The faded flags (Short Story : Samgeev)

I saw Parashuram Kushal in a village in Guyana. The country was known as British Guyana before its independence. It was a piece of British Empire where the sun did not set.

I met him in front of a village grocery store. He was sitting on a bench there. He was an old man with shabby trousers, sunken eyes and pale cheeks.

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His face was gloomy as if he lost a treasure. He was gazing at the people who visited the store with careless eyes. That was Parashuram Kushal.

I went to the store to buy something. Parashuram got up from his bench and walked to me with wavering steps. His piercing eyes fell upon my face. He asked me in Guyanese English.

“Are you a person coming from India?”
“Yes”
His face gleamed when he heard my reply.
“I will return to India within two weeks.” I continued.
I saw Parashuram fumbling for words to ask me something. Then he asked me.
“Is there a place called Ayodhya in India? Have you ever visited that place?”
“I have heard about Ayodhya. Is there any Indian who hasn’t heard of that place! But I never visited Ayodhya.”

We sat upon the old bench at the two edges. Parashuram Kushal unraveled his story.
Parashuram is the third generation man of a family transplanted from Ayodhya to Guyana. He still remembered his grandfather who was speaking Hindustani; a lean old man with long beard. Parashuram’s father Kesavaram was born in Guyana. He too was speaking Hindustani.

A British slave company brought Grandfather Gopalram to Guyana in the second half of 19th century. He was one of the slave workers imported to Guyana by the British Masters to work in the sugarcane farms and rice fields.

Years fell off one by one. Seasons yielded to seasons, many a time, winter to spring, spring to summer, summer to autumn, autumn to winter and again and again the cycles repeated. Hopes burgeoned in seasons, and hopes died and buried in seasons. Sweat and blood of East Indians fell in Guyanese soil and fertilized the sugar cane farms and rice fields. The shadows of their cruel masters fell upon them. The shadows had twisted moustaches and whips in their hands. Gopalram generation fainted and fell off in the sugarcane farms of Guyana. They fell down and kissed the muddy furrows of her paddy fields in the late evenings. Still they kept a flame in their heart, an unquenchable flame- Sweet memories of Ayodhya. Even the stormy winds from the Amazon forests could not put out the flame. They sang the folklore songs around the kindled fire in the cold evenings and nights.

O Ganga, O Ayodhya how far you are! Our hearts thirst for you O mothers, fathers and sisters We will see you next summer
Sarayu and Sarda meet there Glory and beauty embrace there We will go with our boys and girls We will go in the next summer
Keep a little jackfruit jam Save a little mango pie Spread them on banana leaves We will go in the next summer
O Brothers and sisters of Surinam We are going to the land of Sriram Blow the trumpets and beat the drums We will go in the next summer
O Ganga, a little flame of love for you We keep it in our hearts We will dip our sins in your waters We will go in the next summer

The “next summer” never arrived. They became prisoners in the jungle farms of Guyana forever. Around the burning fire they sat and shared stories. They kept history live around the burning fire. They passed it from father to son, and from grandfather to grandson. Gopalram’s eyes were shining when he shared the stories around the midnight fire. The flowing tears could not quench the fire of his eyes. Parashuram still remembers his grandfather’s words.

“Slave Ships came from East Indies, at least one in two months. They unloaded their cargo in one of the Guyana countries. They brought men, women and children as human cargo. The slaves were sold to the big plantation owners. They were housed in horse barns. Our daughters and sisters were mistreated before our naked eyes. They were sold as concubines to Chinese merchants. The slave masters destroyed our families, culture and language. Even speaking of Hidustani was forbidden. They knew that the destruction of the language will lead to the destruction of culture and comradery.”

Parashuram Kushal’s house was only at a visual distance. He invited me to his house. I went to his house next morning.

It was not a house, not even a hut. It was a shabby log cabin. A small log kiosk standing upon four elevated wooden piles. Guyana is a flood prone area.
Parashuram was waiting for me. I saw a heap of empty beer bottles piled up in a corner. His companion was an old skinny dog. I saw tears always flowing from the eyes of the dog. It looked like that the old dog did not like my visit. He was looking at me and growling. Parashuram was patting at his head and back to pacify him. The name of the ever-weeping dog was Ravi. Did Ravi also come from Ayodhya? I thought the dog might attack me at any time.

Parashuram told me that the forest was only two or three miles away from his house; thick tropical rain forest. Once in a while, Parashuram will run to the forest like a frightened rabbit. He will scream aloud in the serenity of the thick forest, “Ayodhya, Ayodhya.”

Parashuram put a demand. He asked me, “Sam, when you get back to India, can you please go to Ayodhya for my sake?”

“Can you please try to find out a Kushal family there? If you are lucky to find one, will you please tell them about a mad man seven seas away in the dark jungle of Guyana deliriously screaming and shouting Ayodhya, Ayodhya?”
Parashuram gave me a little more information to help me find his family; “Kushals are warriors.”

I said: “Kushalji, I was born and brought up in a village in South India. North Indian villages and cities are very strange to me. In case I get an opportunity to go to Ayodhya, I will definitely enquire about a Kushal family there. But at present, the possibility looks very remote.”

Parashuram was not happy with my answer. He wiped his eyes. I shook his weak hands and bid good bye to the old man. Ravi was grumbling. His eyes were a fountain of tears. Parashuram gave me a piece of paper. His name and address was scribbled in it. I kept it as a treasure in my wallet.
When I was going out I saw a ten year old girl going into the wood cabin. She was holding a plastic plate in her hands. I saw some rice soup in the vessel. The girl had dark brown eyes and light brown hair. She was Parashuram’s granddaughter. Her house was not far away from her grandfather’s log cabin. She was bringing food for the ever grumbling dog, I guessed. Ravi was still grumbling and weeping.

When I was going out I noticed three flags put up outside Parashuram’s house. They were mounted on three dry sugarcane stems. Many of the Hindu families of Guyana had flags of different colors put up outside the houses. They were in remembrance of their deceased parents. Parashuram also had three flags, red, blue and green remembering his forefathers. One flag was for Gopalram Kushal, one for Kesavaram Kushal, and one for an unknown great grandfather who was born and brought up in Ayodhya and whose ashes were submerged in the holy river Ganga. The faded flags.

I visited Ayodhya after six months. The city was turbulent as the confluence of Sarayu and Mahakali rivers. I tried to find out a Kushal family in the turbulent city. But I could not. Everyone in Ayodhya looked warrior-like. I took some good pictures of Sarayu River and Ram Paidi ghat. I sent the pictures to Parashuram Kushal and waited for a reply. But I did not get one.

One of my sons visited Guyana after two years. I gave him the little piece of paper Parashuram gave me years ago. I requested him to go to Parashuram Kushal’s village. He did. He was looking for the log cabin near the grocery store. But it had disappeared. Even the wooden piles that supported the log house had disappeared without any trace.