N. S. Madhavan
Once, two children wanted to have themselves photographed. Their tender minds had wanted this for quite some time. This desire had been induced in them by the photos appearing in newspapers with the caption “Wedding Today.” When her mother bawled at her from the kitchen as she prepared to go to school in the morning, she would run to the front verandah now and then, and check whether the newspaper had come. If her father failed to get the newspaper along with his cup of morning tea, he wouldn’t be able to go have a wash or even a shave. On days when a bandh was declared, he would pace about restlessly, unable to take a look at the newspaper. Though not very rich, he subscribed to many newspapers and weeklies, and he read them all. She knew in which publications “Wedding Today” appeared and when. She had even cut out some pictures slyly and pasted them inside her bound notebook.
“Which of these photos do you like?” On her way to school, she opened her bound notebook and showed them to him. His eyes roved over the newly pasted photos.
He touched one.
Bridegroom: Satish K. Nambiar; S/o Karunakaran Nambiar; Poykayil House, Kadinjumoolam, Neeleshwaram. Bride: K. R. Swapna, D/o K. R. Govindan Nambiar; Theravath House, Koyampuram, Neeleshwaram.
“I like this photo too. It’d have been better without the man’s moustache. Why do people sport big moustaches like this?”
“Moustaches suit some people very well.”
“Will you too have one when you grow up?”
Noticing a group of children walking up to them, she closed the bound notebook. They were near the school. The road was full of school children. The Government Higher Secondary School in which she and he studied was not far from St. Antony’s Public School. The children with maroon ties and matching skirts or trousers were from St. Antony’s.
“They are all so puffed up, those children,” she said.
“Don’t they have their own school bus? That’s why,” he said.
“Good thing they keep their boasting to themselves,” she said.
They had reached the school. Its compound walls, the tops of which were spiked with glass shards, were covered with film bills and scrawled slogans. Someone had tried to scrape away the sign “Stick No Bills” written in lime. The latch of the gate must have fallen off; it had been removed from its hinges, and now stood leaning against the wall inside the compound. A crow perched atop the flag staff on which the headmaster would hoist the National Flag on Republic Day. When the crow slipped and lost its balance, it flapped its wings and flew up, hovered, and alighted on top of the flag staff once again. The children were playing, dashing about in the compound. Some boys avoided the urinal and pissed against the walls from the outside.
“Let me just take a look.”
“The bound notebook.”
“Oh, no. The children will see.”
She looked all around her anxiously, and slipped the bound notebook over to him. He quickly hid it in his satchel.
“You must return it during the Second Period.”
“Yes, I will.”
“Don’t show it to anyone.”
She ran to the cluster of classmates standing around in the compound. Though he knew that the bell may ring any time, he went into the urinal. There he opened the bound notebook. There were a lot of photos of newlyweds. Among the pictures she had pasted the day before, the one he liked best was that of Satish and Swapna. He looked at that photo till the bell rang. He could hear the noise of the boys and the splashing of urine against the walls outside. When the bell rang, he put the bound notebook back into the satchel and came out. Yelling along with the other boys, he rushed into the classroom.
“We too must have a photo, like that of Satishettan and Swapnedathi,” he said as they were returning home after school.
“But aren’t we just children?” she asked him.
“What’s wrong with children getting photographed?”
“I feel shy.”
Her face flushed. Moving away from the other children, they walked home together, chatting about the day. His home is past hers, a five minute walk from the post office.
“Okay,” she said. “Let’s do it tomorrow.”
“Do you have money?”
“What’s the money for?”
“Will anyone take photos for free?”
They walked on together, silent. He didn’t dare ask his mother or father for money. He had heard his father telling his mother when the milkman asked him for money: “Why do we need so much milk? I have to pay the insurance premium, the electricity bill and all kinds of things. I can’t bear it any longer. I’ll run away somewhere.”
They reached her house.
“Ask your father for money. Isn’t he very rich? Doesn’t he go to office on a scooter?”
She went past the fence, the satchel heavy on her back. The fence was covered with tiny white flowers blossoming in unison. Though she liked the flowers, she didn’t stop near the fence. He had told her that there was a green snake nearby that could fly toward anyone and bite them.
She didn’t have the courage to ask her father or mother for money either. If she asked them they would ask her a hundred things. But she had a piggy bank. When he bought the piggy bank, her father had told her that she could open it when it was full and buy whatever she liked. But no matter how many coins she put in, it never filled up. One day she solved this mystery. Her mother was taking out coins from the piggy bank with the pliant midrib of a coconut-leaf! She saw it happen several times. She decided she would follow her mother’s example. She took hold of the piggy bank as she was doing homework. It didn’t weigh as much as it should. She shook it to make sure it was not empty. She heard a slight jingle. She used a coconut-leaf-rib and finally managed to extract a few coins from the piggy bank. Then she sneaked the coins into her satchel.
“Did you get the money?” he asked her.
“Fine, let’s go in the afternoon and have our photo taken.”
“Where do we take our photo?”
“In the studio. Why, you don’t know a thing, even after growing so big.”
“Am I a big girl? I’m only in the third standard.”
She walked by his side, pulling a long face.
He knew that the studio was near Vijaya Talkies. He remembered having gone there once to have a photo taken along with his parents. That photo still hung on a wall in his house. In the photo, he sat on his mother’s lap. He had thrown a tantrum about a photo of him alone, but his mother had silenced him by pinching him hard on his thighs and arms.
They went into the same studio with their school satchels. There was no one else there. A lean sort of person came out from the interior of the studio. His face was like that of a child sporting a fake moustache.
“What do you want, children?” he asked, with a seemingly guileless smile.
“We want a photo taken.”
“Of both of us.”
He looked at them closely. His smile was bland, and the expression on his face innocent. Looking at his face, the children felt relieved. They were not tense anymore.
“Come.” He took them in. They put their satchels down and went with him.
“Have you got parents’ permission?”
They didn’t say anything.
“I knew it the moment I saw you. Never mind. Don’t be afraid, children,” he said compassionately.
They looked around, perplexed.
“Go to the mirror there and comb your hair. And put a little bit of talcum powder on your faces.”
He adjusted the bulbs fixed on a stand, turning them this way and that. The children combed their hair and stood ready.
“Do you want a full or a half?”
The two of them looked at each other. They didn’t understand his question.
“Why don’t you say something, children?” he persisted. “What type of photo do you want?”
She took out the bound notebook from her satchel and pointed at the photo of Satheeshan and Swapna. The photographer beamed.
The children sat on the stool. The screen behind them was painted with stars and a full moon. He adjusted their faces several times, turning them a little to this side and that, catching hold of their chins and the back of their heads. Then he walked backwards and looked at them through the camera eye. Not satisfied, he once again came near them, lifted their chins and kept their heads upright and steady. He did this several times. The children had no idea that taking a photo would be so troublesome. At last, he told them to keep still and switched on all the lights. Their eyes were blinded for a moment. She couldn’t even open her eyes in that intense light.
“All right. Ready. One, two, three….” Click!
He lifted his head from behind the camera and switched off the lights, one by one. The children realised that the photo had already been taken. They felt relieved.
“Mol, you didn’t tell me your name.”
“Her name is Sheena and mine is Abhilash,” he said.
He stroked their heads with great affection.
“Dear children! You can leave now paying twelve rupees. Come the day after tomorrow about this time and collect the photo.”
She untied the knotted kerchief, took out the coins and gave them to him. There were three and a half rupees.
“Where is the rest of the money, children?”
They looked at each other.
“A fine trick! Are you trying to cheat me? I won’t give you the photo unless you pay the full amount.”
She began to sob. There isn’t a paisa in the piggy bank. Where would they get the rest of the money from? Who can they ask?
“Ayyayyo, are you crying, Mol? Don’t cry. Just do as I say. You don’t have to pay a paisa. I will give you the photo.”
Both of them looked at his face eagerly. He laughed like a child.
“Come. Come right in.”
He began to set the lights right once again. After adjusting the lights, he looked at them and laughed once again.
“I will not ask for even a single paisa. And you don’t have to give any, either. Both of you strip and then stand there.”
The children gaped at him.
“Didn’t you try to fool me? Didn’t you say you didn’t have money after having your photo taken? Just you watch, I’ll hand you both to the police.”
The children stood speechless.
“Shall I call the police?”
“No,” he said, afraid. “I’ll strip.”
He was afraid of just hearing the word “police.” He would sometimes see policemen in his dreams and wake up with a start.
“Why are you not taking off your clothes, Mol?”
“I want to go home.”
She began to sob again.
“Take off those clothes,” he whispered in her ear. “Aren’t we just children?”
“I feel ashamed.”
The photographer laughed again, a contented laugh, and switched off the bulbs one by one. Only one dim light remained. They could no longer see each other’s faces. She moved to where it was darker.
“That won’t do,” he laughed. “Remove all the clothes.”
He went behind the camera and did many things for a long time. He changed the lenses, and switched the lights on and switched them off. The children didn’t understand what he was doing. She said again and again, “I want to go home.” The camera clicked many times. He finally lifted his head from the camera. His smile shone like lightning in the dim light.
“Now you can go home, children.” He switched on the lights one by one. “There’s one thing, though… Don’t breathe a word to your parents about what happened. If you do …”
They got dressed quickly. With their satchels hanging on their shoulders, they came out like sparrows let out of a cage. All their excitement was gone. They walked home with drooping heads, silent. They didn’t see any other school children on the road. They must have all reached home. They walked alone, along a road of grown-ups. Then they saw her mother standing outside the fence, her eyes fixed on them.
“Where were you loafing around?” her mother asked. “You must come home directly from school. I’ll break your legs otherwise.”
As she went into the house with her heavy satchel, her mother came after her. “Why do you go around with that Abhilash? Don’t you have girls as friends?”
She didn’t reply. She dumped her satchel on the chair and went into the bedroom. The bed was tidy, all dusted and laid out. The books and papers on the table were also neatly arranged.
“He is a bad man,” she said to herself as she changed her clothes. “A really bad one.”
She couldn’t sleep that night. She usually slept by the window, but tonight she got up and lay down in between her father and mother. The mother mumbled something in her sleep and tried to push her away. When she lay close to her father’s cigarette-smelling, rough face, she felt reassured. But still the click-click sound disturbed her sleep. She got up only when her mother shook her awake in the morning.
“He will be run over by a bus, just you watch,” she told him when they met.
The photographer was waiting for the children, in a secluded spot beyond the copra mill. He had a bicycle with him. He smiled at them.
“Don’t you want to see the photo?” he asked.
Their hearts leapt. He pulled out a photo from the large pocket on his shirt. She snatched it from his hand. The photo made her extremely happy. She had never imagined that her face was so pretty. His face looked serious as usual, as if he was angry with someone. He gave the children two more copies of the photo.
“We need only two. One for me and one for Abhilash.”
“Never mind. Keep all three with you, children.”
Their satchels slung across their shoulders, the two of them walked alongside the barbed wire fencing of the copra-mill compound looking at the photo all the while.
“Are you leaving, my children? How can you go away like that? Mol, stop.”
He came after them, pushing the bicycle.
“Mon, you can leave. I have to tell Sheena something in private.”
When Abhilash remained, he asked softly: “Shall I call the police?”
A breathless Abhilash moved away, and hid behind a tree.
“Did you see this, Sheena?” He took out another photo from his pocket and showed it to her. She froze. When she was about to run away, he caught her by her hand.
“I want to go to school.”
“Oh yes, you can. Who said you can’t? But Mol, you must come with me to the studio first.”
“No, I won’t come even if you kill me.”
“Don’t come if you don’t want to. But I am going to stick this photo on the wall of your school.”
He walked on, pushing the bicycle. She stood there for a moment, not knowing what to do, unable to suppress her sobs. Then he took her satchel from her, hung it on the handle-bar of the bicycle, lifted her up, and sat her on the frame.
“Hold on firmly to the handle,” he said.
With his usual smile, he tied the dhoti firmly round his waist and mounted the bicycle.
Abhilash looked on from behind the tree till the bicycle vanished from sight, Sheena slowly getting smaller and smaller.
© M. Mukundan; © translation A. J. Thomas
N. S. Madhavan
Chulliat’s office window looked onto a road which wore a different look that night. At ten in the night the traffic was already taking a curtain call. The light of the roadside sodium lamps looked more zestful than usual. Laced with an unearthly sheen, it reminded Chulliat of his childhood evenings, especially that yellow hour when shadows lengthened to ten feet.
Chulliat gave up the window to rest his pipe on the table. Though long put out, he had been persisting at it, sucking on it absently. Its hard tip lactated the viscously bitter saliva of fever. Whenever history was at a fork, Chulliat felt a fever coming on. On the night of August 14, 1947, when the Union Jack came down for the last time, it was malaria. Gandhi died with the thin red line on the thermometer touching 103.
“Mullik, I am done for the day. A touch of, ah well, more than a touch of fever,” Chulliat spoke into the intercom.
“Then the editorial?” Mullik asked.
“Editorial? I thought it was Viswanathan’s job.”
“Viswanathan is fine.” Chulliat raised his voice in feverish impatience.
“All of us at the desk were wondering if there would be a front-page signed edit by you.”
“For God’s sake, no. By Viswanathan, at the usual place.”
Mullik put the phone down and looked vacantly at the sub-editors seated around his half-moon table. All evening they sat there, like a frieze of a moving trail of refugees with their heads down. Not all of them; Zuhra stuck to the computer on her table.
“I can’t believe my ears,” Mullik addressed no one in particular. “K. K. Chulliat has to go home. Fever.”
“Today?” Chitra Ramakrishnan asked.
“Yes, today,” Mullik said.
“What’s the fuss about today? A couple of domes came crashing down in Ayodhya,” said Abhijit Sanyal, the oldest hand among the subs. “That’s all today is to Chulliat”. He checked himself when he heard a sharp pitter-patter over a computer keyboard. Zuhra was punching it like an old typewriter.
“Tortoise,” Vijayan said lazily. “Tortoise?” asked Chitra Ramakrishnan, a fresh recruit, yet to be initiated into the news room argot.
“Believe me, no one here has seen Chulliat’s body.” He sticks out his bald head through his cabin door. That’s it, like a tortoise,” explained Nakul Kelkar.
News Editor Mullik picked up the phones. “Viswanathan, the Chief is asking you to go ahead with the edit.” Mullik put on Chulliat’s Oxford accent. “Ah yes, no need to get emotional. Mark it with a gentle beat of considered opinion. And do not write that today is the darkest day in Indian history.”
Mullik put down the phone down and almost immediately Vijayan asked, “What made Tortoise say a thing like that?”
“Tomorrow you will read this line in every paper,” Mullik said.
“Must be a rub-off from his Oxford days – Tortoise’s ability to pre-empt a cliché,” Nakul said admiringly.
“Shh… Tortoise,” Vijayan cautioned when Chulliat showed his head through the door. He and Nakul kept their eyes down, reading patterns in scattered bits of newsprint on the floor. Chitra cupped her mount to suppress a giggle. Abhijit looked at Chulliat, his eyes cold.
“Mullik, get on with the lead story. I’ll see it before I go,” said Chulliat and quickly withdrew his head. He homed to his window. A couple of army trucks passed by, followed by a police jeep with an angry Shiva’s third eye on its forehead. The road was emptying when a fire retender rushed past, its bells tolling in a frenzy.
Chulliat breathed into his palm, trying to measure his fever. He walked over to the bathroom and took out a couple of tablets from the cupboard. Standing near the pot to urinate, he couldn’t help leaning against the wall; all of his seventy years chose to visit him in these vulnerable moments.
Oh his way back to the window Chulliat paused before the computer. Alphabets streamed in trickles. The cursor twinkled its green light like an amorous firefly’s bottom. He felt another presence in the room and turned. An office boy was sneaking out after carefully placing the lead story’s printout on the table. Chulliat went through it quickly.
“Get the car please, I am leaving,” he said to his secretary through the intercom.
“Chulliat has flown,” Mullik informed the sub-editors around his table.
“Anyone for tea?” Abhijit Sanyal asked. Vijayan, Nakul and Chitra got up immediately. Chitra went over to Zuhra and patted her shoulder: “Coming for a cup of tea?” Zuhra surprised them into silence by getting up. Suddenly finding himself alone, Mullik panicked. He hurried to the sports desk.
Abhijit and the others felt the layers of cold air thickening as they went down the stairs to the basement canteen. Tea stains and pockmarks left by stubbed-out cigarettes were scattered over its grey cement floor; some stale samosas were pitifully stacked in the glass case. Four of them sat on the chairs around a portable steel table; Chitra drew in a chair and sat next to Zuhra. Abhijit knocked on the table with the pepper pot and soon Phool Chand came in.
“Phool Chand, five cups of tea, quickly,” Abhijit said.
“No help today, Sir, everyone has gone home to stock up on things.”
“Why?” Chitra asked.
“If and when there is a curfew it hits us the hardest.”
“Then why didn’t you go?” asked Chitra again.
“I borrowed some money and asked Mewaran of the Cash Section to get my stuff-twenty kilos of wheat flour and a half bag of potatoes. Where will you go for tea if I shut down? The roadside stalls are all closed.”
Phool Chand went back to the kitchen. Soon the buzz of the paraffin stove pervaded the canteen. Abhijit ran his fingers nervously through his greying curly hair. He stared at Zuhra and asked: “Why are you so quiet today?”
Zuhra raised her head and looked at Abhijit with uncompromising ferocity. Vijayan conjured up a smile and said: “When Phool Chand and his friends were scurrying about to buy groceries, know what Abhijit was up to? He scooted off to buy three bottles of rum. Suppose the shops are closed tomorrow?”
Chitra smiled charitably. Abhijit held the pepper pot in his hand and played with it. Then he said, “I am a midnight’s child. Like Rushdie, I was born in 1947. In Calcutta. A Nehruvian childhood, you know, not much religion, but plenty of reason. I got my love for Rabindra Sangeet from my mother. But sometime in the 60s Tagore gave way to the Beatles.”
“The Beatles? Abhijit, you must be ancient,” Chitra said, “for my generation the Beatles is classical music.”
“Chitra, before you were born, there was someone in Vietnam who answered to the name of Ho Chi Minh. Sartre held forth at Sorbonne. So did Tariq Ali in London. Here, in Bengal we had Charu Mazumdar, Kanu Sanyal and Jangal Santhal. When I first met Charu Majumdar, he lay on a string bed, struggling to breathe with the help of an oxygen cylinder. He baptised me then. I was studying in IIT Kharagpur, near the forests of Bihar. So I didn’t have to go that far to ferret out class struggles. Oh yes, with the customary sling bag over my shoulder. A season, a terrible season, of retaliation followed. Many disappeared. Those who surfaced feigned not to recognize you. Madness claimed some. I kept suicide and madness at bay with a bit of self-deception and… er… an occasional drink did help. It all ended when I caught the Kalka Mail to leave Calcutta for Delhi.”
“My childhood was less intricate,” Nakul said, “In Bombay’s Shivaji Park, we wanted to grow up to be Gavaskar.”
All eyes were trained on Vijayan. He hung down his head and said, “I have nothing to say. Remember those people who shut themselves up in an inn against the plague? Should we also tell stories like them – like the Decameron tales?”
Chulliat lowered the car window by a crack. At first he felt refreshed by the rush of cold wind; but soon he began to feel dizzy with the vicissitudes in temperature. Chulliat tapped the driver’s shoulder: “Bahadur, you know Dr. Iqbal’s house? Take me there, I am not feeling good.”
Iqbal always brought back memories of the day Masood, his father and Chulliat’s friend from England days, took him to meet his firstborn. Chulliat found an embarrassed little boy lying under a small white tent, freshly circumcised.
Iqbal’s house was dark from the outside. When Farah heard Chulliat opening the cast-iron gate, she came out and switched on the portico light.
“Iqbal at home, dear?”
Farah went in without a word. Soon Iqbal came out in a light blue salwar suit – a true Pathan, in his father’s mould.
“Iqbal, I feel feverish.”
The thermometer, as usual, tasted of metal. Chulliat felt tired deep inside his bones when Iqbal relentlessly pumped air into the BP apparatus strapped around his arm. Iqbal went inside and came back with a syringe. At the moment the needle pierced him, Chulliat could not help shutting his eyes.
“By tomorrow you’ll be all right,” said Iqbal. Then Farah and Iqbal relapsed into what Chulliat feared would be an eternal silence. He got up to leave.
“Thanks, Uncle,” Farah said.
“You were our only Hindu friend who did not mention what happened today. We got a lot of calls. Some people even dropped in. Like death visits.”
The car stuttered in wintry reluctance. Iqbal opened its door. Chulliat got in and hurriedly waved at the couple. “Bahadur,” Chulliat told the driver, “back to the office.”
The news room, shaken out of sleepiness, was getting ready for the final burst before bringing out the next day’s edition. Mullik made several trips down to the press. The sub-editors, except for Zuhra, stood before the telex and fax machines, soaking in the last bits of news.
“Vishwanathan did not pack much punch in his edit,” Vijayan remarked.
“Tortoise wanted it this way. Remember, the gentle beat of considered opinion,” Abhijit said.
“Tortoise must be asleep by now,” Chitra said.
“Mullik!” Chulliat’s voice suddenly boomed in the newsroom. Chitra couldn’t believe her eyes that this pipe-smoking old man in a dark-coloured suit, rapidly striding across the news room, was Chulliat. The first sight of the Chief Editor in the newsroom brought the sports editor and financial correspondent to their feet. The bleary-eyed cartoonist finally gave up his day’s efforts to draw a congruous cartoon and ambled to Mullik’s table, making his way through the crumpled balls of India-ink stained paper. Mullik gazed at Chulliat making his way purposefully to his table. Zuhra did not move. Downstairs, the machines of the press rumbled like the north eastern monsoon over distant hills.
“Mullik, who did the headlines for the lead story?” Chulliat put the printout on Mullik’s table. Slowly, the subs began to move towards Mullik’s table; Zuhra remained where she was.
“Mullik, I am talking to you. Who wrote the headline? If you choose to remain silent, I wish to tell you that he can quit this paper from now.” Chulliat’s lips betrayed an angry quiver. All the employees in the newsroom, including Zuhra, now crowded around Mullik’s table.
“Sir, I did,” Zuhra said softly.
Chulliat drew deeply on his pipe. He gestured to Vijayan to pick up the printout from the table. Chulliat moved towards Zuhra and patted her on her head. “Fetch me a pencil, dear.”
Mullik handed over a ballpoint. Chulliat addressed all of them: “When I started my career at the Manchester Guardian, my old Welsh editor used to say that blue pencils are an editor’s weapons. Blue pencils are now extinct, but that shouldn’t stop me from using this pen.”
Chulliat leaned over the printout on the table and, with the pen gripped like a chisel in his shaking hands, scored off the first two words of Zuhra’s caption: ‘Disputed structure demolished.’ Above these words he wrote in bold, each alphabet painfully undulating with tremors of Parkinsonism, ‘Babri Masjid.’
Tears overflowed from Zuhra’s large eyes and trickled down like sap from a freshly wounded tree. She looked at Chulliat and said: “Thank you, Sir.”
Chulliat walked away, bowing to another lunar pull of fever. No one stirred in the newsroom till he went into his office and the door shut behind him.
©Story and translation, N.S. Madhavan
What came to my mind when I arrived at that small town after a gap of several years was, interestingly, not my reasons for that previous visit, but a relatively minor and unrelated incident that occurred then. Certain things are like that. They wait quietly somewhere in the recesses of our brain only to jump out when you least expect them. Our mind might perhaps be reminding us that one should not delete everything that is not currently on the schedule. Especially since schedules and charts take over the control of our life as a matter of course these days.
It was the very same PWD rest-house where I had stayed the last time. It had aged as everything does in time. Door bolts did not fall properly and water taps leaked perpetually, as they always seem to do in government guest-houses. The walls made room for cobwebs and the cracks in the floors turned into an abode for insects.
Last time the chowkidar had been waiting at the gate as our jeep drove in, perhaps because we were officers from the army. We were there to conduct a court of inquiry on the accidental death of a jawan in that town. There were three of us forming the court. We got down to the job as soon as we arrived.
When I got a little respite from the schedule of the investigations, on a warm afternoon I settled on a wooden chair in the verandah of the rest-house. The uneven floor of the verandah was taken care of by the heaviness of the wooden chair. I had developed a habit of freeing the mind from all the bindings of work during such breaks; so I sat watching the grass growing in the yard as the saying goes. But soon the growing grass was displaced by the cry of a child. He was walking along the road in front of the rest-house. He must have been around three years and was wearing only a pair of shorts which was sliding down his waist. The sun was hot but he was not trying to take shelter under the odd neem or sheesham tree along the road. Leaving out a lonely donkey which stood still in the middle of the road, there was no living being anywhere there. On the field beyond the road, dust rose in small whirls and gradually disappeared in the sky.
The boy stopped crying intermittently to relapse into sobbing to get back his breath. This was perhaps the only means for him at his age to let the world know of his state of helplessness. He seemed to be not aiming at any particular place for he had none and was very well aware that there was no one around to listen to him.
I worried that the heat would strike him down somewhere on the road and that could mean his end. I left my wooden chair, crossed the yard and opened the gate to reach the boy. He did not reply to my questions except with some grunts or sobs. I figured out that he was a child abandoned on the road and he was helpless. He followed me without hesitation when I took him in and made him sit on the verandah.
We, along with the driver, were the only three residents at the rest-house, so the chowkidar-cum-cook had stored not much food. Yet I managed to extract enough provisions to quench the boy’s thirst and hunger. With that the boy looked satisfied as if he had solved all the problems of his life. Children, after all, are existentialists living from moment to moment.
The chowkidar did not know anything about the child. Such trivial matters did not deserve much attention according to him. You took care of his hunger and thirst, now let him go his way, he suggested. Now when he said “his way” I did not know whether there was anything like a way in front of him. Like a mechanized toy, had I put him on the road he would simply have gone along the direction in front of him. And after some time, when the pangs of hunger and thirst revisit, the old helplessness and reprobation will return. I did not pay heed to the chowkidar’s suggestion. I took the child with me and went to the police station which was merely a stroll way. I had already made a rapport with the police officer in connection with the investigation I came for.
The rest-house was located in a secluded place, by the side of an open field. The market of the town was a few minutes’ walk from there. And next to the market was the police station. There were a few houses scattered around these. And then a temple, a masjid, a school, and hospital, all the essential things needed to make a human settlement.
The market lay under the canopy of large tamarind trees. Two rows of pukka shops, a number of ramshackle ones, and the rest of the trade was all on unpaved ground. The town’s transport consisted mainly of a few horse-driven carriages and quite a few cycle-rickshaws, which would normally be parked on one side of the market. The cries of the hawkers in the market and the ringing of the bells of the tongas reached the rest house.
The police station was a modern concrete building, one of the very few of that kind in the town. Aside from the police station there were living quarters for the staff. For some reason, the police had received some extra attention in this town from the government. There was ample space for the officer in charge, staff, the report writer, and the other men on duty in the police station. There were three lock-up rooms which were not occupied. In the matter of attention received from government, the police station and the hospital were polar opposites, as I learnt when I visited the latter to record the evidence from the doctor for the inquiry.
When I barged in, on such an unwholesome hot afternoon, the officer was enjoying a siesta, and had stretched himself on the easy chair by the side of his office table. He immediately got up and asked me to sit down. Policemen always show respect to us army men.
As soon as he noticed the child standing by my side holding my middle finger, he guffawed spontaneously.
“Where did you get this one, sir,” he asked.
I told him the story.
“You are the fourth person to bring him here,” he said shaking his head. Then turning to the boy he asked raising his voice: “Where is your mother, rey? Even in this hot afternoon she is –” Mindful of my presence he did not proceed to complete the sentence.
The boy did not bother to answer the question. Nor did the cry he had been stifling escape his lips at the officer’s shouted words. Instead he held my finger more tightly and came closer to my side. Feeling a new sense of security, he returned the look boldly.
Summoning a constable, the officer ordered him to go to the market and find Lachmi. Then he said to me in explanation: “I will tell you one thing, Sir. Those who brought this chap here every time were outsiders. The people of this town couldn’t care less what happens to this boy. They only need his mother. And even she doesn’t need him. Discarding him like this again and again, I fear one day she would dump him in a well or…”
“Don’t, please don’t, officer…” I stopped him, cautiously glancing at the boy.
I understood all that he said. As well as all that was left unsaid.
The constable did not take much time to get Lachmi. She was a young, attractive woman, even in her rags.
Lachmi ran to the boy and took him in her arms. “Where were you, re? Where haven’t I looked for you? Are you hungry, my rajabete?” As for the boy, he broke away from my finger and rushed to his mother with tears in his eyes.
“Enough of this drama,” the officer scolded her. “If this happens again, I will lock you up!”
On the one hand, the indifference towards an unwanted birth. On the other, the insecurity of an abandoned child. I did not know how to relate to the hide-‘n-seek relationship between that mother and child. Are we not trained to describe this kind of relationship as a kinship of blood? Blood is thicker than water, etc.? How many imaginative stories and plays have been written on this topic! If what I saw were a drama, one of them had been acting even while being a real-life character in it, the mother. The other, the child, had not been acting, but really and fully living. His tears were genuine. There is yet another character, the father. Though an essential actor in the story, he never appeared on the scene. Not even standing aside in the wings and watching like the writer or director. Acting, reality, absence — how many different compositions are there for blood?
Lachmi obeyed the police officer in a habitual manner. Her wailings stopped suddenly and she walked away with her eyes cast down.
I had no role there hence. But the officer asked me to take a seat and beckoned for tea. While drinking the tea, he suddenly turned philosophical.
“Father, mother, brother, sister, wife, husband, children, all these are roles imposed on the base material of human beings, is that not so, Sir?” he said, his face turning pensive. “Mere labels stuck on the basic form we are: with two legs, two hands and a trunk on which a head is stuck?”
I waited for him to open up more.
He did: “On animals those labels stick for a few days and then peel off. On humans, we try to keep them on by adding more and more glue as they try to fall off. Pastes too have a life, you know. And on some surfaces the pastes do not stick at all.”
It was on such a note, unusual to find in a police station, that our conversation and the event came to a close that day. I returned to my investigation, recording of statements, collection of evidence and other such matters. After a day or two I returned to the drills and exercises of a peace-time army unit. Two legs, two arms, and a trunk on which a head is stuck – the identity the police officer gave to a human being came back to my mind often in my days in the regiment, especially while watching the jawans march in the parade ground. The havaldar majors conducting the drill too saw them likewise, I felt while watching them correcting the movements of their legs, arms, and heads continuously.
These days, soldiers come to my mind very rarely. Almost the span of a generation has passed since I shed the uniform. And I had now come to this place without any kind of halos of officialdom around me, just as a private citizen, following a private interest I had acquired recently. The place had been recently in news with the discovery of cave dwellings of primitive humans nearby. I was somehow drawn to this.
The archaeological department had actually recommended a bigger town a little away from the site as the halting station for visitors, considering the facilities of stay and conveyance. But the nearest railhead on the map was this town. A small rail station as it is, I changed at the junction where express trains stop, and took a passenger train to get here.
I hailed a tonga from the railway station and arrived at the rest house to discover that it was locked. I could, however, locate the chowkidar in the market. Like the previous watchman, this man too was quite old, nearing the retirement age. He had of course received the message I had sent through the PWD office. He said he was in the market to buy provisions for my food. His job was of course chowkidar-cum-cook.
While the rest-house had visibly grown old, with the department taking little interest in repairs and maintenance, the town too had not advanced a step forward. The same horse-driven carriages, cycle rickshaws, and market. As soon as I entered the room, electricity went off. Load shedding, the chowkidar told me with a candle and a stick ready in his hand. The power could be expected back only in the evening, he informed. I settled in the verandah on the same old wooden chair contemplating how while some places, say, cities, march ahead to catch up with the new world, globalised or whatever you call it, some other places stay where they were decades ago. The chair, made of solid wood as it used to be before, had not fallen into disrepair, but the floor seemed to have sunken further. The month was January. And so unlike in my previous visit the air was cool and pleasant.
The lights came as scheduled and when the chowkidar brought rotis, dal, and subzi in the evening, I took a good look at the man. Did he look like the old one? Could not say — as the face of the old man had faded in my memory. In any case, he was yet another chowkidar. Roles may not change, although the people do. In that sense, the tongas, their drivers, horses, dogs straying on the road, donkeys, could all claim to be new.
The tamarind trees sheltering the market were but the same. I strolled through the market gazing at the potatoes, onions and vegetables laid out by the sellers. Was I looking perhaps for Lachmi and her son? It was nonsense. But the place I was heading for, nevertheless, was the police station.
The station building of course had not deteriorated. With a fresh coat of paint it stood stern, out of step with the surroundings. The officer was young and smart. Although it was midday, he had not gone on a siesta and was working. The staff too were alert though no emergency was in sight. A man was standing inside the lock up holding the bars. There was no light inside his room, though the power cut was over. That was perhaps the custom.
Paying due respect to my age and attire, the officer offered me a seat. I had gone there with the intention of introducing myself as an amateur archaeologist, but I found myself narrating the story of how I had taken a boy abandoned on the road to the station once upon a time. The officer, it seemed, had missed the ‘once upon a time’.
‘But sir, it was not you,’ he wrinkled his eyebrows.
‘Sorry?” I was confused.
‘It was someone else who brought the child here yesterday. Taller than you, with a French beard… Or, maybe you too had had the same experience. I was away on leave last month. As for the boy, it was not the first time it happened, you know!’ he laughed.
‘Oh I see now,’ I nodded. I could now follow what he said. My coming to the station and broaching the topic have not been a waste of time, I reflected.
‘What was the name of his mother?’ I was curious.
‘Gowri,’ he said. ‘I have warned her, sir. Not to…’
‘Go on, say it again. That you would lock her up if she did. Your predecessor had said the same.’ I too laughed. ‘But he must be over seventy now. Surely retired. That boy too must be a young man now, of course if he managed to survive. Lachmi can’t be alive now…’
I narrated the old story to the officer to his amazement. He was a young entrant to the force. Educated and interested in doing good things. It wasn’t long before we became friends.
‘Sir, about you now…’
‘I left the uniform long back. Now my interests are quite different.’
‘You might be thinking that nothing has changed here,’ he said, confirming what I had noticed. ‘The rest-house, market, and then of course the Lachmi-Gowri story… Some places are like that. In fact I have been longing for a better place of posting, some place more lively and active. Then I felt that the experience I can get from places such as this would be more rewarding in the long run of service.’
‘Officer, can I meet that child once? The child and his mother as well? I feel a strange kind of kinship with them, with their lot.’
‘Let’s see. In the meanwhile, you have not told me of your present mission here. Let’s get that over with first.’
I told him of the work that brought me here.
‘I will arrange a tonga for you,’ he said. ‘You can get only that here. The road is not good. But then it was your choice!’
The next day I proceeded to the caves in the tonga he arranged for me.
The road was not good for sure. But the carriage, the driver and the horse were all good. It seemed the journey going back ten thousand years captured the interest of the horse even, he was in sprightly spirit. For, to whatever I and the carriage driver were talking between us, he seemed to be paying attention. The journey took about an hour. With a break for tea en route.
The site was a hill a little away from the road. Although the magnificence of it, the huge imposing rocks, pulled our eyes from the road like a magnet, somehow neither the passers-by nor the villagers who were cultivating the land around it had failed to note that in its cavities lay the signatures of generations of human beings who lived there several millennia ago and then walked out and disappeared into thin air at some point of time. It was only around twenty years ago that a historian who passed by for reasons only known to him decided to go and have a look at those rocks closely.
They were not, it was certain, man-made caves. Those who took shelter there would have had no technological skill to carve out caves from rocks. The weather or running water had shaped them in such a way that they provided a secure shelter to humans. There were about twenty or thirty of them. Wedged together as they were, the inmates must have found security there.
Under the huge blocks of rocks hanging above, menacingly, a society of men were protected from the rain and the sun. They were perhaps scared of wild animals more than the hanging rocks. Their togetherness must have ensured the might they needed for fighting them. At the same time they would’ve needed the animals for food. Animals and their behaviour naturally occupied their minds and imaginations. The images they drew on the wall show how they were obsessed with them.
The archaeological department’s men were still engaged in cleaning and marking the sites. Several things had yet to be done to make it attractive to the visitors. A young and energetic archaeologist who was superintending the work came to my help. He guided me around from cave to cave.
The major attraction was the panoramic rock paintings that depicted the everyday life of the dwellers of the shelters. The scenes showed hunting and dancing. There were horses, elephants and deer. Animals fought one another as men fought with them. The weapons were spears and bows and arrows. All lively but in crude line diagrams. In fact, these diagrams were the only sign that humans lived there once. There was nothing else left behind: tools, weapons, or even bones. But the red, white, green, and yellow paintings had survived thousands of years.
My guide drew my attention to the fact that apart from hunting and dancing, there were no depictions of family life. These men lived in communities and not in families or as individuals, he said. ‘They did not know of family relationships. Father, mother, wife, husbands, children, siblings— all that was unknown to them. You would not be able to distinguish between man and woman or the young and old in these portrayals. They were just humans beyond relationships and sentiments, or say, living before such things started to appear.’
‘One line in the centre and four lines on the sides!’ I suggested.
‘Precisely,’ he concurred. ‘They lived in these shelters for about twelve thousand years like that. As one vertical line in the centre and four lines on the sides.’
‘Until when, you reckon?’
‘The archaeologists here estimate that until about fifteen hundred years ago these cave men inhabited this place. Are you not amazed?’
‘That’s amazing!’ I agreed. ‘Just a few kilometres from here, at that time, the artists of Ajanta had retired from their caves, caves they themselves had carved out of the rock. After sculpting magnificent chaityas and exquisite works of art that we still do not stop wondering at, and leaving behind literature and unsurpassed philosophical treatises.’
‘The truth is that the different ages and periods we recognise in human development do not provide a faultless scale to understand our past since they occur simultaneously at different places. Life has not moved according to one linear narrative in the past, nor is it following a singular schedule in the present. Do not humans go naked and live in caves even now with nothing other than stone tools to their aid in parts of the world?’
He paused for a moment and then added, ‘Our scales shrink or stretch. Stepping out of the tables and scales that we scientists set, or even without appearing in them, certain things peek out and stare at us always. Do all the people living in our cities share the same level of living from the perspectives of civilization or social development? Some tutor and coach their children in elaborate systems to turn them into managers or engineers or archaeologists while others sell them or break their legs and send them out begging to eke out a living from it…’ He stopped abruptly as if he had gone beyond discretion and added, ‘I am sorry, Sir.’
‘We all structure our lives and neatly create separate domains and feel embarrassed when, by chance, we step out of them. But you don’t have to say sorry now, my young friend’, I patted the young man’s back. ‘The discovery of these caves, though grand in its own way, is surpassed by the discovery of the fact that these shelter-dwellers and the artists of Ajanta lived at the same period of time a few kilometres apart. You became a real archaeologist when you said that. While we adorn and embellish ourselves in countless ways, and clothe ourselves in fashion and style for the world to see us in refined and distinguishable characteristics of gender, beauty, and vitality, several of our kind live just in line diagrams. Diagrams with a vertical line in the middle, and four lines on the sides, which do not differentiate man from woman or the young from the old.’
My friend gave a considered smile. ‘I am not an archaeologist, Sir,’ he said. ‘My job here is of a conservationist. A chemical engineer in plain terms— sent by the department of archaeology to preserve these paintings. As we talked, we strayed into unrelated fields, out of our domains, if you please. And I had an uncanny feeling that what I am doing is the preservation of a contradiction, or in terms of art, an oxymoronic discourse. ‘I do not know what you are. You may be an artist. A writer. If so, what you do too would not be different from what I do. The conservation of contradictions.’
I picked up some pieces of stones from the site that looked like Stone Age tools. My friend’s work was perhaps one stage higher than mine. I am just a collector. Someone who doesn’t even know how to label my collection.
A crowd of humans unidentifiable as man or woman, young or old, stood on either side of me and bade me farewell. If a havildar major suddenly appeared on the scene and gave a command— Tej chal! — would they have started marching? No, I knew. My conservationist friend is freezing them not just in their forms but in time too.
On the broken floor of the rest-house, was seated the chowkidar wrapped in a shawl and coughing intermittently. Muttering ‘hey Ram’ he lifted himself up by pressing his arms on the knees and enquired what I would have for dinner.
‘Dal roti,’ I said. ‘And, bhaiya, I am leaving tomorrow. Buy only what is needed.’
Turning the palms of his hand in a manner of showing indifference, he disappeared into the darkness inside. As the lights opened their eyes, I also joined him.
The next day I called on the police officer to thank him for the help he extended during my stay. As we talked, his telephone rang. His expression became grave as he listened. ‘I have to go… to the railway station,’ he said keeping the handset back. Then he added, ‘You too can come along.’
‘Whatever is the matter?’ I enquired.
‘We will see there. Or, why should I keep you in suspense? Didn’t you tell me that you wanted to see that mother and child? They have both been run over by a train.’
‘My God!’ I exclaimed.
On our way to the station in his jeep, he became more explicit: ‘An altercation occurred in the market last evening. Some bad characters beat her up. Perhaps when she asked for payment. The bastards think that free service is their right in every aspect. She got beaten up and walked away crying. Certain self-appointed moral guardians of the society took over the stage afterwards and asked her to quit the town without spoiling its morals any more. She naturally made a quip on morality as only someone in her position could do. That led to further squabbles and violence. I believe that a prostitute too has her own rights and dignity, and intervened, to make the moralists back off. This morning I heard that late in the night, some, perhaps the same gentlemen who were piqued by her words, threw stones at her. The stones hit the child. She is not a stranger to such things, but this time it pushed her limits. After all, she is a mother, you know. Of course she had tried to get rid of him several times. But not now. She took him with her.’
‘You mean to say she…’
‘We have to think so. The train had not run over her. She deliberately jumped in the gap between the coaches as it pulled off, to avoid the driver’s notice. There are people who witnessed that.’
‘My goodness!’ I cried.
My mind ran back several years with the speed only a train could pull off. The distance of a generation. To the court of inquiry for which I came here the first time.
My regiment was in Lucknow then. It was a jawan of an army unit, also stationed in the city, who lost his life under the train, at this small station, on his way back from annual leave. I was asked to inquire into the incident and to give a report. I had two other officers with me, one from the jawan’s unit and another from an infantry unit.
It is not necessary to say that the life of Lachmi did not go according to any schedule. Nor did Gowri’s appear in any table or chart. The accident of the gunner, Raghunath Hari, too had an element of unscheduled-ness. The train in which he was travelling had no stop at this small station. It was detained here for some technical reason. Raghunath Hari got out to collect some drinking water is what we had heard. And while getting into the train, which had by then pulled off, he slipped and fell between the coaches. The military police brought his body and luggage to the unit. His body was cremated with military honours as the custom was. However, an inquiry was to be carried out to formally close the case.
The inquiry did not turn out easy for us. The evidence was mainly by the way of statements of witnesses to the incident. The station master, the police officer, the medical officer of the town hospital, and eye witnesses. There were eye witnesses, mainly railway employees, we came to know. In addition we found that there was one bag that belonged to Raghunath Hari lying in the station which the station master had missed to send to the unit, which turned out be an important exhibit. We had thought that the whole procedure could be done in two days. But as the statements started coming in, it became evident that it could not be.
For, the witnesses one and all were emphatic that Raghunath Hari did not accidentally slip between the coaches. Nor had he got out to fetch water. He waited until the train started moving and then deliberately jumped into the gap between the rails, they said. Why did he do that?
In order to know that we were compelled to open his bag lying with the station master. At first we could not find in it anything other than the usual kit one carries while travelling. Upon searching further, we saw a note running into two pages in an inner pocket. Written in Marathi, the note did not have any regular form or order. At some places it read like a letter. And some others, like a story or article autobiographical in nature. The structure was fragmented. The language turned ornamental and metaphorical in places, and then highly sentimental and personal. Then obscure. A name—Shakuntala— appeared in a number of places. A lover, perhaps. But the description was that of a little girl in a few places. There were indications that she was an inmate of an orphanage. One could not be sure of her actual status. Towards the end, there was a description of a shell fired from a gun. The gunner does not see the target in front of him while firing. He is only told of the direction and the distance at which it is located. He fires without knowing on what object it falls. God too could be one such gunner. And what are we to think of the helpless shell? Who knows about its loneliness and desolation? Where it is going to explode and what it is going to destroy? It was on that note that the writing ended. The pen was still in the pocket. Its cap was not closed.
The information given by the officer of his unit also baffled us. According to the records, Raghunath Hari was married. But the fellow soldiers who had gone to his village with his belongings were told that he was not. He had given his wife’s name as Shakuntala, but a woman of that name could not be traced there. In fact, the home address entered in the records was that of an orphanage. They confirmed that he had grown up there. The orphanage, however, declined from receiving his belongings. The messengers returned with the trunk.
No one in the unit had anything ill to say about Raghunath Hari. No one had noticed anything unusual in his behaviour either. And yet he had decided to end his life, like a shell fired at an unknown target with no direction and distance given by anybody. At an unscheduled stop of a train in a nondescript town, far from his village and workplace. Superfast trains cross passenger trains at such nondescript places, that do not reflect in the railway time tables, where no one boards or detrains. Highly stylised Ravi Varma portraits and the line-men of caves too might have some such intersections in time and space to talk to each other. But the issue before us was a different one. The officer from Raghunath Hari’s regiment said, in fact he insisted, that the soldier’s death could not be written as a suicide in the report. Dead though the man was, it would be slighting him, a slur to the regiment and to his relatives, if any such person turned up any time in the future. They would stand to lose the benefits upon death from the government. The jawans’ morale would be affected…we sat arguing the whole night. In the end we decided to re-write the script for Raghunath Hari’s life, the act he had deliberately carried out and wanted to keep to himself at a small station that did not reflect in the time tables and would not catch anybody’s attention. .
We had to approach the witnesses for that, and request them to restate their statements. Each and every one co-operated. Even our own consciences did. For a good purpose—what we thought to be good purpose. Although held up for a few more days, we returned with a report as was intended.
We took back Raghunath Hari’s bag with us. The note found in it had better not be there, we thought. I kept it with me. For several years. Like a conservationist.
Today, while standing before the bodies of Gowri and her little boy, suddenly Shakuntala came to my mind. Who really was Raghunath Hari’s Shakuntala? Had he imaginer her? If so, why he did he give her the name ‘Shakuntala’, the abandoned child of the myth? Had she been real, who was she to him? If not, in which role did his imagination want to cast her? Individuals, characters, destined to shoot in unknown directions, to unknown distances, to fall at unknown places.
Curious onlookers crowded around the badly mangled bodies of Gowri and her child removed from the railway tracks and placed on the platform. Although the accident had reduced them to an indistinguishable mass of flesh and blood, everyone there identified them. They had seen them taking a leap. Just as the railways staff had seen Raghunath Hari.
‘There are several gaps in the relationships of human beings,’ the young educated police officer told me. ‘Sometimes they are stitched together in this fashion – through blood. With the needle and thread of blood and mangled flesh. Don’t we have a figurative way of describing it – a relationship of blood?’
‘Like the left-out spaces in railway time tables,’ I spoke what came to my mind immediately. ‘Unscheduled stops of the trains stitch them up’
‘But this was not an unscheduled stop,’ the officer wanted to correct me, ‘for Gowri.’
‘In the case of Raghunath Hari, it was.’
‘Who was Raghunath Hari?’
I did not tell him the story of Raghunath Hari.
I felt guilty of transforming what Raghunath Hari had intended to be scheduled as unscheduled.
I returned, leaving to the police the job of pronouncing the verdict on the death of Gowri for whom a good repute was never an issue.