“Ram come on!” I yelled. “Mother won’t be happy if we arrive home late!” I am Ravichandran, and I’m 13 years old. I live in a small community in the outskirts of Madras. The year is 1948, and India has just fought off British rule. Life is very hard, and me and my brother Ram need to do a lot of work. We are educated by our parents, but no one in our family has ever gone to school. For us, each day is the same, and the years roll by quickly. Now it is almost dark, and me and Ram are returning from the stables where we tend the animals. I am exhausted, and I collapsed on the floor as soon as we reached home.
“Ravi, get up, and take a bath!” my mother stated. “I have important news for you.”
“What news Amma?” I asked. “Hardly anything ever happens here.”
“I will tell you once you’ve had your bath, Ravi”, she explained. So I walked to the village well, wondering what the news might be. A message from the Prime Minister? Maybe a job for my father? Or what if it was bad news. I decided to stop thinking about it, and take my bath. At the well, my friend Srinivasan was waiting for me.
“Hey Srinu!” I exclaimed. “How was your day today?”
“It was fine Ravi. Now let us have a splash fight.” he answered. “Hey look, the others have arrived.”
Somu, Swami, Kumar, Vijay, and Krishna are all part of my gang, and we are best friends. This is my favorite part of the day, where we have 30 minutes to discuss the day’s events and play games in the huge well.
“So what’s the news today Ravi?” Kumar asked as we jumped into the well.
“Hey I always tell the news first, so why don’t you start?”
“Okay, I will start”, Kumar grumbled, and he begun. “So when I finished plowing the field, I walked home, and my elder sister told me to take a bath, because she had news for me. It still feels different being commanded by my sister after Amma died.”
“Wait!”, I exclaimed, “That’s what I was told too.” Everyone else also claimed that their family had some important news for them, and I’m sure it isn’t a coincidence. Today instead of playing games, we quickly took our bath and ran to our homes excitedly. This was the most exciting moment of my life so far, when I sprinted through the shrubbery towards my hut. When I reached there, I saw mother, father, and Ram waiting for me at the door.
“Hey Anna!” Ravi shouted, “I have news for you!”
“I know”, I whispered angrily. “So can one of you tell the news to me? All eyes fell on my father, so he started to speak.
“Ravi, he began”, the government of India needs men to join the army and bring order to this new country. They say that all young peasants must go, and that is why this is big news. Since we are loyal citizens, we must obey our leaders, and so you and your friends must go to Delhi.”
“But Appa!” I protested, “Who will take care of the fields while we’re gone?”
“We can manage while you’re gone. Anyway, you won’t be gone for long”, father retorted.
“How long, Appa?” I asked fearfully.
“I don’t know son”, he whispered. “But you will see us again. I promise.”
“Here are your belongings son”, he said sadly. “Bye, I will always love you.”
“Wait Appa”, I whimpered, “Why can’t you go?”
“I did argue with the official for me to go, but apparently I’m too old.”
“But I’m too young!” I protested. “And I don’t know Hindi! And I don’t know how to fight! I’ve not been educated properly, I don’t know anything, but how to farm!”
“They will teach you son”, my father answered. “And you have to leave now. Look, everyone else has arrived. Now remember that I will always be with you. The journey by train has already been fixed, and you don’t have to pay even 1 paisa. Now go son. I will see you soon.
After a tearful farewell, Me and my friends started walking to the nearby train station. I still couldn’t believe that this had just happened. After all, I am a peasant boy. But I decided to go with the flow.
“Kadakadakadak”, went the train as it ran through the tracks. We have never been on a train before, and it feels so different. And we are traveling in 2nd class, which is for soldiers. Even though I don’t know anything about fighting, I am being treated like a proper soldier. I feel happy that I have so many friends to play with, and I am slowly getting used to Urban India. But as I would find out later, my luck was going to change very soon.
The train kept moving and never stopped. Everyone was asleep except for me, because sleep wouldn’t come. I just gazed out the window as we climbed mountains, crossed rivers, towns, and farms, and at some point, I saw snow. I was so excited, because there is no snow in southern India. I shook Somu, trying to wake him up, but he said “Ravi, go to sleep. It is not eating time yet, and I don’t care if you’ve seen something nice, because we’ll probably see it again when we’re restoring order.”
I still wasn’t so sure about this “restoring order” business. It would take years to just train us, and I had already seen disorder in our journey. It would take so much effort to clean this big mess up. Somu seems to think this is going to be easy, so I might as well go with his ideas, I thought. I finally decided to get some sleep, and before I knew it, I was snoring. “Ravi, Ravi! Wake up, you lazy old man! We have reached Delhi”, Krishna yelled. When we got out of the train the conductor asked us for our tickets.
“Sir, we don’t speak Hindi”, Swami explained. The conductor did not understand tamil, but we could understand some Hindi. Luckily for us, there was a tamil businessman on the train, and he knew hindi. He was the translator for us, and we told the conductor that we didn’t need to have tickets. The conductor wasn’t happy about that, and so he grabbed us, and dragged us to the police booth. Great, I thought. What a great welcome. At the police booth, we explained to the policeman that we were new recruits into the army, and that we didn’t need tickets. The policeman wasn’t ready to believe a couple of peasant boys, so he decided to present us to the New Delhi Court. We were brought there by rickshaws, and the only time I had seen a rickshaw, was at Madras, when we had to go there to pay some tax.
On the way, I saw New Delhi, with its rubbish, pollution, but marvelous structures and buildings constructed by the British. In the distance, I could see many palaces that the Sultans of Delhi had lived in. Suddenly, I was prodded on the shoulder by someone. I looked behind me, and saw that the policeman wanted me to come with him. Me and my friends silently walked behind the policeman into a large building. We waited for sometime, then another policeman beckoned us forward into a large room, where many people were seated. The first policeman said something in hindi to a judge in the room, and he stared at us. All eyes were on the judge, and he pointed to a man in a seat in the third row. The man knew tamil and hindi, and he was going to act as the translator. The judge then began the trial.
“Who are you?” he asked patiently.
“Sir”, Vijay replied, “We are peasants from Tamil Nadu, and we were forced to come to Delhi by the Prime Minister.”
“Very well”, the judge said. “And I assume you didn’t need any tickets to come to Delhi?”
“No sir”, I whispered.
“Do you know what you need to do now?” the judge asked.
“No, we don’t know sir”, Somu exclaimed. “We were told that someone would pick us up. We don’t know anything sir. We received a command from the government, but that is all we know.”
“Rascals!” the judge suddenly yelled. “Our Prime Minister needs literate people, not peasants! Do you expect us to treat you like kings? You were called for service, and that is indeed what you will do. We will provide you food and shelter, but you must find your way yourself. And you do owe some money to the conductor of your train as well. You will undergo a series of training, in which you will learn everything that you need to know to be a soldier. Then you will have to live on your own in this troublesome country, and you shall not leave until our work is finished! You may now go with this policeman to your dormitory, and your training will start very soon.” The policeman led us out, and this marked the beginning of our struggles.
TO BE CONTINUED