Chhasara (chha – six, sarā – memorial stones, also called khāmbhi or pāliya in Kachchh and Kāthiawād; though sarā or saro is a Kachchhi word) is a village of my childhood memories and therefore it exists. It exists within me and in the mānas–garbha (mind-womb) of both time and space. Two smaller villages flanked it, divided by the same river named Bhookhi (Hungry) that somehow turned its course. Perhaps, she was in search of water – epār Bhookhi, opār Bhookhi! She remained dry perennially, hungry for water, and occasionally expressed her terrible fury if it rained heavily and a remote dam somewhere on Kachchh’s deserty topography impregnated her, flooding, fanatically flooding. Much towards inside her shore, she inhabited an open well with a cement-concrete flat elevated surface that surprisingly remained full of deep waters, and would generously bathe many men. Young boys would use it as a swimming pool. Along her coast, the Bhookhi had yet another much deeper and bigger well with a havādo (a pucca reservoir) outside it, which would serve and sooth the thirsty cattle under the burning sun, awaiting eagerly the godhuli bela (dusk time). A little away from her shore, inside the bāri wall (the pucca-built tall wall with a window projecting towards Bhookhi and a hill that was abode of a pir’s shrine) was another well, with pulleys called, Sākariyo Kuvo (a well with waters as sweet as sugar) that would quench the villagers’ thirst, help them cook their daily hot food and make tea.
Of the two villages across Bhookhi nadi, one had the privilege of having the service of a mochi (cobbler) that my village didn’t have, while the other had a self-taught medical doctor, who, in his khādi clothes, would visit my village riding his handsome horse. Their visits were significantly essential. I have a feeling that to be a good cobbler or a doctor, you need to have strong poetic intuition. Well, my village had a flour mill that both villages on the banks of Bhookhi didn’t have. Run on a machine fuelled by diesel oil, the mill would create a harsh sound, chhuk chhuk chhuk—like a locomotive engine, but its ingenuous owner had placed a small empty tin box on its exhaust vertical pipe which would turn the chhuk chhuk into a euphonic kuhu kuhu of koyaliyā, the cuckoo. And the sound would keep both the villages across Bhookhi informed about the flour mill’s working existence. Crossing the Bhookhi, the mochi would walk a-lame (he had polio) two miles to my village every week or fortnight as many torn shoes would be waiting for him. The doctor would also be on call – on horse, with his leather box of allopathic medicines.
It’s the image of shoes that pushes me into a memory, memory of death, a forced death and the well on the river Bhookhi! On that early dawn, dogs had started sounding differently; the owl on an old peepal tree had lowered his mysterious eyelashes, small insects had started emerging from sandy streets. Something had gone devastatingly wrong somewhere. An early bather on the Bhookhi well had seen a pair of solitary shoes, a pair of spectacles, a stick and a Gandhi cap on its surface. Anxious, as he looked into the well, he saw a human body floating. Shocked, he shouted “Magan Patel!” while the misty-humid Bhookhi remained non-indifferent and self-absorbed. Soon, the news spread across the stunned village while the day had barely broken. Many rushed towards the well. The man’s pregnant wife was wailing and their four children added to the heart wrenching cries. He was a half-aged step son of a village chief (Patel), whom I, with my childhood-eyes, would often spy walking alone swiftly, talking to himself most of the time. He was an intelligent man but deeply perturbed somewhere within–that it is what I had felt. It had taken a massive effort to pull out his unusually swollen body from the well.
At the time it was beyond me to comprehend the meaning of death but the image of the swollen body is still heavily stuck on my memory-scape. The Bhookhi well, someone said, had taken as many as seven lives as its toll! Years after, I stand in front of the six weather-worn sandstone sarā, having no script on their bodies to decipher, except poke-marks and unheard sighs of the dead: five Rajput brothers and their sister (and her little baby) were all killed in a little war for a fiefdom. Four centuries have gone by since but oral tales circulate around, in whispers or is it whoosh! The sister’s husband was also killed some furlongs away and his memorial stone (Hekalsaro) stands on a farm enveloped in an eternal mirage (Saro 1, 2). Nobody knows the names of these souls though their periodicity is an acceptable conjecture. But the fact of the matter is that these six (plus one) tall memorial stones are still there. That bit cannot be a fabricated.
Chhasarā, the village of six memorial stones has gone on to desolate itself gradually. More and more families have left it for cities in search of livelihood. Only some old widows still inhabited it. They all wore maroon, black, white or even blue clothes– as a mark of their widowhood. All battling loneliness while their sons live afar. They would sustain their meagre existence. One such widow, stooping and frail in frame, suffered from terribly chronic asthma. In winters, it would be unbearable for her and she would breathe laboriously and loudly; so loudly that the entire village would helplessly witness her misery through its organs of hearing (Saro 3). Summer noons, with blazing winds, would be lazy and laidback; often the potter’s donkey would walk through the streets alone in a futile search of a mate and install itself naked (physical nakedness as we define it) in the empty village square. Its search punctuated by a mourning dove in the chabutrā, the home of the birds. With his sexual desires unfulfilled, the donkey (whom I used to call Lalio), still brays in the vaults of my memory. The real turns magical. It always was such in Chhasarā, perhaps much before Garcia Marquez discovered such miracles in Aracataca, his Colombian river-town. (Saro 4).
The otherwise, non-descript stones do trace the historic location that shifted its base to the present site, which has always been struggling to exist against cataclysms of history. The last earthquake in 2001 had dealt it a deathly blow, destroying and uprooting its limbs. Centuries old houses have collapsed, streets turned desolate and ghostly. The wells, the surviving old denizens say, are visited by the dead souls at nights. And noons! The proliferating gāndo bāval (mad bāval, botanically called prosopis juliflora– the wild weed that has outstripped all other tree species, including neem, in Kachchh) has snatched away the singular identity of my river Bhookhi. There is no Bhookhi, neither epār, nor opār! It knows no Komal Gāndhār, no Podda, no Padma! Her story is not the tragic tale of Partition but of Destruction, of Erosion, of memories—of a very way of existence. (Saro 5-6) On the barren desolate land, it is the memorial stones that stare straight into my eyes, askance…
Saro 1: A River-bed Well and a Swollen Body.
A dawn of death, of suicide, all you stones standing six
walked to the river Bhookhi; a body too swollen –
Death stalked my village often, in wells of woes.
Saro 2: Hekalsaro, the Lonely One.
In a farm, furlongs away from wife and baby
a stone so tiny in the lap of one of six, you –
Stand alone, withered, wounded, writhing!
Saro 3: Lunging Out an Existence.
Like the black-smith’s bellows non-stopped or
accordion’s; she had the lungs, slogging to live;
A village breathed with her, gasping, desperate.
Saro 4: Middle of the Square and a Donkey.
On a lazy noon, a donkey stands naked, stark naked
with his long, thick, black dick lolling, in middle of –
Your sandy chowk, Hekalsaro in phallic inversion?
Saro 5: Mummified Memories and Erasure.
You’ve left me nothing, nothing, not even my cradle;
except memories mummified on rubbles, my home
Chha-sarā awaits vandalizing erasure, brutal, brutish.
Saro 6: Cry My Beloved Village!
Ravaged by time, rampaged and raped my village of –
yore, your streets have grown tall, wild grass, and stink;
Helpless I stand, as your memorial stones, six do!