Friday, October 1, 2010

The Moon for Sixpence






This post has been published by me as a part of the Blog-a-Ton 15; the fifteenth edition of the online marathon of Bloggers; where we decide and we write. To be part of the next edition, visit and start following Blog-a-Ton.



Sidra.

A small village in Poland at a stone’s throw from the Belarusian border. Not more than 700 souls populate its pristine oak-laden forests. And just like the mighty oak, the inhabitants of this little hamlet too take an aeon before they permit any logical succession to reach its culmination. It is a nondescript haven, far removed from the cares of the world. The only medium that punctuates the inertia of this forgotten hinterland is the railway station, a blink-and-you-miss-it pitstop that most trains rumble through without so much as slowing down.

And this is now.

Imagine the Sidra of 1935, which is where our story begins with the arrival of a young missionary crossing over from the adjoining Belarusian province with a sincere but rather misguided intent to civilize the people. Misguided because the village he chose to propagate his mission held a near total Jewish populace, none of whom were particularly enthused by the thought of a gangly youngster setting about reforming their time-honoured ways of life, more so when they realized that he was Catholic.

The village council allowed him to take residence in the abandoned infirmary but did little more to accord him a welcome. He was met with stony faces and grim stares as he went about trying to find some help but this did little to dampen his ardour. For Siddel was not just any boy. Freckle-faced with a mop full of chestnut hair, his boyish charm and impish smile made him an instant sensation with the women of the village-those elder to him wanted nothing more than to mother the poor orphan, those who were his contemporaries swooned over him and those who were younger wanted nothing more than to marry him! And Siddel used this to the hilt-what the men denied him, he ensured the women accomplished for him, in their capacities as wives, sisters, daughters and mothers to those who held sway in the village.

As time flowed by, Siddel saw his stature elevate from that of a rank outsider to that of a trusted confidant. He was still not allowed to voice his opinion in the Council meetings of this Jewish community but he took no small measure of pride in the fact that most protagonists in the meetings parroted his words when it came to new reforms and visions. His religious dissimilarity made him a second-rate citizen of sorts but accorded him the much needed anonymity that allowed him to promulgate the most radical of ideas through those who were more acceptable than him.

But even the veils of anonymity cannot stem the torrents of love. For all his severe pretences and steadfastness of purpose, Siddel could not help himself from falling head over heels for the lissom daughter of the local moneylender. The father was as boorish and avaricious as nine generations of a moneylenders blood can make a man. He did not enjoy an iota of respect among his brethren but his formidable wealth, most of it made at the expense of the forbears of the villagers, ensured that he commanded their deference.

As with all fathers, the apple of his eye was his only child whom he had eponymously named after the village that was his fiefdom-Sidra. And everything about Sidra was atypical, from her cow-like eyes dripping innocence to her nimble gait that betrayed the torpor of her surroundings. She understood all too well the vicarious burden of her father’s dreams that rested on her frail shoulders, of finding a groom befitting not just her stature and beauty but also worthy of perpetuating her father’s enterprise. But when love is not madness, it is not love.

And it was in such a moment of madness, over a cup of sweetened tea at the railway junction, that she heard him profess his love for her and heard herself pledge hers in return. Both knew the sheer temerity of such a hope as also the impossibility of keeping it hidden for long in an environment as severe and binding as theirs. But like a flower in the crannied wall, their liking found roots in the depths of privation and blossomed with a vitality that cheered all those who chanced upon the faintest glimpses of it.

All except her father, that is. The old man was livid when the news was conveyed to him. Yet, his shrewd mind was quick to appreciate the fact that in a society as inbred as his, he no longer could entertain hopes of finding a sound match for his daughter. And in Siddel he saw the lesser of two evils-better to leave his bequest to an infidel than to a pack of vultures who had always resented his success and must certainly be relishing his discomfiture now. But his ego would not let him relent until he had extracted his pound of flesh and so it was in the secrecy of the synagogue that he asked Sidell for a token of fidelity. The boy, ravaged by the listlessness of love, agreed without a second thought and the two men solemnised their pact in the presence of the only other person there, the Rabbi.

The marriage should have been a grand affair but Siddel was too conscious of the frugality of his existence and too proud to accept his father-in-law’s charity. The bride was given away at a modest community lunch and the happy couple got about refurbishing the infirmary to house a family.
****************************************************************

Life was beautiful, even if it was not luxurious. Both worked hard, he to put bread on the table and she to keep that table clean. He could give her very little and she wanted even less. But the one thing that he never denied her was a leisurely walk each evening to the railway platform. They would sit here in isolated splendour and savour the tea that she had made just the way she knew he liked it-extra creamy, extra sweet. Their aching fingers would relish the warmth of the rough-hewn earthen cups as they watched the trains rumble past to distant lands, carrying with them the promises of untold dreams and endless opportunities. Both were smart enough to know that people outside their little village worshipped different gods but neither could ever come around to accepting that there could be any other god than the one they had found each other in.The little infirmary which they called home, the little village that was their world, the unremembered platform that gave them the moon for sixpence. It was all so rudimentary, so meagre, so unremarkable. But it was theirs.

And so life sped past, finding cheer in the little joys and doggedly ignoring the dilemmas of existence. And scarce had the spring of 1939 ushered the virgin blossoms in than Sidra coyly whispered to her husband that she was soon to be the mother of their first child. They were sitting at the benches by the railway track and so joyous was Siddel that the whoop he let out almost drowned the clatter of the train that passed by. But so penurious also was the luckless fortunate that all he could offer her in celebration was his own cup of tea, in the vain hope that it would fortify her body just the little bit more that he could afford.

To their surprise, Sidra’s father was barely able to mask his delight when they told him about it. Sidra was relieved to think that he had finally started to thaw but Siddel was more sceptical, convinced that the old man only saw in the incipient grandchild a less corrupted inheritor to his legacy! But even he begrudgingly accepted the elder’s advice that they move in with him, atleast till the child was born, so that Sidra could get the appropriate care and nourishment.

They temporarily renounced the privations of their little hut for the relative comforts of the old man’s mansion but even with the advancing months of her pregnancy, their sojourns to the railway station continued unabated. The only difference was that the trains that sped past them now beckoned each of the young parents towards a new life, one unfettered by the shackles of their disparity, untrammelled in the vistas that it offered. Inviting, alluring and for the first time, just within reach of their grasp.

But forever is composed of nows. And eternity yawns its menacing grin just when things seem to be coming together. For Siddel and Sidra, the omens started in September when they heard that Warsaw had fallen to the German Blitzkrieg. The lazy village started receiving a steady stream of visitors, mostly Jews, fleeing to the relative safety of the Belarusian border to escape unavoidable persecution at the hands of the Nazis. And each new rush of migrants brought with it fresh stories of the escalating horrors against Jews that were fast becoming too surreal to ignore.

Sidra was quick to seize upon the irony of the situation. That the very religion that had always been the bane of her husband’s life in this village was the one factor that would ensure the survival and continuation of her family. She did not know whether to feel proud or grateful. And she did not have time to deliberate upon it after her father called the two of them home and with trembling hands, beseeched Siddel to look after her once he was gone. Sidra was shaken to see him in such a wretched state but soon realised the futility of persuading him to abandon his birthplace and join them. The family, for once working as one, liquidated their valuables at whatever prices they could get and used most of the money to purchase tickets for the couple on a train out of the village a fortnight hence.

It was a crisp winter evening when the family huddled at the railway platform and anxiously peered at the horizon for their salvation to come. The wait seemed interminable but it gave both the young hearts one final occasion to gaze at the one corner of the world that would forever be theirs. The railway station, with its gray facade and stony bearing, would be an unmemorable entity for most but it had given them some of their most memorable moments. Moments of rapture, moments of privacy, of joy, of anxiety and now finally, it was about to grant them eternal moments of hope and fulfilment. No matter how things turned out, they knew they would always have Sidra Junction to call their own.

As they stood contemplating the threshold of the life they were about to embark upon, a whistle sounded in the distance and they could see the faint lights of the incoming train. The instant euphoria soon gave way to the poignant fact that they would be leaving her father behind. They said their goodbyes and checked their papers one last time.

As the train slowed down, hordes of hapless souls started to make for it when they realised that something was eerily disquieting. And then it dawned upon them. The train was emblazoned with the Swastika of the Nazi party.

The baffled crowd was too stunned to even make a move before the train came to a halt and a stream of German Storm Troopers marched out and cordoned the station off. As Sidra cradled her belly to protect it from the jostling of the crowd, a smart but severe German Colonel stepped out of the train and barked an order out to his men. The soldiers quickly herded the trembling civilians to the middle of the platform whilst the Colonel commandeered an upturned barrel to serve as a makeshift podium. Standing atop it, he announced that the village of Sidra was being appropriated by the Third Reich to serve as the site for a new concentration camp. All Jews were forbidden from leaving the vicinity as they would now be conscripted to serve as labour for the construction of the camp.

While the majority of the congregation broke down at this cruel twist of fate, the moneylender hastily told Siddel to impress his Catholic faith upon the Colonel and demand permission to board the train alongwith his wife. Siddel on his part wasted no time and soon convinced the officer to allow him to proceed onwards with the train.

After getting a vacant berth for Sidra, Siddel went back to the platform to gather his belongings. And as he was about to get on board, he saw the old man standing alone, biting his lip to stop the tears from bursting forth. So overcome was Siddel at this fickleness of providence that he forgot all the humiliations he had suffered and the sacrifices he had made. He set his luggage down and went up to hug his wife’s father, to tell him that it would all be fine.

And that is when his undoing came about. The Colonel observed the young man who had just told him that he was Catholic go up and embrace a wretched Jew. His suspicion aroused, he had Siddel herded into the Stationmasters room and ordered him to lower his trousers. With a look of horror, Siddel remembered that fateful evening in the synagogue.

The evening a moneylender had demanded the cruel price of converting to Judaism in exchange for his daughter’s hand. The evening a forlorn young boy had not given the demand a second thought before acceding to it. The evening a Rabbi had ensured that even if memory forgot about the pact, the boy’s body would always carry testimony of his betrayal of his original faith.

Siddel had never told Sidra what transpired that evening at the synagogue. And as she was unceremoniously dragged out of the train and herded into the crowd trudging back to the village, she caught him stealing a disconsolate glance at the platform.








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