There are very few farms so perfectly rectangular. An irrigation canal and a real road with buses kiss one edge, and a peripheral ten-foot path is for tractors lugging trolleys, harrows, seed-drills and such heavy implements to the farthest acres. It is on this overgrown dirt road with two parallel deep ruts that I so often walked in solitude in the crisscross shade of eucalyptus trees outlining the farm.
I knew every bush, every anthill well and I suppose they were aware of my meandering thoughts as well. I imagined them whispering to each other when I wasn’t too close. That’s the son, they would probably say, look how lonely he looks, which was true. Being an educated in the village, especially on the farm, did limit the conversation to crops and their enemies at best. I carried in the pocket of my olive-green canvas jacket three things: a parantha in silver foil, a knuckle-duster shaped like a crude pistol and the novel I was reading. I would sit just anywhere I chose and disappear into the world of Russian, American, German, French or Japanese fiction. My books had become a joke in a radius of ten miles. They could not understand what pleasure lay in those pages when I could just as well be staring at the lovely hills in the distance or a hand of cards on a cot under a neem tree. The disconnection with humanity was so perfect that I had too much time lounging on my palms. If you compare it with life in the city, you may envy my loneliness.
A python twice my length was inching towards the driver’s seat, unbothered by the racket the king it had dethroned made. (Wikimedia Commons)
On the farm road I mentioned, was a small brickwork arch-bridge, the kind you see in paintings with miles of farmland in all directions. Sometimes the expanse wore golden and sometimes all the hues of green and brown. And because a road should be higher than fields, the view became interesting. I could see the workers like ants, going about their business of repetition. I think I pulled myself away for few hours every day so that I didn’t become another dot in the picture. In the late 1980s, mobile phones were fiction and internet was laughable.
Under the bridge, I sat upon was a thin stream that had paused for reflection and become a pool. It was my afternoon or morning television depending on the season. In the rains, I sat there with a large umbrella staring at the patter raindrops made and the tiny life that emerged from and disappeared into the rushes. The silence became music with the faraway chug of pumps and tractors and shouts of people calling out each other. The plop of the frog taking a dive didn’t drown in noise. I could almost hear the wind in the trees whisper to the wheat in the fields. The little bridge was definitely my spot.
It was drizzling that August evening when I left the long line of men and women weeding in the paddy and headed for my seat of solitude. I was barefoot and knew where to step. As usual, my corduroys were folded up to the knees. The red umbrella was hung over my head like an exotic vampire bat. Let me tell you it was also a weapon of sorts because of the harpoon-like point, and a shield if held before me. It would have been of great use in a bullfight.
Steinbeck’s East Of Eden I was in the thick of then. Being a fatter book, the bulge in my pocket got indulgent stares and sly condescending smiles of passers-by. The bridge was hardly ten feet away when a hiss, angrier than any I’d ever heard, froze me. I backed off a bit out of respect for a reptile I could not see but imagined to be huge by the size of the noise it made. I waited for a couple of minutes and stepped forward again. Again the hiss, more ferocious this time. It came from the tall grass at the pool’s edge. I calculated somebody was out hunting frogs and did not approve of an overgrown boy disturbing the meal. I tried once more and couldn’t still see the gust of fury that had crept a few feet closer. The wise thing I reckoned would be to retrace my steps and forget a meeting with Mister Steinbeck that day.
Months passed and Billa, our driver-manager, was ploughing a plot in preparation for lentil. I sat on sacks of Muriate of Potash, fully engrossed in Maxim Gorky’s Mother when a yell made me glance up. A strange sight I beheld. The tractor stood still in the middle of the field and Billa stood on the bonnet of the tractor. He was shouting and stomping like a fool. His long Tolstoy-beard blowing in the breeze added to the comical scene before me. I remained where I was ready to be entertained more and was right. The next thing I saw was him clambering onto the canvas hood of the machine. That was indeed precarious, he could have fallen off in peak season. I had to take stock.
As I approached the spectacle, the man’s gestures became even more animated, his bellowing became louder. Other workers too had heard him and were running towards him. I reached first and saw first what the commotion was about. A python twice my length was inching towards the driver’s seat, unbothered by the racket the king it had dethroned made. I threw clods of mud and soon the men joined in. The beast hissed infuriated. The more we attacked the louder it hissed and the more I was sure this was the terrorist I had met, and not seen, near the bridge.
What happened next is a bad dream. The python dropped off the tractor. Billa came down from his shameful perch. He started the engine, and amidst my protests drowned in cheers ran the tractor and plough over the majestic reptile several times. Needless to say, I felt no victory over the bully — of mice and men — from the bridge.