The winters had just set in. The days started getting smaller and the nights longer. The mothers started calling their children home earlier than usual and the mandir lamps would be lit long before their regular time. The men of the village would soon light a bonfire and sit around it to talk about the day and the days gone by. They would reminisce about how the times have changed and how they miss what they used to have “in their time”. The elderly women of the house would prepare whatever special winter vegetables and feasts they could conjure in their limited resources. The children would huddle up together and fall asleep soon.
Away from all this, Ram Singh had his own world of preparations and worries. His wife Sharda had died recently after a long illness of eight months, leaving behind three children – two daughters and one son for him to look after. Besides the grief of losing his beloved wife and worry of his small children, Ram also had the burden of a failed crop. While he was away looking after his wife, taking her from town to town, looking for a hospital that could save her, there had been no one to look after the crop. The dues kept rising and the income kept dropping. Ultimately, Ram Singh had to mortgage his farmland to the village[_ thekedar_] to raise money for Sharda’s treatment.
Finally, the doctors gave up and so did Sharda. Immediately after her last rites Ram Singh returned home with his children to salvage whatever he had left.
His elder daughter Kali was 14 years old, the second daughter Phulwa was 12 and his son Nanha was 8 years old. Overnight his daughters seemed to have grown up and took the responsibilities of the house. Kali would take care of whatever remained of the kitchen and Phulwa would take care of Nanha and the house. His children loved him and he loved them. And only this love kept the heart broken Ram going.
Sharda and he had been married for 15 years and she was his everything. And now he was all alone. He had no one to talk to and no one to share his worries with. Since her passing he would keep to himself, not talk much. In his head he would keep thinking about how to keep the house going.
Additionally, Ram no longer liked sleeping at the hut. He would miss Sharda too much. That worked in his favour because now he no longer had Kushal Singh to help him take care of the fields at night. Kushal Singh had been his trusted labour for 20 years. But when Ram mortgaged the field he realized he would have no money to pay Kushal his wages and had to let him go. Now he himself slept in the field at night.
He would lay his charpayi under the big tree that had been providing him shade during the days. His limited means did not allow him to have a good blanket so he would just light a small fire to keep him warm and try to sleep. The fire would go out in a few hours and the cold would wake him up. Sometimes he would light it again with new fuel and other times he would just lay awake looking at the sky. These intervals between his sleep started getting longer.
On one such sleepless full moon night Ram took upon himself to make a new scarecrow for the field. The old one was completely worn out and there was no hope of it scaring anyone. By dawn Ram had a new scarecrow standing in his field. When his work was complete, he stepped back and had a look at it. Even after inspecting it for long, he could not look away from it. He felt strange that he was so attracted to a scarecrow. Afraid that he was losing his mind he walked away and went home for the day.
By the time he returned to the field he had forgotten all about the strange moment he had had with the scarecrow in the morning. As usual he laid his charpayi, lit the fire and went to sleep. It must have been only an hour since he slept that some noise woke him up. Cautious, he sat up straight and picked up his lathi that rested against his bed. Though the moonlight was sufficient, he instinctively picked one of the burning woods for light and walked carefully into the field. He had only taken a few steps ahead that he heard some noise again. He became more cautious and quietly treaded towards the source of the sound. It wasn’t fear that made him look for the source it was curiosity. As he walked, he wondered what it could be. Would it be some farm animal or would it be a person? What if it was the leopard from the nearby jungle? It had been known to prowl in the night and attack any small or big animal that it could spot. He trudged on out of curiosity. There was no longer any fear in his heart. As he walked, he caught himself hoping that it would be the leopard and it would eat him up. He hadn’t recovered from the shock of his thought when he received yet another shock. The scarecrow wasn’t in its place. There lay an empty spot among the crop where the scarecrow should have been. Ram stepped forward to inspect the phenomenon. “Who would steal a scarecrow?” he thought to himself. And resigned to the fact that he was under a spell of bad luck and that nothing good could ever happen to him.
Disheartened, he walked back to his charpayi to get some rest. When he reached it, he stopped in his tracks. There in his bed lay the missing scarecrow! He lay on his left side with his head resting on his hay hand and its muddy feet dirtying the charpayi.
“Careful with that torch Ram, I’m flammable, you know”, he said and laughed at his own joke.
Ram was still in a state of shock. The night was getting stranger. He did not know what was real and sane anymore. He thought he had definitely gone mad. What would happen to his children now? Maybe the leopard would have been better than this.
“What is wrong? You look like you saw a ghost. Even those impertinent birds aren’t scared of me, what have you to fear?”
Ram answered shakily, “You couldn’t be real, could you? How is this possible?”
“Of course I am real Ram. And it is possible because you asked for it this morning when you made me.”
Indeed, that was true. When Ram was inspecting the scarecrow, he had wished in his heart that it was real and that he could talk to him. And now it had happened.
Mesmerized, Ram neared him. He was smiling cunningly.
“So Ram, tell me what are you so sad about, other than the fact that your wife has moved on to a better place?”
“Of course! She is in a better place. You don’t know but she visits you and the kids often. Did your daughters change overnight?”
“Have you seen her? Is she happy? Sometimes I think there is no meaning to my life after Sharda. I just go on for the sake of going on and for the children. Before I got married I used to dream of taking my wife to the big city, to see different places. I hear there is a big tomb in Agra, called Taj Mahal that some king had got made for his dead wife. I wanted to take Sharda there but we never got a chance to go. Now she is gone, the kids are alone, the fields are mortgaged to the thekedar and most of the crop this year is spoilt.”
And so Ram kept talking through the night. The scarecrow would listen to him patiently and where he could offer advice he would tell him what could be done or even simply to stay patient.
For the first time Ram broke down since Sharda’s death and cried. The scarecrow consoled him and told him that all would be fine. When morning came, he decided it was time for him to go back and take his place in the fields. Ram also went home happily. He was eager to go home and see his children and hug them.
When he reached home he hugged his girls and asked Kali if something was needed in the kitchen. He asked Nanha and Phulwa how their studies were going on. The kids were pleasantly surprised that their father had spoken to them after so many days. Ram eagerly waited for the night to fall when he could go back to the field and talk to his friend.
When he got to the tree in the field, the scarecrow was already waiting for him on the charpayi in the same pose as yesterday.
“Do you know that you have a lot of friends in the village, Ram?”
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing, just asking.”
And so they continued talking through the night.
The next morning when Ram was going home he crossed a group of some of the other farmers from the village. And for the first time in many months he stopped to talk to them.
Hari Singh, his closest friend from a time asked him how he was. And others told him that they knew about his financial situation and how he had to let go of Kushal Singh. They offered him any help he might need, from tilling land to harvesting. And so it was decided that from today itself, they would take turns and help Ram get back on his feet. Once again Ram broke down and thanked them from the bottom of his heart.
He went home happier than he had been in months.
When the night fell he excitedly hurried to the field to talk to the scarecrow. As usual, he was waiting there for him in his usual pose.
“You seem happy today Ram”, he said in a lazy, easy going manner that was typical of him.
“I would be happier if you didn’t leave all this mud and hay on my charpayi, you know.” And he quickly filled him in on what had happened in the morning. The scarecrow just yawned and asked him, “What if I wasn’t there tomorrow, Ram?”
Shocked and afraid, Ram asked, “Why would you say something like that?”
“Just wondering…anyway, so how many patches are there in your roof?”
By now Ram had understood the scarecrow’s clairvoyance and rushed home.
He reached just in time and got the children out before a part of the roof collapsed. He arranged for the children to sleep at the neighbour’s while he repaired the roof through the night.
Next night he went back to his bed under the tree to meet his unconventional friend. And once again they talked through the night.
This went on for some weeks. The more he talked to the scarecrow, the lesser his worries got. He became happier and accepted that Sharda had moved on to a happy place and became happy for her. He started spending more time with his children and ensured that all three of them could go to school and study. With the help of his friends the crop was also saved and it would be a good harvest. Ram Singh would be able to pay off his entire loan and free his land. He contacted Kushal Singh and offered him his job back too. He would return in a month’s time. While everything made Ram Singh very happy, this last bit worried him.
One night when he went to the scarecrow he told him his concern that once Kushal Singh came back, he would not need to sleep in the fields at night. And he would not be able to meet the scarecrow.
The prudent scarecrow replied, ”Don’t make me a habit Ram Singh, you don’t need me anymore. Besides, you always complain that I dirty your bed with hay and mud…it should be a relief to you once I am gone.”
And Ram didn’t argue with him but they talked about many different things.
The next morning when he was walking back home, Hari stopped him and took him aside.
“Are you alright Ram?”
“Yes, why? I haven’t been better than this in a year!”
“The others are saying strange things about you. They say you stay up all night talking to yourself.”
Shocked and worried that his secret was out, Ram replied defensively, “Fools they are! Why would I do that? There must be some confusion.”
“Okay, how about when you stand and stare at the empty space where you used to have a scarecrow in the field?”
Ram was utterly shocked now. He mumbled, “Empty space…scarecrow…” And he rushed back to the field with Hari close at his heels.
“Ram! Ram! What is wrong? Stop!”
But Ram only stopped once he reached the scarecrow’s spot! And he couldn’t believe his eyes! It was empty! There was no scarecrow. His companion was gone.
Baffled, he turned to Hari, “…but there was a scarecrow. I made him myself…”
Worried about his friend, Hari took him by the arm and started walking him to the tree where his charpayi would be. Ram kept wondering if he had been hallucinating about the scarecrow all this while. He couldn’t believe that he might have been talking to himself. He was sure that his most beloved and trusted friend was real and not just a figment of his imagination.
By the time they reached the charpayi, Ram was calmer and told himself that everything that happened to him over that last few months was real and there was no need for him to be depressed and baffled. He had a good life once again and he should respect the scarecrow by enjoying that.
And so he told Hari, “You are right my friend, I think I have been over worked and stressed lately, maybe that is why I was acting so foolishly.”
The sincerity in Ram’s voice convinced Hari and he left him standing under the shade of the tree. After a few moments of staring into the field, Ram decided to put the charpayi upright against the tree. When he turned to pick it up, it was full of hay and mud.
Ram Singh's life has turned upside down. His beloved wife passed away leaving behind their 3 small children, his farmland is mortgaged and his crop is spoilt. Lonely and lost, on the verge of giving up, he finds support from an unconventional source.