12 February, 2010

The Bodyguard

I had gotten quite tired with the bustle of a large city and just craved for some peace & quiet. The constant hustling and the demands on my time and favor had finally got to me. A small town with its own quiet surroundings seemed like a good idea; one that may refresh the mind and help focus on the immediate task of creative writing.

Then I told people around me that was looking out. In our country the relationship tangles creates lots of disadvantages but there can be some positives too. One being if you keep casting stones in this pond some ripples are bound to reach back to you. It is quite another thing though to matching the ripple to the stone. Opportunities are like these ripples and one soon came by me. The source of this one was actually quite simple to trace too. It came from the Uncle of the friend of the sister-in-law of the greengrocer from whom my current land lady brought her vegetables. The Uncle belonged to a small town whose claim to fame was a fiery mutton curry, a temple, black soil and footwear. It had in its midst a local English language magazine that had a position of an editor recently left vacant. It sounded good. However was not too sure till the Uncle himself came to have a look at me. He had carried his lunch box with him. It was the mutton curry that tilted the decision in favour of this assignment. Now, here I was in the spacious and surprisingly cool office on the first floor of a printing press, the same one that brought out the magazine. One issue under my editors pen was on the stands and had been fairly well received. A reprint was on for fresh copies.

It was that odd hour of the day when the intensity of the harsh bright sun has dimmed and the time of the long shadows is not yet here; an hour suspended between the afternoon and evening. I was composing an article on the rising prices of sugar and the open window gave me a view of the golden cane swaying in the fields nearby. An article on the politics of sugar in this part of the country is a great filler that uses up the pages & makes for a good debate.A safe strategy employed by most magazine editors in varying proportions and made me no exception. The finishing touches on it were being applied, when I felt a draft as the door opened and there he was.

A man of indeterminate age who came in closing the door behind him. Some people bring in their own atmosphere and such was the case here too. He wore non descript soiled clothes of the locals with his cap sitting askew a head full of dirty grey brown hair; browned by the elements and grime. As he came close the smell of rotten molasses hit me. Immediately knew then that I was in the presence of one who was aerial bound on the wings of Bacchus. "Hello" said he in the local language. And as i stared he sensing my appraisal asked me "What in your opinion is my age?" "Fifty five? Sixty?"…I hesitatingly ventured. He was old but seemed relatively fit though. Then he smiled a smile of such charm and said "I am Jiva Mahala." "Jiva who?" I asked him and again he smiled that curious smile and looked at me and said "Everybody would know whose bodyguard I was but they remember not my name. I personally guarded Shivba", said he. “Shivba who? You mean Chhatrapati Shivaji Raje Bhonsale?” I exclaimed incredulously. He nodded solemnly and a curious eeriness crept into the room. The wind had stopped and the shadows started casting themselves on the walls.

In this profession one encounters many a crank who has a story to tell and one cant be more careful. But this seemed to beat all of my previous experiences and I was not too sure how far this would go. Petrified and yet fascinated kept watching him as the quiet of the place that I had sought a few months ago now suddenly started seeming quite spooky. That would make you how many, I stuttered about 380 years old? He said 383 son and was born in the same year as Shivba. It was I who saved his life. I was with him even when he took his oath of “Sampoorna Swarajya “( Total freedom )in front of the goddess Bhavani." " But how..now and here?" I asked as I found my lucidity completely gone in front of this stranger. "You still don’t believe me I guess? Look at this" and from the folds of his clothes he brought out a “hon” a coin from the old era. I looked at the coin and it seemed like the real McCoy no doubting this ( Had some knowledge about coins ).Jijabai - Shivba’s mother gave it to me . "But how come I have never heard of you?" Said I and he told me that he blamed a lot of chroniclers for missing him. He said "Over the years have met a lot of them had even gone and seen Angus Maddisson in 1700. He was here then & was in the process of writing "The World Economy". I asked him to include the “hon’s” minted during Shivrajya. Maddisson said he in his sing song voice liked this coin so much that he offered to buy it off me, but I refused." Jijabai had blessed him with this coin and eternal life for saving the life of Shivba and that’s how he came to be here still. "In the early 1900's I had even met the firebrand bramhin leader Lokmanya Tilak. Adviced him to keep the valor of Shivaji and his history in mind when he fought the British. Soon after which was the partition and the Hindu – Muslim riots, a sad bloodbath.I was in the state of Bombay during then. This immortality thing can force you to see a lot, he sadly said. With time even a blessing becomes a curse, I just listened completely fascinated as he went on.

But how did you save Shivba and where? His eyes shone as he narrated the time of his training. He was the best dandpatta (a flexible sword of super fine sharpness) wielder of his time and hence was appointed to guard Shivba’s back when he met Afzal Khan at Pratapgad. Do you know this atleast? I nodded as this was one of the legends on which the stature of the great Maratha warrior had grown. The whole day had gone by in my polishing the “Wagh nakhis” (tiger claws). Shivba had worn then. He expected treachery from Afzal Khan in his tent. As we descended down from Pratapgad, Shivba told me Jiva remember it will be just you, Sambhaji Kondhalkar and me who will meet the Khan. Sambhaji remains outside but you and I will go in. The Khan won’t be alone and while I handle him you shall look after the rest. Where is your patta, is it hidden? I had wrapped it around my waist on which hung a sword. In the Khans camp, our swords were taken from us when we entered the tent. The Khan was a huge man. He had with him his loyal and brave slave called Sayyed Banda. When the Khan embraced Shivba I saw him withdraw a khanjar and I shouted a warning. But I need not have worried as by this time his stomach was laid bare by Shivba. It was then that Sayyed Banda rushed him from the back.but Shivba's tiger claws were stuck in the Khans robe and he was in an awkward position.My patta flashed & whizzed like a snake of destruction. I had aimed it at Syyed's shoulder of the sword hand. Both the sword and the hand holding it were severed cleanly and dropped to the ground. Syyed had not felt this at all as he rushed Shivba. But then when he saw the sight of his own severed arm down he almost died from the shock. I should have killed him but I rushed out.

As the Khan stumbled to his palanquin outside Sambhaji Kondhalkar slit his neck before he could raise the alarm.Shivba grabbing Sayyed Bandas sword killed off Krishnaji Bhaskar - a Brahmin who did the chaakri (service) of the Muslims. We ran out without anyone knowing and then the army attacked. We had won decisively and the path to Hindavi Swarajya paved then. My throat is quite parched. Do you have any paava (local liquor)? I shook my head. Never mind said he and just as silently he had come he reached the door. Then turning back said "Set the record straight. Write about me." I nodded and uneasy though I felt, was relieved when he was gone. It was a fantastic tale.

The next day the sun rose bright and strong as I went out into the small market. Here I saw him again.This time he seemed different and was sharpening knives & other blades of the people under a mango tree. Sitting on the charpoy of Tukaram’s chai stall I ordered tea. It was then Uncle came over and joined me. I told him about my last nights encounter. Uncle smiled and said Jiva is our town's knife sharpener. Long ago he found an old coin in a fort nearby and there are several such coins that turn up. Most of the times he is quiet and good but in the evening he goes on a binge & by late evening is roaring drunk. Then he imagines he is Jiva Mahala, Shivaji’s bodyguard. He is an educated man as he has done his schooling till seventh and used to be the history teachers favorite child. This I heard from my father said Uncle. Then he got married and his wife died in his daughters childbirth.Jivni grew up into a winsome girl and fell in love with late blacksmith Afzal’s son Sayyed. In those days it was unheard of marrying outside your community and so they ran away to Bombay. It is rumored that Jiva shamed by his daughter here followed and caught up with them there.He had with him his koyata ( the curved heavy blade used for cropping and coconuts ). He chopped off the boys arm and he would have killed him too in the next blow but it was Jivni who came in the way. It was her neck that received the blow. Jiva spent 14 years in the Agripada jail and returned back. It was then he started drinking.

As I walked back to my office Jiva was still at his wheel sharpening. The strange tale that he believed in, ran across my mind. "Set the record straight" was what he said. In the stupor his mind had refused to acknowledge that he had done the deed himself. Looking at the wind swaying the cane and the open skies, there came a sudden longing for the sound of a car horn , I was missing the rush of the city.