Virpal sits on the floor, listening to the hiss and pump of the kerosene stove inside the kitchen, the scratch of a thali against the floor as dough is kneaded. Four thick hot rotis with a blob of white butter slowly pooling in the middle are put before him, with a small bowl of dal, green chillies, and some spicy mango chutney. He eats slowly.
Gaur Sahib’s wife is used to her husband’s eccentricities, but he has never picked up waifs from the street before. “Who is he?” she ventures.
“Found him on the bridge.”
“We can’t take in anyone just like that. What is his caste? You hear of so many bad things happening.”
“Arre, he is just a child. How old are you, beta?”
The boy looks at his glass of tea.
“They don’t know their age.”
He looks up. “Twelve.”
‘How do you know?’
Every year their vanshavalli came to record the births, deaths and marriages in their caste, mumbled the boy to the floor. For the first time in his life he was in a Brahmin home. Everything about the haveli overwhelmed him, the marble floors, the cement walls, a miraculous pump, and the fact that he was being fed.
“I have come to fight alongside Gandhiji,” he now said.
“How will you find him? He is in prison after breaking the salt laws. Is that where you want to go?”
Gaur Sahib’s wife tittered. “Arre, you have to be important to be arrested.”
Virpal carefully put the big steel glass down. “If I can stay here,” he said, “I will work for you.”
Before he could stay, they wanted the truth. Why had he left his home?
The boy remained silent. “See what happens when you pick up vagrants from the street. Suppose he is a thief, a murderer?” demanded Gaur Sahib’s wife.
“If we don’t look after these children, the missionaries will. They will say Yesu Crist has sent them. You want that?”
It is decided that the boy will sleep on the roof, the door leading to it will be bolted, so he can neither escape nor harm them. The very next day Gaur Sahib will take him to the temple where the Bharat Jagrit Sabha has built a complex large enough to house a boy indefinitely. Of course the boy will have to work, but he has already offered to do that.
The priest associated with this temple does not think of philanthropy as part of his religious duties.
The care of humans is left to god, destiny and karma. His role is to interpret the scriptures and to provide the knowledge needed to perform various pujas.
“I can’t keep him here,” he said. If every runaway was to be looked after, what would happen to the sanctity of the temple? The boy could be some outcaste, hoping to escape into the anonymity a city provides.
Gaur Sahib frowned. Why was the spirit of social service so absent in their pandits? Look at Christian preachers, embracing every low caste, setting up schools, spreading their religion through education and charity. Left to themselves they would convert all of Hindustan.
It was not as though the kitchen would be polluted, he said. The boy would stay in one of the outhouses, cook his own food and run errands for the priest when he came back from school.
At the thought of a free servant, the priest brightened. “Why bother with education?” he remarked. “Village boys, and Jats at that, are not capable of brain work.”
Impatiently Gaur Sahib got up. As he turned to go, the boy hastily touched his feet. He is a simple, sincere child thought the older man, the priest will soon realise that. “Come to the haveli in the morning, I will take you to school,” he said as he left.
Virpal wondered whether his caste was the reason the Brahmin wouldn’t keep him in his household. He could always run away again if living in the temple became intolerable.
Once alone, the priest glared at the boy.
“Don’t expect to be swaddled in velvet here.”
The boy said nothing.
“Where are you from?”
“You think somebody or the other is bound to look after you. No?”
“What’s your name?”
“You say you are a Jat?”
He lifted his head up a bit, showing the aggressive traits that marked a Jat.
Such tendencies had to be stamped out. “There is the broom. Start sweeping. And run any errand my wife tells you to. All right? You will sleep in that storeroom there. Once you have finished the chores, you can cook your own meals. We are not running a dharamshala. Understand?”
“So – you want to go to school? Become a big man?”
Virpal’s downward gaze galvanised the priest to greater fury.
“Just be glad you met a man like him. Otherwise the police would have picked you up and thrown you in jail. This place is run by the English. They don’t tolerate vagabonds.”
Let the priest go on talking, Virpal did not care. To share his living quarters with the temple cow was to be in familiar surroundings. As he lay in the shed, with the smell of fresh dung around him, he wondered at how different Brahmins could be from each other.
Things grew worse for Virpal in the coming months. Back from school, he would be put to work like any servant boy. Look after the child, milk the cow, swab the floors, carry water from the tank, run to the market. Once he had done all this he had to sit by while the priest’s wife whipped out her scales to weigh his purchases, suspiciously staring as each potato or tomato trembled with the readiness of accusation.
Nobody would have dared insult him like this in his village.
Every day he thought of taking the steps that would lead him home. Once in Lalbanga, all would come running from far and near, asking, asking, what had he done, how had he managed. But he would disappoint Gaur Sahib, a Brahmin who had taken so much trouble over him.
So he continued to bear the insults, the accusations, the occasional beating. Even if he did take a tomato, so what? The pandit family ate constantly; when they finished, a cold unappetizing scrap occasionally came his way.
The boy visited Gaur Sahib on holidays, swallowing with wistful mouthfuls the food his wife made for him, while he listened to Gaur Sahib hold forth – India had to change – too much illiteracy – look at the West – scientific education – superior knowledge led to conquest – when they were living in caves, we had a glorious civilisation, now we are backward – after you are educated you must help your village – this will be your guru dakshina.
Virpal was silent about the treatment he received at the temple, complaining would change little. On rare occasions when he was free, he would walk towards the lake. At the Ajmer Club, he would stop to stare at all the grass, never a cow or a goat grazing on it. Then to the Ana Sagar, a larger version of the lake at home. Sometimes he swam at night, his water-enclosed body absorbing the beauty of the moon and stars.
Excerpted with permission from Brothers, Manju Kapur, Penguin Random House India.