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Monday, July 28, 2014

                                                   

                                      My story 18



This story has been originally written in odia under the title RASTA RU UTHE I ANITHIBA KEI PRUSTA in 2006. It anthologized   in odia short story collection “ SRUJANI SAROJINI “ in 2008. This story also translated in Hindi under the title” RASTA SE UTHAE HUE KAI KAGAJ” and anthologized in “SAROJINISAHOO KI ODIA DALIT KAHANIA”in 2013.This story has been translated in English by Ipsita Sarangi  and anthologized in  “The sorrows  unending”in 2010.


         

                      The Few Pages From Vacant Lots



“Why didn't you come yesterday?” Ruby was irritated.

Deepa took off her cotton shawl and spread it out to dry. “My in-laws turned up last evening.”

Ruby's irritation died as quickly as it had flared up. That must be the reason, she thought to herself.  She had been worried about Deepa's family situation even before she hired Deepa as a maidservant. Here was a married girl who had left her husband's family and returned to her parents' home.  How could she manage on the meager earnings from a maid's job?

    About a year ago, Deepa came and bowed to her with a smile like an old acquaintance.  “Remember me, Didi? I used to work in Murty Babu's house when Ahalya used to work in your house?” Ruby couldn't place Deepa at first. Then she remembered the maid Ahalya. In those days, Deepa and Ahalya lived in the same slum. One day Ahalya spoke to Ruby in a gossipy way, “Deepa's father hasn't been dead a month and her mother has already remarried Karama’s father.  Karma was another domestic and a friend of Ruby. Deepa had two siblings and Karama had three siblings.  All seven children lived together. Such are these people!”

A few days after this conversation, Deepa stopped coming to work. She must have been only ten or eleven years old at the time. Now she was a young woman of twenty-one or twenty-two years of age. Ruby didn’t recognize her when she came looking for work a year ago.  “I won't quit this time,” Deepa promised. “I'll stay here forever. I left Murty Babu's house because my grandmother took me away and married me off.  What did I know?  I was only ten at the time.”

Ruby was in desperate need of a housemaid.  She didn't think too much about Deepa's promise to stay or why she had quit her job earlier.  But it did cross her mind a married girl could not stay away from her husband very long.

Deepa came to work dressed in salwar-kameez, the way unmarried women dress. She was an excellent maid, completing all her chores to satisfaction before heading home at the end of each day.  Neither she nor Ruby probed into each other's personal lives. Ruby was surprised, therefore, when Deepa spoke of her in-laws a year after she had resumed work in the house.  Ruby feared she would have to look for another housemaid.

“Have your in-laws come to take you back?” she asked, speaking calmly.

“No, they came for a divorce. Left this morning.”

The word 'divorce' reverberated in Ruby's consciousness. For Ruby, parting even with a piece of rag or old shoe caused sorrow; far more for a human relationship founded on some intimacy, some privacy, some sand of faith. Ruby heard the word 'divorce' and instead of being happy for herself, she began to worry about Deepa. What if Deepa had formed a deep attachment? On the other hand,Deepa's face showed relief. Ruby bided her time.

A month later,Deepa arrived for work looking worn. “I haven't slept a wink,” she announced to her boss.

“What happened?”

“My mother quarreled with me all night.”

“What about?”

“Oh nothing.Just that I was born unlucky.”

“Tell me anyway.”

“You know how responsibly I have been working for you, Didi. I do the work to the best of my ability and then I go straight home. A woman who is trying to stand on her own two feet doesn't have time to fall in love.”

“What does your mother say?”

“A man has been following me these last few days. He walks behind me to the main gate of the colony, then sits and waits in the open field.  My mother is suspicious.”

“Tell her the truth.”

“I've told her, Didi, but she doesn't believe me. She says he wouldn't follow me if I hadn't led him on. And I don't know why this man has been following me. My mother told me to quit working.”

Ruby knew such problems trailed after young women; they become involved in affairs. She had noticed working girls seated on the culvert in the colony chatting with young men but she had never seen Deepa there. She told Deepa to ask the stalker about his intentions.

“I asked him, Didi. I scolded him. I threw pebbles at him. I may have hurt his head. I told him to go away.  ‘Why do you trouble me?’ I asked him.‘What do you want?’ He said he wanted to marry me.”

“Did you let your mother know?”

“If I told my mother she would kill me. I did shout at him once. It kept him away for two days but then he was back following me at a distance. My mother and my stepfather now have a new daughter. Mother says the daughter will be corrupted by me.”

“You have a step-sister?”

“Ten years old. Goes to school.  But I am illiterate, Didi.”

“Is this stalker the same caste as you?”

“He lives in our slum.  His father is a barber; owns the small shop behind the police station. We are of different castes. He is from Chhatisgarh like us, but of a different caste.”

“You've created a problem for me, Deepa,” Ruby confessed.

“No, Didi. It's not because of that man. He won't cause me trouble. It's my mother. She doesn't want me living with her anymore.”

“What do you want to do? Quit the job?” Ruby asked apprehensively.

“I don't know what to do. My new father sides with my mother. Beats me up sometimes.  Life has become foul.”

Now Ruby was piqued by curiosity. Why had her first husband divorced her? But she said only, “He is your stepfather, right?” She felt guilty for having uttered the word ‘stepfather.’ It is a less familiar word in our society than 'stepmother.' Deepa may have been shocked by her use of the word.

“Yes,” Deepa said.  “If my own mother is indifferent, why should the man care for me?  My mother lives only for her own interests. She is afraid my stepfather will be displeased if she speaks up for me. She acts as if I mean nothing to her. She pushes me away.”

“Where to?  Who else do you have besides your mother?  She knows the doors of your in-laws are closed against you. Where does she expect you to go?”

“She doesn't care so long as I stop living with them.”

“Is she a mother or what?  Do you have anyone else?  Does your grandmother still live in your village?”

“She is old and poor. Begs for alms. Her home is a broken-down doorless hut. I wouldn't be safe without a door or lock.”

Ruby had never thought about such things. She had been cared for all her life. Her parents had helped her find a school, helped her to plan her holidays, guided her to the right circle of friends, guided her towards a suitable marriage partner. All her life, others had been solving her problems. So the basic need for a secure house with a lockable door was a new concept for her.

“You haven't anyone else?” Ruby asked helplessly.

“No, nobody, Didi. Otherwise I wouldn't be in this dilemma. Mother wanted to marry this man when father died. I was against it, fearing we would suffer but mother wouldn't listen. My grandmother took us with her. My brother got lost somewhere. I had a little sister; she died. My grandmother married me at that tender age. People of our caste are idiots. They will marry boys and girls before they are ten.

Ruby thought she could possibly make room for Deepa in the servant’s cabin in the back of the house if it came to that. That way, at least the girl would have a roof over her head. But who would take responsibility for a young woman's conduct? There was sure to be gossip. So Ruby suggested Orphan Women Rehabilitation Centre. Deepa grew afraid. To Deepa, going to the Rehabilitation Centre was like being dragged off to jail.

Ruby broached the question she had been waiting to ask. “Why did your first husband divorce you?”

Deepa had been sweeping. She sat down on the floor when she heard the question and fired back. “You don't know the people from Chhatisgarh,” she said in fury. “They’re all savages!”  Deepa's outburst was contagious.

“That's rubbish,” Ruby said. “I've known people from Chhatisgarh. They are no different from other people.”

“Maybe you know people from the towns.” Deepa spoke quietly. She had been subdued by Ruby's anger.  “The people from the villages are different.”

A stubborn girl, Ruby thought but she softened at the sight of Deepa’s eyes brimming with tears.

Deepa continued. “My grandmother breathed a sigh of relief when she married me off.  I lived with her for a few years.  When I was older, my in-laws received me into their house.  The man I had married was shiftless.He had joined a gang of thieves. He brought home nothing; what money he made he spent on wine and luxury in Raipur and Bilaspur.  He was jailed a number of times. I pleaded with him to take up honest labour and live within our means but he wasn't interested.”

“That's why you came away, right?” asked Ruby.

“Not for that reason, though I had prayed to the goddess Durga to be freed of that family.  I had fasted for sixty-four Thursdays.”

“Did he beat you?” Ruby asked sympathetically.

“It wasn't that.  How can I speak about our ways of living?  The rest of the world has advanced but they haven't changed a bit. I was born and brought up in the town, unaware of the orthodox ways of village life. One day I was combing my hair on the front verandah. My mother-in-law stormed out. “Get inside, Thogdi!”

“Is Thogdi another name for you?”

“It can't be a name. It's an insult. Thogdi means barren woman.”

 “They were going out to look for a bride for my younger brother-in-law. It would be bad luck to catch sight of me. That is why my mother-in-law ordered me inside. I cried and cried that day. I wanted to be sent home to my grandmother. I didn't eat anything for supper. My mother-in-law came to me and consoled me. She explained that it was not good to see the face of a barren woman during a pious or holy performance.  After all, women were born to perpetuate families. If a woman couldn't do that, her life was worthless. ‘But you don't have to worry,’ my mother-in-law said. ‘I will solve your problem.’”

“The next days she gave me roots to eat and herbal medicine. What is the use of these medicines? I wondered.  My husband was in jail at the time. After my menstrual bath that month, my mother-in-law combed my hair and asked me to put on a fresh saree. I was puzzled. There was no fair travelling through our village and no occasion to go out dressed up. My mother-in-law brought me food. “Elder brother-in-law will come to your room tonight.”

Ruby was astonished. She had heard working class people from Chhatisgarh had few taboos about sex but didn't imagine arrangements for sexual relations to be so routine.  Of course there were Amba and Ambalika from the Mahabharat. The sage Vyas had done his part in perpetuating family.

“Why didn't you protest?”

“She mesmerized me somehow; I couldn't resist.”

“And then?” Ruby paused.

“Is it easy to accept such things? He is the same age as my father. How can one accept a man of one's father's age? I froze. But I had to tolerate these visits for three months. I became a living ghost. I would shiver from fear when the man touched me. I wanted to vomit.”

“Your elder sister-in-law didn't object?”

“What could she say?  This was the old custom.”

“That's why you came away, right?”

“My elder brother-in-law was the devil, Didi. He pounced on me like a hungry tiger whenever he got the opportunity.  He would tear my body like a bear. He would devour me like a vulture. He had no pity for my poor body. To whom could I have implored? Who would have saved me from this agony? Who would have alleviated this misery? Maybe if I conceived…”  Deepa broke into sobs.  Ruby forgot about her dignity as the mistress and hugged Deepa, caressing her hair.

Deepa wiped her tears and stood up to resume work.  Neither of them spoke. Deepa ate her tiffin alone before setting out for home. A strange silence permeated the house after Deepa left, like the vacuum in the sky after a downpour. Ruby felt heavy all day. She forgot she had a world of her own besides the world in which Deepa lived.

Gradually all joy fled Deepa's face. She was a stone statue. She was a terrible dark night. She was restless like a mountain stream. She was rebellious like a woman going to war. She came in one day with a swelling on her head. Ruby was worried; she asked about the bruise. Deepa had become uneasy after sharing her wretched life with Ruby.  But she answered Ruby's question. “My stepfather beat me last night. He pushed me so hard I bruised my head.”

“Did your mother say anything?”

“She had gone to her in-laws. What could she have done even if she had been present?  She is suspicious about my stepfather and me.”

“Tell me plainly.  Why does your stepfather beat you?” Ruby was irritated.

“He wants money for liquor.  Where can I get the money? I am not a wage laborer who gets paid each day. What I make in a month, I buy rice with. We eat more rice than you.  Then, there's the advance you gave me to replace our roof tiles. Where can I get money for his liquor?”

“Your parents want to throw you out in spite of the contributions you make?”

“Didi, my mother suspects I'm involved with my stepfather because he is not my real father. She shouts about him to make me go away. My idle stepfather always wants money for liquor. When he can't get any, he goes at me for having a young man following me around.  I will have to leave the house.”

“Where will you go?”

“I will go with the young man.”

“What do you mean?”  Ruby was surprised. Deepa had complained about the young man many times. She had scolded him, pelted him with stones, implored him to go away.  Why was she choosing him now?  Ruby now thought Deepa may have been carrying on with the young man in secret after all. Or else, she may have woven a dream life for herself.

Ruby recalled her own dreams from her teen days. In her dream, she was living a life of plenty and was surrounded by people who loved her dearly. In her dream, she had a lover who valued her more than his own life and still she grew ill with cancer and at last in her dream, she was on her death bed. All those she loved stood by her bed shedding tears.  She, too, wept.  She would awake from the reverie to find herself in tears.

Perhaps Deepa had made up a life of misery to draw Ruby's sympathy.“You were sick of that man.  Now you want to go off with him.”

“There is no other way. My mother won't let me live in the house a week longer.”

“What does the man do?”

“When I told him I would go away with him he rented a small cabin in the market area.  He says he will open a haircutting saloon.


“Won't his parents want you home with them?  Why will you live separately?”

“I'm of a different caste. They won't even let me enter their house. Didi, could you give me a saree?  I'll have to wear a saree after I'm married, but I have none to wear. I have arranged for a pair of shoes though.” Deepa pointed to a pair of shoes inside a polythene bag.

“Are you leaving today?”

“No, tomorrow evening.”

Ruby gave Deepa a dark-coloured saree made of synthetic material.  Deepa put the saree away in the polythene bag.“I have arranged for a girl to come and work for you,” she added.

Things turned upside down in Ruby's mind.  She didn't know what to believe now. When Deepa left for the day, Ruby followed her to the main gate of the colony. She wanted to know the truth; she wanted to see the face of the mad lover boy.

A young man sat on the culvert; he got up as soon as Deepa approached. So this was the man Deepa had decided to go off with.  So ugly! Ruby had never seen such an ugly man. His body seemed made of rough tar. He had a scar on his cheek. Deepa and the man were still talking when Ruby turned back to her house.

Deepa came the next afternoon and finished her chores as usual. Normally Ruby didn't make tea for Deepa but today Deepa asked for a cup of tea. She had packed all her clothes in polythene. Ruby gave her two packets of bindi, an old bed sheet, and a used pack of talcum powder. Deepa begged her leave when she had finished drinking tea.  She said she might not see Ruby again. Ruby nodded. Deepa had just crossed the gate when Ruby called out to her, “Tell me, Deepa, are you happy to be going with that young man?”

“Happy? You know everything and yet you think I can be happy?” Deepa retraced her steps. “You know the condition that man has brought me to but I have been thrown out of my house. What else can I do? What choices do I have? To be human means to seek shelter no matter where one finds it. Better to be born as animals. I lost my old shelter because of him. Let him give me new shelter now.”

“Can one make a family with so much indifference?” Ruby inquired.

“I know. I know everything, Didi. But I am helpless. I am sure the young man will lose interest in me after a few days.  And then what?”
But Ruby didn't have an answer to the question of what would happen then; Deepa didn’t expect an answer either. She only begged permission to leave.








Friday, April 4, 2014





                           My story series 17

                                     Title: Smoke

Odia Title: Dhuan
Author:  Sarojini Sahoo
Oria to English Translation: Ipsita Sarangi
English Editing: Paul J. McKenna
Words: about 5,900
This story originally written in Odia in 2001.This story  explains something about our Judicial system.





 It seemed as if the whole city had become mad, obsessed with cannabis. No one ate rice anymore, only cannabis.  Anyone coming to this new city carried in their suitcase cannabis instead of clothes and papers.  The person going out of this city also secretly kept some cannabis in his/her suitcase along with his/her basic toiletries and other things.
And that was not all. Instead of growing cabbage, peas, spinach, or flower plants like rose or dahlia in the garden, people grew cannabis instead.  College-going guys took pen and pipe together to college.  While going to the market with vegetables, rice, egg, bread or milk in the morning, vendors would drop by at the Hanuman temple to seek blessings.  A bearded old man distributed prasad of sugar candy from a plate and then from under it, cannabis. 
Maybe women and children had been spared from the impact of cannabis as no woman had ever been arrested...yet.  But a few had been accused of secreting it under their burqas
While investigating a theft, the police would discover the reason; not money or riches, but cannabis.  If there was a murder in the city, the police would claim to the media the cause behind the murder was cannabis and they always were going to crack the racket soon. 
Once, sensational news spread from the marketplace to the nooks and crannies of every house.  Some politician or a reporter falsely spread a rumour that a cannabis plant the height of an average man was in the bungalow of the collector himself.  The police kept calling the bungalow to know the truth. Reporters of dailies and weeklies and television stations, vigilance officers, some tout politicians, and a few NGOs rushed to the spot to verify the incident as well, but all they were able to find was a cement platform instead of cannabis plant.
The matter did not end there.  A rustic reporter came panting on his cycle and reported hemp plant saplings had sprouted on the highway for about two kilometers where there previously had been absolutely nothing but grass. 
All this was a matter for police records and newspapers.   Going through the police records or media reports would never create a good impression of the city.   But a variety of news items about the city were previously published in the newspapers.  For example, police did not only record theft, criminal or looting cases.  They sometimes nabbed an absconding lover and would make him marry the lover from whom he had absconded right on the premises of the police station itself.  The papers also published items like a woman giving birth to three girls at a time or the demand of the farmers before the Chief Minister for the declaration of ‘drought affected areas.’  But no one really knew when and how cannabis had stealthily made its way into this city; it hadn’t been reported. 
Life seemed utterly insecure in the city.  There was ever-present fear -- fear if one had to go to the station to catch a mid-night train, if the patrolling police stopped someone on suspicion, it would be impossible to catch the train; fear to stop by a betel shop for an hour to read newspaper, the police might become suspicious; fear of going to second show cinema; fear of spending more time than normal at a friend’s house.  Fear had made life of the city dwellers intolerable. 
Let us suppose there was no other such city in the world and this one was only a fictitious city.  Let us further suppose in the court of the Sub-Divisional Judicial Magistrate (SDJM) of this fictitious city, a trial in the matter of a hawker was taking place.  Since the entire city was hazy with the smoke of cannabis, why would the case involve anything else other than cannabis? 
The case could have been settled much earlier if it had not been for a headstrong, obstinate, idealistic, and self-oblivious man by the name of Anurag Kumar.  He was of the village of Hakimpur from the district of Munger in the state of Bihar.  By profession he was a doctor.  His obsession was reading newspapers from their first to last page.  His dislike was a conjugal household.    His belief was good times would someday come.  His sorrow was no one understood him.   And his dreams?  Perhaps he never had any.  Our story is about this Anurag Kumar and how he single-handedly stopped the cogs of justice from proceeding.
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As Anurag reached the court, the government lawyer took him into a corner and questioned him, “Do you remember, doctor, what you have to say in court when you testify?  You will say that the hawker was already intoxicated with cannabis when he was brought to the hospital.  Then you can speak all that you know about the injury.” 
Anurag remained silent for a while. He was thinking about the white shirt and the black overcoat the man had put on, like a cover on a book.  He thought the man who had selected such a uniform for the judiciary must have done so with noblest of intentions.  Black symbolized all evils like rape, murder, theft, abduction, cheating, injustice; white symbolized the dazzling truth that had to be elicited from all this.  But this government lawyer perhaps didn’t know anything about this.  He had taken it for granted he would look like a lawyer in a white shirt and black coat and had unhesitatingly been making Anurag’s mouth do his dirty work, much like a ventriloquist.   
Anurag protested, “No. As far as I remember, the man was never intoxicated. Why should I tell a lie?”
“What did you have for lunch yesterday,” questioned the advocate meaningfully.
“Whatever the cook of the Guest House had served.”
“Yes, of course, but what did you eat?”
“But what relation does that have with this case?”  Anurag countered with an obvious annoyance in his voice.  “I don’t remember.”
“That’s it!” The advocate beamed as if he had found the key to his problem.  “I want to say the same thing.  You cannot remember what you had taken for lunch yesterday so how can you remember an incident of a year ago, that you say so emphatically that the man had not taken cannabis?  Whether he took it or not is not the matter if you speak so where is the problem?”  
The two fell into an argument regarding the proposed testimony.  And then, the irritated lawyer said, “Okay, speak whatever you like.” 
When Anurag knew a few days earlier that the hearing date was approaching, he had once again looked through the file of this medico-legal case:
Roadside injury patient; Name: Purna Chandra Mallick; Father’s Name: Maheswar Mallick; Matia Sahi, Adarsh Nagar; Dist: Panagarh; Injury: below the left ear, left-side temple, right-hand wrist; Weapon:  Blunt Weapon, came with the police at 1840.   
Anurag would be happy whenever there was a hearing at the court because it meant he wouldn’t have to sit in the outpatient clinic that day and was free from his routine life.  As it was, there was such a heavy rush of patients in the outpatient in the rainy season, one hardly found time even to go for a cup of tea.  One had to bear the pallid complexion of the patients, their howls in pain, their apprehension of some incurable disease, and strange and hyperbolic description of the symptoms of their disease.  Sometimes Anurag felt amused when patients could not feel or tell where the pain was; whether it was in the feet, or in the knees, or in the belly, or in the chest.  Some female patients came so heavily dressed up Anurag would wonder whether they had come to a hospital or a cinema hall.  From bangles to nail polish, everything would be matching; they would present themselves with deep-coloured lipstick, shampooed hair, and eye makeup.  They spread such a smile as if they were some old acquaintance.  Anurag suspected, though, freedom for these poor ladies was only to this extent! The hospital was such a place, nobody would forbid them from visiting it, and they could enjoy their freedom to the core of their heart...at someone else’s expense.
Miss Kuisku, the schizophrenic lady doctor sitting by Anurag mostly dozed off in the chair under the influence of sleeping pills (or possibly cannabis) leaving Anurag to face these beautiful women by himself.  When asked about their problem, one would say sweet pain in the bosom; another would complain of lack of sound sleep at night. 
Pain, after all, was pain but what was this sweet pain about which they spoke?  No such pain is known in medical terminology! Mostly Anurag would refer such patients to his colleague Dr. Purhohit.  But when in the right mood, he would joke with them and then prescribe some Gelusil antacid tablets. 
Each day was the same: jugglery with names of the same medicines like playing with coins on a carom board.  You had to move through Sinarest, Paracetamol, Dysmen, Digene, or Chloroquin.
It appeared Dr. Butia, a quack, was happier than Anurag.  At least, he could provide some solace to people in exchange for their money.  People say his was a very good hand as he could cure all diseases from TB to Cancer.  Some people even went away from Anurag to the quack, Dr. Butia.  But he never felt sorry or humiliated.  His sorrow was somewhere else.  Who cares for MBBS these days?  He wanted to soar higher and higher and therefore read The Times of India in great detail.  He would even underline some of the vital points.  Sometimes he applied to go away to some very distant place.  But in these seven years he had not been able to rise beyond those Chloroquin and Paracetamols.  At least a court hearing gave him his much sought-after freedom from this killing monotony and disgust which he perceived as his job. 
Anurag had already decided on his way back from court, he would stop at the L’Oreal Bar.  It had been a long time since he visited there; the last time was when Paritosh Majumdar had left for Kolkata.  Normally, he always returned straight home from hospital.  And laying on the bed of his bare room, he again read the stale newspapers.  Switching over to different channels on TV, he heard the same news from different anchors.  Sometimes when he visited his neighbours, he either got bored or in turn, he bored them because the concept of happiness and misery for those family people was different. The routine of their lives was altogether different than Anurag’s.  After all, who had the leisure to sit in the drawing room for hours on end and bear such a fellow like Anurag? 
Anurag had also, at some time, tried to set up his household.  He bought utensils, rice, dal, turmeric, and ghee and shelved them in the kitchen.  Of course, he used to take his meals in the guest house, but he had to cook something for the boy. The boy was poor lad who Anarug had taken in to help him with the domestic chores and ease his loneliness.  Anurag really didn’t know how to cook so he would boil rice, dal, and vegetables all together and then pouring some ghee over the mixture, he would keep it for the boy, cautioning him to go to school on time.  Anurag had to go to hospital at eight in the morning and the boy had to be in school by ten.  The only work the boy had to do was sweep the house twice daily but he would often wash clothes for Anurag and buy him betel from a particular shop sometimes twice a day. 
But the boy couldn’t do even this much properly.  At first, Anurag freed him from washing clothes.  He did not know whether the boy swept the house or not and was not bothered about it either. He only wanted the boy to read, at least sit with the books.  But in a few months, the boy had tired of his duties to Anurag and vanished. 
Anurag had searched for the boy for some time but was not able to find him.  Once a police officer came to the hospital regarding a medico-legal case.  In the course of conversation Anurag brought up the subject of the boy.  The police officer was quite an experienced man and questioned Anurag, “Where had you brought the boy from?” 
“Where would I?  Dying of hunger the boy had run away from the Ganjam area to a relative uncle of his.  His uncle couldn’t provide him a square meal.  The cook of the guest house had brought the boy to me.  But there is no work to be done in my house and as such, the boy didn’t know anything.  I got him admitted in the sixth class in a school.”
The police officer then smiled at Anurag and asked, “But didn’t the boy steal anything from you?”
“No. Everything is Okay.  Besides, what is there in my house worth stealing?”
“At least, the boy could get something to eat.  What problem was there that he ran away?  Did you beat him?”
Yes, I had slapped him.  I was furious with him one day. I had come home early, canceling all other programmes to teach him English. I found him listening to his iPod.  When I asked how he was able to get an iPod, I discovered he had been cheating me. You see, I always buy costly betel from Shiva’s shop but he buys me cheaper betel from another shop and keep the rest of money for himself.  And from this money, he was able to buy the iPod.   So instead of reading like I had asked him to, he would listen to his iPod instead.  And he had also cheated me.  I became furious and boxed the boy’s ears heavily but I didn’t know the boy would run away because of this.”
The police officer gave out a laugh at his words and said, “Don’t worry.   He wouldn’t have committed suicide.  Such children do not commit suicide.  That scoundrel would have reached somebody else’s house by now and be playing the same games.  If you lodge an F.I.R. complaint, you’ll be trapped in a child labour case for a long time to come.  Leave it.  Forget all about that.”
That police officer had left a long time ago; now there was someone new and Anurag was not that much acquainted with this new police person.  The incident regarding the hawker had happened during the watch of this new officer.  Anurag had completely forgotten the face of the hawker whom he had treated a year ago until he saw him in court; now he was able to recollect more details as to the appearance of the hawker. 
The government lawyer examined Anurag in front of the judge as to when he had seen this lanky, moderately tall, dark-skinned young man.  Anurag answered he was on emergency duty that day. After the OPD (outpatient clinic) had been closed, the police brought this young man in the evening.
Q      What was the exact time the defendant was brought into the clinic?
A      I don’t remember; maybe about 6:45 p.m.
Q      What did you see?
A      The young man had injuries below his left ear and on the left temple, and his right hand wrist had some scratches.  Someone might have hit him with a stick, not with a knife. The cut was not so deep, after all. 
Q      Did the young man appear intoxicated when he came to the hospital?
A      No, not at all.
Q      But the police record says that he had allegedly taken cannabis.
A      No. To the best of my recollection he was not intoxicated at all.
Q      How do you know that?
A      I am a doctor. Can’t I know if a man is intoxicated or not?
Anurag was a little irritated. He then resumed
A      His behavior was perfectly normal. There was no smell of cannabis either from his mouth or on his hands.  Besides, his eyes were also quite normal.
Q      How can you speak that with so much confidence? Do you have any record about it? 
A      Yes, it may be there in the hospital register.  I don’t have one with me right now.
The lawyer appeared agitated.  He already had apprehensions all his persuasion might be in vain!  Perhaps he did not want to drag the case any further.  Perhaps the hawker would have been proven guilty with Anurag’s statement and his punishment would have been pronounced the same day or within a few days.  But that never happened for the judge adjourned the trial until a later date and ordered Anurag to bring the register at the next hearing. 
While Anurag was looking for a rickshaw outside the court, a middle-aged man came up to him and bowed.  Anurag learnt he was the elder brother of the hawker who was on trial.  He told Anurag he had brought his unemployed, graduate brother from the village to this city to enable him eke out a living.  The older brother even arranged ten thousand rupees for the younger brother to invest in a business.  The hawker purchased a stock of attractive stationary items in Raipur and the younger brother would sell them from door to door.  He could mesmerize the ladies with his pleasing manners and was beginning to earn handsomely.  He said he even had plans to open his own shop in a year or two.
After narrating everything in detail, the elder brother pleaded quite helplessly with Anurag for mercy.  “Please, save my brother, sir.  You can save him if you please.  I am a poor man.  How much do I earn from working in the shop of Mani Seth that I can provide for my family and retain a lawyer as well?”
“Don’t worry.  I’ll see to it,” Anurag consoled him, got into the rickshaw, and sped off.  He had been feeling an acute headache for quite some time now.  The L’oreal Bar passed before his eyes but he didn’t feel a desire to pause there today.  ‘When will that Paritosh Majumdar return from Kolkata anyway?’ he wondered. He had thought of spending the day in luxury, but in fact, nothing of that sort happened; he returned home quietly. 
And a tussle had started in his ignorance since that day.  The police had not taken the case as lightly as Anurag had expected.  An elderly man told Anurag this was nothing.  The police had filed the case capriciously only to meet their target numbers for the month; they had to give explanations to their authority if they could not reach their target goals.   
The police officer sent for Anurag in the evening.  Anurag planned to go for a drink but when the officer contacted him, he put the bottle aside and went to the police station instead.
The officer smiled at him, welcoming him, “Please come in, doctor.  You look too exhausted,” and ordered the peon to bring tea which came almost immediately, as if it had already been prepared.  Then the officer continued, “Please don’t think that I have sent for you in connection with any official matter, doctor.  Mmm.  You cannot imagine how complicated the times are now. I wish to leave this job and go away but cannot because my living depends on it.  Whether day or night, you have always to be alert.  God has given me only two eyes but you have to work with ten.  Yet no one understands our problems.
Just look at our locality.  People say the place was quite peaceful at one time but I have observed many things that go on here secretively, although everything seems placid on the surface.  You will be surprised to know that the whole city has become a haven for cannabis.  It’s not easy to discern one’s motive.  Remember that report in the newspapers a few days ago about the murder of a U.P. school teacher in a cashew plantation?  Do you know the reason?  He was a master marijuana supplier.  I’m telling you about the report of a week ago.  You haven’t seen it perhaps?”
“No, I haven’t. I don’t speak Oriya,” replied Anurag.
“Oh yes, I had forgotten that.  But don’t take that hawker so lightly.  You may be feeling pity at his innocent appearance.  You are too young and therefore have an abundance of emotionality.   Besides young blood, it must be fun to argue with the lawyer.” 
Anurag could not understand whether the police officer was trying to persuade him or was ridiculing him or both.  Too young?  He was now almost thirty-five, already halfway through his life on this earth.
“Oh, your tea is getting cold, doctor.  You should drink it,” the police officer told him in a gentle manner. 
“Sorry, I don’t take tea.”
At that point, both men said nothing more; they both sat silently.  After some time had passed, Anurag got up to leave.  He asked the officer if he had anything more about which to talk.
“No, nothing,” the officer replied.  “Perhaps the next hearing date is the day after.  If you come here, we’ll go together.  What do you say?”
“I’ll try,” Anurag said noncommittally as he exited the room.  He went straight to the Guest House instead of his quarters.  It had been a long time since Paritosh Majumdar went to Kolkata.  When would he return? 
When Anurag was busy with some patients the next day, his supervisor called him into his chamber.  “The GM has sent for you. I know not for what.  Perhaps his driver has come with the jeep or else you can take an ambulance.” 
Anurag thought for a moment; was it an order or a request?  An unpleasant situation involving him had already happened earlier.  It had become a subject of discussion among his staff.  The incident had happened only a month ago.
When he was absorbed among patients one day, the driver of the GM had come and asked him to come along.
“Where?” Anurag questioned.
“Memsaab is ill.  Just see her.”
Without caring for the driver, he continued to examine patient after patient.   The driver became impatient and said, “Please come along now.”
“I cannot leave the OPD now.  Go and tell your Memsaab that if she is ill, she may come here,” Anurag stated.
God knows how much colour the driver had added when he reported this to the GM that he immediately threatened the higher officer.  And the higher officer’s threat to Anurag proved futile.  A stubbornness took over Anurag.  He wanted to rage before his authority and imagined saying, ‘You need promotion, posting in favourable places, need money from training and purchase - so you may fawn him but I need none of these.  I am prepared to go anywhere I am sent.  Am I in luxury here that I may lose elsewhere?  You may not sanction my leave, if you don’t want to.’
But instead, he only wondered why the GM had sent for him again now?  Hadn’t he forgotten the incident?  With such an attitude, Anurag left the crowd of patients.  The patients stared at each other seeing the doctor go away. 
When he came out of the GM’s office, Anurag was frowning.  The GM was an aged man.  His hair had turned white with experience.  He tried to persuade Anurag to change is approach towards the hawker incident and questioned Anurag, “That hawker is no relation of yours.  It should matter nothing to you whether he is punished or not.  Why do you unnecessarily get into this imbroglio?  Think of your career.  What will you get from such childishness?” 
Anurag felt annoyed at this suggestion but tried to control his emotions as he began to speak.  “Everything can’t be assessed in terms of gain or loss, sir.  Besides, that hawker is not an industry that his life should be looked upon with a concern for gain or loss.  Will it be all right if all of us turn traders?” 
“That’s not the point.”  The tone of the GM was getting harsh.  But what was it in the attitude of Anurag which made GM soften in his tone when his eyes met Anurag’s? 
“Look, it isn’t not wise to upset a crocodile while residing in the same water.  We always have to deal with the police.  There are several problems in the company at different times.  If we do not cooperate with the police today, they will not help us in our times of need.  The SP (Superintendent of Police) has telephoned today.  I have almost assured him…”  Then the GM gave a few instances from his experience to show that one gets crushed to pieces like glass unless one adopts himself to changing circumstances.   
Anurag could not understand why so many people were so much worried about such trivial a matter, as if the hawker was an Abhimanyu1 besieged by a hostile army and had no way to escape! 
Anurag attended court for the next the hearing.  He had borne these past days in much pain.  He could not sleep; could not reach the Guest House in time for his meals.
The most surprising thing was he didn’t betray any emotion at the sight of Nikita.  He showed no signs there had never been anything between them and to Anurag, there hadn’t been.  No sorrow, no regret; neither hatred nor love.  Nothing.  Nikita spoke of happiness now.  She had come with her husband.  As she caught sight of Anurag, she bowed.  Does a beloved bow to her lover?  Did he love her?  The girl used to visit his house with a variety of food items for him; they were neighbors.  People thought there was something going on between the two.  But Nikita was a Brahmin and he was a Harijan.  He himself did not know if he had any love for the girl.  Paritosh Majumdar had once smiled very mysteriously and asked, “How is it going?”  People would make up foul stories about them and gossip.  At one point, Anurag noticed a big lock hanging on her door.  It remained locked for almost fifteen days.  And when the house opened, he learnt the girl had already married a computer engineer working in the Middle East.  Then, he had felt an empty space in his bosom.  Sometimes it grew and then diminished.  And one day, he felt it no more.  Was this empty space he felt love? 
Many thought Anurag lived a haphazard life only because he had been jilted in love.  He considered everything in an eccentric manner; never practical.  And perhaps he did not marry because of this.  Waiting for him, his younger brother got married in the end.
And this Nikita, who people believe had inflicted an insufferably deep wound on Anurag, now asked him, “I heard, you have been trapped in some complication?   Papa was mentioning it to Joshi Uncle.” 
Anurag only smiled in reply.  He had, then, become such a marked personality in the meantime.  Then he thought, ‘why didn’t anyone think about that man who had borrowed money for the business of his brother?  And that young man’s dream of rising to become an industrialist from a hawker?’
The Government lawyer looked beaming in the court as if he had traced out a service error in the register.  The proper document having been produced, the exam continued.
Q      Please tell me one thing doctor. How come that the name, address, age and sex of this particular person has been recorded in the register when no such details about any other patient is mentioned?
A      Normally, detailed information about patients coming to OPD is not mentioned in the register.  But since this is a medico–legal case, the information had to be recorded.
Q      But there are two different handwritings in the register?  The names of all other patients are in one handwriting but the particulars of this man, it is clear, have been written by another, isn’t that true?
A      I’ve said from the beginning that the case was brought after OPD had closed for the day.  So someone else might have written it at that time.
Q      But is there any proof that you haven’t written it?
A      What a strange thing! Would I be benefited by doing so?
Anurag was quite irritated at this point.
Q      That you only would know.  But there are two different handwritings in the register.  You cannot refute that, is that correct?
A      There are two clerks who handle OPD records.  They would be in a better position to testify about that. 
The case remained unresolved that day.  Anurag was in a quandary as to what to do.  Life now seemed embarrassing to Anurag.  He had never been to a court earlier in matters relating to his paternal property, or any youthful hassle, or for any personal reason.  But he had now been so entrapped in a maze out of which he could not find his way.  He was very tired and thought of returning home and sleeping the whole night undisturbed.  But when he arrived, he saw the motorcycle of Paritosh Majumdar in front of his house.  A surge of delight ran through his spine.  Had Paritosh actually returned from Kolkata?  Paritosh did not ask him anything about Anurag’s day.  Instead, he just kick-started the motorcycle, Anurag hopped on, and they vanished. 
By the time of the next court hearing, Anurag had learnt the rest of the story from the OPD clerks.  The clerk who had mentioned the particulars about the hawker in the register had become so entangled in the interrogation by the lawyer that he had no other way than to succumb to defeat.
An excerpt of the exam went like this: 
Q     Is this different handwriting yours?”
A     Yes.
Q     Then you had not left the OPD even after it was closed?
A     No. I just reached there at that time.
Q       Where were you the whole day? Why isn’t the name of any other patient of that day written in your handwriting?
Q      Where were you the whole day?
A      I was on leave that day. 
Q      You say that you were on leave. But how did you work when you were on leave?
A      As I was ill, I had come in the evening to take an injection and that case was brought in at that time.  Since the other clerk had already left, someone asked me to write his particulars in the register. 
How could the clerk answer anymore?  The lawyer convinced the judge the particulars had been written in later deliberately to save the hawker.  He also convinced the judge not only the hawker but many other people might be involved in this business of marijuana. 
Anurag’s turn came the day after the examination of the clerk.  As soon as Anurag reached court, the lawyer took him to a corner and tried to persuade him. “Why are you so obstinate, doctor?   This is surely not the only case in your life.  Hundreds of cases have come and hundreds more will come too.   Who will you fight for?   If the police want the hawker punished, he should be punished.  They have to make their numbers you know.  Do you know you’re a person of interest now too?  At any moment, the police may build a case against you, implicating you in the trading of cannabis because you didn’t help them out.  What will you do then?  What will happen to your career and life?  You should think about it.” 
Anurag thought about this and as he approached the witness box, he felt that all this was all so meaningless; all the chatter, all the questions, all the process, all the production.  Any hope of justice had been lost in the rush of dates and his efforts to do right and good were totally worthless.  A book wrapped in a piece of red cloth was put before him.  He did not know whether there was The Gita beneath the piece of cloth or not.  Still he took an oath, without believing, to speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.  But the oath was now meaningless.  Everything seemed meaningless to him – The Gita, his oath, and the farce of searching for the truth, whatever that was. 
‘Why have we really come here, my lord?’ he wanted to speak aloud but words would not come out.  He continued his inner testimony only he was the prosecutor asking questions of himself.  ‘Why such a farce with life, society and civilization?  We are all in a jungle, my lord, from the beginning of the Universe till our doom.  From the first day of sunrise to the last sunset, we are all in the darkness of the jungle.  Where is the light, My Lord?’
He remained on the stand, deep in his own examination and oblivious to the world around him.  He wanted to speak but could not.  Then he cast a look at the accused man sitting at the defendant’s table.  He continued his inner questioning: ‘Was this the same man the police had arrested a year ago?  Whom had the police really brought then?  Did anything really happen a year ago?’  Suddenly, he began to mistrust himself.  How is his memory getting so weak now?  What was happening to him? 
It seemed to Anurag the entire place around him had been suffused with smoke, smoke of sweet fragrance.  Suddenly he recognized the fragrance.  He was remotely familiar with this sweet fragrance.  It had once been a part of his earlier life.  It all came back now as did the effects.  But where did so much smoke come from now not of incense, but of a different fragrance?  “What is the name of this fragrance, My Lord?” he asked aloud. 
A misty figure emerged out of the smoke and asked him humbly: “Your name?  Your father’s name?  Your occupation?”  But no words came out of Anurag.  The smoke suffocated him!  He tried to speak but coughed instead and his throat burned.  The examination continued.
Q      Do you recognize the man at defendant’s table? (Smoke was spreading everywhere around.  Where was the lawyer?  Where was the accused? Where was the judge? Where was Paritosh? Why wasn’t Paritosh here?)
Words this time emanated from his throat but with much difficulty.
A      I can’t recall anything, my lord.  So many people come to the hospital.  Can one really remember what happened a year ago let alone last week? 
The entire room had been suffused with smoke; smoke of a pleasant fragrance.  Emerging out of that smoke someone patted his back and said, “Bravo! Well said, Anurag.   You’ve done your civic duty!”
At that point, Anurag awoke to find Paritosh standing beside him with his hand on Anurag’s back.  Paritosh was always beside him, always there for him.  “Let’s go to the pub, Paritosh,” Anurag suggested.  “I need to clear my head.”  And the two of them got on Paritosh’s motorcycle and sped away. 
Note: 
1Abhimanyu: Son of Subhadra and Arjuna, deceitfully killed by Kaurava warriors in the Mahabharat war.
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