I think I started writing the story about him many times but I can’t find anything in the old files. But it is filed there in my mind with indelible ink. It won’t go unless I lose my mind to Alzheimer’s. Dementia is setting in in my old brain. I forget things or should I say their number is increasing. It will be more suitable to my disposition, a better description of my personality. If I don’t be truthful, the people who know me will stop trusting me. Well, let me not go deeper in to it because the person who is supposed to trust me the most, doesn’t trust me at all. She thinks I am a liar. This, though is a compliment to a writer, it is only of some worth if one is a good writer, which I am not.
Timber was used for starting a fire in the angithee, a traditional brazier that was the mainstay of cooking in the kitchen during my childhood. Though hot gas kerosene stoves had come in the market they worked as standbys. Kerosene supply as always was strictly controlled based on assigned quota for a family. But in any case, a stove is not what Angheethi is.
In a cold hilly place like Shimla, dry wood for starting a fire wasn’t easily available. There were jungles abound and the land sharks hadn’t arrived on the scene yet. Hardly any construction activity could be seen around in the town, though the old buildings were regularly burning down to ashes even with uncanny regularity in all cases electrical short-circuit was found to be the cause. Whether it was the Plan A of the land mafia being implemented or not is beyond me to say with certitude but it was unmistakably there.
Though there was some kind of regulatory mechanism in place it consisted by and large of self-serving inept and corrupt people. Thwack, thwack..far at a distance every day after sunset, the sound of ax falling on the wood could be heard. It would be another woodcutter, sweating it out in the jungle, chopping wood for eking out a living. An unpaved path running uphill passed by our house. The extended plinth on which our majestic lodge stood had about four square meters of flat land in front of the entrance to our house. This flat part being a meter above the adjacent path acted as an ideal platform for resting the heavy load. There were two stone steps for coming on a level with the platform and there was a tree with sparse leaves on the left edge right where the steps broke from the path. This tree, the only one of its kind perhaps in Shimla that has a rich variety of foliage, offered a refreshing shade for the tired vendors, porters, and Khans (Hatos) who walked this way. The morning sun rising above a high mountain topped with thick tall trees would make the whole platform dappled with shade and light.
The image of Sadhu Ram a woodcutter carrying his load day after day and calling “Lakadi lelo” has stayed fresh on my mind for half a century. There was nothing unique in that gaunt, pale and emaciated young man to have left an indelible impression on my mind except for one incident involving him. Winter was setting in and mother had started stocking chopped wood. The wood these woodcutters brought was not dry. It needed to be sunned. A huge wooden box which we called “peyti” lay in our veranda that got sunshine the whole afternoon every day. The box contained the stock of coal while its top was used for stocking wood. It lay there drying up in the sun till it was used. Mother always bought his load of wood and she never bargained for price with him.
“He is studying in the college”, she said.
“He sells wood for earning money for paying his fees.”
“Buying wood from him is my way of helping him.”
Dad’s younger brother who was in the army had come to Shimla on transfer. He hadn’t yet got accommodation and so he was staying with us. Mother was busy with the morning routines when this boy came with a fresh load of chopped wood. Our uncle was outside enjoying the cool breeze and brushing his teeth with a ‘datun’. I was also out there, welcoming the sun.
Parjhayee, lakkad te nayin laini? He called
(Sis- in-law, you need wood, do you?)
Buy it, she called from inside.
‘Kitne ki deni hai bhayee?’
How much for this?
‘Ek Rupaya mein le lo Sir
Take it for a rupee Sir
Ek Rupaya, tera dimagh theek hai?
One rupee for this? Are you out of your mind?
Lelo Sir, chalo chaudha aane de do ( One rupee in old currency denomination comprised of sixteen annas.)
Ok, Take it for fourteen annas Sir
‘Bahut mehnat karani padhati hai.’
‘Really, have to work very hard for it.’
Work Hard? Hmmm.
‘Chori ke liye bhi mehnat hi karani padhati hai.’
‘For stealing too, one has to work hard.’
‘Ye chori ki nahin hai Sir.’
This not a stolen stuff Sir.
‘Jo ped van vibhag wale khsatigrast ghoshit kar ke bech dete hain, ham khareed lete hain, ye lakadi unki hai.’
‘We buy the trees that are sold when the people working in the forest department declare them damaged and discard them.’
‘Mujhe ulloo banate ho? Kshatigrast..Hahaha- wo bhi chor aur tum bhi chor.’
Are you fooling me? Damaged, Hahaha- Thieves they are and so are you.
‘Chhe aanne lene hain to le le, nahin to ise yahan chhod de aur nikal le.’
Six annas? Take it, if you want- otherwise, just leave it here and get lost.
‘Main police lines mein khada hoon.’
I am standing in the Police Lines
‘Main tujhe andar bhi karwa doonga.’
I will get you locked up.
The young man got terrified. He had tears in his eyes.
‘Nahin Sir, mujh par reham karo.’
No, Sir, take pity on me.
‘Daya? Hahaha- Choron par koyi daya nahin karta’
‘Nobody takes pity on thieves.’
Uncle laughed out loud and told him to get lost.
Do you want six annas or not, I am asking you for one last time?
Sadhu Ram didn’t say anything. I saw he was crying. He folded the blanket that he was using as a cushion between the load and his back. He put it on his shoulder and went down the path. He didn’t take the money my uncle offered to him.
Uncle went to the police lines to chat, share cigarettes, and have tea with policemen in the barracks he had befriended. Maybe, there he spoke about his shenanigans with his friends.
I came in and narrated the whole incident to the Mom and I saw that she was crying.
I too started crying and I said.
‘Mummy, ab wo lakkad hara apane college ki fees kaise dega?’
Mummy, how will that woodcutter pay his fees?
I thought for a while and then spoke again
Mummy, Kya who lakkdhara chor hai?
Mummy, is that woodcutter, a thief?
Mother didn’t say anything but the incident left a lasting impression on my mind.
What do you think dear friends?
Was that woodcutter a thief?
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