When he returned home Shibaji went directly to the dining space. Turning the tap on at the sink, he washed his hands with liquid soap, rubbing them against each other repeatedly. His wife Smita had bought the pouch of soap a fortnight ago. Apparently this was the most hygienic way to wash one’s hands. Smita had left today – the pouch was a little more than half full. He had developed this obsession with washing his hands about a year ago. Because it was a jarring sight, Smita would stop him sometimes with a movement of her eyes. Now that she wasn’t here, Shibaji would wash his hands as often as he liked. Sub-inspector Gaffoor Khan had died at this time last year. On the elderly side, he was a little plump, with a white moustache, not very fit physically. He had been promoted to sub-inspector after spending many years as a havaldar in an area where there was no such thing as crime. Mile after mile of unpopulated land, dense jungles, interspersed by wide valleys full of shoots and leaves in a multitude of colours, and the celebrations of flowers. Intense poverty, a scarcity of schools and hospitals, and practically non-existent electricity. Even in the district headquarters, the power came and went at will, staying only a few hours each time. The Intelligence Bureau people sent secret reports from time to time in indecipherable scrawls – extremist organisations were spreading their roots in rural areas, conducting brainwashing sessions by night. They were handing out money to boys and girls, sporting equipment and books and leaflets too – and would soon start recruitment. All these notes remained in the in-trays on the desks in the police station – no one bothered to read them. At least, till Shibaji came, the practice of reading them did not exist. But even Shibaji had not been able to spare the time; he had been promoted only last year, and had joined as the Superintendent of Police for the district just about a week ago, which was when a landmine blew up a car belonging to the Tilda police station. Sub-inspector Khan’s and two constables’ bodies. The constables’ faces had been mutilated grotesquely, one of their bodies thrown into the bushes by a bungalow. There was no doubt that they were dead. When Shibaji reached the spot, the first thing he saw was Khan, sprawled beneath the sunlit sky, the yellow light mingling with his body, his arms spread out wide. He was the only declaration of peace amidst the monstrosity of the smashed jeep and the fragments of human bodies.
Assuming that Khan could still be sent to the hospital in the jeep accompanying his car, Shibaji had joined his driver and constables. Like unexpected, undeclared terror, blood poured out, reddening his hands. It had not been obvious that there was such a large, gaping wound precisely at the centre of Khan’s back.
Afternoon had turned into evening before Shibaji had managed to sit down to a meal that day. Not much of a meal – a little vegetable soup and two chapatis. Smita had practically forced them on him. When he sat down to eat, Shibaji felt that his fingers still had bloodstains the colour of rust, and a raw smell. He had risen from the table to wash his hands with soap at the bathroom sink. And that was how he had acquired the habit. Every time there was news of death, injury or explosions, he had the urge to wash his hands. Was it Obsessive Compulsive Disorder? Shibaji had been working continuously for a year with the disorder; perhaps he would have to leave the world soon with his disorder intact.
He would have had to work as an additional SP for four years or so. The post of SP, though it meant moving some distance from the state capital, was a challenging one. Just as he was beginning to feel that there was no charm to being the second-in-command, he had been told of the promotion. Whereupon Shibaji had done something he didn’t usually do, which was to return home at an unusual hour, put his arms around his sleeping wife and kiss her wildly. The posting order had only just been issued – this was a golden opportunity to take a week to join and use the time to meet both sets of parents in Delhi. The husband and wife were planning the trip at night, between lovemaking and sleep. In the morning came the summons from the Home Ministry. Shibaji had been both surprised and pleased. He was welcomed effusively and offered tea in a virtually transparent cup and saucer of bone china. The Home Secretary was present, as was the Inspector General of police. Astonished by the statement ‘So this is the courageous young man’, Shibaji heard the Secretary say, ‘He’s even named after a fearless hero – Shibaji.’
Although he was thrown into doubt by the sudden discussion of courage and heroism, Shibaji was subsequently told that he would have to inform the ministry of the infrastructural problems faced by the police over there, and that the government was determined to provide the district with all its requirements.
Abandoning the lure of a week of what bureaucrats called “joining leave”, Smita, Tulika and he set off for the uncertain the very next day. Uncertain, because he had already gathered some feedback from his friends and senior officers. He had even got a sense of the fiery situation in the district. The Home Ministry read reports that were even more flawless and timely than the ones which lazy police officers didn’t bother to read in their village homes. Today Shibaji knew that he had been selected not because of his heroism but as a sacrificial goat.
The area was surrounded by hills, with a mountain stream flowing through it. A new district carved out of an old one. The sadar office had been set up about ten years ago, but it was still not well-appointed. Travelling from the capital meant a fourteen-hour train journey, followed by a drive. Travelling by car took eighteen to twenty hours on bad roads. Winters were intensely cold, though the summers weren’t unbearable. Although the timber mafia had cleared much of the jungle, the ancient forests had not yet been wiped out entirely. The rain wasn’t insignificant, which was why trees kept growing unbidden all over the place – on the hillside, by the roads, on uncultivated land.
Tulika was only three. She used to go to a playschool when they lived in the city – not a significant form of education. She could be taught at home for now – and besides, there was always nature. The landscapes hereabouts were so delightful that an entire calendar could be made with them. After her wedding, Smita had enrolled for a doctorate with Delhi University, but the work was proceeding at a slow pace, the fieldwork had not begun as yet. She wasn’t particularly anxious at the outset of her journey into the uncertain with Shibaji – she was curious instead. The area wouldn’t be a bad choice for her fieldwork. But as soon as they reached, the family as well as Shibaji’s work environment had been enveloped in a sense of emptiness. No one moved to this place, no one wanted to. Even the District Magistrate’s post was vacant. How could this be possible? Several posts were vacant in different departments, including the revenue, rural development and police departments. Although allowances were higher here, no one wanted to be transferred to these parts. And those who did work here had been here for a long time, without being transferred. Because no one would accept transfers to this area. They had stagnated in the same posts in the same district for thousands of years, incapable of – and even opposed to – change.
Shibaji worked very hard. Attempts to improve the skills of his team, visiting the farms and the villages, establishing contact with people, arranging for fresh weapons and ammunition – and yet he experienced an infinite sense of exhausion every evening. As though he had been knocked out of his orbit and was falling headlong into a deep black emptiness. After Khan’s death, Shibaji had asked for four platoons of armed constables for surveillance and patrolling. Having knocked repeatedly on closed doors, he had finally been given three companies of forces – three months later. They were completely unfamiliar with the forests, the foothills, and the towns and villages hereabouts. After several months of purposeless movement and sleep, along with bouts of malaria, they had gone back in disarray. Shibaji had realised that there was no point learning the techniques of unarmed combat, but what was he to do anyway? He was now in the same situation as the rest of the people stagnating in the district without a future. He doubted whether there would ever be a replacement for him. Shibaji had been earmarked for valour and sacrifice.
The warmth of September gave way to autumn in the forest areas. Fresh flowers sprung up on the sandbanks in the river, the jungle of the night began to smile with a profusion of yellow sage flowers. A deep crimson moon rose at the onset of evening, its reddish hue turning gradually to fiery orange and then silver. Sitting alone in the veranda, sometimes with her daughter in her lap, Smita watched all of this, but none of it made a mark on her. She was like a mirror, whose body existed only to reflect things, without a heart. When would Shibaji return, she wondered in her chair in the veranda. Was he in his office or had he gone off to some village or town somewhere? She had told him over and over again that, wherever he might go, he should return before sunset. ‘As if it’s safe even by daylight,’ Shibaji had responded with a ruthless smile. What else could Smita have done but tremble at this? There was no opportunity to send her daughter to school, and even if there had been, she would probably not have done it. But it wasn’t as though she was home-schooling Tulika. The picture books and toys were locked away in cupboards. So were boxes of beautiful saris and salwar-kameezes, along with the yellow, pink and white baby frocks for her daughter. Where would they wear all this to? All they had here was anxiety and terror – there was no happiness in her heart. Smita didn’t let the tablecloth hang low over the sides of the dining table – who knew whether something deadly was hidden beneath or not? Before going to bed at night she combed the corners of the room, the space beneath the bed, the folds of the curtains. Everyone at home was on the verge of suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. The building was originally the sub-divisional inspection bungalow – it wasn’t exactly a house, for there was a claustrophobic air everywhere, except in the veranda at the back. Heavy curtains, small windows, the sitting room directly in front of the veranda, and a room on either side of it. This building had been chosen as the SP’s residence after the new district was formed. Two or three Adivasi locals worked in the kitchen and cleaned the house. They had even brought an aged woman from Shibaji’s office to look after Tulika. But Smita didn’t approve of any of them. She didn’t even allow the old woman anywhere near her daughter. And sometimes she felt apprehensive too – what if this distrust on her part provoked anger or revolt? This fear made Smita change her strategy at times. She laughed and joked with them, exchanging meaningless conversations. But through it all she remained cautious, just in case they made any indiscreet confessions.
Despite being neck-deep in uncertainty, they did manage to chat and smile through dinner – Shibaji and Smita. Tulika joined them if she was awake – perched not on a chair but on the table, pushing the pots and bowls away with her arms. Shibaji laughed away Smita’s shift of strategy. ‘What rubbish – all this is speculation! These are all ordinary, poor people, forced to work here for a living. They’re under pressure from both sides – the police on one side and terrorists on the other. All they want is to remain silent – they cannot be made to talk. I have learnt all this from my trips to the villages for first-hand information.’
At night they slept snuggling up to one another; Smita wasn’t even willing to let her daughter sleep on a bed of her own. She had dreamt of a renewed, deeper intimacy when they moved to this desolate area. But now even the desire for a relationship had vanished – they clung to each other out of fear. The grassy fields with trees that lay beyond the veranda at the back looked magical in the moonlight. The forest and the earth were exactly as Smita had expected them to be; only, their unquenchable thirst had dried up everything else.
Peace reigned for about four months following Khan’s killing, as though nothing had ever happened. In the middle of winter a remote police outpost was attacked. Only a single guard with a stick was on duty, the rest being out on patrol. His blood-smeared, bullet-ridden body lay there till the next morning. There was neither mobile phone coverage nor a phone at the outpost. Information took a long time to travel. Who were the attackers? Probably not a large group of people. There was no torching or looting. The killing was a signature of sorts. The attackers had left after signing.
What is it you want? Even if not with these precise words, this was what Shibaji tried to find out during his attempts to make contact with people. His eyes asked the same question of newlyweds in shell jewellery, of men afflicted by old age, of pregnant women. I know what would help, but the key to these solutions is not in my hands. Your right to enter the forests has been curtailed, your tubewells don’t work, your schools have leaking roofs, your hospitals have no doctors or nurses, your women die during childbirth, your children are born in darkness, your sick die in the darkness. Yes, I know all this, but why don’t you speak up? Are all of you mute? Who are the people you have summoned to settle things with us – they know of nothing but weapons. So many constables and so many middle-level inspectors have died – does anyone know whose fault it is that they were killed? Who is going to hunt the killers down? The forests are dense, the paths are hidden, the villages nestle in the folds of the mountains, we don’t have enough people to track the killers. How will we know who the murderers are? What’s the use of searching, when almost anyone might be the killer?
Shibaji muttered to himself at home these days. So Smita had to keep an eye on him too. His mumbles and frequent washing of hands gave birth to a vague fear in her mind. Would they have to live here in exile till death?
Barely a year had passed, but they felt as though they were living inside a closed box. Shibaji was trying his utmost to get out, of course, travelling the long distance to the capital with his entreaty. It wasn’t possible to meet the minister on one’s own initiative, without being summoned. The Home Secretary had been too busy too meet him. He had got two-and-a-half minutes with the Director General of Police, who had informed him that a transfer order was impossible in less than three years. But yes, the armoury would be refurbished to strengthen his hand. The armoury? Low walls, half the ceiling comprising sheets of corrugated tin, a damp, ancient building. They had submitted a plan for a new structure, and nine or ten months had passed since then. But then that involved expenses; the arms and ammunition would arrive first, since they had been ordered earlier.
The store of modern weapons which he had built carefully was looted. They had come. In flocks, one might say. Twenty-five or thirty outsiders in a tiny, sleepy district town. You could definitely say they had flocked in. They ate at roadside restaurants, smoked in front of the cinema hall. Split into small groups, they included girls too. The local people didn’t understand their language, which was a mixture of the border tongue and Hindi. All this came to light afterwards, however.
All the nine or ten guards at the armoury were killed in the unexpected attack, a celebration of fire and blood. Although out of practice for years, the guards had been the first to open fire, but hadn’t been able to save themselves. The militants had left after piling the weapons in a small truck. Shibaji was at the other end of the district that day, in an area surrounded by dense forests. It took two-and-a-half hours just to get back. The entire operation was completed in thirty-five minutes. Shibaji went to the spot, without having had the chance to wash his hands. Bindu Parja was present. The only female guard to have survived, she had watched the rest of them die. She had stood till the end with her gun, emptied of cartridges. Her eighteen-year-old son had burnt to cinders in front of her eyes – he had recently joined as a temporary sentry. The bomb had set his body on fire.
When she saw Shibaji, Bindu forgot formal protocol. Instead of a salute, her heartrending cries rose in the air – it wasn’t so much crying as it was the screams of a speared animal. Laying a cold, stiff hand on Shibaji’s chest that night, Smita told him repeatedly, ‘Quit this job, there’s no need. Quit, you’re an engineer after all, you can get a private sector job, we can manage without a job for some time…’
Decisions like these weren’t easy to take. The enquiry into the raid, arranging compensation for the dead and paying for the treatment of the wounded took a month and a half. The national media had flashed the news for several successive days. Smita’s parents had called them tearfully. The same request – come away at once, all of you, if you can’t quit, take leave.
Leave. The most priceless commodity at the moment. The application for leave was rejected at once. Those who could not approve anything on time could reject things with flawless alacrity. Take leave now? Aren’t you aware of the fact that the Union Home Minister is coming for a review, with a dozen central officers? You’d better get the helipad ready instead, several helicopters will be coming.
Eventually it was decided that Smita would go to Delhi with Tulika. And Shibaji would try for leave again after the minister’s tour had ended. Or else…
‘I’ll quit. I promise, Smita. I can’t take this tension, this pressure, day after day anymore. Already my blood pressure is fluctuating, I’ve developed cholesterol too. What’s the point of wasting life this way, you’re right, Smita…’
Weeping late into the night, without sleeping, Smita had left in great anguish. Shibaji had seen her off on the train from the major junction in the adjoining district. Tuli was hurt too, hiding her face in her mother’s breast and refusing to speak. She kept displaying a moist little finger to indcate that she had quarrelled with him. The junction was two hours away. He had already received a couple of text messages from Smita on the way back – are you ok? Take care. As though something would happen any moment.
Back home, Shibaji went directly to the dining space and washed his hands thoroughly, using the hygienic liquid soap that Smita had bought.
The food was not laid out on the dining table as it was every day. The napkins, knives, forks, plates – everything was missing. Shibaji peeped into the kitchen – no one there. The breakfast cornflakes and the milk were scattered all over. Sukhan, Ram and Pandavi were nowhere to be seen. The entire house was empty. Strange! Their presence was so natural that Shibaji did not register their absence at first. He went out into the garden at the back though the kitchen door. It wasn’t exactly a garden – a small patch of grass, and then a host of wild plants and vines. The forest seemed to have paused deferentially, waiting for an invitation to enter the house.
It was a desolate afternoon. Wild ducks and skylarks kept calling in a deserted emptiness. A yellow leaf or two drifted to the ground in the melancholy sunlight. As soon as Shibaji stepped out, the forest charged at him. On heavy but silent footsteps. The curtain of green coalesced into the shape of a barrel. Dry gunpowder had been stuffed into it centuries ago.
Shibaji’s mobile phone lay on the dining table. By now innumerable messages had gathered in it – of love, of tears, of anxiety, of rage. Now the calls kept coming… the ringtone echoed through the empty house.
Shibaji’s fingers were still smelling of liquid soap.