The village of the roadmakers

When the temple bell rang for the third time, my mother insisted that I pack away my playthings and wear old clothes. I protested, I said I was tired and that I was not feeling well, but she firmly took me by my hand and thrust me towards the cupboard. I changed into my old clothes, muttering all the while, but she pretended not to hear me. She was already ready, and didn’t want to offend anyone by arriving late. It was almost four. We walked out- my father had already gone ahead, he’d been busy since 12- and joined the group in front of our neighbour’s house. The leader for the season, my friend’s father, stood up and gave my mother a warm smile of welcome. She smiled back and asked him where my father was. Our neighbour pointed to the far end of the group. Through the people and the rapidly rising dust, I could make out my father lifting a basket filled with small stones. As usual I marveled at his strength- how could a man who’s spent most of his life doing nothing more strenuous than push a pen across paper find strength within him every season to perform back breaking work. I even asked my mother once and she replied, because it’s in our culture. Adding implicitly, it’s in yours as well. She thought of me with great fondness, waiting for the day I would lead a group of my own. In our village there was no greater honour than leading a group for a season. Indeed, some of the most famous people in the village have been people who have led groups season after season. Their ideas, their methods of working have been taught to us even in school, though without the government schoolteacher’s knowledge. Being an outsider, he just wouldn’t understand, and more importantly, he might create trouble for us. As it is, he kept objecting to our work, but nobody paid him any attention, which usually angered him even more.
This season was no different from others, but for the fact that this year, the roads were being built just outside our house. Every year, the elders get together and assign a different area of the village for work and sometimes there are heated arguments as to which locality should get the honour. But once the matter has been decided, everyone forgets their differences and pitches in. Only the very old and the very young are exempt from work. Sometimes even the old join the group- making up for weakness with wisdom. There are tales of how many a short stretch that was going bad was rectified by timely intervention of an elder.

Days passed slowly and I grew used to the work again, and the road was progressing splendidly. These days I seemed to have no time for anything. Come back from school, join the group and when work stopped at nightfall, I didn’t even have the energy to join the review group who sat around the road and discussed for ages into the night. I just ran home as soon as possible, ate ravenously and slept. The road kept coming closer to our house and excitement mounted within our family. One day I was working as usual, running about getting implements for young men, when suddenly loud voices were heard. I stopped short, recognizing my fathers’ voice as one of them. I hurried to my father’s side. He was saying, this is not right, we have watched it grow for more than 50 years, I myself have played under its branches, you yourself have stopped in its shade so many times. Who is here that doesn’t remember eating mangoes from this tree? I myself have gone from house to house distributing mangoes every year! Now all that is forgotten?

Another voice, a village elder’s, spoke ‘ but you should have brought it up when we were planning the road. You knew that the road would go in front of your house. Surely you could have said something then…

My father really didn’t have an argument for that, but he persisted. But now you can change it. Please save this tree, I love it as much as I do my children. Don’t do this injustice to me.

Another elder spoke, ‘Let us stop work for now and see what can be done’. The others agreed. Everyone left except for the leader, our neighbour, and a few elders. Of course I had no interest in going home now. I was also shocked that we might lose the tree. The elders sat and debated the matter till nightfall and beyond but the problem was thorny. If the road had to take a deviation it would mean many more days of work and could not be finished in this season. If this happened, our neighbour the leader would suffer a major loss of face-he would go down in the annals of our village lore as the only person who could not get a road finished in time. There were many more arguments to support our neighbour’s view. One elder who’d seen more seasons than anyone else looked at the proposed deviation and said that the finished road would have a bad ‘soul’ and no one would use it. Added to this, another elder, one of the wisest women in our village said, ‘Everybody has to sacrifice something. That is the rule here. If we listened to you, everyone would claim exceptions. Me, I myself flattened the land that fed my family through those drought years. You are not trying to save a tree, you are questioning our entire culture. I don’t think it can be allowed. Surely you don’t claim to know more than the entire accumulated wisdom of our village?’ Hers turned out to be the clinching argument. My father bowed his head and finally accepted the elders’ decision. The next day itself workmen came to cut down the tree. I was assigned to dart away the branches. I was still very young and I delighted in this new sport. There is wonder in seeing a huge old tree groan and crash to the ground and the sickly sweet smell broken fresh branches spread through the air. For weeks after that we could smell it in our house-but nobody brought up the subject. Except the schoolteacher, of course. He lost no time in raking coals over everyone’s head, but they were even more indifferent to him. Frustrated, he walked away from the village with a slim book of poems in this hand. We thought he had gone for a walk as he was accustomed to, but later it turned out that he’d left the village altogether. Nobody missed him and a few went so far as to say ‘good riddance’.

The season drew to a close and the road was completed with as much as a week to spare. The leader, our neighbour, was a jubilant man. After that narrow escape, he had reaffirmed his status in the village. There was even talk that he would be a group leader again for the next season, but he just brushed aside any queries with fake humility saying, ‘ its left to the elders, but I am always willing to assume responsibility. Whatever the elders say, I will listen to… it’s all in their hands.

Many years passed since then, seasons came and went, our village slowly changed. Suddenly, there seemed to be much less land to farm in. A couple of bad years with low rainfall, and everyone started to get worried. Then some families started growing commercial crops instead of rice or ragi. With free electricity from the government, it became easier to switch crops. Almost overnight, all the farmers started growing sugarcane. We resisted for sometime, but times were hard- I was married and with one more mouth to feed, it seemed to be the only thing to do. Everyone welcomed my fathers’ decision, and he felt like part of the group again. Equally suddenly, people started becoming more and more prosperous. We had high returns and crop harvests were good with frequent irrigation. Then the group leader for the season, a man we knew only by reputation, decided to use the season to show off his prosperity. He hired outside workers, migrant laborers and paid them on daily basis. He brought in modern equipment-grinding machines, trucks, roadrollers, everything. But the most upsetting new thing was the tar. Till then we had been content with mud roads, hardened not to crack under any stress – but tar…we’d only known of it’s use in distant highways and cities, but in our village ! That season, the road was completed in the shortest time, setting a record of sorts in the village. He was praised like no other in my memory and set a new trend that refused to go away. From then on, every season brought in hordes of laborers. They were a sullen lot; spoke in their own language and pretty much kept to themselves. The decision to use tar was protested every year by the elders, but as time went by, even this diminished. The affair of the mango tree had affected my father badly and he never wanted to lead the group or even take active interest in the design of the road despite tremendous pressure from my mother and all our relatives. The memories were still too painful, and he had long ago stopped trying to explain his stance. I think he had thought that he could quietly lead his life away from the road and the roadmaking, but he was wrong. They started applying pressure in every possible way. They attacked us at every opportunity, they tortured my wife, my mother with allegations and even my daughter was troubled by the other village kids. Finally, he’d had enough. He approached the village elders and told them that he wanted to be the group leader in the next season. There was much jubilation – he was welcomed back as the lost son back into the fold. But it was not so easy for him. He knew that while he had to lead a group, there was no available land anymore. If we had to lead the road anywhere near our house, he would be cutting into our already depleted land and besides the whole village would be watched for any lack of interest. Finally he hit upon a solution. Some years back, the government had built a highway quite close to the village road network. There were two highways, actually, running almost parallel to each other with the village in the centre. He proposed to connect the two highways by building small roads from our village to each of them I was worried that somebody might figure out what my fathers plan was, but nothing like that happened. Instead there was wild rejoicing at his plan and the whole village surged with enthusiasm. Work started immediately and because there was not much distance to cover, we finished quite early as well. We had to take the help of migratory workers, though my father did not want to; they also had become a part of our culture by now.

The day the roads were finished, we had a special ceremony because the day was doubly auspicious: we had completed a road and also my father was now considered a part of the village hierarchy. Many people spoke that day, and again stories of previous road making triumphs were related. My father listened: outwardly calm and quietly triumphant, but inwardly sad – firstly at what he had done to the village and secondly at their acute short sightedness that had brought this upon them. The next few days he secretly made preparations to leave our village. I had arranged for us to stay at my wife’s village that was many days walk away. I had everything ready and thus we were able to leave the same day when the first lorries from the highway appeared in our village, taking the road that my father built as a natural shortcut.

The noise of the vehicles was the signal: it was the end of the village.

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