Short Stories

The Air and the Water: Amar Mitra

~ 1 ~

Talapatra-babu’s home may not have been in Pasandpur, but fourteen months of living in this market town had turned him into a local. A Food Department inspector who accepted bribes energetically and lacked the skill to spare anyone from kickbacks, Ramshankar Talapatra was transferred from Sonarpur in 24 Parganas to our Pasandpur on the border between Bankura and Purulia after running foul of the authorities. No story about Pasandpur can be complete without him, because it seems that Pasandpur, with all its rough terrain and rocks and hillocks and vanishing jungles and red soil had charmed Talapatra-babu. It had captured his heart.  He used to assert with conviction that he had never been posted in such a wonderful place in his career of thirty-five years – where he could breathe deeply and easily, and accept both official and unofficial payments with equal ease, without anyone asking questions or sending anonymous applications to the higher authorities; a place where one could work happily for a hundred years.

Let me tell you about Pasandpur. Call it a market town or call it a city, even, but outsiders have never cared for Pasandpur despite the pasand in its name. No local ever gets a job here – outsiders work at the offices and courts in this town. And from the moment they arrive, they count the days to freedom from this sentence of exile. Tarapada-babu, the high school teacher, openly says that once the remaining five years of his working life are done, he’ll move to Durgapur or Burnpur, buy some land, and live his life out there. What attractions do Pasandpur hold for me?

We don’t exactly know what attractions Pasandpur holds for people, but what we have seen is that because of the offices and courts and the narrow-gauge railway line, we are never deprived of new faces. Clerks or vagabonds, those who come never stay on. We don’t see why they should. What does Pasandpur have to offer besides the unpolluted air here? The tiny toy train loses its novelty value quickly. We cannot hold back the people who come here, even if we want to. They leave. If they can’t, they grow old criticising Pasandpur. Inspector of Food Talapatra-babu and a few vagabonds are the only exceptions. Their faces are suffused with smiles as they try to pronounce the name of the town. As Talapatra-babu himself acknowledged, even those with whom he played cards in the evening paid him his bribes during the day, saying softly, here you are sir, five hundred it is. The Food Babu had never seen anything like this in his life.

When he heard this, Rabilochan-babu, the headmaster of the high school, said, but this is your legitimate due, how can my nephew expect to run a business without paying you off?

Examining his cards, Talapatra-babu said, not everyone understands, you know, they think all it needs is a smile to get things done. For heaven’s sake, if the doctor’s visit or the priest’s fee or the teacher’s salary isn’t cleared…

Talapatra-babu paused halfway, seeking his fellow players’ support. The headmaster was the first to nod in assent, of course, of course…

The headmaster’s nephew had a kerosene oil dealership. He had been entreating the inspector to increase his quota of oil – could he not make a recommendation to headquarters? And yes, he did sell the oil on the black market at inflated prices instead of giving it to ration card-holders, but then how was he to expand his business otherwise? Talapatra-babu had found him out, and had promptly held his palm out under the table. This had taken care of the situation, but he had haggled intently first with the nephew, making off for the card session as soon as he had pocketed the payment. The headmaster’s nephew’s wife served tea and chanachur. Sipping his tea, Talapatra had said, there can be no relationship between work and leisure, you know, the other thing is a matter of the day job…

Of course, of course. The innocent headmaster smiled at the inspector. Thank goodness you take bribes, that’s how things get done, the previous inspector had got my nephew into all kinds of trouble. He was almost arrested, saved himself only by paying off the police.

Talapatra-babu didn’t spend a single night outside Pasandpur during his fourteen months here. The place had offered him sanctuary, he would say, given him relief during his last days at work, so he would not leave.

Why should you go, you must help my nephew establish himself first, sir. The headmaster had told the inspector deferentially, you’re not exactly without friends here.

Pasandpur offers sanctuary to people. Vagrants take shelter here. Besides those who are transferred on work, the rest of the visitors are all wanderers. Some on their way in, others on their way out. Some of them are empty-headed, while others are brimming with intelligence, holding on to their ponderous heads and grey matter and brain-cells carefully as they climb out of the palanquin-like bogies on the narrow-gauge railway. It’s this train with two bogeys that brings people with job as well as drifters to Pasandpur from time to time. It had brought Ramshankar Talapatra too. A befuddled Talapatra-babu, halfway to old age, had got off the evening train one day with his suitcase and bedding. His skin blackened by the smoke from the coal engine, his drooping white moustache blackened too, a faded, ancient pair of terylene trousers hanging loosely around his waist, dressed in a khaki full-sleeved sweater, his feet covered by an old, patched pair of strapped sandals, his greying hair untouched by oil for months. People had mistaken him for a vagrant who had run away from home, eyeing him suspiciously, trying to size him up – was he half-mad or entirely mad, cunning or simple, a stayer or a traveller? But when the man had said, looking around him as he got off the train, what a nice place, their suspicion had ebbed. He had not got off at Pasandpur only to declare it napasand.

No one knows when Pasandpur became a pilgrimage site for eccentric vagabonds. Probably from the time the narrow-gauge railway was set up. The toylike train would frequently deposit an empty-headed or brainy drifter on the platform in the afternoon or evening and whistle its way along to the next station. There is a station here, it’s true, but that’s just an empty field, with neither an office nor any railway employees. There is no stationmaster, no pointsman, no tickets. There’s no fixed schedule for the train either. It might not show up for two day before arriving unexpectedly one evening, whistling. It might then stay here all night, periodically snorting and emitting smoke. The headmaster cannot sleep on those nights because of the sound made by the engine’s exhalations. He isn’t married, living with his nephew and nephew’s wife instead. One of his nephews is established, but not the other one. One of his nieces isn’t married yet. Worry has made him a light sleeper. Rabilochan-babu, the headmaster, doesn’t care for the train or the engine or its bogies. Once, a rather manly drifter had got off the train and almost torn another of his nieces apart after dragging her into the jungle. Such a to-do! Pasandpur’s people had decided to beat him to death. But fearing charges of murder, the headmaster had said, never mind, put him back on the train, are the people of Pasandpur really capable of killing a fellow human being?

It had certainly caused a furore. The people of Pasandpur still talk about it whenever the subject comes up. What else do we have here after all besides the train and the outsiders? Even the hailstorms are not as severe as they used to me. There was a hailstorm once, a long time ago. A twenty-kilo block of ice fell into the jungle from the sky. The cowherds saw it and told everyone. Apparently the ice took seventy-two hours to melt. Just that one time. And the other time was what the terribly beautiful and rather manly vagabond had gone and done. Forcing him into the train had not proved easy, either. The guard and driver had refused, asking, where should we take him?

Wherever you like, he’s a criminal.

No, the man had flared up, there would be nothing beautiful in this world then.

Then hand him over to the police, the railway people had said.

Word would get out in that case, with his niece becoming involved, which was why the headmaster had not taken that route. He had said, the man came by your train, we’re returning him.

But the drifter hadn’t wanted to leave, saying with a strange smile, I shall be back, no one can love the way the women here do, oh how exquisite her eyes, how bewitching her smile, how silken her breasts. There’s meaning to this town.

The headmaster had turned red. What meaning, he had muttered.

There’s a meaning to all this – why the sun here is so hot, where the winds swirl in from, why the girls here are so lovely inside.

The headmaster had felt overcome. He was told that the drifter had not forced his niece into the jungle – on the contrary, it was she who had enticed him. She was not particularly beautiful, but her eyes held the magic of water. It was the height of summer. Their joy had made flowers blossom on the palash trees in the forest. They had touched each other the way the breeze touches the flowers and the leaves. When a cowherd saw them, everyone came to know, and then the trouble started. People had raced to the spot to find the young woman with her arms around the vagabond’s unclothed, rock-solid body, covering his rough chest in kisses. The sound of kisses spread through the jungle like the splashing of rain in Pasandpur. The smell of damp earth rose from the scorched clay of summer. Much more would have taken place had the cowherd not seen them. The headmaster would have had to tackle everything. The girl is now a mother of two children, living in Burnpur. She has not been to Pasandpur in a long time. Because when she visits, she has no inclination to return, forgetting her husband and family and home.

Now the headmaster became Talapatra-babu’s companion. No one except that drifter and this food babu had ever loved Pasandpur. Sometimes the headmaster mentioned the vagabond subtly, he had said, this spirited sunshine, balmy breeze, a woman with a beautiful heart, her eyes like a limpid pool – none of this has ever happened before, and I don’t even know why they have now. Can you tell me, where is the real home of the wind that swirls about in Pasandpur?

Talapatra said, oh no, my home isn’t in Sonarpur, I used to live by myself there too. My home is in Midnapore, it’s been such a long time since I’ve been there.

Won’t you go home?

I’ll stay here as long as I’m happy – after all, no one’s filed a petition accusing me of taking bribes or stealing, so I’m not likely to be transferred again.

~ 2 ~

One evening the headmaster Rabilochan-babu turned to Talapatra, will you do me a favour?

The food inspector’s experienced eye had discerned that the headmaster really was in trouble, that he really needed help. Come to my office tomorrow afternoon, he said sternly.

No, this isn’t for my nephew.

Dropping the cards in his hand, Talapatra said, I know, I have my eye on your nephew, I know he’s selling kerosene at six rupees in the open market instead of two-and-a-half as he should.

Looking troubled, the headmaster responded, what can I do, he’s so obsessed with money that he simply won’t listen.

If he listened he would be a kerosene dealer all his life. Did you know he’s selling cement too?

The headmaster said, he has no choice – he didn’t even finish school. Do you think I enjoy listening to people saying that my nephew hasn’t even passed his higher secondary exams? The other teachers taunt me.

Talapatra giggled, it’s all out of envy – do they have any idea that out of the twenty-six dealers in this area your nephew pays me the largest amount?

The headmaster summoned his nephew’s wife, can you make us another cup of tea, Lalita my dear, inspector-babu will be here for a while.

No tea, said Talapatra, I’m off now Rabi-babu, we’ll talk tomorrow afternoon.

The headmaster wouldn’t relent. He followed Talapatra, catching up with him. That’s not it, I just wanted to talk about my niece’s wedding.

Tomorrow afternoon, then.

They did talk the next afternoon. Not that Talapatra-babu took a fee for listening. But he said, pay me for matchmaking, it won’t amount to a bribe. The headmaster would have to pay, for he had made a match with one of the dealers. The groom lived in Rangamati, close to Pasandpur, young, of marriageable age. Could Talapatra finalise the match, on the condition that the dowry would have to be reduced?

Is that all? It’ll be done. I have him under my thumb. Talapatra-babu had said with a smile, he sells the entire rice and wheat meant for the ration-shop on the open market. Just watch what I do to him.

The headmaster had told his intimate associates everything afterwards. The match would not have been finalised if Talapatra-babu hadn’t butted in. The groom could not ignore the inspector. The headmaster was relieved after the marriage. Like her sister, this girl too had started frequenting the station and the jungle of palash trees. He wouldn’t have been able to take it if something untoward were to happen.

Talapatra-babu was a double beneficiary, extracting a fat fee for matchmaking. He would claim he needed money desperately, that there was no way to survive without money. And yet he cooked for himself, slept on a khatia, put on a freshly-washed shirt just once a week, and freshly-laundered trousers just once in two months. Someone used to visit him from Midnapore at the beginning of every month – his son, possibly. He would leave by the evening train with money. In addition, Talapatra also sent a money-order around the middle of every month. He had no bank account here. He would be anxious at the beginning of the month, looking relieved only after his son had arrived and he had handed over the money. He would keep track through the month of the ways in which his twenty-six dealers were breaking the law. Using this information, he would corner them, two hundred won’t do this month, Parimal, add another hundred, I can’t bear to look at what you’ve done with the sugar.

He had got hold of a ramshackle cycle from the headmaster, promising to return it when he left. He would patrol Pasandpur, Rangamati, Shaltora, Naw-Pahari and all the other areas on this cycle. When one of the tyres was punctured, he got the headmaster’s nephew to pay for a new one. The people of Pasandpur are the finest of all, he would say.

One day he observed, it’s amazing – when I got off the train last winter, I had so many grey hairs, and my skin sagged, but just look at the change in me over this past one year, headmaster-mashai.

Really! The headmaster was astonished.

Oh yes. Check for yourself.

He was right. The headmaster felt he was telling the truth. The inspector had indeed arrived with a head full of grey hair. An elderly man with a stoop who had got off the train only this past winter. Looked like a vagrant. But you wouldn’t know that now when you looked at him.

What hair-oil do you use, asked the headmaster.

I don’t use hair-oil.

Then how?

It’s the air and the water here, I’ve never encountered such fresh air anywhere, not even such water, all the grime in my inner machinery has been washed away.

The headmaster was pleased. As a long-time inhabitant of Pasandpur, he couldn’t stand criticism. Something happened to him in his happiness, and he asked, what was that you were saying about the air?

Not just the air, the sunshine too, one is warm all the time, very useful.

The sunshine too! The headmaster began to mutter, do you know what this air and sunshine mean?

Talapatra-babu guffawed. Meaning, what do you mean, how can they mean anything?

Where do they come from?

Talapatra-babu laughed uproariously again. Where on earth will it come from? What are you talking about? By the way, my days here are drawing to an end, a month and a half to go.

A month and a half! And then?

I’m retiring, got my letter already. Tell your nephew to increase my payment this month, all right?

The headmaster asked, and after retirement?

I’ll go home. A note of mourning appeared in Talapatra-babu’s voice.

You’ll get a pension, won’t you?

It’s a pittance. The salary’s a joke, you know, my real earnings come from the dealers. The salary is just evidence of having a job. What I earn is from bribes. Can you imagine how much I have to cycle around for it? No one lets go of money easily – neither your nephew, nor anyone else. But yes, extracting bribes in Pasandpur is easy. Let’s say I buy a packet of cigarettes and tell the shopkeeper that so-and-so dealer will pay, he doesn’t object. My son takes away toiletries too every month, besides the money.

The headmaster said, it’s all thanks to the air here, don’t you think?

As he left, the inspector said, remind your nephew to double the payment this month…

I will, nodded the headmaster.

~ 3 ~

Talapatra-babu arrived panting a fortnight later, didn’t you tell him, master-mashai?

Of course I did.

The inspector had become thinner in a mere fortnight. He seemed to be combing the area on his cycle all day, returning home late at night, and becoming irregular at the card sessions. The nephew had said, inspector-babu is desperate for money, but now that he’s about to retire, why should people pay him more?

But he’s been here so long.

The nephew had chided his uncle, the headmaster, don’t you speak up for him now.

So the headmaster gave the inspector a seat. Let it go, it’s only a matter of a few days more.

Talapatra muttered, I wrote home saying I’m retiring next month – so my wife wrote back, bring money.

You have your Provident Fund, gratuity…

Talapatra-babu shook his head. I’ve already withdrawn my Provident Fund, only the last few months’ money in there now, a couple of thousand at best.

And the gratuity?

No knowing when I’ll get it, and they’ll deduct most of it anyway. I embezzled government money once for my eldest son to start his own business. The business failed, I’ve been ruined too – no increments for four years, they’ll take away most of the gratuity, and my salary isn’t high enough for a fat pension.

Talapatra’s hair suddenly appeared greyer to the headmaster. For the first time he realised that the inspector used dentures, for in his agitation Talapatra had forgotten to put them on. So he was looking very old, his cheeks sunken, eyes clouded over. He had aged a great deal in a fortnight. He stuttered when he tried to speak.

The headmaster couldn’t make any promises. The inspector disappeared for the next few days. One evening the nephew said, the man is sniffing around like a dog, he’s even invading dealers at home in the middle of the night.

The headmaster said, he’s in trouble, before he leaves you’d better…

The nephew said, we’ll give him a farewell.

But what farewell? With ten days to go before his retirement, the inspector said, I’m getting an extension.

Wonderful, six months more in that case, right? The headmaster inspected Talapatra closely. The man had acquired a stoop, his shoulders seemed bent. He had not shaved for at least a week, and even his eyebrows seemed to have greyed suddenly. He looked like the man who had got off the train on a winter evening. His hands shook as they picked up a cup of tea.

Sipping his tea, Talapatra said, I don’t need cordiality – my rates have increased, I need my payment at once.

Why are you telling me all this? The headmaster seemed irked.

No, not you, but please tell your nephew. The man suddenly fell silent. Then he said in a low voice, there’s no place like Pasandpur, master-mashai. Nor people, and moreover, you’re my friend.

Yes, said the headmaster inaudibly.

Then let me tell you that my wife has written, only if I hand over whatever money I have to her and my two sons will she let me enter the house. How much money do you suppose that is? I informed them, but they don’t believe me.

But the house is yours, what do they mean they won’t let you in?

No, sir, my wife is the official owner. My sons have written, if you’re retiring, you won’t have any money to give us – so better look for work. What do I do?

The headmaster was silent, experiencing a significant lack of ability to offer advice.

The next day the headmaster was told by his nephew, all lies, how can he get an extension – his corruption is legendary, the dealers in Sonarpur even beat him up, they know everything at headquarters.

Never mind, he’s leaving.

That’s why we aren’t saying anything, but he’s making unfair demands. If we’d known he would do this we’d also have beaten him up and thrown him out. But then how would we have done that – the previous inspector got us into deep trouble, that’s why this one was spared.

The headmaster said, give him a proper farewell at least, find out what he wants, a TV set if possible, probably doesn’t have one at home.

He doesn’t want any of that, wants cash – we had thought of using the last month’s payments for a grand farewell. Pasandpur would have earned a name for itself.

The inspector arrived again on the day before his retirement. Floppy trousers, khaki sweater, uncombed hair, sunken cheeks, trembling on his feet, yes I admit I lied, everyone knows there was no chance of an extension, I had tried to collect three months’ extra payment in advance, but everyone’s come to know, I’m a thief after all, how can I get an extension?

He was raving, discovered the headmaster. When I saw how rich some of my relations were I began to take bribes in Ranaghat, then it got to be a habit. I even smuggled rice myself when I was in Murshidabad, it’s all a matter of habit, during the food movement I took government-supplied rice home, all out of habit, terrible. And not just me, my family has become used to it too. When I wrote that I would go home penniless after retirement, they replied, fend for yourself in that case, you can’t get away with lies…

Forget it, forget the whole thing, would you like some coffee?

Talapatra-babu shook his head. I took money from you too, although it was put to good use, but what do I do now, I’m in such a hole, let me see how much I can take with me, Pasandpur’s air and sunshine are lovely…

Talapatra-babu didn’t budge even after retiring on the thirty-first of the month. Never mind the farewell, he hadn’t even received his allowance for the final month. His successor had forbidden all the dealers. He’s a thief, don’t any of you give him any money. Why should you have to pay if you’re running a clean business? And if you must pay, give it to me, I’m the Inspector of Food at Pasandpur now.

The headmaster asked, why did you have to lie?

Talapatra-babu grimaced at the headmaster’s question. I was forced to lie, so that I could make a little extra money.

Talapatra couldn’t extract any money. Nothing at all. He spent his final days wandering from one shop to another, from one godown to the next, from one house to another, returning despondently each time. Everyone promised to pay the next day, or the day after. Eventually they didn’t even invite him in anymore. His days ran out. Even when they invited him in they didn’t talk to him. Even when they talked to him it was just small talk, when are you going home, and so on. No one offered him a cup of tea. No farewell. People who used to genuflect before him twice a day averted their eyes now.

He kept saying, make the payment, I need the money desperately, I’m retiring.

No one paid any attention. Eventually he spent his days alone at a tea-shop, sitting on a bench, facing the road. Winter had left, but its last bite was still to come. A bitterly cold north wind blew every morning. It raised each of his grey hairs on end. His head drooped, his body trembled. He looked exactly like a sick, infirm tiger, its teeth fallen out, but its greed for flesh intact. He kept hailing passers-by, just a minute, Saha-babu; here, Netai; I believe you’re planning to increase your wheat quota, Mandal-babu…

The ration-shop owner strode past without heeding him. Only the headmaster noticed him on his way back from school. Stopping, he said, not here, Talapatra-babu, come home with me for a cup of tea.

The inspector got to his feet with a wan smile, not today, Gobindo Saha is about to return, the dealer from Shaltora, owes me three months’ payment, I’m lying in wait for him.

How can you, just send word, he’ll send your money to you.

He won’t, the treacherous miser that he is. I have no choice, I can’t go back empty-handed, can I.

The headmaster said, the people of Pasandpur aren’t traitors – all right, I shall send for him, his son goes to my school.

Yes, I had always thought the people of Pasandpur wouldn’t turn out this way. I’ll be leaving soon, master-mashai, I’ll just sit here till then to feel the sunshine and the air, why don’t you go home. Ah – even breathing is such a joy here. There’s meaning to this town, don’t you think?

The headmaster was reminded of the drifter. He had said something just like this when going far away from Pasandpur. There was a similarity. The inspector had been caught in the same web.

That evening the headmaster told his nephew, all of you should give Talapatra-babu something, it doesn’t feel good to see him sitting there all day.

The nephew shook his head. He doesn’t want a TV, he wants money, the dealers aren’t interested anymore, they’re all chasing the new inspector.

Ask them once more.

Everyone’s avoiding him. They think there’s no point throwing money at him now that he’s retired – he took quite a lot during these twelve months, after all.

The headmaster couldn’t accept this. He realised that his nephew was also avoiding Talapatra. But there were other people in Pasandpur. When they heard, they said, this can’t go on, the man just sits there breathing in the dirt and grime, he’s aged visibly, we can’t bear to see this. No one in Pasandpur can be allowed to be unhappy. Those of us who were long-time residents of Pasandpur said, how much does he want, we’ll take up a collection, let him go back home.

Talapatra shook his head at this, no, the dealers must pay, why should you, I didn’t do anything for you.

That doesn’t matter, you’ve lived in Pasandpur for over a year, we shall give you a farewell so that you can go back home.

Talapatra-babu kept shaking his head, mumbling, whom will I go back to? They know money, but they don’t know me. I made a big mistake, if I had come to Pasandpur earlier, thirty-five years ago, I wouldn’t have developed this habit of taking bribes. The air and sunlight here mean something, don’t you think, that’s why I cut down on the bribes here, I used to earn a lot more at Sonarpur…

Talapatra-babu kept repeating the same thing for several days, there on the roadside. The man began to change visibly. If he had come here thirty-five years earlier, he might have never taken bribes, he rued. The bribes had done him no good. He had just become slaves to his wife, sons, and money. Ah! What a lovely place Pasandpur is, even my grey hairs had turned black.

Then Inspector Talapatra disappeared suddenly. That is to say, he boarded the train without being observed by anyone. The next day we confronted the guard and the driver, have you taken the inspector back?

The aged driver, covered in coal-dust, and the aged guard both began to chortle, yes we took him back, the last time all of you had forced a vagabond on us, this time we took him back of our own volition, get in, Talapatra, we told him, why spend any more time here?

He got in?

He did, but he has promised to return, he won’t abandon this place – just as it is easy to take bribes here, it’s also possible to live here happily without taking bribes, here grey hair turns black, teeth stop wobbling and set themselves firmly back in the gums, sagging skin turns taut, eyesight improves, apparently there’s meaning to living here, there’s… The guard and the driver, two aged men, chattered on.

The headmaster’s eyes misted over. Talapatra won’t return.

A month and a half later, Ramshankar Talapatra’s sons came instead, two demons in search of their ungrateful father. They began to scream, the swine has escaped. Where does he think he can hide, we’ll find him and get our money.

The people of Pasandpur beat them up and forced them back into the train. Boarding, they said they would take revenge on their father, or on Pasandpur, Sonarpur was much better, even though their father had been beaten up there he had made lots more money, Pasandpur had corrupted him.

Now the headmaster of Pasandpur gazes at the railway lines all day long. He has retired, after all. The lines are visible clearly from his veranda. I wonder what he stares at. Even though he cannot recognise people a couple of feet away, now and them he calls out to his nephew’s wife, isn’t that a drifter there, bent over and covered in coaldust? Could it be Talapatra-babu? Or is it the beautiful man who had come earlier… Inspector-babu…. he-e-e-e-re…

The dust blows across the empty road. The summer winds are encroaching on Pasandpur, a little at a time. The nephew’s wife’s eyes mist over too. She covers her mouth with the end of her sari.

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