Jeeona The Drummer
Jeeona the Drummer
After saying his early morning prayers he folded the mat. This season it had been unusually cold, but the cane crop was rich. Jeeona knew what it meant. There would be great demand for his labour in the fields. ‘Nobody can work as much and as fast as Jeeona’ proclaimed the village farmers – mostly Jat Sikhs. They paid him well both in cash and kind.
“Jeeona!” it was Jaswant, “are you alive or has your Allah claimed you?”
“O Jaswant, why do you speak ill early in the morning, and that too in the Pir Baba’s presence? Why have you come?” Jeeona asked.
“Have you forgotten already? Today the sugarcane crop has to be harvested.”
The season of gur and shakkar was approaching, as was the time for homemade liquor. Jeeona and other labourers like Yusuf the weaver and Kalu the teli [oil extractor] would be taking time off from their traditional trades to help in the harvesting. These people would be able to meet only a part of the work force required for the job. People from other villages too would come and lend a helping hand. This had been the tradition in pre-partition Punjab.
The First World War had claimed a big chunk of the rural youth population. And the Second World War was now becoming increasingly vicious. Once again young men were being recruited in large numbers to go to distant lands to fight for the Crown.
Jeeona and other men, already past their middle age, were left behind to carry on the village chores under the watchful eyes of the elders. He put on a faded cotton kurta, tied his turban, slipped on the jutti (leather footwear) and, carrying a long bamboo stick, accompanied Jaswant to the fields. There, old women had brought pitcherfuls of buttermilk and loads of bread baked in tandoors. Clarified butter mixed with powdered sugar was the bonus.
All the men ate to their hearts’ content and then started the toil. The reaping continued for hours. When the mellow November sun was overhead they stopped work to rest a while. Buttermilk was served in big tumblers, along with maize-flour roti and mustard saag.
“Jeeona, have you received any letter from your son?” Yusuf asked.
“No.” Jeeona replied, wiping his buttermilk-drenched hairy lips.
“It has been a long time now. Where is he presently? Last time he was in Egypt fighting the Germans.” Kalu said.
“I received his last letter from that front. In it he mentioned that he was promoted to the rank of Naik. But after that he suddenly stopped writing.”
Jaswant, Ramesh and Ram Swaroop were sitting on a cot. Being from higher castes they alone had this privilege. Pulling on the hookah Ramesh said, “Do you know they have made my nephew Sagar a Subedar in the fauj?”
“Really? Where is he posted now?” Jaswant asked.
“In Burma.” Ramesh said, “He had written that in an action his platoon had wiped out a whole company of the Japanese.”
“Did he kill the men from Netaji’s fauj too?” Ram Swaroop, who prided himself in being politically knowledgeable, asked.
“I don’t know.” Ramesh replied uneasily.
“He better not. Gandhiji says that India will become free after the War. If India really becomes independent Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose’s men will personally execute traitors like your son who defend the foreign rulers against their own brothers.” Swaroop said ominously.
“Jeoona, your son was a great wrestler, the pride of our village. I remember you always would beat the drum rather enthusiastically whenever your son entered the arena.”
“True.” Kalu agreed, “But Jeeona himself was no mean wrestler during his youth. Remember in the Baisakhi fair he defeated all the wrestlers in the area? Even today he can work for twenty hours a day without tiring.”
“You’re exaggerating.” Jeeona objected with rather feigned modesty, “But those were really great days. Things were cheap and we didn’t have to stand in a line to get kerosene.”
“Nehruji says that in the Congress raj there will be no shortages.” Kalu said.
“Don’t get carried away by these big people’s uttering. They have a tendency to forget their promises.” Yusuf said sagely.
Yusuf, who also doubled as the village watchman, had not been given a raise in his wages despite the promise made by the village Sarpanch [headman]. For him there was no difference between a sarpanch and a politician.
“But Nehruji is different.” Kalu protested, “he is Gandhiji’s chela [disciple].”
“I hope my son returns before March.” Jeeona said wistfully.
Not surprised by this change of topic both Yusuf and Kalu looked at Jeeona.
“I know your son’s marriage is due in April.” Yusuf said.
“Then we will enjoy your artistry on the drum.” Kalu added.
“Yes. I will play the drum that will make Pir Sahib happy enough to bless my son with a long and healthy life. I want my Abdul to sire a generation of wrestlers like the world champion Gama pehelwaan [wrestler].” Jeeona mused dreamily, “ And I want to play the joyful beats on every wrestling bout featuring my son and even grandsons. I want to do my village proud.”
“I have no doubt you will do so. After all you stay in the house of Pir Baba himself!” Yusuf said.
It was now time for resuming the work; others had already started cutting and tying the cane in bundles. The three men picked up their sickles and joined the rest.
One could hear the joyful songs of village women mingled with the off beat but happy tone of Jeeona’s singing.
After a week the postman arrived. His arrival was always an event. The elders sitting on the village platform, women by the hearths, children in the streets and men in the fields would pause. Hope and anxiety writ large on their faces.
The postman, aware that he was the cynosure of all eyes, would strut to the centre of the village and call out names of those whose letters he had brought. One by one people took their mail and then eagerly asked a literate relative or friend to read out the contents.
On knowing the contents of the respective letters there were varied expressions of joy and sorrow, of jubilation and disappointment, of hope and despair.
Ramesh did a peacock-dance jig and announced, “My son has been made an honorary lieutenant, right on the front after the Japanese beat a hasty retreat in the face of my son’s jabardast hamla.” There were sounds of congratulations from all around.
“Where is Jeeona?” the postman asked in a suddenly soft voice.
“I am here.” Jeeona came forward eagerly.
“This is for you.” He took out a sealed telegramme message and handed over to the drummer.
“Could you read it out to me, and why a telegramme?” Jeeona was perplexed.
Before the hesitating postman could read out the telegramme an army jeep came there. It stopped a few yards away from the gathering. A Major and two NCOs alighted.
“Who among you is Jeeona?” one of the NCOs asked politely.
“I am Jeeona, sahib, what is the matter, is my son…”
The major moved forward and placed his hand on Jeeona’s shoulder. He said softly, “Naik Abdul was a brave soldier. He killed twenty Germans single-handedly in a bayonet charge. We are proud of him and shall always remain so…”
“Is he… killed?” Jeeona asked choking out the dreaded word.
The major bowed his head and signalled to the NCOs. They brought out of the jeep a neatly packed parcel containing Abdul’s uniform and few personal belongings. With great respect they handed it over to Jeeona.
There was hush in the village.
Those who were eating sweets in celebration a moment ago shamefacedly threw them into the mud. Some even sobbed. The wind stilled. Dogs stopped barking and the birds stopped chirping. Silence palled the gathering.
Jeeona took the clothes. His face impassive, he lurched homewards. Words of consolation from the village people failed to penetrate the numbness that had enveloped his consciousness. On entering the Pirkhana he quietly placed the parcel on the cot and bolted the doors. He sat down on the floor in a daze…
That night, for the first time, drumbeats from the Pirkhana sent a chill up the spine of the entire village.
It was relentless, plaintive, melancholy…as if he was asking the deity of the Pir’s shrine…”Why me Baba, why me?”
Nobody dared go and disturb the mourning drummer.
Next morning people found Jeeona’s body half bent on the parcel, with his face upturned towards the Holy Quran that was kept on a shelf, facing West.
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