My farm in Sidhrawali was quite small, built on half an acre of land. I bought it from my old office worker, Ch Shyampal, six years ago. He had now retired and further down the road he farmed his two lots of ten acres each and drove a red and white Mitsubishi Pajero with “CHOUDHARY” written proudly on the rear windshield, as well as a graffito by a man in a resplendent pink turban twirling his mustache.
Once in his front room, from inside the mango wood diwan I was sitting on, he had pulled out two 10-kilogram bags of fertilizer. One was filled with bundles of thousand rupee bills and the other with five hundred rupee bills. To the brim. The land boom of the past decade along the NH8 has been of great benefit to him and my neighbors.
My farm had a two story mud house built by local artisans and a smaller brick and mortar outbuilding in which a couple of farm laborers from Malda lived. They worked in the neighboring fields and also took care of my small farm. They grew seasonal vegetables there and sold them at the local market in Sidhrawali. I intended to install sprinklers for the New Year. I had bought this farm to get away from the city and so far it suited me very well. My wife and eight year old son also loved the place, but in the summer we didn’t go too often and even then we rarely stayed overnight as the electricity supply could be very spotty. But during the winter months, November to March, we visited every weekend.
Rifat works as an actuary for a major shipping company in Chanakyapuri and was now on assignment in Boston for three weeks with our son Robin. This long work-related journey was also due to the fact that, for the first time in our twelve-year marriage, we were facing problems. She suspected that I was continuing with one of my authors, an excellent Bihari Dalit novelist from Calcutta.
His new book, Goghana: the visitorIn fact, she was on what she impertinently called a “ChutSpa” in the Himalayas to recover from postpartum depression. We hear they are doing wonders with Amaryllis belladonna there. Just a month ago, I sold the North American rights to the book to Masters, Stuart & Goodman in New York.
Rifat had read one of her very fulfilling yellow post-it notes attached to the second proofs when she returned them. It wasn’t much to say, but Rifat had volunteered for this trip to Boston in order to “think”. I knew I was clear and Rifat Pandita-Nair would be back before long. I had been very, very discreet.
“You have no understanding of caste, John. This story of Dalit literature is just a fad for you. A Jatav is as good as a Jat for you. Or from an Ansari to a Sherwani for that matter, ”Rifat once told me. I bristled with its sharpness and cried, “And it should be so, my dear daughter.” At the Hindu College Hostel at Delhi University, I marveled at the deep sociological sense of my friends from the small towns of Bihar, UP, Haryana and Rajasthan; their innate ability to decipher caste or “phylum”, as they called it, from a name, an accent and sometimes even physiognomy.
It bothered me that I couldn’t classify people by their noses. That maybe I was not Bharatiya enough. Not authentic enough. But not anymore. I now realize that in India too much caste knowledge is as debilitating as too little. A studied indifference, I think, is the best solution. Of course, it helps a bit if you were born Nair and not Nadar.
After the last celebration of Eid at my in-laws in Greater Noida, Robin had recounted the event, the rituals, the party, the gifts he had received during the weekly “sharing time” period at his school. . A friend of his, Chauhan, later told him that Muslims were not Indians. They were strangers, Chauhan’s grandfather had informed him.
Of course, Robin was a little upset when he got home that night. But more than him, it was Rifat that I saw the most disturbed. So I took Robin aside and said, “Well, Chauhan should know. He is a Rajput and they always gave their wives to the Mughals for land, possession and office. Jahangir, Shah Jahan, Aurangzeb, Shah Alam – they were all half-Rajputs. I will get you a book on Mughal miniatures and you will see how their noses straighten out over the centuries, from Babur to Bahadur Shah Zafar.
“One of these days you’ll cause a riot,” Rifat laughed and told me later that evening after Robin informed his mother about our conversation. “And listen, women are not property. I am certainly not your property. Sometimes I worry about your authors. For a publisher, your opinions are sometimes surprisingly regressive.
“In India, everyone faces prejudices. From Dalit to Brahmin. From Sherwani to Ansari. From Jaat to Mazhabi. From Kashmir to Malayali. Even the Rajputs, as dear old Chauhan will understand tomorrow. Only the degrees vary. My God, how I hate to “share time!” This is bloody counterintelligence. And listen, dear girl, you might not be my property, but I sure am yours. I then reached out and kissed her full on the mouth.
Extracted with permission from The Time of the Peacock: A Short Novel, Siddharth Chowdhury, Aleph Book Company.