Dawn had arrived. It was an old, familiar sensation, for the wind blew through all the seasons. In summer, in monsoon, in winter.
Ruhiton was neither asleep nor drowsy. But his eyes were shut. Whatever sleep he had managed to get was in the first half of the night, on the office bench.
It had been going on like this for three nights. Not exactly like this, but in different ways. Last night he had been shepherded into a car soon after midnight. Yet he had been told earlier that they would leave in the morning. The previous night he had been told that they would depart at dawn.
It had all begun seven days ago. He had come to know from the jail warder on the morning shift that he was being moved to another jail that day. The warder hadn’t lied. But Ruhiton had guessed why he had let slip the news. Some time later, that is. The authorities must have tutored—meaning, instructed—the jailer to inform Ruhiton that he would be shifted. The warder from the night shift had been present when Ruhiton was informed, as had been a few prisoners. The prisoners had exchanged glances with Ruhiton.
Barring two, he had not known any of the prisoners prior to meeting them in jail. But the charges against all of them had been of the same kind. Murder, causing injury, robbery, arson, and creating anarchy. And, above all, treason and conspiracy to overthrow the state. Their goals were identical too, therefore they were all fellow travellers. Although Ruhiton wasn’t sure whether they were really all fellow travellers, whether they all had the same goals, whether they all belonged to the same party. The very suspicion made him clench his teeth and narrow his eyes like daggers. Hatred flared in his heart. For his experience had been bitter.
The treachery and damage had been horrifying; they could never be avenged. Many so-called fellow travellers had camouflaged themselves like the mountain leeches on grass. It was very difficult to tell the spurious apart from the genuine. They lay hidden in the red earth like mud-coloured vipers. They didn’t raise their hoods unexpectedly; they didn’t coil with a hiss or rise with a lethal spring like the more daring snakes. These mud-coloured snakes and the grass-coloured mountain leeches were imported pimps. They were controlled by the authorities, obeying their signals. They struck furtively.
Ruhiton was cautious, on his guard, yet he wanted to trust everyone, wanted to be friendly with all. But this was impossible with some of the prisoners. He had no choice. But did he himself know why he had exchanged glances with those prisoners or, for that matter, why they had exchanged glances with him, that day, a week ago? His eyes had lit up at the news, as had theirs. Why? And why had Ruhiton’s heart started thumping like a drum? Was it out of wild hope? Or a terrible fear?
Fear? He was Ruhiton Kurmi. This was his name. Apparently he had been named by his grandfather, his father’s father. Ruhiton. No one knew why his grandfather had named him after a suite of playing cards. His grandfather was a third generation labourer in tea estates. His father was a fourth generation tea garden worker in the Terai. Ruhiton was the fifth generation.
As a child, he had worked on a tea garden for some time. But his father Poshpat—Pashupati—had been the first to quit the tea estate and take up cultivation. Beyond the tea estate, next to the river. Ruhiton had never returned to the tea gardens either. He had become involved in cultivation too, with his father. This line of work meant setting up a home, a household. It wasn’t like life on a tea estate. Being a ryot—a cultivator who owned the land he tilled—from the Kurmi clan, Poshpat had managed to secure a tract. It was of insignificant dimensions, not big enough to take his name off the ranks of landless cultivators. Tilling the land of the landowners was his real occupation. Still, there was the taste and excitement of reclaiming himself through a change after four generations. There was the hope of settling down, of stability. Not an obsession, but a hankering. A hankering for a household enriched with land, cultivation, settlement. The hankering ran in Ruhiton’s blood.
The world knew the name of that place now. Lower, to the southeast of where Ruhiton and his family lived. The wooded area was on the slopes of the waterfall going up from the sandy beach of the Mechi river in the Terai. Just like the area, the world now knew Ruhiton Kurmi’s name too.
Had the warder’s deliberate indiscretion—that he would be taken to another jail—scared Ruhiton? There is no fear greater than the fear of death. It is the ultimate fear. But if you kill, you know that you must die too. In battle you stake your life. Ruhiton’s fearlessness had not come from the revolution. Ever since he used to lose his way in the forest as a child, playing hunting games with his bow and arrow, living and dying had become one for him. To kill and to die were synonymous in battle. Just as you had to die for killing someone, you had to live precisely so that you could kill. Ruhiton knew this. Witnessing death had taught him this lesson. Watching his friends die had taught him why he needed to live. Outside jail, death had lurked at every step. Inside jail, it stalked him continuously. Fear meant death. He had banished both from his life.
It was not fear but suspicion that had reared its head. And with it, hope. However faint it may have been, it was still extraordinary. Its name was freedom. Or escape. Or an unexpected opportunity. That was why his eyes had flashed. And the suspicion was of death. They might be trying to get rid of him forever on the pretext of taking him to another jail. This was one of the techniques of elimination followed by the police. On the way from one jail to another, they would set him free in a dense forest, or on the bank of a swiftly flowing river in the dead of night—and then, a few bangs from a gun taken from the belt strapped to a waist. There would be no problems. No one would ever know which jail Ruhiton Kurmi was languishing in. Someone might enquire: Which jail is Ruhiton Kurmi in? Which jail?… In response, there would be an announcement: ‘Ruhiton Kurmi has escaped.’ This was why his eyes had lit up. In hope and suspicion.
(Fever was published in Bengali as Mahakaler Rather Ghora)