What’s it about – No Man’s Land

"Land— you can't burn it like money; you can't melt it like gold. You can only buy it, sell it, snatch it, grab it. Titles change, governments change, times change, but the land stays where it is—unmoved and sterile. That is its beauty. But, somewhere deep down, men want to grab its immortality and slip it into their horribly insecure lives. They never can, but they never will stop trying.”

Gurgaon, circa 1998. A city is being born. Ordinary farms are turning into virtual goldmines in the shadow of lofty skyscrapers.

Agastya, whose days are numbered, lords over one such estate. He realizes it’s time to pass on the legacy to the next generation—his estranged sons, Pranay and Karan, who will come from Delhi with blemished pasts, base aspirations, and a woman who would divide them.

And then, not unlike the Mahabharata, the land would become the stage where their greed, affections, and deepest fears would struggle and suffocate. No one would leave the place unscathed, if they would leave at all.

Sample Chapter – No Man’s Land

Men would give a lot to be in my shoes, in my skin and in my head. The words do not matter – what matters is that I have seen envy in the eyes of men – naked envy when they know what my father owns. There is something about land that does that to the best of them, with or without the words ‘disputed’ writ large on it.

I stood on a very large piece of land and looked around in all directions.  There was the highway on my left running all the way to Delhi behind me, there were faint edges of half-constructed towers extending deep into the embryonic city of Gurgaon, and there was the airport some distance away on my right. Sandwiched between these manmade signs of prosperity was a massive tract of uneven, parched land that bore my family name. It was vacant, substantial and crying aloud for a flood of developers to take it over.  It was wealth that could run for a few generations, I was told. It was time to look forward, to pick up the soil and watch it turn to gold, they all said. It was time to make a future.

Apart from the large farmhouse that had been home to father and Shashwat Uncle, the entire place had turned bare. It was the start of summer and the sun had been ruthless. The months that the place had been ignored had only made it worse. It wasn’t just the weather, it was the disdain of the people who had lived on it that had seeped into its soil. The greed, the disputes and eventually the malice in the minds of men had sucked the fertility out of the land. It does not matter, people told me. Men will pay for the land, not for its beauty or ugliness, not for its past but for its future. Men will pay, if they just hear the word yes. Settle with the family, override them or do what you want but move ahead, they said.

I had paid for saying yes earlier too, more than I could afford and I was hesitant. For a stranger, my shoes seemed to be the best place to be in – there was the hope of wealth, there was the benefit of youth and finally there was the sense of closure over a shadowy past. For me, all of these seemed irrelevant. I felt some sympathy for the mythical victors of another land not far away - the Pandavas of Hastinapura, as they would have stood at the end of their Great War. I doubt they gloated over all they had won and the kingdom that was theirs. Yet, from where they stood, they had the blessing of the gods. From where I stood, I was merely human. Many would say it was time to rejoice and react, I would say it was time to stand still and reflect. 

The city was closing in from every direction, sucking out the spaces and smashing the undisciplined mud tracks into shape. This piece of land, for decades a secluded hideaway for father, was now very much on the map. It would be easy to walk away with a fortune from here, if my family – or what was left of it – could look together in the same direction., But that would mean walking away from the decades my family had spent here, and the days one woman had spent here – all of that would also have to be bartered away – and that was not going to be easy.

I stood statue like for long - unprepared and feeling hopelessly inadequate. There was a dulling sense of confusion that - by just being there - was chipping away at all that was composed in me. Fortune or no fortune – the real choice always was and will be whether to walk away with peace or to walk away with a heavy heart. Is that what father tried to tell me the first time he took seriously ill or he was too busy gauging the imaginary wall between me and his bastard son?

 

(1)

Agastya was uneasy: his two sons were together under the same roof for the first time in life, and he lay grounded in his room, all six feet of him, trapped under sheets that hid his numb legs and weakened heart.  Till a few weeks ago, he looked perfectly healthy at sixty, but then suddenly, one day, a cardiac arrest came knocking and transformed him completely.

Pranay and Karan were outside. He could hear them shuffling and moving in the house. Agastya would have liked to be there, between them, but for now, he would have to letShashwat manage matters for him. It was the first few minutes that he feared – especially when Karan would step into the house. It was not just the fear of having his family face each other; it was the fear of facing his past through the eyes of his two sons. There are special moments one plays out in the mind for days or even years – practising, probing and preparing. This was one such – and yet, for all his efforts, reality had played a fast one on him – locking him in bed when he would have wanted nothing better than to run the show.

Agastya had started getting an uncomfortable feeling for several months before the attack brought him to his knees. The niggling pains in the joints, the palpitations in the heart, the breathlessness of long walks, the tiresome feeling in the middle of the day – all of them had started to move into a second level of orbit. They were no longer minor irritants, each graduating slowly to ailments with independent character and jurisdiction of their own. The clean, fresh air of his farm, the daily walk across the greens and the fresh foods that had sustained him so far seemed to be losing their potency. He was entering his sixties and the thoughts of his mortality finally started forming at the edges of his mind. The attack just made it worse.

Within a few weeks of his first heart attack, Agastya had started feeling claustrophobic in his own body. His arms would not move, his legs had a will of their own, his torso was a stranger to his mind, and pain was the language common to them all. His existence itself had become a battle he was too tired to continue, too old to bother with.The strong and animated body that had been his pride was gradually becoming a drag on his meagre resources, and sometimes he wished he could get up and simply leave it behind to struggle with itself.

Shashwat would sit next to Agastya’s bed for hoursevery day, after making sure he had taken his medicines and watch his silent battle with a mix of sympathy and helplessness.He would make a few cursory comments about the farm and the weather and then hold Agastya’s hands. The warmth with which he closed his grasp impelledAgastya to hold on and keep up the fight, but it couldn’t instil much optimism in him, forsomewhere Agastya had realized he would not survive much longer. He could feel the same sense of foreboding in Shashwat’s look of empathy.

Shashwat stepped into the room. His gait, usually assured, had become somewhat diffident in recent weeks, as if the shadow of Agastya’s illness was on him too.

“When Pranay arrives, should I tell himaboutlast night’s breach? This time it was almost forty feet into our land,” he said with concern.

“Did the cops come in the morning?”

“They did. Looked around a bit and left after some vague promises of action. Not worth much, in my view. For the time being, I have gotten the boundary wall re-instated.But each day is getting worse. Someday, they will be stronger than us.” 

Agastya looked at the expanse of land outside through the French windows of the room. “Someday I’ll wonder whether all this was really worth fighting over.”

“Peace of mind is always worth fighting over,” Shashwat replied pensively. “Anyway our time has passed. The boys have grown up now. Let them decide what to do with it.”

“Then informPranayabout the situation.Let him decide what to do next”

“I thought so too. You remember Dhawan? The buyer who has been speaking to you? He is also coming in today. If Pranay has any ideas about this place, they will come out,” Shashwat said.

Agastya shifted in the bed, rather painfully. Shashwat stepped forward to help him.

“What about Karan?” Agastyahesitatingly spoke after some seconds.

“I don’t know him enough. For me, he is a stranger,” Shashwat said.

“But he is my blood too,”Agastya countered.

“But that does not mean he can be trusted. I do not doubt him; it is just that all of us need time. Some more time and he will be in on every conversation.”

Agastya did not respond and closed his eyes, reflecting on the latest intrusion into the farm. 

In the past five years, the lands neighbouringAgastya’shad started passing into private hands on one pretext or the other. Some had gone to large farmers and some to investors who never showed up to inspect their properties, choosing to leave them barren and wasted. Agastya had not paid much attention to these dealings until one clear morning a few months ago whenShashwatpointed out building spires coming up far away on the horizon, to him.As they both stood watching dozens of trucks ferrying men and materialsand ripping into the heart of agricultural lands, Shashwat said, “We won’t stay untouched for long. The roads carrying those trucks are coming to our door step.Men and their greed won’t be far behind.”

“What have I got to do with them?” Agastya said.“Yes, it will be noisier around here but I will live my life and will let them live theirs”

“Yes, you will let them live their life but they won’t let you live yours,” Shashwat said, smiling.“You sit on a magnet and you will attract all sorts.Land has that whore like fascination in some ways—they can look away all they like but eventually every man will want a piece of it one day.”

Shashwat was proven right when encroachments on the farmlandbegan a few months ago. It started with small threats—a random broken fence here or a missing corner gate there—but gradually the incidents became bigger. Once, a large portion of the barbed wiring on the west end of the land was found ripped off on the very next day it was repaired. Some days later, the brick wall around the main gate was found broken.Apart from this, cows would be often found grazing on the lands and stray dogs would strangely bypass the animal barriers they had never done till then. Trees that fell over the boundary would routinely be chopped away during the night. If ever there was confusion between overactive kids and malicious miscreants, the hammers resolved it. Shashwat found a bunch of them near the broken wall one morning and it was clear there were men, very strong men, out to scare the family.

The encroachments, expectedly,were followed by lucrative offers: neighbours coming by as agents for nameless buyers or acquaintances making veiled bids on phone. When Agastyaturned down all of them emphatically,anonymous calls followed, warning him of dire consequences if he did not sell the land.

Agastya’s heart sank on realizing that his secluded lifestyle was under threat, that the one thing that had been the constant epicentre of their lives for decades suddenly seemed like just another tradable commodity. If that worry had not been enough, a paralytic stroke andthe heart attack almost pushed him off the edge. Even Shashwat was starting to get perturbed, which was unusual. Between the threatening calls and Agastya’s illness, Shashwat would sometimes pray for the return of the uneventful days of just a few months ago.

“I think it’s time the boys get a flavour of this place,” Agastya said to Shashwatone day. “Call them and invite them over, though on different days. Pranay first and then Karan.Let me speak to both alone before they meet each other. Anyway I owe it to Karan’s mother by now.”                         

“I will call them at once,” Shashwatsaid and left.

Agastya looked outof the large French windows that faced his bed. There was a light wind outside andthe curtains flewcasually in it,letting through glimpses of the view beyond his room. Agastya did not require an uninterrupted view of his landto picture how it must look. Yes, the farm changed colour with the seasons and the wind and the men who tended it, but over the years, Agastya had learnt to recognize its immutable core that would always remain solid, that could not be touched by beast or man. It was an invisible but comforting presence, one that let him sleep peacefully at night.

© Nilesh Shrivastava. All Rights Reserved