Every city and most of the towns in India have gone through huge changes in the last four or five decades. Almost all the suburbs in Chennai (Madras) have ‘lake-view’ street but there are no lakes to be found; the unbridled development had led to apartment complexes and houses standing in those lakes.
Only when you read a story happening on that timeline, you realise how these cities were once upon a time. In the story, Two Finger Typing – Asokamitran, which I translated a couple of weeks back, you would read about individual bungalows in Maradpally in Secunderabad. It is a concrete jungle now.
Asokamitran has written few stories about growing up in Secunderabad and all of them are my favourites. Fort is one among them.
There were twelve houses in the first row. Seven in the second. They were built during first world war for the British soldiers. They all had clay tiled roofs. The walls were built high to prevent heat from seeping in. They must have been lying unoccupied for many years after the war. When Nizam bought the railways in his Sultanate from the British, he bought the Lancer Barracks with it. Out of the nineteen houses, eighteen were reserved for Guards and Train Ticket Examiners (TTE) called ‘line staff’ and one was reserved for the office staff. My father waited for twenty years to get the house.
In the first few months we did not have any trouble. We became unwanted to all the other eighteen residents when we bought a cow.
No one could understand the struggles we went through while keeping the cows and buffalos. Everyone turned his/her face away from us as if we were the only human beings who drank milk. After all, we gave buttermilk to most of our neighbours free of charge. To make buttermilk, first you need to boil the milk. Then you need to cool it down and add curd. Once the milk is set as curd, you have to dribble the curd for hours to turn it into buttermilk. It was a time and energy consuming process and you needed a lot of patience.
Every house in the Lancer Barracks had a backyard where you could have a cow. But most of them had goats or chicken. One even had a pigeon. But only we had a cow.
In the thirteen years we spent in Lancer barracks, cows and buffalos were part of our family for twelve years. A cow and a buffalo had breathed its last in front of our years in those twelve years. We had watched seven deliveries of cows and buffalo calves in our backyard. We had suffered a lot and shed tears many times tending to them. We would tie the cow with a long rope so that it could walk a bit. Some or other miscreant would always untie the knot and let the cow get out of the backyard. I remember once someone had cut the skin of the cow using a shaving blade; at another time someone had pierced the underbelly of the cow with a nail. Every neighbour, Hindu, Muslim or Christian, without any religious differences, had enjoyed our search in finding the untied cows many times.
The cows don’t get lost deliberately. It would be a torture to them if we don’t milk the milch cows twice daily. They just enjoy seeing new places and would wander around once untied from their posts. The cows generally won’t go afar. But buffalos would and only after wandering away a few miles from home, they would think about the calfs they had left behind.
Once a buffalo from our house had wandered away. We had tied it with a fifteen feet rope; someone had untied the rope and let the buffalo out.
As usual it was me, who went searching for it. I went to the pond which was half a mile from our home and the hills nearby. It was not to be found in either of the places.
In those days, to the east of Lancer Barrack, there would be miles of empty space which had small hills and valleys. There was a burial ground opposite to the pond which was always kept locked. The buffalo must have really lost its way.
I had crossed the empty space travelling many a mile. I had not been this far from home anytime time before. I was not worried about going so far away. But I was worried about my bicycle. If I get a flat tyre, I would have to push the cycle all the way back and it would take hours to reach home.
I reached a village which looked very poor. The cooking fire was burning only in few houses.
I crossed the village and saw a big road running across. There was a small hill on the opposite side of the road and a fort in total ruins on top of it.
I abandoned the search and went towards the fort. It was beckoning me.
The fort was huge. How many people and man hours it must have taken to build it, I could not hazard a guess. Where did they grind the limestone? From where did they bring the black stones and bricks and how did they carry it atop the hill? It was fascinating to think about it, on the other hand I also it was a useless task running around the hillock.
There was a small palace at the centre of the fort. Over the years, all the windows and doors were removed and used as firewood. Even then it was a kind of thrill, rather shock to look at the palace. Many people must have lived in the palace once. How did they all disappear? Someone must have killed the king or the zamindar who lived there. Forts were safe as long as no-one invaded it. If the attackers killed the security and entered inside the palace, the people living inside the palace would become sacrificial goats.
I have seen many forts but never something which was plundered as much as this. The king who had tortured his subjects to amass so much wealth would have lost everything in one single attack. His concubines and children would have lost their lives in one single swoop. Only the walls of the fort would have thought about the man’s madness and his wickedness and kept laughing about it for many centuries.
I did not mind the hot sun and sat on a small wall in the palace for sometime. And then I got down and went to the village which I had crossed before.
I asked a villager whose fort was this. He just shuddered indicating he did not know anything about it. He said it has been like this for many years.
“Does it have a name?”
“I don’t know. We don’t go there. Only our goats would go there. They would wander and climb down.”
I just remembered my buffalo. “Did a buffalo come here?”
“Yes. We have tied it up. It was about to go to the fort.”
“Poor thing. It is a milch cow.”
“We know. We would have miked it if you had not turned up. But it is a classic breed and would not let anyone to milk it.”
The buffalo was tied to the wheel of a bullock cart. It was indeed our rope. It started shuffling its feet the moment it saw me.
“Can someone come with me? Why did you not allow the buffalo to go to the fort?”
“Fort is a not a good place. A father would have killed his son. Or a son would have killed his elder brother. The mother must have poisoned and killed a few. The fort is not a good place at all.”
“Alone I can’t drive the buffalo home. Can someone come with me. I will ask my mother to give you buttermilk.”
The villager replied, “I will come myself. But you should give me food.”
We guided the buffalo home. Whenever I asked a question about the fort, the villager would keep quiet. As we neared the Lancer Barracks and our home, the buffalo bolted away from us and ran towards our home.
“Such a classic breed this buffalo is. How do you manage to lose it?”
I did not reply.
No one spoke a word at home.
I was thinking of visiting the fort again. But that did not happen. The fort must have had a sinister history behind and the villager must have known it. I should have checked the fort throughly the day I went searching for the cow. ‘Visiting the fort again’ joined the long list of things which were not possible to do anymore.
Ashokamitran (September 22, 1931 – March 23, 2017) was the pen name of Jagadisa Thyagarajan, an Indian writer regarded one of the most influential figures in post-independent Tamil literature. He began his prolific literary career with the prize winning play “Anbin Parisu” and went on to author more than two hundred short stories, and a dozen novellas and novels. A distinguished essayist and critic, he was the editor of the literary journal “Kanaiyaazhi”. He has written over 200 short stories, eight novels, some 15 novellas besides other prose writings. Most of his works have also been translated into English and other Indian languages, including Hindi, Malayalam, and Telugu.