At 95, standing like a rock against the tsunami called Life

CHAT ROOM
Report by: 
LOKNATH PATRA
Port Blair
25 Mar 2018

Mr. Venkat Rao, fondly called ‘Budha Chacha’, has in his 95 years witnessed firsthand the multiple layers of paint applied by destiny’s brush on the canvas called Andaman and Nicobar Islands right from the British occupation, Japanese invasion, Freedom and the Indian Government. Behind every stroke of the ‘master painter’ (destiny) lies his story of growing up, resilience, back breaking labour, torture, family and ever changing times. He was born here after his father Ankaiyaa was brought to Kalapani to be incarcerated from  then Rangoon. His childhood went on smoothly as he was too young to understand the regime then, and by that time his father too was freed from prison. His was in his teens when the Japanese forces took control of the Islands in the summer of 1942. It was when the master painter punched him hard on his swarthy face. Life became topsy-turvy for the impressionable young Venkat, as he was subjected to starvation, pushed to carry loads only fit for mules, lashes, kicks and punches. Today the grand old man lives with his two sons on a piece of land with 20 cows, Noni plantation, chicken and a vegetable garden. One look at him and you know he belies his age. He is agile, alert and physically able to carry out all chores a man half his age can. His flowing white beard and hair add to his graceful demeanour. His bulbous rheumy eyes peep out from under his bushy brows like a pair of overworked camera lenses that has been put to test for almost a century. Budha Chacha relives his past with great pride, riding on a time machine fuelled by his experiences and anecdotes. The garlanded photograph of his late wife Narsamma Kumati Devi who mothered their 10 children, stares at him with benevolence.

EOI reached his home off ATR at Barood Godam near Bird Line. With welcome moos from the bovine kind and scampering chicken, we met Mr. Rao with a little grandchild on his lap. With his flowing white beard and long hair, his presence filled the room. Everyone and everything else there seemed inconsequential. I exchanged namastes with the womenfolk, touched the feet of the ‘lion in his lair’ and settled on an old-school chair opposite him.

EOI: How do you see you long life?

Chacha: Of struggle, hardship and only a few events at times that make me smile, like the shenanigans of my grandchildren.

EOI: You have travelled from the British, Japanese and to the Free India era now. What are your experiences?

Chacha: My childhood was alright, as I had not seen the hardship of my father who was jailed here. He was free by then and we had a home, cows and tilled land like most others. It was only when the Japanese moved in; our lives were put to unheard of hardship and persecution.

EOI: Were you not a teenager then?

Chacha: Yes. From day one, the Japanese forces took control like men possessed. They looted our food, made surprise visits to our homes and carried the young like me to work at sites to lay roads and build bunkers. We were herded into vehicles like cattle at 3 in the morning and made to work till sunset without food. If we complained, they tied us to trees and asked everyone to kick, punch and slap us till we fainted. A guard stood beside to ensure that each one passing by hits hard. If a friend tried to feint a slap, they punished him with lashes.

EOI: No food. It must be harrowing?

Chacha: Oh yes.  I do not know how I survived those years. At times they threw all our belongings out of our homes and filled our homes with weapons and ammunition. I have pushed carts filled with cannon balls and other ammo for miles without a morsel. After all, this place is called Barood Godam (gunpowder warehouse).

EOI: Any incident during the dark days that tickles you and makes you smile?

Chacha: I and my uncle used to work in plantation at ‘Lal Mitti’. We toiled all day and lived in tiny cottage made of leaves and sticks. We found out, the cooked shrimps in the pan were disappearing on a regular basis after we went to sleep. (I caught shrimps in the stream there every day). One night we both feigned sleep and caught the thief. He was a Japanese soldier. (Chacha breaks into a huge roar of laughter). He begged us to forgive him, but we informed his superior who punished him with a 3 hour run with weights on his body. But today our politicians save their own ilk even if they caught red handed.

EOI: What is your story after the Japanese surrendered and then India was free.

Chacha: Initially we all heaved a sigh of relief, but slowly I found out that our own men who took positions of power behaved like our erstwhile masters. I was uneducated, so I went on doing the hard work of a farmer, a milkman and a labourer. I contested and got elected to the Panchayat for almost five decades. Everyone loves me. But love alone does not feed your children. (His eyes well up as he chokes in his speech)

EOI: (moving forward I pat his hands and wait for him to regain his composure) Your tears sum your travails.

Chacha: Yes. My land is still not being officially clear. That is the only thing I have. What will happen to my children without the land? They built a road bypassing my property forcibly. Now that we are within Municipality limits, our cows are taken away and we are fined if they venture out. This is my life, I really request the Administration through your newspaper for justice and little peace at my age. (His eyes well up again)

(In Henry Ward Beecher’s words, “A man in old age is like a sword in a shop window. Men that look upon the perfect blade do not imagine the process by which it was completed.”)