in eating the naan and chicken than listening to him. Zara drove us at their bungalow at Muzaffarpur. It was in the middle of the city. Zara’s old grandparents were happy to see her coming in the car for the first time and the Professor introduced us to them. A servant brought tea and snacks for us. Zara took us in the market leaving the Professor to talk to his parents. She made us see a school in which she had studied when she was small.
When we were returning, the Professor said, “By the end of the monsoon, the government will begin work to build a driveway along the river Ganga that will pass through our hostel. The river bank near us will be cleared off the temple, the chillum smoking hermit, huts of boatmen and cowherds for the sixty fit wide driveway that will connect our college with the bridge. Then it will become easier for us to take our car on the bridge and reach Muzaffarpur in less time”. Indra, Kamal and I instantly got upset at the Professor’s prophesy. “What is the need of driveway near our college? Will the boatman who takes us on picnic be driven out? Where will the hermit go if the temple is removed?” Kamal asked. The professor said, “The hermit is a big nuisance. He will have to go. As regards, the boatmen, they have illegally encroached upon the banks. Motor boats will replace the unsafe skiffs that they row in swirling waters. You can ride the motorboats for your picnics. The motorboats will serve you good food and clean drinking water. Nobody will stop you from swimming in the river”.
Zara was happy but none of us liked the Professor’s words.
“We are not interested in the driveway near our hostel. We love the boatman and the hermit. They do us no harm”, Indra said.
Kamal added, “We will chase out the government officials if they come to interfere with the area near our hostel”.
I strongly supported my friends. The professor said, “Don’t think recklessly. You will live in the hostel for two years. The government has the long term development vision. If you impede the government’s work, you will be arrested and lodged in jail. Your career will be spoiled”. Zara dropped us at our hostel and entered in her campus adjacent to it.
“I won’t go to Zara and Professor now. I don’t like them”, I said when we left the car.
“We too will not go to them. They speak against everything we love—Sanyasi ji and boatman”, Indra said.
Kamal said, “The Professor has a car and Zara loves driving. The Professor is selfish; he does everything to please his daughter. They talk all rubbish about Sanyasi ji and the boatman who are so nice to us”.
We lived more with the hermit. The river was swollen and the boatman fished in the river but we avoided riding the boat in the swollen river. The river looked like the sea with the swirling waters leaping and falling in waves. The surface of water met the sky full with black and gray fluff of clouds roaring intermittently at the distance. No landmass was visible.
The monsoon gave way to spring and spring followed the winter. Waters receded and now we could see the bank and landscape across the river. We got the hint of the Professor’s prophesy coming true when the boatman, one day, said that he had been served notice to vacate the area for the driveway to come up along the river. The newspapers of the day also said that the work to build the driveway had begun near the bridge. There was sense of unease among the boatmen settled in makeshift huts near us. The locals feared that the Shiva temple too might be removed. But there was no disquiet on the hermit’s face. He hardly went to the city but, he would swim 200 kilometres along the river course, brass tumbler fastened in his head, to reach Shiva temple in Varanasi on the bank of the Ganga once in a year or whenever he felt like. “The temple might be removed as the government is building driveway”, I said melancholically to the hermit. “It doesn’t matter. I will go to another place along the river course”, he said with usual calmness. His ash smeared forehead glistened above his broad shoulders and flat stomach. He was always calm and composed. We planned to go for picnic on January 1 to celebrate New Year. I was excited to meet the girl who had asked me to come in January. Indra and Kamal knew about my emotion for her. We bought a blue sweater for her.
“It is too cold. We won’t bathe in the river. We will bask in the sun on the bank and cook litti-chokha with the boatman. You can go to meet her in the garden”, Indra said as the boat proceeded. The boatman was tensed. “I don’t know how long I will be able to row the boat. They might evacuate us in a few months”, he said. Kamal said, “Don’t worry. We will try to stall the work. We will organise students to protest against the driveway”.
Indra, Kamal and the boatman sat, basking in the pale sun and I left for the field of flowers to meet my love. I was in for a rude shock. As I crossed the banana grove I saw over twenty workers with spades and baskets filling earth and bricks where the flower garden existed. Five tractors and a truck loaded with rods, bricks and stone chips were lined up on the upcoming road adjacent to where I had met her. I enquired about the flower field and the girl from the workers. They suggested me to speak to ‘Engineer Sahib’ wearing a leather blazer and black pants, and sauntering busily on the site. “Where are the girl and the flower garden?” I asked the man. “Who was that girl? It’s my field. I am converting it into a motel”. “The girl was tall and beautiful. She had the flower garden here”, I said. “My father had given the field to a gardener of the gardeners’ village. The gardeners were evacuated after the village fell in the road. They have gone to some other places”, he said, waving his index finger at the place which the girl had suggested as her place. The men and machines were working at what had lush green groves and flowers. I was devastated. The man came to me speaking softly, “Do you know the name of the girl?” “No”. He said, “It is hard to find her out. Even if you knew her name it would not have helped. The gardeners left the village two months ago. They have gone to other places which we don’t know”. I had lost all hope. Still I begged, “Can you help me locate the girl?” He said, “I did not live at our village. I completed my engineering from IIT, Khadagpur and came back only last month. I am getting a motel built that would fetch better dividends with the bridge on the Ganaga coming up close by. You can see a new road connecting this place with Vaishali is coming up. There is no use of growing flowers and paddy now”.
I was lost in the whir of the machines, dust leaping and workers sinking in and lifting up their spades. To me the men and machines looked like an army of marauders who had cruelly murdered my sweetheart and were gleefully filling earth on her grave. I felt guilty of not asking her name. The bumblebees, the butterflies and the dragon flies had all vanished.
“What are you doing here? Get up”, Indra who held my hairs and pulled me out of the pit said. I didn’t know when I had come near the banana grove and had fallen with my face down in the mud and dust. Indra and Kamal had come searching for me when I had not returned for long. They had assessed the situation and had understood the reason of my despondency. My face was stuck with mud and tears. “Don’t get sad. We know how much you loved her and how hard it is for you to forget her. We will try to locate her for you”, Kamal said. Indra said, “I don’t know if we will ever find her but we will never leave you. Let us meet the hermit. He can suggest some ways”. My friends gathered the sweater lying on the earth. Indra had his eyes numb, inspecting the sweater. Kamal wiped my tears with his handkerchief.
We returned in the boat. “I will arrange a cart to sell vegetables in the city. They won’t let me live at the ghat and row my boat”, the boatman said, looking at the oars as if he was rowing his boat for the last time. He had grown rowing the boat. Pal of sadness was palpable on his face. We had no clue to empathise with the boatman who loved us as much as he loved his own life and family. I kept lying in my bed for two days. Indra and Kamal didn’t come to me. Perhaps, they thought it wise to let me be with my grief. On the third morning, I reached to the hermit who was loading marijuana leaves in the chillum; I had that sweater wrapped around my neck. The hermit was as calm as the river. “Sanyasi ji! I am destroyed. Is there a way I can get my Flower Girl?” I asked. He looked at me, smiling, and said “My boy! You will keep on getting the spells of grief and happiness. This is how the world has been structured. Day follows the night and night follows the day—no spell lasts forever. Your grief too will not last. There will come the moment of happiness”.
“How can my grief go? I can’t forget my Flower Girl?” “At this stage I can’t tell you much but I will pray Lord Shiva to get your love back. Have faith in Shiva”, he said. “Sanyasi ji! I will worship you for whole my life if you get my love back. I will give her this sweater and will never leave her once I meet her”. The boatman with potato, onion, cauliflowers and pumpkins on his cart was going towards the city. The hermit called him and gave him his cow. “Take care of the cow, it will give milk which you and your family members can drink and sell,” the hermit said to the boatman turned vegetable seller. The boatman accepted the cow with gratitude. Then the hermit turned back to me and said, “Don’t keep this sweater. Give it to someone who needs it. If it is not used it will lose its utility”. “But I have kept it for my Flower Girl”, I objected. The hermit said, “My boy! I gave the cow to the boatman because he needs it more than me today. I loved the cow, offered her milk on Lord Shiva and drank it. The omnipotent Shiva and I, a worshiper of Shiva, are capable of getting the milk and cow but the boatman faced with the threat of losing his job and home needs it more. Similarly, your love is not dependent on the gift of your sweater which can be of the use of a needy one. Give it to a needy and leave on us—Shiva and my prayers—to get your love back”.
The hermit suddenly fastened his tumbler in his head and dived into the river in the chill of January and began swimming like a flying fish. Within seconds he disappeared in the streams meandering along the banks dotted with ubiquitous huts and houses.
The suddenness of event left me nonplussed.
Indra came to me patting on my shoulder, “The hermit today left the bank. He won’t return now”. Aghast, I said, “But he said he would pray Lord Shiva to get my love back”. Indra said, “That he will do. He is a Sanyasi. He will do it in his own way which we may not understand”.
I gave the sweater to the boatman’s wife who blessed me profusely.
Fifteen years had rolled by since we had left the college and had shifted Delhi, capital of India. Indra and Kamal were diligent students. Indra had qualified the Indian civil services examinations and was an officer with the foreign affairs’ office of India. Kamal was a brilliant lawyers practicing in the Supreme Court and earning huge money. I was a big failure. My problem was I wrote very long answers. There were five questions of 20 marks each in all the six papers of B.A -History Honours’ examinations. I had a very poor sense of timing. I used to begin writing the answer of first question and kept writing all through the three hours allotted for answering five questions. I used to get twenty marks each in all the six papers. I failed to clear my B.A (Honours) examinations in two attempts. I was a butt of ridicule for teachers and students but Indra and Kamal loved me. Indra had got a bungalow for him in a posh colony of Delhi. Kamal used to drop at his house every evening to chat and have drinks. Indra spared a good room for me and Kamal would buy as good cloths for me as for himself. I had begun writing stories for magazines. The magazines sometimes published my stories and sometime rejected them. I used to receive the cheques of rupees one hundred or two hundreds once in a while. But Indra would collect all my money, calling Kamal and buying booze. “Your money is for the party”, he would say. They took care of my needs—car to go wherever I wanted, cloths to wear and food to eat. His servants and driver honoured me. Kamal would put a wad of currency notes in my pocket telling, “You are as rich as we are. Indra and I earn enough; you are not required to think of money”.
It was about a year ago Indra had got me engaged with Annabel. Annabel was a researcher in Indology. Her husband, Oliver was a senior executive with the British High Commission in Delhi and was Indra’s friend. Annabel and Oliver had a ten years old son, Harry and they were looking for a tutor who could teach Harry Indian languages in English medium. The couple wanted the tutor to teach their son in the manner of telling stories. Indra recommended me and they found me suitable for the job. They paid me two thousand rupees per month for the tuition which was a handsome amount. Annabel, one day, saw my story on Amrapali— a legendary character of Indian history in a London based magazine. Amrapali’s parents were not known. A peasant had found the infant Amrapali in a mango grove and raised her. Amrapali grew as eternal beauty and courtesan of Vaishali—the first republic empire in the ancient world and capital city of the Lichhavi rulers. Amrapali was extraordinarily beautiful and her charm spread far and wide alluring the rich and nobles. The Magadha king, Bimbisara wished to make her as her consort and invaded Vaishali. To save Vaishali from the ravaging Bimbisara, Amrapali became his consort had a son Vimal Kondana with him. When Ajatshatru became the king of Magadha he too invaded and ravaged Vaishali for her but she had rejected him. Because of the quirk of circumstances she was known as ‘nagarbadhu (city courtesan)”. Later, she went to Lord Buddha and joined the Buddhist order. Amrapali for thousands of years has been a huge character of history and Indians have various varieties of mangoes in her name. There are lakhs of shops, restaurants, hotels and villages in her name. The Corporate houses showcase the painting and images of Amrapali to augment their brand value. Having seen my story on Amrapali, Annabel had discovered in me merit to help her with her project. Annabel didn’t know that I had picked up Amrapali in keeping with the demand and style of the magazine that had commissioned me to write the story. No Amrapali or Cinderella could have replaced my Flower Girl in my heart. I guarded my Flower Girl’s memory and sulked for her in my loneliness but didn’t share her with anyone. Indra and Kamal knew about it but they avoided discussing it for fear of touching my raw nerves. I didn’t write on my Flower Girl, she was not the subject for me to earn a few ponds or dollars. The motel had come up long ago and I would see it when I travelled in a bus for my native place once in two or three years. I used to shut my eyes when the bus passed off from that place. Annabel bought air tickets for us and planned to stay in Patna for researching on Amrapali. As per the initial plan, we had to travel to Vaishali in a car via the Mahatma Gandhi Setu, spend time at the related archaeological sites and come back to Patna—a city with better hotels and malls. The Ganga had disappeared and skyscrapers had come up in the river bed along Patna which held no attraction for me now but I had agreed to travel with her to Patna and Vaishali to assist her with her project. However, when we were travelling in Vaishali, Annabel saw the motel and stopped the car. She had overruled my objections and I had reluctantly entered in the motel with her. When we were having our dinner together in the motel’s restaurant, she picked up Amrapali for discussion with me. I was in foul mood and I said, “This motel has come up on the debris of my Flower Girl. My Flower Girl was far more beautiful than Amrapali. I am not interested in discussing Amrapali any longer”. Annabel was flabbergasted and said, “You are talking all nonsense. Who was your Flower Girl? How could she be superior to Amrapali?” I said, “To me Amrapali is nothing before my Flower Girl”. We were down with two pegs of whisky. She said, “I don’t know how you write your stories. You are such a stupid guy. You are talking about someone who is not a historical character. You don’t know even her name. I don’t think you were honest to her, otherwise, you would have known her name”. I lost my cool and got up in huff, leaving Annabel and went to my room. My sweetheart had come in my dream. She was lying in my arms and she said, “I had promised you that I would let you kiss me as long as you wish when I met you last. Kiss me and take me with you. We will never get separated now”, Flower Girl said to me. It was at this stage the phone rang. Soon I heard the knock on my door. I opened the door to find Annabel standing. “Munna! I am very sorry I hurt you. I was under the influence of liquor and I couldn’t fathom the intensity of your love for your sweetheart. We will have coffee together and will discuss your sweetheart. I felt guilty when you left. I am sorry”, she said. Annabel was, actually, not at fault at all. She had done no wrong. I realised it and went to her room to have coffee with her. “We will leave the place today. I won’t insist on staying at the place which has bad memory about your beloved. Take it easy”, Annabel said. I said, “No, Annabel. I too hurt you out of my frustration. I will help you doing your project. My wound is my wound. Why should I vent my pain on you?”Annabel pated on my head and said, “In any case, we will not stay here this evening. I can’t give you your sweetheart back but I won’t hurt you”. After the coffee and breakfast we left the motel for Vaishali—which had a Buddhist shrine and ruins of the place where the peasant had found Amrapali when she was an infant. Annabel went inside the ruins to inspect the site, suggesting me to stay out and interview some people who would speak in Hindi for her project. I saw the hermit who had now black and gray beards on his face. He was wandering in mango grove with the same tumbler with which he had jumped in the river before my eyes; fifteen years ago but his ash smeared forehead was glistening as usual. I spontaneously headed to him. “Munna! Come on. We are meeting after fifteen years. We will have chillum together”, he said, smiling at me. He had recognised me. I went close to him and said, “Sanyasi ji! You had told me that you would pray Lord Shiva and help me meet my beloved”. He lighted the chillum and said, calmly, “Yes! I have got your sweetheart for you”. My eyes sparkled and I said, “Where she is?” The hermit said, “Your sweetheart is Phoolpali. Amrapali was found in Mango orchard. Amra is a Sanskrit word that means mango and Amrapali means the one found in mango grove. You found your sweetheart in flowers. Phool means flowers and, thus, Phoolpali means the one found in flowers”. “But where is she?” I asked restively. The hermit said, “Your Phoolpali is as young and as beautiful as you had found her fifteen years ago. She will remain young and beautiful as long as the world lasts. She will never get old. Today, you saw her. Did you find any change in her? No! She is yours; she will never come to anyone else. And when she comes to you she will make you feel as young as you were when you met her. She will keep on coming to you, my boy. You are right. Your Phoolpali is more beautiful than an Amrapali or a Cinderella. Wish you happy dreams with your Phoolpali”.