by Chandan Pandey and Sayari Debnath

    One day, my daughter handed me a form. It had been given to every student in her class. The form had to be filled out. The student who got the most answers right would be given a trophy and a certificate. I remember the form clearly:

    Terrorism: The Curse of the Country

    (Some Questions for the Conscious Patriot)


    1. What is terrorism? Answer:
    2. How is the nation harmed by terrorist activities? Answer:
    3. How do you recognize a terrorist? Answer:
    4. What will you do if you come face to face with a terrorist?




    Donation: Two rupees only.

    President, Sangram Sena.

    I returned the form to Shalu. I asked her who had given it to her and also told her that I would speak to the school principal the next day. I don’t know what Shalu made of it, but a little later, I found her demanding that her grandfather fill out the form. If my father didn’t rip up the piece of paper, it was only because it belonged to Shalu.

    Terrorism. Riding on this word, I take leave of my daughter and go on a journey that carries me to the shanty where my brother has been living alone for many years. My almost deaf and completely blind brother lifts his head in a way that suggests he’s face to face with someone at whom he’s perpetually smiling. It’s pitch dark in there. My brother is fidgeting with something, perhaps a matchstick; he will dig his ears now.

    My brother’s face reflects an image of the lane from seven or eight years ago. A sharp turn from the busy road. A narrow lane. Hens and cocks scuttling about. Ducks floating in the canals. A buzzing noise. The clang of utensils audible from outside the houses. People gathered around public taps. Animated discussions about politics as they bathe, rinse their mouths, wash their clothes. The morning sun. Akshaywar chacha’s rickshaw is about to enter the lane when there is a loud sound.

    The image of the street disappears from my brother’s face. I want to laugh.

    I remember everything.

    The crowd raced towards the rickshaw when they heard an explosion. I was one of them. We were running, laughing, shouting slogans against terrorism.

    The front tyre of Akshaywar chacha’s rickshaw had burst. That was the source of the bang. All of us surrounded him for mere entertainment, since he lived in the same lane as the rest of us. Later we explained to him that it was just a joke, but Akshaywar chacha was really frightened.

    The problem arose when, on hearing the sound, policemen deployed round the clock on the main road to extract money from rule-breaking vehicles rushed into the lane. We explained to them what had happened, and they appeared to believe us too. But before leaving, they removed the seat of the rickshaw and had a look under it to check for bombs, after which they commanded, Take good care of the tyres and tubes, or we’ll put you away. They brandished their batons at us: Has the fire of youth set alight your loins?

    A new police superintendent was appointed in our city after this incident, and the rules imposed by him were ones none of us could have imagined in our wildest dreams. He decreed that, in order to curb terrorism and other crimes, every policeman had to catch at least one criminal every day.

    We were certainly terrified after the incident with Akshaywar chacha’s rickshaw, but not as much as he was. And yet we continued to joke about terrorism, abuse terrorism and make a game out of terrorism. We used to address our friends as a goddamned terrorist followed by a you bastard. Such was the atmosphere in our country back then. Newspapers, magazines, television channels and the administration began and ended their excuses with terrorism.

    After I returned to the village, I lost touch with what was happening. The truth is, many things had happened in a short time, forcing us to leave the city. My father lost his job as the security guard at the cinema hall, the money I earned as a private tutor was not sufficient, and my mother’s work swabbing the floors and doing the dishes in various houses was not going well either. Nevertheless, had my brother continued his studies, we would have found a way to stay back in the city by any means whatsoever.

    Born in 1980, my brother was five years younger than me and exactly thirty-three years younger than my father. At twenty-five, he had already been inactive for seven or eight years, and there was no knowing how long he would continue this way. Even when he was younger, we had to cup our hands around his ears and speak loudly into them for him to hear us. On top of this, he was totally blind too.

    At the time Gulshan ended up in this condition, we used to think we would continue to tell him about everything important that was taking place. For instance, we shouted news about cricket matches, films—especially the films of Shah Rukh Khan—into his ears. But eventually, we stopped taking so much care of him.

    We do not have the energy for it now, nor is there any need for Gulshan to know about everything. Sometimes the children from the village do it for distraction, and Shalu does it when there’s good news to share.

    Alone in his shanty, whenever Gulshan needs anything, he simply calls out loudly for me or our mother or Shalu. Whoever is free goes to him, but if they’re not, he might have a long wait. In the meantime, the smile never leaves his face.

    Even when he’s eating, he keeps smiling. Things used to be different before, but now we rinse his hands and guide his fingers to the food, whereupon he starts eating. The problem arises when he has to drink tea or hot milk, or have some other hot food served to him on rare occasions.

    For our part, we try our best to let only the coarsest parts of Gulshan’s skin touch the tea or other hot food, so as to minimize the pain. But what happens instead is that, whenever he comes into contact with hot tea, he begins trembling violently, gnashing his teeth despite his smile, screwing his eyes tightly shut and coiling his hands into fists. His face becomes contorted, and yet he continues to smile. Or if someone touches Gulshan’s left arm, he lifts his head to a height that, according to his estimate, is the same as that of the person in front of him. And if the person moves to Gulshan’s right, he tilts his head to show he is alert, holds out his right hand for a handshake, and starts asking questions, such as, How are you, What’s happening, Is the cricket match on, or (sometimes) says, I need to go to the bathroom. This is how Gulshan tries to convey that he can see and hear the person in front of him.

    Leaving aside those who are strongly affected by this, even those who make fun of my brother are saddened by his condition.

    My brother Gulshan was not always like this.

    We used to live in Benares when my brother topped the Intermediate examinations in the city. That was when our dreams sprouted wings.

    My tall and well-built brother was so good-looking that everyone wholeheartedly agreed with what Ramashish chacha had once said. He had said that a boy as handsome as Gulshan should only appear in dreams. Dreams where he was sitting astride a horse with the sea on one side and the mountains on the other, and was galloping through them only to meet you.

    Gulshan’s appearance and behaviour closely resembled our mother’s. That is why we knew from the beginning that he was destined for immense fortune. It was believed in my home and neighbourhood that when the son resembles his mother and the daughter her father, then the child turns out to be very lucky. According to this logic, my sister should have been very fortunate too. As for me, I was unlucky. At the age of twenty-six or twenty-seven, I taught five tuition classes for two hundred rupees each, and one for three hundred. Six classes in all.

    After Gulshan’s spectacular performance in the Intermediate exams, my father and I wanted with all our hearts that he study engineering at the best engineering college in the country. After that, he could become a collector or work as a broker—at the moment I cannot recall what exactly the job is called—the one where the salary is fat, but the work is like the one bookkeepers do, and where schemes to rob people are hatched constantly.

    We had the crudest dream for Gulshan, which was to become rich. We could only imagine him earning as much as ten thousand rupees a month. But whenever we(my father, mother, Seema and I) talked about him bringing home more than ten thousand rupees, my belly would begin to flutter, I would get excited, and my arms and legs would tremble. All of us reacted in more or less the same manner. In our most sober moments, when we imagined a monthly income of ten thousand rupees or more, we would also wonder what we could do with so much money.

    We cut short our discussions when Gulshan appeared in our midst. One of us would look smilingly at him. But our parents’ smiles were different from mine or my sister’s— theirs were softer. We wanted Gulshan to realize how important he was to us.

    Other than this crude dream, there was one more that we wanted to fulfil—to cure the pain in our father’s feet. This was the pain of arthritis.

    It had been nearly sixteen years since we had left the village, and since then, my father had been working as a security guard at Saraswati Cinema on Laksa Road. The pain in his shins was the result of standing outside the cinema hall for years. My brother used to massage my father’s feet whenever he was home. Pestered many times, he revealed that the pain was permanent, and sometimes walking made it worse, so much so that all he could do was drag his feet, which, he fretted, might fall off.

    All I could do was listen.

    A similar pain also afflicted my sister. I have not been able to say much about it except that she took many medicines, tied her head with plastic ropes and screamed in pain. What would happen was that, when our conversations climaxed in laughter, my sister would suddenly clutch her head while laughing. Our hearts would sink at this. It also meant a lot of money would be spent now.

    All of us were eternally sick. This was because we wanted to put off our joys, sorrows, celebrations and well-being until after Gulshan had secured a job. My father’s salary of fifteen hundred rupees and my income of thirteen hundred rupees were used to run the household, and whatever amount we could save was spent on Gulshan. We no longer cared about special occasions or festivals. This greatly troubled my mother, since she would miss out on auspicious fasts.

    Life went on in all-our-dreams-will-soon-come-true mode.

    My brother tried to dash our grand dreams by trying to convince us that he could get a good job without studying engineering. I was taken aback by his rebellious declaration. I wondered whether an innocent corner in my defiant brother’s heart was asserting itself, or whether he was simply being mischievous.

    I also wondered if this was his plan to spend time having fun and being carefree because, considering how little time he had spent studying until then, it would be difficult even to secure a first-class degree, let alone top the city.

    My brother was a big fan of cricket and films, but when it was time to study, he would simply face the wall and start studying. All of us lived in one room. The bathroom was attached. No matter how loud it got, nothing could make Gulshan turn his face away from the wall. But as soon as he finished studying, he raised the roof with his chatter about cricket, films and going back to the village.

    Worried about Gulshan’s negative attitude towards his future, one day, the rest of us scolded him resoundingly. My father was quiet, but I could not stop speaking. I was trying to make Gulshan understand the ways of the world.

    But Gulshan delivered nothing less than a punch on my nose when he said he didn’t want to study engineering because of the situation at home. Any degree could get him a job. The rest was up to us.

    I did not like it when he said, I am aware of our situation. I told him that the bank would give him loans to study. And, who knew, in the meantime I might find employment too. It was true that, in terms of employment, I was beginning to dream of running in front of a train with a gas lantern. Back then, all I could see in my dreams were gas lanterns running on the tracks, not me. I wanted to warn Gulshan that any degree would not get him a job.

    I also asked Gulshan if he was scared that he would find higher studies difficult. He looked at me tearfully at this, as though he were saying, That is what you think!

    Then, overnight, our Gulshan changed. Until yesterday, he would barely study, and now his nose was always buried in a book. The deeper he dived into his books, the happier it made us. We knew Gulshan’s education would be expensive, so we began to look for jobs with greater urgency. My mother went back to cleaning dishes and other people’s homes. My sister and I could often be found running from pillar to post at private schools.

    She and I spent all day looking for jobs as teachers, and when night set in, the two of us went to teach at the best school in the city. I was the principal, and my sister would come home with me in my car. We would stop at the market to shop and sometimes catch a film at the cinema hall. The only problem was the salary. We were due to receive it a few minutes before waking up. Perhaps accidentally, though, we would always leave our bundle of notes behind in our sleep. One day, I held on to it tightly in the hope of grabbing it as soon I woke up. But what happened instead was, when I woke up in the morning, my sister refused to serve me my morning tea because, in the dream, I had received a higher salary than her!

    All of us—my father, mother, sister and I—took care of every need of Gulshan’s despite the busyness of our own lives. His studies were difficult. We began to take care of what he ate and drank, to when he bathed—we were alert to his needs. Take the towel, it is cold today. No need for a long bath. What would you like to eat? Et cetera, et cetera. He never made any demands, and that is why my mother began to make mustard curry for every meal.

    It became evident to us that Gulshan had all but stopped speaking and moving about. He spoke to our mother only once in a while. Friends or sports—he had forgotten them all. But the rest of us were so happy about his studies that we ignored these things. Something within us, amongst us and outside of us was dying away constantly—it was just that we were unaware of it.


    Excerpted with permission from The Keeper Of Desolation by Chandan Pandey, translated by Sayari Debnath, and published by HarperCollins, 2024.

    Chandan Pandey is the author of four short-story collections and two novels in Hindi. He has been honoured with the Bharatiya Jnanpith’s Navlekhan Award, the Vanmali Yuva Katha Samman, the Shabd Chhaap Samman, and is a recipient of the Krishna Baldev Vaid Fellowship. The translation of his acclaimed debut novel, Vaidhanik Galp, was published in English as Legal Fiction in 2021.

    Sayari Debnath is a culture journalist at Scroll where she writes about books, art, and literary trends. She translates from Hindi (हिन्दी) and Bangla (বাংলা) into English. In 2019, she graduated with a Master of Arts degree in English from Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

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