Goswami Kaka of the college library called me and showed me the photo. It was on the fourth page of the newspaper, in the section called “Rajdhani aur aas-paas”—happenings in the capital and around. The photo was there at the top of that section. Ayo toppled at the bottom of the stairs at the Secretariat. She was holding a framed photograph of Baba and a file containing all the applications. Papers were scattered everywhere. I was there in the photo as well, extending a worried hand to Ayo. Along with me, there were our friends, the crows: Jhumri, Bugni, Bahadur, and Jhumru. Beneath the photo was the caption: “Budhni Urain has been seeking justice for the last two and half years.” In that photo, the gate of the Secretariat, the guard standing in front of the Secretariat, the dome on the roof of the Secretariat, and the tricolour atop the Secretariat could all be seen clearly. There was something sad about that photo. The wind hadn’t been blowing that day so the flag hung still, looking sad like all of us. The faded colours of the tiles on the stairs, the cracks between the tiles, and the grass that had grown in those cracks too had been captured in that photo.
When someone mentions that your photo has come in the paper, that itself gives one palpitations. That day, on seeing Baba’s photo in the paper, I could see Baba’s body… The thought alone makes my eyes well up. Baba was a bit more emotional than the rest of us. Why only emotional, he was a bit more of everything than all of us. A bit more angry. A bit more caring. A bit more talkative. And if he did not agree with something, his eyes would just well up, and he remained silent for days at stretch. Since the day I came to know of the ways of the world, I have seen Baba pick up fights at the Block Office, at the government ration depot, and in the market for petty matters. Then he would spend a day or two or even a month or two in the jail, and then he would return home smiling as if nothing had happened.
Baba’s swag was worth seeing when Suresh Kaka and Shanichara Kaka used to be with him. At the Block office, their team was notorious as ‘The Troublesome Three’. I have seen this with my own eyes: every time the three of them stepped into the Block Office, the place would be abuzz with their presence. All those cheat contractors and agents and middlemen, they just escaped on their motorcycles the moment The Troublesome Three entered the Block office. No one could predict what these three would do. It did not take Baba even a moment to grab the collar of any errant overseer or clerk. Suresh Kaka – who was an expert in the rules of Indira Awas Yojana, wells for drinking water, Jawahar Rozgar Yojana, and other government schemes – enjoyed debating with the BDO and the CO using the same official-sounding Hindi and English that were used in the sarkaari documents. The BDO and the CO often turned nervous while answering Suresh Kaka’s questions.
Shanichara Kaka had learnt by heart all the sections of the court and the thana. Every two months or so, when The Troublesome Three were arrested and taken to the thana after a fight, Shanichara Kaka himself dictated to the officer on duty the sections that the three of them should be charged with. Section 290 for creating nuisance, Section 147 for fighting, Section 186 for hindering government work, and so on and so forth. The bada babus who were newly appointed to the thanas and young lawyers at the court would be astonished at Shanichara Kaka’s knowledge of law, so they hesitated a bit before charging The Troublesome Three with anything. Shanichara Kaka’s knowledge of how things worked with the court and police ensured that the three of them were released from jail within two months. Aji , Ayo , Kaki, and all of us were used to this routine of The Troublesome Three. Ayo would mutter, ‘What does it matter if your father is in jail? It is not that he gets to earn a lot of money when he stays at home. All that he does when he is home is feed his pet crows, play cards, and drink handiya and join Suresh in singing those sentimental songs of love and sorrow. That is how he spends an entire day. Why would he lift a finger to do some work when he knows he has a wife to look after matters at home, farm, and the market? All three friends are the same.’
But Ayo was not able to speak her mind in Aji’s presence. Aji would get angry the moment Ayo started criticising Baba. In retaliation, Aji started criticising everyone from Ayo’s father’s family. Especially, Badka Mamu – Ayo’s elder brother – became the main target of Aji’s anger. Badka Mamu ran a government ration shop. He sold kerosene oil and sugar in the black market, and with the money that he had earned, he had built a two-storeyed concrete house and purchased a motorcycle.
Aji did not remember how old she was. She could have been sixty, she could have been eighty, she couldn’t tell. Except her age, Aji remembered the smallest thing that had happened to her. And, anyway, she loved telling stories, and her memory of things helped. She gathered all the children of our Uraon tola and started telling us stories. She told us the story of Princess Singi Dai, the daughter of the Parha Raja of Rohtasgarh. Singi Dai, along with her two friends, Champu Dai and Kaili Dai, dressed up as men, led an army of women, and defeated the Mughals in battle not once but three times. Then Aji told us the story of Murma and Murma Jatra. Then she told us the story of the Karam tree and the Karam festival. But we liked the story of Singi Dai the best. We would dream of Singi Dai and her friends in our sleep. Singi Dai, Champu Dai, and Kaili Dai, dressed in battle fatigues and riding horses, galloped into our dreams. I saw myself in similar battle fatigues, riding a black horse, following Singi Dai and her friends, shooting arrows at the enemies. We fought so bravely that the entire sky and entire earth in my dream would be filled with arrows. What a story! For me, it turned almost real. Today, I hear people saying that after the death of Aja and Baba, I have, just like Singi Dai, protected my home and farm. People say that I am as brave as Singi Dai. The Singi Dai I came to know from the story Aji told us. Aji just loved telling stories. Especially stories about Baba, her favourite son.
When Aji described our own village in her stories, it seemed she was talking of some other village. She would be talking of such ancient things, of our village in a different era. Dhipa Kujam, that is the name of our village. From the market in Barwa Toli, take the road to Falda. About a mile on that road, towards the east, there is Dhipa Kujam, our village. Cross the fields by the road and reach the twin ponds. You will find the Mahato toli there, the settlement of the Kurmi-Mahato community. The Mahatos work in their fields and grow crops the entire year. There is an elevation after the Mahato toli. There is a dhipa-tungri there and a small copse of sakhua trees. After passing through the copse there is a river-like expanse of greenery. These are the fertile don land—our rice paddy. Beyond this expanse of greenery, is our Uraon tola, the part of the village where we people of the Uraon community live. After passing by our tola, you come to a steep climb, a hillock. On the upper part of this hillock, there is a settlement of the Birhor people. The Birhor are an indigenous community who weave ropes, gather honey from the forest, and do a little farming, of madua, corn, and urad pulses. There must be 15-20 houses of the Birhor people in the settlement on the hillock. The Kurmi people had taught us Uraon people to farm vegetables. In turn, we Uraon people had introduced the Kurmi people to thirty-two varieties of rice.
This village, Dhipa Kujam, was founded by our ancestors only, the ancient Uraon people. Our family was a bhuihar family, a family of land-holders. We cut the forest to establish this village. So we owned a number of paddy fields too. My grandfather’s name was Rameshwar Uraon. I called him Aja. He was the only son of his father, and my father was the only son of Aja. Our family owned seven and half acres of the best fertile don land. We never lacked food. A bhuihar family helps the share croppers settle down in a village. Our family did that in Dhipa Kujam. Be it other Uraons, Mahatos, or Birhors, our ancestors brought them all to Dhipa Kujam and helped them settle down here. In turn, our family got the title of Gram Pradhan, the head of the village.
Aja was a very influential man. Even the Parha Raja and the heads of twenty villages consulted Aja before setting out to do anything.
‘His background was very strong,’ Aji said about my Baba, ‘so Bifaiya got spoilt.’
Baba was born on a Thursday. Bifay was our word for Thursday. Being born on a Bifay, Baba was given the name Bifaiya.
‘Your Baba, Suresh Kaka, and Shanichara Kaka were born in the same week, on three consecutive days,’ Aji said. ‘Your Baba was born on a Bifay, so we call him Bifay. Suresh Kaka was born the next day, Friday, which we call Shukar, so Suresh was given a name that rhymed with Shukar. Shanichara was born one day later, Saturday, which we call Shanichar. So Shanichara was named after Shanichar. Shanichara’s mother passed away soon after giving birth to him, so Shanichara grew up in our home. For one year, both Shanichara and your Baba suckled on my breasts. Are you getting the story, maiya?’
Aji continued the story: ‘Your Aja took all three of them together to get them enrolled in the school. All three have grown up together. Eating together, playing together, and fighting together — right from childhood. Bifaiya, your Baba, had always been an uncontrollable child. People who they did not like, these three just beat them up. And these three friends planned beforehand. First, Shanichara held that person tightly from the back. Then Bifaiya punched and kicked that person nicely, even breaking nose and mouth at times. After all the beating was done, Suresh came from somewhere and talked sweetly to the person they had just beaten up and tried to solve the matter. When these three grew older, they beat up those cheat ration dealers and businessmen in the market. Are you getting the story, maiya? Those punters, who organise gambling bouts at rooster fights, they shivered at the sight of these three.’
Aji kept on telling the story: ‘But yes, these three fought with the headmaster of their school. It was something they should have not done. Your Baba said something to the headmaster and the headmaster was infuriated like an angry bull. These three said that the headmaster was gobbling up a part of the stipend they received from the government. That they had been watching him doing it since the time they were in Std. VIII. The headmaster would make them sign a receipt of one-hundred-and-fifty-one rupees each but gave only one-hundred rupees to each person. Every month, the fifty-one rupees just vanished. The headmaster made thousands and lakhs of rupees from the money he cheated from hundreds of students. With that money, he built a three-storeyed house for himself. When Shanichara started describing how beautiful that house was, he could not stop for two hours. He just went on and on. He said that the headmaster’s house looked just like the Taj Mahal he had seen in books. And I saw this cheat headmaster at the haat once. He looked like a huge, white hog. He wouldn’t have weighed less than five seers. So fatty! Are you getting the story, maiya?
Aji was in no mood to stop: ‘That swine headmaster, he was a big badmaash! He struck the names of these three off the school rolls in such a way that they did not get admission anywhere, in any school in the district. Your Aja’s influence did not work at all, maiya. He ran to this school and that school. He ran to this officer and that big man. Nothing. His dream of educating these three children was totally shattered. That day, for the first and the last time in his life, Bifaiya was beaten up by his father. And soon after beating his son, your Aja started crying and wailing. It was strange, everything ulta-pulta. First, the father beat his son and the son rolled around on the ground, crying. Then, seeing his son crying, the father too started crying. After that, seeing his father cry, the son stopped crying and tried to make his father stop crying. He wiped his father’s tears with a gumchha. When he saw that his father won’t stop crying, Bifaiya started crying again. Then, his father stopped crying. Are you getting the story, maiya?’
Then I came to know why Baba, who was a sharp man, was a non-matriculate. Ayo, though, had passed her matric exam in the first division. I remember Aji telling me once, while we were going to sleep, that Aja had told her many years ago that even though their son was a non-matriculate, their daughter-in-law would be a matriculate. But this wasn’t easy. This daily fighting and beating up people, which The Troublesome Three called social service and correcting the ills of the society that was seen by the same society as hooliganism. Getting into fight with a contractor at the gram sabha, creating nuisance at the Block office, getting arrested by the police, spending time in lock-up, the society did not have good words to say for deeds like these. Aja was turned down at whichever Uraon village he went to with Baba’s marriage proposal. Finally, Aji’s father’s family helped. They found a bride for Baba in a village so far away that they were, perhaps, not aware of Baba’s reputation. After Baba’s wedding, our family started looking for a bride for Shanichara Kaka. Shanichara Kaka was a Birhor, and there were no educated girls in the Birhor villages near our village. It was so difficult. Finally, the family found a matriculate Birhor girl who was a student at a government-run residential school for girls very far away. Baba and Shanichara Kaka were married, but Suresh Kaka refused to marry. Aji could not understand why Suresh Kaka did not want to marry.
‘After they quit studying,’ Aji said, ‘these three boys took up new hobbies.’
One of Baba’s hobby was feeding crows. Whenever he got some time from his work at the thana, court, Block office, and market, Baba fed rice and corn to crows. He did it regularly—morning, noon, evening. He loved his crows and the crows trusted Baba. Baba had named every crow, he could tell which was a male and which one a female. In just 4-5 months, there were 60-70 crows in Baba’s team. He spoke to his crows, and, wherever Baba went, 5-7 of his crows accompanied him. Whoever picked up a fight with Baba, the crows attacked that person. They stabbed that person on head and eyes with their sharp beaks. Aji tells me some of Baba’s crows also went in his baaraat to Ayo’s house.
Shanichara Kaka loved plants. Trees and vines and roots and creepers. He roamed alone in the forest and even spoke to the trees in the forest. He could tell which tree had been invaded by termites or the soil under which creeper needed more nutrients. He really cared for trees.
Suresh Kaka, Aji said, was into music. He wanted to learn singing. Every morning, without delay, he went on a bicycle to some Mandal Guruji at some village near Falda to learn singing Kurmali songs. Kurmali is the language spoken by the Kurmi community. Gradually, Suresh Kaka fell in love with both the Kurmali love songs as well as the young daughter of Mandal Guruji. In a year, Suresh Kaka had mastered singing Kurmali geet, bhajan, and jhumar. He knew every beat, every lyric. Suresh Kaka’s most appreciative audience was his new sister-in-law, my Ayo. Suresh Kaka sang so many songs to Ayo that even Ayo learnt all the songs very well. At times, at the akhra in the village, a very exciting thing happened. Baba started beating the maandar, the long drum. Shanichara Kaka started playing a tune on his flute. And Suresh Kaka and Ayo started singing one duet after another. It was so exciting, even I remember a song:
This autumn moon, this mesmerized moonlight
Friend, this mesmerized moonlight
My beloved is not at home, and this life is so short
The bumblebee buzzes, looking for nectar
The cool breeze touches me, my body shivers
My beloved is not at home
Aji says that she couldn’t forget those songs. So lively, that even the wind seemed to stand still to listen to Suresh Kaka and Ayo singing. The streams seemed to stop flowing. Leaves seemed to stop moving. Men and women returning from the haat, cattle returning to their sheds, they were all drawn by Suresh Kaka’s singing to the akhra. Life was so happy at that time. Those smiles, that sweetness, all of it disappeared so fast, like the sun in the winter.
We were all taken aback when Suresh Kaka revealed to us his decision to contest the election to the post of the Pramukh of the Block. We do not know who advised him to do such a thing. His father tried to talk sense to him, he did not listen. My Aja and Baba tried to tell him to not jump into politics, Suresh Kaka listened to no one. Baba talked strongly to Suresh Kaka, ‘All the things that we have fought against – the contractor system, black marketeering at ration depots, big businessmen cheating customers and small traders at the haat, corruption in government offices – Suresh, all of it will start seeming normal to you once you join politics. You will accept corruption as a way of life. Gradually, you too will be sucked into this corruption. If you think you can fight corruption by joining politics, you won’t. Do not contest this election, Suresh.’ Suresh Kaka did not listen to Baba. He was thinking something else. He was thinking that as the Pramukh he would be able to make things work his way, make the sarkaari system work according to rules. He wouldn’t be sent to jail for interfering in sarkaari work. Everyone had his own opinion. Suresh Kaka had his own. He went ahead with his opinion.
Another person had told Suresh Kaka to not contest the election: the local MLA, Bhaiya Ji Rashtrawadi. Their party was fielding their own candidate. But there was a catch. Their candidate wouldn’t be given their party symbol. There was some internal politics behind this, but people seemed to know it. The voters knew that Haldhar Choudhary was Bhaiya Ji’s man. The matter had turned serious. This was the question of the honour of Dhipa Kujam village, the village head Rameshwar Uraon, and the friendship of Baba, Shanichara Kaka, and Suresh Kaka. The entire village got down to campaign for Suresh Kaka. Early in the morning, the villagers ate the rice and saag from previous night, roamed around from one tola to the other campaigning for Suresh Kaka, and returned home late at night. All the mukhiyas of the block were told to ask their villagers to vote for Suresh Kaka. Suresh Kaka won the election by a huge margin.
MLA Bhaiya Ji Rashtrawadi played his game after Suresh Kaka’s victory. And what a game it was! None of us could tell that something like that would happen. Forget us, even our ancestors too would have not been able to tell. Bhaiya Ji Rashtrawadi fixed the marriage of his uncle’s daughter with Suresh Kaka. It was a difficult situation. The entire village was stunned. Suresh Kaka’s father and my Aja sat together under the frangipani tree in a corner of the village tree with their heads bent on their knees, deep in troubling thoughts. They could not say no to the MLA for he was a big, important person, but they also knew that their son would go out of their hands if he married into an influential family like that. The MLA’s cousin had one eye smaller than the other, the reason why she was called Kaniya; yet, Suresh Kaka was more than willing to get married to her, for he knew that getting married to an influential family like that was beneficial for his political career.
But what about Sonamani, the daughter of Mandal Guruji? That was the question which was worrying my family the most. My Aja and my Aji treated all three of them – Baba, Suresh Kaka, and Shanichara Kaka – as equals. Suresh Kaka always had a lemon candy for me in his pocket. If, someday, he did not have a candy for me, he brought one using magic. He closed his fist tight, moved it in the air, and lo! There would be a candy in his fist when he opened it. I ran excitedly to Ayo to tell her about the candy. Ayo just smiled. Now I know the secret of that magic. When Suresh Kaka moved his closed fist in the air, he also moved it towards his back pocket. That candy came not from magic, but from Suresh Kaka’s back pocket. Those were the days! Those days are gone now. But I do not hate Kaniya Kaki for this. Instead, I have begun loving Sonamani Kaki even more. Sonamani Kaki was the best.
Mandal Guruji came to know of Suresh Kaka’s wedding with Kaniya Kaki. He came rushing to our village with Sonamani Kaki. Early in the morning, our village reverberated with the wails of Mandal Guruji and Sonamani Kaki. Since Aja was the head of our village, Mandal Guruji and Sonamani Kaki knocked our door for justice. Sonamani Kaki was a holding a small child in her arms. People said that that child was Suresh Kaka’s. I couldn’t understand how Suresh Kaka and Sonamani Kaki could have a child without being married to one another. And if they were indeed married to one another, then why was Suresh Kaka going to marry Kaniya Kaki?
Aja had Suresh Kaka’s father summoned. He came, and along with him came Suresh Kaka’s mother and grandmother. Suresh Kaka’s father sat with my Aja, while Suresh Kaka’s mother and grandmother joined my Aji and Ayo in the courtyard inside. Sonamani Kaki’s sobs could be heard in the room outside. Mandal Guruji sat frozen with sorrow and disappointment. Aja and Suresh Kaka’s father were being able to say not one word. They just sat there, not even looking at one another. There was silence all over. And then… There were sudden noises. Suresh Kaka’s mother and grandmother were screaming at and blaming Mandal Guruji and Sonamani Kaki. There was no way Suresh Kaka’s mother and grandmother would accept Sonamani Kaki as their daughter-in-law. Hearts were broken and everything was clear. Actually, Suresh Kaka himself was not ready to accept Sonamani Kaki as his wife. His mother and grandmother were merely repeating what Suresh Kaka had asked them to say. The silence of Suresh Kaka’s father and the screaming of Suresh Kaka’s mother said it all.
Mandal Guruji and Sonamami Kaki did not give up. They did not return to their village. They sat right there at our doorstep. Aja readied a room in our house for them to stay. Maybe that was a mistake Aja did. Suresh Kaka immediately saw Aja as an enemy for supporting Mandal Guruji and his daughter. And more than Suresh Kaka, the MLA saw Aja as a bigger enemy. Our family was not even invited to Suresh Kaka’s wedding. There were few families in our village who hated our family, only those families went to Suresh Kaka’s wedding. I had prepared so much for Suresh Kaka’s wedding but, ultimately, we did not go. On the night of the wedding, the entire night, Sonamani Kaki just cried and sang sad, heartbreaking songs. Every person who heard her songs, every animal, every bird, every tree and vine, was moved by Sonamani Kaki’s songs.
My world has been burnt in this fire
In this fire
My beloved has been stolen away from me
Yes, stolen away
My world has been burnt in this fire
I am up all night
My beloved has been stolen away from me
Time was really bad. Something inauspicious was going to happen. Just two days after the wedding, the people in the village were going to Suresh Kaka’s house to see his new bride. Sonamani Kaki should, perhaps, have not gone there. But she did. And she took her son along. She encountered Suresh Kaka at the door. Suresh Kaka stopped her from entering the house. When Sonamani Kaki wouldn’t stop, Suresh Kaka slapped her hard on her face. Dumbstruck, speechless, Sonamani Kaki kept staring at Suresh Kaka’s face for some time. Then she placed her child on a cot near Suresh Kaka, and ran outside the house and jumped into a well. By the time anyone could understand anything, by the time Sonamani Kaki’s body could be raised out of the well, she was gone. Sonamani Kaki was gone. Just two days after Suresh Kaka’s wedding, Sonamani Kaki killed herself right outside Suresh Kaka house. I couldn’t stop crying. I loved Sonamani Kaki very much. Her dusky skin; her sharp nose; her eyes like pottri fish; her curly, black hair. My Ayo and Aji were crying. Baba was crying. Who wasn’t crying? Mandal Guruji went mad on seeing his daughter’s corpse. He was beating his head on the ground. So much that his face turned bloody. I did not see it, but people said that even Suresh Kaka could not help his tears on seeing Sonamani Kaki’s dead body. I saw that Suresh Kaka’s mother and grandmother, who, just few days ago, had disowned Sonamani Kaki, were now crying at her dead body. Sonamani Kaki found the status of Suresh Kaka’s wife, but only after her death. Sonamani Kaki’s dead body was dressed up in the outfit of a new bride, in a red and yellow sari. Suresh Kaka himself rubbed the sindoor on Sonamani Kaki’s forehead. A bright red streak of sindoor, from Sonamani Kaki’s nose till her head. There were red bangles on Sonamani Kaki’s lifeless arms. It seemed as if Sonamani Kaki would get up right now and embrace her son. But no, only the flames of her funeral pyre embraced Sonamani Kaki. Mandal Guruji tried to jump into his daughter’s funeral pyre, but four men restrained him.
MLA Bhaiya Ji came at night. Suresh Kaka and his entire family left the village with him. It was an unforgettable night, heavy like a wet blanket. So heavy, that we were all crushed under it. My Aja, the wisest man in the village, even he turned helpless. He could not save Sonamani Kaki. He could not keep the trust of Mandal Guruji. On top of it all, he lost Suresh Kaka. Aja lost everything that heavy night. In the morning, we saw that Mandal Guruji had left. Now, years later, we see Mandal Guruji on the roads. Grey beard covering his face, naked, out of his mind. It is said that that night, before leaving our home and village, Mandal Guruji had cursed the entire village of Dhipa Kujam and each one of us. His curse is coming true today.
The weather started changing a year after Sonamani Kaki died. Earlier, there used to be somewhat adequate rainfall between Ashadh and Saawan, the months of June, July, and August. Rice used to be planted. There used to be adequate water in the paddy during the sowing of the saplings. But, this year, the clouds ignored our village when it was time for the grains to grow in the paddy. Our family was the most prosperous in the village, so, somehow, we gathered water from a pond and a well to water our crops. The situation of other families was bad. After the failure of their crops, they had only one way to run their families: migrate to places outside for manual labour. Suresh Kaka was, perhaps, still angry with Dhipa Kujam, our village. Other villages were given work in the rural employment guarantee scheme, but Dhipa Kujam was ignored. As a result, Shanichara Kaka and his wife and other families too had to go to other places to work as manual labourers. Such a thing had never happened before. This was just the beginning.
Another reason for Dhipa Kujam not being given jobs could be my father who had still not learnt to make adjustments like Suresh Kaka, because of which neither a JCB machine nor a contractor could enter our village. In Dhipa Kujam, there could be no cuts given to either the Panchayat worker or someone at the Block office. So why would anyone waste one’s time over Dhipa Kujam?
Suresh Kaka, on the other hand, was going on adjusting. All the cheats, contractors, and ration depot owners were members of Bhaiya Ji’s party. They had come up with a plan to protect the farmers from the businessmen in the haat. They were setting up a co-operative for farmers who grew vegetables. Suresh Kaka, the Pramukh, was convinced that this co-operative would be the solution to every problem of the vegetable farmers. The co-operative would have its own trucks which would take the farmers’ produce to faraway markets in Rourkela and Kolkata and this would bring in huge money for the farmers. What a fantastic plan! But there was a hitch, something that Suresh Kaka was not being able to appreciate: instead of farmers, the co-operative comprised of the same thug businessmen the co-operative intended to protect the farmers from. And those businessmen were all members of Bhaiya Ji’s party. Suresh Kaka still abhorred bribery and corruption. He was all set to have a raid conducted by the intelligence department. But he had no solid evidence of any corruption. His tenure as the Pramukh was passing. Suresh Kaka, despite being in the midst of all the corruption, could not find an evidence of the corruption.
Four years passed. This was the last year of Suresh Kaka as the Pramukh. He was determined to find evidence against corruption in the system. At least, this was what had been rumoured far and wide, that Suresh Kaka would fight the corruption. Anyway, his fight for corruption was not to be used as an excuse to hinder development works. Development. Vikas. Vikas was the word all over. How could Vikas be stalled? Vikas was foremost on MLA Bhaiya Ji’s mind. Suresh Kaka had had the words of Bhaiya Ji on Vikas painted on the walls of Block office and Circle office. The words were painted boldly in deep saffron and feelings of nationalism grew in one on just seeing those words. This was what Suresh Kaka had been up to. From where would he find evidences against corruption?
The Troublesome Three were the only one who could have stalled the movement of Vikas in the region. Of those three, the MLA had already tamed one. Third, Shanichara Kaka, beaten by famine and hunger, had migrated to work at a brick kiln somewhere far away. My Baba remained. And we were not hearing pleasant things about what some people were trying to do to my Baba. Some of my friends from school lived near the Block office. They warned me against some people who waved saffron flags and talked of development. They told me that those men might harm my Baba.
Baba and Ayo found themselves alone after Shanichara Kaka and his wife left. The famine stayed. The village looked deserted. Half the village had, like Shanichara Kaka, migrated to work as labourers in distant places. Every third house in every tola had a lock hanging on the door. The people who remained in the village were the elderly, the sick, and junkies, and those who were too lazy to go and work outside. Lack of jobs and food had turned people irritable. Some were ready to fight, some were ready to steal. People started stealing even vines, pumpkins, and gourds from each other’s gardens. People started stealing the feed meant for goats and, sometimes, goats too. Happiness had vanished from the face of our village. After Suresh Kaka left and Shanichara Kaka migrated, the akhra of our village was robbed of its music. Those songs of love, that strain of the flute, that beating of the maandar—all of it seemed so far away, things of the distant past. All that was left of music in our cursed village was this song of pain that Ayo sang early in the mornings with Aji accompanying her at times:
Wealth, people, family, everything took just a moment to fall
O sad world
I am weary of you, o sad world
O sad world
Since there were no schemes working in our village, Baba started going to neighbouring villages to seek work in the MGNREGA scheme. But people turned him away citing one reason or the other. They did not say anything openly, but Baba knew that it was all because of the animosity between other villages and our village that had been coming down for years. Expenses were mounting in the family, and so was the sadness, but my parents were determined that nothing should affect my studies. I continued going to school. Aji was an expert on wild roots used in the brewing of handiya. Some twenty-three kinds of roots were cut and ground and mixed with rice flour. This mixture was then dried in the form of small balls. These balls were called raanu, from which the intoxicating handiya was brewed from rice. Earlier, whoever came to ask us for raanu, Aji gave them raanu for free. But now, situation was so dire, Aji had begun selling raanu. Aji would fill up a basket with raanu that she prepared at home, took those raanu to the haat, and sold them. People knew about Aji’s talent in selecting wild roots and making raanu. Within half-an-hour, Aji’s raanu would all be sold. Each haat day, Aji earned about three-hundred rupees from her raanu, and this was quite a huge amount. When Aji needed help to go to the haat, my mama and Ramesh Dada would be there with their motorcycle. They tied Aji’s stock of raanu on their motorcycle. But other people seemed to envy Aji even for this.
Baba, left alone without any friend, had grown even closer to his crow friends. He talked to his crows, sat with them, even played cards with them. People started making stories about it. They said that Baba knew black magic and that is why he could talk to crows. People started saying that Baba’s pet crows were actually evil spirits and ghosts that had taken up the form of crows. Such rumours first started at the small tea shop near the gate of the Block office. From there, it spread all over the haat. And from Baba, it touched Aji and Ayo. People started spreading stories that Aji too knew black magic. Then some people said that Ayo was a bigger practitioner of black magic than both Baba and Aji, and that it was Ayo who had made Sonamani Kaki go to Suresh Kaka’s house, which ultimately led to Sonamani Kaki killing herself. People said that Suresh Kaka was willing to keep Sonamani Kaki as his second wife, but my Ayo’s black magic spoiled everything. If the rumours were to be believed, both my Aji and Ayo were powerful witches.
At first, everything seemed like a joke. As if some junkies, high on ganja, were spreading these mischievous tales. But those tales were just going on spreading. It certainly wasn’t the work of some junkies. People started avoiding us. Within a year, we saw, people had nearly stopped talking to us. They avoided passing near our house. Aji was so shocked and hurt that she stopped going out of the house. Then she fell sick. Finally, she was bedridden.
The effect of these rumours could be seen on our raanu business. Ayo would sit at the haat from morning till sunset with her baskets of vegetables that we grew in our house and raanu that she made herself. Not a single customer came to her. When this happed 3-4 times, Ayo realised that there was no use returning to this haat near our village. She started going to the haat at a place called Gondli Bajar, nearly 20 kilometres from where we lived. Every Tuesday and Friday, Ayo took her baskets and boarded a rickety bus to the haat at Gondli Bajar, sold the vegetables and the raanu, earned some money, and returned home. For two months, things were fine. The bus conductors treated her with respect, even kept a seat vacant for her. After two months, things changed. The buses saw Ayo standing by the road and they did not stop for her. Ayo was puzzled, but what could she do? We needed money—to run our house, for my school, for Aji’s medicines. Ayo started walking to the haat at Gondli Bajar. We were not in a position to earn money by selling our paddy, our crops had dwindled. Ayo’s visit to the haat was now our only source of income.
Even I had started finding it difficult to travel by bus. I had my friends from school with me, both girls and boys, so I was not scared. But I did not like the way the bus conductor had started behaving with me. He would not let me sit even if a seat were vacant. Some rowdy boys who I did not know elbowed me in the bus. One day, one of those boys tried to touch me. I caught his hand and would not let go. The girls and boys of my school beat him up nicely. For few months after that, things were quiet. But 3-4 loafers started troubling me again.
Our farm was in a bad shape. Since I did not have a brother, our relatives assumed that my father had no heir to pass on our property to. ‘We cannot accept a daughter’s claim on the entire property,’ they said. ‘Yes, we can give her one small patch of land to grow some vegetables. But all the land? No.’ Baba heard all this and grew angry. During the time of farming, Baba grew afraid that our relatives might encroach upon our fields. Baba and Ayo worried and their worries grew. They couldn’t fight, they were past that age. And who and how much would they fight?
‘After I am gone,’ Baba told Ayo, ‘our relatives won’t let you live in this village. They will beat drums all over the village and accuse you of witchcraft. These are all excuses to grab the land of our ancestors. I understand this.’
Some days later, a friend of mine at school told me: ‘People are accusing your Ayo of witchcraft. There, at that tea stall near the gate of the Block office. They are saying that your Ayo learnt witchcraft from your Aji and that she would eat up your Baba. They are saying that your Ayo will shoot such an arrow at your Baba that he would be forced to kill himself, the way Sonamani Kaki killed herself.’ My friend told me that it would be better if Baba was kept away from the Block office and all that that conspired there.
Anyway, ever since Suresh Kaka had become the Pramukh, Baba had stopped going to the Block office. He went there with the villagers, once, to seek help during the drought. He realised his mistake soon, he shouldn’t have gone to the Block office. He was surprised to see that the same people who used to shiver at his name just a few years ago were not paying attention to him. The BDO was someone new. He did not even ask the villagers to sit. Baba and his group received no help, but yes, they were insulted nicely. Suresh Kaka was sitting in office just next to the BDO’s office. He was, perhaps, unaware of this visit. He did not come out of his office to meet Baba or his companions. His intervention could have helped. He could have asked the BDO to provide at least some assistance to the drought-stricken villagers. He did not. Baba couldn’t tell why. Maybe because none of them went to meet Suresh Kaka, Suresh Kaka too did not think it necessary to come and meet them. But Suresh Kaka’s house was still in the village. So what if his family had moved to the town? Their land and ancestral house was still in Dhipa Kujam. So why didn’t he come to meet his fellow villagers from Dhipa Kujam?
When there was no help coming towards drought-stricken Dhipa Kujam from anywhere, the villagers decided to help themselves. While there was enough rainfall during the months of Ashadh and Saawan, the rainfall tapered towards the month of Bhado. So the villagers decided to clean the five ponds in the village of all their mud and silt so that rain water could be stored in those ponds in the months of Ashadh and Saawan itself. However, this work was not easy, and there were very few strong men who remained in the village who could actually do this difficult work. So the villagers had to return to the Block office to seek help in having their ponds cleaned.
The second time, there was more insult. The people at the Block office laughed at Baba. They were the same people who, till some years ago, did not dare to face Baba. Today, they were laughing at him. They openly told the BDO, ‘Sir, we cannot have any schemes in Dhipa Kujam.’
Baba and all the villagers were disappointed. ‘It is very necessary, sir,’ Baba told the BDO before leaving his office. ‘Please take a careful look at our application.’ Before the BDO could respond to Baba’s plea, someone showed Baba out of the BDO’s office.
The commotion brought Suresh Kaka out of his office. While other people from the village greeted Suresh Kaka, Baba avoided Suresh Kaka and went and sat on the platform under a banyan tree in the north-east corner of the office compound. Suresh Kaka heard the plea of the villagers and immediately summoned the overseer and the Panchayat Sevak. He scolded them nicely. In the matter of a week, a scheme was passed for cleaning of the ponds in Dhipa Kujam and the villagers were engaged as workers there under the employment guarantee scheme. The assurance of wages encouraged the villagers to work. My Baba also started working there.
The village was happy. Finally, the village will have water during the drought. The happiness, though, was short-lived. We received news of Shanichara Kaka being unwell. His wife had called us on my mobile phone. At home, Aji’s health worsened. The government doctor in the block said that Aji’s condition was beyond him, that she had to be taken to the town for tests and treatment. The deadline was approaching for me to fill up the form for the Std. XII board exams. And Ayo had stopped going to Gondli Bajar to sell raanu and vegetables as the rumours about her had reached there. Now, our entire family was dependent only on the money that Baba would earn as a daily wage labourer. Baba muttered to himself that as soon as his wage was wired into his bank account, the first thing he would do was go to the brick kiln in Nawada where Shanichara Kaka had gone to work and bring him back home. He gave me the responsibility of taking Aji to the town and have all the tests done. He was planning everything alongside waiting eagerly for his wage to be deposited in his bank account. The work of cleaning the ponds was going on well. 15-20 days had passed. We learnt that the bill for the wages of the labourers had been prepared. One day, the wages got wired into the accounts of the labourers, except Baba’s account. We waited for a few days. Nothing. Baba’s account remained blank. So Baba started going to the bank to enquire. Every third day, Baba would be there at the bank. One day, he would be told something. The other day, he would be told something else. No money came into Baba’s account. Shanichara Kaka’s wife called us one day, ‘He has started vomiting blood. But the owner of the brick kiln is not paying his dues. The quack’s medicine is not working.’ At home, Aji’s condition was worsening. Baba’s patience was at its fag end. He decided to meet the BDO.
Since everyone in the village had got their wages, no one agreed to go with Baba to the BDO’s office. Baba realised that he had been singled out. On his way to the BDO’s office, Baba met the Panchayat Sevak. He was a junkie. He had taken a toke early in the morning and was in a good mood. He revealed to Baba. ‘The people in your village have fooled you. They did not get their wages just like that. They paid a commission, that is why their bill was passed and their wages released. You too pay a commission. What to do? Times are bad. Everyone has to be paid. If you do not pay, you will just keep on running between offices. Dada, I am like your younger brother. At least care for your mother. For your family’s sake, pay up, and get your money. There is no harm in bending a bit.’
That junkie’s words disturbed Baba a lot. Angry, he just barged into the BDO’s office. Seeing Baba’s mood, the BDO grew attentive. He heard Baba’s story and wondered how only one person had not been paid. When Baba told him what that junkie had told him, the BDO negated everything. How could Baba blame anyone just because some junkie told him something? Baba had reached the end of his tether. He was so broken, he had nothing else to say. So he told the BDO about the condition of our family. He told the BDO about Shanichara Kaka’s health, Aji’s health, and my exams. ‘Times are bad,’ Baba told the BDO, ‘and I do not know what to do. But if something happens to my family, I shall smash my head at your door and kill myself.’ This intimidated the BDO. He immediately called his clerk and all his staff. They told him that Baba’s bill had been passed but the computer operator had failed to upload it online. Without the bill going online, how would the bank pay Baba his money? They mentioned terms like net fail and server down. The BDO was angry. ‘Those who paid bribes, their money got into the accounts,’ the BDO shouted at his staff. ‘Only this man who did not pay anything was left unpaid!’ The staff got working on seeing their officer angry. The BDO assured Baba that his money would be wired into his account in just two days. Two days later, on a Friday, true to the BDO’s word, Baba came to know that his wages had been wired into his account. He decided that the next day he would withdraw money from the bank and go straight to Nawada. He was determined to bring Shanichara Kaka home.
At night, we had just sat down for our meal that my phone rang. It was Shanichara Kaka’s wife at the other end and she was crying inconsolably. We understood. Shanichara Kaka was no more. Vomiting blood miles away from home, he died like an orphan. Baba got up without eating. Ayo and I could not stop crying, but we had pressed clothes over our mouths so that Aji does not hear us. The next morning, though, Aji understood everything. Why wouldn’t she? She had, after all, raised Shanichara Kaka as her own child. Aji’s health deteriorated further.
Baba reached the bank even before its gates were open. By the time all the computers in the banks were switched on, it was 11 a.m. The man at the counter was taking a lot of time in checking Baba’s account. Some money had been wired into Baba’s account the previous day, but it had been withdrawn soon after. Baba was getting restless. After two hours of checking, re-checking, and waiting, Baba was told that the money that had been wired into his account was actually of one other Bifaiya Uraon, a teacher. Since that error had been caught, that money had been taken out of Baba’s account. Baba should get his own money in a couple days.
I got the actual story from my friends who lived in the block colony. They told me that the people in the BDO’s office had got their clerk to tell the bank manager to withhold Baba’s money for a few days. Since Baba had told the BDO that he would kill himself if her were not paid his wages, those people at the BDO’s office wanted to see what else Baba was capable of doing and if he would really kill himself. They wanted to see a tamasha on Baba’s expense. Baba, unaware of all this, was terribly shaken up. He had not received his money, his mother was sick, and, miles away, in a strange place, his childhood friend lay dead. What would Baba do? Where would he go? The BDO – unaware of this conspiracy against Baba – was assured that Baba had received his money.
Baba complained to the BDO who was, quite obviously, startled. He called his clerk who said that there was an error in depositing money into Baba’s account. The salary of a different Bifaiya Uraon, a teacher, had been mistakenly wired into Baba’s account as they had the same name. Now, Baba would receive his money only on Monday. Baba was taken aback. He did not want the money for himself, he wanted it first to bring back the dead body of Shanichara Kaka. He pleaded before the BDO. On Saturdays, government offices and banks closed at 2 p.m., and it wasn’t 2 p.m. yet. Something could be done. It was urgent. At this moment, some people at the BDO’s office protested. The same people who talked of development and high-flown things and who did not like Baba. They pushed Baba out of the office. ‘Are you some lord of somewhere? What is the urgency? When you are being told that you will get your money on Monday, can’t you wait?’ Baba’s mind went blank. Three people gathered and pushed him further down the stairs. Baba fell down and hit his head on an electric pylon outside. In this melee, someone handed him a jerry can filled with petrol. Baba poured the petrol all over his body. Now someone handed him a matchbox. Baba lit a match. And the unthinkable happened. The fire took Baba so quickly that no one could know what to do. They threw sand and dirt on Baba but it was too late. Suresh Kaka came running out of his office and toppled over on seeing Baba burning. Instead of saving Baba, Suresh Kaka’s men bundled him in his vehicle and drove away. The BDO, the CO, and their staff escaped from the back door on seeing Baba burning. The entire Block compound was deserted. Only 2-3 villagers remained, and Baba’s friends, the crows. The crows cawed, calling for help. No help came. The villagers tried putting out the fire, they couldn’t. The sky was filled with black smoke rising from Baba’s body and a huge flock of crows cawing and circling over Baba. It seemed like night had fallen at midday. A night filled with the stench of burnt flesh.
(Originally published in Pal Pratipal)
Author: Ranendra, Translated from Hindi by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar