Jagat Thakur briefly closed his weary eyes and sighed deeply before opening them again. As he gazed at his wife, he released the mournful air that was the only witness to the despair that prowled within his chest. Anjani was his succour in a life of toil. His rapture with her had begun in their youth with the song that escaped her sweet lips as she hung the damp dhotis and saris that flapped gently against her in the mild breeze. At that moment, however, her expression was pained as she softly tapped Dharam, their six-year-old boy. Overwhelming shame made Jagat turn the other way, the charpoy, a woven jute rope bed, creaking as he changed position. But sleep was an elusive shadow for broken men to embrace.

The room was nearly bare. A few pots and pans made of clay and iron were strewn about. Brittle wood in a bundle. A picture of Lord Ganesha against the prayer shrine wall, which their son had learnt to fervently pray to – even at his young age, a few stone deities, and a clay lamp still burning below them, a lighthouse in the desolate sea of their abode. These sat astride the almirah, an old wooden bureau that stood three legged on the cow dung floor.

As he absorbed his surroundings, Jagat felt the shame of a weakened man. A defeated progeny of the once-proud Khangars of Jalaun, a sub-caste of Kshatriya warriors, who had valiantly fought against foreign invaders from the stone citadels of the Garh Kundar Fort built by their clan in Tikamgarh so many centuries ago. His own grandfather had once been a part of warrior history in the Sepoy Rebellion, fighting alongside the Rani of Jhansi. Now, Jagat did odd jobs for the feudal Zamindar family when they needed him, many of the tasks well below the dignity of his caste; regal landowners themselves many generations back, before becoming impoverished under foreign rule.

Eventually, he reached out to Anjani, his hand gently stroking her tired breasts, wanting to engage in the one pleasure that life still allowed them. She shook her head. “Bachcha, bachcha!” she whispered, pointing at their child. He drew back, feeling the indignity of his ill-timed attempt at the indulgence. When sleep eventually came for Jagat, that too was troubled. Dreams abounded of men cremating wives and sons before husbands and fathers – the wrong way around.

The nightmare played itself out, its effects revealed on a handsome face, sinewy and taut, character and facial features that were enhanced by hardship and time. Awaking early the next morning, he heard the clanging of pots being washed and the peals of Dharam’s laughter. Shaking his head to dissipate grating thoughts, he went outside to perform his morning toilette. His bare feet raised the settled dust on the ground, a flurry of fine earth that had taken its reprieve in the stillness of night. The agitation of the soil seemed to be the foreboding of a wrong decision that would soon be made.

He brushed histeeth with the bitter twig from a margosa tree, using the rancid water from the canopied sheets that had been hung to capture the condensing dew of night. The monsoons had failed to arrive for a second season and the nearby Pahuj River was now a bed of parched earth. The cracks were wide chasms, big enough to trap a young child’s delicate foot, large enough to swallow hope like a devouring demon.

Afterwards, he joined the village council, the Panchayat, which met under the ancient banyan tree next to the temple, a stoic witness of their travails, withstanding the onslaught of changing seasons and alternating masters. The Panchayat listened to an outsider, a touting agent for the British. He was an Arkhati, an Indian man paid for recruiting labour to faraway lands. The combination of the Arkhati’s high-pitched voice and the empty sounding promises that rolled off his tongue made the words seem fragile to Jagat. The speaker was potbellied, grown fat on the sale of his brethren. The sinister tone in the Arkhati’s voice made Jagat recoil.

Despite the hollowness of the Arkhati’s words to Jagat, he was a master orator to some of the others. “My brothers,” he said, “I have seen this land. It is beautiful. There is wealth everywhere. You can pick up gold nuggets from the bare earth, I tell you. The rivers are mighty and swelling against their banks. The masters are kind. Had it not been for my love for you, to tell you of this country, I too, would be living there. Now, we will take you by train to the sea. There is no need to walk to Calcutta anymore, as the British Raj have built wonderful, modern railways for us.”

Noticing the murmuring of agreement from the crowd, Jagat was not one to be easily swayed. But, he was desperate. He discussed the plight of the village with his cousin, Hookum Thakur, both warrior descendants with proud moustaches and elegantly wrapped turbans. They agreed that their prayers remained unanswered but would rather endure hardships they understood. That evening, Jagat’s family had a broth made from a root that had been dug from the banks of the dry river. Dharam drank a lota of milk for his supper, swallowing the entire meal in three gulps, leaving a white line above his lip. A smile flashed, underlining innocent eyes. His words were shouted with glee, seeking approval. “Ma, khatham hua!” Finished!

His father looked away, pretending not to hear. To acknowledge the words would increase the shame of being unable to provide for hisfamily. Anjani wiped her tears and rubbed the child’s brow, trying to induce sleep in him. Another merciless night passed for Jagat, pleading with an unrelenting God. The morning came with no sweet chirping of birds. A lamp was lit. Jagat finished his prayers and turned away, no answers having been given. He had changed his earlier resolve. Anjani begged her strong-willed husband not to leave, failing to convince him. Saddened that Hookum had not joined him, a journey to “Cawnpore” began, along with his brethren, whilst he beheld the town as its original “Kanpur”.

As Jagat had left the village in a bullock cart, future history following him, attached to his movements, a crow caw-cawed its omen of forewarning, the rasp of premonition. A framed picture of Lord Ganesha shed a tear in a one-roomed home. Dharam tried to fly a threadbare kite when no wind abounded. Whilst awaiting the Arkhati as he enlisted labourers at the next village, Jagat was confronted by his determined wife and their child carried in her hands. Strength lay in their unity, not separated by an ocean. Reaching Kanpur, they were placed on a train and sent to Allahabad and then on another to Calcutta, picking up other recruits along the way. Never-ending snakes, these trains were, a father told his son, spewing smoke that spiralled into the atmosphere to make mist, for they were also cloud making machines.

These were rides that the family enjoyed fleetingly as the locomotives chug-chugged and choo-chooed them closer to their destiny, which hovered after the twists and turns like a lurking shadow, the ghattak-ghattak clamour sounding melodious to the child.

In Calcutta, Jagat saw a prospering city. A better life could be made here, where a bigger river flowed and existence did not depend on streams, even though this was a distributary of the most revered river, Ganga. An unrelenting British government officer requested a double payment for an Arkhati’s fees that had already been given in order to sever the contract. This was a sum that a poor warrior could not repay.

Excerpted with permission from A Dalliance with Destiny, Aman Singh Maharaj, Austin Macauley Publishers.