Umar was practicing mathematics sitting on the rug of gunny sack in candlelight outside his hut made up of hay. It was middle of April but heat wave had started blowing early. Bugs were whirling around the candle falling on mathematics book and Umar’s notebook. But he was totally engrossed in his study unperturbed by mosquito bites without noticing the bugs and cries of siblings inside the hut.
The half-yearly examination of the ninth class was going on. He had his last paper tomorrow. Umar was stuck proving a theorem on cyclic quadrilateral. The mathematics teacher, his favorite Raj Kumar Babu had emphasized on this theorem and he expected a question on the theorem tomorrow.
There was a gush of air which put out the candle. He again lighted it and tried to concentrate. The wind again blew off the candle. He closed his book, wrapped his rug and moved inside the hut to study. There came storm followed by rain.
There was a heavy downpour and his hut leaked the entire night. His mother Gharibun Nisha, elder sister Sakina and two younger brothers sheltered in one corner of the hut which was leaking less due to plastic sheet hung from inside to save valuables in the hut. There was a sack of flour and rice, an empty oil canister with pulses and bundled clothes to save from rainwater.
It was still pre-dawn when Umar woke up and went towards the bamboo plantation to attend nature’s call. There was puddle just outside his hut. The pathway was also submerged in water after heavy rain. He folded up his pyjama and trudged through the logged water.
The darkness was disappearing and he knew that in a few minutes everything will be visible. He moved easily in darkness as he walked this path every day. He reached the mound inside the bamboo plantation and relieved himself. He cut a branch of the neem tree, peeled off its bark, crushed it under his right molar and brushed his teeth.
He had read in his book of Rajbhasha, Hindi that brushing teeth with Neem provides immunity from all kind of dental diseases. The muezzin call for prayer reverberated far and wide. He proceeded towards the mosque to offer Fajr prayer.
Umar went to the Sajhapokhar after he finished the mathematics theorem he was stuck at last night. Sajhapokhar was a pond in the village dug by villagers several years ago when drought hit the region. He avoided taking bath on the common hand pump well installed spending punishment money collected from Labro the lame weaver and Kamrul the mason last year.
The penalty was imposed by the revered Jamal Sahib whose decision was implemented by force in Chainpur. Jamal sahib lived in posh Zakaria Street of Kolkata and owned property there.
He used to visit Chanipur twice a year with his minions whom he provided shelter in Kolkata. The minions comprised of lucky people whom sahib chose and ordered to accompany him to Kolkata. Whenever Jamal Sahib visited the village the minions would accompany him too.
These people worked in the factory of sahib and got food and shelter in lieu of work. Sahib sometimes would send some money to the minions’ family whom he was pleased with. These minions were powerful enough to encroach upon the land, occupy houses of others, reap the crops of other’s fields, forced marriage their sons and daughters with chosen ones in the village.
There was a writ of Sahib in the village which was implemented by the minions. In-fact association with the Sahib was enough to create havoc and to tame anybody in the village. Umar loathed the villagers for their cowardice. He always remembered how his father was ostracized by the villagers as decided by the Sahib without giving the opportunity to defend his case.
Umar’s father, Sabir Ali suffered a heart attack after the Kangaroo court of Jamal Sahib had decided to cut the crops of Sabir Ali’s paddy field and give half of the produce to Motiur Rahman who had a false claim on the land of Sabir Ali and half of the produce to madarsa of Chainpur.
There was some murmuring against the unjustifiable penalty imposed on Sabir Ali but the villagers had to toe the line. The social boycott didn’t end even after the death of Sabir Ali. Maulvi Taslimuddin, the imam refused to lead the funeral prayer of Sabir Ali as he feared Jamal Sahib might not like it.
Maulvi Taslimuddin visited Kolkata every year during Ramdhan to collect zakat money for madarsa. During his stay in Kolkata, the Maulvi stayed with Jamal Sahib and was feasted every day.
When Umar returned from Sajhapokhar he found his mother had roti and chatni of green chilli ready for him. He gobbled the last morsel without properly chewing it and hurried to his school few kilometers away. He had to rush as he knew that there will be a slippery trail on the way to school and he will have to walk slowly.
On the way to school, he found that the roofs of several huts were blown off and villagers were helping each other putting it back. A widow was wailing as her eatables; atta, rice, pulses were destroyed by the rainwater. He found Kareem chacha the weaver, his father only friend in the village, busy in straightening and washing yarn sullied in the storm and rain last night.
A lady was searching for her goat which strayed last night. She also asked Umar whether he saw a black goat with white spots anywhere. While passing by Jamal Sahib’s house he observed the storm and rain couldn’t do any damage to this high and mighty of Chainpur. Even nature’s fury was for the destitute.
When Umar reached the other end of his village, chainpur, he slipped and fell down in a pool of water wetting his only clothes fit for the school. On reaching Sheikhpura Umar shouted and called Aslam out of his hut. Aslam came out opening an umbrella as it started drizzling again. Aslam asked Umar to come inside the umbrella cover. On observing Umar’s wet clothe, Aslam offered his clothes but Umar refused as they were getting late for examination.
The bell had already rung when they reached school. They entered the classroom running and panting. The invigilator for the examination was Raj Kumar Babu, the mathematics teacher. He asked Umar and Aslam to take a seat and settle fast. Raj Kumar Babu gave them question paper and answer sheet. Umar scanned the question paper and opened the sheet to start answering. But to his horror, he couldn’t find the pen in his shirt’s pocket.
Raj Kumar Babu observed Umar panicking and understood that Umar had lost pen on the way to school. He offered Umar his pen which he accepted hesitatingly. Raj Kumar Babu lightened Umar’s mood saying his pen would fetch him good marks.
His mother served him rice with daal and chokha when Umar returned from school. He was too hungry to care for the coldness of food or taste of it. When he finished eating his mother asked him to go and summon Kareem chacha.
Umar found Kareem chacha in his loom working on the sheet which would be sold to Mahajan Mangal Singh for the paltry sum of money to be processed further before the sale on premium price in the high-end market. He greeted Kareem chacha and conveyed the message that his mother wanted to meet him. He assured Umar that he would come once he finished the work.
Gharibun Nisha asked her daughter, Sakina to prepare milk tea for kareem chacha. This was also to send her away so that she didn’t hear the conversation about her marriage. Gharibun Nisha reminded Kareem that Abdul Khaliq of Rampura had shown interest for the marriage of his son, Kaamil.
Sabir Ali visited Rampura and invited Abdul Khaliq for the negotiation about marriage but Sabir’s untimely death delayed the negotiation. It was decided that Kareem and Umar should go and invite them for negotiation on the date of Abdul Khaliq’s convenience.
Next day, just after fajr prayer Kareem and Umar set off for Rampura. Abdul Khaliq was opening his kirana shop when Kareem and Umar reached Rampura. After customary greeting and chit-chat, Abdul Khaliq enquired about the purpose of their visit. Kareem reminded him of Sabir Ali’s for negotiation for the marriage of his daughter Sakina with Kamil.
Abdul Khaliq started scratching his head and told Kareem with a devious smile that Sabir Ali offered Rs. 25000 in cash and other items traditionally given in dowry. He enquired whether the cash was brought before negotiation to start. Kareem and Umar couldn’t say a word as they knew that it was beyond the capacity of Gharibun Nisha to give so much money in cash. Kareem wanted some more time from Abdul Khaliq for consultation in the family and took leave.
While returning from Rampura, they didn’t talk. Umar’s mother was curiously waiting for their return. She fainted when she heard of demand. Umar couldn’t bear the sight and decided at once to drop out of school and go to Delhi to work in a factory where he had a distant relative working as a supervisor.
Umar assured Gharibun Nisha when she gained consciousness that days of hardship were over……..the dark horse got unleashed and was raring to go out of the stable.