3

The news spread like widfire and caused a sensation in the city. This new strategy left them bewildered. The Congress workers were certain that this was an act of hypocrisy; they felt that the government's supporters had bribed Panditji to play this farce. When the government found itself helpless to combat the Congress, and when its army, police and law failed, it thought up this new plan. This was nothing but the bankruptcy of politics! As it is, Panditji was not known to be such a patriot who would have been motivated to take this kind of a vow unhappy over the country's condition! Let him go hungry for two days and then he will come to his senses. This new strategy should be nipped in the bud; if this strategy succeeded it could become a potent weapon in the hands of the authorities in the future. The public wasn't discreet enough to see through the plan and, so, had lapped it up as a genuine patriotic act.

But the merchants and money-lenders in the city - a god-fearing lot - were scared and refused to listen to the Congress. "Sirs," they told the Congress workers, "we did not hesitate to get into the bad books of the government when you asked us to do so. We were ready to suffer losses; we gave up our employment; many of us were reduced to poverty; we cannot show our faces to the officers in shame. The officers used to show us respect initially, but now nobody cares even if we don't find seats in trains. The taxes are raised on the basis of the weights of our account books, irrespective of whether we earn anything or not. But we endured all this humiliation, and are willing to endure much more sufferings in the future for your cause. However when it comes to matters of religion, we cannot accept your leadership. When we are the cause for a learned, high-born, pious brahmin to forsake food and water, how can we eat and sleep in peace? If he dies, what answer are we to give to God?"

The Congress, thus, suffered a setback. A deputation of traders arrived at the venue at 9 pm to serve Panditji. Panditji had taken a heavy repast today. But this was nothing unusual for him; twenty days in a month he found himself being invited somewhere or the other for meals and he, of course, did justice to these invitations. At feasts it is usual to exceed ones eating capacity for several reasons: one tries to outdo other diners, the host keeps insisting you have more, and, of course, because of the excellent cooking. Panditji's digestive system had become accustomed to these tests, and passed them every time. So, when supper time approached nearer, Panditji felt his resolve weakening. It is not that he was terribly hungry; it was owing to the psychological cause that around meal time a person, if not troubled by an upset stomach, craves for food.

Such was Panditji's state at that hour. He felt an urge to summon the nearby hawkers and buy something from them. But the officers had posted several constables at the venue for his protection. The constables were a conscientious lot and did not show any inclination to budge from their positions. Panditji's massive intellectual machinery was trying to work out a solution to this problem. "These constables have been stationed here for no reason," he thought to himself, "I am not a convict who is planning to escape."

The officers perhaps had a strong reason to surround Panditji with policemen. They did not want the Congress workers to forcibly evict Panditji from the venue. You never know what game the Congress might play. It was, therefore, necessary to protect Panditji.

The deputation of traders arrived when Panditji was thus engaged in devising a plan to outwit the policemen. Panditji was lying prone with his body propped by the elbows. He immediately sat up. The traders touched his feet in reverence and said, "Sir, why are you inflicting your wrath upon us? We are willing to obey your every command. Please give up your hunger strike and accept food and water. We didn't realise you seriously intended to fast unto death; else, we would have come earlier and pleaded with you. Please oblige us by taking food; it is almost ten o'clock."

Moteram: These Congress workers will ruin you. As it is, they are themselves drowning and will take you down along with them. If the markets remain closed, it is you who will suffer; it won't hurt the government. It is you who will starve if you give up your business; the government won't be affected. It is you who will be sent to jail and made to keep your noses to the grindstone; the government won't bother. Whatever has come over these Congress workers? They cut their own noses to humiliate others! Don't listen to them. Promise me that you will keep your shops open.

Trader leader: Sir, how can we make such a promise without first holding a meeting and taking a consensus? If the Congress workers start plundering our shops, who will come to our rescue? Please have your food. We promise that we will hold a meeting tomorrow, and whatever be the outcome we will promptly inform you about the decision.

Moteram: Then, come back after holding the meeting.

When the disappointed traders started to leave, Moteram wanted to know whether any of them was carrying a snuff box. One gentleman removed his snuff box and offered it to him.

After the traders had left, Moteram turned to the policemen and asked, "Why are you waiting here?"

"It is our officer's order; what can we do?" the policemen said.

Moteram: Go away from here.

Constable: Leave this place on your orders! If we lose our jobs will you feed us?

Moteram: I order you to go away from here; else, I will leave this place. I am not a prisoner that you should surround me in such a manner.

Constable: You want to leave! Do you have the guts?

Moteram: Why shouldn't I have the guts, fellow! Have I committed any crime?

Constable: Okay, let's see you try to leave this place.

Panditji rose to his feet swiftly and pushed a nearby constable so hard that he fell backwards on to the ground a few steps away. The other policemen felt their courage deserting them; they had taken Panditji for just a flabby mass of flesh, but when they saw how strong he was they slunk away.

Moteram now ran his eyes over the place in search of a hawker from whom he could buy something to eat. But he realised that if the hawker went around revealing the matter he would become a laughing stock. No! Caution had to be exercised; he must use cunning such that no one would know. It is in such tricky situations that one's intelligence is tested. In a moment Panditji solved the difficult problem.

As luck would have it he saw a hawker approaching. It was eleven o'clock, and it was very quiet. Panditji hailed him, "Hey you, come here."

The hawker came up and asked, "What would you like to have? Feeling hungry, ain't you? It is only the ascetics who can go without food and water; people like you and me can't bear hunger.

Moteram: What are you saying? Do you think the person before you is any less than an ascetic? If I wish, I can remain without food and water for months together. I called you only to borrow your oil lamp for a while; I thought I saw something slithering there; I am scared, it could be a snake.

The hawker gave him the lamp and Panditji started his search for the slithering creature. The lamp slipped from his hand, dropped to the ground, and was extinguished. All the oil flowed out. Panditji gave a thwack to the lamp so as to cause even the remnants of oil to drain away.

The hawker picked up the lamp and shook it vigorously. "Sir, there isn't a drop of oil in it now," he said. "I might have found a few more customers, but you have brought upon me this new trouble."

Moteram: Brother, it slipped from my hands; do you want me to cut off my hands in penance? Here, take this money and get some oil for the lamp.

The snacks seller took the money. "But why do I need to come back?" he asked.

Moteram: Keep your basket here, and quickly return after getting the lamp filled; if a snake bites me you will be responsible for my death. I am certain there is some creature here; look, there it goes slithering; now, it has disappeared. Run along now, young man; get some oil quickly. I will watch over your basket; if you feel you can't trust me, you may carry all your cash along with you.

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