From ‘Mahanadi’: by Anita Agnihotri

Flowing out of the Hirakud reservoir, the Mahanadi flows south for some distance, through Sambalpur and then to Suvarnapur or Sonpur, before turning eastward towards the Buddhist district, passing the hills and forests of Tikarpara and going on to Nayagadh district, and finally to the sea through the plains of Kendrapara and Jagatsinghpur, which are split by rivers running through them. All this comes much later, however. The town of Suvarnapur is drenched in the love of many rivers. The Tel is the longest tributary of the Mahanadi, renowned for being a witness to the archaeological history of southern Kausala. IN addition, the Utei from the tribal land in the south, the Sukhtel – which cuts through drought-seared Bolangir, and the Ang from deep within Bargarh-Padmapur all flow into the tributary. All these tributaries merge with the Mahanadi north of Sonpur; the place where the Tel joins the bigger river is named Vaidyanath. Sonpur was once a subdivision in the district of Bolangir, but it has been a full-fledged district for the past 15 years,

The new district does not appear particularly ostentatious. The town is as rustic and haphazardly laid out as many other sub-division towns. Old and new houses adjoin one another, there are open drains and vagrant bulls. Vegetables sold on the roadside. Lanterns in ramshackle huts turned into shops. When you look at Suvarnapur today, you won’t know how bustling a kingdom it once was, how many histories of victories and defeats have been written here.

But Sonpur has the Mahanadi. Like a decaying zamindar family’s classic sari spun with a single gold thread, the river has brought the murmur of running water to the district and town, to villages and markets, it has brought irrigation with the Bargarh canal system, greening the areas in and around Binka.

Walking down the narrow lane to the ghat at Tentultala, Subal discovers this extraordinary sight – or achievement – almost every day. This river. It is no lifeless geographical landmark, it is a beautiful, magical and distant woman from his own family. There’s some old human habitation in this part of town – the lanes are dirty, uncared for. The stone layers have peeled off, with mud and slime accumulating. The house that Subal lives in is an old, small building, the bricks exposed. Subal and his family cannot afford a higher rent, and the landlord hasn’t bother with repairs. It’s almost as though he wants the building to collapse on its tenants.

There’s just the one room, with an area for cooking next to it, separated by a wall rising halfway to the ceiling. The walls are decaying, untouched by paint for many years. From the half-covered cooking area, Gouri, Subal’s wife, has told him loudly, we’re out of cooking oil. She always reminds of something or the other they’re out of when he’s about to leave – rice or cooking oil or spices or kerosene or daal. Only the absence of rice and kerosene affects Subal’s practised ears, the other shortages do not come in the way of daily life.

Satya sir has been responsible for Subal’s interest in living in a city. Professor Satyendra Pradhan. Subal studied literature in college, where Satya sir taught the history of language. But his lectures effortlessly included geography, archaeology, social history and economics. Even a small town can contribute to the life of an intellectual. Like others, Subal too is attracted by magazine stalls, bookshops, libraries, DTP centres, movie halls and gatherings over cups of tea or coffee. He has neither much money nor many friends – but it is the town that Subal considers his sphere of existence and thought. It is no longer possible to go back to the dilapidated home in the village and live a starving existence with this parents and brother. He prefers his hungry life in the town. His mind, at least, gets nourishment. Yes, there’s the river too. As Subal stands at Tentultala Ghat in the morning, waiting for a long day of unemployment to be born, the blood in his veins begins to agitate in despair. He is not remotely adroit with words; nor does the stirring magic of poetry infect his thoughts. But still, Subal does write some verse these days, alongside his prose. This is the upheaval of the anguish that flows from the bereft feeling which confronting beauty leads to. Subal hesitates even to acknowledge it to himself.

Satya sir is coming today. It takes a lot of time to negotiate the roads crowded with cycle rickshaws and cattle. So the ghat is the best location. Satya sir has retired from teaching and lives in Sambalpur now – he doesn’t care to settle down in a single place. His students, who live in different places in eastern India, keep inviting him, or perhaps an educational institution – he’s happy if his ticket is paid for, he goes wherever he’s invited, to read a paper or give a speech or just meet people.

The teacher loves the Mahanadi. He often spends the night on the large passenger boats moored on the river. On moonlit nights – when the moon is full or soon afterwards, during torrential rains or in spring or in autumn, when the moonbeams and the waves create ethereal beauty – Satyendra loves gazing at the water. Sometimes he asks the students of Suvarnapur to join him, listening to them as they read poetry. Subal has visited him too. Satyendra has taught him with great care the histories of the temples and ghats and kings of Suvarnapur. Such knowledge is of great use for all sorts of research, it even earns money when offered to scholars doing their fieldwork. Satya sir keeps a quiet eye on opportunities for Subal to earn some money. He often initiates these himself, passing on Subal’s address to travellers and researchers.

Satya Pradhan’s hired car will reach the ghat at Tentultala along the road that leads into the city, running parallel to the river. This is where the town begins, and, along with it, the traffic congestion.

This time the teacher has told Subal, I want to travel on the rive by daylight, hire a boat. That is what Subal has done, telling Gandaram the boatman to make himself available, although he has paid no advance, which is why he has felt a stab of anxiety at dawn, what if the boatman does not come?

How beautiful the expanse of the river is in the morning. Across the water stretching to the horizon, the golden hue of the sandbank on the other side is visible. The clouds are reflected in the clear water. Near the bank the water is dark green – is it green or emerald – lightening gradually to sky blue. Rocks rise out the water, large or small, enormous at some places.  Although not visible here, strong rock structures can be seen in the north, where the Tel flows into the Mahanadi. Satya sir says the rocks on the river-bed at Sambalpur are much narrower and steeper. Why? Is the current stronger here, tormenting the rock, cutting into it deeply? Water cutting into rock is an unusual image, a strange thing to happen. Water was force, rock does not, rock is helpless. Long, narrow dinghies lie in parallel at the ghat. The boatmen take as many as forty or forty-five passengers across on them. It might look fragile, but it needs four people to row these ‘Kausli’ dinghies or ‘dinghas’ when the river swells in monsoon, and the current becomes sharper. Even slimmer dinghies ply in the Mahanadi – they’re called ‘Huli donga’s. The boatmen cup their hands to use their fingers as oars, which is why these small craft named after fingers, the local word for which is ‘ahuli’ or ‘huli’.

‘Ho…oi Sobalbabu!’ It’s clear from the sound of his voice that the boatman Gandaram Nayak is drunk out of his mind. He drinks even in the daytime, for he cannot row otherwise. He is dressed in a short-sleeved banyan and a dirty dhoti, with a gamchha with a pattern of checks wrapped around his waist. Hereabouts people wear rings and amulets made with nails from boats. When people need them they turn to the boatmen. These rings are certain to solve difficult, even impossible problems, such as a daughter who can’t be married off because she’s too old. Where does this power come from? From the fact that since the boats go across the river, the iron on them can help overcome problems.

Getting out of a wheezing Ambassador, Satya sir crushes Subal in his arms. Gandaram is staring with a frown, not sure whether to smile or not.

Let me introduce you, Satyendra says after Subal had recovered his joy, this is Smita Khujur, from Jharkhand. She teaches in Delhi, having heard of our beautiful river she’s come to see it.

Subal stares at Smita in astonishment. She’s as dark as he is, tall, her hair piled high on her head. Not a trace of jewellery anywhere on her. The coarse handspun sari she’s dressed in suits her beautifully, on her left wrist she wears a watch with a broad black band. Smita is gazing at the river, charmed. Then she extends her hand to Subal. His palms are perspiring in embarrassment. Smita says, I’ve seen this river even more beautiful in Chhattisgarh, where it is born, but here it looks completely different.

The Kosli donga takes a slight turn and begins to move northward. Gangaram sits at the prow, his helper at the stern, Smita on a plank in the middle, with Subal next to her, forced to sit there by Satyen, who’s facing both of them.

The water is green, the river flows pleasingly. There are fast currents even near the bank, giving rise to waves. The gurgling of the water is soft but constant. A bird is calling in the distance, a continuous, metallic sound with occasional pauses. Leaning to her right, Smita really dips all her fingers or ahulis in the water. The green water flows over them, the sunlight making dappled patterns on the surface. There aren’t any crocodiles, are there?

Before Satyendra can answer Gandaram exclaims, crocodiles, here? You can find them to the south of Satkosia, there’s a crocodile project there.

Smita turns to look at him. Gandaram has unhealthy puffiness beneath his eyes and on his cheeks, induced by alcohol. His forehead is wrinkled, though his jet black hair makes it difficult to guess his age quickly.

This isn’t his real name, Satyendra tells Smita with a smile. He speaks so softly that only Subal should be able to hear him, but because the boatman’s attention is on everything except rowing, he speaks up loudly.

My father’s name is Neelkantha. My parents were filled with fear after losing two children in a row, a daughter and a son. So my mother sold me to a Ganda or an untouchable when I was a baby. I have been called Gandaram since then. I was sold with the faith that death will not summon a child touched by an untouchable. There is even the practice of passing on a child to a washerman  in this area.

Smita laughs. A water partridge flies past simultaneously, calling out, twaang twaang.

 

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.

The Companion: by Anita Agnihotri

Gary was standing bent over, copying his homework. Math. He hadn’t been to school the day before yesterday. The last period today was math. He had to finish it before that. Akash Chauhan, who came first in class, may have been academically proficient, but was a complete coward and miser. He wouldn’t part with his notebook. What if Gary didn’t return it. Copy it right here, in my line of sight. Algebra equations, one slip and he would be done for. Glumly, Gary copied it all. ‘Your little sister, Gautam,’ Akash exclaimed suddenly in English, looking over the rim of his glasses. Gary’s real name was Gautam. His mother used to call him Garfield when he was younger because of his habit of trying to scratch people like an angry cat. From Garfield to Gary. Standing upright, Gary caught a glimpse of Totaa at the door. Totaa again. ‘I’ll break your nose,’ Gary shouted with a frown, stamping his foot as though about to chase her away. ‘Buzz off.’ Totaa’s tiny shadow disappeared from view. But it didn’t vanish entirely. Gary leant over his notebook again. It was recess at school. Children were running all over the bare field outside. The older boys were playing football on the ground to the right of the secondary building. Totaa came at this time every day. At least once. The primary section was at quite a distance. There was a small wooden gate in between. Still she would come. Gary scolded her, made as if to smack her, threatened her. He hated it with his friends present, he was embarrassed. Seven years younger, Totaa understood nothing. She would turn up anyway. Gary straightened again when Shubho tapped him on his back. ‘Uff, what is it?’

‘Why don’t you go find out,’ said Shubho. ‘Why do you behave that way all the time.’

Totaa stood tearfully, looking the other way. Her blouse hung out of her skirt on one side. Her hair had been through a battle. The buckle of her skirt had travelled all the way round to the front. Utterly dishevelled. Her left hand was smeared with chocolate. Melting, a single piece had survived. ‘Here,’ said Totaa, holding out her left hand. ‘It was Pritha’s happy birthday. We got two chocolates each. I ate one.’

‘Eat this one too,’ Gary wrinkled his nose. ‘Wash your hands afterwards. And listen, I’m doing my homework. Don’t bug me, ok?’ As a disappointed Totaa was about to leave, licking her fingers, Gary called out to her again. ‘Why are you limping? Are your shoes tight?’

Dada had called her back. This alone was enough to thrill Totaa into taking off her shoes and throwing them in the air. ‘Very tight dada. These are the old ones. The buckle’s broken on the new shoes. I tell ma every day, she keeps forgetting. Will you remind her?’ ‘All right, I will.’ Why blame the shoes, Gary thought to himself, considering the way she walks. ‘I’ll remind her. Put them back on now, your socks are getting dirty.’

Totaa left, limping. Gary waited, biting his lower lip, until Totaa’s shag had disappeared on the other side of the wooden gate. ‘It’s impossible,’ he had told his father so many times, ‘Tell ma to move Totaa to some other school. It’s very embarrassing. She doesn’t understand, she turns up in my classroom whenever she feels like, makes absurd demands. Or else shift me to some other school.’ He’d say the same thing today as well. When his father got back home. Every time, Abhijit Roychowdhury, Gary’s father, had told him calmly, ‘You’re in class nine. Do you know the implication of changing schools now, before class eleven? Will any good school accept you? Of course Totaa can go to some other school. She’s young. But your mother is asking for more time. How can she chase other schools now in the middle of the session? You must be patient, Gary.’

Gary couldn’t explain the problem in as many words to his father. Totaa used to visit him earlier too, in his previous class. At first she even used to call her brother when she needed to go to the toilet. Apparently someone had said there were ghosts and ghouls in the primary section toilet. She couldn’t even rely on her friends. Dada was so much older. To Totaa dada was Superman, dada was Batman, Sachin Tendulkar and all the rest. Then, too, Gary used to be annoyed, he used to be angry with her, but there was nothing so horribly embarrassing about it. The ugly scenes had been limited to their home initially. No outsider except their part-time maid knew about them. Not even the neighbours. When Gary went off to their new flat with his father and grandmother after the separation, the driver of their school-bus came to know, the Physical Training teacher came to know, Shubho, Akash and the rest came to know. Gary hadn’t been to school for two days. When he did go on the third day, his class-teacher Mrs Dewan had gently put her hand on his shoulder before leaving. ‘Take it easy, Gautam,’ she had said very softly. No one else had heard. Still Gary’s ears had begun to flame, his heart seemed to be thudding like a drum. He felt as though everyone had overheard, as though everyone was laughing at him. Totaa simply couldn’t understand that everything had changed. On her way to her class, she would break out of the prayer-line to flash him a wide smile, calling out da-da to him in the sun. She would come up to him on some pretext or the other during recess. She’d refuse to go even if he chased her away.

That night Gary didn’t tell his father about changing schools. His father looked unhappy, he must have quarrelled with his boss at office. He looked after marketing. Around the middle of every year the conflict over the sales target escalated like this. By the middle of March it reached a crescendo. Summoning a vertical crease to his forehead as he read National Geographic, Abhijit Chowdhury told to his son, ‘Go to bed now Gary. Leave me alone. Please.’

Gary telephoned his mother from his bedroom. Leave me alone. When the grown-ups want you have to be them, you have to share. Then when they want to be alone you have to leave them alone. They’re the ones who’ve made the rules. They’ll make a big show of taking children in their teams too. His mother phoned sometimes. She wanted to talk to Gary. Because his father had answered the phone only for someone at the other end to disconnect. Must have been ma. She didn’t want to talk to baba. When Gary answered the phone himself, they would chat for some time. She would ask about his studies, calculate the average of his marks in the unit tests. Actually it was because of his studies that Gary was living with his father. His mother had wanted both Totaa and Gary to live with her. His father must have been afraid. Afraid of loneliness. So he had said with a mixture of sadness and anger in his calm voice, ‘Aren’t you ignoring Gary’s future completely? He’ll take his class ten exams the year after next.’ Gary came to live with his father because he could help with the science-stream subjects. But when Gary went to his father these days with his math he said lazily, ‘I’ll have a look tomorrow, Gary. I’m far too tired today.’ After which he either sat down with a magazine or turned on the TV with the volume set to zero.

Totaa had fallen asleep. ‘Her shoes are tight,’ Gary told his mother. ‘I saw her limping in school. Get her a new pair quickly.’ She was a little surprised, defensive too. ‘How come she didn’t tell me?’ ‘She did, you’ve forgotten,’ Gary shot back. Probably because he couldn’t keep himself from saying this to her. On such nights, when the house was absolutely silent, his father in the next room, his grandmother away visiting her daughter, when the enormous bed seemed like a sea with white sails trying to swallow him, Gary wanted so much to cry that his throat and ears hurt. He felt that the whole thing – that his mother had forgotten Garfield, that baba-Gary-ma-Totaa no longer snuggled against one another on winter or rainy nights, listening to the sitar or to Mozart – was a game. That Totaa came running to complain about her tight shoes – all this was a fun game devised by their parents. When it was over they would stand side by side smiling, like Sachin and Jayasuriya on TV. ‘How silly both of you are,’ they would tell Gary and Totaa, ‘April Fool!’

Sudeshna woke her daughter up a little early. One of her arms was dangling from the bed, she was sleeping like a rag doll, her mother felt a wave of tenderness. Totaa glowered over her milk and cornflakes, stirring it without eating – Sudeshna was annoyed. ‘What is it, hurry up. Go have your bath. Then I’ll buy you shoes on the way to school.’ Totaa raised her head to look at her mother. Question marks were written in her large brown eyes. How had her mother suddenly come to know?

‘Your Sachin Tendulkar had phoned yesterday. How he scolded me on the phone. Why hadn’t I… What’s all this Totaa!’

Totaa burst into tears. Crying her heart out. She had always had a very loud voice. ‘You can hear the newborn’s voice from the ground-floor!’ Dr Tripathi had marvelled when she was born. ‘This baby won’t need a paediatrician.’ There would be trouble if she was heard in the next flat. That’s where Shyamoli the child-psychologist lived. ‘What’s the matter, Sudeshna?’ she would come running to ask. ‘Any problem!’ ‘What’s the matter Totaa, are you missing dada?’ asked Sudedshna, leaning over her daughter.

‘Aaah-aaah-too… toothache!’ Pushing away her bowl and spoon Totaa ran to the bathroom mirror. One of her lower teeth was wobbling terribly. But it refused to come out. Toothache. The tooth that was supposed to come up in its place had appeared early, nudging the older one from the back. It was all so horrible. Totaa had gone to bed quite apprehensively the night before. What if she swallowed the tooth? She had no idea what would happen. Even the upper tooth had troubled her the same way before falling out. It had kept wobbling for ages, but without falling. It had bled from time to time. ‘If you go to bed with a wobbling tooth, you’ll swallow it for sure,’ her brother had scared her. ‘Let me pull it out with a thread.’

‘No!’ Totaa was mortally afraid of the thread.

‘Then let me punch it out of your mouth.’

Totaa had cried herself into a state.

Flanked by her mother and brother as she stood before the bathroom mirror, leaning on the basin with her elbows, Totaa had eventually pulled the bloodstained tooth off herself by shaking it back and forth. Then, it had been quite late at night, she had slept after dropping it in the dustbin when she couldn’t find a mousehole. But who knew what would happen today. Totaa had no faith in her mother. She wriggled out of her grip to escape into the bathroom. How could she buy shoes when she was so tense. ‘I’m warning you Totaa, I won’t allow you to miss school for such a small thing. You have a test too.’ Her mother dropped her at school, still scolding her.

They had exams in this school every second and fourth Friday. Class-tests. For all classes at the same time. Leaning over her English notebook to fill in the blanks in an uneven hand, Totaa realized that the naughty tooth was punching the wobbling tooth again. A drop of blood fell on the capital T of Tree. Mustn’t open your mouth when writing, Totaa, her mother had warned her so many times, but she simply couldn’t do it. Totaa stood up, scraping the bench back. ‘I want to go to my brother.’ ‘Not now,’ said class-teacher Samhita Nandy, raising her hand. ‘Finish your test!’ By then Totaa’s right palm was smeared with blood and saliva. ‘No, I SHALL go,’ said Totaa, shaking her head and galloping off like a terrified zebra pursued by a lion!

Opening the wooden gate in a flash Totaa ran out through it. In her hand were smears of blood and kthe bloodstained tooth. It had come out, it had come out. Totaa was terribly afraid. What if the bleeding didn’t stop? The fear of the empty white bed at night. What if ma forgot Totaa while chatting with Sudesh-kaku, just as baba had forgotten her birthday, what if they didn’t let dada meet her any more. Even after she had grown up, never ever, then…

Totaa was running, shouting for her Superman, dada, dada, dada. The tooth was enclosed in her fist.

Gary had heard Totaa’s sharp voice as soon as she had reached the turn to the secondary school building. He raised his face from his notebook. Mrs Dewan was looking at him strangely. Had she heard Totaa too? To his left, he saw Akash Chauhan wrestling desperately with the last sum. To his right Shubho was quiet, still, leaning over his notebook, like a bloodless fish caught in the agony of the very next moment after the hook is embedded in its throat. Gary still had three sums to finish. In a moment he folded the notebook with four-and-a-half sums in it and advanced towards Mrs Dewan without a sound. Then, before stepping out the door, he said, very softly, looking his class-teacher in the eye – my little sister.

About Seventeen

17 by Anita AgnihotriSeventeen
Short Stories By Anita Agnihotri
Published in Bengali 1985 – 2011
To be published in English translation by Zubaan, 2011

A brother-and-sister visit the unique crater lake that their dead, estranged mother had written to them about in her letters. A middle-class executive’s orderly life turns upside down when his employer holds back his paycheque without an explanation. The employees of a forgotten outpost in a sun-baked town threaten mass suicide because they have no hope of survival. 17 is a collection of short stories from over 100 of Anita Agnihotri’s published short stories. By turn intense, brittle, angry, sad, and torn apart in conflict, the stories bring out different faces of human bondage and explores the country that is still unknown to many. Set in metropolises and in villages, in small-town India and in international suburbia, they run the gamut of experiences both everyday and extraordinary. From deeply personal relationships against the backdrop of turmoil to intensely social truths told through the unique lives of individuals – all of them bathed in human fragility – these stories bring out the best of literary craftspersonship.