2 Fa­thers

Quaint cus­tom.

Woman's Era - - Short Story - By Bra­jen­dra Singh

The Sut­lej River orig­i­nates in Ti­bet. It flows in a north­west­erly di­rec­tion and en­ters In­dia, at a point di­rectly be­low the Shipki La bor­der pass, which is in Hi­machal Pradesh. It then changes di­rec­tion and flows south-west. Its ma­jor trib­u­tary, the Spiti River, flow­ing south­wards al­most par­al­lel to the bor­der, meets the Sut­lej just a few kilo­me­tres from its In­dian en­try point, near Nam­gia, which is our last vil­lage on the Hin­dus­tanTi­bet road.

The area is a high-al­ti­tude, moun­tain­ous ter­rain; a cold desert, des­o­late and far re­moved from civil­i­sa­tion, con­tain­ing just a few sparsely-pop­u­lated vil­lages.

Sev­eral decades ago, when there were only mule tracks in the re­gion, I was given the task of cut­ting a mo­torable road through the cliffs that lined the Sut­lej-spiti junc­tion, for eas­ier ac­cess to the Spiti val­ley.

A lo­cal boy Chona, around 15 years old, worked as a dish washer in our mess. He knew pass­able Hindi and was ea­ger to learn more, so that he could go down to the plains for a job. In those days there was al­most no em­ploy­ment avail­able in that area.

There is a com­mon phe­nom­e­non in most of our Hi­malayan bor­der ar­eas. Shortly be­fore noon, a wind springs up along the river val­leys, and starts blow­ing up dust and sand. The wind then in­creases to such in­ten­sity that, within half-an­hour or so, it be­comes al­most im­pos­si­ble to work out­doors due to the dusty haze. I have en­coun­tered this sort of freak­ish weather be­hav­iour, in Ladakh, Hi­machal Pradesh, Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh.

As a re­sult of which, we were forced to start our work early in the morn­ing, as soon as there was light, and call it a day at lunch time. Since there was no TV in those days, and tran­sis­tor ra­dios were just mak­ing an ap­pear­ance in the met­ros, while news­pa­pers took 10 days to reach us, we spent the af­ter­noons and evenings in idle chat­ter, some­how pass­ing time. Hav­ing found some­thing to do, I started giv­ing Hindi lessons to Chona, af­ter lunch was over and he had washed the dishes. I soon dis­cov­ered that he was a fast learner.

Dur­ing my in­ter­ac­tion with Chona, he of­ten re­ferred to his

chhote baap (younger fa­ther) and bade baap (el­der fa­ther), both of whom were ob­vi­ously alive. At first, I thought that bade baap meant his grand­fa­ther, but then Chona told me that both were around 40 years old. My cu­rios­ity was nat­u­rally aroused, so I ques­tioned him about it; he tried his best, but could never prop­erly ex­plain why he had two fa­thers in­stead of the nor­mal one. Then one day I got a chance to visit Ch­hango, his na­tive vil­lage. “Ju­ley!” I greeted the head­man. He smiled in sur­prise at re­ceiv­ing the tra­di­tional salu­ta­tion from a plains­man, and greeted me in re­turn. Af­ter we set­tled down, he of­fered me a glass of chhang, the lo­cal fire­wa­ter. I had tasted chhang ear­lier and knew that, com­pared to the stuff pro­duced by mod­ern dis­til­leries, it tasted fairly aw­ful. How­ever, not will­ing to in­sult my host, I ac­cepted the prof­fered drink.

We dis­cussed a few com­mu­nity mat­ters, and then I asked him how was it that my stu­dent had two fa­thers.

UNIQUE CUS­TOM

“It is a lo­cal cus­tom,” he ex­plained. “A tra­di­tion go­ing back many thou­sands of years. All the sons of a fam­ily, no mat­ter how many there are, marry a sin­gle girl. She serves as a wife to all of them. As per my knowl­edge, it started when the Pan­davas, af­ter win­ning the Ma­hab­harata war, passed through this area on their way to the Hi­malayas. They took a few days’ break here. When our an­ces­tors found out who they were, they were treated like hon­oured guests, and re­quested to give us some points of ad­vice as to how we should con­duct our lives. When our fore­fa­thers learnt that all five brothers had a sin­gle wife, we started fol­low­ing the same prac­tice.”

I had to be con­tent with that ex­pla­na­tion, though I re­alised that there must be some other rea­son for the polyandry be­ing prac­tised in that area. This was be­cause the Ma­hab­harata clearly men­tions that, apart from hav­ing a com­mon wife, Drau­padi, the Pan­davas had in­di­vid­ual wives also.

It was al­most a year later, when I met a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial from the same area, that I found out the truth.

“The real rea­son for the prac­tice of polyandry in the re­gion is purely eco­nomic,” he in­formed me. “Due to the scanty rain­fall and a rocky soil, very few crops can be grown here. How­ever, since we have hardly any road con­nec­tion with the plains, the peo­ple here per­force have to sur­vive on what they can get milk and meat from the an­i­mals that they rear. To add to their prob­lems, they also have no con­cept of fam­ily plan­ning. As a re­sult, al­most every mar­ried woman pro­duces a child every year. But any large-scale in­crease in the pop­u­la­tion would, un­der the ex­ist­ing cir­cum­stances, lead to wide­spread hunger and star­va­tion. Thus, by re­sort­ing to polyandry, each fam­ily can beget only one off­spring a year, thereby lim­it­ing the area’s pop­u­la­tion au­to­mat­i­cally. As for the girls who can’t get mar­ried, they all be­come nuns.”

I mar­velled at the in­ge­nu­ity of whoso­ever it was, who first thought up this sim­ple so­lu­tion to a com­pli­cated and po­ten­tially lifethreat­en­ing prob­lem. It was an ab­so­lutely out­stand­ing ex­am­ple of ju­gaad (in­no­va­tion). We

THERE IS A COM­MON PHE­NOM­E­NON IN MOST OF OUR HI­MALAYAN BOR­DER AR­EAS. SHORTLY BE­FORE NOON, A WIND SPRINGS UP ALONG THE RIVER VAL­LEYS, AND STARTS BLOW­ING UP DUST AND SAND.

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