Picture credit: Sunday Guardian
Picture credit: Sunday Guardian

The winner of the “Open Road Review Short Story Prize 2016 - In Partnership with NHP Centre” is Rochelle Potkar for her story “The Leaves of the Deodar”. The winner gets a cash prize of Rs 40000 sponsored by the NHP Centre and a certificate.

The comments of the jury about the winning story are as follows:

“A very interesting historic tale. A Brahmin servant employed by a British household, at the time of events leading to the Indian rebellion of 1857, with a fascinating philosophical undercurrent that made us sit up, really made us think. A broad and thoughtful journey in a few words that brings the extraordinary past of the colonial times in a voice that is sensitive, humorous and fresh.”

—Vanessa Gebbie, Madhulika Liddle and Kulpreet Yadav

The Leaves of the Deodar by Rochelle Potkar

1856, Shimla, British India

From the window in the attic, Brijsen watched dawn lighten the lawns of the mansion.

He looked around at his own tiny room, smiling sleepily. Trinkets, a lady’s silver bracelet, two brass timepieces, coins from London, three blue-and-white fine bone cups sat on saucers.

Brijsen hadn’t bothered to hide his loot. No one entered his room. When he was away, he made sure to lock his door with an old padlock.

He was single and could live here. The other servants had their rooms swelling with wives and babies, growing-up children and sometimes old, ailing mothers and fathers.

Brijsen began his workday by placing a fine cup of tea in front of English sahib who was reading the angrezi paper. A picture of men in white topis greeted the front page.

These men were conspiring to overthrow the Raj, of that Brijsen was sure. Why would there be a frown on Sahib’s face, otherwise? If this happened, it wouldn’t take long to go back to orchard life, thought Brijsen. That life of picking cherries, throwing off the rotten ones, filling containers, loading carts upon carts. He, on his feet the whole day so much so that he had a quiet hatred to the very sight and smell of cherries; raw or ripe or rotten they trigged nausea in him.

Brijsen watched the milk swirl in Sahib’s teacup. What if he brought it to his lips instead of Sahib? How would it taste on this dewy morning?

He watched biscuits… the freshly-baked bread glisten in its foam with a topping of jam, maple syrup, and showered with cinnamon sugar. Poor-knights-of-windsor, they called it. Some honey had smeared, dry on a plate. Brijsen sat on his haunches, swallowing into his dry throat. The sahib ignored his cup of tea.

There was news that mem was to arrive from London. Surely work would increase manifold then, calculated Brijsen. What lips she had. Pink. If only he could put his lips to those.

The English sahib’s frowns had deepened now, as he turned the papers.

*

By night, after the lights of the mansion had dimmed and the haze of winter crept over the tallest trees hanging out a cloud-canopy, the barber Ali drowned out the servants’ sleep with his commentary.

All day long, Ali would sit in his shop reading the Dihli Urdu Akhbar, as he waited for people to get their hair done by him. On most days he was free. How fast did hair grow in any case?

So he would drink up the last drops of news from the newspaper, so proud that he could read, and now relay all of that. The other servants were not familiar with either the shapes of letters or the meanings behind them, and were grateful for Ali. As they smoked chillum, rubbed their palms in front of the fire, huddled together in their torn shawls and sweaters, sipping liquor, they listened.

“The day is decided, hanh! Our Jhansi ki rani’s bid for mutiny, hanh!” Ali whispered, “10th May of next year, hanh.”

“Also, also, there are lotuses and rotis doing the round. Anyone who gets it should take it as a reminder of the rebellion,” Ali’s voice rose as if the rani’s ghost had possessed him, “If you get a roti and a lotus remember you are blessed and rani’s chosen one… You have to rebel in some way. Anyway!”

“Even if we are not sepahi’s?” asked a servant.

“Arre, rebel anyhow! Throw stones at the sahibs. Poison the mem’s dishes.” Ali crouched and whispered, “Do anything against the enemy.”

All were fearful of the mansion. Brijsen too looked at the looming structure. Sometimes under the moonlight it seemed to be listening - its windows as big as ears.

Brijsen’s eyes drifted to the cloud-mist atop the trees as he toyed with what was in his pockets. On different days he would find different things: coins from Mem’s dressing table, perfume vials, an ivory comb, a silver-crusted time-piece - anything that fitted into his kurta pocket. Now he fiddled with a silver spoon that he had picked up in a jiffy from the morning’s breakfast table. Brijsen tickled its engravings, smoothening his fingertips over the ivory embedded in the extruded design.

He stroked the spoon repeatedly as Ali spoke, “You know the deal… the new Enfield P-53 rifles?” The servants shook their heads.

There were 60 servants employed at the English officer’s mansion. The cook, ayah, personal grooms, coachman, grass-cutters, bakers, hairdresser valets, water carriers, sweepers, panka coolies, gardeners, and hostlers stayed within the premise. The dhurzi and laundrymen made weekly trips to and from the mansion, bringing news from the outside world and joining in to Ali’s accounts. That was the only way the servants knew of what was happening outside the mansion’s perimeters.

“Arre! To load these rifles our sepahi’s have to bite the cartridge open and release the powder, hanh,” whispered Ali.

“So what’s new?!” said Haria. He, who was used to washing the dirt away from the heaviest of linen. So used to washing he was, that he was dismissive also of anything that gleamed too bright. Including claims.

Ali loved it when Haria challenged him. He was at least a worthy opponent. Otherwise, the other servants just drank in every word he uttered along with their alcohol.

“You don’t understand,” nodded Ali, “The grease on these cartridges is tallow from beef! Pork! Shiv, shiv. Offensive to Hindus. Offensive to Muslim brothers.”

“Oh really?” said Haria, defeated for the first time as he crossed his cheeks.

‘And what?!” continued Ali, “The goras said, ‘Daat se kartoos kaato varna chaar ungli uppar sar pe goli khaao.” (Tear the cartridges with your teeth or risk a bullet --four fingers above-- in your head.) The shock resounded in gasps around. “Imagine pig and cow fat? Shee! What do these gora sahib bastards think? Do we ask them to melt their jezej’s fat?”

“He’s a god. No one can see him… like Allah and Ram,” said Haria.

“Yea, who is the gora sahib’s god’s animal?” asked Bela, the gardener’s wife and only woman who sat with these men on the periphery of their circle, smoking a beedi. For long the men were not happy with her presence. It showed her as an equal. But her husband Birju was a murkh, so docile that you could drive a goods train over him. So they had learnt to tolerate his wife instead.

“We should melt the gora sahib’s god’s animal and give them to suck on the kartooz with that,” said Bela now, pounding a lump of tobacco into her palm and tucking it into her cheeks.

“Doves, I think,” said Haria, “I saw them in the altars and shrines of the gora sahib’s rooms. Even in the church. They should melt the doves for the cartridges then.”

“Let them do that and we shall see how they feel,” said Bela chewing on the tobacco and spitting.

Brijsen’s other pocket had a small tin tiffin that he kept for just such occasions when the debates grew heated, when everyone was drunk, when the moon was above their heads like a god’s blessings.

Now as Ali, Babbar, Sheru, Sheiku, Bela, Birju and Haria argued over the mutiny and the other servants muttered on, Brijsen opened his tiffin. He picked pieces of meat and pressed them between his fingers. They went squish in their succulent gravy. He furtively put them into his mouth and bit them in slow motion, enjoying the taste. Whatever this meat was, it was cooked in red wine, in an earthen pot, on slow fire, in mild spices and it was delicious.

Brijsen sighed. If only he could have got helpings of mashed potato. Though that would have been risky.

By the flickering glow of the bonfire, he dug into the tiffin and took more cold pieces of meat. He remembered yesterday’s soft fish with tangy tomato slices; he had managed to scrape from a forlorn dish, just as Govind had gone into the kitchen to get serving spoons.

Now, Brijsen sipped pungent country liquor to wash down the lajawaab bolus in his mouth.

“Many sepahi’s have rebelled and been court-martialed,” said Ali.

Brijsen left the crowd and headed to his room to burp and fart loudly and dream of the moon. What was this mutiny business? Why couldn’t people just stay still and enjoy what the goras had brought to us?

If anyone were to ever ask Brijsen about the struggle, he would stare blankly at them. Why did a servant have to have a viewpoint? Why did anyone ordinary need to have a viewpoint? Haria would argue with Ali that ordinary people turned extraordinary with a viewpoint. But that was beside the point. Nothing really ever changed.

Brijsen was at his wit’s end. He appreciated the fact that people were struggling to get freedom like he had from his orchard’s life. But leaden with a heavy heart he surmised their fight shouldn’t end his.

Hadn’t the British done anything for us that we were all so ungrateful?

Yes they killed, enslaved. But wouldn’t we kill and fight as tribes in our village? Didn’t we fight over the most stupid things as people of this soil? Didn’t the British bring beautiful white women, horses, style, thaat-bhaat, crockery, glassware, a brand new railway system, post offices, cinema, and trains that cut long journeys short?

Wasn’t the Raj like a parent? It uplifted us. Yes it made us servants, but Brijsen thought of his orchard’s life.

No, his countrymen were getting fussy, puffy-faced and righteous over nothing. People needed a reason to show their josh before life passed them up. Didn’t he know this from the mahasu jatars and melas… anything… a festival, a song, a folk dance. Hatred for the goras at least made each tribe in the villages forget their differences. It was good in that way.

*

During the New Year celebrations of 1857, Brijsen furthered his riches. As he watched the mems dancing in pastel gowns with sahibs, he pocketed floral bowls and liqueur cups, embroidered napkins, wine glasses, and three candle holders. In haste, he gulped the last sips from red wine glasses, but also ate up soggy tissue paper with gooey stew.

Shining trinkets overflowed from his room, from under the cot, the drawers and almariah, from under the mattress, and from atop his rusted trunk. In his room, Brijsen mimicked the dances, accents, styles and gestures of the English. He developed an anglicized Bhojpuri in front of the mirror. His resolution this year was to sleep on the daybeds in all rooms when the sahibs and mems were away. Imagine what an afternoon snooze that would be. Would he also get to sit on their wide-mouthed, aromatic toilets instead of those stinking Indian holes, he wondered.

Unlike the beginning months of other new years, the gossip amongst the staff on these nights had changed from English dances and how sahibs and mems made love amidst screams, to the mutiny.

By March, they spoke only of someone called Mangal Pandey.

It seems this guy had opened fire on a sahib! The durzi, Ramnarayan proclaimed that this struggle was going to brew into a storm. But the durzi was known to exaggerate, thought Brijsen, as he swigged his liquor on fog-laced March nights.

“Mangal Pandey has been court-martialed and hanged,” Ali declared with graveness.

“That is sad,” muttered Bela, while Haria shook and lowered his head.

“Now what will happen?” Brijsen asked Ali, speaking for the first time.

“Anything. We have to wait and watch. My eye is on the newspapers every single minute. Something is brewing.”

Brijsen’s stomach churned. The delicious pieces of beef and pork didn’t seem to digest in his belly. Now this Mangal Pandey! Why open fire on a gora?

*

Brijsen almost thought of quitting the nightly gatherings around the bonfire. He was tired of Ali and his sickening tales. The situation around the mansion and outside in the country was getting tense.

Over the Enfield cartridges, there was news from Ambala that barrack buildings and gora sahibs’ houses were burnt. In Meerut, in some 3rd Bengal Light Cavalry, 85 men had refused to use the cartridges. They were court-martialed and awarded with ten years of imprisonment. As an act of rebel, some buildings were set on fire. Goras and Indians were killed, women, children… some had fled. But the sepoys had freed the 85 sepahi’s and 800 other prisoners in this chaos.

The more Brijsen heard such news, the more he felt faint. The less the joys of his latest acquisitions got. The magenta-soft pashmina shawl that he found in one of the unused guest bedrooms now meant nothing.

The rebel forces had captured Delhi, the revolt had spread to Awadh, Rohilkhand, Bundelkhand, Allahabad, Agra, Bihar. There were civilians rebelling in upper Gangetic plain and central India. Kanwar Singh, Bakht Khan, Nana Sahib, Tatya Tope – Brijsen would hear newer and newer names now from Ali. Rani Lakshmibai, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs were all fighting to overthrow the poor sahibs.

*

Brijsen was a Brahmin, but he had stopped praying a long time ago. What did it matter when he was poor, when he had to toil night and day? He would be a real Brahmin if he was a sahib, a gora sahib or at least, a desi sahib. If he couldn’t… what was the use of caste? God didn’t come to help him like the goras had.

Now Brijsen was enervated with the news of the hangings. The rebels had murdered gora women, children and soldiers in Cawnpore, and the gora soldiers had tied those rebels over the mouths of cannons and blown them to pieces.

Even the thought made Brijsen squirm.

For once he left the Sahib’s leftovers on their plates. For once he did not pick up orphaned objects.

No matter how aloof he tried being, minding his own business, this was turning out to be a heavy shower under a useless umbrella.

One gray morning, as clouds gathered over the tallest distant deodars, Brijsen felt an ugly sensation in his belly. The news of what was going around was causing him indigestion.

He turned towards his gods, whom he had long abandoned. They sat as figurines with the stolen timepieces, spoons, and trinkets.

He joined hands, muttering, “I may not agree with religious sentiments because meat is so tasty… I may not agree with the nation’s sentiments, because I like the goras. But stop the war and the killings, dear god. Why this crazy bloodshed?”

Brijsen’s sleep was ruined as he squatted around the bonfire with the others. He suddenly realized what he had done. He had consumed beef and pork, and here his countrymen had an uprising over the same thing. They lost their lives for what he relished every day.

*

Days passed. Brijsen grew sick. He stared at the ceiling of the attic. He would rise only at twilight, at the passing of one other day as afternoons mellowed to airless, listless evenings.

No one was to disturb him. He did not want food to pass his lips.

He felt the pain of the sepoys, of the people fighting for independence on the streets, for all those who lost their lives for something they believed in.

If the other servants brought food his way, he would throw it away. They thought he was dying. He sipped water sparingly.

In a few short days, Brijsen developed limb-rattling fever. In the nights, it felt as though a train rode over him – his limbs quaking like planks. The fever persisted as he let no medicine pass his lips.

He allowed the fever to become a permanent guest in his body. He coughed, his throat scorched, his ears ached, his eyes watered.

*

In a month, Brijsen’s skin turned sallow and sagged. His body had shrunk as if pulled by the gravity in his stomach.

By May, the sepoy uprising had reached its peak. In a year, the revolt was brought under control by the British. The mutiny that started in Meerut ended by June the next year in Gwalior.

Brijsen lost weight. He lost himself. He was a bag of dying bones. He felt death pass him by, like he had touched the other end. A bottom of something so low, he had reached, that there was nothing lower…

And then he awakened just like that one morning, stirring from this downward-spiraling restiveness, as if stopped by something unimaginable.

He heard bird chip. He felt disembodied like it was a new life. Like it was life after death.

Dragging his frail self he climbed over his cot and hungrily stared outside the attic window at the large bowl of green lawns and white chairs, and the deodar trees shedding their leaves into a mid-air-choreography with the wind, before falling off one after the other off their slow- calibrated swirl. Everything seemed to have timing.

He was an old man in these six months. But something was shining through his hollow eyes.

He asked for food. He needed to get out of his bed, out of the room, and for that he needed energy. He ate ravenously for two weeks, building his appetite over another fortnight.

Then he dragged himself out of his room, across the lawns of the mansion, and went to the gyani who had retired from the temple. When Brijsen reached his house, the gyaani was poring over a thick book. He was skeletal with just a summation of a thin bare chest and a muslin dhoti. Brijsen sat in front of him and posed his questions.

The gyani told him to come back another day. Brijsen made many trips to this gyani walking with more and more strength in his strides each time. The old man gave him the answers he needed from old books on Hinduism in the Vedic period. How there was no Hindu religion. How Hindus were pagans before. How they ate animal meat: deer, fish, dog, boar, antelope, venison, and peacock.

*

After two months, Brijsen resumed the gatherings around the bonfire where Ali spoke of the mutiny, of skirmishes by the Hindus and Muslims against forcible religious conversions by the Britishers.

Brijsen understood Ali better now. He felt tenderness toward all those sitting and listening around the bonfire. He looked kindly around him, at the entire world – a slow ache of peace and love spreading warmly and palpably in his chest.

Then Brijsen put a piece of beef and mashed potato into his mouth and chewed it very slowly, closing his eyes.

There would always be some fight between human beings over this and that. Even religion-based fights would never cease. Today it would be on this, tomorrow that.

This was a new life, thought Brijsen, and a small individual uprising to live, and eat the food his body craved.

Notes:
Mahasu Jatar: An old fair held in front of the Durga Devi temple in Shimla, where 'Natti' dances and folk songs are performed.
Lajawaab: awesome
thaat-bhaat: pomp and show
durzi: tailor
murkh: silly, stupid

*

Rochelle Potkar’s 'The Arithmetic of breasts and other stories' was shortlisted for The Digital Book of the Year Award 2014, by Publishing Next. ‘Four Degrees of Separation’ is her book of poetry. She was a writer-in-residence at the UNESCO city of literature – Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP), Fall 2015. Widely anthologized, a few of her stories and poems have won/shortlisted for awards. Her works were dramatically read and interpreted by veteran actors and dancers on stages in Iowa and Portland, Maine. She has read poetry at several fêtes in Mumbai, Goa, Hyderabad, Chennai, Hong Kong, and Iowa. She conducts creative writing workshops. She blogs at: www.rochellepotkar.com