|Publisher:||Owen, Peter Limited|
|Edition description:||New Edition|
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The Weary Generations
By Abdullah Hussein
Peter Owen PublishersCopyright © 1963 Abdullah Hussein
All rights reserved.
A man on horseback, holding aloft a leaking jar of honey in his hand, had staked out a large tract of land and laid claim to it. In the middle of this expanse he, Roshan Ali Khan, had founded a village and called it Roshan Pur after himself. In all these years, the village had not grown beyond a hundred dwellings, the houses leaning, as if for mutual support, against each other, sharing walls and roofs of grey, uneven mud dug out of the earth. Narrow dirt paths led to the village from several directions, criss-crossing each other at unnatural angles, formed not by deliberate effort but as a result of the natural course of journeys undertaken by the villagers each day between the houses and the land they tilled. A stranger travelling on these paths would often get confused and, bypassing his destination altogether, end up in the wrong village. But the inhabitants of the 'wrong village', long used to errant travellers, would cheerfully offer him a pot of lassi and a cot to rest his weary back on before putting him back on the right track. Most of the time the paths lay quietly baking under the harsh sun, their belligerence showing only when an ikka or a bullock-cart passed over them, its wheels crushing the earth, which billowed upwards in the form of a dust cloud that hung forever in the still air, stinging the faces and eyes of men and women like hot needles.
Prior to the laying of the railway line that connected the town of Rani Pur to Delhi on one side and cities to the north on the other in the late sixties, years before even the 'Mutiny' that took place in 1857, it was already a crossroads for travellers in these parts thanks to the location it occupied right on the main road, the ancient, wide dirt track that ran for hundreds of miles from the south to the north of the country. Many paths, of different widths and angularity, proceeded from the town, leading to the two hundred outlying villages in the surrounding country. Taking one of these paths, you rode out, or walked, westwards to Roshan Pur. Outside each village that lay on the way, you met with dogs. Regarding every passer-by as an invader, the dogs, ill-fed and ill-tempered, stirred from their slumber and, keeping their distance, uttered barks of terrible ferocity. Some among the travellers would stop and bark back or throw stones at them, making the beasts all the more persistent in their vociferous attack, while others who knew the habits of these animals and wished not to be diverted into erring on the muddled paths ignored the dogs and passed by. Travelling thus for full fourteen miles, you reached Roshan Pur unharmed, although not uncovered by layers of thin dust from head to foot. The population of the village was divided into two communities of roughly equal size: the Muslims and the Sikhs. For purposes of land administration and taxes the village was part of UP, short for the United Provinces, although its actual location was a matter of dispute and folklore. Harnam Singh, head of the Sikhs, claimed that the village in fact lay within the bounds of the province of the Punjab, while Ahmed Din, the oldest resident and chief of the Muslims, maintained that it was indeed part of UP. It was a topic of ongoing argument, frequently contested by the two sides in the village chopal, more by way of passing time of an evening than as a point of principle. It may, however, be safely assumed that the settlement lay at some undefined spot on the very border of the two provinces.
No more than sixty years having passed since the settlement, and thirty from the time the canal was dug that now irrigated the lands, the old men who came to till the lands as young lads were still alive. Their sons and grandsons now working the land, as share-croppers or farm labourers just as their fathers had done, for Roshan Ali Khan, the owner, known simply as 'Roshan Agha', a title he had inherited from his late father, the original Roshan Ali Khan I. Roshan Agha lived in a large house in Delhi and seldom visited the village. The story of the beginnings of the village was thus young and still fresh in the memory of the first tillers of the wilderness. The account of it heard from the mouth of Ahmed Din was accepted by all as true. It went like this: at the time of the 'Mutiny', one Roshan Ali was a clerk in the District Collector's office in Rohtak. Being 'Middle Pass', he was considered an educated member of his small community. He lived in an inner mohalla of the old city with his mother, a wife and infant son. As the armed Indian troops rose up against their British officers, the population was seized by a sense of terror. People gathered in their mohallas, keeping their ears pricked all day for rumours coming from the direction of the cantonment. In the evening of that day, Roshan Ali was returning from the street next to his after a visit of condolence to the family of a friend who had been killed in an accident. As he emerged from the house of the deceased, Roshan Ali saw a dark figure running up the street. Suddenly, it stumbled and fell. Roshan Ali went up to look. Night had fallen and all that he could make out was that it was a man who had wrapped himself up in a blanket. Thinking that it was some poor creature come to the end of his tether, Roshan Ali, a strong man of thirty, gathered up the fellow in his arms, flung him on his shoulder and carried him home. As he lowered the man on to a bed, Roshan Ali saw that it was a fair-haired white man in a British officer's uniform, a revolver in its holster tied to his belt at the waist and his uniform soaked in blood. Roshan Ali's own clothes, he now saw, were spattered with spots of blood. His mother and wife started weeping. Roshan Ali bade them to be silent and give him help in tending to the wounded man. The women handed him towels and brought tubfulls of water and clean clothes, but beyond that they would do nothing for the 'farangi'. Indeed they would not show their bare faces near the man, covering themselves with thick cloth with only the eyes showing through slits, although the sick man was unconscious. Roshan Ali had to remove the man's uniform, clean the long breast wound inflicted with a sharp object, although luckily not too deep, and wrap a sheet of cotton tightly round his chest to stop the bleeding, all on his own. Then he dressed the man in his own suit of white cotton shalwar-kameez. After he was finished, Roshan Ali covered the log-like but still breathing body with a fresh blanket and slipped the revolver under the pillow. He had hardly had the time to change his own clothes and hide them, along with the uniform of the white man, who had not gained consciousness, in a large trunk under many old clothes before Roshan Ali heard a commotion out in the street, followed quickly by a fierce knocking at his door.
What he saw through a crack in a side window made Roshan Ali's blood run cold. There were a dozen Indian sipahis, armed with rifles and daggers. One of them, who was holding a hurricane lantern in his hand, was pointing to the trail of blood that led to the house. The soldiers were talking of breaking the door down. Roshan Ali could not find the energy even to go and put objects against the door to stop it opening. He stood transfixed, knowing the futility of such efforts in the face of twelve murderous soldiers. At that moment, five men, the oldest in the street – two Muslim, two Hindu and a Sikh – appeared out of their houses and cautiously, fearfully approached the mob, coming within talking distance just as rifle butts began to fall on Roshan Ali's door. The soldiers stopped. What they told the old men was this: a farangi officer had broken out of the mutineers' lines and, shooting down four Indian sipahis and suffering a sword wound in return, had managed to escape. He was pursued, and the trail of blood from his wound entered this house. If the farangi officer was not handed over to them, said the soldiers, they would break the door down and set fire to the house. The elders, fearing that the whole street would go up in flames, took their heavy turbans off their heads and, placing them at the angry soldiers' feet, begged them to stay their hands while they tried to get the culprit out of the house.
From this point on, the story line got snarled; rather, it grew into several different strands. One version was that Roshan Ali, brave man that he was, stood his ground and said he would rather lay down his life than betray a man who had taken refuge in his house; another that Roshan Ali had dug a hole in the ground of the small courtyard in the back of the house while the negotiations were going on outside and 'buried' the wounded man in it by covering him loosely with bricks from the courtyard, upon which the door of the house was opened and the soldiers failed to find their quarry. Yet a third version, perhaps the least credible, told how Roshan Ali flung the unconscious white officer on his shoulder once again, took the revolver in his hand and, shooting ahead of him, fought his way out to the safety of the cantonment with his charge. All versions sought, however, to reinforce Roshan Ali's virtue and provide anew a focus that would take the story forward.
For it so happened that the young British officer was a member of the English aristocracy with 'high connections'. His rescue thus earned the gratitude of the viceroy, who summoned Roshan Ali to present himself at the Delhi darbar and, in a befitting ceremony, bestowed upon him a khil'at that bore the title of 'Roshan Agha', in addition to granting him the right to go and round up as much uncultivated land as he could manage inside of seventy-two hours anywhere in the country. To the question of why and how Roshan Agha came to pick this particular spot for his land, miles away from anywhere and many more from his native town, the teller of the tale had no definite answer. So he hummed and hawed and quickly went over to the more intriguing episode of how Roshan Ali, single-handed and without any material resources, went about setting bounds to the territory he claimed. According to Ahmed Din, he gave his full attention to the problem for many hours before settling on a plan. All he needed was a horse, a large metal jar with a pinhole in its bottom and the purest honey he could find to fill the jar. The problem of money arose. What with his trip to the darbar in Delhi and fancy clothes to be bought for the occasion, Roshan Ali was left with little money for the purpose of putting his plan into action. He had to borrow the money from a colleague of his, a neighbour and good friend, for the horse, the utensil and the substance. Thus equipped, he started off. Holding the jar aloft, transferring it from hand to hand as the arms got tired, Roshan Ali rode for sixty hours, day and night, stopping off only three times during this period for a bite to eat from his bag and a few minutes' rest. That was all that the horse and the rider could do before the two of them got too exhausted to go on. But enough had been accomplished. The honey, leaking drop by drop through the tiny hole, had attracted ants and other insects of all kinds and sizes wherever it fell. Millions of these creatures not only outlined the surface of the earth, but most of them could not free themselves from the dense stickiness of honey and died there, forming fixed borders to Roshan Ali's land. Roshan Ali had become Nawab Roshan Agha not just in name but in substance as well.
Regardless of the implausibilities of the story, it was considered of no consequence to doubt the veracity of the story, for there was the solid evidence of a landmass of ten thousand acres, now irrigated by the cutting of a canal from the river and covered with living crops, sustaining some hundreds of human and animal lives for all to see. Roshan Agha built himself a brick house in the middle, leaving fifty yards of ground on each side where he planted a garden of mango and citrus trees and banks of scented flowers, in a perfect circle all the way round. It was to be called 'Gol Bagh' – the round garden. Beyond the tall garden hedges grew the village on all sides, except for a path on one side that cut through the mud houses to the brick house. Some years later, when the income from the produce of the vast landholding began to materialize, Roshan Agha also built, over many years and at much expense, a grand house in the best part of Delhi and named it 'Roshan Mahal', although he never lived there for any length of time, visiting it for increasingly brief periods before returning to his beloved garden.
Roshan Ali, being 'Middle Pass', was an educated man in his time and much valued the acquisition of education. He sent his only son, a bright boy, to good schools with private tutors, also briefly to England, although the boy was never to acquire any higher qualifications there except for a facility in spoken English and polite manners. Upon his return, however, the son committed an act of impropriety so serious, that is, he independently married a woman of unsuitable character and class, that the displeased father banished him from his ancestral home in Roshan Pur. Thenceforth the son, Nawab Ghulam Mohyyeddin Khan, made Roshan Mahal his permanent home in Delhi. Roshan Agha did not see his son until the very last few weeks of his life when he was persuaded to forgive his son and accompany him to Delhi for medical treatment. His son's unsuitable wife had died a few years after the marriage but not before giving birth to a son and a daughter. The arrival of grandchildren greatly pleased Roshan Agha and was said to be the reason for his forgiving his son at the end of his life. The dead wife's widowed sister was invited to Roshan Mahal to look after the two small children. As Nawab Ghulam Mohyyeddin never remarried, his sister-in-law eventually took permanent residence at Roshan Mahal.
The only other brick house in Roshan Pur was located at one corner of the village and belonged to the family of the Mughals. The story of the Mughals, again from Ahmed Din's mouth, went thus: Mirza Mohammad Beg was the man from whom Roshan Ali borrowed money to buy the horse he took to round up the land. As Roshan Ali's transformation into Roshan Agha, with all the attendant riches, took place, he did not forget his old friend and benefactor. Roshan Agha transferred five hundred acres out of his ownership to Mirza Mohammad Beg by legal deed, invited him to come and live in Roshan Pur, built him a pukka house, although smaller than his own, at his own expense and told him to get on with cultivating the land. Mirza Mohammad Beg came from a long line of Mughals whose ancestors came to India with the first Mughal warriors from the north ten generations back, and he had the noble features of pure northern blood about him. Rumour had it that Roshan Agha was greatly enamoured of the unmatched beauty of his friend's wife and that it was this that had impelled him to show such largesse to Mohammad Beg; and even that Mohammad Beg's eldest son was the product of this attraction that had translated itself into a liaison in due course of time. But the very nature of rumour is wild, stretching itself to say even that Roshan Agha's only child, Ghulam Mohyyeddin Khan, who had pale grey eyes and a fair complexion, had come to be as a result of a tryst between Roshan Agha's beautiful wife and the very same Captain Johnson, later Colonel, whose life was saved by Roshan Agha and who became firm friends with his benefactor, coming to visit and stay, from as far as England, in Roshan Pur, the two going together to hunt wild boar and stag, the white man returning on occasion at odd hours, at times alone to the house, etc. etc. In the absence of solid evidence, however, what price mere rumour! No one, in the event, gave much thought to such gossip, except, in the dark and desolate corners of privacy, to lend some colour to dreary lives.
Mirza Mohammad Beg was a hard-working man and had an interest in metalwork. Besides agriculture, he also started a little workshop, where he was later to make all the tools used in working the land. He was not even forty years of age when bad luck befell him. After a brief illness, Mirza Mohammad Beg died, leaving behind wife and two sons. The eldest, Niaz Beg, grew to be a strong and handsome young man under the tutelage of Roshan Agha, living a comfortable life on the lands. He had inherited his father's love of working with metal objects and spent much time in the workshop Mohammad Beg had built. His mother married him off to a good-looking girl from a Mughal family she had known from her old town of Rohtak. There was no issue until, fifteen years after the marriage was consummated, a son was born. It was said that the old woman, Mohammad Beg's widow, was seized with such overwhelming joy at the birth of a grandson that she died on the spot. With the removal of his mother's iron hand, Niaz Beg felt free to take a second wife, a girl from a lower class and much younger than himself.
Excerpted from The Weary Generations by Abdullah Hussein. Copyright © 1963 Abdullah Hussein. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
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