Some days ago, I was visiting a friend. A friend in a village.
A typical one at that. The village, I mean. Small roads. Large fields. A trickle of electricity. A fainter trickle of water. Large trees. Strong community and dense roots that stand above the ground. In ever so many ways, that class two biology lessons of roots being under the soil is brought to question. The village temple and its dried up tank that can sit easily as a pretty desktop image on the latest iMac. An apology of a road. You get the picture, dont you?
But most importantly, every house has a few pairs of eyes staring at you as you pass by. You could think of yourself as a celebrity and if the optimistic imagination is sufficiently pepped up, you could even imagine your visage to bear a striking resemblance to the handsome hulk of a bollywood star who ends up selling underwear on TV. Such level of interest the village folk’s never ending gaze accord you.
If you aren’t familiar with the salubrious rhythms of village life, you would lose the fact that the same pairs of eyes that looked at you with great interest are are trained on everything that moves and doesn’t move. Every fly and its distant cousin doing aimless sorties flying from the two drops of oil spilt on the kitchen tawa to the yesterdays remnants of jalebi, and such else. Not just you.
In the absence of such understanding, you could be enveloped by a sudden sense of importance or an inveterate disquiet that could soak top to toe with sweat. Especially so, if you are from a big city and live in a high rise. Where your only evidence of life behind a neighbour’s door is the instantaneous disappearance of the newspaper from his front door after it is aimlessly tossed to land at the precise spot by the kid that delivers it.
If you love the city life that breeds a minute to minute frenzy, you would go open mouthed at this incredible ‘waste of time’, as a friend described. To be able to just sit at your doorstep and see the fly and its pregnant cousin squat on the inverted tumbler that just held a hot cup of tea, for hours on end, is something. Cloaked in what seems to be an easy act lies a way of thinking and an ability whose order of magnitude is far larger than it seems.
A city dweller in the same time, would have done a dozen other things. Pay the bill, check the newspaper, run three and a half other errands, plan when the last part of the errand needs to be completed, tried a new shirt, debated on the Iraq war etc. If he had a smart phone on him, well, his accomplishments would stand just short of preparing for a moon landing. Or so you would think, looking at the furrowed brow and incredible focus on the face.
No. No judgements on either way of life and living. Both are ways of life and living. Different ways of living. Let me tell you a secret if you promise not to tell this to anyone : True joy comes in knowing, living with and loving both ways of living.
Wait a minute. At a far more vicarious level, there is even greater joy hearing one group talk about the other. The city dweller has a remarkable ways of dismissing his village cousin. “Villager” he calls him, and doesn’t see the need to say anything else. That one word, in his mind has an all encompassing pejorative flair.
The village view of the high rise based urban living, is tinged with sarcasm and a disdain filled disregard. Starting with waking up to a shriek of the alarm clock and not to natures subtle hints of morning. “A creeper on an electric wire”, said a friend who has made the village his home.
On this particular day, we revel in conversation and company. Me and the village friend. The still air and silent village fields soaked up our laughter and arguments, in exchange for some peace and calm. As the Sun goes his way into the west, I make my customary promises to return soon and drive back.
It is a single track apology of a road, dotted with electricity poles and the odd villager staring at you like you have just escaped from the local prison.
It is then, that a herd of cattle cross the road. The road, realisation dawns has been doing a Moses like parting of the fields. The cattle and their herdsmen join the long list of people who don’t give a damn to roads and to people on them.
Languidly they start crossing. Armed with the mobile phone’s camera prowess, I step out and click a picture of the first lot that crosses. A random sparse trickle at first. Then a herded bunch. The random and violent clangs of multiple bells, the kicking of raw hooves on land and then tar is does something to the air. Dust and dung of this magnitude, at dusk, is new to me. This is a large herd. Thin and scrawny. Furiously kicking and inching forward.
Its a full ten minutes. Maybe more. I turn around to see a long line of smaller cars, bikes, buses and a lorry standing behind me. The cattle standing in between us and our journey to the city. A similar line up on the other side. People who are returning to the village after day of work in the city. Waiting for the cows to cross the road. Sort of like an unmanned level cross for a train. The vehicles line up in order, behind me. Nobody messes with the cows. They must be muttering and cursing, I think.
The cattle don’t seem to care. They are headed home after their daily grazing. They amble. Some nudge the ones ahead. Others gallop for no reason. Yet others cantor without a care. A smile escapes my eye. This is just like the herd that I see everyday. On the roads of Mumbai. A different kind of herd going home from work. The herd that I am part of.
After what seems like an eternity, the last of the cattle cross. A few young herdsmen who have been holding up the rear, amble across. With long sticks, catcalls and strange whistles that herd the cattle through. As they cross the road, I realise the engines of vehicles behind me have purred to life and the honks are ready to blare. There is a limit to the wait and that time was up.
The last of the herdsmen, turns looks at me and smiles. The smile that could befit a victorious commander at war. His cows have held traffic on either side without a care in the world.
Within seconds of many engines jumping to life, mayhem descends to dance in spectacular splendour on the village road, as every single vehicle and its driver wants to get ahead first. The fresh marks of random hooves would soon disappear as motorists with animal instincts would ply their wares. Another herd will take over.
Us, our herds and our mentalities. An evergreen grassland of a topic that can hold fodder for never ending thought and argument. Until the cows come home! Maybe, much longer.