The Right to Information, or, April 7: Anita Agnihotri

When it was time to return home from the office, the hotbox for lunch and the huge, circular ‘cool jug’ of water were the first to leave. Kallol’s wife Bratati did not trust the water anywhere on earth. Even bottled water was drawn from ponds these days. She certainly didn’t trust people. So, it was boiled water from home. Next to leave were the important documents for next morning’s meetings. A couple of bundles of files too, wrapped in red felt, about thrice a week. One some days he had to spend so much time talking to different people that the files remained unattended.

Kallol had two orderlies of his own. They were the ones who carried all this things out. Then, when told by one of the orderlies that Kallol had risen to his feet, the driver brought the car round to the portico. It did not suit an officer of his weight to be made to wait. No one bothered about such things in Delhi, but it was different at the state level. It was impossible to be effective unless one maintained appearances. So his private secretary Lalitkumar had told his boss right at the beginning, albeit deferentially, ‘Don’t leave without warning, sir. Only after I’ve announced the car.’

In specific situations even the private secretary could not be disobeyed.

Today, too, Kallol had just got to his feet with the intention of returning home as he did every day – the clock said seven-fifteen – when Lalitkumar entered, his face tinged with a trace of tension.

‘GM Akhilesh Varma is here.’

‘Now?’

‘Some important work, he says.’

An irked Kallol resumed his seat. By virtue of his post, he was the chairman of about ten sick, decaying corporations. Akhilesh was the general manager at one of them. A very prudent, experienced, shrewd individual. His unannounced arrival at seven in the evening was as unexpected as it was cause for anxiety. Who knew what had happened. The warehouse hadn’t caught fire, had it? Or had the bank seized their account? Maybe there had been a scam with the stock? Several disparate thoughts ran through Kallol’s mind immediately. Tomorrow was Saturday. An accident on Friday evening meant a ruined weekend. On top of which, the state legislature was in session. The market for news was bullish. No one knew which item of news could lead to a ‘call attention’ motion, or which would be converted into a starred question in the Assembly.

‘What’s the matter, Mr Varma?’

When Kallol was in a good mood he addressed his subordinates by their first name, and by their surnames when he was angry or tense.

Without a word, Varma extended an yellow envelope towards him.

‘What’s this?’

Varma still didn’t speak. He only took a sheet of paper out of the envelope and held it open for Kallol to see.

A notice.

On white paper, of course. Using legal jargon, it said that you are being summoned to the Information Commission on April 7, at 10.30 AM, with all relevant information and evidence. And if you do not present yourself… the commission is free to take any unilateral decision it sees fit.

Kallol took a few seconds to read the letter and decipher its meaning. He had to read more than a hundred different letters every day. About twenty of these were related to court cases. No, his memory had played no tricks in this case, but he found it a little difficult to analyse and digest the fact that the Information Commission had summoned him, Kallol Roychowdhury.

Assuming that he could not remember what it was about, and using his silence as an opportunity, Varma said, ‘This is that woman’s case sir, Das’s wife… Tanima Das…’

There is no need whatsoever to remind me, Kallol thought to himself, for it is impossible to forget either Tanima Das’s presence or her letters. The combative wife of a wrongdoer. A departmental enquiry was underway against ‘corporation attender’ Gopal Das for flouting rules – it had been going on for nearly four years now. The company’s hand against corruption had been strengthened after Kallol’s arrival, as a result of which police cases had been registered against employees like Gopal Das, with complaints being lodged in the courts for causing deliberate monetary loss and breaking contractual terms. Detractors said this was eyewash. The management had taken on the task of reducing its workforce, the formal term these days being ‘rightsizing’; foreign aid would be available only if a hundred people could be taken off the rolls. It wasn’t possible to offer Voluntary Retirement Schemes to everyone overnight, and even if it was, not everyone would accept them anyway. So with an iron hand they were trying to sack those who had been accused of corruption or negligence – this lent the rightsizing the fragrance of ethics, while the trade union could not protest and funds for voluntary retirement were saved.

Staff members like Gopal Das earned four thousand rupees a month on average. About one and a half times the earnings of a part-time maid in the city. Kallol broke into a sweat wondering how a man could run his household, educate his children, dress in clean clothes and shave and go to work every day on this salary. As was the case with most of them, some of them ran small businesses on the side to survive, while others resorted to corruption. About six years ago a special audit had led to Gopal Das’s being accused of siphoning off twenty-seven thousand rupees. There was a difference of twenty-seven thousand rupees between the official value of the stock in his custody and the auditor’s estimate. The departmental enquiry and the police case had been going on ever since. About fifteen other people were snared in a web of similar cases. But none of them had either a malicious mind like Gopal Das’s, nor a luscious wife like Tanima Das. Was it not a glaring example of the discrimination in the world’s social infrastructure that a downright poverty-stricken man about to lose his job should have such a committed wife? Even Bratati, the wife of a man as important as Kallol, didn’t wait up to eat dinner with him when he was late. If he suddenly needed money, she actually lent him some, saying, ‘Here you are, I don’t have any more.’ What would happen if Kallol’s boss were to file two civil cases and one criminal case against him, as he had done against Gopal Das? Wouldn’t Bratati split her bed and bank-account and move into her own (gifted by Kallol) flat? She definitely would, and she couldn’t be blamed for it.

Gopal Das’s wife Tanima had been visiting Kallol’s office regularly for a couple of years now. Two hours were allocated every Saturday afternoon to listen to public complaints. Tanima used to show up with her applications. Dark-skinned and well-built, she would dress in crumpled handloom saris with her hair tied back, a large teep on her forehead and sindoor in her hair. Lalitkumar had told her a couple of times that taking her application to the GM or even the Managing Director of the company would be good enough. Kallol was too senior to meet her, too important an officer. As if a company chairman ever entertained such routine complaints! Without being intimidated in the slightest by the weight of Kallol’s post, Tanima had said, shaking her head, ‘No, I know that he alone can give me justice.’

Initially Tanima Das’s handwritten visitor’s slip had been swept away in the Saturday crowd and the frequency of visits by the Kanorias, Garodias, and the workers’ union. Tanima wasn’t the kind of person to add a five- or ten-rupee note to her slip when handing it to the peon.

Even when she wasn’t summoned for three hours, she had remained sitting obstinately. Before it was time for Kallol to leave, Lalitkumar and the orderlies had tried what might be referred to as getting rid of her. But Tanima hadn’t left. Eventually Kallol had spotted her standing near the wall of the corridor as he was leaving and asked, ‘Who is she? Why has she been made to wait so long to present her grievance?’

Kallol had scanned Tanima’s appeal right there in the corridor. The content of all her applications had been more or less the same since then.

Gopal Das had not sold any of the stock, he had never had stock of the value mentioned by the auditor, and therefore the company’s allegations were incorrect.

Kallol had felt perturbed initially. The accusations had been rejected in clear terms, the quality of English being far from pedestrian. The applicant had waited for several hours without getting an audience. ‘Very well, I’ll examine this,’ he had said. ‘I’ll let you know if there’s anything to be done.’

To the ordinary public, a statement such as this from Kallol’s powerful lips was all that was required. But Tanima was different. ‘You’ll let me know? Through a letter? When?’

‘Do you expect sir to commit a date right now?’ Lalit had asked angrily.

‘All right,’ Tanima had answered, ‘when should I check again? Next Saturday?’

‘Try the Saturday after the next.’ This was Kallol’s attempt to extricate himself by asking for some time.

Normally a fortnight is a long time, especially when the need is one’s own. But somehow the days would pass very quickly in the case of Tanima’s plea.

The visitor’s slip written in the same hand fifteen days later would disturb Kallol as though it was an overt threat.

She was here again! Once more!

‘Can you check what’s happened to her application,’ he would tell Lalit.

‘It’s nothing to do with this office,’ Lalit would answer with a smile. ‘It will go to the corporation and be dealt with there. The MD will return it with his comment…’

‘But check anyway, it would have been filed here before it was sent to the corporation…’

Then it would turn out that section officer was absent, or the senior clerk was on leave. In other words, there was no information for Tanima.

Tanima would appear and stand in silence.

Kallol would be annoyed. He felt naked, unarmed. ‘It hasn’t come back to me yet. Once it does, I can explain the situation.’

‘When should I come then? Next Saturday?’

‘All right.’

It would be the same story the next Saturday.

Kallol did not know at first that there would be so many applications on Grievance Day. All of them were left in bundles – none of them was put up to anyone in files.

Later, his helplessness would be converted to rage.

Tanima, Tanima and even more of Tanima. Every Saturday.

He would telephone Varma and Chaubey, the MD, to express his unhappiness.

‘Why don’t you comment on the grievance petition? It’s not been sent back to me yet.’

They would express polite, deferential surprise.

‘Did you send something, sir? I’ll check. But Das’s case is under progress. It’s been four years. We’ve lodged an FIR.’

One day Kallol had told Tanima with angry eyes, ‘Don’t keep coming back, Mrs Das. You know the case is sub-judice.’

‘I’m not here about the court case,’ Tanima had said in surprise. ‘I’m here about the departmental enquiry. Nothing prevents me from making a complaint, does it?’

‘Fine, then keep coming back.’

‘I have presented fifteen applications till now. None of them has been answered. You are the chairman of the corporation. If you don’t have the answer, what can your subordinates do?’

‘I don’t know. Nor am I obliged to answer. Please don’t disturb me every day, don’t waste my time.’

Kallol’s voice had become louder. One of the orderlies rushed in. He hadn’t meant to throw it, but still a paperweight had slipped from his hand and shattered the glass on a low table next to the desk.

Tanima stopped her Saturday visits after this. Kallol was somewhat contrite, but relieved.

There was work, pressure, and tension all week. But in spite of all this, waiting for Tanima every Saturday had become something of a habit – there was a powerful manliness in rejecting her. When she stopped coming, Tanima deprived Kallol of his weekly pleasure, but rid him of his anxiety too.

Kallol hadn’t realised that things had taken a different turn.

Chaubey the MD phoned him one day. He was a quiet, fearful, plump man, not a sly fox like Akhilesh Varma. He never took the initiative. But this time he was anxiously passing on the news to Kallol.

‘Tanima Das has filed an application under the Information Act, sir, asking for lots of documents.’

Kallol was astonished. It had barely been a year since the Information Act had been passed, and the workers and officers had only just been trained for it – how to give the right to information to the people. Kallol himself had written a couple of articles, attended training seminars, and brainwashed his staff into believing that information was the primary basis of democracy. But still, Tanima’s application under the Information Act was unexpected!

‘That woman is quite something!’ observed Lalit. ‘Gopal is just a dummy, hiding behind his wife and watching the fun.’

‘What documents has Tanima Das asked for? Let me see the application.’

Chaubey seemed utterly demoralised. ‘She has asked for entire sets of documents. A long list of twenty-one sets of documents in all. Starting with the audit report all the way to office correspondence. How can we give her all this?’

‘Don’t even bother, sit,’ said Lalit. ‘The Act lists the kind of information that need not be provided. Chaubey is the first officer of appeal, he will reject the application.’ Hesitating, Kallol said, ‘What harm will it do to provide the information? Can you bring me a copy of the Act please?’

They sat around a table with copies of the Act – the business lawyer and the car accident lawyer, Chaubey, Varma, Lalit. With coffee, paneer pakodas and prawn cutlets. They began to underline the relevant parts.

Section Eight of the Information Act listed the kind of information that need not be provided…

– Information that could compromise the safety and security of the country

– Information that would invade the privacy of an individual

– Information pertaining to confidential ministerial discussions

In this manner, as they read through the sections, there it was!

If providing information during an enquiry could hamper it, those in possession of the information are not bound to disclose it.

Clearing his throat, Kallol said… ‘But they can provide it too, can’t they? On the flip side of every “need not provide” there’s also a “may provide”, isn’t there?

Varma, Chaubey and Lalit were all astonished, but they didn’t want to say anything, keeping in mind the gap between their respective positions and Kallol’s.

Who knew whether the boss was joking, or whether he was serious, or whether he has simply trying to gauge their stance?

Actually, as they read Section Eight, an image floated up in Kallol’s mind through the gaps in the letters – of Aruna Roy. The leader of the movement for the right to information. When he had joined the administration during his involvement with leftist student politics, he had said as an excuse, how will I change everything unless I’m an insider? His university friends had laughed so loudly that he had spilt his tea and scalded his knee. This agony was compounded by the twenty-three-year-old Kallol’s rage. These people are asses. They’ll be clerks all their lives, they will be penpushers, but they will never understand what ambition is. There was no biotechnology, no M.Techs or MBAs, not even a whiff of software in the air back then. Nineteen seventy-eight.

The Left Front had come to power in West Bengal. Kallol and his friends had marched in victory parades. Left leaders who had had to go underground were emerging into the open. People were streaming out on the roads. Everyone from the bus-conductor to the water-carrier was a ‘comrade’. Still fired by this dream, Kallol had scored a jackpot in the all-India examination and gone for training. Then, when he was posted in a small sub-divisional town, he began to work with the ferocity of a lion. It was at this time that Aruna Roy had paid a visit. When he went back home one evening, he discovered his bodyguards trying their best to explain to a woman in a white sari with a brown border, her hair uncombed, her appearance dishevelled, ‘Go back, madam, sir doesn’t meet anyone at home at this hour…’

Kallol was overwhelmed. By this sudden visit on Aruna’s part during her tour, the activist and the young sub-divisional officer sharing khichuri for dinner. With curd, pickles and papad. Aruna had told him about her experience of working with the poorest of the poor in Rajasthan; of her movement, ten years later, for the right to information, organising people, winning the Magsasay… At a seminar on the Information Act, Kallol had declared proudly, ‘I know the person whose movement and sensitivity to people’s needs made this Act possible… Aruna Roy…’

As Kallol read Section Eight of the Act, the image of his meal with Aruna rose before his eyes. But the people sitting in front of him appeared far more clearly than Aruna.

Tanima’s application was rejected under Section Eight, Sub-section H. Information Officer Varma’s instructions were recorded on the file. What was referred to as a ‘speaking order.’ Tanima lodged an appeal, filling in all the relevant details in the form and paying the requisite fees. This time she was rejected by Chaubey. The next appeal was to Kallol. When he received the application, a part of his heart kept saying, why not provide the documents – what difference would it make? The departmental enquiry had ended. A second and final show-cause notice had been issued to Gopal Das. He had no hope. Providing the information was unlikely to hamper anything.

But Kallol was no longer the Kallol of 1978 – his hands were no longer tinged with the red gulal of victory. He was not even an individual anymore, he was an institution. Hundreds of people were dependent on him. Any weakness on his part would now lower the standing of the institution. Chaubey, Varma, Prasad, Kumar, Lahiri and the rest raised such a hue and cry – labelling his intrinsic weakness a case of casting pearls before undeserving and poor swine – that Tanima Das’s second appeal was also rejected at Kallol’s own hands.

All this had happened about three months ago.

Now, after all the other work and incidents that had taken place since then, Kallol seemed to be searching for his own existence again in the rerun of his memory triggered by the Information Commissioner’s summons.

The entire sequence of events came back to him. Tanima’s Saturday visits. The application to the grievance cell. Tanima waiting. The paperweight slipping out of his fingers and shattering the glass on the low table next to the desk. A woman had stalked Kallol like a hunter for a year now.

Kallol observed Varma’s cold, cruel face. Tucking the yellow envelope between the pages of a diary, he was staring fixedly at Kallol. His eyelids didn’t drop, as though he were a reptile. Varma looked as though he would lay down his life to fulfil Kallol’s wishes.

‘So I have to show up on April 7.’ Kallol smothered a sigh. ‘What if I don’t go? Will they issue a ruling unilaterally?’

‘No, you should go, sir. Why should it be unilateral. You shall go with your head held high, we’re making arrangements.’

Summoning Lalitkumar, Kallol said, ‘The Commission doesn’t have its own building yet. Can you find out where the sittings are being held? Since I have to go.’ Strangely, this man Gopal Das had only sent his wife all this time. He had never come himself.

What Varma said with his eyes on the floor amounted to this: these bastard males are always up to their tricks.

Kallol hadn’t been to the courts very often. In his entire life. He had had to go to the High Court a couple of times on charges of contempt of court, but that was all. The Chief Information Commissioner was a retired colleague – he needn’t fear a threat or humiliation. Kallol tried to reassure himself. But still he appeared irritable and crotchety – to Bratati. A suppressed tension had made him fidget all day.

The administrative section of town was always spick and span. At about ten-twenty on the morning of April 7, his driver Sadashiva left the main road and drove all the way up and down the road that crossed it at right angles. Lalitkumar had given the address to Sadashiva and not to Kallol. The man was going round in circles like a fool. The hearing was at ten-thirty. Kallol was annoyed – he didn’t like being late. Especially in such situations, when he was the one under fire.

‘Stop the car,’ said Kallol suddenly, loudly.

He had spotted Tanima Das near a gate, standing almost like a statue. Immediately afterwards he noticed the board with the name of the Commission. Kallol didn’t know, but the day before yesterday – on April 5, in other words – Gopal Das had been terminated from his job. According to an order from Chaubey. Tanima had refused to receive the dismissal notice at home. So, today, on April 7, the dismissal notice had been printed in the local newspaper, with Gopal Das’s photograph. Royal arrangements for the social humiliation of Gopal Das the criminal.

Kallol would have noticed it himself had his mind not been wandering.

A simple soul and a little religious, Chaubey had been hesitant initially. Gopal Das was bedridden for a year. He wasn’t getting paid anyway. Was it really necessary to drive the last nail in the coffin? The shortage was of twenty-seven thousand rupees only. Nothing compared to what the Telgis and their ilk had done. Akhilesh Varma the reptile had put immense pressure on Chaubey. That’s hardly the issue, sir. This is a matter of the chairman’s prestige. Doesn’t he have to go to the Commission with his head held high? Throw the traitor out.

Eventually Chaubey did release the termination order. Kallol didn’t even come to know that his cohorts had changed him instead of changing the rubric of democracy.

Rolling up the dark windows of his car, Kallol told Sadashiva to turn the air-conditioner up. It was a short journey to the gate, but he wasn’t going to travel fuming.

Tanima Das didn’t look at him. She stood as though she had been turned to stone.

Was it Tanima, or Aruna? The view wasn’t clear from a distance.

Sabotage: by Anita Agnihotri

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.