Blood for blood: An extract from Tamas

A young man’s chilling initiation into the world of hate politics and violence. Extract from Tamas by Hindi writer Bhisham Sahni

Ranvir, the son of the president of the committee, followed Master Devbrat, the instructor of the gymnasium-cum-wrestling pit, the sound of Devbrat’s boots echoing in the cobbled lane. The fifteen-year-old Ranvir was bursting with excitement. Today he would undergo the test and if he made it, he would be taken into the fold.

No lane of the city ran straight. A lane would run straight for a few yards and would then be joined by another tortuous lane. The houses flanking the lanes almost seemed to topple over one another so packed together were they. The sound of Devbrat’s heavy boots was a familiar one in the lanes of the town.

Ranvir was still very young and his eyes had not lost their child-like curiosity. They even lacked that earnestness, so necessary when undergoing a supreme test. But in place of earnestness he had a sense of bravado, a blind determination to do or die at the behest of his mentor.

When Ranvir was very young, Master Devbrat would entertain him with stories of heroes of Indian history. There was an episode from Rana Pratap’s life, for instance, when the cat had stolen his food, leaving him famished and making him acutely aware of his total helplessness. Ranvir would have visions of Chetak, Rana Pratap’s favourite horse, as it went tramping over the hills overlooking the city. He would even see in his mind Shivaji watching a horde of approaching Muslims from the top of some hill. He also recalled the dramatic episode in Shivaji’s life when he had caught a Muslim ruler in a fatal embrace. Masterji had taught Ranvir the basic principles of knot tying and wall climbing. He had explained the characteristics of the ‘fire’ and the ‘rain’ producing arrows depicted in the ancient Hindu epics.

Ranvir was told by Masterji that the Vedas were the repository of all knowledge and held the secret of making the bomb and flying machines. Masterji talks of the marvels of yogic power had held Ranvir spellbound. ‘One having yogic power can achieve the impossible,’ Masterji would repeatedly impress upon Ranvir.

‘You know the story of that yogi, don’t you?’ he would ask his pupil, and then repeat a story he had often narrated. ‘A yogi had gone into a trance at the foot of the Himalayas. He achieved great occult powers. One day, when he had gone into meditation, a Muslim, an unclean man, came there with the mischievous intention of disrupting his meditation. You know these unclean people. They don’t bathe, nor do they wash their hands after shitting. They have no compunction in sharing each other’s spittled food. This ‘unclean’ person stood there glaring at the sadhu. As his polluted shadow fell over the sadhu, he opened his eyes. A gleam shot out of his eyes and singed the polluted man to death.’

These ‘unclean’ people would often revolve before Ranvir’s eyes. In his neighbourhood, the cobbler who sat by the roadside, mending shoes, was said to be an ‘unclean’ man. So was the tonga driver who lived in front of their house. Hamid, who studied with him at school in the same class, was also ‘unclean’. All the members of the family living next door were also considered to be ‘unclean’ and polluted. It must be some such person who had gone to the foot of the Himalayas to disrupt the sadhu’s meditation. Today, out of the eight boys he instructed, Master Devbrat had singled out Ranvir for the test. The boys were scared of Masterji. He wore khaki shorts and heavy black boots and spoke in a voice like thunder. His wrath was unpredictable and could fall on anybody without warning. The test which Ranvir was to undergo was secret and esoteric, only the initiates knew what it was.

The lanes looked desolate. At one place Ranvir felt as if they were walking along a thick web of darkness. As they drew nearer they discovered that the wall of a house had crumbled down and the darkness was seeping out of its debris.

Suddenly Devbrat stopped in his tracks. Although the desolate look of the lane had given Ranvir an eerie feeling, it had not been able to curb his exuberance. There was a narrow door framed against a long wall. Devbrat pushed it open. They stepped into a big courtyard at the end of which they saw the door of a narrow room across which hung a tarpaulin curtain. In the left corner of the courtyard lay two big heaps of rubble. The place looked deserted.

Walking across the courtyard, Master Devbrat pounded on the door. Ranvir heard the sound of coughing, followed by the shuffling of feet.

‘It’s I, Devbrat.’

The door was flung open. The old Gorkha chowkidar of the school stood in the door, peering at the visitors. He folded his hands in salutation and bowed his head.

It was dark inside the room. To one side lay a charpoy covered with a dirty bedsheet. A lathi stood against the right wall and by its side a chelum lay upside down. Over a wooden peg hung the chowkidar’s woollen overcoat and a long sword sheathed in a black scabbard.

Ranvir heard the crackling of hens and turned to look. About half-a-dozen white hens lay tied in a big basket in a corner of the room.

Holding Ranvir by the arm Master Devbrat led him into another courtyard, much smaller than the first and abruptly ending against the high wall of a neighbouring house. The Gorkha chowkidar followed them holding a hen in one hand and a knife in the other.

‘Ranvir, kill the hen,’ Master Devbrat said. The chowkidar handed Devbrat the knife. ‘Before you’re initiated into our fold you must prove that you possess a stout heart.’

Devbrat pushed Ranvir forward. ‘An Aryan youth must be strong in faith, resolute at heart, and determined in action. Take the knife and go and sit there!’ He gave Ranvir another shove forward.

Ranvir felt the place had suddenly turned sinister. He saw feathers of hens lying scattered all over. Near some rubble rested a slab of stone turned black with blood.

‘Sit down and put one leg of the hen under your right foot.’ Devbrat pressed the hen’s wings and twisted one wing under the other.

The hen cackled furiously. But its wings having been firmly tied together it could only struggle futilely. It did this for a while then lay still.

‘Hold it!’ Master Devbrat sat down by Ranvir’s side. ‘Go ahead. Let the knife do its job!’

Sweat broke out on Ranvir’s forehead and his face turned pale. Master Devbrat knew that the boy was feeling queasy.

‘Ranvir!’ he cried and slapped him hard on his cheek. Ranvir fell down in a heap on the ground. He felt like crying. The Gorkha standing behind him, watched him, a glitter of excitement in his eyes. Ranvir was still feeling unequal to the task but the slap seemed to have driven away his nausea.

‘Get up, Ranvir!’ Master Devbrat cried.

Ranvir slowly rose to his feet and looked at his mentor with heavy, dazed eyes.

‘There’s nothing difficult about it,’ Master Devbrat said. ‘Watch, I’ll show you how.’

He pressed one of the hen’s feet under his boot. The bird’s eyes became glazed and then slowly closed. He held the hen’s neck in his right hand and slit it. Blood spurted from the neck, some drops falling on Devbrat’s hand. But he did not let the hen go even though its head had been cut off. He firmly held the windpipe down till it turned white. The hen’s headless body kept quivering and then became still and its wings drenched with blood became limp. All that Ranvir saw was a handful of white feathers spattered with blood lying before him. Master Devbrat flung the remains of the dead bird to one side and got up.

‘Bring another hen!’ he told the Gorkha.

As he turned towards Ranvir, he saw that he had vomited on the ground and was sitting there, holding his head between his hands, and breathing heavily. Master Devbrat felt like slapping him again but he controlled himself and just stood there watching him in disgust.

‘I’m going to give you one more chance,’ he said at last. ‘A youth who can’t kill a hen – how can one expect him to deal with an enemy?’

Soon Ranvir’s breathing became normal and his stomach, which had knotted gradually, loosened up.

I’ll give you five more minutes,’ Devbrat said. ‘If you fail to kill the hen this time it’s all over with you. No initiation, no nothing.’ He turned on his heel and walked out of the courtyard.

When he returned after five minutes, he saw a hen writhing under the wall, drops of blood flying from it in all directions, Ranvir was sitting by the side of the bird, his right arm held between his knees. Devbrat guessed how things must have gone. While Ranvir was struggling with the hen, it must have pecked at his hand and he had only succeeded in wounding the bird instead of killing it outright.

Writhing in agony the bird kept jumping in the air and falling heavily on the ground, leaving more and more blood stains on the ground. Blood fountained from its neck.

‘Get up, Ranvir!’ Master Devbrat patted him on his back. Ranvir slowly rose to his feet. He had succeeded in the test.

Shabash!’ Master Devbrat said. ‘You’ve determination, you have will power. Though your arm still lacks strength, you’ve made the grade and won your reward.’ He bent to the ground and dipping his finger in the blood spattered on the stone slab, made a blood mark on Ranvir’s forehead.

(Extract from Tamas (Darkness) by Bhisham Sahni, translated from the Hindi by Jai Ratan, Penguin Books (India) Limited).

Archived from Communalism Combat, August 2004, Anniversary Issue (11th), Year 11    No.100, Cover Story 14



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