On the road that had somehow escaped the pounding of the earthmovers, the levelling eyes of the surveyor, the hot layering of the coal tar, and the pressing of the road-roller, the sound of the cycles’ tyres still made the sound that had been lost elsewhere. Not only because the new metaled roads didn’t have the right amount of coarseness to elicit that kind of a noise, but also because these new roads seemed to attract a lot of traffic that left little space for the easy-going cycles that some still chose to ride in these parts. Most of them stuck to that one road that had retained its character and criss-crossed the town, springing up in strange places where one would least expect it to, and never reaching some point where one hoped it would. Even after years of living in the town, some would get fooled by its whims, but also because where it would have met with another road, it now met with houses coming up, or new roads being laid. Which is why cycling past small sections of unclaimed land was something most did without thinking too much about it. And then, as if to join forces with the changing face of the town, Bhunvar decided to use a small patch of land that he recently discovered was his, to offer a telecom company to put a tower on.
A telecom company putting a new tower in the town would otherwise have been a welcome move. You could often run into someone holding their mobile phones in their hands, their arms extended high over their heads, as they moved around hunting for that elusive signal. The town had a growing population of the young, but an even faster growing population of mobile phones that clearly told market researches that the old were as much their target audience as were the young. For the town, though, both sets were equally desperate in their attempts at finding a spot where the signals would offer unbroken connections. For their own reasons.
So a tower being planted right in the middle should have been a matter of joy. But as soon as work started on it, the person to be stopped from cycling past that patch of land to connect back to the dirt-road reached the Smile Barber’s shop and told everyone gathered there that he had just had to take a longer route to this point that had him delayed by a good fifteen minutes, and if this was going be a daily detour, he would rather sit at home unshaved and watch videos about the latest hair trends in the city, only if the signals wouldn’t start playing hide and seek again.
Over the next three days or four, similar voices of discontent started appearing all over the town. At the post office where a letter rarely dropped through its fading red postbox, at the Sweet Corner that served only tea and samosas, at the Hope Car & Bike Garage where true to its name, you could only hope to get your car or bike back with fewer troubles than those you came in with. Everywhere people spoke of having to take a longer detour, and some with marvel added that they never really realised that the small patch of land was so critically placed in the middle of the town. They had only just begun to realise the importance of that land, and how its four corners jutted out into the unpaved road at various angles, so that riding over it saved people having to take long, circuitous paths by the houses and the temple where there was hardly even room for pedestrians to walk past, and the school that they had all avoided in their childhood and still did because of the haunting memories of Mr Middhi who had tormented them in their school-going days and was said to still live in that building long after his body had been lowered into the ground by the church behind the school.
That the land belonged to Bhunvar, the man who sold little candies and cheap sodas from a hole-in-the-wall shop was as much a surprise to the townsfolks as it was to the man himself. And the first course of action was to make sure that it did. For if it didn’t then there was no way he could be allowed to let it out to the telecom people. That they all needed a tower was something that they all reasoned, but it could be pushed to one side or the other if the land wasn’t his to let out.
Bhunvar wasn’t without worries either. He would travel to the city once every week to source things for his shop. The multi-coloured candies, the soda bottles that came for little but the cost of lugging the full bottles and taking the empty bottles back hiked the price, the many wrappers and toys that he brought according to the season or taste among his clientele. For the trip he would commission a cycle-rickshaw that would go as far as the bus-stop and wait for him to climb down the bus that came late in the evening. And that journey from the bus-stand to his shop itself cost him a few rupees more as the entry to his own patch of land was denied to him as well. No amount of telling the contractors that this was his own land that he had let out to the company that he was building the platform for served any purpose. To the contractor, the place had been marked out with steel wires on all four sides and everyone but the company were trespassers. Bhunvar calculated the additional cost he would incur over four trips every month, against the money he was getting as rent for the land, and though he was still saving some decent money, the feeling of being stopped from walking through his own land hurt more. That others would have to go around the town to their destination while he would gesture at the contractor who would let the steel wires drop for him to ride over, was a sequence he often played in his head, to a point that he had started believing that it had happened to him. Only his wife would tell him that it never had, and with a certain amount of anger because of she herself had to longer route to the temple, and once there, hear from everyone who had to do the same.
After a few days of turmoil and of still coming to terms with this new arrangement, it came to Piram Ji, the local lawyer who had little understanding of the law, largely because he got little time to practice it. His day was spent looking after the poultry farm that his father had left him, and where the chicken refuse to let their eggs lie, always surprising him with a bigger and bigger brood each time. The farm was hardly a farm by any stretch, but it was called so and solved two purposes. First, it kept some money coming in that was put to feed his family and put his daughter through law college; and second, to provide him with a ready excuse when anyone questioned why he didn’t do anything with his law degree. Now, it seemed to him, he must do something with his law degree or the eggs that he picked up every day would hatch before he could get to them, leaving more chicken on his hands than eggs. And he preferred the latter for it brought instant money and he hated the killing and the slaughtering, being a vegetarian himself.
It was over a week that he finally got down to the bottom of the case of the land. Bhunvar, it transpired from the many documents and papers he accessed through the advice and help of his former classmates of his law school, had a granduncle who had gone missing in one of the wars that the past seemed to be packed with, and that he could never remember in his history classes. Having gone missing, the remaining brothers — his grandfather included — had distributed the land among themselves, that some had cultivated, some sold, and some built over. Between all this, a small patch — the patch under scrutiny — had remained. Not because no one wanted it, but because it was so small and in so awkward a position, that it somehow had escaped the larger plans of the other pieces of land. And before anyone could call it their own, the granduncle had resurfaced. In the commotion of seeing someone presumed dead for over twenty years walk in late in the night and having to prove that he was who he said he was, a lot was forgotten. His brothers still alive hugged him, the ones dead were mourned yet again, and the extended family that had mushroomed since his disappearance were introduced. The war hero having returned was quizzed on his long disappearance, but having been a bachelor then, and even now, it was soon left unprobed. But it was as if he had only sauntered in to die in his hometown. For within a month of his return, he refused to get up one morning till the doctor declared him dead leaving the family to find ways to show their sadness for someone they had long mourned for, and one that a large portion of the family hardly knew.
It was in this family that Bhunvar had taken birth, a week after the man’s death. And as a way to settle an account with the brother, the family had found this little patch and drawn up an agreement to leave it in the newborn’s name, as most believed he was the dead soldier returned again, like he had a month back.
And so it was that the land belonged to Bhunvar who himself only discovered his rights recently, when a long-due land tax had landed in his shop and that he was about to roll up some candies in before realizing that it was of worth more than what his 7-year old customer was giving him.
It was after a badminton match that Piram Ji sat the middle-aged athletes down over a cup of tea and explained the situation. That Bhunvar was clearly in need of the money that the telecom company must have offered was obvious. That the land did belong to Bhunvar was now clear too. But with the land gone, most of the town would be taking longer routes to reach their destinations could not be ignored either. And then, finally, the town could do with that tower. To this each one of those gathered there nodded. For their own reasons, they all needed the signals to spike.
The next day, a delegation approached Bhunvar’s shop, having taken longer to reach there because it was on the far side of the land, across the land from where his house stood. Making him among those who suffered the most. But the money that would be paid over the course of the next 12 months meant that he could pay the tax on the land and then buy himself a scooter. But before he could that, he was given a choice.
The telecom company would be offered the land beyond the school right next to Mr Middhi’s grave. No one ventured near that spot anyway. The land belonged to the school and they could well do with a little extra income. And the town, with signals on their phones. As for the loss of income that Bhunvar would have to face, he was offered a fee from each one who used the land, and he was free to put up a gate so that it could be monitored.
While the plans were still being finalized, the last unpaved road drew the attention of the town planners, and soon it too was put up for levelling, surveying, paving, and layering. And soon, the town found that the road that no one had bothered to take was now wide enough to draw the attention of people who were travelling from the city on this side of the town to the one on that side. And while Bhunvar had retracted his arrangement with the telecom company and the tower had now come up over the right shoulder of Mr Middhi, people found they had little room left to walk or cycle, and those who could afford it bought scooters and motorcycles and cars, and those who couldn’t started taking the public transport that now freely ran across the length of the road and beyond where it met the other wider roads.
Bhunvar went back to his shop, having lost the income that he could have had to supplement his bitter earnings. And as he sat down behind his jars of candies, he felt like he had lost a battle because of someone else’s decisions. The only thing he couldn’t quite understand was the feeling that this had happened to him earlier as well. But try as he might, he couldn’t remember when.