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					ABSTRACT MISHRA, SHAILEN. Adrift. (Under the direction of Wilton Barnhardt).

Adrift is a story of love and aspirations equally complicated by the traditional order of the old and the unchecked ambitions of the modern India. For two years a suitable bridegroom is sought for Malati but rumor runs thick in her village, Jharpada, that she is unmarriable because of her poor looks. Because of a childhood prophecy Somu believes that one day he will become important and rich and he is not prepared to settle for anything less when an opportunity for windfall arises in his town, Palleri. As their fates get inevitably entangled in deceits, political corruption, a financial scam, and the promise of a controversial bridge between Jharpada and Palleri, the two discovers that their personal desires are only secondary to the society’s expectations.

Adrift

by Shailen Mishra

A thesis submitted to the Graduate Faculty of North Carolina State University In partial fulfillment of the Requirements for the degree of Master of Fine Arts

Creative Writing

Raleigh, North Carolina 2008

APPROVED BY:

_______________________________ Jill McCorkle

______________________________ John Kessel

________________________________ Wilton Barnhardt Committee Chair

DEDICATION To 1991.

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BIOGRAPHY Shailen Mishra is a native of eastern state of Orissa in India. He has lived most of his adult life in cities like Bombay and Bangalore which helped shape his view of the world. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering but because of his strong interest in arts and literature he later decided to pursue a career in writing. His fiction aspires to focus on the social condition of India at the turn of the 21st century. And he equally enjoys writing both shorter and longer form of fiction.

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ACKNOWLEDGMENTS Thanks to my MFA colleagues for their sincere and helpful criticism. Thanks to Dr. Sheila Smith McKoy and Dr. Mary Helen Thuente for introducing me to the scope of literature. Thanks to Ms. Noel Crook for her faith in my ability. And my highest appreciation is reserved for the faculty members of NCSU’s Creative Writing program, John Kessel, Jill McCorkle, and especially Wilton Barnhardt without whose constant encouragement and substantial input this book would have been lot less in worth.

Finally, my most heartfelt gratitude goes to my family.

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TABLE OF CONTENTS Chapter 1………………………………………………………………………………. 1

Chapter 2………………………………………………………………………………. 18 Chapter 3………………………………………………………………………………. 36 Chapter 4………………………………………………………………………………. 56 Chapter 5………………………………………………………………………………. 81 Chapter 6………………………………………………………………………………. 111 Chapter 7………………………………………………………………………………. 126 Chapter 8………………………………………………………………………………. 143 Chapter 9.………….………………………………………………………………….. 159 Chapter 10……………………………………………………………………………... 167 Chapter 11 (Summary)……………………………………………………………….. .. 194 Chapter 12 (Summary)……………………………………………………………….. .. 196 Chapter 13 (Summary)……………………………………………………………….. .. 198 Chapter 14 (Summary)……………………………………………………………….. .. 200 Chapter 15 (Summary)……………………………………………………………….. .. 202 Chapter 16 (Summary)……………………………………………………………….. .. 204 Chapter 17 (Summary)……………………………………………………………….. .. 206

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Chapter

1

When a plane flies over the sky of Jharpada, children and elders look up in wonder, admiring the progress man has made. Every time a car arrives in Jharpada the attention it receives would make the Gods envious. There is only one telephone in the entire village but it seldom connects to the right number and even if it does, the call will not last till the end of the conversation; the voice will be so crackly that the callers often mistake the phone operator for their loved one, pouring out their affection and family secrets to strangers. Electricity is available only for twelve hours a day. During the peak of the summer those twelve hours will be reduced to just four to compensate for the power demand in distant, more important cities.

2 The only asphalt road that connects Jharpada to the main road is riddled with potholes, and that main road, the Basantpur-Thimpri road of thirty-eight wretched kilometers, is so narrow that when a mini-bus and a bullock-cart meet each other, one of them has to get off the road and into the muddy verge, possibly never to escape. Medical help is available eight kilometers away in another village, where an aging doctor holds his clinic only on Tuesdays and Thursdays strictly between nine in the morning to five in the evening excluding the two-hour lunch break. So in case of emergency, it makes more sense to carry the dying straight to the cremation ground than to the hospital. This is Jharpada: a hamlet of only three thousand, sizing to just one hundredth of a pinprick on the atlas of India, ignorable as a moth-wing on the vast central valley of Orissa State, yet still a village in a modern India of late 1990s. A temple, a bazaar, a primary school and a cremation ground are all it has gained since independence. What stands between Jharpada and the rest of the world is the River Saptadhara. A river neither wide nor narrow, neither deep nor too shallow. It runs full for nine months of the year and in the summer reduces to one third of its original width. Jharpada is situated on the west bank of the Saptadhara, always looking east with longing and envy towards Palleri, the town across the river where the privileges of progress have exalted the town beyond the reach of other villages around it. Even though the river has been an impediment to Jharpada’s progress, there is no resentment on the part of the villagers because the river is holy. It is the confluence of seven streams that descend from heaven to earth. That’s why it is called Saptadhara, seven streams.

3 For as long as anyone can recall, villagers of Jharpada have yearned for a bridge over the river that would end their isolation and connect Jharpada to the gleaming world of the eastern shore. In response to this demand, the government once constructed a wooden bridge: a hastily erected structure of wooden planks nailed together, too shaky and fragile to let a cart or cycle ply over it without a fearsome wobbling and creaking. Of course, in the first flood the bridge ever faced in 1972, it was swept aside like an afterthought. People of Jharpada still cross the river with canoes and rowboats. The local authority in past two decades has planned, budgeted, decided, postponed, envisioned, proposed, replanned, undecided, allocated, surveyed, un-re-planned, tendered, contracted, differed, proposed again, reverse-planned, re-undecided, stopped altogether, and freshly started anew the construction of the bridge—before stopping. None of these efforts appeased the anger of the villagers, and so recently, the authority has sworn on everything holy that a concrete bridge will indeed be built… as soon as they finish planning, budgeting, deciding, allocating. That Jharpada will remain isolated is held as a bitter fact among its people, one of its many time-honored truths along with wives tales about how to tell is a baby will be a son, how to gauge the success of the harvest from the flight of birds. And on this day, a summer day, another tested truth was about to be proven: that in Jharpada when it thunders it never rains. Roiling waves of dark dense clouds, hanging low, advanced across the fields; next the wind picked up, making a raspy noise while gushing through the bamboo, making the palm fronds clatter and snap. Then a flash of cloud-lightning left everything blinding white. Soon, dragonflies started hovering in the air: a sure sign of an approaching storm.

4 Rain during the August monsoon tended not to be significant in Jharpada, but the appearance of sudden, dense clouds along with dragonflies were, of course, convincing. There was commotion and panic, a rush to return home, leaving everything behind. Such clouds often brought deluge and disaster with them and days of incessant rain. But when a deafening thunderbolt struck the heart of the village, it steadied everyone’s nerves and dispelled all fears. People of Jharpada ignored the ominous signs and returned to their daily lives. Malati opened her eyes with a start as the thunder subsided. She wiped her cheeks and looked around. Everything appeared bleak as if the dusk had fallen. She did not know how long she had fallen asleep and why nobody had come to wake her. Did the guests not turn up? That was the first question which came to her mind and it brought with it a damning chill. Malati did not have a clock in her room. The only way she could guess time was looking at the sky or reading the intensity of light outside. Malati got up, smoothed the folds of her sari and walked towards the window. As she moved, her anklets jingled and the bangles on her wrists clinked against each other. Near the window strong wind brought a tinge of irritation to her sleep-soaked face. A ringlet that was hanging loose from the slicked back hair fluttered in the wind. Malati looked up at the sky and for a moment she felt relieved to find that the clouds had caused the darkness. But she became tearful again to realize that it would rain. Rain would surely stop them from coming. “Help me, God,” she murmured in desperation. Malati leaned against the window sill. From the height of the second floor, she looked down at the street. Farmers and vendors were homebound, stacking their wares either over

5 their heads or on top of the carriers of their bicycles. A group of children rushed past, shrieking and snickering as they were chased by Baya, the mad guy, who carried a guava tree branch in his hand. The next moment Baya ran past in the opposite direction, tossing his head back in the air and convulsing in a theatrical laughter, as a mangy dog chased after him barely an inch away from his calves. None of these appealed to Malati’s interest. She closed her eyes and pictured that day when she had dressed up like this for the very first time. The green sari she wore now was new and bright then. It made a rustling sound as she moved. She delightedly walked from one corner of her room to another repeatedly, simply to listen to that whispering noise. She did not even feel any need to put on make-up that day. A lock of hair was hanging loose down her face: a style she always liked. A merry tune constantly rang in her head, bringing dimples to her cheeks. Malati spent hours before the mirror practicing a serious face. But she could not hold her giggles back. The image of becoming a bride gave Malati a soapy sensation over her entire body. Malati waited in nervous anticipation for three hours, completely dressed, without even going to the bathroom, so that the sari would not get wet or crumpled. But when the boy arrived and she was summoned to appear before him, her limbs started shaking like leaves in a storm. Malati could not hold the tea and snacks plate straight. She felt like bursting into tears. Her eyes were downcast all the time, as her mother had asked her to do. But still she managed to steal a glance of the boy through the corner of her eyes. Malati now tried to recollect his face and failed. What was his name? That details of his family were forgotten, too. His face and name had distorted and dissolved like all the others

6 who had come to see her this last year. As she stood near the window now, watching the cloudy sky, Malati asked herself, when would a boy say “yes” to marry her? “Malati,” a voice called into the dim room. Malati started and turned around. Her mother was standing at the door. “What are you doing by the window? You will catch cold,” she said. Malati’s mother, Bimla, was a short woman. She wore a plain cotton sari which was torn at several places. Her almond skin showed signs of aging. Her shoulders sagged, shortening her height further, suggesting the weight of unhappiness that she endured for thirty-nine years of her life. When she spoke, her lips remained protruded, adding a touch of softness to her voice whenever she meant to say something harsh. “Look at you. You are not even ready yet,” she asked. “And your face? Have you been crying?” Malati shook her head. “Girl, you will bring shame upon us by going before them like this. Your hair and your sari… Nothing is proper!” Bimla wrapped the corner of her sari around her index finger and wiped the smudged kohl from the corners of Malati’s eyes. She then applied back the powder to the two faded lines where tears had rolled down. Then with a handkerchief she brushed away excess powder from the face. “Always the same thing,” she said. “Why does a strand of hair have to hang down your face like a rat’s tail? So many times I have told you––” “Leave it, Ma,” Malati said. But Bimla went ahead and tucked the lock behind her ear.

7 “Ma, what will happen if it rains?” “Don’t talk inauspicious things, girl. My heart has become still since I saw the clouds. May Lord Shiva hold back the rain. I hope those people have started on their way and won’t change their mind.” Malati prayed and hoped that too. Because if the boy and his family did not show up, no one would blame the rain. It would be due to Malati’s ill fate. Thrice in the past the prospective bridegrooms did not come on the decided day to see her. Later a message was sent through the mediator about their lack of interest in the marriage proposal. Malati would cry the whole day and grind her teeth in humiliation. It was unfair that the boy and his parents would simply reject the proposal without even seeing her. Malati could never overcome these rejections and their repetition was what she dreaded the most. And now the dark clouds in the sky presaged a possible recurrence of such nightmare. The rain would be construed as inauspicious and it might make the boy’s parents rethink about the marriage prospect. “Did you get the lipistick from Jyotsna’s mother?” asked Bimla. “Yes. It’s on my bed.” “Did she ask you why you need it?” Malati nodded her head. “What did you say to her?” asked Bimla anxiously. “I told her that someone is coming to see me today.” “Why did you tell her that?” Bimla looked sharply at her daughter. “Can’t you keep your mouth shut?”

8 “But she knows I don’t wear lipstick—” “So what! Can’t you give her some excuse?” “She will immediately know that I am lying.” “You know how these people are. Tomorrow Jyotsna’s mother will ask me thousand questions about the boy and his family, as if everything is her business. She will then tell it to others. When nothing good will come of the proposal, then they will laugh at us again.” She applied the lipstick to Malati’s lips with her unsteady hand, often traversing beyond the lips’ outlines and painting the skin instead. When she was done, the lips appeared deep red like vermilion. She then blew away the excess powder that had remained stuck to the eyebrows; wetting her thumbs with saliva, Bimla smoothed Malati’s eyebrows to add a neat, glossy finish. Bimla took one good look at the face and gave an approving nod. Then her eyes caught a glance of Malati’s neck. She asked, “Why are you wearing this gold chain? You look so simple in it.” “I don’t want to wear yours, Ma. There is a blue coating underside your necklace and it itches my skin.” “Don’t be stupid. You know we can’t afford to wash our gold. Try to manage with whatever we have.” Bimla unhooked the gold chain and put the necklace in its place. The necklace was given to Bimla by her parents to celebrate her marriage. Though the gold had lost its luster over the years and the leaf shaped pendant had got a broken tip, Bimla valued this piece most among her few precious possessions. And she had been planning to give to Malati during her marriage. She knew that though the necklace was old-fashioned but the amount of gold in it

9 would be eye-catching and it would belie the financial condition of the family. Moreover, her feminine instinct told her that young men would find such ornaments attractive. After tying the necklace, Bimla said with a smile, pinching Malati’s chin, “Now, you look better.” Malati’s throat suddenly tightened. Leaning against her mother’s shoulder, she said, “Ma, I am tired. I don’t want to dress up and present myself like a doll before others. It’s better I don’t get married.” Bimla turned her daughter’s face towards her and cupped it between her hands. “Malati,” she said in a tender tone, “don’t be childish. You know every girl has to go through this. Now, take Lord Shiva’s name one hundred and eight times before you go downstairs. Everything will be all right. Let me go and see if your father has come.” After Bimla left, Malati felt alone again. An old calendar of Ganesh hanging on the wall over Malati’s bed swung like a pendulum in the wind. The top aluminum strip of the calendar made a squeaking sound as it brushed against the wall and left a deep mark on the wall in the shape of two parentheses. Malati looked at the calendar and her eyes met the luminous shining eyes of Ganesh. Malati’s room was small, with a single window, four walls with chipped paint and a tiled roof that leaked in rainy season and where moss and lizards had made permanent homes. Malati looked at the hand mirror that hung next to the calendar. Its wooden rectangular frame was cracked at the joints and the nails could be seen. Malati took the mirror off its hook. The mirror had blackened along the edges. Malati took the mirror to the window and searched for her reflection n the waning light. But numerous tiny freckles in the mirror disfigured her face. She threw the mirror down on her bed in frustration. So many times she had pleaded her mother to buy a new mirror but Bimla always

10 failed to convince her husband. He always had a ready reply: “Is the old mirror broken?” Malati found no comfort in the old mirror. When she felt insecure about her appearance, she would visit Linga’s Sari Shop to stand before the tall, pristine and translucent mirror of the changing room under the fluorescent light. There in the seclusion of the changing room she would model different saris, standing in different positions and angles. After watching her reflection for many minutes she would have regained her confidence to return home, happy and assured. Bimla, meanwhile, descended the narrow stairway, which ran straight from Malati’s room to the inner compound of the house, where she saw her husband laying down his farming tools on the verandah that ran along the kitchen wall. Bimla adjusted the free end of her sari to cover her head and shoulders and stood silently at the end of the stairway. “Is Malati ready?” asked Jajati, barely casting a glance at his wife. His voice was passive and cold. “Yes, she is,” replied Bimla. Her eyes did not meet her husband’s. They were not supposed to. She stared at the tulsi plant in the middle of the compound. Glass bangles of red hung from the branches of the plant and at the root stubs of burned incense sticks remained in a pile. “And what about the food?” asked Jajati. “I am almost done with it.” “What do you mean by ‘almost’?” snapped Jajati. “It is already four. They will arrive here any minute. What will you serve them?” Bimla fidgeted and remained quiet.

11 “Now, don’t stand dumb. Go and make tea for me and prepare the food quickly. I don’t want anything left wanting in our treatment of them.” Bimla hurried towards the kitchen. She tripped over the verandah edge, and almost fell on her face. “Watch your step,” Jajati blurted out. Jajati looked up at the darkening sky and mumbled with a shake of head, “I hope it’s not a storm.” Jajati walked to the water vat, which was placed at the far end of the compound. Every morning Baya fetched buckets of water from the village-well to fill the vat. In return, Bimla gave him the last night’s leftover food and Baya showed his gratitude by baring his decaying teeth and mumbling incessant praises for Bimla. Jajati disliked the idea that the women of his house should go to the village-well, where women of lower-castes, farmers’ and laborer’s wives gathered to discuss their daily affairs. Standing next to the vat, Jajati took off his square-framed glasses that were coated with a film of sweat and dust and dipped them into the vat. The glasses floated on the water. A tin mug with a dent sat inverted on the brim of the vat. Jajati used it to take water out of vat and wash his feet. The mud on his feet had dried and would not come off easily. Jajati gently scrubbed his feet with his hands, making sure that blisters and calluses were not aggravated. Summer had gone but the wounds on his feet would not heal. If the hot and hard earth of summer caused blisters on his soles then the wet and muddy soil of rains would not let them heal. There was no point in applying treatment to the feet, when one had to toil in the field with bare feet. Fine gravels or thorns would lodge themselves into the cracks of his heels and recesses of his nails and would not shake free, slowly becoming a part of the flesh, causing excruciating pain when he walked. Jajati splashed water on his chest and armpit, and with wet fingers he slicked back his hair, until he

12 felt cool. He then unwrapped the towel around his head to dry himself. Finally, he recovered his spectacles from the vat and put them on. He could see things better now. Right then a lightning sparked across the sky, turning everything blinding white. Jajati closed his eyes, but no thunder followed. By the time he returned to the verandah, Bimla had placed a cup of steaming, hot tea near the kitchen wall. Jajati sat down and sipped the tea hurriedly with one eye on his wristwatch and another at the sky. From the kitchen came the sizzling hiss of the cooking oil and the clanking of utensils. Jajati’s blood curled listening to these sounds. He left his tea unfinished and went to his room to get dressed. He slipped into his best pair of clothes, a plain white shirt and bell-bottomed polyester pants of navy blue. When Jajati went to the front verandah it was littered with leaves and papers. The steady wind swept the waste of the village, the litter of the road towards his house. Jajati did not mind the wind and the litter. If only the rain would hold off! He impatiently paced the front path outside his house as he waited for his guests. Bimla was trying her best to move her hands as quickly as possible. She tasted and retasted the cooked food to make sure that salt and spice were right. She stirred the kshir with one hand and with the other she released potato chops into the hot and steaming oil. The kitchen air was full of steam and smoke. Without any window or ventilator, the air remained heavy and stale and swirled in a cloud above her head. Her eyes burned and back ached. She had been preparing different delicacies since she had finished the daily chores. But the work turned out to be never-ending. Her hard work would not receive any praise she knew well and she had long got used to such thankless treatment.

13 As Jajati paced, he saw Madhia walking down the street in a hurried pace. Jajati wanted to avoid meeting his friend, but by the time he could go inside the house it was too late. “Jajati!” hollered Madhia, stopping at the front of the house. “Are you going somewhere?” “No. Why do you ask?” “Look at you, all dressed up as if you’re going to your own wedding,” said Madhia, sniggering. “No. Nothing like that,” said Jajati in a flat tone to end the conversation. But seeing Madhia was not leaving, he asked, “Are you not going home?” “Why just look at these clouds! No doubt a storm is on its way. I left my work midway and was rushing home when I saw you. Is there, perhaps, a guest coming to your house today, Jajati?” Jajati did not reply. Instead, he sat down on the cement bench that ran along the front verandah where Jajati and his friends sat during the evening, talking and smoking, and where Malati and her cousins and her best friend Jyotsna had played when they were kids. Madhia took the hoe off his shoulder and planted it on the ground with a thump. Then resting his palm on the flat metal surface of the hoe, Madhia leaned on it as if the hoe was a walkingstick. Madhia wore a vest, which was peppered with holes of all shapes and sizes, and his white loincloth was so thoroughly sullied that it matched the color of his dusty legs. Sweat vined down Madhia’s arms and face, but he was at ease. Cocking his head to one side and resting his left hand on his waist, Madhia said, “Jajati, there seems to be no end to our ordeal.

14 Only today I planted the pumpkin seeds and now it is going to rain. It will destroy all my seeds, labor and money. And then I––” “I hope it does not rain, too,” said Jajati, not looking at his friend, but staring at the end of the street. “O ho, why do you worry, Jajati? Yours are the usual ones: rice and ragi. It will not hurt you much if it rains. It is me who always runs into such bad lucks.” A group of children went frolicking past Madhia, singing in chorus. Madhia grabbed one child by his shirt collar and reprimanded him to go home before the storm came. The boy scampered away, crying. “Now listen, Jajati,” continued Madhia. “On August fifteenth we have the meeting with Manohar Senapati. This time we better make our demands clear to him. After all, we elected him for nothing. First, we want interest free loans. Second, we must be given fertilizers and seeds at lower rates. Third, that cursed bridge has to get built––” “Madhia, can we talk about this later? I am bit busy now.” “Of course, of course. I am also busy, Jajati. You see that I am in the middle of rushing to my home. I will leave you then. Look at you, all dressed up! As if you’re going to your own wedding…” Madhia lifted the hoe to his shoulder and started down the street. But after taking three steps, he returned again. “Jajati, is someone coming today? No, I am just curious. Not like I want to bother you. I thought maybe your in-laws are coming or your sister. You look so eager.” “It’s someone... I mean, someone is coming to see Malati.” “Do you mean for the marriage?” asked Madhia in a lowered voice. “Yes.”

15 “Oh, good, good. That’s good news. I should leave you then. Which village does the boy belong to?” “Sundarpur,” said Jajati after a pause. “Sundarpur!” retorted Madhia. “You mean our Sundarpur? This is a good proposal, Jajati. The village is not very far. Let me tell you, Jajati, people of Sundarpur are the finest. Recently, Bisoi’s daughter got married to a lad from Sundarpur. Ah, what a gem of a lad he turned out to be. Malati will be happy with this guy, let me tell you. But do you think they will come in this weather?” Jajati became impatient. He shifted his position on the bench and looked skywards. “I don’t know. And I wish you to stop asking me questions.” “Of course not, Jajati—I don’t want to bother you with needless questions. But before I leave I must say that that lad from Sundarpur will prove to be more than what you wish for in your son-in-law. Believe me. I have seen how happy Bisoi’s daughter is. So don’t let this opportunity go. It’s not like our Malati is lesser than anyone. Oh, who will not like to take her as bride—” “See you tomorrow at the field, Madhia.” “Yes, yes. Tomorrow it is. I must leave you now. I unnecessarily got delayed. I must reach home before the rain comes down.” With these final words, Madhia departed. After he left, Jajati spat on the ground and his knuckles turned white from clenching the cement bench. From the upstairs window, Malati witnessed the conversation between Madhia and her father. She had listened to everything that Madhia said. She knew what her father must

16 have been feeling right now. Inside, he would be wriggling like an earthworm who had been stamped upon. The anger that would be swelling up in him would explode any minute and Bimla would have to bear the brunt of it. Malati wished that her father’s waiting would not end in disappointment and that all of these ordeals were gone. He was once a proud son of a landlord, who had enough rice in his silo to feed the entire village for a month. The house was full of maids and servants. Ladies of the house did not have to bend their backs to pick up the needle from the floor. The men did nothing other than play cards, swim and trap game. But with a debauched father and a corrupt caretaker, the wealth was depleted as quickly as a pool of molasses would vanish by an army of ants. The only relic left of that old grandeur was the two storied concrete house under which Jajati now sat. The house looked out of place in the middle of mud huts around it. It had been more than ten years since the house was last white-washed and the sandy brown walls and mossy roof tiles gave it an impoverished look. Jajati could have borrowed money to repair the house but he was adamant against doing so. A few years back, Jajati did not have enough money to buy seeds and fertilizers for the next farming season. Yet he did not borrow a single rupee from anyone. This was his consolation. It was an embarrassment for Jajati to accept the life of a farmer when he realized that he would no longer inherit the landlord’s title and wealth and that he would plough the field and carry the hoe on his shoulder like an ordinary farmer. That old shame still shimmered inside him when the time came for Malati’s marriage. The delay in the marriage had become a worry that, many rejections on, had now become a nightmare. Jajati cursed his fate and loathed everybody else for their lack of sympathy.

17 Malati had grown used to her father’s constant moodiness and authoritativeness. She no longer remembered the last time he had spoken an endearing word to her. She could not recollect of ever receiving a candy or chocolate from her father. But she held no grudge and claimed no wrong—perhaps, she thought, she deserved such treatments. But on other times, she asked herself: if a doll did not get sold in a shop, whose fault was it? Who should be blamed? The owner, the buyer, or the doll itself? Malati was standing before the window and her mind was filled with many thoughts, when a roaring thunderbolt struck the heart of the village. Malati screamed and bolted back to her bed in terror. Her heart was pumping fast. She lay bundled in her bed, with palms covering her ears. She chanted feverishly, “Lord Shiva, Lord Shiva…” Bimla was pouring hot milk when the boom of the thunder left her dumb for few seconds. She almost spilt the milk on her feet and sari. She held on to the wall and leaned against it. She was breathing hard. When the thunder struck, Jajati did not even flinch. He stood up from the cement bench, descended the steps from the verandah to the street and smoothed the creases of his trousers. He was sure now that it was not going to rain and his guest would come.

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Chapter

2

Standing on a wooden bench, Somu watched as the daily bazaar of Palleri geared to a bustling start, featuring not only the buyers and vendors of Palleri town but those of nearby villages. He stood at one end of the bench, his youthful weight balanced by an unusually large melon at the other end. His six-foot height afforded him a clear view. With a toothpick in his mouth, Somu surveyed the people milling in their deliberate manner, their faces characteristic and animated, like fish expressions in a bowl, inspecting, haggling, shouting, arguing, bargaining, grimacing, all manner of theater and pantomime under the August sun. Rows after rows, vegetables: ripe and raw, rare and regular, cheap and expensive, local and imported. Potatoes were piled in pyramids, greens were grouped in neat bundles,

19 pumpkins were arranged in the order of their sizes, and beady peas were transferred to customers’ bags directly from gunny sacks. Somu looked longingly at the ripe yellow bananas hung in bunches from hooks and ropes. And there was a dusky haze that pervaded the market like a translucent cobweb. From people’s shoes and from potato piles ascended a fine spiral of dust that burned the eyes and irritated the nose. Somu pinched his nostrils and suppressed the urge to sneeze. He wondered how people could stand the suffocating dust and heat that would only intensify as the morning crawled toward noon. He wondered at the eagerness of the vendors. Sitting under a tarpaulin shade they hollered their catch phrases that flaunted the merit of their goods over their competitors. They brazenly haggled and resorted to unprecedented tactics to earn a rupee or two. How could these people sustain such banalities with such self-assurance? He wondered what motivated these men to return to this drab squalor each day at the sunrise. He wondered at the inexhaustible exuberance of the buyers who walked from one vendor to another in an air of judgmental silence, testing the freshness of the vegetables by sniffing, squeezing and puncturing the samples, and demanding the finest portion of a ripe fruit be served to them so that its sweetness and succulence might be attested. Somu wondered at the unambitious lives of the men working in those grocery shops. All day they weighed lentil or rice from gunny sacks and packed the items in neat paper bags. He wondered, as he excavated the remaining crumbs of the paan stuck between his teeth with his toothpick, how could anyone repeat those routines for hours, for days and for years without even a murmur of protest? On the farthest side of the bazaar fish and meat were sold. There sat the fisherwomen with their foul mouths and permanent stink, chiding any

20 uninterested buyer and conducting their business with blood stained hands. As they threw away the guts of the fishes, crows waited behind them in a cacophonous melee to feed on the rejects. How anyone could ever get used to a life of such debasing muck. He watched the tarpaulin roofs of the bazaar, blue, black and white, floating in rising brilliance as the sun ascended in the sky. He knew the dust would never settle at the Palleri bazaar because all was dust here, an emblem for the mundane existence of the people around him who had settled for this dust because they were incapable of dreaming and upholding high aspirations. Unlike him. These rabble were not born the way as he was. They were never fated to be special as he was. His destiny was grander than theirs. “Oye,” yelled someone behind him and slapped the back of his knee. He turned back and the voice belonged to a short, middle-aged man who wore a checkered turban around his sweaty forehead and awkwardly carried three melons between his hands and belly. “What are you doing up there?” the man asked. “Why do you care?” “Why do I care? This is my bench and I need it to display my melons.” “Find some other place then.” “What? Get down right away before I loose my temper.” “Do you know who I am?” Somu said haughtily. “Not in least.” “Somu Pradhan. I am Somu Pradhan.”

21 “Eh, Somu Pradhan. Listen to the way you say it as if you’re prime minister or president. Oye, stop this nonsense and be off from here right this moment.” Another simpleton, who cherished this dusty air, sultry heat, arguing and haggling, and could not wait to start his day in hopes of a petty coin or two. Somu got down from the bench and left the market. He wandered about the periphery of the stalls for an hour before he felt hungry. He patted his belly and checked the watch. Still two more hours to go before noon. Searching his pocket he found two five-rupee coins, enough money to buy a lunch but not enough for both breakfast and lunch. If he would take breakfast now then he would have to go home for lunch, a situation he badly wanted to avoid. His mother would be unforgiving. She would drive him weary with the questions of last night’s whereabouts. He tried to suppress his hunger by drinking water from a roadside water tap. The water tasted stale and as more he drank more uneasy he felt. Slowly his stomach tightened. He felt giddy. And soon the insides of his body turned so violently that he vomited the water, coughing and panting. From the vomit came the foul order of last night’s liquor. Somu regained his composure. But his weakening limbs indicated that he could not go on without food for long. He had not eaten anything since lunch yesterday except for the liquor. Somu headed down the Market Road towards Loka’s shop. When Somu visited Loka’s shop, he avoided talking to the unpleasant propietor. At the front of Loka’s shop a mobile blackboard stood facing the road, on which
HOTEL MA DURGA

was written on top with the day’s menu listed below. Cycle tubes, tires

and tin sheets were placed over the thatched roof of the shop and a constant stream of smoke

22 belched from the chimney. The shop tables and benches were placed on one side of this shack while the opposite side was occupied by the kitchen and the cashier’s desk. Behind the desk, Loka, a middle aged fat man with a balding head sat wearing his customary saffron dhoti and with no shirt on top. With a checkered towel he fanned himself as sweat rolled down his corpulent torso. Behind his bulky figure, there was a garlanded picture of Goddess Durga, next to which an incense stick burned. Wishing to avoid the stifling heat and smoke, Somu chose one of the benches outside, invisible to Loka’s constant vigil. A lanky boy, hardly ten years old, waited on the customers sitting outside. Somu had never seen the boy before at the shop. He wore loose shorts that frequently slipped below his waistline. “Is the lunch prepared?” Somu asked him. The boy looked confused. “One meal for me.” The boy did not say anything. He twiddled his bellybutton, which gaped out of his button-less shirt. He gave a helpless look in the direction of Loka, who, now roused, stood up from his chair and asked, “What do you want?” “One meal!” Somu demanded. “Don’t you know that meal is never ready before twelve? Only breakfast for now.” Loka fell back upon his stool again. Somu grunted to display his displeasure. He knew that the lunch would not be ready at Loka’s shop by that hour yet he took his chances. “One hot tea and one plate of samosha for me,” said Somu to the boy.

23 While eating, Somu waited for the right moment when the boy would be busy serving other customers and Loka would be busy counting notes. Right then he would sneak off without paying. Just then the boy fumbled and a stack of empty steel plates tumbled out of his hands. The crash of the plates was like a hundred cymbals musically tumbling down a flight of stairs. Loka shouted, “You’re lucky, lad! If those plates would have been full of foods then I’d have whipped your ass red today!” After picking up the plates, the boy turned to Somu and asked, “Babu, do you need anything else?” Somu stared at the boy’s brown, watery eyes for a while. He knew Loka meant the words he said. He would be merciless once he would find that he lost a customer without paying. Then some innocent would have to pay for his devilish anger. With a shake of head Somu took out one five rupee coin and placed it on the bench. “Nah,” he said, “I am done. Take my payment.” Before leaving the shop, Somu filled his stomach with two glasses of water. He could not avoid meeting his mother, yet he would still procrastinate.

On the east side of the town there was a pond. People leaving on that part of the town did not have a reliable source of water for their houses, so they depended on the pond for their daily need. At one side of the pond there were eleven steps, six above the water and five below.

24 Saris and petticoats were spread on the steps for drying. Women sat on the steps gossiping with the brass pots besides them. Near the steps, the pond’s water appeared clear and safe. But beyond that grew reeds and wild lilies and the water color changed to turgid black. The pond was used only from one side and the other side remained secluded and abandoned. Somu walked in that direction along the edge of the pond, past its scum and brackish stench. Beyond the pond was a wild orchard where once used to be a lumber house. The house was empty now except for the snakes and scorpions. Somu walked towards the line of coconut trees at the back of the lumber house. Under one of the trees slept a brown mongrel with a white underbelly and a patch of white on his forehead. Listening to the rustle of Somu’s footstep, the dog stirred from his stupor. Somu made a hissing sound through his teeth and poked the dog’s belly with the tip of his chappal. The dog made a gargling sound and waggled his tail. “You like it, don’t you?” said Somu. He then pressed the dog’s tail down. Lightly at first and then harder. The dog yelped and tried to set himself free. Somu lifted his foot and the dog dashed off to a safe distance, barking and purring. “Okay, come here now, Bhoothnath,” said Somu. “I won’t hurt you anymore.” The dog stood barking for a while before feeling assured. When he returned, Somu gently kneaded his face and said, “You better don’t go anywhere today. I have lots of things to tell you. I didn’t go home last night. Do you know that?” Bhoothnath cocked his head and let his tongue hang out to cool off. “Don’t give me that foolish look of yours. Come with me.”

25 Somu walked to his usual place of rest: a coconut tree that stood at an angle like an erect penis. Somu leaned against the slanted trunk and stretched himself out. A soft breeze blew across the pond carrying with it the stink of the stale water. Somu undid the top two buttons of his shirt and the wind tunneled through his shirt out of the sleeves. Soon, Somu fell into a reverie. “I can’t explain to you the feeling, Bhoothnath,” said Somu. “It was like soaking my throat with something wet after staying thirsty for years. No. In fact even it was better than that. That liquor was thick like cane juice. It smelt like camphor. On top of that it was served cool. I never knew any alcohol so potent. The moment I took the first sip it had the desired effect. All my worries vanished like puff of smoke in the mist. Are you listening, Bhoothnath? Then they had these fancy lights, green, orange and blue, that constantly blinked at me and urged me to drink more. So I drank. The shop-owner was a nice man, friendly and generous. Everyone called him Pandia. He kept handing me the bottles and I drank. From time to time he asked me if I felt all right or if I wanted to vomit. Making sure that I’m fine he handed me another bottle. No question asked and no money demanded. You drink first and then pay. When the world blacked out before me, Pandia turned my pockets inside-out and took his dues, as he politely informed me when I got up in the morning. At least he had some decency.” Now Somu stopped and turned his head. From the direction of the pond came the acrid voices of two women involved in a fight. Their abuses and meanness echoed through the orchard. Somu opened the third button of his shirt to make himself more comfortable.

26 “Listen to my advice, Bhoothnath,” he continued, after a moment. “And don’t pay attention to the quarrel of those bitches out there. You and I should go to this place and all troubles of our lives will be gone.” Somu broke into a laugh and then added in the tone of a prosecuting lawyer: “Nobody asked me any question. Everyone in that liquor bar had either beaten their wives or stolen money from their mothers’ purse to pay for the liquor. Everyone knew that he had done something bad, was sorry about it and just wanted to drink and forget their guilt. I didn’t know about this bar until I stumbled upon it accidentally last night. Since then I have been kicking myself why the devil I did not know about this place before. Why, Bhoothath, did you not tell me about this place, hm?” Bhoothnath woke up for a second, scratched his ear and went back to sleep. “I will go to this place again tonight. At least no one here will pester me with questions like why I am jobless. Why did I come back home from the city? Why did not I live up to my parents’ expectations?” The wind slowly picked up. The cooing of the birds drifted through the orchard. The sun was in the middle of the sky, but the dense foliage of the surrounding trees and the thick cluster of the coconut fronds provided Somu necessary cool and comfort. Soon he drifted to sleep. When he woke up, it was already three. His back and neck muscles were sore and stiff. Bhoothnath was nowhere to be found. When he reached home, his mother opened the door and let him in, knowing better than to ask any question. She spread the straw mattress for him and placed the plate of rice and dishes beside it. He did not take a bath, only washed his hands and legs, slipped into

27 clean clothes and sat down to eat. When he was halfway through his lunch, his mother spoke in a reproving tone, “It seems you don’t even care to come back home these days.” Somu’s mother squatted at the threshold of the kitchen. Its walls, blackened and oily, shone in the dim sunlight that entered through the skylight. The smoke from the cooking still hung in the air. And at the forefront of this hazy gloom she sat in a white sari, guarding her widowhood in that unblemished, fading attire. “Before, you would stay away only at the daytime,” she said. “I would wait for the sunset to stop worrying. But now I can’t even sleep at night. Don’t you have any pity for your old mother?” Somu munched the poppadom noisily. His fingers moved in a brisk pace through the concoction of rice and daal. “You went away yesterday morning and only now are you returning. In the mean time I was worried to death. What happened to you? What did you eat? Where have you slept? As your mother I can’t help worrying. When will you stop punishing me, Somu? Why can’t you change a bit?” “I told you before I won’t do any menial work,” said Somu. “Why? You’re not a babu or sahib that you’ll loose prestige by doing such work. At least earning some money will be better than wandering like a vagabond and spending time with bad company.” Somu stopped eating and looked up from his plate. “Don’t get started again. This time I will not return for good.”

28 Somu’s mother sat quietly. “Do you want more rice or curry?” she asked after a long pause. Somu did not reply. He hastened to finish his lunch. “After your father’s death, we are not left with much money, Somu. His pension allowance is not enough to feed two mouths. Your brother is always brusque when I ask him for money. I don’t blame him. He does as his wife tells him. We can’t go on like this for long. I am not worried about myself. I will die soon. But I am worried about you. Think about your own future, son. Your brother is working with the Government officials to release your father’s gratuity. At least use that money to bribe someone to find a steady job.” Somu got up and went to the back verandah to rinse his mouth. He drank the cool water from the earthern pot and belched. When he returned, his mother was waiting for him with a red thread in her hand. The thread was as red as vermilion and nine tiny knots were tied across its length. “Wear this around your wrist,” said his mother. “What is this?” “I talked to an astrologer who said––” “Is it a talisman?” “This is Goddess Mangala’s thread. This will bring you good luck.” Somu’s mother tried to tie the thread on his wrist, but Somu withdrew his hand. “I don’t need any help,” said Somu. “Please, Somu. Only God can put sense in you!”

29 Somu did not tie the thread as his mother wished. He pocketed it with an excuse that he would tie it later. He then went to the room where he and his mother usually slept. Somu’s mother cleaned the dishes and broomed the kitchen. When she returned to her room, she did not find Somu there. He had already left. Her money-box at the bottom of the wooden rack was lying open. She checked it and two ten-rupee notes were missing from it. Tears welled up in her eyes. “Even death will not be so cruel to me,” she mumbled. Somu’s mother adjusted the sari around her shoulder and lay down on the charpoy, fanning herself with a hand fan. On that hot afternoon there was no respite for her. She did not want to fall asleep because the dreams of the afternoon were the worst. They were always about Somu. Sometimes she would dream of him giving a speech from a podium or driving around the town in a big car or having a big house with many rosy-cheeked toddlers running around. Other times it would be little Somu, dressed in his school uniform, anxious to go to his exam. On the worst days, she would see his dead face. All the dreams had the same effect on her. She would wake up, shocked and desolate. Nor was there comfort in staying awake. Old memories tormented her. All her hopes and desires which were once part of the old times now appeared before her in their skeletal remains. She still remembered that afternoon sixteen years ago when she was taking a nap and Bhima’s mother came bolting into the house, shouting on top of her voice, “Kanta, Kanta, come soon! Your son is being attacked by a cobra!” Somu, who was only seven, was playing with his friends on his way back from school when out of exhaustion he felt asleep under a tree. In the torpid heat of that afternoon a cobra had found a resting place above Somu’s head. When people gathered around the tree fearing

30 for the boy’s life, the snake took an attacking stance. It coiled itself closer to Somu’s head and raised its hood in a striking pose. When Kanta arrived at the scene, she wanted to rush to her son’s aid. But the other women held her back. She could do nothing but cry and mumble Lord Shiva’s name. The snake charmer Kellu was already there to defuse the matter. But when Kellu took one step forward towards Somu, the snake flared its hood and hissed. One more step forward and the cobra leaned back and bared its teeth. Kellu had to immediately back away. He tried to close in from all possible directions but the snake was too alert. Kellu tried to intimidate the snake by playing an eye game, but that trick failed. Finally, Kellu resigned, knowing that it was going to be a battle of patience. While everyone stood holding their breath, Somu slept peacefully, oblivious to the death looming over his head. His face was calm and his breathing was regular and easy. A slight movement from him could have been fatal, but his face did not twitch. Neither did a strand of hair on his body rustle. Kellu asked people to step back. Kanta was reluctant to leave, but Bhima’s mother pulled her away to the verandah of a nearby house, from where she could see everything clearly. Every minute passed like an eon. Kellu slowly but theatrically left the scene, making it clear for the snake that it was given a chance to escape. Half an hour passed before the snake uncoiled and gracefully left for its burrow. People rushed towards Somu. Kanta fainted. When she recovered herself she saw Somu sitting awake and everyone clapping and cheering around him. Bhima’s mother cried out, “Kanta, your son is special. No one else would have remained alive under the hood of a cobra.” Kanta did not take Bhima’s mother’s words seriously. She only wanted to embrace her son and ensure that he was all right. But when she went near Somu, she found Bhima’s

31 mother’s impression echoing in other people’s voices. They congratulated, patted and blessed Somu, who sat in the middle utterly confused and scared, crying to be with his mother. The news of Somu’s brush with the cobra spread around the town quickly. That evening many arrived to meet the Pradhan family and congratulate Somu’s parents for being blessed with an extraordinary child. The next day, Somu’s parents went to meet the priest, who confirmed people’s sentiments in unequivocal terms. Somu was a blessed child and he was protected by Lord Shiva Himself. “If a cobra coils around anyone’s head and does not bite that person, then it is a sign of tremendous good fortune. Your son is destined to be a king. Of course, these days we don’t have kings and emperors anymore. But mark my words. One day he’ll become very rich and famous,” said the priest. Somu’s parents became immensely proud. Their youngest son offered them a promise which none of their other children came close to match. “What is the name of your son?” asked the priest. “Aditya,” said Somu’s parents eagerly. “Nah. That name won’t do. He owes his life to Lord Shiva and under His blessing he must be raised. From now on call him Somnath.” Thus Aditya became Somnath. With the new name emerged unchecked aspirations, unprecedented and colossal. Somu’s parents could not get over the idea that they had a special child. They built the castle of their dreams and expectations around their son who was destined to be its ruler one day. They took Somu’s childish exuberance and incipient intellect as signs of promise. They dedicated themselves in educating the child and reserved the best care for him. Over time, other priests and astrologers stopped by the house to confirm the

32 prophecy. It was preordained and unstoppable. Somu’s destiny was as permanent as the writing on a stone wall. But then there was a change in their boy. His destiny seemed to wilt without warning and without providing a clear sign. Looking at the past no one could say for sure what was that particular instant or episode which changed his certain good fortune to ruin and ridicule. It just happened. Like the rusting of iron and yellowing of paper, the change was steady and permanent. Somu’s parents could do nothing but watch as the castle of their dream decayed and crumbled to an ignominious pile of rubble. Lying on the charpoy, Kanta’s shoulder ached with constant fanning. She put aside the fan and turned to her side. Tears flowed out of her old eyes but she did not bother to wipe them off. She sighed and said, “Somu’s father, my husband, you should not have left me behind! I can’t bear this suffering alone.”

As he turned the last corner towards the temple, Somu quickened his steps. He was in a gallant mood. The world was more tolerable to him when his stomach was full. Palleri’s main temple was at the end of the Temple Road. The temple had all sorts of deities in it and it was one of the popular temples in this corner of Orissa and the number of devotees visiting the temple never waned. Day or night, cold or rain, the temple was always busy. A herd of cattle sat indolently in the middle of the road and the traffic made its way past them with difficulty. Bicycle bells clanked constantly. The honk of the two and four-wheelers

33 aggravated the general chaos. Along the temple wall vendors sold earthen lamps, camphor, coconuts, incense sticks and flowers from their tiny booths. Somu maintained a steady pace through the congestion of devotees. After walking past the entrance of the temple, Somu turned to a lane on the left which was narrow but less busy. On one side there were blocks of narrow houses and on the other side there were long verandahs devoted to the cooking of prasad for the temple during the mornings. Leaning against one of these verandahs stood Madhu and his lottery stand. Madhu grinned and said, “So finally you have come. I thought you will not return.” Somu sat on the verandah beside Madhu and said, “What’s the point of coming to a pig-fucker like you when none of the tickets I buy ever win?” Madhu laughed, tossing his head back, and said, “Now calm down. I was only joking. Of course, I knew you will come back. My business runs because of customers like you.” “Stop teasing now.” “Listen, I have the Laxmi Bumper Lottery this time. I know the number that will take the prize. Trust me, this time my instinct won’t fail.” “That’s what you said last time.” “But mark my words. This time you’ll be sorry if you don’t buy the lottery.” “What’s the prize amount?” asked Somu. “There are many small prizes ranging from rupees ten-thousands to one lakh. But the bumper prize is of ten lakhs.” Somu sat thoughtfully. “What are the chances of winning?”

34 “Believe me. This lottery comes only once in a while. Very hard to lay your hands on them. I had brought thirty tickets and only six are left now. The series that I have got this time is quite a catch, Somu. From my past experience I know for sure one bastard is going to be lucky out of these thirty.” Somu sat silently for a while until Madhu said, “Now don’t waste time. Do as I say.” “Okay, give me the ticket then.” Madhu unfolded a pile of tickets from a neat polythene bag and lay down six before Somu. “Nah, turn them down. I don’t want to see what numbers I am buying. Let me choose at random.” Somu picked up one ticket and then another. “What! You’re buying two tickets?” asked Madhu in surprise. “Smart thinking, Somu. Now, I know for sure you’re going to win! With two tickets you can’t miss. What will you do after winning, Somu? Will you remember your old friend? “Stop donkey-fucking, will you?” Somu took out two ten-rupee notes from his pocket and gave them to Madhu. Somu folded the tickets without checking their numbers and kept them in his shirt pocket. And standing there, he allowed a quick calculation of how he would spend the money after winning. He would give two lakhs to each of his sisters, one lakh to his brother, just to keep his and his wife’s big mouths shut for rest of their lives, and with the remaining money, he would probably buy a house… no, he would buy a car! A car in which he would take his mother around the town and to the big cities so that she would know that her son was not as

35 worthless as she always took him to be. As Somu walked away, Madhu called loudly from behind, “The result will be out this Tuesday! Don’t forget to invite me for the celebration!” Somu ignored him. He needed to urinate badly. Behind the temple there was a small banana plantation. Somu walked into it and using a thick cluster of the plants as a wall he relieved himself. From the temple behind him he could hear the constant clanking of the bells. That intrusive noise reminded him of the thread his mother had given him. He took it out from his pocket and threw it at the root of the plant. Against the yellow foam of his urine he watched the redness of the thread. Right then there was a rumbling in the sky. He looked up and saw a sheet of dark cloud advancing across the sky. The looming blackness of the cloud warned him of the storm ahead.

36

Chapter

3

The bus from Sundarpur arrived at the Jharpada bus-stand thirty minutes late. It decelerated to a brake-screeching halt from its full gallop, raising up an explosive cloud of dust which sent the waiting crowd helter-skelter. There was yelling and shoving, as passengers boarded and got off the bus simultaneously. And then in no time, the bus tore away in the same reckless haste as it arrived, unmindful of the crowded bazaar on the roadside, the playing children, the elderly at the verges, the potholed road and the safety of the passengers. Mr. Muralidhar Jena was one of the newly arrived passengers, stepping off the bus with three others in his party. After the bus left, Mr. Jena dusted off his dhoti and looked at the lead-black sky. According to his principles, a man should always stand up to promises he

37 had made and in this case he had already given word to the girl’s father that he would come today. So he and his party had to keep the appointment even if they had to brave the wind or rain. Mr. Jena took the comb out of his kurta pocket and marshalled, right to left, the remaining strands of graying hair on his shinning scalp. He stood in the middle of the busstand, motionless, contemplative, surveying the shops around. Mr. Jena singled out a paan shop just around the corner of the bazaar. Customerless and secluded, this shop would serve his present need. He needed to learn a few things. Due to his paan-chewing habit, he had interacted with many paanwallas in the past. And it was his experience that the paanwallas were unusually and unguardedly chatty. This paan shop was a structure of tin sheets and wooden frames. It had a triangular top and a front door that opened like a lid and stuck out to the front like the peak of a cap. Mr. Jena approached the shop with a broad, genial smile: “Young man, how is the business today? Give me ten paans!” Mr. Jena was unhurried, coaxing and not pushy like most of the bazaar customers. “I am new to the village,” he continued, setting down his aluminum paanbox on the wooden counter. “I actually live in Sundarpur village and I arrived now in the bus that just left.” “Will you stay in our village for some time?” asked the paanwalla, maintaining a smile on his face, while his eyes and hands were busy in preparing the paans. “Nah, I’m here for a specific purpose. I’ll go back by the evening bus.” “What purpose is that, sir?”

38 “Oh nothing, nothing,” said Mr. Jena, deliberately. But then he added in a hushed tone, “I’m here to see a girl for my son.” “Really? Who’s she?” asked the paanwalla, suddenly halting in the middle of his work. “The daughter of Jajati Sahu? Do you know him?” “Of course, I know him. Who does not know Jajati Sahu in this village? He’s a wellrespected man and his father used to be the landlord of this village.” “And what about his daughter?” asked Mr. Jena, his tone insistent, yet mild. His gaze did not waver at all from the paanwalla, measuring him all the time. “Well, I don’t know much about her. She of course belongs to a respectable family. No one can question that. But then there are some––mind you, I’m not sure though––some rumors about her.” Mr. Jena remained silent. He only leaned further towards the wooden counter of the shop. There was still no hint of curiosity on his face. The paanwalla continued. “Of course, you’re a gentleman and you’re way older than me to know that rumors and truths are like the opposite ends of the horizon. So I’d advise you not to pay any attention to them.” “What are those rumors? Is she of bad character?” “No, no. Not at all! Who says so? I told you before that she belongs to a respectable family. The entire village knows that her character is spotless. It’s only that, I mean, many say that she’s not good looking. That’s why Jajati is having hard time getting her married for last two years. Mind you, I’ve never seen the girl myself. It’s only what I’ve heard.”

39 A calmness appeared on Mr. Jena’s face. He pocketed his refilled paanbox, paid the paanwalla and gave him an assuring smile which two conversationalists would exchange when they had conveyed meaning to each other without using too many words. Mr. Jena then turned to the three people standing behind him, who had come with him from Sundarpur. He gave the three a nod and said, “Let’s go.”

Jajati sat motionless on the cement bench with an impatient scowl. He had waited about an hour now with no sign of the guests. Dark clouds still remained in the sky, but any chance of rain had vanished with that booming thunder. Whenever anyone appeared at the end of the street, he half-raised himself in anticipation only to sit down again in disappointment. Frequently, he took off his glasses and wiped the sweat from it that hazed his vision. He feared that Madhia might return since the threat of rain was gone now; other friends and neighbours might pass by, too, all making inquiries, casually snooping. He felt an urge to go and berate Bimla about the food preparation... but just then someone turned the corner at the end of the street. A short figure with balding head and pouchy belly. He walked with slow, measured steps. His neatly pressed dhoti and kurta gave the impression that he was dressed for an occasion. And his searching eyes left no doubt that he was new to the village. Moreover, there was an air of importance in his manner which could only be that of a boy’s father. And yes, behind him at a small distance, a family party!

40 Jajati prepared to hurry down the street to welcome his guests as his attention fell on the three figures following closely behind. One was a young man, walking sheepishly and wearing flamboyant clothes. The other two were women with considerable age difference between them; their heads were covered with the free end of their saris. Jajati became flustered, no longer sure how to receive them. He did not walk up to the guests as he had planned. Instead he stood at the steps of the verandah looking courteous and eager. As for Mr. Jena, his searching gaze fell upon Jajati Sahu, wringing his hands, straightening his shirt collar, and standing at the verandah of a solitary concrete house amidst the mud huts. He and Jajati had never met; they had only communicated through letters and a mediator, fixing the appointed day. As soon as he reached Jajati, Mr. Jena gave a beaming, congenial smile, the same one that he gave to the paanwalla and which always looked genuine. Jajati had descended to the street now and stood slightly stooped before his guest. “I hope you did not face problem finding the house.” “Not at all,” said Mr. Jena, laughing, “you are so well-known in your village that people did not fail to guide us.” “Because of the delay I thought that you might have faced some sort of problem,” said Jajati, his eyes hesitantly shifting between Mr. Jena and the two women. “Ah, so kind of you to feel concerned for us. Please meet my wife and daughter. And he’s the son for whose marriage we are here.” Three of them promptly paid their respectful greeting to Jajati. Jajati did not grimace or flinch. He received the greetings with a calm expression, not letting the flicker of disgust

41 slip up to his face. His disgust was directed at the women since their presence had complicated the matter for him. In marriage affairs, he believed the decisions should be made by the men and the presence of women only indicated that the boy’s father was not capable of making his own decisions. And with such men Jajati never had any success. Jajati assumed a polite expression and invited the guests inside the house. Now the arrangement in the sitting room posed a problem. There were only three chairs, all of plastic and of different colors. Jajati originally accounted for two people: the father and the boy, the father and his friend, or maybe the father and one of the elders of the family, any one of these combinations. Never did it occur to him that his guest count could rise to four. Nothing of this sort was mentioned in the letter! Jajati looked around the room apologetically and mumbled out that he would rush to his neighbor’s house and arrange for two more chairs. But Mr. Jena hinted that the women would feel comfortable sitting on the floor and no special arrangement was required. Jajati hastily moved the chairs to one side of the room and spread a wicker mat lining the opposite wall. The mother and the daughter sat close to each other, leaning their backs against the wall. Their faces were calm and composed. For Jajati those twin faces were mirror reflection of Mr. Jena’s. No matter how much he tried he would never fathom the depths of those placid expressions. Jajati addressed his guests. “I’ll bring some refreshments! You must be feeling tired after the journey.” “Please don’t trouble yourself with formalities,” said Mr. Jena. “We’re already feeling comfortable.”

42 Despite Mr. Jena’s assurance, Jajati excused himself and went inside to get the refreshments. All this time Bimla was standing behind the sitting-room door, listening to the conversation and studying the four figures through a crack in the door. The delay in the guests’ arrival gave her adequate time to prepare the food and change into a better looking sari. When Jajati emerged from the sitting room, Bimla was already standing with four glasses of sherbet on a tray. Jajati took the glasses in twos and before he went back to sitting room, he asked, “Is everything ready?” Bimla nodded in response. When Jajati gave Mr. Jena the glass of sherbet, the visitor said with a hesitation, “Jajati Babu, just a while ago I have taken a paan. Will you mind if I wash my mouth before drinking this?” “Yes, yes. Why not?” said Jajati. It was a perfectly innocent and understandable request and Jajati could never have guessed anything foul in it. He guided Mr. Jena towards the vat in the inner compound. Before he came out of the sitting room towards the kitchen verandah, Jajati coughed to warn Bimla of their approach. But it was needless. She had already seen them coming through the crack of the door and scampered off to the kitchen. Mr. Jena washed his face and then rinsed his mouth. He gargled with water, brushed his teeth with the finger and then spat out like a sprinkler. He took the towel that Jajati offered him and slowly wiping his face he looked around the compound. His gaze was probing and curious. The same gaze with which he observed Jajati and saw that the house’s tiled roof crudely sloped to the back, its outer walls were savagely weather-beaten to a moss green and sand grey color, its front pillars were losing chunks of plaster. It was the same gaze

43 with which he studied the sitting room that was furnitureless except for three chairs and sitting in one of them he noticed the outdated calendar hanging on the wall whose only purpose was to hide a dark patch behind it. And when his gaze fell upon the main entrance door, he found its top hinge was broken. The house is not even properly secure, he thought, not that there is much to steal... Even the room that ran parallel to the sitting room did not miss his attention. Through its half-closed door, he saw a wide bed with floral design on its side and a thick mattress on top. The bed was the only valuable item he could see in the house and right then he decided to check other parts of the house too. Mr. Jena also noticed the broken kitchen verandah, the tense shadow of a woman on the kitchen wall, the dirtfloored inner compound and the narrow stair climbing to the solitary room on top floor. As Mr. Jena wiped his face and looked around, he said, “Jajati Babu, it must be really comfortable living in such a house, even if it is old.” Jajati could not gather the meaning of this observation at first until he saw the calm expression on Mr. Jena’s face change into a twisted smile. Jajati stood there, mute and shamefaced, realizing that he had completely misread Mr. Jena. Due to the dark clouds, dusk came earlier than usual. The light in the sitting room faded rapidly and, for Jajati and his poor eyesight, shapes started appearing shadowy. He switched on the light and under the yellow glow of the bulb the four empty glasses of sherbet sparkled, the walls with their discolored patches appeared more stark and pervasive. Jajati could see Mr. Jena’s face clearly now. He needed to relate every word he said to his facial expression, the combination that was vital for him to fully fathom the boy’s family’s

44 expectations, pick up the hints and read their intentions. Many things would be said and many would be left unsaid. It was the unuttered words that always counted. “Jajati Babu,” said Mr. Jena, “trust is the foundation of every relationship. So I must win your trust first by being completely honest with you. Otherwise, this talk of marriage will definitely fail. I’m blessed with eight children. Three daughters and five sons. By God’s grace all my daughters are happily married and sons are well established too. She’s my youngest daughter and he’s my fourth son. My first two sons are government servants and the third one is a construction contractor. All three of them are well off and happily married. And my last two sons are going to take care of my grocery shop. This son of mine is very hard working and he knows in and out of the business.” Mr. Jena said this pointing at the young man who was sitting still and down-faced as if he did not want to take part in this proceedings. His presence seemed a result of an accident, the shock of which had dealt him a paralyzing blow. Mr. Jena continued with his family history and business affairs. He talked about his village and relatives, stating an incident here and there, telling anecdotes too and often bursting into boisterous laughter, which hardly drew any participant. He reiterated his pledge for frankness and insisted that Jajati should do the same. Jajati on his part divulged information delicately and selectively, focusing more on the past––his wealthy ancestry, their well standing in the village––and skirting the topic of his present condition. Experience had taught him how to curb the curiosity of the boy’s family from undesirable subjects. But in Mr. Jena’s presence Jajati was extra cautious, fumbling and vague, short of words and unconvincing, forever intimidated by those probing and mocking eyes. When he was finally

45 finished with all he had to say—in fact, all he could say—Jajati sat there helpless and resigned, gaping vacantly at Mr. Jena. But Mr. Jena did not attempt to link past with present. Instead he said, “Jajati Babu, it’s a great relief to know that your forefathers were respectable like mine. Otherwise, culture is such a thing that it can not be acquired overnight but only through heredity. And marriage is the union of two cultures. If both the families aren’t of equal social standing and don’t share similar values then the marriage is bound to fail. That’s why I told you in the beginning that I’ll be very frank and I expect the same from you too. I must tell you one more thing that after me, he and my youngest son are going to inherit the shop. So he’ll have enough to provide for his family and with him your daughter will surely remain happy. So you shouldn’t doubt about my son’s future prospects.” At this point Mr. Jena’s wife coughed. Mr. Jena looked at his watch and said, “So Jajati Babu, can we see the girl now? Otherwise, we will miss the last bus to our village.” Jajati mumbled an apology for any delay on his part. He hastily walked out of the sitting room. But by the time he reached the kitchen verandah, Bimla was not there. She was already climbing the stairs to bring Malati down.

When the guests arrived Malati also watched them, as did her mother, through the crack of her room’s window. She could see only the tops of their heads, yet she did not fail to single

46 out the young man in bright clothes. She tried hard to guess his height, facial features and other physical aspects, but it was difficult. When the dark clouds settled in the sky without rain, Malati had known the guests would definitely come and the delay tortured her. When she could bear it no more, she got up from the bed and walked to the window. She did not stand right beside the open window though, the position which afforded an unhindered view of the street for a considerable stretch. If the guests were to see a desperate and waiting figure brazenly standing by the window to spy on their arrival then it would send highly improper signal. So Malati sat watching behind the closed window and making the best use of the limited view it offered through its crack. As the time passed, the strain on her eyes and the stress on her neck tired her. But at least it was better than sitting on the bed and staring at the walls and slowly getting consumed by anticipation. The arrival of the guests calmed Malati a bit. But only for a moment. The next minute she was deluged with a whole new set of anxieties, more intense and unrelenting. Malati took deep breaths, searching for a trickle of fresh air that would suffuse her with comfort and assurance. The skin of her palms and feet itched as they always did when she was nervous. She left the window slightly open and moved back to the bed. She sat reclining against one of its legs, massaging her palms and feet and listening to the incoherent talks and occasional echoes of laughter, feeble and irritating, swirling up from downstairs. To assuage her discomfort, Malati did what she was told to do, what she grew up doing and what she believed in doing. She chanted Lord Shiva’s name and recited Goddess Gayatri’s prayer, but to no immediate relief. As Malati’s prayers became increasingly hollow, her mind wandered

47 back to her present trouble: did she really want the present moment to pass so quickly? What awaited her after this agony of waiting was no less terrifying, the moment when she would go downstairs... Such anxiety reminded her of the nights before her school exams. Malati never finished school. She did not pass the matriculation exam the only time she sat for it. Jajati sent his daughter to school because others in the village did so. It was usually a matter of time before a girl student would stop going to the school and busy herself in household chores. No explanation needed to be offered by the girl’s parents; no questions were asked by the school officials. In a village like Jharpada this was a natural phenomenon, just like fall of leaves from trees. So neither Jajati nor Bimla ever questioned Malati about her progress in school. But for Malati the fear of exams was for real. It was not because she wanted to do well in it or she had any ambition of higher studies, but her anxieties were result of a habit, which started at an early age and stayed with her in entire school time. The bug of fear would bite her just a few days before the exam when the headmaster would lecture before an assembled school that every one had better do well on the tests. The significance of “everyone,” which was meant for boys, would be lost on Malati. The mood in the classroom would become grave. Teachers would not fail to repeatedly impress upon the class that the examinations were the only yardstick of anyone’s true worth. Bright students of the class would respond to this challenge by bringing renewed urgency to their activities and attitude. Suffused in such a tense atmosphere Malati would roil in confused silence, not knowing who to go for help, where to start studying, what the teachers would say if she were to fail and what her worth would be then. The prints of the textbook would appear to her like monumental stoneworks of some prehistoric era which were to be only looked at

48 and not to be understood. The evening before exam Malati would go to Jyostna’s house to study with her and seek comfort in her presence. But Jyotsna was of a different species altogether. Her relaxed and indifferent attitude would irritate Malati. Jyotsna would sit before an opened book, not turning pages for hours, jovially talking about the prospects of failure as if that was her dream all along, and teasing Malati for her seriousness. At nights, Malati would plead with Bimla to sleep next to her, though her fear would not easily get dispelled by her mother’s presence. The night would loom long and dark before her, its infernal silence would compound her fear, unleashing itch on every pore of her body and suffocating her with the dread of the exam, until fatigue and coolness of the predawn hours would finally have mercy on her. She would fall asleep. Ironically, the moment the exam would be over, Malati would become indifferent and would no longer care about its outcome. In this way, Malati moved from one class to the next with passing grades until the matriculation exam. There was no reaction from Jajati or Bimla or any other relative when Malati failed. Her education halted as abruptly and uncelebrated as it began. As the years went by Malati became forgetful about the days of exam and they seemed to her like the memories of past life until the day when someone came to see her for marriage for the first time. Fear of exam came back again with renewed intensity and lethality. Except this time she cared about the outcome. Then suddenly Bimla switched on the light of Malati’s room. Malati was sitting upright against the bed and her pale, contorted face was that of a child who had seen an apparition in a dream. Bimla raised Malati to her feet and pressed her icy face with both hands.

49 “Malati, didn’t I tell you not to get nervous? Do you know how you look? You look like a child who’s about to cry. Do you want to go before them like this?” Bimla straightened the creases on Malati’s sari and tightened its folds around the legs. Then she said in a lowered tone, “I saw the boy. The family looks nice too. They’ll not ask you many questions. Just chant Goddess Gayatri’s prayer as you go down.” Bimla double-checked Malati’s make-up and ornaments before they went down the stairs. Outside the dusk was maturing into night. In its inky blue glow Malati tried to discern the edge of each step. The evening breeze was soft on her face and the scent of jasmine was rich in it. A hush fell in the sitting room. Jajati and Mr. Jena stopped in the middle of their conversation, the prospective bridegroom became erect in his chair as if suddenly becoming conscious of his own presence, and the mother and the daughter fidgeted in anticipated breath as Malati entered the room with the tray of tea and snacks in her hands. Her eyes were focused on the tray and she took short steps as she tried to balance the heavy tray on her thin, quivering, already numb hands. The folds in the front of her sari lightly bounced with each step and its dull rustle was the only thing that filled the silence of the room along with the jingle of her anklets. Malati’s head was covered with sari and through a narrow opening only a part of her face was visible. She put down the tray on the floor in the middle of the room. The mother and the daughter hastily moved towards the opposite end of the mat, making space for Malati between them. The two women who had been silent so far suddenly became active. Their animated faces, broad smiles and noisy bangles marked their entry to

50 the evening’s proceedings. They had been waiting eagerly for Malati’s arrival so that they could claim their turn, so that they could perform their maternal and sisterly duties. “Come, sit with us!” said the mother, taking Malati by her hand. She rolled the sari up from Malati’s face and lifted her chin up. Malati’s eyes were half-closed and they were looking at her nose. The mother exchanged a quick glance with her daughter before she asked, “What is your name?” “Malati.” Her voice was soft and as polite as it could be. “Ah, a beautiful name. A beautiful voice too.” “Do you know how to cook?” Malati nodded. “What about stitching and washing?” She nodded again. “Have you cooked these snacks?” “Yes.” Bimla was standing at the doorway. Only half of her was visible and she was standing so still that anybody would have mistaken her for an extension of the door. She was intently listening to Malati’s answers for which she had trained her. Always, the questions are standard and predictable. Often, they are asked as a matter of practice. Also, sometimes they are asked to ensure that the girl is not deaf or mute. So memorizing suitable answers to the questions is not difficult but uttering them is; in such a case it is difficult to pass a lie as truth. The mother continued her questioning. “Who is your favorite God?” “Lord Shiva.”

51 “Do you pray to him daily?” “Yes. I go to the temple everyday too.” “Indeed, a pious girl you are.” At this point the daughter interjected. Her voice was hoarse and little loud and when she smiled it revealed too much of her gum. “Do you watch cinema?” she asked jocosely. Malati remained silent. These were tricky questions and it was better to avoid them. “My brother likes to watch cinema,” the daughter said with a giggle. “He has seen many of them. He always says that he’ll marry someone who’s as beautiful as a heroine.” While the daughter continued her banter, the mother paid close attention to the ornaments Malati was wearing. She brought her face close to them, squinted hard like a jeweler even moved her finger over them to make out the design. When she was finished scrutinizing the bangles, she said, “Ah, just the type which looks perfect on a dark skin.” Malati stiffened and her body jerked slightly, which escaped no one’s notice. The mother then checked the necklace and she saw the coating of bluish dirt beneath its surface. Her finger then tapped the broken tip of the pendant and then she broke into a soft laughter saying, “Pardon me, but I thought the broken tip was some kind of design and I was foolish enough to check it too.” No one but the daughter found the joke funny. She giggled baring her gums. And when she was done laughing, the silence pervaded the room again. Jajati took this opportunity to change the topic and divert the attention of the ladies. He was feeling deeply incensed at the way the two of them took control of the proceedings.

52 “Please take the snacks. It’s getting cold. You should fill your stomach before you start your return journey,” he insisted, hoping to draw Mr. Jena into conversation again. “So kind of you,” responded Mr. Jena, helping himself with one of the plates. Jajati then offered two plates to the mother and the daughter. Finally, he held out the last plate for the young man who sat like a circus animal in his chair, unsure of his next move and waiting to be commanded by the ringmaster. With some hesitation he took the plate from Jajati’s hand and ate silently, keeping his face down. In contrast, Mr. Jena ate with gusto. The chewed food stuck to the front of his teeth and occasionally spilled out in chunks into his lap. The mother started praising the food as soon as she took the first bite. She even gave Malati a congratulatory pat on her back. The daughter agreed with her mother and added two remarks of her own. Meanwhile, Malati used this shift of focus from her to do what she wanted to do since she had entered the room. Though her eyes were glued to the floor all time she was constantly aware of the hazy figure in bright clothes at the corner of her vision. His red shirt and white trousers appeared luminous under the yellow glare of the bulb. The temptation was immense for Malati to look up and steal a glimpse of him, but she suppressed it until now. She figured when everybody’s attention would be on their plates it was the perfect time to lift her face up slightly, perfectly unnoticeable, and look at the prospective bridegroom. Her stare was brief. In fact it was so brief that it was not enough to see a man in full, let alone gauge the depth of his character. But Malati sat back and relaxed. What she saw of him was enough. His hair was neatly combed. His chin was little protruded but it fit well with his bony face. And in those clothes he did not appear flippant but fashionable. When he

53 chewed food, his jaw moved in a graceful way and his downcast eyes told her that he was gentle and, like her, shy. Malati faintly smiled but her lips betrayed no emotion. She was flooded with a desire to know if he had already stolen a look at her. If not, then when he would do it? Would he find her attractive? Or had he already? After the snacks, Jajati distributed the tea which was already cold. When the tea was finished, the mother put down the cup and saucer and gave two short coughs. Mr. Jena shifted in his seat and said, “Jajati Babu, we have seen the girl now and we have asked her everything we wanted to know. Now, I believe, you’ve seen our son, too. You may ask any other question that you have.” After clearing his throat, Jajati said, “It’ll be very kind of you if you let us know about your demands.” “Ah, Jajati Babu, I’m personally against the dowry system. All we demand is that a good-natured girl should be our daughter-in-law. She should give respect to her in-laws and take good care of her husband and children. What more can be asked from a girl? I myself have three daughters and I know the ordeal a father has to go through for his daughter’s marriage.” Jajati listened with a sympathetic nod but the eager look did not leave his face. “Last month a trader in my village offered his daughter’s hand for my son. He offered thirty thousand rupees and five carat of gold in dowry. But I straightaway rejected his offer because the man is not trustworthy. Also his family does not have good reputation. So you see I value relationship more than money. But then we live in a society and we have to follow the customs set by our forefathers. So we have to take dowry even if we don’t like to.”

54 “Apart from cash and jewelry, do you have any other demand?” “Jajati Babu, you don’t worry about them now. I’ll intimate such details with you soon through a letter.” “By when can you let us know about your consent?” Mr. Jena glanced at his wife and said, “Durga Puja is a couple of months away. Soon after the Puja, I’ll inform you if we’re willing.”

That night sleep came slow and sparse to the members of the Sahu family. They turned softly on their beds in case their wakefulness would ring loud in the old house which lay exposed and transparent that night just like its inhabitants, as if a door was unbolted and the secrets of the family escaped into the village. Their poverty, their desperation and their inadequacies no longer remained guarded inside the four walls. Mr. Jena and his family had seen everything and they did not trouble themselves with politeness or fail to point out that they had not missed anything. Jajati thought about the dowry. He knew now for sure that the demand would exceed thirty thousand rupees and five carat of gold. But by how much? He would have to wait a month before he could find out.

55 From her bed Malati watched the moon in the sky. She thought of the full moon that was seven days away and restlessly assessed her performance before the boy’s family today. Did she do satisfactorily to dispel any misgiving from her assessors’ minds? Did she impress them with her piety? Did she hold the tea tray properly as she walked in? She wished she had won everybody’s approval and above all, she hoped Mr. Jena’s son had stolen a glance of her and seen in her his future wife as she had seen in him a decent and satisfying match. But was it enough for a life long union to be only “decent” or “satisfying”? Was she not entitled for more? Or was she supposed to abandon the possibility of passion in her life because that entailed a sinful transgression? As a streak of cloud shrouded the moon, the light waned from her room. Malati thought of the seventeen-year-old boy who one night played the role of her husband when she was only fifteen. The beginnings of a passion he so carefully stirred in her would awaken from time to time, claiming her as his own entirely. It tempted her to entertain the possibility of a sinful union, though pursuing it would mean a total catastrophe for herself and her family… and yet she could not abandon the dream entirely.

56

Chapter

4

Traffic was gearing up on the road which meant a deafening ringing of bicycle bells, the impatient honking of the two-wheelers, the phut-phut beat of the diesel autos, the hysterical hollering of the vendors, and the ominous drone of the crowded buses—all cutting rudely into the stillness of the morning. A road-side tap must have been left running or a manhole must have been overflowing since a steady stream of water had run down the edge of the road and formed a pond. Whenever two sizable vehicles passed each other, the narrow road forced one vehicle to move off to the gravel where the edge of the tire would fling up muddy water from the stream, staining innocent pedestrians in the vicinity. Twice mud splashed very

57 close to Somu’s bench, but both times his treasured cream trousers were left unblemished. Even if the mud had reached him, Somu would not have noticed. For his attention was focused on the entrance gate beyond the road, on the young crowd that was steadily filing in as the bell of the college rang. Somu raised his glass for another sip, but the glass was already empty. “Do you need another tea?” the serving boy asked Somu “Nah,” said Somu, dismissing the boy with a single nod of his head. “Aye Somu Babu, only two cups for today?” asked the tea vendor, presently. “Why not one more cup? Drink it for me.” Somu lit a cigarette. His silence was sufficient to convey the message that he was not interested and would not like to be pestered. Surely, they had established an understanding. It had been eight years since they had become acquainted. And in his four years of college Somu had spent more time drinking tea, smoking and chattering with friends at the tea shop than inside any classroom. The college bell gave another shrill cry and with it the 9 A.M. classes began. Latecomers still streamed into the college campus and there were plenty of them. Male students who came in by bus stopped first for a cup of tea and positioned themselves to watch the girls arrive. Sons of affluent fathers, who came on motorbikes, displayed their speeding and maneuvering skills, leaving a column of smoke and dust for the onlookers behind them. And then there were the girls for whose every activity seemed to have been planned and staged for the benefit of the boys. Some girls arrived in the backseat of their fathers’ or brothers’ motorbikes. What they wore, how they walked, where they looked and

58 who they talked to was subjected to scrutiny from the instant they set foot outside the college gate. They brought with them glamour, even fashion, sensations which the boys had never witnessed for real before. The college bell rang one more time. Somu looked at the torn pieces of the two lottery tickets lying at his feet. Scraps of glossy paper and the fragmented words from them stared at him. LAK. UMPER. ET. Another twenty rupees gone to waste. When would the luck swing in his favor? He thoughtfully rubbed the scar on his right palm, a soft lump that ran from the bottom of his thumb to the wrist and the reminder of a wound he received as a eight-year-old. He remembered the size of the mango that was too big for his small hands. As he was trying to split the raw mango open with the vegetable-slicer, the mango slipped from his grip and his right palm rammed straight into the blade. He pressed upon the scar. That part still felt foreign and sensationless even after so many years. At the sound of yet another class-changing bell, he realized it was time to go home for lunch. Was it too much to ask? The walk home needed to be filled with interesting thoughts and absorbing images, otherwise Somu’s restless stomach would drain his spirit and hunger would become a constant reminder. Somu, hoping to be amused, took a slightly longer route: through the bus stand; by the Great Pond, where there was no sign of Bhoothnath except for two sturdy goats shepherded by a young lad; by the roundabout on Gandhi Marg that had a garlanded stone statue of Gandhi; through the playground where each year Ravana Podi during Durga Puja got hosted. At one end of the ground an intense cricket match was on between shirtless teenagers, while at the other end a file of NCC cadets rehearsed for the

59 August 15 parade. This morning the walk of three kilometers seemed like thirty. Somu negotiated through the back lanes of the government quarters and the noticeable domestic lives of people living in quarters that often spilled onto streets. He came out on Post Office Lane, and he was about to turn left when he heard commotion from the opposite direction. There was a small bazaar on the Post Office Lane, comprising a few grocery shops, a utensil store, a cycle repair shop and an array of roadside food stands. Somu could see only back of a large crowd standing around the shops. The road was completely blocked and the vehicles were stalled in the middle of the road and their owners were among the curious spectators. Somu first heard vicious abuse as he neared the crowd. There was an old lady stood on the utensil shop verandah with her mouth covered by the back of her hand. The horror in her eyes gave Somu a better hint of what could be happening in the middle. Somu used the foot board of a scooter parked on the side of the road to gain a small height advantage over the crowd... and he saw a bloody scene before him. A young man, almost of his age and color complexion, was getting carried away by three people. His shirt had soaked through dark while the blood from his wound was an unsettling pool of red on the street. His half-severed right arm dangled from his torso like a broken limb of a doll. Whether he was dead or unconscious, Somu couldn’t tell. “This should teach you a lesson. You’d remember now before your dick ever gets a prick by looking at anyone’s sister.” The voice was shaky and the words came out in a flaming gush. The man Somu had not noticed yet was standing near a coconut stall in a vest with a bloody machete in his hand. His stance, the blood streak on his vest and the intense

60 puffing of his neck and shoulders gave the stark impression of his ability with that weapon. His lips were trembling and from his frenzied eyes one could guess that he was not done yet. “What happened?” Somu asked the man standing beside him. “I didn’t see it myself,” the man said still keeping his eyes fixed at the scene. “But what I heard was that poor guy was sipping tea with his friends and he came out of nowhere. And taking the machete he sliced him. Just like a coconut.” “But why?” asked Somu. Another middle-aged bystander, most likely a shop-owner, turned towards Somu and said with a shake of head, “Stupidity. That’s what it is. The movies these days are corrupting the young men I tell you. The young lad over there,” said the shop-owner pointing towards the wounded man in a critical tone, “he thought he could get away doing anything. He betted with his friends that he would kiss this girl to show his love for her. And you see now what had become of him.” “Did he kiss the girl?” asked Somu. “Yes. Oh, yes. Right in the middle of the market and before everyone’s eyes. The girl went home crying and then her brother came to avenge her.” “What are you talking about?” interjected another bystander. “I know Sarat and his entire family. He doesn’t have a sister.” “No, it’s his cousin-sister.” “Oh! I know her. Isn’t she terribly pretty?” “Hush now, hush,” said the shop-owner.

61 “Remember,” the man with machete now shouted, “if I ever see that fucker around my sister I’ll kill him! And his entire family!” “Go and fuck yourself!” yelled back one of the young man’s friends as they carried him to an auto-rickshaw. Caught by a stroke of frenzy, the brother threateningly walked towards them with his machete raised, convulsing and stuttering. “Go and fuck your own sisters, you dogs!” he shrieked. “Leave this place at once before my temper rises further!” The auto-rickshaw started, sputtering and grinding to acceleration, and hurriedly left the scene with the wounded man in it and his friends. The brother then ran behind the autorickshaw for a short distance, panting and puffing, with his machete still raised, in that exaggerated gesture of absolute triumph that an animal displays while driving a rival out of its territory. The crowd remained in its tight circle, not leaving yet. Their faces sketched with horror and anticipation. Their sight focused at the man in the middle, whose fists were at his waist now and the bloodstained machete projecting out of his hand like a trophy. Somu stepped down from the scooter, quiet and unobtrusive. His eyesight did not seem proper for a moment. Things stood blurred and blackened at the corner of his vision. In air, darkness stood like a cloud above someone’s head. Somu realized the noon sun is too bright on the street that’s playing on his eyes. Or the momentary blindness was due to intent staring. Or perhaps the empty stomach was playing its part. But he realized he did not feel hungry anymore. Everything felt numb and quiet inside. And the tongue felt thick and wet, carrying the bilious aftertaste of anger and fear.

62 Somu wanted to leave the scene unnoticed. The idea of being a spectator here daunted him; every man and woman standing in the crowd held their own judgment. They either sympathized with the wounded man or disapproved of him. One had to choose a side. That’s what being part of a crowd entailed. The excused ones were those who were not here or who could feign absence. Then they didn’t have to feel the pressing need of having an opinion since they had not seen the blood on the street, the half-dead face or the hand that brought down the machete. Somu made his way past the crowd standing in the outer circle on their toes to get a better view. A teenage boy rushing towards the crowd asked him what was going on. Somu ignored him. He kept his face straight and avoided eye contact. The edge of the bazaar was near and once beyond that he would be well on his way home, leaving the mess behind him for others to deal with. Somu had only quickened his pace when someone grabbed his shirt collar from behind. He turned around, sudden and jittery, twisting his shirt collar further and grabbing at the hand that grabbed his shirt. “Prakash?” Somu said. “I saw you escaping,” said Prakash, grinning profusely, under the bright noon light. He embraced Somu, who stood there straight and unresponsive. “I was not expecting you. Really.” Somu’s tone passed as pleasant surprise. “How are you, Somu? It’s been such a long time since we’ve met.” Prakash held Somu by his shoulders and checked him from his feet to head. “When did you come back from Calcutta?” “Three days back. And it’s no surprise to see that Palleri has not changed a bit,” said Prakash, laughing and nodding at the crowd.

63 “For how many days will you be staying?” “Not many,” said Prakash. “Listen, we’ve got so many things to talk about. Where are you heading for?” “I was going home for lunch.” Immediately after the words were out of his mouth Somu realized he should have been more tactful. “That’s brilliant. Let’s go to Paradise Hotel for lunch then. Just like the old times.” “But I have this important matter I must see to,” said Somu. “Now, don’t give me excuses, Somu. We’re meeting after such a long time. Anyway, lunch won’t keep you away from your work for long. Let’s go.” Prakash locked his arm under Somu’s and led the way in the direction of Paradise Hotel.

The windows were tall and wide and the fans overhead whirled at full speed at the Paradise Hotel. The air was never static here, always drifting from side or top. Heat, humidity and smoke of the cooking fire were always traceable in the air, but seldom felt stifling. That was the biggest luxury for which the restaurant was widely visited. And it felt justifiable that the restaurant charged more in return for this comfort. Also, exclusive to the restaurant was the cuisine from the South of India, unheard of in Palleri before the restaurant started fourteen years back. Somu read through the one-page color laminated menu for the second time. The most that he could afford with the five rupee note in his pocket was a cup of tea or a plate of idli.

64 He looked at the South Indian Meal in the menu, which many ordered around him. Rs. 16.00, it read, for which he could buy four meals at Loka’s place. “You’re not that hungry, are you?” Somu asked Prakash, who was sitting across him on the table. “I was thinking of ordering some snacks.” “What are you talking, Somu? I am hungry like a fire. Besides, it’s been long since I have eaten here.” Somu nodded and returned to poring over the menu. For Somu too, it had been long since he had eaten at the restaurant. The last time he came here (three years back), Tapas was with him and they had ordered the South Indian Meal. The prices were cheaper then. And the Meal came with unlimited rice. Poppadums were served hot and fried and always in pairs. The yogurt came in steel bowls, thick and sweet, and as cold as ice cream. Then there was rasam, which was thin like water, and in it floated cloves of garlic and curry leaves. The two brothers ate a bellyful. While Tapas paid for the bill, Somu felt happy for his brother who in a week’s time was about to get married. “Okay, let’s order the food,” said Prakash, whipping the menu card down on the table. The whiff of wind that ballooned out set the empty saltcellar rolling on the table. As he reached out to catch the container from falling, Prakash noticed the two circular impressions of cup bottoms, dry and sugary, on the dark brown tabletop. “Chhe chhe, this table is not clean. That’s why I am thinking why my elbows are feeling sticky. “Oye,” Prakash motioned towards the cleaning boy, “This table needs cleaning.” Then turning towards Somu, Prakash said, “Look at this place. Poor service, dirty tables. The same sodden walls and chairs. How these people are still in business, I don’t understand.”

65 “Because the food is good,” said Somu. “But food is not the only thing that can keep you in business, Somu. You need good service too to retain customers. In the city, you not only get good food but you also get proper attention as a customer. Because, if you don’t like one restaurant you can always go to another. That’s the benefit of having many restaurants in the city.” “But what is the need of too many when one can do the job?” said Somu in irritation. “You’re not getting me, Somu. All I am saying is what you get in the city you can never get in Palleri. Palleri still has a long way to go.” Somu studied Prakash closely, the hard, perked-up collar of his neat shirt, the brass buckle of his belt, beaming and reflecting on the table top, the pleat fronts of the trousers, flamboyantly straight, the patronizing tone, the fanciful talk, the pretension of ordering food only after looking at the menu, the demand for cleanliness, the demand for more than that was needed, the city ways, the helpless obsession of city folks. Somu had seen these traits and faced them when he had gone to work in Bhubaneswar in January last year at the insistence of his parents, brother, sisters, friends and neighbors. But he could not last there. Not even for three months. The city emitted a continuous drone, daunting and at once obnoxious. People were so many that he felt ruthlessly outnumbered. He could not travel wherever he wanted to because the city was monotonously endless and dangerously crowded. He could not stand and admire the tall buildings, the lush parks, the fountains that sprouted up in the middle of the street, the racing automobiles, because the city people considered such man-made designs trivial and to admire them revealed one to be hopelessly provincial. He had to mould his personality, acquire their

66 taste, and respond to the surprises of the city nonchalantly, so as not to get ridiculed. Glamour and opulence smouldered, formed a tantalizing glitter in the city, but he could not know the glamour, only the sense of being denied it. But such was not the case with Paradise Hotel. If in fourteen years the wooden tables and chairs were not changed, the walls were repainted with the same color, the menu had not been tinkered with, and the South Indian God hanging over the cashier’s head still emitted the alternate flashes of green and red lights from the garland of electric bulbs around his neck, then Somu found this constancy comforting. At least, the restaurant could never boast of any exclusiveness and its familiar image diminished the gap between his past and present situation. From the folds of his memory, he could still retrieve the taste of hot samosas, potato chops, and tamarind sauce his father used to bring home when he received an increment in salary or on occasions when guests were in the house. He could still feel in his fingers the crunchiness of masala dosas he used to have with his friends during those times when money was available to him whenever he asked at home. “Your order, please?” asked the waiter as he approached the table. Beads of perspiration hanging on to his chin like tiny boils. “A Deluxe Masala Dosa for me,” said Prakash. “And for you?” the waiter asked looking at Somu. His voice formal and politely expectant and rushing. “I can’t make up mind. Actually, I am not––” “Make it two then,” Prakash said, interrupting.

67 Somu checked the item and it was the priciest one in the menu: Rs. 24.00/-. He looked in consternation at Prakash. “Let’s order the best food, Somu. We’re not in college anymore that we have to ask money from our parents or give explanation. We should do what we feel like with our money.” Somu cursed himself. He should have acted better. He should have anticipated this when he failed to show tact and resolve to decline Prakash’s offer for going lunch. The way Prakash behaved seemed typical to Somu of his friends lately. This unmistakable assumption that the whole world drank from the same cup, that each one treaded the same ground as they did. Why did they continually ask him how much salary he earned? Why did they have to express surprise and offer advice when they learned that he had no job? Why must they ask him when he was getting married? Why should they expect the same thing from him as they expected of themselves? Such queries had one goal, to prove to him that he had failed. “I was sorry to hear about your father,” said Prakash, resting his hand on Somu’s knuckles. Somu gazed curiously at his eyes. “That’s fine. Time has passed now. I am not sad anymore.” “When I was here last year I couldn’t meet with you because you had gone to Bhubaneswar. And at the beginning of this year when I came back again I found out that your father has passed away. I tried to see you but you mother said you’re not at home most of the times.”

68 Somu nodded as he looked past at a group of college students who ate ravenously from their plates, licking intently the syrup dripping from their fingers. The food arrived at Somu’s table, hot steam spiraling up from the plate. Somu poked a hole through the dosa’s crunchy crust and the brimming stuffing of grated coconuts, raw onions, peanuts and carrots spilled onto the plate. A sumptuous array of colors that appeared even more ripe with the congealing aroma of ghee. Somu’s insides turned cavernous as if they had never been treated with food. He mouthed the dosa in stern silence, paying reverence and attention to the initial bites of the food. Prakash ate noisily, smacking away and gesturing with his fingers of how much he enjoyed the dosas. “Oh, I feel so hungry that I can even eat one more. In Calcutta, there is a South Indian restaurant where they serve thirty-four different kinds of dosas. Can you believe it? Thirty-four!” Prakash ordered more sambar. “You should come with me to Calcutta! There’re so many things to see in that city.” “I don’t like cities.” “Calcutta is not a city like Bhubaneswar. It’s bigger and more colorful. For young, unmarried men like you and me that city is the place to be,” said Prakash with a wink. In case Somu had not got the meaning, Prakash added in a lower voice, “Plenty of pretty women. They don’t cost much either.” Somu saw on Prakash’s face the surreptitious, salacious chuckle that dimpled the corner of his lips, known only to those who knew him well. At age fourteen, Prakash first introduced Somu to pornography. Sitting at the last bench of the class Somu saw what naked

69 women in foreign countries looked like. Milky skinned, golden haired and brazenly exposed. He saw in black and white pages intercourse in different positions. Somu admired Prakash for sharing his secret knowledge with him. And now sitting across the table, Somu saw in Prakash’s face the old friend he had forgotten about and who once commanded a formidable presence in his school and college life—despite the disapproval of his parents. Suddenly, Somu felt the urge to reminisce. “You still talk the same way you used to,” said Somu, smiling. Prakash gave an exaggerated laugh tossing his head back that revealed the food stuck to his palate. “Somu, all those things we were curious about and dreamed of doing can be taken care of now. Do you remember Sanoj?” Sanoj, Somu reflected, had fled from the boarding house when he was in college and never returned. “He lived for a while with me in Calcutta,” Prakash revealed. “I gave him a job and helped him to get settled in the city. He has asked me not to mention about his whereabouts back home. That sister-fucker is having so much fun in the city that he is not ready to return.” “You gave him a job?” asked Somu, making sure he didn’t mishear Prakash. “Not only him. I have helped many others too. I am in a job that pays well and gives me a lot of authority.” Somu looked up from his plate inquiringly. “You must be thinking I am boasting,” said Prakash in a changed tone. “But I still consider you as my good friend, Somu. I have not forgotten about our old friendship. And

70 my purpose of telling you all this is I want you to visit me in Calcutta. We can have so much fun.” The waiter arrived with the bill. Prakash got hold of the bill and reached for his wallet. Somu out of courtesy said, “Let me pay too.” “Nah, nah. Don’t insult your friend with money now,” replied Prakash. There was momentary theatrics involved in which Somu took the wallet out of his pocket, even though he knew well that was as far as he could go. He insisted to pay but never too convincingly. Prakash seized Somu’s wallet-carrying hand and did not release it until he handed a fiftyrupee note to the waiter. “The rest is your tip,” said Praksh, emphasizing the last word in English. Somu not only felt relieved but he was also awed by Prakash’s gesture. He had not before dined with anyone who gave a “tip” to a waiter. Perhaps, there was truth to Prakash’s tale of success. Afternoon light slanted fiercely through the windows, setting the window-side tables aglow. The lunch-hour rush at the Paradise Hotel was thinning. Prakash scooted his chair back and extended his legs making himself more comfortable; Somu loosened the top two buttons of his shirt in response. Above, the fan whirled efficiently keeping the place cool and breezy. This was the way Somu, Prakash and other friends used to spend their afternoons. Taking refuge in the shelter of restaurants and cinema halls, nervously away from the vigilance of parents and teachers. Missing classes was an incurable addiction. Going out to waste money, to listen to the chatter of friends, no matter how silly, was more engaging than

71 listening to the portentous voices of the teachers whose useless lectures echoed in muggy classrooms. "So what exactly do you do in Calcutta?" asked Somu. “I help people fulfil their dreams,” said Prakash. “What do you mean?” “It’s like I have a money tree. Whatever money you give me, I return you three times of that’” said Prakash not in a mocking tone but in a manner of ease and conviction. “You’re talking nonsense,” said Somu. “Not at all, not at all. But I am not surprised by your response because everybody reacts the same way when they hear it the first time. There is a whole new way of making money that is unknown to many. It was unknown to me too until I discovered it one day in the city. Have you heard of the stock market, Somu? Have you heard of shares, options and bonds? Anyone ever told you about the Sensex?” Somu listened intently. “You see, Somu, these are the key words and understanding them helps you to make money and get rich. But you cannot understand these terms easily because they have been deliberately made too sophisticated and difficult.” “I think I can understand them,” said Somu. “Don’t be hasty. Many have lost money instead of gaining because they thought they were quite smart enough to get rich this way. But the stock market is an enigmatic world. It only favors the rich.” Somu shifted in his seat and said, “Isn’t it gambling?”

72 “Ah, gambling is a term used to dissuade people out of the stock market. In the world of rich people such tawdry words don’t exist. Let me explain to you this way. A farmer grows pineapple. You offer him some financial help and with the money he buys the best fertilizer, pesticide and seeds and is able to grow bigger and sweeter pineapples. Naturally, these pineapples will sell better and the farmer will earn more profit. Then he returns you your money back and out of gratitude he also offers you three pineapples. Now, will you call your gain of three pineapples as gamble? You see Somu, the rich always need money to start a new factory, to buy a plane, or to dig a gold mine so that they can make more money and get richer. Those who give them money for their ventures earn a reward from the profit. We know who is going to make the most profit.” “Who is ‘we’?” “Me and my five other friends who have started our company in Calcutta. Millenium Finances. Yes, that’s the name of our company. We work in collaboration with companies in London, New York and Tokyo. Together we analyze the Sensex of different stock markets and estimate who is going to make the most money and invest our money with him. Thus when a huge profit is made, we get our share of reward and the initial investment returns to us three times –––” “Did you say you have your own company?” asked Somu, rising out of his stupor. “Indeed I do. I have made my own share of profit and now I want to help a friend like you. I want to help the people of Palleri to make some money and fulfill their ambition. It’s high time that the people of this town start living a decent life and stop behaving like barbarians on the street. That’s why I am here. I want to promote the offer of my company in

73 Palleri where one can bring any amount of money to us and we will return them three times of that in six months. And look at the luck. I ran into you today. What a coincidence! I need help of someone as capable as you to make this offer work.” “But how can I help you? Do you want me to invest money?” “Even beyond that. I want you to be the representative officer of my company for Palleri. You will receive money from people on my behalf, as I need to be in Calcutta so that I can plan and coordinate on how to triple the money we’ll receive. For your help, I’ll give you one lakh rupees, whenever the total amount of money we collect in Palleri exceeds ten lakh rupees.” Somu could not make sense of the numbers thrown at him. The lakh amounts to such a huge number that the only reaction his mind was capable of was a sudden amazement. But as the initial shock settled he realized the condition Prakash was imposing upon him. If the number one-lakh rose before his eyes like a sea then the amount ten-lakh was like an ocean. Somu swallowed and said, “Have you lost your sense? How can anyone ever raise ten-lakh rupees in a small town like this? People don’t have such money here. Your company’s offer will work in Calcutta but not here.” “Yes, it will. I know how to run advertisements to convince people that our offer is a lifetime opportunity. But, you’ll have to do as I say.” “I am not going to be anyone’s subordinate,” said Somu, crossing his arms across his chest. “Ah Somu, you’re my friend. I’ll never treat you as inferior. From now on you assume that you co-own my company.”

74 The words ran loud and true in Somu’s years. Around him the waiters were arranging the tables and chairs to receive the home bound crowd for the late afternoon. As the tables were adjusted and the chairs were scooted under them, Somu listened to the raw screech of the wood against the floor. The sound tickled his belly with laughter. “Co-own,” “co-own,” was all he could hear. The two friends parted after agreeing that they would meet in the evening for celebration. Somu suggested Pandia’s shop and Prkash instantly agreed. The evening would bring nostalgia and celebration, and a gulp of optimism soaked with liquor would satiate the parched throats.

Pandia’s shop was at the edge of the town where no street light stood and the people who walked on that pot-holed road knew very well where they were going to. Behind Pandia’s shop loomed large trees in ghostly shadows, and on the asbestos roof of the shop dry and rotting leaves lay in chaotic abundance. The shop had a low door with a wooden panel above which twinkling bulbs of green, amber and blue were affixed. Before the shop was a long stretch of an abandoned field where children and grown men went in the morning to defecate. When the wind blew from the direction of the field, customers in Pandia’s shop held back their breaths and took long swigs from their bottles. “Ah Somu, what kind of place is this?” said Prakash with a grimace, now smelling the air of the fetid field. “Do you call this a bar?”

75 “I knew beforehand that this place is beneath your standard,” said Somu, taking Prakash by his arm. “But you must remember that this is Palleri and not your big city. There are no bars here. You can either buy liquor from a shop and drink at a secluded place or sit in a place like this and drink with others.” “But, look at these people! They look like bunch of rickshaw-pullers.” “A man must drink somewhere where he can get as much liquor as he wants and such luxuries you can enjoy only at the liquor-joints. So, can you think of any other liquor-joints in Palleri?” Praksh hesitantly sat down on the bench. Pandia approached them promptly with two bottles of chilled liquor. “Somu, you’ve brought a friend with you. Good, good,” said Pandia, holding out the bottles of liquor. “Is that country liquor?” asked Prakash suspiciously. “Yes,” replied Pandia. “Chhe Chhe. Keep that vile thing away from us.” “Eh? Vile thing? Why, Somu never made such fuss while drinking this thing before.” “Really?” said Prakash, raising his voice. “I don’t drink that cheap liquor. People die from drinking it all the time. Don’t you have foreign liquor?” “Of course, I do. I can produce before you any kind you want in no time,” said Pandia haughtily. “What brands of whisky do you have?” “Why, I have this, this, what they call it…preem…preemar …”

76 “You can’t even pronounce it. How are you going to remember the order?” said Prakash with a laugh. Pandia gave Somu a sharp look. Somu sat looking at the ground, etching his unease in the dust with his chappal. “Bring us that whisky then,” said Prakash. “And for the rest of the night bring us only foreign liquor. Do not worry about the money because we are celebrating here. But, do you have ice cubes?” Pandia snorted and left without answering. He returned soon with a bottle of whisky, two glasses with ice and two bottles of soda. The two friends mixed whisky with soda and clinked their glasses in cheers. The smooth, burning sensation of whisky trickled down Somu’s throat, revitalizing his spirits. To the side of the shop under the dim shadow of the tree, Somu saw the infamous Ravi along with his coterie of friends. Ravi sat on a raised root of the tree, enjoying slight advantage of height while his admirers sat on the ground, lounging and squatting. They laughed boisterously, talked loudly and as the liquor further muddled their senses they fought or made merry. Like a fixture, Ravi sat at the same place of the shop from the fall of dusk to the rise of sun. And after that where he went nobody knew. When he was younger, he left for the city to become a playback singer in the movies and returned six years later in a permanent daze. He survived his failure, the town’s condemnation, his wife’s adultery, divorce, beatings of his brothers-in-law and a suicide attempt to finally settle for a bench at Pandia’s shop where he was often asked to sing and frequently offered free drinks by his

77 admirers. Pandia was also kind to Ravi and let his debt run long. For Pandia was Pandia. He cared that a fellow get drunk first before he needed to pay. Among Ravi’s group a raging argument simmered about the afternoon’s incident at the Post Office Lane. Did that boy deserve such a harsh punishment? Or did Sarat go to such length because there was a past score to be settled? So many opinions and the liquor only made those loud voices more vulgar and bolder. Did the boy die or did he end up only becoming a cripple? A key question. What about the girl? Should she not be blamed for playing the role of the temptress? From the maze of memory, stories of similar occurrences were pulled out and recounted to emphasize the inevitable outcome of a transgression. Sitting at his usual place Ravi laughed from time to time slapping his thigh and shaking his head. He found humor in the entire episode. Somu’s tongue was used to the harsh odor of the country liquor but now it relished the taste of something new and refined. In fact, he took such a strong liking to the whisky that he wanted to empty his glass in one go, but he restrained himself. Imitating Prakash, Somu took each sip slow, stirring the ice. The night had settled upon the road, the field and the distant tree in its dull blankness and only the flashing bulbs of the shop seemed to have kept the world aglow. Somu and his friend reminisced in drunken ardour. “Somu, I always knew you were special,” said Prakash, patting Somu’s hand. “I always believed in you. If someone like me can own a company then you’re capable of owning twenty. So, don’t let this opportunity go.” “Yes, Yes. Right you are,” said Somu, pouring now from the second bottle of whisky.

78 “When you stopped doing well in studies and started hanging around with me, everyone said that you turned out to be a huge disappointment. I knew, like me, you wanted to get rich by an opportunity and not by studying.” “Right you are! Right you are, Prakash, my friend. I never understood myself either. Everyone says the same thing…I never knew when I stopped making sense to pe…people and when I became a disappointment rather than hope. People are strange, I say. Strange. They foretold that I will become rich but they did not tell me how. Strange.” The word lingered in his head like the smell whisky. To emphasize the importance of the word he mumbled to himself, “strange.” Someone asked Ravi to sing a song and he cleared his throat and started testing the modulation of his voice. Prakash declined more drink and paid money to Pandia to leave. In an elaborate embrace he bade goodbye to Somu and assured him that it was only the beginning celebration. Somu watched Prakash leave, his steps not faltering, not betraying his inebriation. Somu wondered if he was the only one who had been drinking all this time while Prakash only went through the motions. The night still felt unfinished. Where was the beat of celebration he so badly wanted to hear? A train traversed along the horizon. Like a caterpillar it crawled. The echo of its crawl reached him like a rhythm, like a drum beat. The flashing bulbs of the shop still winked at him, reflecting their color in his drink. Green. Amber. Blue. Ravi had started singing. His voice was unsteady and the words did not rhyme, yet he sang into the night as if his words would echo back from the depths of the darkness.

79 Paperboats and streams, childhood and dreams, I don’t remember when it started, I found myself in a river, I found myself in a boat, And you told me to row and row...

Somu walked away from Pandia’s not by reason or recognition, but out of instinct. The darkness was his guide: he sought it, sniffed it and embraced it. He saw solitary human faces flicker and fade and breeze past him. The abhorrent and reproachful expressions on their faces were directed at him. Well, they be damned. Stumbling and hobbling he reached the Old Bridge Road. The bridge to Jharpada had long collapsed yet the road that led up to it remained in its abandoned and dysfunctional form like a bastard offspring. Upon that narrow, dirt and godforsaken road he trudged, listening to the mysterious sound of the woods on both sides and stopping from time to time to take a long swig from the bottle. He felt the drops of rain upon him. Lightning blitzed through the woods like a flicker of daylight. Strange. Everything was strange. After a long walk, he came to what used to be the bridge, now just a platform that went out a few feet beyond the bank. Somu sat down on the broken edge of the bridge and looked to the water below. Dark and serene it flowed. Rain trickled down his face now and against the lightning he watched the silvery surface of the water. Beyond the river, in mysterious shadow lay the village of Jharpada, sleepy and even more removed from the currents of life than Palleri. Against the rainy night he watched the village longingly. How strange was the world? A brother was deemed as the unfailing protector of his sister’s chastity. An inept student came back with a story of success. A singer

80 sang when he could no longer measure his own voice. And, without a man-made bridge, two lives trudged on in disparate directions.

81

Chapter

5

The morning sun sparkled silver and bright on the wet paddy fields. The wind was steady and it blew from one single direction. With the wind swayed soft, spry stems of the paddy, leaning heavily on the adjacent stems and turning the entire landscape into a velvety, green bed. Water channels dug throughout the paddy fields sparkled like diamond necklaces. Sanatan watched these illusory effects in brooding silence. He sat upon a round cement pandal that was built under a banyan tree. The morning breeze was too chill to his liking. It penetrated the fragile skin of a seventy-eight year old body. He wrapped the shawl tight around his shoulders and into its conical enfold he withdrew his bare legs.

82 At this point Sanatan heard one of his three companions say, “Today is the day. I tell you today is their last chance. They have to decide today if that bridge going to get built or not.” That voice belonged to Gopal. He was the youngest among the group and it was easy for Sanatan to dismiss his opinion on account of his lesser experience of life. Dinabandhu, who sat on far left side of the pandal and who was of same age as Sanatan, asked, “Sanatan, will you like to chew some tobacco? You've been sitting quiet for a long time.” Sanatan shook his head. “What do you think will happen at the meeting today?” asked Dinabandhu. Two teens approached the pandal on a bicycle, heading up towards the market. Out of the two, the taller boy pedaled the cycle with considerable effort. A sharp squeal emitted from the sprocket of the cycle. And the second boy whistled gaily, sitting on the carrier above the back wheel with his legs raised. “Ho Dhania, where are you going?” asked Gopal with spittle drooling from his lips. “Mausa,” said the boy who paddled, suppressing a gasp, “We are off to the meeting. The bus will come to pick us up from the market soon.” “Good, good. Remember, today is the day…” cried out Gopal after the boys. The third companion of Sanatan, who sat at his immediate left gave a short laugh. He was reading the newspaper. He was the most educated in the group and one out of six people in the village who cared to read the newspaper every day, who trusted in written words. “Deeja, is there any good news on the paper?” asked Sanatan.

83 “Yes, yes. There’re plenty,” answered Deeja. “Let me start from the first line of the first page.” He cleared his throat and when he started reading his voice became grave like that of an announcer. “Today we make history by celebrating the fiftieth year of our independence. Half a century ago, on this very day, on the resplendent dawn of August Fifteen, Nineteen-forty-seven, our nation entered a new era. We obtained freedom and self rule from the oppression of the British Raj. The dawn that we experienced that day has never faded. Literacy rate of India is touching sixty percent mark. More schools have come up–––” Gopal interrupted in a cautious tone, “I thought you had some good news to tell us.” Deeja gave a sharp look to his friend and said, “You have cow-dung in your head. This is good news.” Then emitting a short laugh, he continued, “All over the paper it is mentioned that there’ll be celebration in the cities and the Capital. There will be song and dance and fireworks too. Meetings will be held to honor the freedom fighters and announce new programs and plans.” “What about our meeting? Is that mentioned in the paper?” asked Gopa. Deeja shook his head in frustration and continued reading the paper aloud. But during this interruption he forgot where he had left reading and started on another article: “The coming century poses new challenges for our nation. If these necessities–––” “Ha, all this big talk and they can’t even build a bridge!” said Gopal. Everyone bust into a loud laugh except for Sanatan. “You don’t understand politics, Gopal,” said Deeja. “Where’s this meeting called? At the capital. And when? On the Independence Day. This is the best chance for Senapati to get

84 most political mileage. I know he won’t stay happy just as an M.L.A. He will want to be a minister soon.” “If he can’t guarantee us today that that bridge is getting built then he won’t be elected next time. Mind my words. He is not going to get a single vote from Jharpada.” “He doesn’t care about your vote,” said Sanatan, suddenly stirring from his contemplative mood. “He has plenty like you in his pocket.” “Oh is that so?” said Gopal, turning red. “Let’s see then. Let’s see, I tell you. He can’t play those tricks with us. No, not with us.” Deeja waited a minute for Gopal to calm himself, then said, “Aye, you wanted to hear good news? Here is one. Listen to the headline: Pandemonium in The Temple Because of A Mad Bull.” “Ho ho, that sounds interesting. Read it,” said Gopal. As Deeja was about to read the article, Sanatan spied an acquaintance riding by slowly on a bicycle, a young man from the road where the Sahu’s lived. “Aye, Makara,” Sanatan called out. “Is Jajati also going to the meeting?” “Yes, yes,” confirmed Makara. “Is it true that someone came to see Jajati’s daughter last week?” asked Sanatan in a lower tone. Makara looked up and down the road and then moving closer to Sanatan he replied in a soft voice, “It’s true, Mausa. The boy and his family came to see the girl last Friday.” Sanatan’s eyes dilated and his three friends suddenly moved closer to him. “Aye, did anything happen? Did the boy’s family agree for the marriage?”

85 “Nah, Mausa. It didn’t work out,” said Makara checking the road in both directions. “I heard that the boy rejected the girl right away. He even walked out of the house saying that he wouldn’t marry such an ugly girl even if he were blind.” Sanatan clicked his tongue sympathetically. “Who told you this?” Asked Deeja. “Why, it is Madhia Mausa who is going around the village telling this story.” “Now, this must be true,” said Gopal. “After all, Madhia is Jajati’s best friend. If he doesn’t know the truth then who else does?” Makara started twiddling his shirt collar and allowed the news to settle down upon the men. Then clearing his throat he said, “But I also heard something new this morning and it didn’t add up to what I heard before.” “What is it?” “I heard that the boy who came to see her actually walked with a limp. He agreed to marry but only if a large dowry is paid. Now, Jajati Mausa is trying to arrange for the money.” “Now, who told you this?” asked Deeja, this time more emphatically. “Why, my mother,” said Makara. “And who did she hear it from?” “She heard it from Jyotsna’s mother.” A wave of mystification broke on the puckered faces of the old men. How could the two versions sound so convincing, yet at the same time be so contradictory? Definitely

86 Jyotsna’s mother would have seen the boy. And how could Madhia have been misinformed when he was so intimate with Jajati? “Lies, I tell you, white lies,” said Deeja picking up the paper again. “Poor girl she is,” said Sanatan with a shake of head. “She seems to be born with a curse.” “Nah, it’s not that girl’s fault,” said Deeja. “It is all Jajati’s fault. I have seen uglier girls than her get married and live happily. It is because of Jajati that girl is still unmarried. He walks around as if he is still the landlord’s son. Wealth has gone, but not his arrogance. He looks down upon other villagers. He won’t give his daughter’s hand to any farmer or laborer. He always seeks marriage proposals in the classes of merchants and land owners.” “Ah, Jajati is unfortunate too,” said Sanatan defensively. “What a family they were once and what they have become. Jajati’s father owned everything in this village. As far as you could see the paddy fields used to be his. And that house, where Jajati lives now, with what care the old man had built it! Remember, that was the only concrete house in the entire village. Ah, how grand the old man used to live! Like a true landlord. My father used to work in his field and after my father the old man was kind enough to take me in his place “And what lavishness, the family used to have!” continued Sanatan. “Young people like you were not even born then. But then came the bad times. The old man kept losing money because of his vices. But that did not deter his spirit. He was after all a man of big heart. Like a true landlord… When Jajati’s marriage came the old man said that he would rather lose his property than his dignity. And, true to his words, the wedding was so grand

87 that the entire village stood in awe of it. Ah, what pomp! What fireworks! What feast!” said Sanatan, licking his lower lip. “Deeja, do you remember that feast?” asked Sanatan turning to his left. “Yes, yes. How can I forget it?” “Oh, we ate so much,” said Sanatan. His eyes beamed with childish excitement and a drop of saliva trickled down from his missing front teeth. “There were three types of fish curry. Chicken and shrimp were there too. And the hot rice that was served was wet with ghee. You don’t even need daal to eat it. There were so many sweets. I can’t even name them. The kshir was the best of all. It was so thick! Deeja and I had taken our pots with us. We brought kshir in them and ate it the next day. It was so tasty!” The mention of food made everyone hungry. Makara patted his belly and said, “Mausa, I must get going now. The bus will arrive anytime.” Saying so Makara left towards the market, pressing and stretching the ends of his shirt collar. “Listen well to what Senapati says. We will wait here till dusk,” Gopal called from behind. “And how they treated her!” said Sanatan, continuing with his train of thought. “Only Jajati took care of the old lady and let her stay with him. When she died the other sons did not even come back to attend the funeral. Those scoundrels even alleged that Jajati had killed their mother. Aye, as if they cared. Poor Jajati! Even after all that he’s still suffering.” “I don’t believe you,” Deeja said. “Jajati is no saint. As the eldest brother he never behaved responsibly.”

88 “But Jajati is good to his sister, isn’t he?” argued Sanatan. “Both are still in good relations. From time to time Jajati visits his sister in Palleri. Now, how can you say Jajati is a bad brother?” “True, Jajati is good to his sister. But that is only because his sister never claimed a share to the property. Otherwise, the things could have been lot different.” “Doesn’t that sister have a son who got bitten by a cobra in the head and survived?” asked Gopal. Deeja asked with a laugh. “How could anyone survive a cobra bite in the head?” “Nah, he did. I know that for sure. That’s why he is believed to be special.” Right then the temple bell started ringing. The morning rituals at the temple had begun. A silence fell over the four friends. Gopal closed his eyes and crossed his fingers out of reverence. Deeja picked up the paper and continued reading. Sanatan felt more chill. He tightened the shawl around him. It’s warmth brought him comfort and peace. He gave a sad glance in the direction of Jajati’s house. Through the trees beyond the house he could see the sun ascending on the sky.

Madhia sat on the cement bench of Jajati’s house in soporific silence. He had been waiting for more than an hour now. He did not have a watch to check time and he feared that they might be late. He tentatively peered into the house again. Finally, Jajati came out wearing

89 the same pair of shirt and trousers that Madhia had seen when Mr. Jena’s family came to see Malati. Madhia immediately exclaimed, “Oh ho, look at you! You always dress better that us, Jajati. In the city no one will doubt that you are a villager. What is the time now? Do you think we’re late?” “It’s only nine,” replied Jajati, checking his watch. Jajati lit a bidi and both the friends left for the market. On the way Madhia kept repeating his apprehension that they might have missed the bus. Soon they neared the pandal. Jajati saw the old men waving their hands at him. “Jajati, do well at the meeting!” cried Gopal. Sanatan watched him with polite and affectionate eyes. But there was no response from Deeja, who kept reading the newspaper. Jajati walked past them without offering much response. The bus had not arrived yet to take them to Bhubaneswar. Around him the assembly of young and old argued and justified the reasons for delay. The older men, determined and patient in the heat, sat down on the road, raising their ashen-colored dhotis to their thighs. The delay provided the snack vendors with a steady stream of customers. In Jajati’s mind stormed the anxieties of Mr. Jena’s final decision. He recollected and assessed his conversation with the boy’s father. In some words and gestures he read optimism, and in others, frustrating vagueness. He had never been able to conclude after a meeting with the boy’s family in which direction their final decision would sway. He would have to wait for the letter to learn their denial. And in the meantime he must also anticipate the possibility of a favorable outcome, making arrangements in his head and calculating, as if

90 the disappointments of the past had not dented his spirit yet. If Mr. Jena would agree, Jajati would sell half of his farming land to raise money for the dowry. Sure, the money from the sale would not be enough. But if only the bridge would get built! Then the importance of Jharpada would rise, along with the property price. Then the vehicle finally arrived. As it turned out the bus that was promised for commutation had been replaced with a truck. There was resentment and protest. The prospect of traveling for three hours in an open truck with no back support posed an ordeal. The organizer of the rally who had accompanied the truck assured that a bus would definitely be arranged for the return trip. The flatbed truck was decorated with streamers hanging from the sideboards. And flags of plastic were tied to arc-shaped strings at the front. The back board of the truck was opened and men clambered up to find a comfortable place to sit or stand. The load-carrying bed, roofless and hot, offered no respite to the naked feet and hands. And aggravating the situation was the cement dust from the last freight that resided, thick and grey, on the truck sides and bed. “Ah, Jajati, our good dress will get ruined,” Madhia observed. He darted towards one of the shops in the bazaar and brought two newspaper sheets, neat and untorn. Spreading the newspaper, Madhia and Jajati sat down at the middle of the truck bed. Around them struggle was on for space and a patch of clean floor. Finally, the older men settled down in the middle, sitting down and still grumbling at the inconvenience, while the youngsters preferred to stand at the edge, leaning on the sideboards, which would give them a better view.

91 Moods turned buoyant as the truck started. There was sloganeering. “Bharat Mata Ki Jai.” And as prompted by the organizer: “Manohar Senapati Ki Jai.” There was applause and joyous cries as the truck started rolling. Yet there was no ambition of greater common good here. Only the clear-eyed vision of personal prosperity that had been denied to the villagers for years. A single decision could help them. A bridge could transcend such a futile past. A direct road to Palleri and there would be access to a town market, a post office, a railway station, a hospital, a college, and a cinema hall! The world would change drastically and the historical transformation could be condensed to this day, this meeting. The mood of the youngsters was jovial. The prospect of traveling and the pleasure of being in a motor vehicle capable of speed were a rare occasion. They patted the sideboards of the truck as the shepherds did at the back of the cattle to drive them forward. They waved teasingly and made faces at their peers among the bystanders. The wind admiringly tousled their hair and the reflection of the sun was on their beaming faces. When the truck hit a pothole hard, their fragile bodies shook in unison, like the sway of the paddies in the wind. In that wave of motion bodies leaned far out of the truck with the warning voices of the older behind them. The foolhardiness and this luxury of exuberance reminded Jajati of his own youth days. His father had once shown interest in buying a bus with which he would enter the transport business, hauling customers around the countryside of Jharpada. Being the eldest son, Jajati had accompanied his father to Madras and shared the dreams of owning, of driving such a giant vehicle. But the city proved to be too much of temptation for the old man. Before he could make up his mind about the bus, he was already short on cash. Jajati returned home disappointed, realizing for the first time what his father was capable of.

92 If death was ever benign to anyone, Jajati thought, that person would definitely be his father. Life left him as abruptly as his opulence. Only three weeks before, the caretaker of the estate had made off with the cash that the old man had been accumulating by selling a major share of the property to start a fishing enterprise. He had read in the paper that the new government regulation had created windfall for rich fishermen along the coast; hence, buying a large trawler became an irreconcilable desire. After the theft Jajati's mother commented bitterly, "At least someone knew how to make use of money. How could you not turn into a thief after witnessing such colossal waste for years?" Jajati’s father received the news of loss with very little surprise as if the wealth he lost was not his final worth. And in those final three weeks, he did not show any sign of anger or compunction. He read the newspaper, took his morning walk in the compound and received friends, oblivious to his wife who was always in his vicinity, crying her eyes out and trying to elicit from him a word of consolation. He was indifferent to the hostility of the five sons who saw before them lifelong privation which their father had carved out for them so thoughtlessly. His behavior seemed like a performance, meant to be instructive to the rest of the family on how to become impermeable to the ramifications of adversity. To make matters worse and to shrink his wealth further, he donated a slice of land at the periphery of the house to meet the annual contribution for the Shiva Puja at the village temple. That’s when the family realized that the old man had no measure of his own wealth and treated the estate entirely as a personal bauble. He was incapable of foreseeing his own destitution and he would one day surprise himself with the fact that he was down to the last rupee he possessed. But before poverty could vanquish him, death rescued him one night in

93 his sleep, with no audible pain and no visible sign of struggle, only leaving behind a mute and relaxed body that seemed to be postured in the continuation of his performance. And death conveniently rescued him from the vitriolic feud which only people of same blood were capable of: Brothers turning against each other and not prepared to give in even a sliver of property. The land, the house and the jewelry had to be divided into five equal parts. Jajati kept the middle, the tallest portion of the house and built a partition wall in the compound so that he would not have to be see his brothers’ faces when he got up in the morning. But as it turned out he didn’t have to see his brothers ever again. They sold their share of the land and house to lower class people and migrated far away. Jajati remembered seeing no other house in hundreds of meters radius of his own. Such was the pride of the family. But his brothers ensured that the old property would resemble to another village street, just a slum, where Jajati would live surrounded by lowly people who would grow on him like cactus feeding upon his ego to utmost mortification. “Jajati, what’s the matter? You look worried,” asked Madhia who had his head covered with a saffron towel. “The sun is too harsh today,” said Jajati. “I know. Those bastards had promised us a bus, but look what they have sent. Don’t you have a handkerchief with you?” “Nah.” Few minutes of silence before Madhia asked again, this time in a confidential tone: “From your worried face, I gathered you were thinking of Malati’s marriage.” “Nothing has been finalized yet, Madhia.”

94 “Oh. What about the proposal that came last week?” “They will convey their decision only after Durga Puja.” “That’s unusually long. What about the boy’s family?” “The boy’s father was like a two headed snake. I couldn’t guess what was in his head. I think he will demand high dowry.” “But Jajati, remember what I told you about Shankar’s daughter. She is happily married to a lad from Sundarpur. So don’t discard the proposal if they demand more. After all, Malati is your only daughter. You can take a loan if the need arises.” “Don’t talk nonsense. I don’t want to become a bonded laborer by incurring a loan. Those money-lenders lure you in at first and then take everything away from you by charging higher interests. Look at yourself. You have not been able to pay back your loan in seven years. ” “Ah, but this year I am using more fertilizers and good quality seeds. And once the bridge gets built—” “You hope too much. I don’t want to take a loan and end up being a minion in someone’s backyard.” With twisted lips Madhia stared at Jajati, his eyes half-amused and half-hurt. He wiped his neck and fanned himself with the towel, looking around, trying to pick up conversation with someone else. A couple of farmers a short distance away passionately argued about the number of mangoes they had eaten during a wedding feast. While one boasted of twenty-seven, the other desperately looked for a witness to refute the claim. Madhia tried to fit into the conversation by asking which wedding they were talking about.

95 Tall roadside trees passed above their heads like clouds of dense green. Jajati looked up. Through the leaves the sun fractured into a sparkling mosaic. Its rays still mounting and penetrating. The lethargy that was in his pores broke into sweat, making him thirsty. He looked at his wristwatch, which his father-in-law had given him during the wedding and on which time and memory had settled with a pale green coat. Bhubaneswar was nearly two hours away and the task of sitting tight in a congested surrounding did not seem achievable while being wide-awake. Jajati gained a comfortable support by leaning on the back of the person sitting behind him. Loudness of the voices around him thinning, slowly settling into a steady murmur. And sloganeering of the youth had become tired and infrequent. Jajati rested his head on Madhia’s shoulder and fell asleep.

Dust never settled at the Utkalamani Gopabandhu Ground. It floated in the air like translucent fog, grey and bright under the noon sun, burning the nostrils and clinging to the sweat-laced skin like ash to the leaves. Adding to the haze was the smoke from countless bidis lit to dispel the encroaching wretchedness of heat and lethargy. Around the grounds, bamboo poles were erected at random distance from each other, and tied to one other by single string from which paper triangles of fluttering-purple, red, and yellow hung in alternating continuation. And perched on top of the poles were horn speakers that spurted to life without warning often by a monotone voice: Hello, hello, mike testing. Mike testing, please.

96 The center of attraction was the stage, standing on the clean, west side of the field, draped in colorful curtains at top and bottom, open at all four sides, and sporting at the front a big banner. Sketched on it was the youthful face of Manohar Senapati. Because of the overcoloring by the artist it was hard to discern the humble features of his face and the silver framed spectacles that he always wore. And overtly missing from the sketch was that animated mole on his left cheek which became a perfect circle when his lips widened in smile. Further, distorting his face was the wind, bloating the banner away from the stage until his chin went missing or the top of his head. Next to his face was written in roaring red: OUR BELOVED LEADER MANOHAR SENAPATI and below it was another line in much softer and reduced impression: YOUR HUMBLE SERVANT. YOUR CHOSEN MLA. Jajati lit a bidi, coughing and spitting. Not because of the smoke but of the dust that entered his mouth every time he took a hard puff. Dust rising all around him from the grassless, pebbled ground in that persistent, spiraling fashion with each step: between the gaps of the naked toes, or the curves of the chappals. And squatting in the middle of it Jajati watched his fellow restless villagers walk around him engendering dust-storms worse than the wind, no one having enough manner or patience to sit down at one place, but always on trot either to pee, to buy food, or to hover near the stage. A dilapidated concrete boundarywall ran along the perimeter of the ground, crumbling and razing itself to nothing frequently before recovering for a short burst of uninterrupted flow. The far side of the ground (the side opposite the stage) was turned to a grand urinal now. In that uninhibited gesture people peed against the boundary-wall with their dhotis raised to their waist or the back of their pants giving that final shake when they were done. Perilously near this spectacle, vendors sold

97 snacks from tin pots tied to the carriers of their bicycles; business for them proceeding swiftly as the rally got delayed. At most the crowd had assembled from ten-to-twelve villages, so amassing a strength of couple of thousands. The number was not enough or at least the number was not equal to what was projected earlier. The MLA, the honorable Mr. Senapati, had announced that on August 15 there would be a grand display of his strength, of his popularity to cause a profound impact. He would take advantage of the historic occasion and inundate the capital city with the enormity of his support, bringing life to a standstill by a non-violent disruption, forcing the administration to accede to their demands. After all, his father-in-law was a cabinet minister in the government and his political party was in power. But the rally now looked grossly below strength of sealing any accomplishment to its name. Madhia arrived with a leaf bowl in his hand; drops of gravy dripping from it. As he sat down beside Jajati, his manner showed no continuation of the earlier spats they had on the ride down. His nature was like a sieve, incapable of holding anger for long. So Jajati knew he need not apologize or make an effort towards patching up. Madhia ate the food in rush, scooping the last ounce of gravy from the bowl with his fingers. When he had no more to salvage he crushed the bowl in noisy demonstration of ruthless disappointment. Earnest and vivid, he looked around, shaking his head and puffing. “Jajati, we have been fooled by these bastards.” “I fear the same too,” replied Jajati, unable to hide his disappointment at this pointless rally. “They’ve not told us a single truth.”

98 “No. And on top of it this delay.” “You’re right. They have told us they’ll serve us lunch by noon. But I see no arrangement for food here.” Jajati shot a glance of anger. “Instead,” Madhia continued, “they have put those vendors to make profit of our hunger. Sons of Swines.” “Madhia, don’t you think of anything else other than food? I was talking about our demands getting fulfilled.” “I worry about our demands too. But what is a man to do when he’s hungry? They’ve told us they’ll provide us lunch as soon as the speech gets over. One hour has passed since noon, yet the meeting has not started yet. I think it’s their plan to skip the lunch.” The speaker bellowed again: “Hello, hello, mike testing. Honorable leader Manohar Senapati is about to arrive. Hello, hello, mike testing.” There was cheering and applause. A sudden sense of order seized the crowd, people moving from the fringes of the Utkalamani Gopabandhu Ground towards the center and sitting down. And slowly the dust cloud started thinning from air. On the stage, microphone of the lectern was adjusted and three young children stood in a queue holding in their hands garlands of marigold. But the long-awaited receivers of those garlands did not arrive. Like coy suitors they seemed to have been lurking in tantalizing proximity, arousing the air of anticipation with their presence but never truly arriving. The audience seemed to collude with the game, cheering at each announcement that the MLA was about to arrive.

99 When all seemed lost an hour hence, the guests of honor finally arrived in their modest and traditional attires, with that detergent-white shine, and their hands waving and greeting in response to the blazing cheer and sloganeering from the crowd that took cue from the organizers in front. During that frenzied chorus, the names of past glorious leaders were invoked, the names of the founding fathers of the country, the current party chieftains, the low-level leaders among the crowd, and finally, the country itself earning its share of recognition for the occasion it bequeathed to its countrymen. Jajati participated in the sloganeering, but only slightly, not sharing the same enthusiasm as Madhia. Two hours had past since Jajati’s usual lunchtime and the toll of the heat and journey was severe. He was already feeling weak at his feet and palms and the impact of the headache getting more pronounced. But for some stubborn reason he wouldn’t eat. He wouldn’t spend money on anything unless he was given an assurance, unless he came to believe that that bridge was getting built. And in that anticipation he maintained his presence there, unperturbed by hunger, failing strength and the dizziness that forced him to keep his head down to escape the unflagging blaze of the sun. He did not care to look up and see the owner of that insipid, monotonous voice who introduced the distinguished speakers as though he were introducing a magnificent personage with a long name and a large title. He did not bother to lay his eyes on the party treasurer who opened the meeting in such grandiloquent and melodramatic way that people couldn’t help but comment on the misplaced gene of actor in his blood. Then another functionary spoke in general terms, mentioning his party’s irrefutable contribution towards the country’s independence, achievements of his party in last fifty years, the prosperity the state had

100 witnessed during his party’s reign in power, and the corruption and scandals plaguing the other party in central government. No one in audience was sure about his relevance until he hinted, intentionally or accidentally, that he was the nephew of the Chief Minister. When the speech of the Irrigation Minister followed, Jajati listened intently for any suggestion or confirmation about the bridge. But the long speech disappointed and frustrated him as the old minister disregarded the villager’s expectations and focused on the topics that pleased him. He gave a boring account of his own political career, his father’s contribution in the freedom fight, his loyalty towards the party and the Chief Minister, and his son in law’s popularity and prospects in politics. At the height of his self-infatuation, the minister sang to his audience a patriotic poem he had written—why, just the night before! Jajati sat with his face down, swallowing his anger. Other villagers around him talked among themselves, cursing the minister’s senility and his unending poetry. Madhia grumbled and complained that he could not focus on the speech because he was too hungry. His attention constantly shifted to the back of the field where, indeed, lunch tables had already been setup. As the minister started singing, cauldrons of food were bought to the table. Madhia leaped to his feet screaming, “Jajati, the food is here!” and rushed towards the back of the field. Someone behind Jajati cried out in pain, “Madhia, you son of blind ox! Can you mind your step?” Jajati sat in dizzying hunger, waiting for Manohar Senapati to speak. When the time was quarter to three, Manohar Senapati stood up to give his speech amidst the cheering and clapping of his supporters. The microphone was adjusted to suit his height. A full glass of water was placed upon the lectern. And the direction of the fan on the

101 stage was turned towards the speaker. Jajati was impressed when the MLA received more attention than the Minister. There was a brief pause in which the silver spectacles were adjusted. A rise of anticipation and when he started the speech, the modulation of the tone was just perfect: “My dear supporters,” said Manohar Senapati, “My dear villagers, respected Irrigation Minister, and respected Treasurer of the party and dear audience, I apologize for the delay on my part and any inconvenience you might have faced. You people have come a long distance to attend this meeting in such large numbers. I cannot thank you enough. Today is a historic day for our nation and for us. No celebration can be enough today and no song of praise sung for our Mother India can satiate our high spirits. We owe our freedom to so many people who fought and selflessly gave up their lives so that you and I can witness this day. The least we can do to honor their memory and sacrifice is to remind ourselves of our duties and responsibilities towards our nation. And as you chosen leader I intend to assume my responsibility and fulfil my promise today.” The interest of Jajati suddenly piqued. The emotion that gargled in Senapati’s throat moved him and gave each echoing word a character of utmost sincerity. The clap came now not only from the circle of party workers and supporters but also from Jajati and others around him. “I stand here today on this stage because you have elected me. For this honor and for your faith in me, I have ensured that I never forget my roots. I grew up in a small village and lived in poverty and privation. I have witnessed the misfortune and suffering of my family, my neighbors and my fellow villagers. So no one can understand your need better than me.

102 After being elected as the MLA, I could have moved to Palleri, the headquarters of my constituency. Instead, I chose to live in my village so that I can remain among you, be one like you and stay constantly aware of your problems. So when my opponents allege that Manohar Senapati will dupe his people, can that be true?” “Nah,” murmured many voices around Jajati spontaneously. “For ages now, people on the west bank of Saptadhara have been suffering grossly neglected and forgotten by the rest of the state and most shamefully by the previous government of our opposition. The river has cut off an entire mass of people from progress and prosperity. The population of villagers like Basantpur, Badasingha, Jharpada, Thimpri and Narasinghapur are suffering a fate for no fault of their own. For years now their demand has been single and steadfast one: to build a concrete bridge across Saptadhara so there can be a reliable, year round transportation system between these villages and Palleri. And for earnest demand how we are treated? We have been misled by the last government, keep with life by previous MLAs, and tricked and humiliated by the bureaucrats. How shameful and disgraceful are such treatments! There were salt to our wounds. But no more! No more, my friends.” The lectern shook with the thump of the fist and its vibration echoed through the speakers. Senapati’s emotion tightened Jajati’s heart. “The day I became your MLA I vowed to take revenge. I vowed to fight for our dignity and for our cause. And if I were to perish in that fight then I was willing to do so. Because blood is what I can spill... but not your trust and hope in me. When I became your

103 MLA, I assure you that that bridge will be ready and operative within my term. Many said I was bluffing and daydreaming. They cast a doubt upon my ability...” With these words people at the back stood up. Even the wind that blew through the field felt like part of the gesture. “On a day like this there is no place for bad news. It is indeed a historic day because it celebrates the uplifting of the poor and destitute who have been neglected so far. It marks a new era for those who have been living in dark ages. I met the Finance Minister today and he assured me in equivocal terms that the bridge will get built soon.” The applause was so resounding and unceasing that the rest of the speech could not be heard. Whistling and sloganeering were deafening. No feet were on the ground and dust cloud now felt like refreshing air. The old who could not move their limbs earlier danced now, embracing each other and breaking into laughter and tears. Young boys jumped up and down like fogs, stripping their shirts and whirling it above their heads like fans. And among those old and young Jajati danced and laughed becoming one among them. In that air of euphoria, no one noticed when the dignitaries left the stage and the meeting was announced to have concluded. No one minded the late lunch that was already cold. The uncooked rice, the bland daal, and the potato curry tasted like a feast. Madhia was the first in the queue when the lunch was served. He insisted and argued for a second plate of meal and then carrying both the plates with stretched hands he ran towards Jajati like a child, hopping and skipping. The dhoti bounced up and down around his legs as he hollered at everyone to celebrate. Jajati could not tell whether Madhia’s excitement was because of the news or because of getting the meal ahead of others. Jajati ate from the plate Madhia had

104 bought for him, relishing each bite. Soon it was informed that the return bus would not be provided. Villagers should make their own arrangements. But such disappointments felt like trifle in that collective mode of jubilation. With his mouth full with food, Madhia said, “Jajati, the day turned out to be so favorable for us. Who cares if they don’t provide us the bus back home? Let’s make the best of our time in the city just like the old days.” Jajati nodded his head as he stuffed his mouth with large bites of food. “Should we go into the city? We have enough money in our pocket,” said Madhia, winking. Jajati stopped eating and gave a coy smile.

A somnolent quietude settled early upon Jharpada that night. There was no electricity in the village so the villagers retired to their beds early. The night was windless and the smoke of cooking fires haloed the village in a blue haze. Occasionally the lowing of cattle could be heard followed by barking of mongrels. But these disturbances were ephemeral and they did not upset the drowsiness of the rally-returned men and overworked women, who pretty soon slipped into peaceful slumber. The hush of the households spilled onto the streets. Pets and animals felt relaxed and the village air was impregnated by alluring silence which was to last for most of the night.

105 Jajati had not returned home yet. Bimla was sleeping with Malati on her bed. This was the arrangement the mother and daughter preferred when Jajati was not at home at nights. In the top room, they both felt secure from thieves and ghosts. Bimla was listening to the silence outside. She was listening for approaching footsteps that would disturb the night and set the dogs barking rousing them from sleep. Twice she thought she heard someone’s footsteps. But when no one knocked on the door, she nudged Malati who was sleeping on her belly, her feet raised and rustling against each other, and humming a tune to herself. “Did you hear footsteps?” Bimla asked. “No,” Malati barely replied. Few minutes passed before Bimla asked, “What is the time now?” “Probably, eight,” replied Malati with muffled irritation and then added, “He won’t come so early.” Bimla knew the last bus to Jharpada was at seven. But many times in the past Jajati had returned from the city many hours after seven. How he was able to do that Bimla never asked. But she heard from other women that one could take a late bus from the city to Palleri and walk twelve kilometers to Saptadhara and then ford the river in summer or swim across in other months. The rainy season had only started and Bimla knew that the river presently did not have much water in it. So she listened keenly to the silence outside. Malati turned on her side and wrapped her arm around her mother’s belly. Malati buried her face on Bimla’s arm and rubbed her nose against it. She inhaled the scent of the damp kitchen and unwashed sari. “Ma, can I buy a good sari for me this Durga Puja? I have seen a good one at the sari shop,” Malati asked suddenly, her voice thick with sleep.

106 “What kind?” Bimla asked, her eyes still closed. “A golden one with a wood-brown border.” “Don’t buy an expensive one, girl. I will ask your father for money when he is in better mood,” said Bimla with a sigh. Malati wrapped her arm tighter but only for few moments. Soon her breathing acquired the tone of a deep sleeper, long and gentle, and her grip became slack and relaxed. Her body lay there warm and arched and her legs raptly crossing each other as if she were already floating in the world of dreams. Bimla gently moved her arm away just in case Malati’s nose was getting pressed. She listened to her daughter’s breathing just as she listened to the night outside. Bimla closed her eyes and the darkness peacefully settled on her like cool, damp cloth. On the dark slate her mind began sketching bright images of its own. When there was a knock on the front door, Bimla thought she was dreaming. She was seeing a nameless, unfamiliar face folding his fingers, rapping at air in imitation of a knock, and creating a disturbing sound. When the face did not disappear and knocking persisted Bimla roused from sleep. Her eyes quickly got accustomed to darkness and her mind got tuned to the husband-less house. She unhooked the room’s door quickly but lightly to stop Malati from waking up, and climbed down the stairs drawing the sari tightly over the head. The knocking became more impatient as Bimla fumbled with the matchstick to light the lantern. The broken half of the front door was closed in a crooked angle leaving a wedgeshape crack between the panel and the jamb. Bimla could have beamed the light on the crack

107 and tried to look at the person outside. But she did not have enough courage; what if the person turned out to be someone else. “Who is it?” she asked timidly. “Open the door,” came the throbbing reply. The words restlessly hung at the edge of hallucination. The voice was unsure, smoky and very unlike Jajati’s. But Bimla became more assured and proceeded to open the door as if she recognized the voice, as if she were certain of it— “Can’t you hurry up, woman?” Jajati snapped. His eyes were shifty like two round, button-shaped jellies. His voice was viscid with the foul odor of bidi and alcohol. But his steps bore no mark of his condition. They were sure and steady. “Bring me water,” he retorted before entering his room. When she brought water for Jajati, he had already changed his clothes and was sitting on the bed in a dazed state. He snatched the glass with fumbling fingers and emptied it in frenzied gulps. “More…more…” he kept asking, until he guzzled down five glasses. After his thirst was quenched, his voice seemed to have regained its originality. “Damn electricity,” he muttered before clumsily crashing into the bed. Bimla dimmed the lantern and left it in the sitting room. Her steps were soft as she entered the room and closed the door behind her. The outline of Jajati’s shadowy figure lay still on the bed, completely still, and mysterious, bearing no signs of fatigue and inebriation. Bimla went to her bed that was spread at the upper end of the room on the floor. A thin stack of quilts made out of torn and old saris with a tight and stained cloth bundle to put under the head, That was her bed. That was where she was most reconciled to her fate and that was

108 where she proffered her silent penance. When they got married, Bimla and Jajati used to sleep in one bed. But exactly when there came to exist two beds in the room, Bimla no longer remembered. Over the years, the arrangement seemed natural and rigid. At nights when pressed by his masculine needs Jajati would turn restlessly in his bed and then bellow out, “Are you asleep?” Bimla knew what that question exactly meant and there was no need to answer it. She would unwrap her sari, slip out of her blouse and petticoat and climb onto Jajati’s bed. His impatient hands would strip his lungi off him in one motion and then he would mount on her like he would a bicycle. He would pin down her hands against the bed and her heavy panting would help him reach the climax. Once he shriveled, he would roll over to the side to fully absorb his gratification and retire for the night. Bimla would wait. Jajati’s silence she would construe as the indication that her role was over. She would go back to her bed assuring herself that their sleeping arrangement was her husband’s wish. Standing at the edge of her bed, Bimla silently looked at Jajati. He betrayed no hint of what he had done in the city. There was no knowing how far he had gone in his wild revelry, in his uninhibited escapade. Yes, he had soaked himself in liquor all right, but what else? There was no telling. Cities were mysterious places, Bimla knew. They cast spells on naïve villagers and filled them with false conviction that what happened in the city stayed buried there. But there were trails of their actions that always found their way back to the village to haunt those who were never meant to find out. Bimla lay down on her bed. She waited for his voice. She waited for him to ask if she was asleep. But what she heard in the end was the loud snoring of a contented man. She

109 closed her eyes and this time she did not see bright shapes or images. Bimla found sleep out of habit, in the same room, on the floor beside her husband. And up the stairs, her daughter was again by her window, unable to prevent herself from reliving her night of consequence when she was engulfed by sudden intimacy. That night, that summer air, the stifled breathing and the sweat erupting on her skin like desire, and finally, his hands resting upon hers, slow and tentative, aware of its sinful intentions. She tried to check the flow of temptations that suffused her senses now, but the intensity of that night rained down upon her in lurid details, leaving her more tortured. Her body was no longer under her control, wishing to re-enact those wild driftings. She closed her eyes and leaned against the window rail. Her body slowly succumbed as her mind argued and reasoned and egged her to proceed. She knew she would suffer from guilt and mortifying shame the next morning yet she closed the window with trembling hands and tumultuous silence. The darkness that pervaded the room invited her further, congealing and permeating around her in conspiratorial quietude. As she gingerly moved through her room she tried to suppress the jingle of her anklets. She searched for one last persuasion her reasoning could offer, yet there was none. She shut the bolt of the door and proceeded towards the bed. After undressing herself, she let the darkness settle upon her revealing nakedness. Her own hand felt alien to her as it moved upon her body with uncanny warmth and unchecked earnestness, sliding and fading and rising upon her to induce an urgent fire that erupted inside her that summer night to a rapturous conclusion, thus unraveling a mystery. Malati sighed as she spread open her legs, inviting the darkness to spread its conspiring wings upon her, to

110 rise and fall with her, to move back and forth with her, to squirm and perspire like her as she drifted now, seeking the help of memory to re-enact his presence and the boyish touch of his imperfect hand; and she moaned as a rising tremor touched her core now, rushing and rising and melting under her persistency, and the darkness colluding with her, propelling her body’s climactic ascendancy, and dampening the insides of her legs with a soft chill, ah, the pleasure, slipping through her fingers in copious urgency now, moistening and swelling as the bed creaked softly, and the elation, unparalleled and overpowering, enviously hers now, her sole possession, her final impression upon the night, ah, and the darkness was her collaborator that kept the assault of guilt and shame at bay as she ascended the peak of rapture now, like million drops of dew landing upon her at a single instance, like an electric charge racing through her, like her entire body imploding and shrinking into an unending charge of euphoria, like crash of waves soaking her insides, yes, that moment, subduing her as she clutched the sheet and curled her toes in that final embrace when she caressed her own shoulders to conjure up his physique, to rob against his warmth and to imagine his weight upon her. Two hours later, she still lay naked in the pool of darkness, wide awake and soaked by his memory and image. But she would not whisper his name, otherwise she could not recover from this hypnosis, from this cloying desire, the faint possibility of which she once entertained but later deliberately banished from her life out of shame and fright.

111

Chapter

6

Prakash returned from Calcutta to Palleri as he had promised on a Monday morning when the rooster had not crowed yet. He briefly stopped by at Somu’s house to give him a set of clothes. He asked him to put them on and be ready by nine o’clock sharp. At the appointed time, Somu stood before a mirror admiring himself in his new incarnation. His shirt, freshly pressed and scented, carried a silky aura. Its unblemished whiteness, elegant fitting and matching buttons suited his skin tone in a flawless contrast; its reflection of light seemed more radiant than the light itself. The shirt cuffs and collars stood out, stiff and starched. He had a belt now with a similar brass buckle like Prakash had fashioned at the Paradise Hotel. His trousers, a rich sea blue, carried the unmistakable rustle

112 of the new clothes. And he had a pair of new shoes upon which no dust particle had settled yet. The last piece of clothing that was still left out like an unmatched piece of a jigsaw puzzle was the tie. Stripes of grey ran upon a pattern of deep red; he had seen people wear ties in movies, but never in real life. The most confusing thought was from where the tie began and where it ended. There was already a triangle shaped knot in the middle and two tails hung out from it. One wider and one thinner. And the other end of the tie was shaped in a loop. Somu knew by instinct that he would have to put his neck into that noose and that very thought brought suspicion to his mind. After adjusting the tie, and surviving the brief spell of suffocation, he found himself raised up to a new glory, a more sumptuous gratification. No eyes turned in his direction could now escape jealousy and envy. And no impression could be as princely and inimitable as his. “What are you up to now, Somu?” his mother asked in a grave tone. Kanta stood at the threshold of the room in shocked silence. With the end of her white sari she covered her open mouth. The glistening moistness of her eyes only articulated the intensity of the emotion erupting inside her. “What is that thing dangling from your neck? And where did you find money to buy these clothes?” Somu started whistling and buttoning his cuffs. “What a shame you’ve become, Somu! We can’t even afford food and here you go around buying fancy clothes. Can I know what sort of buffoonery are you into now?”

113 “Say whatever you want but you’ll realize your mistake soon,” said Somu heatedly. “You have failed to understand my true worth, but others have not. They’re prepared to trust me with lakhs and crores of rupees. And soon I will have my own company. Do you hear that, my own company?” “Oh God, I can’t believe my past is playing such games with me. I have seen my father squander his future on his own accord and now my own son…” Right then Somu heard the beckoning honk of a vehicle from outside. When he walked out he saw Prakash’s big car parked at the front of his house. The blue tinge of the car was so distinct it reminded him of the color of sky at twilight. Its contours were so sleek, it was more of a dream of a car than an actual car. Somu walked forward and laid his unsure hand on the roof of the vehicle. “Good morning, Somu! You’re looking like a movie star,” said Prakash. “You’re not looking anything less either,” said Somu, getting inside the car. The chillness of the air-condition reminded Somu of Saptadhara’s water in wintry mornings. “What did I tell you?” said Prakash. “This is indeed very impressive,” said Somu as he stroked the plush interior of the car and its velvety seat. “Is this your own?” “Of course. I had to bring it from Calcutta to dispel the doubts people are having about me. But do not be too awed by this car. Very soon such a thing will be yours,” Prakash added with a wink. Prakash drove them past the Palleri Bazaar, the temple, the railway station, the bus stand, round the water tank where old people sat in groups, past the college in a crawling

114 pace so that every eye would turn in their direction, down the Post Office Lane and Gandhi Marg where daily life came to a brief halt with their approach, past the school, the playground and finally, towards the New Bazaar. All the time Prakash kept saying, “Advertisement is the key. Our offer can only be successful if we don’t shy away from advertising.” They stopped and got out of the car at the New Bazaar, where there was a TV showroom, a bike showroom, the cinema hall and a fancy apparel store. Other cars were parked on the two sides of the road, but none as big, new and impressive as Prakash’s. The moment both them got out they received everyone’s attention. Prakash unfurled a huge rolled-up graph on the bonnet of the car along with various charts that were utterly mysterious to Somu. “Somu,” Prakash whispered, “I know this chart does not make any sense to you. It doesn’t matter. The main purpose of this chart is to impress people. Gain their trust by asserting that we’re quite capable. As you and I are doing right now, in the middle of this bazaar and under this damn sun. I could have showed this chart to you inside the car, but we need to stand here, outside, in the complete sight of the people so as to impress them.” Indeed, the whole of the street seemed to gather around them. Prakash continued, “Advertisement is the key. This chart and the clothes that you’re wearing are part of that. We need to impress people so that they will start believing in our ability. We need to go to such lengths because that’s what the society has become these days. No one trusts each other. And when we tell them we can triple their money then naturally— be prepared for it!—they will disbelieve and doubt us.”

115 Somu saw how passersby closely walked alongside the car to steal a touch of its glossy shine. One person dropped his grocery bag purposefully so that while picking up the items he would get ample time to admire their clothes. Another person stood unabashedly close studying the chart so to give others the impression that he was part of the group. And young women blushed pink and red pursing their lips when their eyes met with his. Advertisement certainly worked, and it worked to the extent that it not only elicited envy and awe from the crowd but also clear approval and admiration. The next stop was the Paradise Hotel. Prakash’s argument was that many government officials visited the Hotel to have lunch and they were the people with fixed income, sizable savings and economic sense. They were the people of high aspirations but of modest means. And no money-making offer could ever escape their interest. Prakash ordered them both a grand meal and ate it as the chart leaned beside them between the table and the wall as if it were a centerpiece. As soon as the meal was finished and the table was cleared they got busy in calculating and solving some fanciful theory on a blank piece of paper. They referred to the chart from time to time and pondered over it as if some complex formula was written on it. The interest they generated around them was as constant as the clanking of the utensils around them and the smoke of the cooking that floated out of the kitchen. When customers walked in their eyes did not catch the sight of empty tables at first but them. The portly owner of the Hotel, whom Somu had never seen stir from his chair in decades, actually walked up to them and queried if they needed anything else. Apologizing for the lack of cooling in the Hotel, he ordered for the standing fan to be moved from behind his desk to Somu and Prakash’s tableside. For his solicitude, Prakash thanked the owner and asked him

116 how smoothly his business was going. When the owner became too chatty and showed his curiosity to know more about the nature of their job and purpose of their visit, Prakash cut the conversation short with a terse reply that they were surveying Palleri for a new business. After the crowd in the Hotel thinned, Prakash talked to Somu on a serious note, “There’s another thing I wanted to tell you. Take it as the second key to our success,” said Prakash, adjusting his glasses. “Our offer is a one time opportunity. Any individual gets only one chance to triple his money and no more. So as much money he can bring us the first time the better for him. You see, Somu, if we allow someone to keep investing with us then his income will keep tripling each time and we’ll end up making only one person enormously rich and not be able to help others.” As their tea glasses were refilled, Prakash fell silent, insuring that the head waiter felt he was missing out on the very key to lifelong wealth and happiness. When the waiter slowly retreated, Prakash began again: “We should never look desperate or unctuous. Because that’s what salesman will do and not us. We’re businessmen. We should maintain the style and grace of a dignitary.” “Exactly. I feel that’s the only way money should be earned.” “So I have a plan to make us look even more successful. There are going to be prize winners. Out of all the people who are going to invest with us few will be selected by lottery to win some extraordinary prizes—a car, maybe, a trip to Europe. But there’s going to be deadline to win those gifts. People will have to invest with us within the first month of the start of our offer.” “Yes, that makes sense,” said Somu.

117 About late afternoon, they left the Hotel and drove towards the Bank Road. The road had taken its name from the bank that was present on it, the State Bank of India , the only bank in Palleri. That part of the town they had skipped during their earlier tour in the morning. The afternoon had settled upon the asphalt road with its slanted rays and the road was crowded with homebound traffic. They entered the Bank Road, blaring the horn, breaking and pausing. When they reached the bank Somu was pleasantly surprised. Opposite of the bank was set a stage facing the Road with red carpeted steps leading up to it and with an appliqué awning hanging over it. At the backdrop of the stage was a velvet banner upon which was written in phosphorescent dazzle: MILLENNIUM FINANCES. And below it was its slogan: Makes Your Dream Come True. There were other banners hung around the stage with messages like “Dhamaka,” “Bonanza,” “Triple Your Money,” and “An Honest Offer. Don’t Waste The Chance.” “Oh, when did this stage get set?” asked Somu. “While we were taking the tour of the town,” said Prakash with a satisfied smile. “I paid some people to erect the stage so that we can start as quick as possible.” “Prakash, you’re a man of wonder,” said Somu with excitement. “Now, we’ll run our advertisement campaign from here from morning to evening. You will be our Representative here who will be ready to answer peoples’ questions and convince them that this is a rare and honest offer. You’ve the bank right in front you. People have to write a check in the name of Millennium Finances or they can get a Demand Draft from the bank by depositing cash. In no case should you take cash from people, otherwise many may think there is a possibility of fraud. You will deposit the checks and the Demand

118 Drafts at the bank where I have already created an account in the name of our company. I will give you a receipt book and you will write a receipt to the customer for their investment. And a week after their payment the customer will receive a formal Certificate of Investment from our company. It’s all very simple, Somu.” “What if there comes a situation I won’t know what to do, I mean, of course I will know what to do, but–––” “Okay, I think time has now come to tell you about the third key to our success. From now on, you must think yourself as the owner of our company. As if you’ve been a part of it from the very beginning. You know where the money will be invested and how it will be tripled. You’ve done this for people in Calcutta, Bombay, Delhi, Bhubaneswar and other cities and towns throughout India. You’ve had contacts with politicians and industrialists. And you’re very influential because you’re successful. Somu, soon you’ll become such a man so why not start acting like that now? Mind you, we’re not lying to people. We’re doing it only for their sake. You’ll be surprised how easily people will gain trust in you and start believing you.” “Of course, of course, I can already see that happening.” “Good. So from now on my role will be secondary to yours. I will visit you every week and assist you with anything you need. For the people of Palleri you should look like the person in charge, the person who runs Millennium Finances and who is going to make their dream come true. And I have full faith in your ability.”

119 On Thursday late afternoon Prakash demonstrated a perfect example of his sense of timing and resourcefulness. Exactly at three p.m. two cycle-trolleys pulled up near the stage with the loads of a television set, a V.C.R., a set of speakers, a microphone, four flashing lights, two glass tables and two cushioned chairs. The T.V. was bigger than anything Somu had ever seen and its silver-grey screen reflected the images in dense shadows. The design and the finish of the furniture showed very refined taste as the oval shape of the tables and the reclining backs of the chairs clearly impressed the mind with their delicate proportions. As the coolies were setting up the furniture on the stage, an electrician arrived in his moped led by Prakash in his car who was wearing his regular suit and dark glasses. Somu recognized the electrician from the local Electricity Office; without any delay the electrician climbed to the nearest electric pole and drew a wire connection to stage. And soon the four spotlights mounted on the four supporting poles of the stage flared to brightness, flooding the stage with yellowy brilliance. The T.V. screen too came alive to a bright blue color. When everything looked set, the coolies were dispatched with a generous payment and the electrician took leave with a smile of gratitude on his face and a dirty envelop in his pocket containing multiple hundred rupees notes. Exactly at four p.m. Prakash inserted a video tape into the V.C.R. and turned up the volume of the speakers. Then winking at Somu Prakash said, “Now, you’ll see how this advertisement will work magic.” A melodious music issued out of the speakers and the name “Millennium Finances” along with the company’s logo filled the T.V. screen. The music was catchy and well orchestrated and the speakers had the effect of the cinema hall. Somu himself was dazzled—

120 the images on the T.V. screen were as colorful and enriching as the eye could behold! A brief history of the company was narrated followed by the claim that there was no single proprietor of the company hence naming them was pointless. Solely, the company was created to help the people so the people were its owners and it was a company “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Then followed the details of the company’s offer: the once in a lifetime opportunity to triple one’s money. To emphasize upon its success the advertisement showcased the testimonials of different people who had already been benefited by the company’s offer. The tears of gratitude in their eyes, their voices of exaltation and the glow of surprise on their faces accounted for the credibility of each story of success. So far Somu was taken by the persuasive style of the advertisement but he was genuinely surprised when the lottery prizes were announced one by one. A luxurious sedan even more stylish than Prakash’s zipped through the sunlit roads embracing all reflection and shine as the car was shown from different angles. The second prize was announced as a trip to Europe for five days and six nights for the entire family of the winner. Suddenly, the image of the screen changed to animation and a miniature plane flew from a dot in India to a dot in Europe on the map of the world. And then the real images of the destination in Europe were shown: The snow-crested mountains, the velvety green valleys, the pristine lakes that mirrored the sky in flawless imitation, the cobble-stoned alleys, the ethereal architectures of the buildings, the immaculate pavements that shone like gold under the gas lamps at dusk, and those impressive roads full of unworldly people and cars. The third prize was announced with equal excitement as a brand new computer. And for people who did not win any of top three prizes they had a chance of winning one of the additional prizes that comprised of five

121 television sets, five refrigerators and ten mixers/grinders. Somu was infused with envy for those who would win the top prizes… but then he remembered Prakash’s assurance that soon all the luxuries in the world would become his as well. Somu did not notice when the crowd of all age and class had gathered in front of the stage to watch the advertisement with riveted attention. Soon the Bank Road became blocked and those who wanted to leave were left with no option but to watch the proceedings. Amidst this build up, a new hatchback car pulled up beside Prakash’s and from it stepped out an elderly gentleman wearing simple but immaculate clothes. His graying hair was neatly combed and the soft, aging features of his face gave him a humble appearance. As he approached towards the stage Prakash went forward to usher him in. The warm way the two greeted each other and exchanged friendly commentaries, Then the elderly gentleman approached Somu with a smile and patting him on his shoulder he thanked Somu for his willingness to work for Millennium Finances. “Somnath Babu,” he said, “for people like you Millennium Finances has become so successful. May God always bless you for your kindness.” Somu was thrilled to find out that this person already knew his name. Then Prakash muted the television and turned on the microphone: “My dear friends of Palleri, there is an important announcement for all of you. The company Millennium Finances, known perhaps to many of you already, has finally arrived at your town. For three years now, Millennium Finances has been visiting big cities and small towns of India with its offer and helping thousands of people to triple their money in a single investment. You must be learning in the newspapers about the financial prosperity our

122 country is witnessing these days and how it is making many people rich. The key to this windfall is the current growth of the stock exchange where many rich people are benefiting but as usual the government and the rich people are overlooking the interests and the financial needs of the poor people…” Prakash went on disclosing more details about the offer, the modalities of the payment, the time frame for the return and how the stock exchange was a sound financial platform to multiply one’s investment. He then advocated for the rights of the unprivileged and marginalized. He then introduced Somu to the audience as their sole contact point for the company and as an expert on the subject of stock exchange and a capable Officer from the company who had already reaped success in other parts of India. Finally, to dispel any further doubt from people’s mind Prakash appealed the crowd to listen to the testaments of benefited investors in the advertisement and also to listen to Mr. Narayan who had personally come to educate people about the company’s sincere intentions. As Mr. Narayan walked up to the microphone getting up from his chair, he exuded a manner of utmost sincerity and grace. With a few words of thanks for Prakash for inviting him on such an occasion, Mr. Narayan gave a brief account of his background, of his initial acquaintance with Prakash Babu in Calcutta and then he recounted his experience of how his situation changed from being a petty sari vendor at the streets of Calcutta to the current prosperity. “I clearly remember that day,” said Mr. Narayan in a voice that was seeped with suavity and nostalgia. “It was raining heavily and the sky was blazing with lightning. I arrived at the office of Millennium Finances with all the money I had. I won’t lie to you,

123 brothers and sisters, with trembling hands I gave three lakhs rupees to Prakash Babu. All my life savings I gave to him in one single check! My hands trembled and my heart sunk. Plus that ominous weather outside. I thought what if I won’t see my money back again. What if all this turned out to be a scam! I won’t lie to you even if Prakash Babu is here with us now. Such was my mistrust. Such was my fear. I prayed God all the time. That night I could not sleep, tossed and turned in my bed and wept. Believe me, for the next six months my state was no different. I could find no respite. I could not eat, could not sleep and I only appealed for God’s help. And when six months were complete, it was not even daylight yet when I heard a knock on my door. Standing before me was Prakash Babu with the check in his hand. ‘Mr. Narayan,’ he addressed to me in English, yes to me with such respect as if I am an officer or a Babu! ‘Here is your money. For your three lakhs investment take these nine lakhs.’ I fainted. I promise you I fainted in euphoria. Me, my wife and my children we embraced each other and cried. I was speechless. I could not think. Such was my happiness! When I recovered myself I prostrated at Prakash Babu’s feet asking for his forgiveness. I said, ‘Prakash Babu, please pardon me. What wrong things I thought about you. While all this time you were working for my benefit, I doubted your honesty. Please forgive me. What can I do to ever to repay your kindness?’” Mr. Narayan paused and wiped his eyes. Prakash got up from his chair to offer Mr. Narayan a glass of water which he emptied in a rush. “Prakash Babu is a man of great heart. He is indeed. He not only forgave me but he said in a genial tone, ‘Mr. Narayan, you don’t have to thank me. You must thank God because He has been kind to you. I still have got one more gift for you.’ ‘What more happiness can you bring me?’ I said with a laugh. Prakash Babu took me outside and showed

124 me a car. A brand new car. ‘This is yours,’ he said. ‘What? You’re joking with me,’ I said. ‘Nah,’ he said. ‘For investing with us in the first month of the offer you’ve won this car as a lottery prize. Please take this key.’ Now, none of you can imagine my surprise, my disbelief. I only looked between the car and my family who could not believe their luck too. I could not imagine what good deeds I had done in my life for which God has been so kind and generous to me. How could one person turn out to be so lucky? I won’t lie to you, brothers and sisters, I got carried away. I had no control over my emotion and reason. I said, ‘I think the luck is on my side, Prakash Babu. After so many years of hardship it finally has started favoring me. I sense an opportunity here. Please invest these nine lakhs so that after six months I can get twenty-seven lakhs.’ Well, I said so. My reason was not in my control so I could not even think what I was saying. In extreme happiness, I said so. But Prakash Babu saved me. He grabbed my hand. He grabbed me by this very wrist and said, ‘Mr. Narayan, you have earned your share of money. God has been more than kind to you. Now, do not be greedy. Let someone else earn his share of money and get a chance to fulfill his wishes.’ I was truly ashamed. As I told you I have lost my ability to think. So I behaved like a simple, ordinary man. You see, Millennium Finances is not having this offer to foster greed but to give ordinary people like us one single chance to fulfill our dreams. That’s the greatness of this company. That’s why people like you and me can always trust such a company because they’re doing this not for their personal benefit but as a gesture of charity. People like Prakash Babu and Somnath Babu here are dedicated to help us. Please do not doubt their sincerity otherwise you’ll repent as I have...”

125 Mr. Narayan coughed and Prakash was at his side with his water glass. Mr. Narayan recovered and continued: “Look at me. I was a simple sari vendor once and now I am back in my village. I have started a coconut plantation there and by God’s grace my son is studying engineering now. Also, I have enough money now to pay for the dowry of my three daughters. And that car over there! Please don’t take it as a statement of arrogance. Whenever I drive it I pray, ‘God, let others make as sound decision as me. Give them a chance to invest in Millennium Finances.” Mr. Narayan took leave from his audience with a namaskar and went back to his seat. There was hush and uncertainty. The crowd looked at each other for help. A half-hearted applause erupted from one section of the crowd but it faded into the dusk quickly. From the edge of the crowd many started retreating. The ignition of motorbikes and scooters could be heard now. Many left laughing and chattering. Many went their way with a shake of head for the waste of their time. Many left with a blank expression as if they had not stopped by in first place. Many still lingered as if the entertainment would continue. And many others stood in the middle with transfixed silence, riven by ambivalence and a hope.

126

Chapter

7

Malati knew her mother was restless and she knew the reason why. Malati knew her mother was not very vocal about her emotions, neither would she betray anything in her manner, but her silence had always been the measure of everything. Like the burst of air she exhaled to light the fire, or the stroke of the broom in her hand while sweeping, even the speed at which she recited the prayer while taking a bath, or the imprecise way she spread her sari on the compound to dry were subtle indications of her change in mood and the bustling tenseness underneath a veneer of stubborn silence. On Monday mornings, she would normally be prompt and purposeful. She would get up an hour earlier than usual to allow herself enough time to ready herself for the temple. The

127 usual morning routine would be prolonged by the addition of rituals like washing her hair, collecting flowers from the backyard and the trident-shaped leave triplets from the bella tree and the buds of the tulasi plant; all neatly arranged in a basket and ready to be offered to Lord Shiva. Only lately such routines had acquired a new level of austerity and intensity when the decisions of the boys’ families would take long in coming. A stifled fear now drove these routines: just in case a shortcoming in devotion or a compromise would result in divine offence. A minor kink on the edge of the bella leave would not be good enough. The bud of tulasi would be immediately discarded if the symmetry of its blossom was not maintained equally on each side. Eleven blood-red hibiscus flowers had become a new addition to the offering basket. And a fuss was kicked now about the tumbler full of milk that Bimla would carry with her to the temple. That special milk would no longer be sampled out of regular quantity of milk which the milkman delivered each day. But Bimla would take the tumbler with her at the incipient glow of dawn each Monday––only after bathing and wearing a washed sari––to Jyotsna’s house to fill the tumbler with fresh, raw and pure milk that she would draw herself from the udder of the cow with her cleansed fingers while she chanted Lord Shiva’s name under her breath. Jyostna’s mother, for her part, had been quite welcoming and understanding. She unequivocally supported Bimla’s suspicion that in spite of his assurances the milkman “could not be trusted.” He might not pay close attention to what sorts of impure and low-caste hands touched the milk-can or the milking pails and, even if he did, then would he be sincere enough to sacrifice the milk to honor the promise? Also, he swore that he did not start milking until he took a bath (“Never madam, who would ever do such an inauspicious

128 thing?”) but, the perpetual foul odor reeking from his stale clothes and body only thickened Bimla’s suspicion and left no other alternative for her but to appeal to Jyotsna’s mother’s favor. And this routine continued without event, until this Monday when Malati sensed her mother’s frustration and impatience trailing her mute presence like a prominent shadow. That restlessness was not because of any anxiety that her devotion might fall short or she might commit a blunder. Nor was it due to the tedium of the routine, the weary anticipation of the long day that awaited her mother in which she was not supposed to eat or drink anything, a rigorous form of fasting which she had imposed on herself lately and which she was determined not to forsake even though such practice in the past had lead to fainting, dehydration and vomiting. Bimla’s restlessness was a reminder to Malati of the last time she had seen her mother so sullen. When Jyotsna got married, Bimla had imprisoned herself in impenetrable silence for two whole days, not speaking to anyone and only responding when necessary. Bimla’s gaze rested upon the random vacant space for long periods of time, not searching for anything but reflecting some utter desolation and vacuum. During Jyotsna’s wedding preparations, Bimla was completely withdrawn, following a routine in a superficial way and sustaining her characteristics but stubbornly keeping a distance from the reality, committing many household mistakes. She forgot to keep track of the grocery, added sugar instead of salt, forgot to latch the bolt while taking bath, and forgot to provide tea to Jajati while he was in the house. For Malati the most worrisome part was when her mother did not show any alarm for the mistakes she made but continued functioning but in a indifferent and resolute manner. When the wedding tune started issuing from Jyotsna’s house Malati saw her mother

129 tighten the end of her sari around her ears. When the groom’s procession came she did not come outside pleading a bad headache. When Jyotsna’s mother asked her for help with the wedding chores, she participated but with repressed discontent and disinterest which were invisible to others’ eyes. Malati worried if her mother was angry at her, but such questions were met with the stubborn wall of her mother silence. The night after the wedding when Malati was sleeping next to her mother and recounting her experiences of the wedding and how ecstatic Jyotsna was, Bimla spoke after a deep sigh, “You’re born with my ill luck, girl. What can you do?” The implication of these words escaped Malati at first but then she came to realize the reason for her mother’s torment: Jyotsna’s marriage versus Malati’s unmarriability. Each time Malati lost the comparison against her friend her mother blamed herself, blamed ill fate and drew herself more and more into that fortress of stubborn silence. Malati was baffled—it was a silly comparison, wasn’t it? She refused to see her best friend as competitor. So far they had gone to the same school, studied in the same class, lived on same street went to the temple and bazaar together and shared each other’s secrets, but never had the girls compared their exam results, or the saris the wore, or what they cooked or the way they did the household chores or painted chitas on the ground, or the way the looked. Why should marriage set a different standard between them? True that suitable bridegrooms had started to be sought for both of them around the same time when they turned twenty-one, but there never was an expectation that the search for a husband should also end at the same time. Lying next to her mother that night, Malati had refused to share the air of defeat her inhaled in gloomy silence.

130 But now, this Monday morning, as the sunlight settled soft and golden on the compound, in the middle of which Bimla sat arranging her basket of offering for the temple, Malati could no longer discard the restlessness of her mother with the same ease and assurance. She watched her mother in rueful sympathy and those pale, aging hands, on which no longer shone bangles of gold but of colored glass from which light reflected fake and dull, as they separated in labored monotony crooked bella leaves from perfect ones. Before, when Bimla came back from Jyotsna’s house her eyes were full of tears. She called Malati down and in a voice that quivered and gradually faded she said, “Jyotsna is coming for Durga Puja,” her mother said. “Not alone but with her husband and servant boy.” The initial sense of euphoria which Malati felt for her friend’s return was checked as she saw her mother’s eyes melt in tears of pity and self-reproach. Her mother was hurt not because of Jyotsna’s return or her husband but for the servant she would bring with her. That last piece of information must have been deliberately added by Jyotsna’s mother to taunt and reminder of how well-placed was Jyotsna in her husband’s house. Seven months has had passed since Jyotsna’s marriage and in her absence she had gained a reputation previously unknown to her for the twenty-one years she lived in Jharpada. The entire village now judged her as a beauty that had no rival. A radiant charm and grace every girl would wish to possess. No household chore was too difficult for her. And cooking! Her renowned curry of spinach and shrimp was fit for the gods. Yet, in spite of such virtues, Jyotsna had remained a paragon of modesty and humility, qualities most desired in a wife. Jyotsna’s past girlhood of no significance was re-forged with vivid details and exaggeration to serve new purposes; perfect

131 for this chore was Jyotsna’s mother, whose memory was opportunistic and selective, who now offered up a canon of stories that supported the myth of the perfect wife by that of a perfect daughter. She recounted Jyotsna’s childhood and adolescent in a manner deliberately weary and laborious to suggest that how much it pained her to repeat those known instances about her daughter, yet she could nto help herself each and every time she found herself in the middle of a gathering or when the slightest allusion was made about her daughter. Of all her daughter’s innumerable wonders, the most repeated stories were about Jyotsna’s beauty: the time when Jyotsna was returning alone from the bazaar two shameless loafers followed her all the way to her house, whistling and singing romantic songs… when the famous astrologer Baba Bhairabananda, that all-seeing and all-knowing saint, visited the village how he only had to lay his eyes on nine-year old Jyotsna for an instant to recognize that her constitution was flawless like a whole grain… when Jyotsna’s Grand Uncle, who did nothing other than watch movies all his life, could not stop mentioning how much Jyotsna resembled his favorite movie actress, Meena Kumari, and how, at his death bed he sent for Jyotsna to allay his lifetime regret of never having being able to see a real movie star and so at least to die seeing someone look like one. Well yes, thought Malati, even as a small girl Jyotsna was enviously pretty. Once Jyotsna’s mother’s brother’s sister-in-law’s daughters spied on Jyotsna to see what soap she used to become so beautiful. Jyotsna’s mother had alkways been publicly, loudly certain that she would never face any problem with Jyotsna’s marriage. She never spent a sleepless night. Neither had she scourged through half the world to find a decent match. And Jyotsna’s father was so serene that he did not even have an iota of worry to arrange for dowry. He would

132 “part with his right hand,” he said, if anyone would ask for money to marry his daughter. And truly, it turned out to be so. Every boy who came to see Jyotsna was enthralled by her beauty. Their eyes would not avert from her, not caring how inappropriate their act of daring would seem to the elders around them. And one lad––at this point Jyotsna’s mother would lower her voice and swear that Lord Shiva might burn her tongue if she were lying––one lad truly wrote a letter after seeing Jyotsna that he would end his life if his marriage was not fixed with her. Ah, and so many marriage proposals came! So many choices Jyotsna had that it became over whelming. But Jyotsna was patient and uninterested, no matter how much the boy’s family pleaded to win her as their daughter-in-law. Like a jeweler she waited and watched for the true gold to shine under her eyes. And what a jewel she chose: an Assistant Engineer with the Government of Orissa, with an office vehicle at his disposal, with official accommodation in a house big enough to accommodate Jyotsna’s entire family. When the husband and wife would travel by train they would secure a reservation in the car with AC (Jyotsna’s mother would repeat the two letters with hissing emphasis: ay-cee) where the air would be as chilled as the wind off of Annapurna. And the salary! What Jyotsna’s husband earned was grand enough to afford a servant, a maid and a gardener… Jyotsna would never have to work again! What a husband she chose! When Jyotsna’s mother went to visit her daughter after her marriage she came back full of obsessive talk for her son-in-law’s office jeep. There was a jeep that was parked for two hours outside Jyotsna’s house, blocking the street. Jyotsna’s mother apologized to the passers by for the inconvenience but all the trouble could be traced to how caring and

133 compassionate her son-in-law was: he insisted upon her not taking the bus back home, subjecting her frail body to unnecessary stress and indignities, but to enjoy a breezy and comfortable ride in the jeep. Ah, what speed! What a vehicle was that jeep! Jyotsna’s mother would know that jeep anywhere if she saw it again, because on the front-grill hung a black shining plate claiming in white letters PROPERTY OF GOVT OF ORRISA. Next to the jeep stood the driver in a humble and perplexed manner, wearing a khaki office uniform. And how was Jyotsna? Why she was in finest of her health, blossoming like a spring flower in her new role as a lovely wife and daughter-in-law. What amenities, what comfort she had in her house. She had a fridge. A phridge you could get water and sherbet from it as cold as ice of the Himalayas. She had a phone like people did in foreign countries. You could talk into it from anywhere in house! What amenities, what comfort… and there was more about the jeep! The jeep that had chauffeured Jyotsna’s mother about so ably was also used to take Jyotsna’s sister to the bazaar and bring Jyotsna’s father from his teaching job in the school. Finally as the dusk began to settle in the west sky, the jeep had delivered Jyotsna’s mother home and she was forced to release the jeep from her keeping and so she watched it depart, with the children running behind it in gleeful wonder amid the thick black clouds of exhaust… Here in the story, Jyotsna’s mother gave an approving nod, dabbing the corner of her eyes. Ah, what a husband Jyotsna chose! Recently, more of the village had begun to partake of the Jyotsna cult. In this air of unanimity the unequivocal beneficiary was Jyotsna’s image, her popularity and her legacy. Women of the village bestowed uninhibited praise upon Jyotsna hailing her as the most fortunate daughter a parent could have, how she had played the role of the eldest daughter to

134 perfection, paving the way for three younger sisters to benefit from the spotless reputation of the eldest sibling and marry well. Listening to such praise Malati wondered, how she could have been so oblivious to such flawless less character of her friend? Or was it a case of general apathy that one developed after being in persistent vicinity of a fire or a glow? Under such circumstance, the skin no longer felt the warmth and eyes got used to the brightness around… On the other hand, was Malati’s sense that Jyotsna was a normal girl the case of a careful misrepresentation on part of Jyotsna? Perhaps she might had been acutely aware of her own superiority of prospects and to protect her friend from envy she might have withheld her brilliance and splendor to a point where their childhoods had appeared equal and familiar to each other. And sadly, the past did not hold out for her a conclusive answer to this mystery except for one episode, one bitter fight that led to both friends not talking to each other for nine days. The hurtful words that were exchanged, the sheer humiliation in those demeaning accusations, and those flushed eyes teeming with hatred seemed to Malati as immature and distant now… except for one passionate insult with Jyotsna hurled at her, words quickly forgotten, but now shimmering anew: Jyotsna ill-wished Malati that the only person who would ever marry her was the village madman, Baya. The very thought of such a union felt so grotesque and sordid that even after years Malati still felt the pinch of the humiliation on her cheeks. And as she brooded over the past rift Malati grew more suspicious of Jyotsna and wondered if that was a rare slip-up on part of her friend when she failed to hide her superiority which would be exposed by her mother later.

135 Malati pondered their shared past heavily. While growing up, the two friends discussed about their school life, the meanness of their friends, futility of education in their lives, the saris they would wear during festivals and the details of their menstrual cycles, but seldom did they express interest in boys or men. Was that deliberate on part of Jyotsna? Future seemed of no importance to them except for the banalities of the present. When the search for a bridegroom began, they shared the initial excitement, talked about how they would present themselves before the boys’ families and get over their fears. But once the boys and their families would leave, the two friends would not speculate on their chances of getting selected or rejected. They would only share a mutual sadness for being separated soon. In those days, their talk was only about the past and nostalgia and the fear of leaving to a place where the world would be completely new and alien. They did not also talk about whose brides they should become or why one marriage proposal was better than the other. For them becoming someone’s wife was only a matter of time and never a matter of attaining self-worth. Thus they failed to comprehend that becoming someone’s wife was all they had to desire and strive for in their lives. How naïve were they? Or was it a case of only Malati being naïve and Jyotsna acting along to delay Malati’s introduction to a rude realization? But on this Monday morning after receiving the news of Jyotsna’s visit Malati was not so sure about her wish to be reunited with her friend. She was deeply afraid like her mother. What if Jyotsna would confess that she had kept secrets from Malati. What if she would reason that she did it out of pity and concern for her friend. What if she would second her mother’s opinion that they never stood on equal grounds. Malati reproached her friend. She accused her of being secretive and dishonest in a friendship that was supposed to be open

136 and transparent like the sky. Malati was only getting firm and resolute in her conclusion when she realized of her own secretiveness. About that night of which she had not told anyone, not even to her best friend, about that summer breeze and jasmine scent, and his wild, halting hand resting upon her like morning chill. A tin bowl full of water slipped out of Bimla’s hands. As the bowl rolled and swirled on the compound floor spilling water, the false note of the metal rang impassively. Jajati who was sharpening the edge of the hoe on the kitchen verandah halted momentarily. His lips tightened to express discontent before he went back to his work. Bimla proceeded to fill the bowl again from a bucket of fresh water kept separately from the vat. Malati could no longer watch the agitated posture of her mother and her broken spirit which silently affirmed her general suspicion and misgiving. She climbed back to her room. On her bed was lying the old mirror. She could not gather courage to check her face in it. She distrusted her own reflection.

The mother and the daughter walked to the temple in washed and unpressed clothes. Bimla carried the basket of offerings. Malati smelled the freshness of the soap drifted from their washed hair, which left behind them a lingering trace. Their heads were covered out of piety and humility, Bimla’s with the end of her sari and Malati’s with the dupatta of her salwaarkameez. The day promised to be sunny and muggy keeping the rain at bay. From the wet leaves of the trees and from the wet thatch of the rooves dripped last night’s dew. In the

137 meager huts of the farmers, life was slowly stirring up to face another day. On the edge of the front verandah empty glasses of tea were left alone. On one side of the verandah were stacked empty brass or clay pots to be taken to the well for water later. From the cooking stove drifted the thickening smell of the burning firewood as the morning meal was prepared. Men wrapped up make-shift beds that were set up in the verandah: mosquito net and the bedding, both ending in one tangled lump. Ragged children, their eyes still heavy with dreams, brushed their teeth in lazy, distracted manner with brush-sticks. Averting their gaze from the known faces around them, Bimla and Malati walked. Bimla’s heavy and rustling steps against Malati’s silent and obliging ones. They walked past Madhia’s hurt, where squatting at the doorstep Madhia massaged oil on his torso. As soon as he realized that the two women walking by were Jajati’s wife and daughter, he lowered his eyes and crossed his hands against his chest. They walked past the hurt of Blind Mausa, as the old man sat alone by the window in the company of the mournful tunes issuing from his radio. His vacant eyes perpetually on the street, yet seeing nothing. They walked past the village well. As the busy hands drew water from it, the coir ropes pressed thin against the brim of the well. Men bathed and soaped on one side, and women occupied the other, washing and cleaning their clothes and dishes. And they kept walking, past the threshingground, past the mango orchard that once used to be the prime property of the old landlord, past the recreation field where the untrampled grass drew as high as a grown man’s knee, past the tall fence of the untouchables’ colony, past the old threshing mill that was ruined in the flood of 1972, and past the grazing fields where goats and pigs grazed in inseparable herds.

138 From the ends of Bimla’s flip-flops rose two tiny clouds of dust and from the bamboo bush on both sides echoed back the heavy drag of her steps. So far not a single word had been exchanged between the two and not a single eye-contact made. They echoed each other’s silence, fears and devotion. The vegetation to their left became sparse, the land dropped to the slope of the bank and Saptadhara became intermittently visible. The river water sparkled with the morning radiance, silvery and fickle. Bimla tightened the sari around her ears and rested her right hand over the open basket. As the wind teased her skin, Malati was tempted to untuck her favorite hair lock to the front of her face, but sensing her mother’s mood she restrained herself. They took the final turn to left and Saptadhara came in full view. So did the village temple, imposing itself on an ancient promontory above the riverbank. Under the blue, open sky and against the backdrop of dense verdure stood the deul of the temple in limestone white, with its brass peak and the vermilion flag-strip fluttering from its top. Stone-carvings of patterns and symbols embroidered the four faces of the deul all the way to the top where the four faces merged with a spherical ring, completing the shape of an inverted lotus. At the core of the deul was situated Lord Shiva’s manifestation, his omnipotent Linga, the eye of which faced east, presiding over the coast of the Saptadhara that flowed from north to south. The purpose of the temple was to act as a fortress that would protect the village from the fury of the river. Seeking the divine help has kept the threat of flood at bay except for the flood of 1972 when the water rose so high that even the Shiva Linga got immersed under it. That was a dark year when the Lord abandoned His abode and unleashed the river’s ferocity, washing away their one and only bridge, to serve a warning to the villagers for their devious and sacrilegious ways.

139 The deul was bordered by four compound walls on which were painted the images of different Gods and Goddesses. The wall on the side of the river was the sturdiest and tallest, rising to chest-high. Standing by it devotees would stare at the river at the hazy greenery and the pulsating town of Palleri that thrived across it. They would watch nostalgically to their right at the three remaining pillars stubs of the old wooden bridge. And to the left was the rising landscape of the high-banks between which the rivers squeezed through. Down below eddied the muddy water of the river. When Saptadhara swelled to its full size, foamy waves lapped softly at the feet of the precipice. Devotees often tossed coins and their offerings into the water out of an old belief that the practice helped in the fruition of wishes. Malati and Bimla took off their footwear at the entrance to the temple exactly seven steps were before them and at both sides of the entrance there were two stone lions, sitting in watchful austerity. Yellow paint glistened on their body and their pendulous tongues jutted out in ferocious red. At the feet of one lion were arranged in neat sequence the clay lamps, incense sticks, packets of camphor and garlands of red hibiscus. Sitting beside her sale items, Durga Mausi hummed her conversation with God in a faint murmur. She only stopped to conduct a transaction with a customer and then wishing God’s benevolence upon her customers she continued humming. She was never reckoned as a madwoman but only thought to be sad and old. Bimla and Malati silently climbed past the old woman. The stone floor of the temple compound was cold beneath their feet and its grainy and uneven surface was congruent to the arch of their feet. In the cracks of the stone were vermilion and turmeric deposits and in the depressions of the floor surface cradled puddle of water. Malati’s attention on these fine details around her was undivided yet she could find no

140 relief. The unrest inside her somersaulted from one conundrum to another: to accuse Jyotsna of manipulation or to accuse Jyotsna’s mother of being a liar and let the God be her judge… But there were more important choices, truly: should she put her trust in the miracle of piety? Had she underestimated the graveness of her sin for one night of passionate feeling? Should she sacrifice her desire for happiness as penance? But that sacrifice was not sufficient, not for her disobedience. As apprehension seized her ability to reason, Malati feared that soon she would be afflicted by the same restlessness of her mother. And now standing before God, standing under the roof of his abode, Malati felt he rasping gush of the wind in her ears. Wind was a constant pleasure at that height, coasting along the compound walls, snaking between the pillars, swirling and swishing about the curved perimeter of the deul. Against the wind floated in the weighty voice of the priest. The inflection of his voice seemed to carry a trace of chanting: a lyrical rhythm, knowing how to emphasize a word to establish its authority. He sat below a marble engraving on the wall which Malati’s grandfather had once donated to the temple. And at present the priest was quoting a passage from Ramayan to a devotee who listened intently. “Arre,” he said, “even Lord Rama could not defy the opinions of the Brahmins. And he was, after all, the God in human incarnation…” His corpulent constitution was scantily clothed: a saffron towel circled his neck and a chequered loincloth poorly concealed his pillar-like thighs. The sacred thread that distinguished his class ran diagonally along his sweaty torso. His saggy jowl and lazy eyes were the hallmarks of his vocation as the lack of physical rigor had left him effective only for reciting, lecturing and modest temple work. Upon seeing Malati and Bimla, he motioned them to go inside the deul.

141 The cavernous inside of the deul was suffused with the cloying odor of old flowers, camphor and incense. The trapped air fermented over and over, enriched each time by a new batch of offering. The walls and the stone floor were wet and sticky to touch. And at the center stood the Linga in its smooth, dark form sparsely lit by a meek electric bulb burning in the corner. There were no other devotees in the deul and when Bimla knelt down and mumbled her prayer, an indistinct echo was heard. The priest followed in soon with heavy steps and taking the basket Bimla had brought. When he recited the mantras in his stentorian voice and with emphatic gestures the excess flesh of his body vibrated in affirmation. At this time Malati’s attention was not in the prayer and not at the Linga which her mother watched so earnestly. But she was encumbered by an inopportune thought which revolted and surprised her. It was about an incident that occurred years ago when Malati and Jyotsna had come to the temple together. While returning, Jyotsna started crying and when Malati insisted to know the reason, Jyotsna confided that she was groped by the priest. The two decided to keep the incident secret from their mothers. From that day Jyotsna was too cautious while visiting the temple and she pointed out that the priest often took a solicitous attitude towards young women and his hand rested quite freely upon them while giving blessings. Malati wondered why the priest had never displayed such attitude towards her. The two returned home as silently as they had gone. They were not very far from home when Malati saw the excited figure of Jyotsna’s mother, standing in front of her house gesticulating at her neighbors. When she saw Malati she rushed towards her in an animated and dramatic manner. “Aye, Malati!” she said controlling her breath and smiling. “I know you must be very happy after hearing about Jyotsna’s visit. She is very excited too. She has

142 sent the message that she can’t wait to see you and spend time with you, just like the old days. She said, ‘Tell my Malati.’ Yes—she said so—that during her entire visit she wants you to be with her…why Malati? Ah, you’ve started crying. Hush now, girl, hush.” Bimla was not a witness to this conversation because she had already entered the house.

143

Chapter

8

After three weeks, Somu was discouraged to find, it was mostly an audience of children who returned to his booth each day to watch the television. Their imagination still had not fully absorbed the colorful images of the foreign land, the dolorous voices of beautiful men and women that invited them through the T.V. screen, and the prize car that raced beside the green fields, blue valleys and sun-soaked sea beaches. Somu pressed down his tie to get rid of the pinching sensation in his throat, but the knot always felt too tight for him. Each night after returning home he loosened the knot and created enough gap to get his head out of the noose and the next morning he would tighten the knot slowly so to keep the tie loose around the neck. But as the day progressed he started

144 feeling that pinching sensation again and the tightness would not go away no matter how much he adjusted the tie. Prakash had assured that everything would settle down soon. The advertisement would work wonders. People would go berserk and clamor around the stage to invest in the offer. Money would pour down like rain. Yes, one had to constantly keep in mind those three essential keys. So far no one had approached Somu. A statue of Goddess Durga came down the road mounted on a cycle-trolley. Her face was masked with a piece of newspaper and Her multiple hands were emblazoned with weapons, implements and the demon’s head. Teenagers who sat on the trolley around the statue prodded the trolley driver to pedal faster, for the weather was erratic and it might rain in moment’s notice. Sitting in his chair Somu watched the red sari of the statue as it slowly distanced away from him. The fresh red paint vividly contrasted against the cloudy weather. What if a drop of water would land on that red? What if a shower were to follow now? That red would bleed in no time and only clay and mud would be left. After the statue disappeared from his sight, a man in a motorbike approached the stage. He parked his vehicle near the steps and took off the helmet from his head. Somu stood up in response and received the man with a warm smile. The man looked young, maybe early thirties. He wore a plain shirt and pants and had a pen tucked in his pocket: ah, a government employee. He had a greasy face and from the shine of his hair, moustache and sideburns it was apparent that he applied oil quite generously. He greeted Somu not with a namaskar but with a handshake. “Somnath Babu,” he said sitting on the chair Somu offered him, “I feared you might have gone home for the day because of the rain.”

145 “Not at all. I am always here to help people,” said Somu with a smile. The line he had rehearsed so many times by now had finally been put to use. “You people are so impressive. I mean you and Prakash Babu and the people of Millennium Finances. I can’t tell you how happy I am because you have brought your company’s offer to this town. Otherwise, who cares about Palleri?” “I am glad that you’re impressed,” said Somu, sitting down and crossing his legs. He was not sure yet which posture to adapt so that he would appear graceful and not desperate. “I was here that day during the speech. When Prakash Babu mentioned about the stock exchange I knew right then you are the right people to trust with money. You people know what you are talking about and you can–––” “Indeed. We know a lot about the stock exchange and we will triple your money within six months.” “Exactly! To tell you the truth Somnath Babu, I always knew stock exchange is where one should invest his money. One of my colleagues’ brother lives in Bombay and he invests his money in the stock exchange. And my colleague always boasts that his brother bought a new car, a new house and sent home money. So you can imagine my relief when Prakash Babu mentioned that your company knows how to make money in the stock exchange. I knew right then here is a chance to make some quick money. What’s the point in saving your money in bank or post office when it takes years to see your money multiply?” “That’s right. That’s why you should invest with us for quicker return. We’re completely trustworthy people.”

146 “That’s exactly what I told my wife. I said here are two gentlemen dressed in suit and tie and driving in a car looking like finest gentlemen and here are the people of the whole country investing with them and getting rich, so where is the room for doubt. But, she won’t believe me. I explained to her everything about the offer and about the stock exchange, but even then she is adamant that I should not give money to you. That you people are thieves and schemers.” Somu produced a sympathetic look, as if to say he understood. “Yes. That’s what she says. Please pardon my saying so to you. But, what else can you expect from an illiterate person? She easily gets taken by what she hears from other people. You see, no one in Palleri is sophisticated enough to understand about the stock exchange. So they will let the opportunity go rather than try to overcome their misgivings. Why, when Prakash Babu said the word ‘stock exchange’ I had no doubt left in mind. But it’s my wife who is quite rigid in her opinion. She has a problem of gossiping and believing in hearsay. How can you reason with a person like that? So I have decided to go ahead with the investment without her consent. Please take this check of forty thousand rupees.” Somu looked at the check the man placed on the table. Forty thousand felt a long way away from ten lakh figure, but at least it was a start. Somu realized that he had not asked the man his name yet. “I have forgotten to ask you your name.” “Oh, I have also forgotten to introduce myself because of all the excitement. I am Ranjan Praharaj and I work as a clerk at the Tahsil Office. Please take my check so that I can prove my wife wrong after six months,” the man said with a laugh.

147 “Yes, we are here to dispel people’s doubt and prove that we can indeed help them. I am glad that you’re investing with us now you can see for yourself the results after six months.” Somu took out the receipt book and started filling the required details. NAME. SEX.
ADDRESS. AMOUNT. MODE OF PAYMENT. NAME OF THE BANK. DATE. SIGNATURE OF THE INVESTOR. SIGNATURE OF THE REPRESENTATIVE OFFICER.

While Somu filled the receipt Mr. Praharaj asked in a softer tone, “Somnath Babu, what are my chances of winning it?” “Eh?” “I mean winning the car? Will I win it?” “You may. It depends on whose name gets picked in the lottery—” “Yes, indeed. But, I mean, is there anything that can be done to increase my chances?” Somu awkwardly stared at Mr. Praharaj’s curious face. “You see, the main reason why I am investing is to win that car. Imagine the surprise on my wife’s face when I drive home that car. Please, can anything be done about it?” “I will see what I can do,” said Somu in an unsure tone. “Please, please. I know you can accomplish a lot if you want. If you can put a word for me with your company people then I am sure they will keep your request. They can’t say NO to you. Can they?” “Of course not.” “But again, I don’t want to put you in an awkward situation. Even if I can’t win the car then I will settle for the second prize. I mean, who does not want to travel abroad? I have

148 heard everything is beautiful there. Isn’t it? My wife will be so happy. She has never even been outside Palleri. Imagine when she’ll sit in the plane to fly to Europe,” said Mr. Praharaj blushing and shaking his head with laughter. Somu handed forward the receipt and thanked him for the investment. But Mr. Praharaj seemed lost in a reverie and he continued sitting in the chair until Somu coughed. Before Mr. Praharaj left, he asked in a quite beseeching tone, “Somnath Babu, is there anyway I can invest in the stock exchange for the second time? Please, I am not being greedy, but I am desperate. I have two daughters and I need enough money to give them a secure future. If you can tell me a few tricks of the stock exchange then I promise you I will never invest the third time.” “You see,” said Somu after a thoughtful pause, “the stock exchange is a playfield of the rich. So only they get to invest more than once. And if ordinary people like you dare to invest by themselves then they will come after you.” “Really? But my friend’s brother–––” “Well, he has been lucky I suppose. But there is always a grave risk.” “I don’t understand the rules of the rich people,” said Mr. Praharaj in a helpless gesture. Before Mr. Praharaj finally left he paused to watch the advertisement. Along with the excited faces of the children his greasy face blended flickering with buoyancy and imaginativeness.

149 Somu had just started the advertisement the next morning when two old widows arrived in a rickshaw. Their white saris were so frayed and colorless that the morning sun could not salvage any luster in them. One of them walked with a stick and the other widow walked too close to her companion in an equally slow and feeble gait. They attempted to climb the steps of the stage but soon they gave up and slumped down on one of the steps. “Aye son,” said one widow addressing Somu, “give me some water, will you?” When Somu fetched water the two widows shared the glass between them. He watched their flaccid, toothless faces flushed with sweat and fatigue. Somu was under the impression that the two widows were sisters but from their conversation he gathered that they lived on the same street and were simply close acquaintances. Soon the widow with the stick started crying and recounted a bitter fight with her daughter-in-law the night before over the recipe of a pickle. “Tell me, who puts mustard in the pickle?” The other widow joined in too wiping her cheeks and reproaching the fussy ways of her daughter-in-law. “That’s nothing. So many times I have told her not to cut nails at night. But will she listen to me?” “Ah, I can find peace only after death now.” Somu stood with the empty glass in his hand. The widows did not acknowledge his presence and neither addressed him in their conversation. He had no clue about the purpose of their visit until the widow with stick took out a soggy roll of notes from a knot at the end of her sari and giving it to Somu said, “Here it is, son. Now give us three times the money so we can go to Banaras.”

150 “Ah son, don’t stand there looking foolish. You don’t know how tortured we are. Our sons won’t even side with us anymore.” And having said so, the widow burst into more crying. “Hush now, girl. Hushhhh. In Banaras you’ll find peace and home.” “But, you’re not going to get money now,” said Somu carefully. “It’ll take six months.” “Eh?” “And this money won’t do,” said Somu. “You must bring check or demand draft.” “Eh?” More hysteria followed. More the widows consoled each other more they cried. Finally, when they convinced themselves to wait for six months, an argument took place for dealing with the cash. The widows appealed for Somu’s kindness and vowed not to leave unless they were helped. Somu grudgingly acceded and as he took the sweaty roll of notes to the bank, he counted them. There was only twelve hundred rupees. When Somu returned greatly agitated and disappointed, one of the widows cried out, “Aye, you’ll make your mother proud, son. You’ll make her proud.”

The videotape was coming to its end. The closing lines of the advertisement were the repetition of the same message in four different languages: English, Hindi, Bengali and Oriya. Four different voices sounded confident and excited yet the edge of warning in their

151 voices were unmistakable. “If you care about your and your family’s future, then do not let this opportunity go!” But when one listened to it more than once, not for hours, but for days and for weeks on end then the implication became too obvious. A listener would no longer sense warmth, confidence, excitement or assurance but only notes of warning. There was a click on the VCR and the television went blank. Finally, silence. A much needed reprieve. Somu decided not to run the advertisement for the rest of the day but then he became aware of the earnest and beseeching expressions of the children standing before the stage. They looked inquiringly towards Somu with their lips hanging low in disappointment. Their group was an assimilation of children in school uniforms, children too poor to afford clothes and children too small to have any occupation. Their appealing gaze did not waver from Somu and whenever it did it rested upon the blank screen of the TV. Finally, Somu got up from the chair and reluctantly rewinded the videotape. When the television came back to life there were cheers and applause. When the music played for a complete two minutes, there rang a false note which cued a young woman’s voice who welcomed all future investors. In his dreams these days he often heard the narrators’ voices from the videotape. At nights when the whole world would down to complete silence he still heard voices in his head talking to each other in the same manner and tone of the advertisement. In the conversation when people paused to articulate their thoughts he raced ahead in his head to fill their silence with the words from the advertisement. His mind was entrapped by the cursed videotape. Yet when no potential customer visited him, he was troubled by idleness. He often paced on the stage restlessly and sneaked to the back for a quick smoke. He listened to the

152 rain and wondered if the sound of it changed according to the time of the day. He sometimes kept count of the number of cars that drove past on the road, and the number of motorbikes, scooters and so on. When noon approached he expectantly waited for sunset and once it was dusk he began to count the hours before he could go home. But finishing for the day was not straightforward; there was an array of chores. A cycle-trolley stopped by at eight p.m. each night to transport the valuable items from the stage to a rented room for safekeeping. When the trolley was delayed or the keys didn’t work in the lock, Somu felt nothing had ever been more burdensome and tedious. But no ordeal was worse than that blasted tie. Each night he took it off with a fear that he might have developed blisters on his neck, or that there would be red marks only known to hanged men. But he would find his skin intact. Why was it so painful? He got up in the middle of the night rubbing and massaging his throat. He applied dew, rain and even his own saliva for a therapeutic result but the needling sensation did not go away. Every morning he decided not to put on the tie yet, without it, he found an essential aspect of his personality and style missing. More horrible yet was that he could not go out at night to entertain himself lest the whole of Palleri think he was spending their investment money. He could no longer visit Pandia’s shop because his mother kept her money-box locked all the time now. And Somu hesitated to ask Prakash for money for the fear of betraying his desperation. So far only five and half lakhs had been collected. He kept close track of the investment by each customer and made a mental note of the final total. The investment did not come as spontaneously as he had anticipated or as Prakash had assured, but in a slow and painstaking measure, in amounts as low as one thousand rupees. Prakash suggested not to

153 discourage any customer except for the beggars with their paltry coin bags. Except for that instance, it did not matter how big or small were one’s aspirations or if one invested for the sole motive of winning the lottery. But increasingly Somu was being met with difficult questions and unreasonable arguments. Who would pay the tax on the money that was made on the investments? Did the company have some credential from the Government or a regulatory body? Where could one find more information about the stock exchange? Would an official from the exchange visit the town? What were the make, model and the mileage of the prize car? And how long was the journey to Europe? Somu was certain that such questions were raised out of mischief, to see him struggle and fumble for an answer. Because when he tried to assert the company’s credibility, he was rebuffed and accused of trying to plot a scam. Somu was left angry and he complained to Prakash of such accusations but he received a standard reply, “You can not wish away such people, Somu. These are egotists who think themselves of being too educated and well off. They cannot stand the fact that poor people in the town finally have a chance to make easy money.”

Finally October 7 arrived, the last day for any lottery aspirant to apply for the offer. The number of the investors was higher than any other day but none of the investments were significant enough to excite Somu. Towards the end of the afternoon and under cloudy conditions arrived Hari Biswal with a check of eighty thousand rupees. He was a young man

154 with hair thinning from the front of his head. His thick lips and bushy eyebrows preserved a youthful character yet there was something mature and grave about his expression. The top two buttons of his shirt were unbuttoned too and through the long opening of his neck glistened a thick gold chain. He cut Somu short when he tried to explain to him about the details of the offer. “Please,” said Mr. Biswal, raising his hand. “I don’t want to learn more about your offer or your company. Frankly, I won’t even understand them.” Mr. Biswal put down the check on the table and as Somu was about to take it, he held it down with the tip of his index finger. “But I must know few details before you take my money,” he added, leaning closer. Somu dictated a faint odor of liquor in his breath. “What is your full name and where do you stay?” “Why do you want to know?” asked Somu suppressing his anger. He did not like the confrontational tone of Mr. Biswal and he would have immediately taken him on had it not been for such a large investment. “You don’t expect me to give you money just like that, do you?” “Aren’t the name of the company and the testament of so many people good enough for you?” “Frankly, those people are not me. I am giving money to you, so I must know about you and not about your company.” “Well, you do not invest then if you do not trust us,” said Somu turning red. “Ha, you’ve become angry,” said Mr. Biswal in a softer tone. “If you’re not going to tell me about yourself then so be it. But I can always find out about you if I want.”

155 After few moments of tense silence Mr. Biswal pushed the check in the direction of Somu. Then he added in a thoughtful and friendly tone, “I was once cheated by a friend, after which I could not start a business when I wanted to. I need not go into details about how I settled matter with him. But since that day I am always cautious about financial matters.” As Mr. Biswas was about to leave, Somu gave him his receipt. Declining it he said, “Again, I don’t need any proof or paper from your company. I know you. And from here on I will deal only deal with you, Somnath Babu.” Somu felt humiliated and threatened. Yet Mr. Biswas had invested the money and Somu did not think to refuse it. He kept the check along with other payments received for the day. Seven lakhs and sixty thousand so far.

That night Somu was in a bad humor as he sat down for the dinner. The food did not interest him as he responded to the need of his stomach mechanically. His mind still dwelt upon that earlier argument with Mr. Biswas and to relieve himself of the anger he craved for the numbing effect of liquor. His mother sat silent at her usual place right beside the kitchen threshold leaning against a gunny sack. A leaky kerosene lamp kept her face alight while a solitary candle burned beside her son’s dining plate. She was also in equally resentful mood because the electricity was out. There was not enough money to pay this month’s electricity bill and when the officials came to cut off the power supply she pleaded but they would not listen.

156 She now faced an indefinite period of dark nights and her son did not even care to ask why the lights were out. There he was, stubbornly indifferent to all worldly cares and inconveniences. But she did not want to chide him for any of these worries. There were other pressing issues at hand. So she waited till his stomach was full enough to allow him a peaceful sleep. “Do you need more rice?” she asked. There was no response. “I know for sure now you’re deep in trouble. I only suspected it the very first day I saw you in those fancy clothes. Our neighbor stopped by to tell–––” “Oh, what does she know?” retorted Somu. “She can’t even count beyond ten.” “It’s not only her, Somu. She said everyone in the town is talking about you. And I am not blind. I can pick it from your air. I saw your friend in the car that day. Isn’t he Prakash that old rowdy of the town? I thought he had ruined you enough and he would never ever return.” “I do things out of my own accord and not what others tell me to do. And you’ll see soon what will become of me.” “I am only seeing what I never dreamed of seeing,” she said with a bitter smile. “Well, your brother said your father’s gratuity has been held up. The officials are asking for money before they will sanction the amount and you brother has been stubborn upon spending a single rupee to grease the hands of those Babus.” Somu was suddenly struck by a plan then. “What is the amount you are owed?”

157 “Eh, it’s about sixty thousand rupees your brother was saying. But don’t think that I will give that money to you, Somu. Not until you mend your ways and stop being friends with that rowdy.” “I meant the bribe amount,” said Somu irritably. “Three thousand rupees. But why do you ask? What can you do? You better go and persuade your brother. He is adamant the money never come to me as long as you are under this roof.” “I am not going to his house ever,” said Somu, pushing away the dinner plate. “There, that attitude of yours. Your two sisters have sent letters saying they can’t come for the Puja. I know why they’re not visiting and I don’t blame them. Who will want their children to come under bad influence?” She wiped her cheeks and said in a calmer tone. “There is another thing though. I want you to go to Jharpada.” Somu was about to get up, but suddenly he checked himself. “Now, don’t say no. The last time you went there you had a row with your Uncle Jajati. Promise me that you’ll behave properly this time. Your uncle is ill-tempered because of his misfortune. And that poor girl! God knows when she’ll get married…” “When do you want me to go?” asked Somu brusquely. “During the Durga Puja. You go either the seventh or the eight day.” “I can’t tell you for sure if I will go there,” said Somu, dismissing his mother’s request in an off-hand manner. But he smiled inwardly as he sauntered out, feeling the wild palpitation of his heart and the rush of blood in his veins. He said to himself: at last.

158 That night Somu did not feel the necessity to visit Pandia’s shop. His throat was already soaked with the sudden eruption of optimism. He listened to his mother’s soft snoring permeating the room as he constantly shifted sides on his bed. So far he had waited for an invitation from his uncle or insistence from his mother to visit Jharpada so that he did not seem to offer a compromise or apology toward his uncle. It had been more than a year since he had laid eyes on her. Also, soon he would be successful. He would not only receive one lakh rupees but there was possibility now for earning more. His mind kindled with the brilliant idea that struck him at the dinner. He could invest his father’s gratuity in the offer and surprise her mother with that incredible return. But the hurdle was how to convince his mother. And, even more, where to find three thousand rupees for the bribe. If he could only divert other people’s investment for his own purpose without Prakash’s knowledge then he could make this plan work. Of course, many had come to invest with cash and left without even asking for a proof of payment just like those two widows. He would hide the investment of such cases from the company and once his father’s gratuity would get tripled he would return these people their due share or maybe more as a gesture of generosity. Yes, there would be no cheating involved and everyone would be equally benefited. As he slept peacefully, Somu dreamed of the pastoral beauty of Jharpada, his uncle’s old house, and that room where every aspect of day and night dwelt in uncanny brilliance. And finally his dream became whole when she saw her in that room sitting demurely in a pool of sunlight.

159

Chapter

9

Finally, she arrived. After much fuss and hysteria and six days of delay during which fresh arrangements were made followed by farcical lamentations, the jeep bearing the same official sign and carrying Jyotsna in the front seat arrived Jharpada on a sunny, breezy noon. Several factors contributed to the postponement of Jyotsna’s arrival. On the original date of travel, the gear train of the jeep malfunctioned. And as it was unthinkable for Jyotsna to travel in public bus, the commencement of journey now waited upon the repair of the vehicle. When this ordeal was overcome, a treacherous spell of late monsoon rain came down upon Jharpada unceasingly for two days, muddying the roads, inundating the low lands and affecting the daily life through minor disruptions and inconveniences. Immediately, a phone

160 call was made advising Jyotsna to further delay her visit as for a “city” girl like her the present condition of the village was unhygienic and unsuitable. In preparation for Jyotsna’s arrival special arrangements were made for her convenience and to win her commendation. A safety toilet was constructed just like Malati’s house. The front of Jyotsna’s thatched house was repaired and white-washed. Under the supervision of her mother the three sisters scraped off years of moss deposits from the compound walls and dusted off meticulously the deep recesses of furniture and overlooked corners of the house. An ice-box was purchased and a deal was made with a cold-drink vendor at the bazaar for the daily supply of ice. The household that solely relied on the wind for ventilation now installed a ceiling fan to end their helplessness against the vagaries of weather. Against such diligent elaborations and resolute planning the rain failed to act as a spoilsport. As soon as the rain was over, the household spiritedly engaged themselves in restoring the original preparedness and the desired improvisations to such admirable degree that the entire village readily acceded to the impression that someone very important was about to arrive in Jharpada. So on that radiant noon as Jyotsna’s jeep turned the final corner towards its destination, the stage was already set for a grand reception. The rising anticipation had put the housework on halt. Mothers had donned their children in best clothes to appear refined and cultured. And they themselves had changed into their most important looking saris and joined the congregation outside Jyotsna’s house that teemed with mutual excitement for the incoming guest. The older women were the most curious lot who had perched themselves on the front verandah of the house and had indulged in high-spirited speculations about the

161 physical and behavioral change Jyotsna would have gone through in last six months. Malati had added herself to the reception party quite inconspicuously. She had arrived not too early or late and had taken a place in the shadow of the front door after notifying to Jyotsna’s mother and sisters in a dull and taciturn manner about her arrival. “She’s come. The jeep’s come.” The children erupted in chorus when the vehicle appeared at the end of the street. Like the hum of one bee setting abuzz its companions the entire crowd murmured after the children half in question and half in assertion. Small children broke loose from their mothers’ sides and rushed towards the jeep to frolic in its dust trails and cheer to its metallic gargle. The guests and the family members stepped outside of Jyotsna’s house to add to the clamor and euphoria. In a more dramatic gesture, Jyotsna’s mother bolted out from the kitchen appearing worked up and careworn and pleading people to allow her a glimpse of her daughter. Jyotsna’s great aunt who had arrived the day before hollered from her seat in the sitting room to be apprised of the details and the mood of the scene and when nobody paid attention to her entreaties she thumped the ground with her walking stick in frustration. The jeep had to halt a few yards before Jyotsna’s house because the crescent shaped formation of the crowd kept swelling forward with excitement. Children were most impressed by the vehicle than by the people sitting inside it as for them the essence of the present buoyant mood was embodied in the shuddering contours of that automobile, its metallic throb, the languid impression of the sun reflecting from its windshield, and the silk tight leather that constituted its roof. They extended their hands temptingly but hesitantly to claim a portion of the vehicle with one eye fixed on its lure and the other watchful of any

162 sign of reprove from their mothers. But the attention of the women folks was maintained singularly upon the transformed figure in the jeep who six months earlier had left the village with tearful misgivings as a bride of a stranger and had returned now a loved and prized wife. They could not help bestow their affection upon her and share a feeling of pride for her good fortune. For she was the example that engendered in each feminine heart a possibility of affection and admiration in an otherwise insipid marital life. So even before Jyotsna alighted from the vehicle the caring hands of the women reached out to help her, to ensure that the folds of her sari did not get crumpled and the dirt of the street did not bother her feet. And when she emerged to full view and planted her feet on the ground a tight circle of women had already formed around her stroking her arms, murmuring affectionate phrases and cupping her face in maternal warmth. The old ladies on the front verandah could hardly contain their excitement. They half rose in support of the pillars or each others’ shoulders to gain a good view of her. “Look, how pretty she has become,” said one old lady, stirring with surprise. “Her skin is glowing like ghee.” “Didn’t I predict so?” added another. “This is what happens when you become the wife of a Government Babu. No housework and traveling in office vehicle only add to your beauty.” “Indeed. I have never seen anyone look so fair in my life. Look, I can even spot the moles of her neck from here.” And standing on the top step of the verandah Jyotsna’s mother called out, checking her sob, “Aye, let my daughter come to me first. My hands miss her the most than all of

163 yours.” When the women around Jyotsna were slow to let her go and started palavering with her, Jyotsna’s mother said in a sharper tone, “Aye, don’t let my daughter stand so long under this harsh sun.” From the doorstep of the house Malati was observing her friend with teary excitement. But unlike others, her assessment of Jyotsna was tinged with judicious silence. The remarks of the women had heightened her curiosity and she had been evaluating Jyotsna’s looks against the popular perception. So how prettier had Jyotsna become? The tip of her nose still shifted to right when she pursed her lips to check her laugh. A scar Jyotsna had received as a child above her left eyebrow still stood apart in its pinkish monotone from the rest of her forehead. And her chin never followed a smooth curve. Rather when looked from side it seemed too pointed to suit feminine grace. Her complexion did appear more revealing and fair but under a bright sun such enhancement could be an illusion. Malati saw the same Jyotsna in that stooped shyness, girlish titter and untroubled gait. She had not changed a bit: Definitely not to the degree as echoed by the people around her. Only she seemed to have acquired a discernible sense of fashion. Apart from being vivid and silken the folds of her sari followed a neat sequence and bounced softly with each step. Such effects were accomplished by a thin clip smartly tucked within the folds so that its color blended with that of the cloth. Her blouse was frilled at the shoulders and the sleeves ran below the elbow lines. Her height was accentuated by the sloped heels of her snow white sandals and a wrist watch of silvery finish shone beside her gold bangles. And then that leather bag, which slung from her right shoulder bulkily. As a solitary item that bag might have appeared impressive but beside the overcolored sari it was a gaudy misfit.

164 Slowly, Jyotsna made progress through the crowd towards her mother. When the two embraced each other the intensity of their emotions was overwhelming like the time of the bridal farewell at the end of Jyotsna’s wedding. The three sisters cried and laughed too for regaining the affectionate presence of their eldest sibling. Finally, Jyotsna noticed the presence of her old friend in that eager and emotive way she stood behind everyone and waiting for her turn to be acknowledged and embraced. It was like the old times as the two friends sobbed freely in each others’ arms, feeling the hot tears against their soaked skins as the reaffirmation of their old bond. It was like the two making up after a fight when they chose tears over words to convey their sincere affection. It worked then to ease the anger and leave in its place trust and sympathy. “Malati,” said Jyotsna, “not a single day had passed that I did not think of you. Sometimes I wished I should never have left.” And for that moment Malati believed her friend’s claim wholeheartedly. The houseboy who had alighted from the back of the jeep was waiting for orders to assume his role. And receiving directions from Jyotsna’s mother he promptly started carrying the items out of the vehicle. The children took part in offloading too. For them the most coveted items were the sweet baskets that came wrapped in violet paper as the gifts from the son-in-law. No one leaved the scene presently. Every guest, neighbor and stranger lurked about the verandah and sitting room, curiously observing the reception Jyotsna would receive. A chair was pulled to the middle of the room right under the fan and as Jyotsna sat on it one of the sisters appeared with a glass of icy lemon juice. The baskets of sweets and fruits were neatly arranged beside the front window so that their sizes and fancy wrappings would

165 not fail to draw the onlookers’ attention. In the meantime Jyotsna’s mother produced a sandalpasted betel nut from the sack hanging from her waist and circling the nut around Jyotsna’s head three times she went out to throw it away. The elderly women complimented the mother for her presence of mind. Jyotsna needed to be protected from evil eye. Who knew what kind of malicious intentions people harbored in their hearts? The great aunt’s view had been blocked by a section of teenaged girls. From her corner seat in the room she was trying to break apart the wall of girls before her by the stick. When she got the view of Jyotsna, she spoke out in a crackly tone that rumbled thick with phlegm. “Aye Jyotsna, is he treating you well?” When she received no reply, the old lady struck the stick on ground in helpless protest. “Is your husband treating you well?” Conversation in the sitting room became predictable as it was meant to satisfy a unanimous curiosity: To learn more about Jyotsna’s prosperity and good fortune. She sat on the chair surrounded by her sisters, answering each question with demurely composure and responding with a giggle when praise was lavished upon her. Womenfolks pressed for more details about her initial days in the city, the comfort of her house and her opinion of them. The refrigerator, the telephone, the vehicle and the houseboy: how did she feel about these luxuries? Had she gone out ever without the jeep? Her saris: where did she buy them from? Did she wear all these precious jewelries at home too? Young girls asked for tips and secrets that would make them look equally pretty. One neighbor started recounting the interesting things that had happened in the village in Jyotsna’s absence. The great aunt could no longer contain her frustration. She let out such a howling cry that a sudden silence lulled the room. Squeezing out her lower lip, the old lady said in a

166 jeering tone, “You women have shameless appetite for nonsense. Will anyone ask her about her husband? Where is he? How is he treating her?” Jyotsna’s mother bent her head back and laughed. “Mausi,” she said proudly, “look at the smile on my child’s face and those rosy cheeks. Do you think she is unhappy? Her husband has sent her home in a jeep along with a servant, while your and my husband had sent us to our homes in bullock-carts.” The chorus of laughter in the room left the great aunt confused and silent. Malati had withdrawn to an inconspicuous section of the room and maintained a distance from Jyotsna to test how soon her absence would be felt by her friend. But she was disappointed and gradually the warmth of the embrace that had the reminiscence of the old friendship dissipated in the unctuous air of the room. Jyotsna had changed. Or at least she entertained the thought like others that she had changed. Sitting on that chair she clearly appeared to be enjoying the attention. She allowed herself to be fussed over by her mother and sisters. She ordered the houseboy with no lack of authority. She listened to lavish praise without showing any signs of tiring. Modesty was only part of her decorum as the celebrities wear it out of awareness of superiority or for self-serving necessity. So when snacks was served and Jyotsna stayed put on the chair waiting for the serving plate and the tea cup to be carried to her by her servant, Malati decided she had seen enough. As she stepped out to the verandah, she heard behind her the loud proclamation of one of the sisters: Jyotsna no longer ate food with fingers but with spoon.

167

Chapter

10

He was in a gallant mood as he walked towards the bus-stand. The sun was all pinch and fire and his face and arms were already covered with perspiration yet he was unfazed. He rolled up the sleeves of his shirt and started whistling. He wanted to put on his stylish clothes, that shirt and the tie. But he was troubled by a reservation: what if she would misunderstand him like her mother. What if she would perceive him as a schemer? So against his impulses he put on his usual and uninteresting clothes. The plan he had in mind worked out without a single hitch. Two unsuspecting customers left their cash with him without asking for receipts and taking his assurance on face value. And after giving her mother the sum needed for bribe he was left with enough money to pay for the roundtrip to Jharpada. His mother was

168 suspicious and when she inquired about the source of the money Somu tactfully suggested that this was his first month’s salary from Prakash. His mother kept the money but not without grumbling Somu checked his watch. He had sufficient time before the bus to left. In his excitement he decided to take sweets with him. That would surely impress his uncle and aunt. So he ordered the finest sweets from the popular sweet-stall near the bus stand. In his zest he forgot to save enough money for the bus fare. But he was not to be deterred. He knew the tricks of traveling by bus without paying the full fare and even if he failed to convince the bus conductor then he would walk all the way to Jharpada under this heat. He would swim across the river without fear. At the bus-stand Somu waited for the bus under an advertising board carrying the packet his mother had given in one hand and the sweets in the other. People went to pee behind the advertising board and the mild stench of urine drifted in the air. Somu lit a cigarette to pass the time. When the bus for Jharpada arrived Somu avoided boarding until the last minute. Soon it was too full to take even any standing passenger. Still the conductor of the bus was busy in luring more passengers. “Come, come, come!” he shouted, “Sundarpur, Bheemapur, Thampi, Jharpada…only bus, deluxe bus, super-fast. Come, come, come…Ho brother, Mausi, sisters, come here!” “Is there any place for Jharpada?” asked Somu. “Oh plenty. Please come,” said the conductor, taking Somu by shoulder. “The bus is already full,” said Somu pulling his shoulder away. “That’s what it looks from outside, Bhai. Inside there’s much space.”

169 The conductor was a young lad. His moustache, faint and sparse, looked like a pencil sketch on a canvas. His demeanor suggested that he was a recent recruit into the profession. “Don’t force me into the bus,” said Somu adamantly. “Let me sit on the roof.” “No roof-sitting today. Police checking is going.” “Then I am not boarding,” said Somu. “Please Bhai, come with me. I’ll make some special place for you.” “I will get in only if you charge me half-price.” The conductor shook his head vigorously at first but then seeing Somu leave he acceded. Methodically he opened up a narrow passage among the passengers near the door and then indicating towards the front of the bus, he said to Somu, “There.” The place “there” referred to the bonnet of the bus near the driver’s seat, a sloping metal casing, grey and rusty, that looked like a coffin. Somu gave the conductor five rupees and tried to make his way to the front. The passage was cramped with vegetable bags, fish baskets and the tools of laborers. Some fisherwomen had sat down on the floor of the bus and were busy in a passionate conversation that sounded like an argument. Their bodies stank as severely as their baskets. When Somu asked for passage, they grudgingly pulled together their baskets and the loose ends of their saris while keeping the conversation alive. Ahead of them a drunkard slept against an iron pole. His bare legs blocked the passage and crossed into the other passengers’ seats. His stained loin cloth sloped down his waist, revealing his pubic hair. Passengers of the adjacent seats complained of the indecency and tried to rationalize what kind of creature would get drunk so early in the morning. Another woman, who must have been the wife of the drunkard, defended her man with lioness’s ferocity.

170 While watching the drunkard Somu accidentally stepped on a vegetable bag. He felt the squish underfoot and immediately the bag stained red. The owner of the bag glared at Somu but did not say anything. Behind the driver’s seat there was a heap of coconuts and a man sat luxuriously on top of it, smoking bidis and blowing the smoke out like a broken exhaust. Somu assessed the bonnet. There was no need to touch the metal. He could feel its heat by standing beside it. To the left of the bonnet was a long seat that was fixed along the length of the bus. Mostly women and children occupied this seat. A sickly looking child sat at the front of the seat leaning the back of his head against the front windshield. His eyes were closed and his front teeth were big and protruded, overlapping his lower lip. His mother who was sitting beside her was applying wet cloth to his forehead. She tearfully explained to the old lady beside her that the doctors in the Palleri hospital were heartless scoundrels. They had discharged her son even though his health had not improved. The old lady, who was carrying a bundle of sugarcane in her lap, listened with a compassionate expression on her face. She also expressed her own dissatisfaction over Palleri’s doctors, recounting the tales of her relatives. Somu was standing near the bonnet and searching for a piece of cloth that he could use. The old lady had wrapped the sugarcanes in a ragged burlap. When Somu asked for it, she gave it to him without hesitation. Somu spread the cloth at the lower side of the bonnet and sat down, his back toward the windshield. The bus did not leave for the next fifteen minutes and the passengers started complaining. It turned out that the driver was off to have breakfast and it gave the conductor more time to cram in more passengers. When the driver came, belching and munching

171 samosa, he turned out to be a guy as young as the conductor. Maybe two or three years older, barely legal to drive. He asked Somu to move from the bonnet so that he could check the engine. He started the bus and opened the metal flap of the bonnet to inspect the machinery that purred and whirled like a faulty and out-of-control piece of equipment. The noise was still roaring when the driver put the flap back. Somu sat down but the vibration from the engine jangled his nerves. The driver switched on a tape player kept in the overhead compartment. A loud, but melodious movie song started playing. The coconut guy patted the driver on his back for playing his favorite song and lit another bidi. The conductor from the back of the bus blew two sharp blasts of whistle and cried, “Go, go.” The driver promptly mounted his seat and the put the vehicle in gear. The driver drove aggressively as the bus hit the village road. He honked regularly to warn the traffic ahead of the bus’s approach. And he would callously accelerate anticipating a free passage only to break hard at the last moment. But each time an obstruction came and the bus slowed down there were no cursing or cry of frustration from the driver. His posture was relaxed and his voice was mellow as he sang with the tune of the tape-recorder. His fingers rapped rhythmically on the steering wheel as if it were a tabla. The cloud of bidi smoke hung densely over his head and for a man so young, he seemed to be in control of things. In the meantime, the engine was waking up and the bonnet was getting steaming hot. Also, heat of the sun was blazing through the windshield. Somu searched around and found a bottle of water under the driver’s seat. He took the bottle out and gulped down half of its

172 contents. Then he took the cloth that the old lady had given him and started soaking it with water. The driver suddenly spotted Somu and retorted turning around, “Oye, what are you doing? That water is for engine in case it heats up.” “This thing is hot too,” said Somu, pointing at the bonnet. “So? It’s a hot day. What do you expect?” “I am not riding in this bus to get my testicles fried.” The driver looked askance at Somu. “Don’t you have some manners? Don’t you see that there are ladies and children around here?” Somu did not argue. He put the wet cloth back on the bonnet and sat on it. He could hear the sizzling sound coming from the cloth. Soon, it would become dry. But at least for now Somu’s thighs and buttocks enjoyed the reprieve. His mind became calm and he could enjoy the pastoral scenery rolling past the windows now. The ripe paddies swayed under the sunlight like saplings of gold. In its rich folds stood the loinclothed farmers holding to their cane hats with one hand. Somu remembered the time when his brother and sisters used to travel with him to their uncle’s house. His mother would carry food for the three-hour long bus journey. He remembered the sweets of puffed rice and molasses his mother always made and their crunchy and sticky bites that the brothers and sisters took while taking turns to sit by the window. They played the game of naming the villages en route and they fought for the window seat when the bus crossed Saptadhara. The river’s width and expanse always awed them. His father when traveled with them told the stories of his youth and his first bus journey. His stories were always the same.

173 His mother on the other hand talked about her village, her father, five brothers and her family’s rich history. She always recounted those tales with a sliver of smile on her lips and a tinge of pain in her eyes. The children listened to their mother in riveting fascination about their grandfather, the old landlord of Jharpada who chose to become insolvent than give up his pomp, the five uncles whose bitter feud gained notoriety ten villages away, and that old house which used to be the pride of the village. As a child, Somu developed fancy for Jharpada. He wanted to go there to confirm the legends he heard from his mother, to see that house where his mother once lived with eleven orderlies to take care of daily chores, and to see his taciturn uncle who was the walking proof of the depleted past. His four other uncles, who Somu had never met, appeared in his imagination like apparitions to exercise their authority as the rich father’s possible heir and to engage in a bitter fight over the partition of the property. As Somu grew up he failed to attach same importance to that legendary past. Yet, there always remained a reason to return to Jharpada, if not for juvenile fancies then to exude with the lust of a lover. That house was a lush orchestration of memories that always haunted his dreams. It had been more than a year since Somu had returned to his uncle’s house. He wondered what she looked like now. In his mind, she had not changed a bit. How could she when he had been guarding her image like a jealous lover? Suddenly a pathetic cry came from the old lady followed by the ferocious screech of the rubber. The bus was swerving. Somu saw the panic-stricken face of the driver, his tense body standing on the break and the frantic turn of the steering wheel. The bus was almost toppling to Somu’s right. He could see the nervous, pale faces of the passengers and hear

174 their screams. He had no time to turn around and brace himself for what was about to hit the bus. He held onto the iron frame of the driver’s seat as the bus gyrated heavily. Somu slid off his seat and landed in the space between the bonnet and the driver’s seat. He feared the inevitable. In reflex, he doubled up and covered his head and face as the bus crashed hard. When Somu opened his eyes, he realized the bus had not toppled but he had only crashed. He saw the sunlight spilling richly on him. His body was covered with splinters of windshield which vulgarly sparkled at him. The shock of the impact still jarred in his nerves. Somu raised himself slowly, checking first if his bones were fine. There was no blood stain on his clothes. He touched his face and his senses appeared to be responding. The driver was leaning back on his seat, holding his neck in one hand and nursing his bleeding forehead with the other. There were coconuts around Somu’s legs. When he sat up, he saw the coconut guy lying on a pool of coconuts before the bonnet. His right hand was half-raised, begging for help. Perhaps he had broken his back. Somu looked to the right and saw the old lady gasping for breath. A girl was massaging her chest. And the young mother had blood in her ear and hair. She was whimpering, but not for her own pain Somu realized when he stood up. The body of her limp child was in her lap, his skull smashed and splinters of glass sticking out of his head, still sparkling. People of the nearby village had gathered around the bus, helping the passengers and their belongings out. They carried the injured in groups of three or four. When they tried to lift the dead child, the mother gave into hysterical cries refusing to let the body go. “Are you all right?” some one asked Somu. As he turned around, he saw the man who was arguing with the drunkard’s wife standing behind him.

175 Somu nodded. “You are a lucky one. You don’t even have a spot of blood on your clothes.” Finally, the rescue workers were able to disentangle the body of the child from the mother. She was screaming insults and flailing arms savagely at anyone who came between her and the child. It was quite a work for two men to keep her pinned down to the seat. Blood was still seeping out of her wound and slowly, nausea overpowered her. Tears were streaming down her face when she passed out. The two men asked for a piece of cloth to stop the bleeding. The cloth the mother was applying on the child’s head was lying at the corner of the bonnet. Somu picked it up––the cloth felt wet––and gave it to the men. The bus driver was standing outside the bus and explaining to the villagers in a shaky tone how the accident happened. He was saying how a young cyclist bolted out of the left lane right into the middle of the road and to save him he swerved to right. But by the time he saw the tree before him, the bus was already out of control. “It happened so fast, so really fast. Thank God, it was a weak tree. Had it been a big one then the whole bus could have toppled. We all could have died.” When Somu noticed the packet his mother had given him. That lay sandwiched between two coconuts. Somu collected it and got out of the bus. He saw the fallen tree uprooted from its ground. The left-front of the bus was damaged, the side against which the child was leaning his head. The dead child lay by the side of the road, an old piece of cloth covering his face. Slightly up the road, a cycle was left abandoned in the middle of the road. No doubt the cyclist must have fled after seeing the accident.

176 Somu felt thirsty and his legs felt so weak as if they would give in. To the left of the road ahead he saw a pond between the trees. After quenching his thirst with the pond water, Somu lay down on a patch of grass covered with the shadow of the trees. The sleep was not peaceful but when Somu woke up his limbs felt revitalized. Somu drank more water and got out on the road. There were more people now around the bus and the corpse of the boy was still lying where it was earlier. It would be a while before the ambulance or police would come. Somu stopped a bus that was coming down the road. “Where are you going?” asked the conductor. “Jharpada” “That’ll be five rupees.” Somu did not bargain this time.

The slanted rays of the afternoon sun were bouncing off the roof tiles of Jajati’s house. The house looked more grey and green than the last time Somu visited. He could not believe now that this was same house that used to inspire his childhood fascinations. A string of crows were sitting on the roof and pegging at the tiles. What could they be eating? Somu wondered. Rather the peg of their hard beaks might crack the roof open. As Somu came towards the house, Jyotsna’s mother recognized him instantly. She smiled at him, but Somu did not respond.

177 The front door of the house was open. As Somu entered, he saw his aunt coming out of the kitchen verandah. There was a pause in her walk and an expression of pleasant surprise. “Somu! Is that you? Oh Lord Shiva, what a good day it is.” Somu bent down to touch his aunt’s feet. Bimla took Somu’s face in her hands and said, “Let me see your face, son. It’s been such a long time. Have you forgotten us completely? Why didn’t you come before?” Somu smiled, not knowing how to answer these questions. He knew his aunt was not good at reprimanding. Her soft voice always gave him the impression that she was either pleading or humoring. “Come and sit,” said Bimla, taking Somu by his hand. “You must be tired after the journey. How is your mother? How is Tapas? It’s been such a long time since I have seen him. And how is his son? He must be walking by now. Oh, I forgot. Are you hungry?” “Nah, I am not,” said Somu shyly. “Oh, you must be,” said Bimla and hurried into the kitchen. Somu allowed himself to be fussed over by his aunt. He knew that Bimla stayed quiet in presence of his uncle and other male members. Otherwise, with children and women she was quite different. He remembered his past visits, when his aunt used to favor him the most among the children. She would say to Somu’s mother half jocosely and half in sorrow, “Kanta, you know I can’t have a son. Won’t you let me have Somu?”

178 Somu always liked his aunt, as a child and as an adult. She never asked him what he did for living. Why did he drop out of college or why did he come back from the city? For her, he always remained a child. And she always seemed to honor his wishes. Bimla came back with a glass of sherbet. “Have you had lunch? Let me prepare something for you.” “Nah,” said Somu, “I am not that hungry. Give me some puffed rice to chew.” “Your uncle will come from the field soon. Ah, he’ll be so surprised. Let me give you some food first then we’ll sit and talk.” Somu took a sip of sherbet and asked in a sheepish tone, “Isn’t Malati around?” “Of course, she’s. Oh I forgot to tell her,” said Bimla and then rushing out to the inner compound she said, “Malati. Oye, Malati. Look, who has come!” From the drawing room, Somu could hear the quick footsteps of Malati coming down the stair. The light in the inner compound looked too bright. Perhaps, he was gazing too hard in that direction. Or perhaps the sun was getting bright. He should look away, Somu thought, or he would suffer momentary blindness. But how could he look away? It had been more than a year since he last saw her. With the bated breath he waited and when she appeared at the foot of the stairs Somu saw her smile first. She was wearing a pink dress. She always looked happy in that color. Did Somu ever tell her that? Or she had guessed it long before and changed the dress when she heard Somu had come. Malati came and stood by the door as her aunt scurried to the kitchen. Somu held her gaze, to soak himself in that smile, the glaze of that pink dress, and the flicker of brightness

179 coming through her unbraided hair. They were alone. Who could censor him now for just a glance? It was so difficult. There was this unknown, heavy feeling inside him, which had been there for quite some time now, nagging him, refusing to listen to his wishes and forcing him to do otherwise. “When did you come?” Malati asked. She was still smiling. What a needless question. “Now,” said Somu. “Your hair looks wild. Have you been sitting on rooftop of the bus?” “Nah. I met with an–––” Somu took another sip of sherbet and, looking up, he continued, “You’re right. I was sitting on rooftop.” Malati giggled. “Why do you take such risks?” “It’s not as dangerous as you think. You stay cool in open. Also, you get to see good scenery. You should try it yourself sometime.” Malati burst into a cackle. “Nah baba, I’ll feel giddy by the speed. The wind is always too much up there. I will be blown away by it.” Somu laughed with her too. “You’re not that weak,” said Somu. “I’ll hold–––” “Food is ready, Somu,” said Bimla coming into the room. “Go and wash yourself.” Somu got up and he felt the weight of packet in his pocket. As he was about to give the packet, he remembered about the sweets. Ah, how could he have forgotten about those? What his aunt would think of him now? Then ruefully, handing over the packet Somu said, “Mother has sent this for Durga Puja.” “Ah, I should have known,” said Bimla, smiling. “It’s your mother who has sent you. Otherwise, you would not have come on your own.”

180 “Won’t you stay with us for some days, Somu Bhai?” asked Malati. Somu immediately looked away. On the street a pair of bullocks was passing by jangling the bells tied to their necks. He felt the urge to grab those bells and snatch them away. “I don’t know,” he said. “Now, don’t say ‘No,’ Somu,” insisted Bimla. “It’s been such a long time. Stay at least till the end of the Puja. You didn’t tell your mother that you’ll come back tonight, did you?” Somu shook his head. “Then please stay. You can wear your uncle’s clothes.” Through the corner of his eyes Somu watched Malati. She was still smiling. Malati smiled wider and went back to her room Somu then sat on the back verandah, his back against the kitchen wall and his knees raised. The bowl of puffed rice now lay empty beside his feet. His attention was on the boundary wall of the inner compound which had developed moss all over except where chunks of cement had come off exposing the clayish-red color of the bricks. In young days, he and his brother used to hold peeing contest against the wall: the bet was who can pee the highest. There was a narrow, sloping depression along the base of the wall to carry the waste out of the compound. The boys would spray their piss on the wall and watch with thrill the foam being carried away down the drain. But as they became adolescents the brothers stopped this practice and started using the safety toilet outside the inner compound like others. Now the wall seemed to stand there in a wasteful, insignificant way.

181 Somu heard the sound of anklets climbing down the stair. He picked up the bowl and started eating the remaining crumbs. Malati had unwashed clothes in her hand. She went to the vat and started washing the saris, salwaar, and kameez. Her back was facing Somu and her entire frame jerked from one side to the other as she soaped. He measured with his eyes the curves of her bottom, the shapeliness of her thighs, the hair bun that bobbed like a pendulum and her exposed skin through the unhooked back of her kameez where beads of perspiration were slowly gathering. Drops after drops sprouted around her spine, glistened in sun for a while before trickling down. Somu wanted to feel the drought of the desert so he could moisten his lips with those drops. He wanted to feel nauseated so the perfume of her sweat could let him breathe. He would not care to be burnt because those drops had the chillness of morning dew. He would not mind to be a pauper because in those diamonds he saw a lifetime of wealth. He wanted to touch those drops, be their keeper, their protector. He wanted to soak in them so that the smoldering solitariness inside him would not seethe his skin at nights. He wanted to make her his. But if that was not acceptable to the world, to the society, to the Gods, then he wanted the time to go still. He would avenge himself in that eternal cessation, in that comforting thought that the puritanical womb of the universe had gone sterile forever. And in that paralysis of matter and time, he would be a satiated spectator who would be sure that this spell was not going to be broken by any distraction. He would be an appeased lover who would be guaranteed that his object of obsession would never be taken away from him.

182 Somu did not hear Bimla calling his name until she touched him on shoulder. He started and quickly covered the bowl over the bulge of his pants. “Why are you out here, Somu?” asked Bimla. “Do you need more puffed rice?” Somu shook his head. From the drawing room Jajati’s voice was heard, “Bimla, Malati.” Jajati was carrying a letter in his hand. Somu had never seen his uncle before in such a state. He was profusely sweating. He was out of breath and he was waggling the letter in air as if it were a victory flag. Somu did not remember ever seeing his uncle smile, but he realized Jajati looked red when he laughed. Somu got up and touched his uncle’s feet. “Oh, Somu! When did you come?” Jajati wrapped his hand around Somu in halfembrace. Then turning towards Bimla, Jajati said, “The letter has come from Jena Babu. He has agreed for the marriage.” Bimla burst into tears. “At last! At last,” she cried. “Lord Shiva has been so bountiful. I will go to the temple this evening and offer a coconut.” “Yes, yes! Why not?” said Jajati. “Have they mentioned anything about dowry?” asked Bimla. “Not now. They’ll write about it soon. But at least they have said ‘Yes’.” Somu had been listening to his aunt and uncle’s conversation with silent stupefaction. Though he understood the content of the conversation he still refused to believe it. Bimla turned towards Somu and said with an elated smile, “Malati’s marriage has been fixed, Somu. Oh, I knew the moment I saw you. Your coming can only be a good omen!”

183 Somu slowly turned his gaze at Malati. He saw tears in her eyes. And that unmistakable smile. There was no doubt she was happy. With her soapy hands she covered her face and ran upstairs as any girl would do when she was shy. Somu felt the same shock as he experienced that morning during the accident. He wished for a different outcome to the whole incident. He wished he had known such news awaited him in Jharpada—he wished he could have taken the place of that child. “I am going to go meet Madhia. I’ll come home late,” said Jajati to no one in particular. He flung the hoe down taking it off his shoulder. He left without even caring to wash the cakes of mud that had hardened on his calves and heels. “You wait, Somu. I’ll make special kshir for you.” Bimla went to the kitchen still crying and chanting a prayer for Lord Shiva.

Was there an escape? Was there a remedy if she were to continue living? Malati never had such a torturous day before. Was it possible to survive such extreme emotions in such a short span of time? Like a pendulum, like a boat in storm, like a leaf on the waves, like a spider on a thread. Her eyes were dry. She had cried too many times already, when she was happy and when she was sad. Tears tasted the same each time. Up on the roof, Malati could hear the chaotic tap of the claws. Must be the crows, she thought. The moment she closed her eyes his image was there. Malati had wondered if Somu would ever come back to Jharpada. Very unlikely, especially after what happened during his

184 last visit: Over tea, Jajati had asked Somu what he planned to do with his life. Did he want to remain jobless forever? Why didn’t he go back to the city and try for a real job again? If that was too much to ask then why didn’t he take up some menial work in Palleri? When would he stop being a burden to Kanta, his sister? Somu had listened to the avalanche of questions that had been pelted at him without uttering a word. He had then taken a sip of tea, looked squarely at Jajati and said, “How I live my life is none of your concern?” “Then get out of my sister’s house and live your whorish life somewhere else,” Jajati had said. “If you can’t give something to her, then don’t take it away from her.” Malati had heard the crash like a firecracker going off next to her ear. Somu had thrown the tea-glass into the middle of the compound with all the force and had stormed off to pack his bag and leave. No amount of coaxing from Bimla could dissuade him. He had left without even an eye-contact with anyone else, not even a look at her. His downcast face inflamed with anger was the last she had seen of him, and that is what she imagined would be her final vision of her cousin. Malati this day had been lying in her room, half asleep, tired from the morning chores when she heard his voice, thinking it was still her dream, then a hallucination, or a coincidence, a visitor who spoke similarly with the same intonation. But when her mother called her from downstairs, she knew she was not mistaken. And there he was, come back to her house looking all silly and wild! Hair ruffled and a patina of dust laced on his face and shirt. Yet, there was no trace of anger today. He seemed to have come back rejuvenated to fulfill her dream. She could not contain her emotion and in her heightened state of ecstasy

185 she could not even keep up the conversation with him. When her mother led him away for food, Malati invented the excuse of washing the clothes. In that way she enjoyed his presence and tried to figure out why he was here. Did he share her mid-day dream too? Such was her state of elation that Malati did not fully comprehend the news that her father read out from the letter. Jajati had never seemed so happy before. He had not even addressed his daughter and wife by name in years. Malati did blush and tried to escape to her room to stop everyone from seeing how happy she was. But as she climbed the steps to her room, she realized that her dream of marriage would come true, but at the expense of other dreams. As she was sitting on her bed, Malati pondered over the unfairness of the situation! Had the news of her marriage come just one day before, she would have felt so content. She would have enjoyed the news of being someone’s wife, starting her own family like Jyotsna and being relieved from rumors, shame and agony. But then why the dream? Why had the past buried deep come alive this very day and orchestrate such a travesty of gratification only to poison joyous news with sorrow. Malati wiped her tears and consoled herself. She heard from the kitchen the loud clang of utensils. Her mother was cooking dinner for Somu. She would not let this joyous day in her life go by without cooking many delicacies. Malati wanted to help her mother. In that way she could stay close to Somu. Perhaps she could talk to him and persuade him to come to Jharpada often. But as a bride, soon she would leave Jharpada and her new family would have no interest in hosting her cousin… These may be her final hours with Somu. But Somu, in similar agony, had stormed out of the house.

186 Somu lighted the last cigarette from the packet. The smoke swirled away South carried by the river wind. He lay on his back on the river bank, his right feet on his left knee, his hand cushioning his head and the cigarette hanging loose from his twisted lips. Below him, down the slope of the bank, flowed Saptadhara, its current strong and water murky. Two months of monsoon rain rippled in its bosom, swelling its expanse ominously. At many places river cut deep into the bank, creating little eddies of murky water at the edge. Few hundred yards down the river from Somu, river waves lashed heavily at the boundary-wall of the Jharpada temple. Somu descended to the river level and washed his face in the water. Sun was setting behind the verdure on the opposite bank. And the receding glow of the west sky reflected richly, setting the water aflame up the river. An orgy of colors danced before his eyes: auburn, magenta, scarlet, amber. He washed his face again. None of the images was satisfactory. None of the distractions was forceful enough. Her smile was the only thing that dwelled in his mind. And her smile, that demure expression on her shy face, was not meant for him. It was meant for someone else. When she appeared before him in the pink dress, he thought he read consent in her appearance and in her choice of clothes. She then asked about his well-being in a voice that marked chiding and protest for his lack of visit. He thought her manner acknowledged the secret that was still knotted between them. He thought he read encouragement from her side. But then she addressed him as “Somu Bhai”. Why did she have to address him as “brother”? Couldn’t she avoid that reference? There were thousand different ways to avoid addressing anyone by his name. How could she forget that that they could never be brother and sister again after what had passed between them that night? But

187 Somu reasoned with the situation and thought that perhaps Malati did so because her mother was around. He would have preferred to remain naïve like that, hoping against the hope… But she was never meant for him! What happened that night must have gnawed at her conscience ever since. She would have considered it a sin and would have come to the nearby temple asking forgiveness. She did not want to associate with him anyway now other than as a sister. Her devoutness, her submissiveness and her smile were sufficient proof. Desire in Malati must have rotted long ago and what left in its place was the reek of guilt. Somu stripped to his undergarment and tied his shirt and pants around his head like a turban. He dove into the water in one giant leap. Current was strong and many had perished in the river during this season by underestimating the river’s width. They had thought they could make it but at one point the river would appear wider than ever and suddenly the last drop of vitality would drain without prior warning. But Somu did not fear of drowning. He was already drowning inside. As the current became forceful, he thrashed even harder. He did not lose energy but only gained. He felt like a winning wrestler and the river’s stubborn silence propelled him further. When reached the bank, he was panting fiercely. His lips bit tight and his nostrils exhaling fire. He put on his clothes and looked back at Jharpada. The night was approaching. At the temple, the evening prayer lamp got lit and the bells were clinging. In the world of darkness there was still light, but at the wrong place.

188 It happened during a summer vacation when Somu’s family visited Malati’s. It was the last day of the visit so all the children spent time together and tried to have as much fun as possible. Somu and Malati being the youngest got involved in arguments and jeering. Throughout the afternoon Somu tried to enrage Malati by playing juvenile pranks on her and she replied back by smearing ink on his face. By the dusk the elders had lost interest in the shenanigans of the two teenagers and for the most part overlooked them. At certain point in the evening when electricity went out Somu and Malati found each other in her room. Malati only giggled anticipating a new tease from Somu. She could see his silhouette move through the darkness slowly, seemingly confident of pulling a prank on her and being able to scare her. He approached too closely, oblivious of the distance between them and oblivious that she could feel his warm breath on her. And then unexpectedly, he placed his hand on her shoulder with such strange warmth that she was suddenly jolted out of her juvenile consciousness only to become aware of the dark and the possibility it afforded two nearadults. His hand lingered upon her like an unclaimed invitation, like an unsure hand of a discoverer. She immediately pulled herself away and left the room. Soon electricity resumed and as the whole family sat down for dinner nobody noticed the unfamiliar tension between the two cousins. Malati did not take part in serving the dinner and she was only too vexed when her eyes met with Somu’s. The night pulsated with summer heat and from the temple resonated the celebration song of someone’s birthday. Before the family went to bed, a general opinion of disappointment was expressed by everyone. For the vacation was over and it would be another year perhaps before the families

189 would reunite again. No one noticed the unusually taciturn manner of the two teenagers. It was taken as grossly consistent to the general deflation of the household. The children usually slept in Malati's room. Tapas being the eldest slept on Malati's bed while the rest slept on a quilt spread on the floor. There was no fixed place for sleeping on the quilt. So when Malati chose the far side of the quilt and Somu took the place beside her nothing amiss was noticed. They looked like two weary figures ready to retire for the night. The light was turned off and suddenly nothing was left of the night but the night noises beyond the window and the stultifying darkness. Malati raised her palms and feet in air, again and again. But she could not see her own limbs. Darkness was as impenetrable as tar. The moon was yet to rise and there were hours of blindness to negotiate ahead. Through the window languorous summer breeze rolled in carrying with it the smell of trees and parched earth. The room was filled with much awaited coolness. From Malati’s bed loud yet unobtrusive snoring was heard. From the other side of the quilt, breathing of two sisters grew deep and assured. But the comfort in the air was not enough to subdue the nervous energy in the young, pulsating veins. Somu and Malati lay open-eyed, aware of each other’s wakefulness. Every movement counted, so did the rise and fall of their breathing. Silence was spread like a taut sheet between them and both were afraid of tearing it apart lest what would escape would be scandalously uproarious, waking the entire house up and betraying the mystery between them. Feigning obliviousness seemed to be appropriate, but not for long. Not on a night when air tickled the skin, time spilled like water through fingers, and darkness provided such a blinding cover that no smoldering desire could be tamped. Soon, waiting had the better of Somu and his hand moved towards her.

190 Consequence was the last thing on his mind. He could not have been more isolated from three siblings sleeping around him. Objection of the elders sleeping downstairs was not of importance to him. Neither did the fear of getting caught. Only thing he worried about was Malati’s reaction. What if she would scream out of fear or start sobbing inconsolably? What if she would check his advance with a sharp gesture? What if she would take offense and stop talking to him forever? But desire in him rode like wildfire, exhausting him, paralyzing his sensibility to anyone else’s feelings until all he could care about was his self and the selfish excuse of satiating his tumultuous urge. He reached for her. He did not grope for her in darkness, for he knew exactly where her hands were. He only waited for her response. But Malati did not flinch or sigh. She tried to. She decided she would object. Yet, she could not feign surprise or outrage. Her own response troubled her. It had been troubling her since evening, for she had fully understood the intention behind his beseeching touch. Both the times. Yet, all she felt was nervousness and confusion. But no real sense of alarm or revulsion for being scandalized or taken advantage of. She did not leave the room immediately when he touched her the first time, after all. She was not disturbed by his gaze that so earnestly followed her during the dinner. She did not alter her sleeping place when he came to lie down beside her. Each time she did not object. And now that his hand was upon hers she did not retract it. She tasted his warmth in her pores. That felt new and burning. That thawed something inside her and filled her with rapture. She did not want to get caught but nor did she want to be denied this moment. She only trusted the darkness. And she trusted that he would know what she wanted.

191 But Somu could not read consent in Malati’s silence. He was only getting driven by his own desire. He was drifting to the point of manic desperation like a moth before fire. The touch of her hand was only a spark. He wanted to kiss those hands and rub himself against her skin’s melting softness. He wanted to be taken in and engulfed in passionate embrace. He wanted to smell those hands and leave the imprint of saliva on them. He was racing ahead in his mind. He could not wait to explore her body and the secrets of her feminine appeal. Yet, his instinct checked him against haste. Her body was mute and still, not offering any invitation, thus compounding his apprehension and urging caution. So in that laborious and painstaking waiting game he made moves in small increments like an ant climbing a wall. After his hand, his toes touched hers. Then the shoulders. Thighs. He put his leg on top of hers letting his knees feel the insides of her thighs. He grew bolder and turned towards her and called her name in her ears. Malati emitted a short response, a murmurous dulcet note nearly lost in her heavy breathing. Somu moved closer and nuzzled against her cheek. The smoothness and hotness of her skin burned him. He pressed harder against her hip and enveloped his arm around her heaving chest. He planted kisses on the slope of her neck and buried his face in her hair. She smelt like clove and flower. Somu lifted her skirt up and moved his fingers wildly on her upper thighs. Sweat on her skin felt like the velvet of a flower. Malati breathed heavily. Her toes had become numb out of the tautness in her legs. His fingers grew like vines upon her, reaching to those parts of her body that she never knew could spring to such life. She sweated profusely not knowing how to contain this combustion and the breeze in the air only fanned the fire more. Sweat on her skin was like an invitation. Somu kept squeezing and massaging

192 her thighs not feeling entirely content as the slippery skin spilled through his fingers. At one point he inserted his hand into her underpants. His finger traversed in the middle, gently, awed by the well of her softness. Malati let out a soft moan, her hips raised in air, her lowerbody growing more tense, and her ankles knotted. Somu buried his face in her blouse that was thick and sticky with sweat. As he moved his hand under her cloth, her bare, incipient breasts swelled to life within his palm. Hardening and softening at the same time. Somu slid her blouse up and quenched the thirst of his smoldering lips by kissing her breast; the salt of her skin melted upon his tongue. Somu slid his pants down to his knees and raised himself on top of her. When he tried to remove her underpants, her hands stopped him. He did not cross the line. What he had experienced so far was already overwhelming him. He need not demand more. He started moving atop her. Slow and unsure at first. But her breathing had an urging rhythm. It rang like hot whisper in his ear. Her anklets started tinkling too, catching up to the rhythm. He grew harder between her legs, his thrusts reaching deeper. Her chin jerked against her shoulder blade, rhythmically. Slowly, her hands closed upon his bare buttocks, grabbing them tightly against her. It helped. Somu heaved and dropped his head against her face. Strands of her hair still clenched between his teeth. His liquid reached up to her bellybutton, which she had barely time to be concerned with before a spring let loose inside her, soaking every inch of her skin with painfully ecstatic waves. Their bodies lay panting and pulsating against one another, a sweaty sheet between them Somu rolled off her and they quickly straightened their clothes. Night engulfed them again and settled between them, still serene and dark. Breathing of the two sisters was

193 unfazed and from the bed snoring issued like deep whistle now. Two bodies bridged and collapsed, yet not a soul stirred. And now, years from their night of secret abandon, Somu and Malati relived what had passed between them and what could never again be hoped for. Fatigue settled in, slowly taking the night away from them both. Their memories were as one yet neither realized what they had seeded in each other, how it had grown nameless and shapeless for the years since, for the years to come. As Malati lay on her bed, as Somu slept on the riverbank, two pairs of eyes slowly closed. Not wishing to hold onto to their wakeful, vanquished dreams, they sought the night, the night that could return only in dreams, neither of them knowing yet that what would persist was only memory and longing.

194

Chapter
Summary

11

The mediator of the marriage arrives with the details of the Mr. Jena’s demands. Jajati realizes that the dowry amount is too stiff for him yet he is not deterred. The surety of the bridge now gives him confidence of fulfilling Mr. Jena’s demands. Somu’s brother arrives with the gratuity amount and complaints. Even in his village thirty kilometres away the news has already arrived about the offer. He severely inquires about this new business Somu has got into and warns his mother against giving him any money. At the same hour at the stage Prakash visits Somu. He looks agitated and besides himself. He congratulates Somu for his effort and assures him that within two weeks he will

195 return with Somu’s reward because the collection will cross the ten-lakh figure by then. He withdraws all the money from the bank and leaves. Somu receives Prakash’s assurance not with excitement as the thought of Malati’s marriage still tormented him. Jajati succeeds in persuading the moneylender of the village to buy half of his farm land at a raised price.

196

Chapter
Summary

12

The news arrives in Jharpada that Manohar Senapati has backtracked on his promise and the fate of the bridge is no longer certain. It is speculated that the MLA is deliberately blocking the deal because the contract of supplying cement did not go to his friend. When the angry villagers marched to Senapati’s house in protest and demanded truth, the MLA washed his hand entirely off the matter and blamed the Revenue Minister for bringing nepotism into the deal. Jajati fails to sell the land and to save Malati’s marriage he is left with little option. He can borrow from the moneylender but again he hesitates and decides to ask his sister for help.

197 That night when Jajati is at Somu’s house and talking to Kanta about his situation, the police arrives looking for Somu.

198

Chapter
Summary

13

Somu gets apprehended by the police. The police inspector who was an old acquaintance of Somu’s father sympathizes with Kanta. He explains that the Calcutta office of Millennium Finances got raided two days back after an investor found out that the certificate issued by the company was a forged document. The company is not registered and none of its claims are true. To maintain a low profile the company advertised its offer in small towns throughout India and the scam now involves crores of rupees. In the mean time, the news of the scam spreads through the town and a mob gathers around the police station demanding retribution.

199 Somu’s brother hires a lawyer and Somu gets bail. The police inspector helps to smuggle Somu safely away from the mob and away from the town for few weeks until the situation calms down. Two weeks later when money runs out and Somu tries to sneak into the house in the middle of the night he gets nabbed by Hari Biswal, the investor who had warned Somu against any mishandling of his money. Somu gets beaten by Hari Biswal and his hired goons and fearing for her son’s life Kanta promises to pay back the money. Thus Somu’s father’s gratuity money gets used up in paying Hari Biswal.

200

Chapter
Summary

14

Malati’s marriage breaks off as Jajati fails to arrange money in time. He remains adamant against borrowing money from the moneylender as he fears that he will immerse in debt for the rest of his life, lose his farmland and home. So to protect himself against such humiliation Jajati decides to call off the marriage but he fails to foresee how Mr. Jena will take the news. Mr. Jena shows his unforgiving nature and acts spitefully ensuring that everyone in the village blamed Jajati for his failure to keep the commitment. He demands compensation for overturning other marriage proposals for his son. He also involves the eminent personalities of the village to pressurize Jajati.

201 Jajati does not pay the compensation because the amount is as high as dowry itself. He weathers the humiliation with an optimism that the villagers will soon sympathize with his situation.

202

Chapter
Summary

15

When for three months no marriage proposal arrives for Malati Jajati starts worrying. He looks for a compromise and appeals to the temple priest for help. The priest suggests that the
Seetal Shasthi puja is the only remedy left now.

This puja is conducted by a family whose daughter faces difficulty in getting married. The superstition is that this puja will free that girl off curse. The rituals of the puja involve staging a marriage of Lord Shiva and His wife in presence of the entire village along with feast, celebration and festivities. While trying to persuade Jajati to conduct the puja, the priest hides from Jajati the extent of the expense.

203
As the preparation for the puja begins, Jajati loses control over the expense. The priest becomes more exacting and grand in his ideas. So Jajati eventually sells half of his farmland to the moneylender at underprice. The sympathy of the whole village turns towards the family but Malati feels guilty for becoming the object of everyone’s attention. Also, she witnesses that the resources reserved for her getting spent in this ritualistic marriage. Jyotsna arrives for the puja, but her attempt to console Malati ends up in a bitter quarrel. This further intensifies Malati’s internal turmoil. Somu arrives too because he has no other place to escape. He stays withdrawn and repelled by this ritualistic buffoonery. When Malati tries to talk to him, they end up misunderstanding each other. Malati despairs over her isolation and she witnesses the God and Goddess going through that marital ceremony which was destined for her. Her faith crumbles and she gets sucked into the vortex of despair and inferiority complex. That night Malati disappears.

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Chapter
Summary

16

Malati’s action is condemned by the village. Malati’s mother laments and she feels sorry for her daughter. Malati’s father considers his daughter’s action unforgivable and shameful. He shows no sign of mercy. Malati’s whereabouts still remains a mystery. Somu feels excited initially thinking that perhaps he can now provide Malati the promise. But he soon realizes the gravity of Malati’s action. All sorts of rumors spread the village. Some speculate she is dead. Some say that she has eloped with a boy whose name gets pulled out of blue. Some say that she has killed herself and turned into a ghost.

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Back in Palleri while wandering on the streets in a drunken and agitated state Somu meets a prostitute. After sleeping with her Somu realizes he can never emulate that night with Malati. As the fear of losing her grips him, Somu decides to go in search of Malati.

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Chapter
Summary

17

While searching for Malati along the course of Saptadhara, Somu traces a torn piece of Malati’s cloth near a waterfall. Without any other evidence, Somu concludes that Malati has killed herself. He turns bitter and cynical and decides to go away from Palleri and Jharpada and from his past.
He crosses Saptadhara, crosses Malati's village and many more villages before coming to a hamlet where a peripatetic theater group have camped up. Coincidentally, the lead actor of the theater group has died because of an accident. The director of the group is impressed by Somu’s looks and temperament and offers him the role of the deceased actor. The role is about a king.

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Somu accepts the role and during his performance that evening the dialog provides him an opportunity to repent and apologize for his cruelty and apathy as a king. Somu performs brilliantly for his words of atonement are reserved for his mother and Malati.

Moved by his performance the director offers him a permanent place in his theater group. Even though the salary is very less, Somu still accepts the offer.