Aadaab: Samaresh Basu

Shaking the silence of the night, the military patrol car completes a circuit around Victoria Park.

A curfew as well as Section 144 has been clamped on the city. Hindus and Muslims are rioting. Frontal battles are raging – with cleavers, spears, daggers, even sticks. And secret assassins are spreading everywhere, striking under the cover of darkness with intent to kill.

Criminals are out on looting expeditions. The scourge of death on this dark night is making their euphoria wilder. Slums are on fire. The dying screams of women and children are making things even more grotesque. Armed vehicles are ploughing into them, the soldiers firing indiscriminately to maintain law and order.

Two lanes converge at this point. The dustbin has upturned at the spot where they meet, parts of it broken. A man crawls out of one of the lanes, positioning himself to use the dustbin as a shield. Lacking the courage to lift his head, he lies inert on the ground for some time, keeping his ears peeled for the indistinct cries floating in from the distance. The sounds aren’t clear. Is it Allahu Akbar or Bande Mataram?

Suddenly the dustbin moves slightly. All his nerves begin to tingle. Clenching his teeth and tensing his limbs, the man waits for something terrible to happen. A few moments pass. There is stillness everywhere.

Probably a dog. The man pushes at the dustbin to drive it away. There is no response for some time. Then the bin moves again. This time there is curiosity mingled with his fear. He lifts his head slowly…and so does another man on the other side of the bin. Two creatures, frozen, a dustbin between them. Their hearts have all but stopped beating. Two pairs of eyes, probing, the look in them a mixture of dread, suspicion, and anxiety. Neither can trust the other, each of them considers the other one a murderer. Their eyes locked on each other’s, both wait for an attack, but even after some time, there is no aggression from either. Now a question arises in both their minds. Hindu or Muslim? Perhaps the answer will lead to a fatal outcome. So neither of them dares ask the other one. Nor can they flee for fear of being attacked with a knife.

After several minutes of discomfort and doubt, both become impatient. Finally one of them blurts out the question. Hindu or Muslim?

You first, says the other man.

Neither is willing to state his identity. Their minds are swayed by suspicion. The first question is buried. It gives way to another. Where are you from, asks one of them.

Across the Buriganga, in Shubaida. You?

Chashara, near Narayanganj. What do you do?

I have a boat. I ferry people. You?

I work at the cotton mill in Narayanganj.

Silence once more. Each of them tries to covertly scan the appearance of the other. They try to gauge how the other one is dressed. The darkness and the shelter of the dustbin makes this easier. Suddenly a commotion breaks out nearby. Manic screams from two groups of people can be heard. Both the millworker and the boatman become alert.

Seems to be nearby. The millworker sounds terrified.

Yes, let’s get away from here. The boatman’s voice holds the same note of fear.

The millworker stops him. Don’t move. You want to die?

The boatman is overcome by suspicion again. What if the man is plotting something? He stares into the millworker’s eyes. The millworker has been looking at him too. As soon as their eyes lock he says, sit down, stay as you are.

The boatman’s heart leaps into his mouth at this. Is this man not going to let him escape? Suspicion gathers in his eyes. Why? he asks.

Why? The millworker’s voice is muffled but sharp. What do you mean why, do you want to get killed?

The boatman doesn’t care for this manner of speaking. He considers the possibilities, even the impossibilities, and comes to a firm decision. What do you think? You expect me to keep hiding here in this dark lane instead of leaving?

His obstinacy makes the millworker suspicious too. I don’t like your intentions, he says. You didn’t say whether you’re a Hindu or a Muslim. What if you fetch a group of your people to kill me?

What do you think you’re saying? Forgetting where he is, the boatman shouts with rage and regret in his voice.

What I said is right. Sit down. Can’t you understand what’s going though my mind?

There’s something in the millworker’s voice that reassures the boatman.

I’ll have to stay here alone if you go.

The uproar dies down in the distance. A deathly silence descends again. Even the moments seem to pass in expectation of death. Two living beings on two sides of a dustbin in a darkened lane reflect on their own predicament, their homes, their wives and children. Will they be able to go back to their families alive? Will their families survive, for that matter? Like a thunderbolt from the sky, without any warning, the riot has erupted in their lives. There they were, strolling around the market, laughing and chatting with others—and in a moment it had turned to murder and violence, rivers of blood. How can people turn so cruel in an instant? What an accursed race we are. The millworker sighs. The boatman echoes him.

Want a bidi? Taking a bidi from his pocket, the millworker offers it to the boatman. Accepting it, the boatman squeezes it gently out of habit, waves it in the air near his ear a few times and then clamps his lips on it. The millworker is trying to light a match. He hadn’t realised that his shirt has become wet, and with it, the matchbox. The sound of the matchstick being scraped against the box is heard repeatedly, but there is barely a spark. Disgusted, the millworker tosses the stick away.

Bloody matchbox is soaked. He takes another stick out of it.

Impatient now, the boatman leaves his position to crouch next to the millworker.

It’ll work, give it to me. He practically snatches the matchbox from the millworker’s hand. And, after a couple of attempts, he actually manages to get a matchstick alight.

Sobhan Allah! Come on now, light up quickly. The millworker jumps out of his skin, as though he’s seen a ghost. The bidi slips out as his jaw slackens.

So you…?

A gust of wind blows out the matchstick. Two pairs of eyes widen in suspicion again in the darkness. The owner of one of them says, yes, I’m a Muslim. So?

Nothing, answers the millworker. But…

Pointing to the bundle under the boatman’s arm, he asks, what’s in there?

A couple of shirts for my son and a sari for my wife. You know it’s Eid tomorrow, don’t you?

You aren’t hiding anything else? The millworker cannot shed his suspicion.

You think I’m lying? Check for yourself. The boatman offers his bundle to the millworker.

No, there’s nothing for me to check. But you know the times we live in. You tell me, is it safe to trust anyone?

That’s true. Er…you don’t have anything, do you?

Not even a needle, I swear on god. All I want is to go back home safe and sound. The millworker gives his clothes a shake to demonstrate.

The two of them sit down again side by side. Lighting their bidis, they smoke in concentrated silence for some time.

Can you tell me… The boatman seems to be addressing a close friend now.

Can you tell me what all this killing and maiming is for?

The millworker keeps in touch with the news, he reads the newspapers. Hotly he says, it’s that League of yours that’s to blame. They’re the ones who started all this, calling it a protest.

I don’t understand any of it, the boatman retorts harshly. All I want to know is, what’s the use of this fighting? Your people will die and so will ours. What will the country gain?

That’s exactly my point. What do you suppose the country will gain? A big zero. He makes a circle with his fingers. You will die, I will die, and our wives and children will be out on the streets begging. They chopped my brother-in-law into four pieces in last year’s riots. So my sister became a widow and now I have to look after their children too. The leaders lie on their soft beds in their mansions and issue orders and we poor bastards have to die.

We aren’t humans anymore, we’ve become dogs. Only dogs bite one another. The boatman wraps his arms around his knees in impotant rage.

Exactly.

Who cares for us? Where’s the food going to come from, now that we have a riot going on? You think I’ll get my boat back? Who knows where they’ve sunk it. Rup-babu is our zamindar, his manager used to travel in my boat to the island in the middle of the river once a month on work. The zamindar was as generous as the lord, I’d get five rupees as bakshish and five as the boat fare, ten in all. I could buy food for the entire month. And the man who rode in my boat, he was a Hindu.

About to respond, the millworker stops abruptly. The clomping of heavy boots can be heard. There’s no doubt that the marchers are coming into the lane from the main road. The two of them exchange terrified glances.

What should we do? The boatman grabs his bundle.

Let’s run. But which way? I don’t know my way around the city.

Doesn’t matter which way, says the boatman. We’re not going to sit here and get beaten up by the police. There’s no trusting the swine.

Yes, you’re right. Which way, then? They’re almost here.

This way.

The boatman points towards the southern end of the lane. If we can make it to Badamtali Ghat, he says, we’ll be safe.

Lowering their heads, they race out of the lane, not pausing till they reach Patuatoli Road. The deserted tarmac is glittering under the electric lights. They stop for a moment – there’s no one lying in ambush, is there? But there’s not a moment to lose. A quick glance up and down the road, and they rush off again towards the west. After they have travelled some way, they hear hoofbeats behind them. Turning, they see a solitary horseman approaching. There’s no time to think. They duck into a narrow alleyway on the left used by those who clean toilets. In a moment, an Englishman on horseback, holding a gun, gallops past them. Only when the sound recedes in the distance do they leave the alley for a cautious peep.

Stay close to the houses, the millworker says.

They move forward swiftly and fearfully along the edge of the road.

Stop, the boatman says softly. The millworker halts abruptly.

Come this way. Taking the millworker’s hand, the boatman leads him behind a paan shop.

Look.

Following the boatman’s direction, the millworker’s eyes stop at a lit-up building about a hundred yards away. A dozen policemen with guns are standing like statues in the veranda adjoining the building. And an English officer is speaking continuously through a mouthful of smoke from his pipe. Another policeman is holding the reins of his horse on the road in front of the building. The horse is stamping the ground restlessly with its hoof.

That’s Islampur police station, says the boatman. There’s a lane near it, it leads out of the street and goes to Badamtali Ghat. We can take it.

The millworker looks terrified. But how will we get there?

I suggest you stay here, reaching the Ghat is of no use to you anyway, says the boatman. This is a Hindu stronghold, but Islampur is filled with Muslims. You can spend the night here and go home in the morning.

What about you?

I’d better go. The boatman’s voice cracks in anxiety and apprehension. I can’t stay. It’s been eight days since I left home. Allah alone knows what state they’re in. I’ll just have to sneak into the lane somehow. Even if I don’t get a boat I can swim across the river.

What are you saying, mian? The millworker clutches the boatman’s shirt anxiously. How can you go this way? His voice quavers.

Don’t try to hold me back, bhai, I have to go. Tomorrow’s Eid, don’t you see? My family must have been looking out for the Eid moon tonight. My children are expecting to wear new clothes tomorrow, to climb into my lap. My wife is weeping her heart out. I can’t stay, bhai, I can’t, you cannot imagine how I’m feeling. The boatman’s voice is choked with tears. The millworker feels his heart breaking. He loosens his grip on his companion’s shirt.

What if they catch you? His voice carries a mixture of dread and compassion.

Don’t be afraid, they won’t be able to catch me. But you must stay here, bhai, don’t leave this place. I won’t forget this night. We’ll meet again, if fate decrees it. Aadaab.

I won’t forget either, bhai. Aadaab.

The boatman steals away.

The millworker remains standing, his mind clouded by anxiety. His heart refuses to slow down. He stays vigilant—please god, don’t let the boatman come to any danger.

The moments pass with bated breath. It’s been a long time, the boatman must have got away by now. How eagerly his children must be waiting for him to bring them new clothes, how happy they will be to see him! A father’s heart, after all, poor fellow. The millworker sighs. Miansahib’s wife will throw herself on his breast with love and tears.

You’re back from the dead?

A smile appears on the millworker’s lips. And what will the boatman do then? The boatman will…

Halt!

The millworker’s heart leaps into this mouth. Some people in boots are running about. They’re shouting.

He’s escaping!

The millworker leans out to see the police officer leap into the street from the veranda with his gun. Shattering the silence, his firearm roars. Once, twice.

Two bangs. Two streaks of blue. The millworker bites his fingertips in anxiety. The policeman vaults on to his horse and gallops into the lane down which the boatman tried to escape. He can hear the death rattle of the man he has shot.

An image floats up in front of the stupefied millworker’s eyes. The blood flowing from the boatman’s body is soaking his children’s and wife’s clothes. The boatman is saying, I couldn’t do it, bhai. My wife and children will be swept away by tears on the day of the festival. The enemy did not let me go to them.

Subarna: Samaresh Basu

After nearly four months I received a long letter from my artist friend Bhuban. He had written: My dear Niresh, you must be angry with my long silence. But believe me, I’ve been stuck in a dark corner behind a closed door all this time. I’ve had no contact with anyone. My mother knows me so well that she never asked me why I had exiled myself this way. I’m so accustomed to making a noise about my work that my friends are convinced that only a quarter of my talent remains – that I’m three-fourths a businessman.

But that same person has not touched paint or brushes all this while, buried under an unbearable agony in his friendless, lonely room, caught in the massive jaws of a painful and dark question.

And yet I know that all of you will consider it trivial when you come to know of the reason. You might even laugh. By all means we can trivialise it and laugh at it, but I hope you’ll acknowledge that even the trivial can achieve special significance in certain cases, echoing deep within oneself. The same thing has happened to me. It is a trivial incident that will remain a source of lifelong curiosity about what lies behind the closed door.

When I left the French embassy in Delhi after discussions about an exhibition in Paris, I was in a very happy state of mind. I decided to take a brief holiday on my way back to Calcutta. Agra sprang to mind at once. An unfamiliar interest, the figure of a woman, seemed to beckon me to Agra. The figure belonged to someone whose name I was aware of, whom I even knew a great deal about, but had never set eyes on – Subarna Roy. You too have seen a couple of her letters to me, and laughed about it as well – for while you have seen me correspond with the people whom you call my fans, you have never known me to keep in touch with anyone for two years. I have not done it because it is not possible. I cannot clearly tell why I did it with Subarna. Possibly I saw a very special woman, a very special mind, flashing through her letters. Whose effortless energy nevertheless allowed a rare shyness to play within. Despite the lack of familiarity, her eyes held a smile that suggested she had been caught out. It appealed to me. Which was why I began to address her with the informal ‘tumi’ the first time she requested me to. I had promised to inform her and meet her if I ever visited Agra.

I had remembered that Subarna was preparing for her M.A. exams. I wrote to her from Delhi, telling her that I would be arriving in Agra three days later by the morning train, and added my hotel address.

I arrived in Agra in the morning as planned. The train wasn’t particularly crowded.

As soon as I handed my ticket over to the ticket-collector, I noticed a woman outside the gate looking at me. I went out. Her smile seemed to sparkle. She approached me, almost like a stranger.

Are you Subarna, I couldn’t help asking.

Without a word the end of the silk sari and the flowing hair practically tumbled at my feet. She seemed to be trying to prove to me that she was indeed Subarna. I am not used to such displays. What do you think you’re doing, I said quickly in embarrassment, using the formal ‘apni’.

Subarna was on her feet again. And why are you using ‘apni’ with me, she said.

It must have been stiffness at first sight on my part. But Subarna was scripturally Subarna – golden-skinned and red-lipped and black-eyed and….

Never mind. I cannot describe Subarna with words. That’s your area. But this Subarna turned out to be much more than the person I had seen through the letters – or, whatever was hidden in the letters now became visible through her physical presence. A dreamy happiness seemed to burst forth from her eyes. Like a flower quivering in the wind. A coil of hair snaked past her eyes. I shan’t lie to you – I was in the grips of enchantment.

How did you recognise me, I asked.

Just the way everyone else does, she answered with a touch of shyness, like someone I had long known. I’ve seen your photograph in the papers.

She looked into my eyes before lowering her own. But the porter was waiting with my luggage. I shall go to the hotel now, Subarna, I said.

I’ll take you home in the evening, Subarna said. And may I go to the hotel with you now?

Her asking for permission helped me know her even better. Pleased, I said, if it’s no trouble for you…

Suppressing her elation, Subarna said, I don’t in the least feel like going home now. It’s no trouble for you, I hope?

Not at all, I said.

I was surprised. Such rapture at first sight – I was entranced. Why was a hitherto undisturbed part within the layers of my thirty-plus heart suddenly turning somersaults? The first thing I was reminded of on seeing Subarna was my art. And for the first time ever I felt that not all the colours in the world gathered together would be sufficient for her. Not all the motion of my brushstrokes would be able to capture her.

We seemed to reach the hotel in an instant. A room had been reserved for me on the first floor. I asked her to take a chair, and oredered some tea and food.

But I found Subarna sitting with her eyes lowered, picking at the table with her nails and smiling. What is it, I asked.

I’m very embarrassed, Subarna almost whispered.

She had indeed turned red.

Why, I asked.

Because I’m recollecting my letters, she said. You must have laughed at them.

I certainly didn’t weep, I told her.

Subarna laughed. Then, lowering her eyes again she said, but you must have thought the woman shameless.

No, I answered. I thought that the woman was turning Bhuban Chowdhury shameless. So I rushed here.

This time Subarna’s laugher rang out like the tinkling of bangles. Ish, she said.

I laughed too.

But suddenly a pensive shadow fell on her face. Although I was trying to maintain my dignity and the gravity of age, I asked, what’s the matter, Subarna?

Subarna raised her eyes towards me. And said without hesitation, you take so much time to reply to my letters that it hurts.

Subarna’s voice articulated her suffering with such artlessness and lack of fuss that I was silenced. But it was Subarna who continued, I assumed you were painting and didn’t remember me. When you did, you would certainly write.

I had to avert my face from her then. Her helpless agony seemed to weigh me down.

Before I could respond, the bearer entered with the tea and food. Turning back to Subarna, I discovered wonder and joy in her wide open eyes, as natural as a sun-dappled lake. I’ve waited so long to meet you, she said.

And what do you think now that you have, I asked.

I cannot tell you, she answered.

An unusual smile appeared on Subarna’s lips. She looked at me. And then lowered her eyes again with a smile.

I just don’t feel like going, she said, but I must go now.

I grew despondent at the thought of her leaving. Later, I said. Have a cup of tea first. As she drank her tea, I saw her covert, caught-out smile over and over.

I’ll go now? Subarna said.

You’ll be back in the evening, won’t you, I asked.

Of course, she replied.

But once more she said, I’m going, all right?

As she kept asking the question, I despaired. Subarna appeared to me as a dazzling, supernatural goddess, smeared with sweat and oil after the application of the final layer of paint. My hand was resting close to hers. All the blood in my body seemed to be concentrated in my hand. Why, why was Subarna seeking permission to leave so many times?

Before she left, she suddenly said in a low voice, I probably haven’t learnt to be deferential. But nor have I learnt to suppress my sensations and joy. That’s why I feel my heart trembling.

– Why, Subarna?

The expectation of intimacy with the person whose paintings have fulfilled me makes everything else meaningless, said Subarna.

At this my blood began to pound with the same intensity with which I was overcome at the sight of Subarna biting her lips. Her eyes turned misty with tears. Taking her hand without hesitation, I called out to her in a whisper, Subarna?

She seemed to awaken suddenly from the shyness of a reverie. Looking reassured, she flashed me a dazzling smile once more. She said, I’ll go now, all right?

I, Bhuban Chowdhury, man of the world, could not utter a word. I let go of her hand. She went downstairs, while I watched from the first floor veranda. Looking back at me, she smiled and then disappeared.

I was overwhelmed by the joyous notes of the laughter and tears of the soul hidden in the silence hanging over my room. The colours and energy within me seemed to sense a new release.

The fatigue of a wakeful night had disappeared. Going through the motions of a bath, I began to wait in the guise of resting.

The bearer knocked on my door at nearly three o’ clock. A lady was here to see me, he said. My heart beat faster. In my head I said, she isn’t a lady, she’s an empress. I asked him to fetch her.

But the woman who parted the curtains to enter was someone else altogether. She was pretty, her appearance was flawless in every way. Disappointed and surprised, I said, my name is Bhuban Chowdhury – and you?

My name is Subarna Roy, she answered. Startled, I protested, of course not. Are you talking to me, she said in astonishment. I am Subarna Roy. You had written to me saying you were arriving today. I’ve brought the letter along to ensure there’s no mistaken identity.

I could see my letter in her hand.

I see, I said quickly.

But my heart was caught in a maelstrom. An agonising conflict between trust and doubt. Could this even be possible? How? But still I stopped as I was about to speak. No, not now. Maybe I’d learn more later. But an inevitable helpless daze consumed me.

May I, asked this Subarna, and proceeded to touch my feet. Listlessly I stopped her. And I was reminded of the flamboyant show of deference from the Subarna of the morning.

This Subarna said, you had agreed to visit us at home. You’ll come, won’t you?

I was reminded of the Subarna of the morning again. I’ll take you home this evening.

Was she not Subarna? Then who was she? Who was playing this game with me? Let her not be Subarna if she wasn’t, let her have a thousand disguises. But wouldn’t she come to me anymore? It wasn’t just her words that I had listened to – I had looked into her eyes. I could still feel her touch on my hand.

Are you ill, asked this Subarna anxiously. Hmm, I asked, flustered. Er… yes.

Then you’d better rest today, this Subarna said. I’ll take you home tomorrow morning, all right?

I agreed with a smile, but didn’t stop her from leaving.

I didn’t know when night arrived, riding the breeze of late spring. But the Subarna of the morning did not come. My doubts left me, but my night without sleep was torn apart by a single question: who was she, then? Who was she?

I never did get an answer. I was in Agra for four days more. In the evenings I went to Subarna’s house, met everyone there, dined with them, visited the Taj and the fort and Fatehpur Sikri. I stared at every woman I passed on the road. And constantly I felt as though the Subarna of the morning was somewhere close by, invisible, laughing with her mouth covered with the end of her sari.

But why? Why this cruel game? Who was she? What harm had I done her? The more I thought about it, the sharper and more vivid did those few moments from the morning grow. This is all I’ve thought about, locked in my room for the past four months. Unbearable agony.

I felt such fury and hatred for the Subarna of the morning. But I cannot lie, even after this, when I listened closely, I heard myself weeping too.

I’m sorry I won’t be meeting you this time around, my friend. I’m leaving for France the day after tomorrow. I may not have been up to it. But four months of darkness within have led me to the light of the truth outside. Which is that two kinds of people turn up in our lives this way. They never give advance warning of their arrival. Even if they cast a shadow, we do not sense it. One of them appears just once, while the other appears several times, in different forms.

The first is death. And the second, the eternally sought touchstone of our souls, the one our hearts seek. They are to be found within our horizons but they do not dance to everyday rhythms. I shall end here.

Yours
Bhuban

I finished Bhuban’s letter, but the Subarna of the morning remained in front of my mind’s eye.

[ Original: Subarna ]

Fever – Chapter One: by Samaresh Basu

There is a wind which blows in as night breaks into day. It is easy to tell for it has a distinct touch. One can feel it even with one’s eyes closed.

Dawn had arrived. It was an old, familiar sensation, for the wind blew through all the seasons. In summer, in monsoon, in winter.

Ruhiton was neither asleep nor drowsy. But his eyes were shut. Whatever sleep he had managed to get was in the first half of the night, on the office bench.

It had been going on like this for three nights. Not exactly like this, but in different ways. Last night he had been shepherded into a car soon after midnight. Yet he had been told earlier that they would leave in the morning. The previous night he had been told that they would depart at dawn.

It had all begun seven days ago. He had come to know from the jail warder on the morning shift that he was being moved to another jail that day. The warder hadn’t lied. But Ruhiton had guessed why he had let slip the news. Some time later, that is. The authorities must have tutored—meaning, instructed—the jailer to inform Ruhiton that he would be shifted. The warder from the night shift had been present when Ruhiton was informed, as had been a few prisoners. The prisoners had exchanged glances with Ruhiton.

Barring two, he had not known any of the prisoners prior to meeting them in jail. But the charges against all of them had been of the same kind. Murder, causing injury, robbery, arson, and creating anarchy. And, above all, treason and conspiracy to overthrow the state. Their goals were identical too, therefore they were all fellow travellers. Although Ruhiton wasn’t sure whether they were really all fellow travellers, whether they all had the same goals, whether they all belonged to the same party. The very suspicion made him clench his teeth and narrow his eyes like daggers. Hatred flared in his heart. For his experience had been bitter.

The treachery and damage had been horrifying; they could never be avenged. Many so-called fellow travellers had camouflaged themselves like the mountain leeches on grass. It was very difficult to tell the spurious apart from the genuine. They lay hidden in the red earth like mud-coloured vipers. They didn’t raise their hoods unexpectedly; they didn’t coil with a hiss or rise with a lethal spring like the more daring snakes. These mud-coloured snakes and the grass-coloured mountain leeches were imported pimps. They were controlled by the authorities, obeying their signals. They struck furtively.

Ruhiton was cautious, on his guard, yet he wanted to trust everyone, wanted to be friendly with all. But this was impossible with some of the prisoners. He had no choice. But did he himself know why he had exchanged glances with those prisoners or, for that matter, why they had exchanged glances with him, that day, a week ago? His eyes had lit up at the news, as had theirs. Why? And why had Ruhiton’s heart started thumping like a drum? Was it out of wild hope? Or a terrible fear?

Fear? He was Ruhiton Kurmi. This was his name. Apparently he had been named by his grandfather, his father’s father. Ruhiton. No one knew why his grandfather had named him after a suite of playing cards. His grandfather was a third generation labourer in tea estates. His father was a fourth generation tea garden worker in the Terai. Ruhiton was the fifth generation.

As a child, he had worked on a tea garden for some time. But his father Poshpat—Pashupati—had been the first to quit the tea estate and take up cultivation. Beyond the tea estate, next to the river. Ruhiton had never returned to the tea gardens either. He had become involved in cultivation too, with his father. This line of work meant setting up a home, a household. It wasn’t like life on a tea estate. Being a ryot—a cultivator who owned the land he tilled—from the Kurmi clan, Poshpat had managed to secure a tract. It was of insignificant dimensions, not big enough to take his name off the ranks of landless cultivators. Tilling the land of the landowners was his real occupation. Still, there was the taste and excitement of reclaiming himself through a change after four generations. There was the hope of settling down, of stability. Not an obsession, but a hankering. A hankering for a household enriched with land, cultivation, settlement. The hankering ran in Ruhiton’s blood.

The world knew the name of that place now. Lower, to the southeast of where Ruhiton and his family lived. The wooded area was on the slopes of the waterfall going up from the sandy beach of the Mechi river in the Terai. Just like the area, the world now knew Ruhiton Kurmi’s name too.

Had the warder’s deliberate indiscretion—that he would be taken to another jail—scared Ruhiton? There is no fear greater than the fear of death. It is the ultimate fear. But if you kill, you know that you must die too. In battle you stake your life. Ruhiton’s fearlessness had not come from the revolution. Ever since he used to lose his way in the forest as a child, playing hunting games with his bow and arrow, living and dying had become one for him. To kill and to die were synonymous in battle. Just as you had to die for killing someone, you had to live precisely so that you could kill. Ruhiton knew this. Witnessing death had taught him this lesson. Watching his friends die had taught him why he needed to live. Outside jail, death had lurked at every step. Inside jail, it stalked him continuously. Fear meant death. He had banished both from his life.

It was not fear but suspicion that had reared its head. And with it, hope. However faint it may have been, it was still extraordinary. Its name was freedom. Or escape. Or an unexpected opportunity. That was why his eyes had flashed. And the suspicion was of death. They might be trying to get rid of him forever on the pretext of taking him to another jail. This was one of the techniques of elimination followed by the police. On the way from one jail to another, they would set him free in a dense forest, or on the bank of a swiftly flowing river in the dead of night—and then, a few bangs from a gun taken from the belt strapped to a waist. There would be no problems. No one would ever know which jail Ruhiton Kurmi was languishing in. Someone might enquire: Which jail is Ruhiton Kurmi in? Which jail?… In response, there would be an announcement: ‘Ruhiton Kurmi has escaped.’ This was why his eyes had lit up. In hope and suspicion.

(Fever was published in Bengali as Mahakaler Rather Ghora)

About Fever

The Fever
By Samaresh Basu
Published in Bengali 1977
To be published in English translation by Random House India, 2011

Ruhiton had fought to encircle cities with villages. Stake your life, but don’t allow the enemy to survive. Ruhiton had not allowed the enemy to survive. Eliminate and surround, continuously. That was who he was. Why then did his heart ache at the thought of his home?

Ruhiton Kurmi has been in jail for seven years. Once a notorious Naxalite, he is now a withered shell of a man, broken by incarceration and torture. The only way he can endure his existence is to shut out the past. But when Ruhiton is moved to a better jail and eventually freed, memories return to haunt him. He looks back upon his youth, his marriage, his home in the Terai foothills – and he remembers, too, the friends he has killed, the revolutionary colleagues he made and the ideals he once believed in.

Dark, powerful and full of ambiguities, The Fever questions the human cost of revolution and its (often) inevitable transience. A sensation in its time, it remains one of the great novels about the Maoist Naxalite movement of the late 60s and profoundly resonant today.

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