The breeze was unusually cold. Ratanlal sat in his thatched hut, warming his hands near the haphazard array of burning sticks. With a wrinkled forehead and eyes that gazed back into time, he looked about the far side of forty. Yet there seemed a youthful vigour somewhere about the man, a glow as temporary and varying as the dancing shadows that the flickering flames threw at the mud-plastered wall behind him.
Outside, the wind whistled as it ruffled the vast expanse of whispering wheat-crop. An unearthly hue dominated the north-Indian sky, lending an eerie look to the clump of stones in the graveyard far out in the horizon. A mile or so to the right, a small pin-point of light marked the shining lamp at the temple.
It wasn't really a temple. Or maybe it was. As far as anyone knew, the stones marked with red sindhur and the lamp nearby lent them a feeling of secuity and a big hand to depend mentally upon. The steady point of light kept the ray of hope in the minds of the residents of Bhilampur from flickering out and dying, even in the strongest times of despair.
The makeshift fire soon smoked and gave out, plunging the shack in pitch darkness, except for a silver streak of moonlight which faithfully fell in through the open window and formed a crooked square on the rough floor. Ratanlal sat hugging his knees at the door, looking at the moon and silently wishing upon it.The monsoon was late this year. This was his first time at this field too. He shuddered. Those men, his friends... had warned him against ploughing the land near the gravestones.
"The spirits there make the land barren... they blow away the monsoon clouds to make the crops wither away... the spirits-"
He had disregarded them in a fit of deperate ambition. Acres of land, waiting to be tilled... all for a bumper harvest, he had thought as he whipped his bullocks over the mushy soil. The hope that had beckoned him to this place kept this hope alive.
Taking out his flute, he drew a long soulful raaga into the night air. The atmosphere twitched at the pathos of a solitary figure. He looked at the graveyard, partly visible near the horizon, between the waving tops of his crops. It was getting late into the night. A wavy column of smoke appeared above one of the gravestones. Slowly it climbed into the breeze and assumed a ghostly form. The wind started howling. From near the wheat crops it sounded like a parched soul whispering for water.
Water... the monsoon... rain... all sounded like a dream as he watched his crops reach the brink of death. The well near the hut had long given up its entire supply of water. He had to fetch water from a borewell about four miles away in the nearby village. Five rupees a pitcherful. Six earthen vessels stood under the slab in his hut. The last one was full. He looked longingly at it in the moonlight. Thirst... all that would have to wait... till the rains came. The bhaisaab from the city, who came monthly to the village, said he heard someone in town say that the people who watched the clouds predicted that it would rain in a couple of days. Hoping that it would, he sat gazing into the sky like a hornbill.
Soemwhere in the field, a dog set up a mournful howling. The wind gained momentum. He tried not to look in the direction of the gravestones. Lighting a small fire out of fallen leaves, he went in and sat in the warmth of his hut, huddled in a rag. The monsoon had to come... in just two days his crop would die... just forty eight hours before his dream of a harvest shattered to pieces.
His only hope lay in his prayers. Every evening, after tending to the field, he would walk barefoot to the temple and offer gulmohar flowers from the tree that stood by his hut. "Bhagvanji, please let my crops get water.. let good rain fall on the land.. let the land be fine... let the people get food.." He would spend about half an hour sitting under the banyan tree there, praying and looking at his field. Before dusk he would be in his hut.
The cuckoo cuckooed from the nearly bare branches of the gulmohar tree. The final day. It was today or never. he swallowed a lump that had formed in his throat. He looked up at the sky... as clear as ever. His hopes sank. With a heavy mind, he looked at the last pitcher of water that sat under the stone slab. He lifted it upto his lips... then set it down. No.. water for the field first...
He lifted it up onto his waist and trotted off to the field. The crops looked at the brink of drying up... Slowly, with a heavy heart, he sprinkled water, dipping his hand into the pitcher and waving it about to let the drops of water reach the parched ground. At noon, he had to rest. He opened a bundle he carried in his dhoti and took out two peices of hard roti. Chewing on this, he took a sip of water out of the pitcher. He gratefully let the cool water slide down his throat. In a few minutes he was ready to go. The sky still showed no signs of clouds. Only one thought remained... the temple... pray desperately... Bhagwan would hear his calls. He looked at the water left in the pitcher. His mind wavered... still over a quarter of the field was left.. and it was time for him to offer his daily prayers.. and today he needed Bhagwanji's blessing more than ever. His mind started wavering wildly..
"The crops... water... no monsoon...one year of labour...waste"
"A curse shall fall upon you"
"This day or never..."
"The wrath of Bhagwan will kill you"
Something changed him. An increased vitality overflowed in his veins... one look at the dry field and he was resolute. Anyway he was going to perish... He hoisted the water onto this waist and went into the field with the tramp of a determined ox. All that evening he watered the fields and worked like a man posessed... like a wild bull running madly.
The sun set. A biting wind started to blow.
Somewhere in the direction of the gravestones, an owl hooted.
It struck him like a thunderbolt... he had refused prayers! what would befall him now? He dropped the vessel and ran.
He ran blindly into the field... he did not think about the dangerous vipers and scorpions that plagued the fields at night. Every step took him one step ahead... to his destination. The graveyard looked more ghostly that ever...shrouded in mist. A strange howling had started to emanate from the left of the field... his heart leapt at the sound... The temple light was out... he ran blindly towards the temple. The sky above him roared like an angry buffalo, he heard it not. The stones on the way stung his bare feet, he felt them not. The moonlight had mysteriously disappeared, and he could not see a thing. Yet, something kept his feet racing. The sky above roared louder than ever. The field above suddenly glowed in a flash of blinding violet light... the howling of the wind was at its peak. The spirits... He felt the stone steps of the temple... hurriedly he struck a match and lit the oil lamp near the stone figurine. His heart was beating fast... he was breathless.
Slowly, he felt the fingers of darkness enveloping him... A haunting wail from somewhere rose into the air... Yama... messenger of death... had come for him. He collapsed... Bhagwanji...the curse... he succumbed to his aches.
The sky above clashed in a bolt of brilliant white lighning. Then it opened up... water... Water! The first drops of rain hit him hard in his face...Rain... He opened his eyes, bewildered... the rain-drops fell like stones on his face... He turned and looked back at the lamp... and turned to the sky as there arose the fragrance of the first showers on dry earth... His tears fell like the raindrops... a gentle voice spoke in the wind "You did your duty, my child... and I did mine", while his own cry of joy drowned in the symphony of the monsoon clouds above.