The five were only men. Some younger, some older, all between thirty and fifty. The eldest was beginning to gray here and there, but the others had heads of hair black as bumblebees. They looked like men: eyes where eyes should be, noses where noses should be, teeth where teeth should be. Arms and legs where arms and legs should be. Copper-colored complexions. White turbans-some old, some new. Cholas of white muslin, like their dhotis. Knotted gold earrings in their ears. Gold pendants around their necks hung by a black cord. Each man spoke like a man. Each man walked like a man.
All were in farming. They worked the land and produced the yields. The dry belly of the earth became green with their wheat and fennel, mustard, cumin, and fenugreek. After Independence these mighty farmers had done well. Cast the seeds in the dirt eyes squeezed shut and then gathered up the fruits.
The five looked as if they had been born not of woman’s flesh, but directly from the earth’s own womb. As if they had grown up and blossomed among the kareel, aak, khejari and acacia trees. As if the flora were their kin.
The five were brothers of near about the same stock. They were going to Jodhpur together to purchase a tractor. Each had stashed bundles of notes inside the undershirt pocket at his breast. The fever of it made their faces glow. The roots of wealth may tap deep into the heart, but the sheen of such invisible fruits shines clear for all to see.
They stepped off the bus with their hands on their pockets, and headed off toward the tractor showroom as arranged. Each would scarcely put his feet on the ground before lifting them off again an instant later. If it had been in their power, they wouldn’t have let their feet even touch that pavement black as rot.
Once they reached the showroom they recognized the owner through the window front. As soon as their eyes fell on his shiny bald head they cried, “We’re in luck! Om-ji himself is here today.”
A blast of ice-cold air rushed over them as soon as they pulled the door open. They walked into the shop sighing deeply. One said, “Here he’s enjoying heaven while we work like beasts of burden.”
Om-ji smiled a thin smile and said in a delighted voice, “If you want to exchange your farm for my shop, I wouldn’t object.”
“Hah! You’d regret it!”
“That remains to be seen.”
The eldest cousin scolded them, “We’ve only just walked in the door and already you’re talking about regrets. Each person has his own fate to follow and his own work to do that suits him best.”
Sitting on those cushiony chairs it didn’t seem like they were sitting on anything. They stopped and poked the soft cushions two or three times to be sure the seats would hold their weight. Satisfied, they settled into the chairs, elbows on the armrests.
After the perfunctory duas and salaams one of the cousins began, “Somehow or other our number has finally come. We need to have the tractor today. We started out this morning at an auspicious hour. We need to return to our village before the day is out. We would consider it a favor if you could somehow arrange it.”
“Every customer I meet makes the same demand. You have waited more than two years and now you cannot even wait two more days?”
The youngest cousin said, “Two days would be too much to bear. At this point we can’t wait two more hours. Our women have been standing at the doors ever since we left this morning watching for our return to auspicate the tractor. If you have to charge a little extra that’s okay, but you must deliver to us today!”
Om-ji smiled at their impatience, then said, “I know how you villagers are. I made sure the tractor was ready yesterday. Take it whenever you wish.”
Their happiness and joy knew no bounds. It was as if they had been handed the whole world to rule! The middle cousin looked at Om-ji’s head shining like the moon and said, “How could a man with such a lucky brow ever shirk his work? May you live long.”
The cousins were familiar with Om-ji. One or the other would come by from time to time to check their number on the waiting list. He became as friendly with them as business demanded. His manner was easy, his words were pleasant. The parts of his body looked as if they had been manufactured in a factory like a tractor’s parts. There was a bald spot where a bald spot should be, fringed on three sides with thinning hair. A neck where a neck should be. A smile as the occasion required.
He scanned the faces of the five cousins sitting before him and asked, “Now you must be relieved! You’ve spent your whole day bouncing up and down inside a bus. Sit back and relax. Have some cold water.”
He reached for his buzzer as he made polite entreaties. A man came inside at once. Om-ji asked him to bring some lassis. When the man disappeared outside, he began apologizing, “I will not be able to offer anything to rival what you have in your village. The milk here is thin as water. Yogurt that could turn your stomach. All you get in cities is cooled air, icy water, soft cushions, bright lights. The grandiosity of the adulterated and the ostentation of the fake. You cannot find good grain and spices at any price. I am ashamed to offer you anything at all.”
One of the cousins laughed and said, “If you really mean to offer, there are plenty of luxuries to be had around here. The envy of the gods above. Otherwise, we’ll just have to cool down with a lassi instead.”
The hint was clear. Om-ji laughed loudly and said, “No, we cannot have any of that hard stuff here in the store. But if you can wait until evening, I will be able to offer you real hospitality at my home.”
“The invitation is enough, even more than enough. Where’s the tractor? Let’s just take a quick peek.”
“First have your lassis and then we will go down and look.”
“The lassis aren’t going to run away, are they? The sight of the tractor will cool us down. Then the lassis will taste sweeter.”
Om-ji went with them himself. The tractor stood ready in the workshop. A blood-red Massey Ferguson tractor. Vivid as a pile of birbahooti bugs. The sight of it made them flush in their hearts.
They patted the tractor and inspected it closely, then they all went back to the office. Their glasses of lassi were sitting on the table, carefully covered.
Om-ji eased himself back into his chair and began musing, “How times have changed! There used to be just one thakur who ruled over the area, but now you big peasants have become the new thakurs. You are the ones who have really taken advantage of Independence. Where before people used to dream of having buttermilk, now they order ‘all the luxuries’ as if they were water. In the old days people couldn’t even afford a plow and a spade, but now no one even gives a second thought to spending thousands of rupees on a tractor. Yar, have as much fun as you want with this Independence, don’t even think twice.”
The fourth cousin interrupted him. “What fun? Nothing to eat but grain and you barely fill your belly. We’ve suffered for a thousand generations. And now the one-eyed lady puts on make-up and you begrudge her airs? Thanks to Gandhi Baba we actually live like human beings now. How else would villages have gotten all those things-motors, tractors, radios?”
“And soon we’ll have to fill our stomachs with paper notes. Before too long we won’t even be able to buy grain.”
“You just keep giving us tractors and we’ll keep giving you grain. Draw up a contract if you like.”
The eldest cousin spoke up. “No one gives anything to anyone else just like that. The water buffalo grazes only to fill its own belly. Everyone everywhere wracks his brain just to find a way to take care of his own needs. One by selling a tractor, and another does it by buying a tractor.”
When his words reached his own ears the eldest cousin realized his talk had gone down the wrong path. He tried to lead the conversation in a better direction by adding, “Still, what you said is true. Due to Baba Gandhi’s grace, we’re better off since Independence. Heaps of grain in every home, milk and yoghurt flowing freely . . .”
Om-ji began shaking his bald head and cut in, “Not in every home, that’s not true. It’s only a small number of you big farmers who have all you could want.”
The youngest cousin had been to college. He said, “What do you mean, all we could want? The best you can say is that the jaws of misery’s grip have loosened a little. Just enough to give us room to breathe. But happiness is still as far off as the moon.”
The middle cousin wanted to put an end to all this nonsense. He said, “What’s the use of wishing for the moon? Let’s get down to business. Take the money out of your pockets to give to Om-ji so we can get our goods. We’re wasting all our time talking.”
Suddenly they remembered the purpose of their visit. A moment later their hands were in their undershirt pockets, pulling out rupee notes to pile on the table. A fifty-horsepower foreign-built tractor with trolley, harrow, and plow. A sixty-thousand-rupee transaction.
Om-ji got busy counting the money and putting it away in his drawer while the five cousins all stood up at the same time and went down to the garage for their merchandise. The eldest cousin sent the youngest off to the bazaar for flower garlands, loaves of sugar, rum, and bright red gulal powder. The four cousins worked together to help load the plow and harrow onto the trailer. They had just caught their breath when the youngest cousin returned. They celebrated by passing around the loaves of sugar and festooning the tractor’s hood with marigold garlands. Then they painted a gleaming red swastika at the very front of the hood in gulal. The three youngest were able drivers.
The day had passed quickly. The sun was just about to duck behind its western veil. From the Ajmer-Jodhpur tollgate the road looked clear, smooth and wide. The garlands fluttered in the breeze to the rhythm of the engine’s roar. Sitting on top of the tractor the five cousins felt as if heaven itself was gliding beneath their wheels. And the earth curving toward the horizon before them seemed punier than a coconut shell. As if the sinking sun has stopped in the sky just to gaze at them. As if the thrumming wind were trying to sweep away any inauspiciousness. All the happiness in the world tossed inside their hearts. Even the long journey of the setting sun’s rays seemed worthwhile at the touch of the goddess sparkling in their pendants. The tractor’s clanging sent birds hidden in thickets and trees flying in all directions but the cousins thought it was their own happiness taking wing.
When suddenly a shrill cry broke into their reveries. They looked around, startled. A hawk was swooping down, its wings spread wide, headed for a baby rabbit it had spotted hiding in the brush. It seized the trembling body in its talons and soared upward, back into the sky. The cousins smiled and looked around at one another. The eldest observed, “One’s fate can never be postponed. It was destined that his death should take place in this very bush, by this very hawk, at this very moment.”
They looked into the sky until the hawk faded away. The tractor continued to roar along the road. They were approaching a small overpass. The fourth cousin urged the driver on, “As much as we’re hurrying we’re still running late. So far everything has been auspicious–good omens when we left the village.”
A steep grade lay just ahead. As they came over the crest they noticed a cyclist riding on the road in the distance, just a few furlongs ahead. The cyclist heard the roar of the engine and turned to look behind. A tractor coming. He turned back and began pedaling furiously. The men sitting in the tractor noticed him speed up, and watched as the gap between them widened. The youngest cousin was at the wheel. He muttered, “Pagal! Pedal as fast as you like, you’ll never beat a tractor!” He gave the throttle a little tug, and it roared even louder.
The engine’s roar rattled louder in the cyclist’s ears. He pedaled faster, and the gap widened.
The driver couldn’t stand to see the distance between them. He accelerated even more, and said, “Mama lover! He’ll tire out in the end, let him enjoy his little triumph while he can.”
The middle cousin added, “You never know what’s going on inside those bareheaded punks’ skulls.”
The tractor was racing along by now. The garlands began flapping even more wildly. The eldest cousin agreed, “Of course he’ll wear out. Why bother pulling out the speed? A poor cycle can’t compete with a tractor!”
A sharp shriek struck their ears as an eagle swooped down from the sky and pounced on a mouse scurrying desperately to get back to his hole underground. A moment later the shrieks faded from this world.
The sun was half-sunken. Now the sun would also disappear for the night. Scarlet light as gulal powder radiated from the setting sun. As if reflecting the tractor’s red gleam.
The four cousins turned from the setting sun and looked at the road in front. Arey! He had gotten even further ahead! The same thought pinched everyone inside: a two-hundred-rupee cycle against a sixty-thousand-rupee tractor. No contest! Does a mouse dare to wrestle an elephant?
The second cousin spat out, “If he pumps till his lungs burst and dies, it’s his family he’ll be leaving behind.”
The fourth cousin said, “Only Lord Ram knows when he’ll leave his family behind, but I can see he’s leaving our tractor in the dirt.”
The youngest cousin eased out the throttle a little more. The tractor was brand-new. It wasn’t good to race along at full throttle.
The cyclist looked back. He had quite a lead now. And his exhilaration made him pedal even faster. His feet were spinning round and round like reels. The cycle slipped down the road as easy as water down a mountain riverbed. As if the cyclist had turned into a whirlwind or even that he were riding a whirlwind.
All the eyes in the tractor were riveted. Quite a gap lay between them now. And it was only growing wider. A foreign tractor festooned with malas. Worth sixty thousand rupees. And a two-paisa cycle! A college punk. Head bare. Wearing knickers.
A gust of sharp wind hit hard and snapped one of the malas’ threads. The mala began flapping around. Doubling up, unfurling straight. Another mala snapped.
The tractor driver felt every thump of the mala on the hood like a thorny cane beating against his breast. He ground his teeth together and pulled the throttle out to the limit. The tractor catapulted forward like a cannonball out of a cannon. The sound of the revving engine echoed in the air. The sky that moments ago seemed to be falling beneath their wheels now seemed to be rising higher and higher over them.
The gap began to close. Even more. Ah, they were really close.
The world seemed as small as a coconut, reduced to two little dots. The tractor. The bicycle. A sixty-thousand-rupee machine and a two-paisa piece of junk.
As it happened two army trucks came bumping down the road from the other direction just at that moment and the tractor was forced to slow down. The cyclist saw his chance and clipped ahead.
The middle cousin said, “These city punks are worthless! Taking advantage of a chance like that!”
The eldest cousin said, “If the poor thing wants to show off for now then let him. How long can he carry on like this? He’s bound to run out of breath. Pagla, squandering his energies like this. Once his internal piping starts sagging he won’t even be able to do the job for his woman. Were such drives meant to be spent on a cycle?”
Now that the road was clear the youngest cousin opened the throttle. Like gunpowder suddenly touched with a spark. The tractor was like a duststorm trying to catch the wind. And gradually the gap began to diminish.
The cyclist heard the tractor just behind him and looked around. He snapped his head forward in a fury. And his feet began to spin like reels. They became speed itself, speed and nothing else.
Now he had begun to sweat. He was the fastest cyclist in all of Rajasthan. And yes, he was also a man. Arms where arms should be, legs where legs should be. Breath where breath should be. Dreams where dreams should be.
He had been working out on his bicycle sixty or seventy miles a day for the past two months. If he came first in the All India Bicycle Championship next month, then he might get to go to Paris.
He felt confident enough after two months of dedicated training, but today’s little contest would prove it for certain. He clenched his teeth and poured all his strength into spinning the pedals.
He went to college with a young woman who had fallen in love with him the first time she saw him race and proposed to him herself. But he had not been able to reply with a forthright “yes” or “no.” They kept meeting and talking and spending time together, and once they had begun to know each other in their souls, it became clear what they had to do. He had promised to marry her as soon as the All India Championship was over. He had been raised in tight circumstances. And she had grown up in a house of plenty. But they lived only for one another. Thy ate bread as if from the same tooth. And on their priceless wedding night the moon would smile on their bridal bed.
Suddenly her face appeared in front of his eyes. As if she had turned into the breeze to watch the race. His vigor increased tenfold. As if his feet had grown wings. Well, what power did that lifeless tractor have compared to the shimmery image of his beloved? The cyclist pulled further and further ahead. Before long the distance between them had doubled.
Now the tractor was at full throttle. They could do no more. Their insides started writhing. The whistling wind was being swallowed up by the roar of the engine. Their reign over the whole world had been grabbed from their hands in a dash.
The new tractor shot down the road like a cannonball. It looked as if a whirlwind had taken over that bareheaded boy’s feet. His beloved’s face shone before his eyes. The distance grew and grew. His lungs didn’t quaver, and his breath didn’t break.
Half of the marigold garlands had broken and fallen. But what could the cousins do?
No one can see what the ephemeral future holds. Suddenly the feet fast as a whirlwind were spinning pointlessly. The chain had come off. Still the boy didn’t worry. He figured his feet could match the tractor’s speed. Images of his beloved’s face beamed all around him. There could be no greater power than this in the world. He stopped the cycle at once and quickly dismounted. He leaned the bicycle on the kickstand and patiently began putting the chain back on.
Slowly the distance was decreasing. The air could not contain the tractor’s roar, nor the five cousins’ happiness. Well, who knows when luck will smile on him? It didn’t matter how, this sixty-thousand-rupee matter of honor was saved. If people want to deceive themselves into believing in fraudulent victories, then who would stop them?
The tractor’s roar sounded closer. It was taking much too long to get this chain back on in the flurry. Before long the tractor was right there. And still he had confidence in his strength, and the force of his beloved’s face before him.
The tractor roared past. All five cousins shouted out words typically human as they sped by. A flock of crows began cawing overhead as if in one voice. The talk of the humans couldn’t be heard over the cawing of the crows and the roaring of the engine.
The tractor was already one or two farmlengths ahead when the cyclist got the chain back in place and started off again. Four of the cousins turned back to watch him. They thought to themselves, the bastard was just pretending his chain came off! Maybe the race was too much for him.
But the chain was back on and he had turned into a tornado again. The distance between them slowly began to decrease, as he came closer and closer.
The scenery was beginning to submerge into darkness. The four cousins were straining to watch the boy behind them. He was gaining ground!
Now it was an all-out race. The tractor couldn’t go any faster. They gnashed their teeth.
The redness of the tractor began to dissolve in the fading light. The youngest cousin asked, “Where is that harami now?”
The fourth cousin said through clenched teeth, “Looks like he’s going to pull ahead.”
“Hah! Even his father wouldn’t have been able to think such a thing!” As he said this, the youngest cousin started to hear first the hawk’s shrieks, then the mouse’s squeals, echoing in turns in his ears. After a moment the shrieks were in one ear, the squeals in the other, and wouldn’t stop. It seemed as if the entire universe were about to rip apart. The tractor’s roar got swallowed up in that echo.
A whole different world was glittering in the eyes of the cyclist. Everywhere he looked images of his beloved’s face were twinkling-in the light scattering of stars, in the trees and shrubs, in the sand dunes, in the tractor’s trolly up ahead. Today would be the test. If he could get ahead of the tractor then he would get married as soon as possible. Tomorrow, if she agreed. If not, then the day after. Or the day after that. Whenever she wanted.
Why wait to pass them? All the world was in the palm of his hand. The warp and woof of golden dreams were being woven in front of his eyes.
Meanwhile, the hawk’s shrieks and the mouse’s squeals were smothering every particle of air.
The four cousins shouted through clenched teeth, “That bareheaded dogale is making us lick the dirt off our turbans!”
Then they came up with a new plan. “Make the tractor swerve as soon as he gets close. What will the little harami have to say to that . . .” The hawk’s shrieks and the mouse’s squeals had now found a human voice.
And meanwhile the images of his beloved’s face began growing brighter and brighter. Each image became more and more distinct.
Now he had moved up, beside the trolley. The shrieks and squeals hid themselves away in the driver’s head and assumed a posture of silence.
The next moment the speeding cyclist crashed into the tractor. Lightning flashed in front of his eyes and the lights of his beloved’s faces extinguished one by one. The tractor’s rear tire passed over his bare head, mashing it into chutney. The rest of the faces were snuffed out.
A human voice hissed once more in the wind, “Mother lover, he had nerve trying to overtake a tractor!”
The youngest cousin had been to college. He quickly thought up something. He pulled the tractor over, grabbed a bottle out of the sack and said, “Let’s give the poor guy some rum!”
Then he went over to him, walking on two legs like a man. Opened the bottle above the cyclist. Emptied half the bottle of rum into the boy’s mouth. Then he broke the bottle near the boy’s head and ran back to the tractor. The tractor roared as he took off. The women must be standing in the doorway waiting for them. How happy they will be to see them return!
Human laughter echoed in the wind.
A picture was left behind them on the road, waiting for expert appraisal. Brain-white smudges on a blood-red background. Shards of broken glass. A man’s dead body. White shorts. Bloodied sky-blue undershirt. Mashed dreams. Streams of love. The painting wasn’t bad!
But . . . paintings of the two world wars, pictures of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, of Viet Nam, of Bangladesh . . . those are the true masterpieces. Compared to this painting, those are so much more refined, so much more complex. This one doesn’t compare. Still, considering it was done by rustics, it wasn’t so bad.
Yes, the five were only men. Each man spoke like a man. Each man walked like a man.