Episode 2/Chapter 15: What, If Our Dreams Come True!
I was returning from Manimutharu, a small hilly village, after my yet another failed attempt to get in touch with Jhia.
A small crowd had gathered in front of Ambal Cafe, a nondescript restaurant functioning in a small hut, just at the foot of the hills. Seeing the crowd in front of the restaurant, I went nearby. An English man was surrounded by people. He was eating, standing outside the restaurant and trying to get some direction to some place. People looked on curiously when he struggled to eat the spicy food, water flowing down his eyes and nose. He spoke English and no one in the crowd seemed to understand. He waved his hands and gesticulated a lot, as he tried to communicate with people.
I squeezed myself in the crowd and approached the Englishman.
“Is there a problem?” Mine was hardly any English, but the Englishman seemed to be greatly relieved.
“The food here is very spicy. Besides, I was asking for some directions.” The Englishman told me.
“Where do you want to go, Sir?”
Seeing me talking to the stranger in English, the crowd became more silent and slowly dispersed, except for a few who still watched our conversation keenly.
“My name is William Artherton. You may address me as Will. Not Mr. Will, not Mr. William, not William, definitely, not ‘Sir’. Just call me Will. Do you get me?”
I nodded in agreement.
“I just arrived from England a few days back. Do you know Yorkshire?....... I live there. I took a train from Madras to Tirunelveli, changed over to a bus that dropped me at Ambasamudram. I took another bus to Manimutharu. I wanted to go up the hills, but there is no transport.”
“Is there anyone you want to meet specifically?”
“No one particularly! My father had owned some tea estates in these hills, I understand.”
I managed to convince the restaurant owner to prepare some food, especially for him, with little or no spice, and our conversation continued in the meantime, as we waited for the food.
Henry, his father had come to India to work for an English Lord who was part of the administration during the British rule. The English Lord had managed to arrogate to himself large parcels of land up the hills near Ambasamudram, by usurping them from many innocent villagers and developed beautiful tea gardens. However, he was seriously hurt during a hunting expedition in the hills and died while being treated in a hospital. Before his death, he gave away all his properties to Henry for no consideration as a reward for his loyalty and honesty. Henry stayed in those estates till a few years after India was declared Independent and left for his country. Shortly thereafter, he fell seriously ill and died, leaving very little information about the tea estates. William, his son, had now come to India to take control of the estates and explore whether he could sell them and realize money.
“Now you know why I am here. I don’t really know how I should go about, for selling our land,” he confessed.
William was barely in his mid-twenties and appeared innocent.
“Will, I have heard about these places where the tea estates are located. If you so wish, I can go with you to locate those tea estates.”
“It would be a great help. I am really pleased and relieved. I never asked you your name.”
I told him my name. We were nearly the same age and we developed a liking for each other instantly. Besides, he was only too happy to use me for my language skills, though my own knowledge about the places was elementary.
So, I became his local representative and we together managed to identify the tea estate that belonged to his father. He had some documents that were not complete, to establish his ownership of the land and the estate. The situation was very delicate and there were people everywhere, who were ready to cheat.
While we were making several trips between the hills and the plains, we chanced upon Jhia one day. At Manimutharu, up the hills, there was a beautiful waterfall - not much crowded - and we took a bath there. It was a warm day and William enjoyed the cool waters. All of a sudden, we heard someone shouting for help. Someone had slipped into the water in front of the waterfalls and the place was feared to be almost a hundred feet deep. While William and I looked on helplessly, like many others, we suddenly heard the sound of someone jumping and diving into the deep waters. That someone was a young girl and she fearlessly went under the waters, caught hold of the long hair of the drowning lady, pulled her out of the water with all her might, slowly lifted her and placed her on the flat rocky stones on the other side. Everyone immediately rushed to offer further help and this young girl silently walked away while no one seemed to be noticing.
Could it be Jhia? It just struck me and I went after her.
I found Jhia and quickly I introduced myself. She was very reluctant to speak, but finally gave in. I heard from her own mouth, her story about the flash floods in which she lost everyone in her family. While she took the loss dispassionately, she virtually lost all interest in life and she had been wandering around. She had grown up now and more mature. We managed to persuade her to come with us.
In between, I also met a number of other victims of the flash floods in the hills and every story was equally horrific. But, Easwaran was the only one to repeatedly pray to his Mother to send someone who would build a dam across the rivers to prevent future floods.
One day, a young political leader Devendran from near Madurai visited Ambasamudram area. He was credited to be a dynamic and compassionate leader without any formal education, but predicted to be a powerful future leader.
Rathnam, the former jamindar, his village chief Pazhani, Easwaran, the former priest at the temple, Sudalai, the cremation ground in-charge, Lakshmana Iyer, Ambalam, at Ambasamudram temple and I had all become quite close to each other in our last few months of association. We decided to meet Devendran and put forth our request to press the government to build dams across the wild rivers up the hills in Tamirabarani region.
William joined our team, out of curiosity and accompanied us for our meeting with Devendran. We had to wait for long hours, as many other important people from the town were all there to meet him for various other reasons. When we finally met him, Devendran had already been very tired and he promised to meet us when he visited the place next time. We all came out of the meeting very disappointed.
In between, William’s efforts to find buyers for the tea estate got stuck with documents. Those who were willing to buy the estate were quoting rock-bottom prices, knowing that William didn’t possess all the ownership papers. William was getting frustrated.
Jhia turned out to be a quick learner and Lakshmana Iyer trained her very well in a number of Gurukulam activities. She also learntcooking and helped the kitchen in Gurukulam. Easwaran was slowly getting out of his melancholy, thanks to the very powerful and persuasive discourse on ‘karma’ by Lakshmana Iyer. Easwaran was also quickly rehabilitated in the temple as the chief priest. The local villagers were very pleased to have him back in the temple. Lakshmana Iyer helped Rathnam too, by bringing him in touch with ground reality and convinced him that it was possible for him to rise again like a phoenix bird. Rathnam proceeded legally against Shailesh Babu, the money lender for cheating him with high interest rates and for forcing him to part with his assets at incredibly low prices and he was busy with court cases, though he had very little hope that he would get back any of his assets.
William became a very good friend of everyone and he began learning Tamil, while everyone else picked up a lot of English from him.
Though I was the youngest, they looked to me as the group leader and I seemed to have earned their complete trust. They all consulted me in all sundry matters and I in turn, got help from Lord Siva who acted as my inner voice. I seemed to be getting spontaneous solutions to problems and we were all enjoying each other’s company and mutual help.
Something was telling me that our group had come together to achieve a great feat.
After a few months, one fine morning, I was summoned by Devendran to Madurai. William, who completely identified himself with our group, wanted to join me in my trip to Madurai. We huddled in a meeting, trying to guess the purpose of the call from Devendran.
‘Did he get approval from the government to build dams in our place?’ The question was uppermost in everybody’s mind.
With much speculation, all of us went to Madurai, though it was agreed that only I will go if it came to a private meeting with Devendran and that others would be available for any consultation, if needed.
When I entered the small room where Devendran stayed in one of his political associate’s residences, he asked me, ‘Where is your Englishman friend?’ So, William too joined the meeting. Devendran talked atlength about the British imperialism and the kind of oppressions Indians had when they were ruled by the British. I acted as an interpreter between Devendran and William.
‘Do you feel offended by my remarks on British ruling our country?’ asked Devendran. William remained silent, trying to decide his response.
‘Luckily, it was the British who ruled India. They were still humane and compassionate, being a democratic country themselves. Had it been the Nazis of Germany or the Communists of Russia, we might have never seen freedom,’ continued Devendran in a pacifying tone.
I was becoming restless at the way our conversation went on, unrelated to the purpose of our visit.
Finally turning to me, Devendran said, ‘Sorry, I haven’t touched upon the purpose of calling you here and I had digressed to other emotional topics ……. Last time, when you met me, you people wanted the government to build dams across some of the tributaries of Tamirabaraani. I had been pursuing this agenda with the government for quite some time. I learn that the government in all earnestness wants to do this. But their hands are full with several developmental projects, industrialization, developing core sector heavy industries in the public sector, generation of electricity, public distribution of essential foods, poverty alleviation and a host of other items. Our Prime Minister Nehruji is working day and night over these projects. But the problem is, they are strapped for want of money all the time. You see, after our Independence from the British, our Republic identified a number of priority areas and every one of them need urgent attention. The government’s kitty is quite small and it is a question of allocating available money to various projects. I couldn’t convince the government about the urgency of the need for dams in your area. I am so sorry!’
We were devastated by his reply. All our hopes were razed to the ground. William and I rose to leave, having nothing else to do with him.
Devendran too rose from his chair, put his arm around my shoulder and said, ‘I know, you are very disappointed. But don’t lose hope. Things keep changing with the government and even priorities change. Stay in touch with me. I am not the one to easily overlook people’s problem and when the time is more appropriate, I would remind the government again.’
When we were about to leave, William abruptly asked me to convey something to Devendran.
“So, money and finances are the most important issues, am I right?”
Devendran nodded his head.
“If money is available, will the government still hesitate to provide support to the project?”
“They may not!”
“Can you organize with someone to buy my estate for a decent price? I will give away all the money to the dam project. The government will then have to worry less, for the balance needed for construction of the dam.”
Stunned, I blinked for a moment. With great hesitation, I found my words and told Devendran what William wanted me to convey.
Without waiting for an answer, we left the room. Our comrades were anxiously looking at our face.