During the 1940’s the Indian Independence movement was at its peak. Under Mahatma Gandhi leadership the nation had united as one and risen against the colonial masters. Victorious but badly bruised in the World wars, Britain was in no
shape to manage such a huge empire, and was eager to make a graceful exit. The King of our state had declared his allegiance to the British monarch long back. The villagers on their part used to pay up their taxes or whatever part of it they could manage and lived peacefully. One of these villagers was my grandfather, who owned a couple of shops, where he sold everything from groceries to fine muslin cloth.
Earlier the British officers hardly ever came to our village as there was nothing there of interest nor anything of value that could be carted back home. That was until one of the princes from the royal family, while on a hunting expedition discovered a natural beach near our village, hidden, behind a thick wall of trees. The prince had the jungle cleared and built a palace there. This palace was used as a beach resort, a place where the rich and powerful would come over to relax and get away from the tensions brewing in the capital. Overnight our village became an important transit point for a regular stream of visiting dignitaries, mostly members of the royal family and British officers.
Grandfather being one of the prominent business-men in the area was usually called upon to provide supplies for the guests at the palace. Requests would come in for silk dresses, curtains, carpets, muslin cloth, items not affordable nor commonly used by the locals and as such never stocked. Grandfather would have welcomed this extra business had it not been for the fact that the payments for these goods never came on time. On the rare occasions when the royal guests did pay up, they would haggle more than the locals.
Grandfather had a big family to take care of. He and grandmother had ten children; besides these there were two extra family members who lived with us. The two extra mouths were grandmother’s brothers, both of whom were older than her and had no other place to go. Kind hearted that he was grandfather did not mind them, for compared to the so called nobles who never paid their bills; these were after all family members. The brothers, as was the practice in those days were named after the gods, the elder one was called Hari and the younger was Narayanan. Unlike their names their behavior and habits were far from godly. Regular fixtures at all the wrong places in the village, they used to frequently get into brawls and were considered a disgrace to the family name. The brothers though had their areas of specialization, Hari the older of the two, was a wrestler and had the size and physique that went with it. The younger brother, Narayanan was a dreamer and a poet who used to write passable lines of verse, whenever he was sober. Grandfather had initially tried to get them to help out at his shops but soon realized that their surly behavior was driving away even the regular customers. Finally he agreed to pay them a monthly dole, just to keep them from bothering him.
With the independence movement moving into its final stages, talk of the British leaving India was now being discussed openly. Parties at the beach palace were also getting wilder and the order lists longer. With the possibility of a change in the administration post-independence, the officials both Indian and British were now on a looting spree. With almost no chances of any payments coming in once these officials were removed, Grandfather on the advice of his brother in laws, decided to hoard his existing stocks.
We had farm lands in different corners of the village, and on these farms were small huts where the workers used to keep their implements. Huge holes were dug inside these huts, which were then stuffed with crates full of the expensive items from our shops. Grandfather had never perfected the art of lying convincingly, so he was persuaded by the family members to go on a pilgrimage and in his absence, management of the shops was taken over by the two brothers. One look at Hari’s massive arms and most of the palace employees would leave without pestering us.
The arrangement seemed to work perfectly for a few weeks, until one day the local British police inspector himself came over to enquire why none of the items in his list were being delivered. Riding a splendid white horse and in full official dress, a crowd of villagers quickly formed around him eager not to miss any of this free entertainment. It was not normal for a British officer to move around like this unescorted, maybe, he was on his way to the beach resort and had thought of dropping by to try and rough up the local shopkeepers.
Hari, who was minding the shop that day, came out and even though like the rest of the villagers he did not understand a word of what the officer was saying, he knew the reason why he was there. He went up to the British officer and shook his head and said the only English word he knew.
“No, No” he said and shook his head vigorously to emphasize the point.
The angry officer was furious now and started shouting, his face turning a bright red much to the delight of the gathered audience. He was nudging the horse with his boots and seemed to be about to ride into the shop, horse and all, when Hari grabbed hold of the horse’s reigns and pulled. The sudden action and Hari’s strength was too much for the horse which reared and threw its rider to the ground.
The officer landed flat on his back. The previous night’s rain and people walking through it had already churned up the mud outside the shop into a sticky paste and it was into this that the officer was now spread out. The sight of the young British officer on the ground, with mud sticking to his uniform and Hari holding on to the reins of the horse was more than the crowds gathered there had expected to see. Some of the more aggressive people in the crowd were now cheering and started shouting slogans in support of the freedom struggle, while the others were trying to silence them. The officer got up with as much dignity as possible for one in his condition and started shouting at Hari.
Hari, who for the first time in his life was being appreciated by his fellow villagers, was not going to let some young, white man dominate him and that too in his own village. He was also angry now and moved menacingly towards the young officer. What happened next is a part of local folklore; the young officer pulled out his pistol and shot at Hari from point blank range.
Caught abruptly by the bullet, Hari it is said stood there on the spot for a few seconds and then slowly collapsed and fell back on the ground. The officer got on his horse and even before anyone could react, left the scene of the crime. By the time the crowd realized what had happened or could react, it was already too late for Hari.
Later on the enquiry into the incident would claim that Hari had threatened the life of the police office, who already surrounded by a hostile crowd, had to fire to save himself. He got away with a reprimand and was immediately transferred to another state. The incident got a passing reference in one of the regional papers and was hardly noticed as more important events dominated the headlines. India got its independence, the British sailed out, the King got replaced and democracy moved in.
While in our village people decided to honor Hari, and declare him as a freedom fighter. Some argued against this as they considered him unfit for such an honor. Then there were saner voices in the crowd who reminded the others that not everyone was perfect and you needed all types to make the world. Today in our village we have a community park where children come to play and the old sit and gossip. In the middle of this park is a plaque which describes how a young man gave up his life to help build this nation. Above the plaque is a bronze statue of a young man, who stares out as if still watching over the people in his village.