The Runner

TImage result for Dak harkarahe nights were chilly that week before Diwali as the days were getting shorter with the sun dipping down the horizon earlier  and earlier everyday . The red hue that lit up the sky soon after, was his signal to get ready for his nightly journey. He pulled the bells around his ankles , picked up the sack and got ready. He would leave after the twilight merged into the inky  darkness.

Bholanath or Bhola as they called him , was a “Daak Harkara” or a postal runner. A twenty year old young man, he had been running on the 5 kos ( about 10 miles) route between Ramnagar   and Palampur for the past two years. He ran the distance every day with a bag that carried a bundle  of letters,  that he handed over to Abdul at the “Daak Chowki” ( the post office) who ran further from Palampur . He ran back to Ramnagar, after resting through the day, with another bundle that he exchanged with  Abdul. All of this earned him a princely sum of Rs 2 per month!

“Working for the government is a matter of pride my son. Look at me, what do I have? Hardly two bighas of land that does not yield anything! A steady income like yours is definitely useful. Besides, if the Saheb Bahadurs ( a word to denote the white man/ British colonisers) are happy with your service, who knows, you might one day actually manage a dak chowki” said his father.

Bhola had not wanted to be a “Daak Harkara”. Actually he was not sure what he wanted to do with his life except for grazing cows,  playing with his friends , running races and wrestling in the fields. It was during one such race that an agent of the Saheb Bahadur had spotted him. A tall strapping young man who could run fast was an asset to the postal service.  And so that was how he had ended up doing what he did .

Bhola had quickly realized that his family looked up to him for support. Considering that their  one bigha of land ( 1 hectare)  was any way mortgaged to pay for his older sister’s marriage, it was not easy for his family to make both ends meet. Their cattle herd was also getting smaller by the day as they sold one cow after another … Besides, he also had three other siblings besides his father and a mother who was always ill.

So he began running, braving the darkness of the night, the wild animals and the vagaries of nature. His legs felt numb by the end of it all but there was no time to lament, as he had to keep running to keep his family going. Sometimes  he felt he had become just a pair of legs! No other part of his body seemed to matter to anyone including himself………… that is until he saw her…!

And that was when he realized he had eyes and he also had a heart…!

He had seen her for the first time  just outside  Palampur. It was nearing dawn and a group of girls were on their way to the river bank to bathe and fill water. A beautiful voice was singing a sad song. He could not help slowing down and looking for  the singer. But it was difficult to see in the dim light of dawn which of the girls was singing.

And then a few days later , he found out. It had been a hot and humid night. His throat felt parched and his dusty limbs ached. He had collapsed panting, on the ground near the river!

“Do you want some water?” she asked.

It was the same voice that had haunted him. He lifted his head and looked up into the most beautiful pair of eyes! He sat up and lifted his palm to his mouth as she poured water from her pot into it. As his parched lips drank in the cool water, his eyes stayed riveted on  her face. Some would call it ordinary but to him she was like a creature out of this world! Her long hair was damp after her bath. Her hands were slender and covered with gold and glass bangles and her small feet had heavy silver anklets.

“What is your name” he asked her as he wiped his mouth with the end of his turban.

“Radha” she said dimpling into a smile.

  “Do you have any letters for me”? she asked him

   “Let me see..What is your father’s name”  he asked

    “Thakur Ramdhari Singh. But I asked you if there was any letter for me- Radha Singh” she said mischievously

     “Do you know to read? Letters are only written to those who can” he said with a grin

     “Oh, I know the alphabets. I can manage” she said smiling.

     He didn’t know how to answer that because it was very rare for a girl to know how to read. He continued to look at her and she returned his look, holding his gaze until one of the other girls called out to her.

And thus had begun the most beautiful part of his running career! He would reach the river bank and wait for her, hidden behind the trees as she made her way there with her pot of water and a small bundle of left over food from the night before. She would sit quietly smiling and watch him eat. He felt very cherished  and cared for. No one, not even his mother had ever sat with him and served him food like she did. He usually ate by himself near the cow shed behind his hut.

He was sometimes worried that her friends would find out about them. But she told him “Don’t be afraid. They won’t come here”

He wondered what she had told them. It was a risk that they were taking. As a Yadav he could be killed by the Thakurs for even looking at one of their girls. But it was a risk worth taking. He suddenly felt that he had wings on his feet as he left every night. The stones and thorns no longer hurt them. He ran swinging his spear like he was dancing.

But tonight was not another night. It was a very special one.

Bhola was very happy as he cut through the darkness. He had saved money over the past few months and bought her some glass bangles from the village fair. He had wanted to give her something for Diwali. Along with the bangles there was something else in his bag. There was a piece of parchment on which he had scrawled carefully the words “Bhola” and ”Radha” .  He knew how to write his name. The Babu at the “Daak Chowki” at Palampur had taught him that. It had taken him some time to identify the alphabets in her name and now he felt very happy that he had been able to write their names together. He smiled as he thought about how he would tell her today that he had a letter for her. Wasn’t that what she always asked ?

His feet flew along with the bells on them jangling. The dogs were howling in a village as he ran past it. It was past midnight and he had another three hours of running to do. He felt impatient as he increased his pace..!  The earlier he reached the river bank the better it was. They had to meet before the sun came out and spoilt it.

Bhola kept running.  He looked at the marking stone at the side of the road and knew he was only an hour away now. He ran on, through the jungle and the clearing before he reached the green banks of the river flowing outside the small town of Palampur.

He made his way behind to their usual spot behind the tree . She was waiting for him. She looked ethereal.. like a fairy! He wanted to crush her in his arms but he held himself back.

“Look what I have brought for you” he said taking out the bangles and waving them towards her.

She tried to grab them as he moved away. She chased him as he ran around the tree laughing. This went on for a couple of minutes before he stopped suddenly and turned around to face her. Before she could stop on her tracks she found herself colliding against him. He pulled her towards him and brought his face down towards hers. Their thudding hearts collided against each other as time stood still.

He searched inside his bag and brought out the piece of parchment. “look here is your letter”. She took it from his hand hid it inside her blouse.

Did he imagine it or were there tears in her eyes?

“I have to go now Bhola” she whispered. Why was her voice breaking like that ?

 “What is it Radha? Why are you so sad? We will meet again tomorrow. Won’t we?” he asked

“No Bhola. Not anymore . My parents are arranging my gauna ( a ceremony denoting consummation of marriage. )  My uncle came yesterday from my inlaws house. He says they will be coming on Diwali and will take me back with them immediately after” she said sobbing.

“You mean.. you are married?” he asked with his mouth open

 “Ofcourse! What do you expect. I am fifteen years old. I was married ten years ago” she said

Bhola felt as though he had been turned into stone. He did not know what to say. He stared ahead into the eastern horizon that  was slowly turning rosy as Arun the charioteer of the Sun God drove his master through the clouds. And then Sun God looked out of the  white fluffy clouds  in his full red gold brilliance!

For the first time since he knew her,  Bhola saw his beloved in the morning light . A petite, dusky girl with hair until her ankles. The vermilion in her parting was as red as the sun in the sky.

His last image of her was a red veil flying in the morning breeze as she turned away from him and merged into the greenery.

The Dak babu at the Palampur Daak Chowki was a very kind man. He insisted  that Bhola personally deliver the letter to Thakur Ramdhari Singh. “It brings good news about his daughter’s gauna. He will give you bakshish ( a  reward/ tip)  . You can use the money to add another cow to your herd. Your father will be very happy.”

( This is my first attempt at writing a story set  in Central India, a hundred years ago.  Though I did do some research on this, let me warn you that the story may not be historically very accurate. The “Dak harkaras” or mail runners had been there since the time  organized postal services were introduced by Shershah Suri in the 15th /16th century. The British East India company  continued with the “Runner” services. This story is inspired by a beautiful Bengali song about the Runner. There is also a famous novel in Bengali  by Tarashankar Bandopadhayay on the “Dak Harkara” or runner. This is by no means anything as good as that song or the novel. This is just a humble attempt at bringing to life a person whose occupation always fascinated me. )

    16t

 

 

 

 

 

 

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5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. KP
    Feb 19, 2018 @ 02:02:02

    This is a fantastic story told in a manner that brought before mind’s eyes the scenes as they were a century or more ago. Radha singh and Bhola are in flesh and blood the way you unfolded the story.I am very happy to see you trying different themes and keeping the readers the rivetted!

    Reply

  2. Keerthana
    Feb 20, 2018 @ 21:54:40

    Waiting to read the part 2….

    Reply

    • Meera
      Feb 21, 2018 @ 11:34:30

      Hi Keerthana

      Thanks for your comment. Unfortunately, I do not think there will be a part 2 . I am unable to think how to take this further

      Reply

  3. sslmay11
    Feb 23, 2018 @ 09:10:37

    Meera, sorry I’m late. Just now read “Runner”. I’m so happy to read again from you. Loved it.

    Never knew much about pre independence era. Your story has heart, no matter what period it’s from. The characters and the era had some innocence and simple life. It’s a beautiful story. Keep writing.

    Reply

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