Life of PSY

Third Prize : SUNDAY HERALD SHORT STORY COMPETITION '15

Life of PSY
Nandakishore has two decades of experience working in engineering and IT industries. He is currently a research scholar at the International Institute of Information Technology, Bengaluru. His hobbies include reading fiction and non-fiction, writing, listening to music, and playing sports. Quizzing and travelling also interest him. His poems, humour articles and short stories have been published in many college magazines.

Dear readers, let me inform you at the outset: This story is not about the South Korean singer PSY who shot into the limelight in 2012 with the song Gangnam Style. This story is about a normal, unknown Indian who unwittingly contributed to the Indian Freedom Struggle that brought the mighty British Empire to its knees, and eventually succeeded in liberating us from its rule.

Premchand Sukhiram Yavatmal (or PSY, for short) was born on August 17, 1835, in a town near Meerut. PSY’s father was a small-time trader whose ancestors had migrated from central India. PSY studied in the local school and later landed a job in the nearby district collector’s office. He married a girl of his parents’ choice and was blessed with two children. The family then moved to Nashik, where PSY stayed till his death. In his later years, PSY attended a few meetings held by leaders of the Indian Freedom Movement, but he was not an active participant. He remained as one of the faces in the crowd during public speeches. He attended the Surat Session of the Indian National Congress in 1907 along with a friend; this would be his last such outing.

He confined himself to his house after bouts of ill-health and followed the happenings of the country through newspapers. He tut-tutted with the aforementioned friend when he read about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. He was upset and sighed wearily when he heard of Bal Gangadhar Tilak’s death. He was then almost on his deathbed and, several months later, after a brief illness, PSY died peacefully in his sleep on June 5, 1921.
I can hear you, my readers, asking, “What was his momentous contribution to the Indian Freedom Movement!?” Well, it happened this way...

When PSY worked in Meerut, his wife once fell ill. He took her to a local hospital for treatment and visited her every day. There was a uniformed guard at the outer gate of the hospital and PSY acquainted himself with him. He learnt that the guard, Nathulal, had been serving in the East India Company. Following an intensive military exercise in the Midnapore region of West Bengal, he was taken off active duty and posted at this hospital for a while.

One afternoon, PSY enquired about the rifle Nathulal carried. “What type of gun is that? Can you show me?” Nathulal swung the rifle down and rested its butt on the ground. “This is called an Enfield rifle,” he said, slightly amused at PSY’s query about the rifle.

The P53 rifle was newly introduced to the Indian troops. “How do you use it?” asked PSY. “This seems new,” he added hastily. Though he had never seen guns being fired, Nathulal’s attitude caused PSY to behave as if he was well-versed with all types of guns.
“Yes, this was recently introduced to us and I am lucky to get it.” Nathulal, assuming a self-important manner, then showed his bag of cartridges. “I have these cartridges, see? I have to put them here,” he tapped on the barrel of the rifle, “make sure the powder is fully inside, and then fire it.”

PSY had never seen a cartridge, but he didn’t want to admit it. “Hmm...” he peered into the bag. “Can you fire a shot into the air, so I can see how it works?”
“Hmm, okay.”
Reluctantly, Nathulal thrust his hand into the bag, pulled out a cartridge and showed it to PSY, who then held it gingerly between his thumb and forefinger. It was shaped like a cylinder, about a centimetre thick and almost as long as his finger.

Just then a commotion started near the hospital entrance. A group of people gathered where a man was pointing towards the hospital and shouting angrily. Nathulal picked up his rifle and said to PSY, “Wait here,” and ran towards the hospital entrance to check what the matter was.

PSY, who had been speechless till that moment, nodded. Still holding the cartridge, he took a step backward to give way to a plump lady coming out of the hospital carrying a big bundle in one hand and leading a sickly looking child with the other. And he staggered as his foot caught the edge of the footpath. He quickly threw out his left hand and clutched the hospital boundary wall to regain his balance. But he couldn’t retain his hold on the cartridge, which spun out of his hand and rolled down the side of the road, right into a fresh mass of cow dung.

Frowning, PSY threw a quick look towards the hospital and saw Nathulal trying to pacify the gesticulating man. Now his problem was to retrieve the cartridge. There was no one else around. Annoyed with himself, and not wanting to touch the soiled cartridge with his hands, PSY searched for a piece of paper or cloth, and finding he had none with him, finally plucked a leaf from a tree and, grimacing, picked up the cartridge with it.

With his other hand, he plucked another leaf and used it to wipe the cartridge as clean as he could. He placed the cartridge on the boundary wall and threw away the leaves.
The group was dispersing and Nathulal, after ensuring that the men had truly gone their way, returned to where PSY stood, and muttered, “Silly fellows!” PSY smiled sympathetically. Nathulal noticed the cartridge on the wall and, remembering PSY’s request, picked up the cartridge with his right hand, and with his left, placed the rifle butt on the ground, and said, “Ok, let me show you...”

PSY, still feeling guilty that he had dropped the cartridge, looked on, and was horrified to see Nathulal taking the cartridge to his mouth.
“Stop!” PSY cried.

Nathulal paused and looked at PSY, puzzled. “You wanted me to show you how the gun works, right?”
“Yes, but what are you doing?”
“This is how I load the gun to fire! I bite off the top of the cartridge and then put the powder and bullet into the rifle! Why, what’s wrong?”
“Cow...” PSY quickly stopped himself before he uttered ‘cow dung’. What if Nathulal turned angry? He had obviously not seen him dropping the cartridge. Why should he bring up the matter now?

“What cow?” Nathulal was suspicious now.
“Err... nothing,” PSY corrected himself. “I just remembered I have to settle a matter regarding my cows. Sorry, I have to leave now,” he added, desperate to get out of the situation, and quickly set off down the road before Nathulal could respond.

Nathulal stared after him, still puzzled. Then, shrugging his shoulders, he tossed the cartridge into his bag along with the others and resumed his position at the gate.

PSY went home, bathed and changed his clothes. The next day, his wife was discharged from the hospital, and PSY neither met Nathulal again nor thought about the incident.
Nathulal, too, would have forgotten all about it, but for a chance meeting with an old friend a few days later at the military cantonment.

“Have you heard?” enquired the friend, “It is rumoured that the cartridges of the new rifles they gave us contain cow fat?”

Nathulal immediately remembered the recent incident, when, for the first time, somebody had stopped him as he was about to load his rifle. The man’s behaviour was definitely fishy. And, what was it the man had said? “Cow”. He narrated the episode to his friend. His friend listened intently, and by the time they finally bid each other adieu, both were convinced that the rumour was true. Nathulal’s friend informed his friends in turn about what he heard. And, as they say, the rest is history. Rumours spread that the grease used on the cartridges included tallow, derived from beef (which was offensive to Hindus) and pork (which was offensive to Muslims). Hence both Hindu and Muslim sepoys were unwilling to use them.

In May 1857, a group of sepoys refused to accept their cartridges. The sepoys were court-martialled and imprisoned. Unrest started, quickly spread to other districts and culminated in the so-called Sepoy Mutiny or Indian Rebellion of 1857, which earned its place in history as India’s First War of Independence.

PS: I started with a disclaimer, and will end with one: The events related to all places and persons in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to anyone living or dead is coincidental.

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