Mahadevan checked the gilt-edged tray once again. Hot milk, specially prepared tea powder, sugar, spoons and a neatly folded napkin – everything was in order. As he lifted the tray, his wife Madhuri, who was busy cooking beside, cautioned him once again: “Don’t drop it on the way.” There was a touch of sarcasm. But he did not mind.
Devan, as others fondly called him, had no difficulty in taking the tray out. But the problem began the moment he stepped into the presence of his master John Miller. For eight long years he had been working under him. Still the very shadow of his master was sufficient to trigger off a bout of jitters in him.
His mistress Susan was another formidable presence Devan had to cope with. She was genteel and tried to be very kind to all those who worked for her family. She never raised her voice in an attempt to reprimand him, not even once. Still his slender body buckled in her presence. His hands trembled, throat went dry and words failed to come out. The predicament was so severe that little beads of perspiration used to line up on his large forehead, often moving down over the eyelids.
John Miller was a senior British police officer, entrusted with law and order in the early thirties. He always went by the rules, often ruthlessly. “Rules are meant for everyone’s good. No one should be exempted,” he said, caressing his well-oiled thick moustache. Many called him “Moonchwala gora sahib”, of course not within his hearing. He was a terror to all those who dared to defy. Perhaps that was the reason for Devan’s predicament.
Devan still dreaded to recall the day when he had stumbled over and spilled hot tea on his master. The master lost his cool and was about to fire him. Poor Devan stood trembling all over. Seeing his discomfiture, the master cooled down and ordered him to leave. And the poor man literally scampered for his life.
Similar was the occasion when he was cleaning up the main hall. Seeing a new portrait that his master had brought, he lifted it up to see. It was then he heard his master’s approaching footsteps. In a hurry when he tried to keep the portrait back, he hit it against the wall. Luckily the art piece escaped with a minor fissure at the bottom. In the ensuing confusion, he did not notice his master standing right behind him. When he looked up, he just let out a cry and collapsed.
Devan and Madhuri were an honest couple, deeply committed to their work. They had no children even after ten years of married life. Madhuri had been pestering him to adopt a child. Yet he resisted the idea in the fond hope that one day his wife would reward him with a lovely child. The Millers knew all about them. Perhaps that was the reason for their unusually sympathetic disposition towards the couple.
It was around that time Mahatma Gandhi began his protest against the salt tax, one of many economic improprieties committed by the British to generate more revenue. The salt tax made the sale or production of salt by anyone other than the British government a criminal offence punishable by law. Throughout the low-lying coastal zones of India, salt was readily accessible to poor people. Yet they were forced to pay for a mineral, which they could easily collect themselves for free.
Mahatma Gandhi made a call to defy the law banning the making of salt. Hundreds of people joined his padyatra (a protest march on foot), covering a distance of 200 km. The police tried to stop them using threats and arrests. Unmoved, they marched on towards Dandi where they intended to break the law. And there the police lay in wait for them.
When the protesters arrived, Devan happened to be on the spot. He had come there on a special errand from his mistress. The air was tense. Anything could happen in that surcharged atmosphere. Devan stood at a distance, watching every movement with bated breath. “God, save my people,” he prayed with his eyes closed.
When Devan opened his eyes, he saw the protestors stop. The police had already formed a cordon around. The protesters, one by one, stepped forward to break the cordon, only to be felled to the ground. Then he saw his master among them. For the first time, he saw his master mercilessly beating up the unarmed protestors. There was no resistance, no violence. The protestors simply advanced, only to be beaten black and blue. The writhing bodies were immediately carried away on the waiting stretchers.
Unable to see the inhuman treatment meted out to his fellowmen, Devan collapsed and was soon carried away on a stretcher. The doctor who examined him was surprised. “The only case without fractures!” he exclaimed. After first aid, he was discharged and sent away.
The following morning as usual Devan got busy watering plants and attending to other sundry matters. It was then his master called for him. He first tried to ignore the call. But when the master called him again, he decided to go in. When he entered, as usual the master was lying on his easy chair with his eyes closed, ready for a shave. Devan first applied lather and then began to shave.
The images of his master brutally assaulting the unarmed protesters came flooding his mind. For the first time he saw in his master a horrible face, something that he had never seen before. He found it difficult to keep on shaving. Finally when it was over, he let out a sigh of relief.
Next was to trim the thick moustache. It was a moustache that his master was very proud of. The moustache gave the face a look of dignity and authority. Devan let the scissors go on trimming. His thoughts were running amuck. He did not feel the hair flying about. He was no more in control of himself. And when he came back to his senses, he could not believe himself. A sizeable part of the master’s moustache was gone, with just a little remaining intact in the middle.
Devan first felt frightened. Then he saw in it as act of nemesis. He had not forgotten the cruel face of his master the previous day. He looked at the disfigured face of his master once again. This time he could not control himself. He just let out a laugh, shrill and ringing loud.
The master woke up as if from a deep sleep. He did not know what was happening. “How dare you laugh on my face?” he roared. But that did not stop Devan from yet another bout, sending alarm all over. Sensing something wrong, he lifted the mirror kept beside and looked in. Horror struck him. His prized moustache was not there. “What have you done, son of a scoundrel?” he thundered, fretting and fuming. He again looked into the mirror, trembling all over. “Get lost before I kill you,” he burst out.
It had no perceptible impact. Without bothering to keep the shaving set back in place, Devan just walked out smiling, nonchalantly. The cool gait and defying look angered the master all the more. “Catch that idiot, you jokers,” he ordered the other minions who had gathered around. “ Don’t leave him. Shave his head off.”
The minions moved fast. They dragged him to a corner and shaved him clean. He did not resist. When everything was over, Devan looked into a broken piece of mirror lying around. “Wow, I now look like Mahatma himself!” he exclaimed and let out another bout of shrill laugh.
Madhuri stood afar, watching the scene, shedding silent tears. For her, a public tonsuring was something that she could never forgive. “How can I serve this master who has treated my husband so shabbily,” she murmured. Without a second thought she packed a few of their belongings and quietly walked towards where her husband sat.
Madhuri knew her husband was deeply hurt and the loud laughter was only a mask. She gently pulled him to his feet and said, “Let’s go. This place is no more ours.” Devan was surprised to see the change in her. Till that moment, she was ready to sacrifice her life for the Millers. He felt really proud of her.
The scene at Dandi had made him insensitive to the trivialities of life. “All our life, we have slogged like slaves. At least now we are free,” he said, looking into her moist eyes. Then they slowly stepped out, holding each other, leaving behind the gate wide open. They did not bother about any of their possessions left behind. As free man and woman, they moved on to join the crowds outside fighting for the freedom of their country.