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Portrayal of Middle Class women in the selected short stories of Sadat Hasan Manto – Dr. Krati Sharma, JaipurMarch 19th, 2019
Sadat Hasan Manto (1912-1955) an iconic Urdu writer. He is the forerunner of bringing realism and ordinary character in his short stories. He is known for his craft for bringing realism in his short stories. Sadat is known for his candid writing. In the present paper an attempt has been made to study the middle class women characters portrayed by Manto in the selected stories. These women belong to different class and status and each one is different from the other.
They challenged the gender roles and norms set by society. Keiki Dharuwala writes “Manto rose to fame due to the brilliance, the uniqueness of his vision and the controversial nature of his writing. The Indian middle class, ever prone to a mix of prudishness and hypocrisy in the thirties and forties was shocked out of its wits. And Manto, of course, revealed in whatever shocked them, be it “obscenity” or sudden violence, or the dramatic and brutal manner with which he unmasked hypocrisy” (Dharuwala 1996:118).
Sukrita Paul Kumar writes about Manto’s women characters,
“In a number of Manto’s stories, there is an impending sense of immediacy with which one confronts a totally degenerate society, a world of enslaved women, of women commodified and consumed in accordance with the unquestioned fact of male sexual need and the principle of supply and demand. Indeed, one does not have to be a woman writer to creep into the inner terrain of the psyche of the oppressed or the exploited female” ( Kumar1996:155).
Middle class women of any caste, class or religion has lot to say about her, convey about her self. Herself is not identified by the society. In the present paper the life of different characters has been taken and portrayed. In Ten Rupees the character of care free teenager girl has been seen and depicted by Manto. The story harps on the dingy life and need for survival is highlighted. Charu Gidwani writes, “The stories, written with a conviction that is the true mark of an honest writer, are peopled by ordinary citizens”( Gidwani2013:1)
Afreen Faiyaz writes in ‘The Satanic Urges An Analysis of Radical Evil besetting the Short Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto’
“He was an iconoclast with such a ferocious sense of realism that he minced no words, draped no expression and concealed no thought that germinated in his mind from the seeds of evil so precariously scattered all around him”(Faiyaz2013:1).
The stories under discussion are as follows:
This story revolves around Sarita, a teenager girl of fifteen years. She lives in a chawl in Mumbai. She has her childish joy, Manto writes, “playing with the little girls, utterly carefree”( Manto2008:23).Sarita is the only source of income to her mother. She has been pushed into the profession of prostitution by her mother. In the present story the story dosen’t focus in this trade but it moves into the girl psyche where the girl is not aware of its repercussion and doesn’t know what she is actually doing this job. Sarita has fascination for cars. She wants to move out because of her charm for cars.
“In chawl , virtually everyone knew that Sarita’s mother had sent her younger daughter into prostitution… Even Sarita’s mother hides all this by repeating.., “ My daughter’s an innocent; she knows nothing of this world”( Manto2008:25).
The fight between women in chawl has been narrated by an anecdote. This also slightly hinted the undercurrent activities going in the chawl. “The spats between Tukaram’s wife and Sarita’s mother never lasted long. . . they known each other secret and decided not to reveal it to anyone”( Manto2008:26). In this way the undercurrent of middle –class lifestyles are hinted.
She is exicited with her joy ride in car with the strangers comfortably. For her the joy of ride is more important than the company. “Sarita is happy to hear that she will go for ride. Sarita was very happy to hear that rich men with motor cars had come for her, granted she was more interested in motor cars than in the rich men who drove them” ( Manto2008:27).
Sarita has been living a life of middle class member of society. “There is also a routine life which depicted candidly the middleclass responsibilities. Sarita filled buckets of water and took them inside, every evening she filled the lamp with one paisa’s worth of oil”( Manto2008:29).
The innocence of Sarita is clearly seen “She might even believe that man like Kishori came to all the other girl’s houses, too. And what happened on Worli’s cold benches and Juhu wet benches perhaps happened to all other girls as well”( Manto2008:29).
It shows that by this line Manto clearly talk about natural inclination of human nature where making love outside social orbit is known and accepted. He always depicts the realities of Mumbai lifestyle where people are making money by this trade.
She was a freak. “She didn’t like to be confined to the four walls of hotels rooms. . .” (Manto2008:30).
There is independence of nature in her when the strange man Shaheb pinched Sarita thigh. She gently twisted Anwar ears .She sings in the car, played in the beach. She poured the soft drinks for her guests with pleasure. She entertained three men with her song and laughter. The story reveals how she was taken by visitors to entertain them but she enjoyed on her own. When the ride was over they gave her a ten rupees note. She declined it and return it back“removed ten rupees note and placed it next to him”( Manto2008:30).Aatish Taseer writes in Introduction of the Selected Short Stories,”Sarita loves cars so much that her dealings with men become just another occasion for her to ride in a motor car, to feel . . She hardly knows she’s a prostitute”(Taseer2008:XVII).
By doing this action she clarifies the doubt of the visitors who comes to her for pleasure. On the contrary, she had her pleasure by spending her time with them on excursion. Sarita is the only source of livelihood. She even had no idea she had been earning through her visit Manto satires on our society where the desires of men -women are sold for self fish interests. Afreen Faiyaz: ‘The Satanic Urges An Analysis of Radical Evil besetting the Short Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto’ writes, “ Manto does not reason into their downfall, nor does he lament over their loss of innocence and grace.
He only gives us a glimpse of that humane space which they have vicariously created for themselves in this hell for their sustenance. Most of the characters are condemned to a sordid existence; however some of them transcend it” (Faiyaz2013:4).
My Name is Radha
The other women character explore in this paper is of Neelam alias Radha in the story My Name is Radha. The title of this story is very explicit one. In this story a struggle of the actor has been highlighted. Radha approaches towards life. She is a girl of a small town. She comes down to Mumbai in search of her career in film. The male chauvinism has been hinted through the character who is an actor Rajkishore. He is famous for his kindness, generosity. “The problem was that he, Kishore that is, was only too aware of his good looks and physique , “public knew that Raj Kishore was a man of moral fibre”(Manto2008:70).
Raj Kishore seems to be a dutiful son who fulfills his duties towards his stepmother. Manto seems to raise a very stormy question in this story through the character of Rajkishore and Radha. Rajkishore though belong to glamour world referred all his co- actor as ‘sister’. This may be he feels like universal brotherhood. Manto sums up, “ A brother and sister’s relationship was something apart, why call all women your sisters as if you were putting up a “Road Closed” or the other thought which is more strong that is “ If you weren’t planning on having a sexual relationship with a women, why make an announcement”( Manto2008:72). Radha has taken up a new profession where everything is unreal. She has taken up a new name a new identity. She is now known as Neelam. She dropped that name because, “ It is such a pretty name that I wouldn’t want it to end up in a film”( Manto2008:74).
She belongs to Banaras her mother was a prostitute. She wanted to earn for her living in Bombay by becoming a star. She doesn’t want to follow her mother profession and want a respectful life.
She has been concerned about her image. She has a voice of her own. She senses the reactions of others. The whole connotation of wearing tight clothes seems to be bad by Neelam. She blurted out to director, “ If these are clothes, I might as well walk naked with you onto the sets”( Manto2008:75). This is much thought provoking remark where we can sense that this girl is very mature and knows about the world.
Neealm is an absolute wonder with her life in flim city and people around her. Neelam shunned Raj not to call her sister. Even this thing catches like a wild fire. She declared, “Raj Saab, please Don’t address me as sister. She left with this without anything heard. . .” (Manto2008:82). It created havoc as people says, “ have a ‘dirty mind’ otherwise who could take offence at RajBahi calling them ‘sister’”( Manto2008:82). Things became bitter for Neelam when Raj reaches to her place with his wife on Rakhi and would like celebrate that occasion with her. Here he tries to make her real sister. Neelam felt meek and aghast at this time and tied Rakhi on his wrist. Raj forgot his bag at her place in this hullabaloo.
After two three days when he come back to take up his bag Neelam lost her peace of mind she said to to narrator, “ I caught him and began fighting him. . .” I don’t know why or for what reason, but I attacked him. . . I was shrieking; he was groaning”( Manto2008:89). Finally she tears his Kurta and looked his body. She had taken a stance and kissed him . “My blood and lipstick had left vile, almost flora bruises on his beautiful body. . . I would suffocated”( Manto2008:90).
In this way she has taken shown her womanhood by attacking on him a very bold in the patriarchal world where she is in the pedestal and challenging the custom of Rakhi too. At last she said only this . . ., “Saadat, my name is Radha’(Manto2008:90).Life come to full circle for her she wants a name for herself. She wants to relate to her real self not the fake name or fake life. Thsese concluding lines of the short story also hinted that she a post modernist woman who wants to explicit herself. Keki Dharuwala writes for the characterization of Manto ,
“ The characters that peppered his stories wereout of the ordinary, often coming from the detritus of society. Thewhore, the pimp, the street bully jostled for place with those who fought for freedom.(Dharuwala1996:119)
Afreen Faiyaz writes, “Neelam in My Name is Radha is an example of evil of lust overpowering the modesty in women. Pouncing on Raj Kishore and reducing him to a whimpering coward, she turns into demon herself” (Faiyaz2013:3).
This story harks on the patriarchal society, where vocation for women are restricted and stereotypical designed. In this story Abu a young coachman is known for his style and people wanted to hire his coach. He has extravagant life style. Abu has fallen in love with sixteen year old Nesti a cobble daughter who decided to marry him. She has not taken consent of her parents before their marriage. It hinted that she is young and a confident girl who can take her own decisions. She takes the crucial decision about her marriage. She even surpass the class difference between them. After two months Abu was arrested by police “ a kidnapping case was registered against him”( Manto2008:105).Nesti stood by Abu. He was imprisonment for two years. Nesti destiny has to face many blows. Abu suffered from T.B.(tuberculosis) an incurable disease of that time. When Abu come to know about it he felt guilty that he wasted life of Nesti, “If I had known I was going to die so young , I swear on the one, omnipresent God, I wouldn’t have made you my wife. I ‘ve done you a great injustice’(Manto2008:106).
Nesti has been betrayed by God with the death of her husband. Man around her would like to take advantage of her. Dino, Abu’s friend wants to marry her . When she declined his offer he stop paying for the coach, the only source of income she handed over to another coachmen and same thing happened.”He really broke all boundaries, arriving completely drunk one night to give her the money, and making a grab for her as soon as he walked the door”( Manto2008:108).
Nesti does not know what to do, “What if I were to drive the coach myself” (Manto2008:107).She has taken a very bold step. She decided to be a first coachwoman in her locality. She was forced by her circumstances to take such a step she wants her own hold, she wants herself aloof from this maniac who wants to control over her body in name of taking coach. It was a very difficult decision for her. Society will not agree. People will talk about her. She has her own argument, “what’s the harm? Do women not toil and do manual labour? Here working in there in office, thousand working at home , you have to fill your stomach one way or the other “(Manto2008:108).In this story all the decision are taken by Nesti nobody was there to correct her or rectify her she was not told by anyone about the procedure of obtaining License. She herself was ignorant about it.
Nesti tossed about the idea and finally decided to do it. Manto writes, “She was confident she could”( Manto2008:108). Patrirchy seems hurt by that decision. “When she began harnessing the horse to the carriage , the other coachmen were stupefied, some thought it was a joke and roared with laughter “(Manto2008:108).The older coachmen tried to convince her saying ,”It was unseemly”( Manto2008:108).
Even she has shown her excellence in handling the carriage. “The coachmen were stunned by Nesti’s dexterity; she handled the carriage expertly”( Manto2008:108).Even her job was not easy one. It shows for a women worker her path is not smooth. On the contrary the attitude of the passengers is also absurd some passengers “would make her go aimlessly from pillar to post, sometimes cracking dirty jokes in the back. They spoke to her just to hear the sound of her voice”( Manto2008:109).Though to an extreme she faces all this odd with her patience and peace of mind.
All her goodness and earning came to halt.when the municipal committee officer called her in and revokes her license. The argument between them she was not allowed to drive coach being a woman. The question asked by Nesti is a question being asked from patriarchy to a woman who is defying the norms of the society, Nesti retorts, “Why cann’t women drive coach?( Manto2008:109) the answers comes cynically ,”Your license is revoked” The argument by Nesti for her honour living seems to stumping on the face of male domain vocation. Her work is a work of dignity and hard labour. She asked to the officer,
“Why women can’t drive coaches. Women can grind mills and fill their stomach. woman can carry rubble in basket on their headed and make a living . woman can work in mines, sifting through pieces of coal to earn their daily bread. Why can’t I drive a coach? I know nothing else. . . . She pleads with the officer not to do that and snatch her only means of livelihood. “Why do you stop me from hard, honest labour”?( Manto2008:109)
Even the officer suggested her that she should obtain license to sale her body. This hinted the derogatory thinking of male members of society.”Go to bazaar and find yourself a spot .You’re sure to make meore that way”( Manto2008:109). Sukrita Paul Kumar ‘ Surfacing from Within:Fallen Women in Manto’s Fiction’writes,
“In a number of Manto’s stories, there is an impending sense of immediacy with which one confronts a totally degenerate society, a world of enslaved women, of women commodified and consumed in accordance with the unquestioned fact of male sexual need and the principle of supply and demand. Indeed, one does not have to be a woman writer to creep into the inner terrain of the psyche of the oppressed or the exploited female” (Kumar1996:155).
This makes Nesti broken and detached from the society. Nesti achieved identity has been snatched from the ascribed identity prescribed by society. The burden of social values and written roles played havoc on their chosen vocations. Her bold and conflict step was not liked by society. The patriarchal head even direct her and push her into brothel. Even she gets depressed with the whole issue and said in a sad tone, “Abu your Nesti died today in the committee office” (Manto2008:110). She bowed in the last what society has decided for her. “She was given a license to sell her body” (Manto2008:110).
Nesti has struggled got her vocation she wants to do an honour labour. Patriarchal society not only snatched her vocation her role as a coachwoman but pushed her in the filth of unrespectable job. Afreen Faiyaz writes , “ License is a distressing story of a morally sound woman, who in the face of challenges is willing to uphold her chastity and fidelity to her husband’s memories. But the evil eyes of people do not allow her to live respectfully in the society as she is forced to give up her driving license for harlotry. Manto’s disdain for the society is clear where a woman cannot honestly labor and earn a livelihood by any other means except selling herself” (Faiyaz2013:9).
The reason being is all the women explored in this paper are young and full of enthusiasm. So they have taken the bold step in their respective career or life on their own. They do not bother about the societal reaction. Sukrita Paul Kumar writes, “women who are made to sell their virtue in the market to become castaways. They live in an infernal underworld, invisible to the respectable society which pretends ignorance of its existence. Ironically,
not only has it produced this world, it also provides it full sustenance “(Kumar1996:156).
All these women are different from each other but one thing is common among them that they have raised their voice. They have not accepted the specified roles granted to them by the society, manto crave these characters from our society they are very real people.
Manto,Sadat Hasan. 2008.Manto Selected Short Stories.Translated by Aatish Taseer ,Noida:Random House Publishers India Private Limited.
Daruwalla,N.Keki.1996. ‘The Craft of Manto: Warts and All Keki. N.Daruwalla in The Aunnual of Urdu Studies.Vol 11,1996.pp117-128.
Kumar ,Sukrita Paul.1996. ‘ Surfacing from Within:Fallen Women in Manto’s Fiction’in The Annual of Urdu Studies.Vol 11,1996. Pp155-162.
Faiyaz , Afreen .2013 ‘An Analysis of Radical Evil besetting the Short Stories of Saadat Hasan Manto’ in Muse India .Issue 51: Sep-Oct 2013. Date of access 10 Feb.,2014.
Gidwani, Charu.2013 ‘MAnto’s Burden of Pain’in Muse India .Issue 51: Sep-Oct 2013. Date of access 10 Feb.,2014.
Rakhi is also known as Raksha Bandna it is a Hindu festival that celebrates the love and duty between brothers and sisters; the festival is also popularly used to celebrate any brother-sister like loving protective relationship between men and women who are relatives or biologically unrelated.
Kurta :The word “kurta” is a borrowing from Hindustani, and originally from Persian (literally, “a collarless shirt”) and was first used in English in the 20th century.
Kurta is a piece of clothing worn by males, it is usually worn for fashion, tradition and culture. As the Thawb is encouraged to be worn in Saudi Arabia, Pakistani and Indian expatriates rather prefer to wear the Kurta as a close and same version to the Arab clothing.
Dr. Krati Sharma working as a Assistant Professor in Dept of English in JECRC UDML College of Engg., Jaipur. email@example.com, 9782885912. Her area of interest is Indian writing in English, Autobiographies, Short stories and English Language teaching. She has been teaching English for ten years. She is associated with ELTAI Jaipur, Chapter. She is contributing editor of ELTWeekly. She has published articles in journals, book reviews and chapters for edited anthologies
My dear son,
your birth, your existence:
The joy I cannot tell in words!
Dear son I dream
about your future –
A great comfort and consolation.
My son, let me insist that
you will only tell truths in your life.
you can tell the truth
Only when you perceive that many in the society are liars,
and that they are made up of their lies, their self-made cocoons of lies,
or my dear son you could be exploited and crushed.
Dear son, let my death never get you tired,
Go ahead righteously,
Be the shoulder for family
And comfort for society.
Dear son, your mother might feel
More alone after I’m gone,
Read her heart and hold her close.
My son, when our money fame and power are wasted,
Many among our friends leave us in lurch.
Don’t be disappointed:
That’s the way of the world.
Dear son, God exists not with those who shout
And are boastful of their piety,
But with those who wither in silent services.
Dear son, do not be afraid of the vast evil force fields,
Remember that the ultimate victory is of the truth always.
Dear, you have to follow the current of your conscience,
Not the stream of the society.
Dear son, feel the spirit of the universe in you
when the breeze pats you, when the flower smiles at you,
when the river lulls you to sleep,
when the bird wakes you up…
Dear, you recognize that every day you learn new texts
and that experience is the greatest teacher in the world.
Show, my son, to the world that the most expensive treasure is the time and how best to use it.
My son, embrace the firmament, recognize the immortality of the soul and remember that the truth cannot survive in luxury and that you should walk the earth with the onus of humility.
Dear son, I dream that only success and happiness visit you.
But my darling, you may have to face failures and bitternesses too:
be calm and steady to face both sides of the life.
Dear my son, find happiness in the values that I have drawn through my life.
Dear son, I kiss on your forehead and our souls embrace each other.
I don’t know dear,
If after my death,
In this unending universe,
Whether we’d meet again or not.
Would we then remember
You as my son and I your father!
Our life on earth!
Is this not what you tell me?
Is this the only world you know?
Or do you love it,
More than anything else
In this whole wide world?
How much does it
Satisfy your ego—
To know that I cannot do anything;
That I am stuck here.
Does it make you happy?
That you got me down
And under your thumb?
Who did you so wrong?
Why are you the way you are?
Can you not feel
This hate in my eyes?
Is it not intense enough for you
Are you so much blinded
By your pride?
Do you not see?
That this hate
Has been nurtured into rage—
A rage that burns me inside out.
(It can burn you too, you know)
Do you not think
That you should be scared?
Even if a little,
Of the day when it all comes out:
All this hatred
And all this rage.
It will destroy
The sweet little fairytale
You think you have been writing.
Everything will be turned
Why do you not want
To see the warning signs?
Or is this you questioning
The approaching storm?
I know you.
Like the back of my hand.
That all you will give me is—
Again and again
You will not get tired, will you?
But I have.
So allow me to talk
In a language
You are well versed with:
You cannot belittle me.
You do not get to take my happiness.
You are not my sun.
I will not revolve around you.
You do not own me.
You cannot contain me.
Not for long.
Who is the carnifex of my thoughts?
I am in the midst of some insights
The shadow in the front is not mine
The length and width seem different
It is perspicuous
That…that of my thoughts are ridiculous
But all the embryos of my thoughts incinerate
The lovely moments and eventful life leave me no subject
My life blood begins to boil as lava
It will surely take my ‘jeeva’
Bosh, the shadow seems to laugh at me, growl at me
But my brave look incarnates the body of the shadow
He is the awakened man from Plato’s cave
He holds my hand …
Together we walk..
Together we talk…
Together we think…
Together we realize the charming life of Lord Krishna
Together we listen to the ennobling tale of Messiah
Together we know the blissful life of Allah
Together we attune to the path of Nirvana..
The enigma seems blurred
Our thoughts are clothed with holy veil.
Author Bio: I am pursuing PhD in English at St.Thomas College Palai.I am residing at Kollam district, in Kerala. I have participated and presented papers in International as well as National Seminars. I have published articles and poems in reputed journals. I have bagged several literary awards, Dr.Ambedkar Sahithyasree National Award, Kuttettan Puraskaram etc. I have received prizes in essay and poetry competition.
She was seven and I was ten,
And siblings rival was too much then.
I got irritated to see my red and
Blue crayons in her busy little fingers
And was terrified till not kept in my bag.
And never cared for those setting sun
And never cared for those setting sun…….
Which remained incompleted.
Poor, she was also not tolerated by her friends
For she bore not the mind of an average child.
She was a little angel.
I would often see her in those lonely beaches
Asking questions with herself.
Perhaps, it may be
“Why don’t human compromise?”
“Why do they fight?”
“Why are they egoistic?” etc. etc…..
I don’t know what was hidden
In that little angelic brain.
And sometimes I act as a consoler,
Play her in our broken home.
Where Mom has left us for her business
And Dad busy with his
And our governess hardly gets time for us,
For her two year son, Bhola
Was always with her.
And I would feel contended with colour books,
But, she, would often see Bhola
With a sigh on her face;
For she never knew that
The mother and child relations were so strong
And would wonder that why she was left alone
Days passed, she grew paler and paler
And one day she was admitted
In one of the costliest clinic
But it was too late…..
Her sweet little face was free from the grip of pain.
Small smiling lips bade good-bye to me.
And closed her searching dark eyes.
That little angelic brain rested in peace.
And left me in this dark wide world……
The sun rises and sets
The crayons are still kept in my bag untouched,
And I dare not even to touch them
Oh! Sister I yearn to meet again
Your departure has changed none
But I am left alone…….
I have a heavy tongue
Thus I slur in my speech
I am on medications
My walk isn’t that great
I cannot handle things
My neurons are to be blamed
My hands and feet tremble
I have accepted it as a part of me
But my soul is clean
So is my heart
Then why keep me aloof
From the everyday part?
I wish to be loved
I wish to be an asset
Without your support
I won’t be able to even touch my racquet
Calling someone a spastic
Hurts them a lot
But what’s worse
Is that the spirit of humanity
First Movement Orders- Goodbye to Gopalapuram – [Sankupurana – Memoirs of an Engineer] M.S Menon, New DelhiFebruary 21st, 2019
Field investigations for a dam include many components- topographical surveys to prepare the contour plan i.e , the layout of the dam site area and its levels with reference to the mean sea level; sub surface / geological investigations for finding out the rock and its levels below the ground; material surveys to assess the quality and quantity of the materials used in construction such as rock, sand, clay etc ; hydrological observations to collect the in-situ data about the river flows including sediment flows at frequent intervals daily and field observations on rainfall, evaporation etc. Apart from these, the field staff has also to collect data of villages likely to be affected by the project including the population, crops cultivated, live stock and other important information about buildings and other structures, roads, railways and other facilities existing in the project area. A lot of information has also to be collected from local offices of revenue, agriculture, environment and forests, PWD, and other concerned offices.
Progress on surveys and other field investigations could be monitored and controlled as these works are quantifiable. However, monitoring the progress in collection of data from various government sources is a tedious one as it involves the cooperation of the concerned officials. They do not like to be pressurised to do a job unless the direction came from the top. Hence I had to depute a technical officer from my office who knew the local language and had pleasing manners to deal with the generally disgruntled lower level functionaries maintaining the relevant records. My choice fell on Venkat. I directed him to form his own group to do the work.
Partha had told me at Kalluru that many of the circulars/ letters issued by the head quarters at Delhi were not to be taken seriously as they were issued by that office in a routine manner. I did not fully believe him then, but had the experience of it when I received a circular from Delhi forwarded duly by the regional office for my compliance. The letter referred to the directions of the Hon’ble Minister about the availability of the head of the geological institution who had retired then. He had met the Minister offering his services to WADA for all water related projects and the Minister felt that his vast experience in the field should be utilised in project investigations. Enclosing a copy of his biodata, the concerned administrative officer from head quarters had asked the regional offices to get the views from their sub- offices about the suitability of appointing the retired officer for the work. Instead of taking a decision at Delhi, the administration, in a routine manner, wanted the juniors in the field offices to decide about the usefulness of this high ranking officer! I showed the circular to Venkat pointing out the callous way the administration dealt with the case.
“Please mark it to me for giving my views”, Venkat said with a wicked smile. “I would send it to my drill khalasi to report whether he would be able to use the services of this gentleman”.
After a pause, Venkat continued with his comments as to how he expected his khalasi would respond.
“My khalasi would certainly report that such people would be of no use to him. He wanted helpers who would be able to carry the drill machinery, etc. at the site and this officer would not be in a position to do so.”
I laughed at the joke.
“Then we can send a report to Delhi that after reviewing his biodata and taking into account the requirements of work, the candidate does not appear to have the requisite experience and hence he could be asked to apply after he gets adequate experience so that we could consider his application at that point of time.” I said.
I narrated the incident to Partha when he came to my office to collect some spare survey equipments next week.
“Administration works always like that”, he told me. “There are many such instances when they use their in-born wisdom to do things without bothering about the consequences. I had a funny experience some time back when the Delhi office, in their enthusiasm to train officers in various fields, as directed by the management, nominated an officer, Himanshu, who was at the verge of retirement, to my office.
‘“Why did you opt for training at this age?” I asked him when he reported to me at Tiruvuru. “You should have better finalised your pension papers instead of trying to learn field surveys and investigations at this age.”
‘“I never opted for this training.”Himanshu said. “It appears that according to directives issued by higher authorities, all officers should have field experience before they are kept at the head quarters. As I did not have any field experience all these years, the administration, not to be blamed for their failure, decided to give me the chance in the field and hence sent me here since you had a vacancy. If my bio data does not show the field experience, I have been warned, that I may not be even eligible for pension benefits. After all, administration has to follow rules.”
“Himanshu could not do much in the field since he had all the age related problems”, Partha continued.” Added to it was the problem of communication since he did not know Telugu to converse with the workers. “
“You could have sent him back to Delhi reporting about his problems” I told him
“I could have done that”, Partha said. “But that would have given him a bad chit affecting his case for pension”
I had my doubts. “He would have already earned his pension serving the organisation all these years. How could then any one stop his rightful pension and that too when he has less than 2 years for superannuation?”
Partha said. “Rules are funny. When one joins the organisation, he is appointed on a temporary basis. Unless he is made permanent, he is not eligible for pension but if he dies during his temporary service, his wife would be eligible for pension called the family pension! Hence Himanshu wants to die before retirement so that at least his wife would get some pension”.
“Though Himanshu was not good either in the field work or in our office work, I gave him a good report at the end of the year to enable him to become permanent and get his pension.” Partha added.
“But you are encouraging inefficiency by giving a good report to an otherwise useless chap,” I accused him.
“I agree with you, “Partha said smiling. “But remember one thing that the organisation is to be blamed for creating this situation. They could have posted him to the field years ago when he had the energy to work in such circumstances. Now he has no energy and they want him to complete a formality. They could have waived off this condition in his case and allowed him to retire peacefully.”
Partha narrated many such instances where the administration failed in the past.
“Don’t go strictly by rules while dealing with the personal cases of individuals,“ Partha advised me the next morning while returning to Tiruvuru. “Every time when you deal with personal cases, do not cursorily treat them as files containing a bunch of papers, but as individuals craving for administrative help and justice. When staff members approach you with grievances, always give them a sympathetic hearing . If you maintain such an attitude, you are then sure to succeed.”
I got the orders to close the office at Gopalapuram and move to Venkatapuram sometime in May that year. We had completed the field investigations for the Polavaram project and had submitted our report along with the data collected including survey maps to our regional office at Vijayawada by that time.
“Movement to Venkatapuram is easy during monsoons since the Godavari river levels would rise by then permitting launches to ply”, the new Block Development officer (BDO), Ram Babu informed me. He had spent 3 years at Venkatapuram before getting his transfer to Gopalapuram, his choice posting nearer to his native place, Kovvur.
“Venkatapuram is approachable by road only during non-monsoon months,” Ram Babu further clarified. “There are few rivulets crossing the Bhadrachalam-Venkatapuram road and there are no bridges across them to facilitate road traffic during rainy season and these rivers flow full then. Hence the dependable transport is the launch service regularly plying between Bhadrachalam and Venkatapuram. It leaves at 6 A.M. every day, from these terminals to reach the destination by 6 P.M. taking full 12 hours to complete the journey one way.”
“What about the movements during non-monsoon months?” I asked him.
“From October till June, there is a private bus service operating regularly from Bhadrachalam to Venkatapuram.” Ram Babu said. “The bus leaves Bhadrachalam at 6 A.M. and takes 12 hours to reach Venkatapuram and vice versa.”
“12 Hours to cover this stretch?” I asked doubting the arithmetic of it.
“Not only the bus has to negotiate the 3 nalas by taking detours at these places, the driver and conductor would also like to take a 3 hour lunch break en-route.” Ram Babu clarified.
“A 3 hour lunch break? Do they take a nap after lunch and all the while, would the passengers keep quiet?” I asked surprised.
“These people want the passengers to enjoy the film songs relayed by Radio Ceylon and Vividh Bharathi during this period as they are addicted to these songs.” The BDO said. “Since there is no electricity in that village, the battery from the bus would be used to run the battery operated radio available in the hotel.”
Ram Babu also told me that Venkatapuram is one of the electrified towns in that area, but the supply would be available only from 6 to 10 P.M. with lot of fluctuations in the supply voltage. It has a police station, a public health centre and can boast of having a cinema hall showing films during non-monsoon period. It has also the offices of BDO, Forest Department and PWD. There is a small shop selling provisions but there are no stationery, cloth and vegetable shops and these are to be brought from Bhadrachalam.
“Of course, it is a paradise for those who prefer chicken, as the tribals have plenty to sell. The river is there to cater to your needs for fish. Even otherwise, in the weekly bazaars, you can get dried fish if you can stand the smell.” The BDO summed up his views on the place.
“What about the accommodation for office and staff”? I asked him.
“Luckily there are few vacant government buildings and you could get priority in allotment as you are from a central organisation working on a project to benefit the state. But due to problems of distances and lack of proper communication facilities, if you are in a hurry, I would suggest you to send the letter now itself to the Chief of PWD through some of your officers, seeking urgent allocation of the buildings needed by you. Even news papers reach here a couple of days later due to delays, as they depend on the road or launch service starting from small towns like Bhadrachalam or Polavaram.”
Hearing about the condition of life at Venkatapuram, I felt that the transfer from Gopalapuram village to Venkatapuram town is akin to moving from frying pan to fire. All my enthusiasm to shift to that place was lost hearing the situation there.
“Do not lose heart,” the BDO consoled me. “All of you being bachelors, you would be able to adjust to that life without any difficulty.”
As advised by Ram Babu, I sent one of the junior technical officers (JTO) to the PWD Chief Engineer’s office with the documents requesting for allocation of 5 buildings for our office and residential purposes. On getting the allotment, I sent Venkat with some staff to Venkatapuram as an advance party to take over the buildings and get them ready for occupation by the time our office articles reached there.
My local adviser, Venkateswarlu, the postman, had heard from our office people about the shifting of the office to Venkatapuram . He took a day off from his busy schedule to bid good bye to me and other colleagues before our truck left the place with the office items.“I do not know when we would be meeting again”, he told me in an emotionally choked voice. “Being in the central service, you may not get again posted to this village, I am sure. I will be here till retirement and hence if you happen to come to this part at any time, please let me know. I would certainly come and meet you. I wish you all the best”.
I was touched by his words which brought tears in me. “I cherished your company and am thankful to you for all the help and guidance you gave me all these days,” I said. “When I come to this district at any time in future, I would certainly make it a point to meet you. Till then, good bye.”
A chapter from [Sankupurana – Memoirs of an Engineer]
Fill my stomach today
All goes to waste box
Without any solution
No time for me
To know you in me
I couldn’t create
By the words of
But it became
Today I am transformed into a lucrative man,
All the restrictions of my life have turned into ban.
Today I have achieved that I dreamt,
But this long list will never have a denouement.
When I spot the old pages of my past,
The first thing that turns me on is grandpa’s podcasts.
Father always considered me as his younger brother,
Quite often he used to say “Son don’t you bother.”
But! Hold on, I can never forget the most pacific and soothing memory that exists in mother’s lap,
Where, I used to have a very comfortable nap.
How ironical is God’s creation.
Life and death occurs without any pre-information.
But God’s irony fades away, when it comes for a mother,
Who’s, next to compressed leather,
This, gets smashed after excessive triturate, but never loses its ability to consolidate.
When I recall my past, which “briskly blew away”,
I feel that I have something to say: someone to appreciate,
Who, throughout her life remained deficit.
I still remember her pervasive style,
That, she used to produce a responsible smile.
She never grabbed the chance to be in front,
Same as a councilor acts when the king accomplishes his interest to hunt.
In my colorful life there is some blank space which would only be filled by mother’s face, with festoons of roses and the blooms of her college life proposals.
Hey Lord! Take away all my valuable assets,
but for once return me mother’s lap where my life subsists.
Ruth had spent a good part of her morning supervising her maid as she cleaned out a recently vacated room in her Airbnb. She still believed in old fashioned hospitality, with clean white sheets, sweet smelling towels, and polished mahogany furniture. She hand picked the blossom from her garden each morning to include in the vases that went to the rooms. She sent to the lodgers’ fresh tea in China pots in the afternoons. In other words, Ruth took her Airbnb seriously, just like she did everything else in her life. All objects and entities in the universe have their place and specific roles to play and her humble role was to run her place with devotion. She believed that Ruth’s Retreat was not just a bed and breakfast, it was much more, a special experience wrapped in the finest kind of luxury for her lodgers.
Hours later as Rajdeep and Priya walked up the short flight of stairs leading to Ruth’s Retreat, she was there to greet them.
“Welcome! My name is Ruth Williams. As you know by now, this place is meant exclusively for couples.” She paused and explained what she meant by that comment.“I think it takes a lot of work to keep living together for a long time. My little place helps rekindle the old fire. We have special dinners and programs planned for you. You will receive information about them in a while. If you need anything, please let me know. Here are your keys.”
She handed them a set of keys with Mr. and Mrs. engraved on them as her ancient but charming face crinkled into a broad smile.
“Your room is upstairs. Dorje will take you there.”
She instructed her bell boy to help with their luggage.
Priyas wept her mascara-lined eyes appreciatively over the antiquated but well-maintained insides of the bungalow, pausing briefly on the neat foyer. It was decorated tastefully with Victorian show plates and potted plants. Her scrutiny delved deeper into the dining hall with a big and magnificent looking fireplace. A twinge of guilt poked her ribs as her gaze rested on a black and white wedding picture hanging over it. She recognized a youthful Ruth in a wedding gown next to a smiling Englishman. Her face had aged but her smile was still as dazzling.
Priya withdrew her eyes and followed the bell boy leading the way up the stairs. Dorje was wearing a butler uniform complete with a bow tie. How fancy is this place! she thought smiling to herself. Rajdeep and Priya wanted to get away from Kolkata for a while and could not believe their good luck when they got a two-night deal at the charming Airbnb. The only other option available was the government circuit house with its unaired rooms and dusty curtains.
“Why did you tell her that we are married?”
“What else could I do? They mentioned on the website that this place is only for married couples. They were not letting me proceed with the booking until I answered “yes” next to the “Are you married?” question. What is this big deal about being married? I don’t understand,” said Rajdeep nodding his head in exasperation. His face was so symmetrical that Priya thought him lovely, if that can be an attribute given to a grown man at all.
“That nice old woman is so trusting and we are…lying to her.” Priya shook her bangs away from her forehead forcing her eyes to look away from Rajdeep.
“Had we not, we wouldn’t have had such a nice room this late and…” He pulled her on to the bed. “I would not have the privilege to see you curled up beside me on this plush four-poster bed.”
The bed was splendid looking and so was the room. Flowing lace curtains framing the tall windows softened the severity the high beamed ceiling offered. A mellow shade of green gave the room a peaceful ambiance. Two pairs of smooth, padded slippers were placed beside the bed. A pair of soft bathrobes with Mr. and Mrs. embroidered chest patches hung in the adjoining bathroom. Two jumbo-sized umbrellas were placed in the ornate brass bucket just in case the couple chose to venture out in the lush greenery surrounding the retreat. It was truly a couples’ paradise. Rajdeep took in Priya’s dainty features as she cast an appreciative look around their room and wondered why this brand of enchantment was missing in his daily life. Why couldn’t he feel so alive when he was with his wife? With Priya, he felt desired, like his mere existence mattered tremendously.
Ever since they met a year ago, they were stricken by an inexplicable force of mutual attraction. They knew that it was not forever, yet they could not shake off their fascination for one another. “Let us go on a short vacation,” he had suggested for they never seemed satiated with each other. Each meeting made them long for more so she had agreed to come away with him.
There was a gentle knock on their door that jolted Rajdeep out of his thoughts though Priya still looked lost in hers.
Dorje had come bearing a tray laden with tea and biscuits. There was also a little note tucked in. Ruth had invited them to a special dinner later that night.
“Oh…,” said Priya. “I hate cheating that nice lady. Can we not go, please?”
“That would appear rather rude, won’t it?”
“Make up some excuse. We have not come here to attend dinner parties, have we?” There was a sharpness in Priya’s voice.
“There is no need to get so agitated.”
Rajdeep gave Priya’s hand a gentle squeeze. When she did not draw away her hand he covered her lips with his. She draped her delicate arms around his broad shoulders and let out a sigh. Priya craved for this, otherwise she would not be here with him, she reminded herself. The afternoon gently turned into a cool evening as they seeped into each other.
“Perhaps we could go out for a walk to avoid the dinner, I understand your awkwardness,” said Rajdeep as his heartbeat returned to normal. But the black clouds perched on the hills behind the bungalow, burst out into an angry downpour right after, squelching the possibility of taking a walk.
Priyasighed. “We have to eat. What is the point of going anywhere in this rain? Let us go to the dinner we are invited to.”
“After all, It’s just dinner.”
“This Shephard’s pie is magnificent.”Rajdeep complimented Ruth. The other couplesitting at the dining table nodded their head in agreement. The food wasnot the usual slipshod fare that passes out of ordinary kitchens.It was flavorful and intricate.
“It is a special family recipe. It was passed on in my husband’s family for generations like a beloved family heirloom. My late husband loved entertaining. I try to follow in his footsteps, you know. So, I serve my guests special family recipes.”
Ruth moved her lodgers to the parlor after dinner for coffee, where the conversation meandered towards how the couples had met. Rajdeep cast a worried look at Priya as her smile shrunk. The other couple narrated their story with smiling faces. As their turn came, Rajdeep naturally drew a blank.
“Our story is not that special. We met through our parents. It was an arranged marriage so we didn’t have much to do with it,” he lied, trying to turn the focus away from them but Ruth would not let it pass.
“In every ordinary story, lies something extraordinary,” she said.
Rajdeep was hoping that Ruth had not noticedPriya’s discomfort. Unable to think of anything else, he narrated the story of his own marriage.
Priya sat by the window overlooking the hill behind them. It had finally stopped raining but there was a hint of moisture hanging in the air, brooding under the weight of undefined grudges. Rajdeep’s commentary about his relationship with his wife had made her think about her own marriage.
“My husband is not a bad man,” she said suddenly. “He is just very predictable.”
She unmindfully played with the lace curtain. “I feel that if I have to sit through one more of those conversations where he tells me about his office and I tell him about mine, I will either kill him or myself.”
Rajdeep was not used to seeing her this pensive, and it made him uneasy.
“Good, we met then, right? Otherwise, you would have to kill your husband.” He let out a shrill uncomfortable laugh in a poor attempt to defuse the tension building between them.
Priya turned her head sharply at him. “That is not funny! It is… rather disrespectful.”
She pushed him away and wrapped herself in a woolen shawl. “I am going for a walk.”
“Give me a minute, I will go with you.” He put on his windcheater hurriedly and followed her outside.
“I thought you were tired and wanted to rest.” He did not understand why she was in this dark mood. What had he done to bring this upon her?
“I changed my mind. The room feels claustrophobic.”
“It is such a big room…how do you feel stuffy here?”
“If you like the room so much, why don’t you stay back and enjoy it.”
Rajdeep was baffled at her abrupt rage.
“Don’t rush, the path is steep. You might slip and fall.”
Her eyes glittered with unshed tears.Her words came out in a hoarse whisper. “I have fallen already.”
Ruth’s bedroom was on the top floor, above the rooms she rented out. It had a sweeping view of the entire compound around her. She sat at her window reading a book. It was past midnight. How she wished she could fall asleep like others. She would have given up everything she owned for a good night’s rest, but sleep mostly eluded her. As the cool breeze coaxed a spell of tinkling from her wind chimes, Ruth draped a sweater over her housecoat and stooped over the wooden pane. She thought she heard someone talking. It sounded more like an argument. The middle-aged couple who had checked in earlier that day were exchanging heated words it seemed.
If only she could tell them how useless all that squabbling is, ultimately. A thread of memory flashed in her mind. She used to argue with her husband just like this. It was a true privilege to have a partner to argue with, she realized at her elderly age. Albert was headstrong and controlling and sometimes drove Ruth crazy. But he also had a childlike enthusiasm towards life.
Albert was born into an English family. His father managed one of the sprawling tea estates in Darjeeling during the British era. The British left eventually but Albert’s family stayed on and grew roots in Darjeeling. There were only a handful of English families in India who had stayed back after India’s independence.Ruth’s family was one amongst that skinny lot.
Ruth had spent the first seventeen years of her life in Ooty, a Southern Indian hill-station. Her mother had died young and her father was struggling with a weak heart. She was married off to Albert just as she turned eighteen.
To keep her from missing Ooty, Albert involved her wisely in acquiring new skills. He taught her how to play the piano. He encouraged her to learn the game of Bridge, which he believed to be the most sophisticated card game in the World. He even bought her a pony to ride. Albert was overbearing and took to strange fancies that drove her insane at times, but in his forties, Albert had developed the most irritating habit of losing things, which was most uncharacteristic of him. Handkerchiefs were often lost, hats misplaced, and watches mislaid. The bad habit had reached such a height that Ruth had her husband followed sometimes just to remind him about small things. Had she not unwittingly embarked on that path, she would have never found out his secret.
When she had him followed, she had learned that her beloved Albert had become forgetful because he had given his heart away to someone else. Sweet Ruth was crest fallen to discover that her husband was capable of adultery. Her health deteriorated in spite of the ministrations of the several doctors her husband arranged for her.She was on the brink of death when Albert realized that it was his disloyalty that had caused her incurable sickness. He wept and asked for her forgiveness. She forgave him and then together they lived a long and wonderful life.
Seven years ago, a freak accident killed Albert leaving Ruth alone. Her grown-up son wanted her to sell their house in Darjeeling and shift into his urbane Mumbai condominium, but Ruth could not dream of leaving her beautiful Bungalow. By now, it had become her friend, her close confidant.
“It is such a big house and you are not getting any younger, how will you maintain it?”
Her son had a point, but Ruth was resourceful and found a way to keep her house. She turned it into a bed and breakfast. Her decision to make it “couples only” had intrigued her son and employees but, she stuck to her decision. “In our lifetime, we have so many responsibilities that we put aside our needs as a couple. This sanctuary will help them feel rejuvenated,” she explained.
Now seeing the arguing couple, she felt sad. “Poor dears,I should do something for them,” she said to her chimes that tinkled on peacefully, filling the air with a divine calmness.
Rajdeep woke up with a dull headache the next morning. His first ever fight with Priya had left him feeling desolate. He had come to Darjeeling to forget his emotional wrangles with his wife but it had nevertheless followed him to the peaceful hill-station. His relationship with Priya had seemed easy and straightforward, something that gave him uncomplicated pleasure but lately, she had entered an unfortunate phase of moral judgment and that was ruining everything for them.
Priya on the other hand, felt remarkably fresh and calm this morning. Her bout of agonizing was over and a sunny disposition had peeped out of the gloomy clouds again. She took a hot shower and put on make-up. Rajdeep was awake but pretending to be asleep. He was still sulking about last night, she could tell. Priya tiptoed to him and looked at his even features. With his eyes closed, he looked even more handsome than usual. How could she be upset with such a lovely creature? Her lips spread in a smile as she ran her fingers through his tousled hair.
As his eyes fluttered open, she said softly, “Get up sleepy head, I have some fun planned for us today.”
Rajdeep reached for his pack of cigarettes and lit one.
“How are you feeling now?” He looked mildly apprehensive.
“Much better,” said Priya straightening her floral print sweater.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but if you are feeling uncomfortable, we can leave today.”
Priya blinked at him with a sheepish smile. “I am sorry for how I reacted last night.”
Rajdeep continued smoking his cigarette silently. Priyarested her head on his shoulder. “There is a nice tea estate nearby. Do you want to gothere?”
What Rajdeep really wanted was a cup of tea and not just any tea. He wanted what his wife made for him when he had a headache. She prepared a special concoction of tea, ginger and some other heady herbs. It cured his headache like nothing else could. For a fleeting moment, he also wanted to catch a glimpse of his wife’s face. She gave him so much grief with her constant surveillance and for the most part of his married life he secretly loathed her strict regime but this morning he yearned for her familiar presence.
As Priya came down the stairs she saw Ruth in a fleece pantsuit, arranging flowers in vases. Priya hoped that she would not initiate a conversation and much to her relief, Ruth dropped a polite good morning and turned back to her task.
Priya stepped out to explore the garden outside. The seasonal flowers were in full bloom filling the air with an unfamiliar but sweet smell. Last night’s mist had disappeared. The sunlight bathing the trees with its generosity seemed to have exorcized last night’s phantoms and doubts. Priya filled her lungs up with fresh hill air and walked in a circle around the house.
She found Dorje the bellboy, hammering away at a box in the shed behind the house. He looked different without his uniform, oddly disheveled and rather grim. He went about performing his task with a serious focus but as he caught her looking at him, his fierceness was replaced by a tentative smile. “Good morning,” he said pausing in his activity.
She nodded her head in acknowledgment, taking in the large number of boxes stacked on each other.
“What are these boxes for?”
“Ruth madam sometimes sends them off filled with fruits to friends and customers.”
“What kind of fruits?”
“Apples,Oranges and sometimes more exotic fruits like Plums and Cherries,” said Ruth handing Dorje a bowl of discarded stems and leaves. “Drop this in the compost hole,” she directed him. She had walked around the house with Rajdeep while Priya was talking to Dorje.
“I could pack you a box if you like,” she said turning towards Priya.
“That would not be necessary,” said Rajdeep a bit tightly.
Priya did not like Rajdeep’s tone. She threw him a sharp look and said to Ruth softly, “I will think about it and let you know.”
As they set off on their short hike towards the tea garden, Priya looked back at Ruth’s diligent housekeeping activities and smiled. “Why didn’t you take up her offer to pack us a box of fruits? That would be nice.”
“I thought you disliked her overfamiliarity.”
“She is old-fashioned,” said Priya still observing her.
“She is over the top, that is what she is! Shewas asking me if we can come for a glass of wine this evening. Who does so much forcustomers?”
“True. She is really nice.”
Rajdeep paused to glare at Priya. He did not understand her change of heart. Till last night she was complaining about how nosy Ruth was and now she was all smiles about it.
“She seems queer. A bit obsessive…and how she went on and on about her late husband last night,” Rajdeep complained.
Priya let out a sad sigh. “Just because we don’t talk about our spouses with much fondness, it does not mean that others would have to be bitter about their partners.”
“I don’t feel bitter towards my wife. I don’t know why you assumed that. She has her problems but she is sincere in what she does.”
“You never really talk about her.”
“No, I don’t. Nor do you talk about your husband. How is he like?”
“He is simple. He is someone who is content with how things are around him.”
Priya had turned a bit reflective ever since she had arrived in Darjeeling. She was always practical and sorted about what she wanted and did. So, why was she getting all soppy,suddenly? The greenery and the hills around her were so tranquil, the mist hugging her so sincere, and Darjeeling air was so pure, so clean that the only entity that looked adulterated was she herself and of course her lies. She felt a wave of anger for Rajdeep and herself pulsate through her chest.
“If you are not bitter about your wife, then what are you doing here?”
She caught a flicker of guilt pass over Rajdeep’s features. “I don’t know if I can explain. It’s not really her fault. After you have children, things change. It becomes so much about them and about doing the right things that it takes a toll…”
“I wouldn’t know. I don’t have children.”
Rajdeep raised his eyebrows to that.
“I can’t have children. After the third failed IVF, I gave up.”
There were a lot of things they didn’t know about each other, and perhaps that was deliberately so. A small sacrifice to keep a certain amount of mystery and excitement alive between them for familiarity almost always bred contempt.
They reached the estate right in time to see the tea leaf plucking. They had to watch it from a distance for that was the estate rule for visitors, but later they got to taste the prized, floral smelling tea the estate was famous for in their brightly lit canteen. By the end of the guided tour of the delightful tea estate, Priya and Rajdeep were smiling at each other, touching one another’s hands flirtatiously again but their afternoon outdoor adventure was cut short by another spell of shower. They had forgotten to take the umbrellas from their room and were drenched by the time they returned to Ruth’s Retreat.
Dorje sat at the foyer reading a newspaper, again looking neat and clean in his uniform. He stopped Rajdeep as they were running up the stairs.
“Sir, you left your wallet in the room,” he said with a smile.
“Oh!” Rajdeep touched his pocket.
Priya rolled her eyes. “You wouldn’t have noticed. I paid for the tea at the estate, remember?”
The afternoon spent outside had revived Priya’s energy and appetite for Rajdeep, and that made her turn to him with such exuberance that Rajdeep forgot all about missing his wife and her perfect cup of tea. It appropriately fueled his lust for her as well and created a cocoon around them that had immunity from families, responsibilities, and duties. Moments trickled by languorously stretching their arms and legs and taking their own sweet time to spend themselves.
Later in the evening, satedat last,Priya reached out to her cell phone on the nightstand but instead, knocked over Rajdeep’s wallet. As she picked it up she saw a few items sticking out of it. The usual. Credit, debit, ID,an old bill and then she saw his family picture. His two children looked so much like him, thought Priya as she took in his wife’s profile. It was a serious face that didn’t smile too often it seemed. She walked to the adjoining balcony where the cute wicker chair beckoned her to take a seat. She took a quick look at Rajdeep’s sleeping form and sank back into the depths of her thoughts.
Priya’s bond with her husband had loosened in the last few years. He was still the gentle, loving partner but a part of her soul had shriveled and died with the demise of the hope of becoming a mother. She had inched away from her home and hearth little by little and immersed herself in her work. Her workplace with time became her place of refuge and she focused singularly on winning promotions and rising up in her career. It is at a work seminar that she had met Rajdeep.
He had looked at her with such visceral abandon and longing that she was almost offended but later, in the privacy of her room she had smiled at his audacity. It was delightful to be thought of as someone desirable after such a long time, and not just as a work-machine or a “poor thing who cannot have children”. They had met again the day after and this time she had indulged his impudence with unguarded brazenness and ended up enjoying his company. She deserved to be desired, she deserved to be touched as much as she wanted to touch. She welcomed Rajdeep with a sense of purpose. Her relationship with him was very basic and clearly defined, but now sitting in this rain-washed balcony she was not sure about what she was doing anymore. Was she really as sorted she thought she was or was there a scary mess hiding in her repressed psychological crevices? Why was she doing this? Who was she really cheating?
Rajdeep twisted his torso and curled out of his nap to find Priya sitting listlessly in the balcony. There was a frozen torment written all over her face, that seemed too personal to break into unannounced. His wallet lay open on the nightstand with a tiny photograph sticking out. As Rajdeep pushed the picture back into a flap, he remembered about his older son’s upcoming birthday. He had demanded an impossibly expensive theme party and his wife had advised him not to give in to his wishes for he was getting a bit too willful these days. Rajdeep had defended his son and said that he was just being influenced by his classmates.
“This is exactly what happens when you admit your son to a posh private school,” his mother had grumbled and his wife had reacted with a sullen face to that.
Rajdeep was tired of his family tussles. He was a caring man who took on more and more tasks upon himself to help everyone around him, but the more he showed consideration the more he got taken for granted and the tighter stretched he felt. Rajdeep’s life was taken over by repetitive duties and tasks and had reached a point when he went through the motions just because he was supposed to, perhaps because his mother had brought him up to do the right things in life. Everything felt like a drill, nothing was enchanting or interesting anymore. He had forgotten what he had last done to make himself happy. He was almost drowning in a pool of blandness when he had met Priya.
Yes, she was attractive with her make-up and well-tended appearance but that was not uncommon in the corporate sector. Everyone looked well-groomed and sharp as a tack. So,it was not just her physicality that had attracted him, it was her sad set of eyes. She bore a look of a person who is busy yet rather lonely. He knew that look too well. It was exactly the kind of look he had caught lately in his mirror reflection.
Ruth kept watchful eyes on Priya and Rajdeep that evening when they had gathered with the rest of her lodgers. They seemed much more relaxed than last night, she noted. They smiled and lingered on, sipping wine and munching on the finger food.
Priya moved towards Ruth with a soft smile on her lips. “Thank you so much for the lovely arrangement. I really enjoyed our stay here. I thought I will tell you how much I appreciate it just in case I don’t get to say bye to you tomorrow.We leave early.”
Ruth smiled back gracefully.
“But there is one request I would like to make. Could we take a box of fruits from you?”
“Of course. Let me quickly put in your order,” said Ruth and asked for Priya’s credit card.
“Dorje has set up an online account where I would have to put in your information. Sorry for the trouble.”
“No problem at all.”
“I will be back with your card and the bill shortly.”
Ruth shuffled up to her room to get Priya’s order ready.
Next morning as Rajdeep backed the rented car out of the driveway, Dorje and Ruth stood waiting for them with the box of fruits.
“The fruits are delicate. It would be better if you carry them on your back seat instead of placing them in the hood,” advised Ruth.
As Ruth and Dorje watched the car ribboning across the hill, descending towards the valley below, Ruth asked, “Did you include the more exotic fruits in the box?”
Dorje did not respond except nodding his head.
“I hope you didn’t nail the box too tight. The fruits need to breathe.”
“This is not the first time I have packed a box. It was prepared the way it should be.”
Ruth looked carefully at Dorje’s slanting eyes. It was difficult to judge what he really felt because of his unreadable mask-like mien.
“What we do here at Ruth’s Retreat is more than just housing lodgers. We give them an experience they can remember and at times even learn from.” Her spiel sounded practiced, something she had repeated to her staff again and again.
“But some do not remember, nor learn, do they?” said Dorje in a low voice.
“Yes. Some of them never change. They remain liars and cheaters forever,” said Ruth her voice cracking under strain.
Dorje took her frail hands in his. “That is okay. It is their choice, not ours.”
Ruth stood staring at Albert’s picture on the wall next to her bed. She had loved him so much all her life. So, why wasn’t her love enough for him? Why did he need more from another woman? If only her Albert had not cheated her again, he would be alive and with her today. Eight years ago, she had discovered much to her dismay that Albert had never given up seeing the other woman. He had just taken extra care to hide it. The tea estate club meetings she thought he was attending, the charity organization that he said he had joined requiring him to travel, were all elaborate lies to deceive her. She got to know about it this time when his lover’s son came to talk to her.
Dorje was just sixteen back then. He did not know how to break the cycle of mistrust except telling Ruth about it. Dorje’s bland unemotional face had masked the depth of his anguish but his voice held pain and it had also sounded determined. “My father killed himself. He could not tolerate her disloyalty and now I…have nothing else left in my life.”
Ruth’s heart had shattered once again as she heard all that the boy had to say but along with that there grew a hard resolve in her this time. She decided to step beyond the limit of morality, outside the range of right and wrong and clean up her house in her own way, once and for all. She did not deserve to be treated unfairly repeatedly.
Ruth had planned carefully like she planned everything else, with precision and watchfulness. When Albert died of a snakebite no one was suspicious of her. She was not even present in Darjeeling that night. Dorje’s mother was heartbroken after her lover passed away and died soon after in an equally mysterious way.
Rajdeep threw a quick glance at Priya. “You were right. There was something suffocating about the place.”
Priya looked at Rajdeep and a faint frown spread across her face. “I don’t think the place was wrong, it was actuallyquite all right, so pure and pristine, but we were the wrong kind of people for it.”
Rajdeep read the sentiment under her loaded words and fell quiet. Suddenly, he wanted to get away from Darjeeling as fast as he could. He pressed on the gas pedal and the car gathered speed taking a jerky turn around a sharp corner.
The car shook up, surprisingPriya.
“What are you doing? These hilly paths are tricky. Please don’t take such reckless turns!”
The box behind them had been rattled as well.
“I hope the fruits have not fallen out of the box,” said Priya looking back in concern but, what she saw choked her words and made her tug at Rajdeep’s arm insistently.
Shortly after the car swerved off a cliff. It tumbled down the steep overhang and hit the ground, bursting into flames.
Dorje walked slowly to the shed. Like Ruth, he had not slept a wink last night. He lit a cigarette, a new habit he had picked up to calm his nerves and thought back to the events the day before. The maid had handed him the wallet that she had found in Rajdeep’s room and he had taken it to Ruth. She had gone through the wallet one item at a time, found the family photograph and showed it to Dorje.
“He has a nice family,” he had commented. “But Priya does not seem to be a part of it.”
“I had a feeling that they lied to me.” Ruth had nodded at him, her face darkening.
Dorjehad peered at the photograph carefully. “Maybe this is his ex-wife?”
“I don’t think so.”
That evening when Priya handed her credit card to Ruth, Dorje did an internet search on the two and found out all they needed to.
Ruth’s sadness had immediately returned to her, a sense of betrayal filling her soul’s hollow cavern with sharp, broken glass pieces crushing against each other. Dorje comprehended how she felt for he felt the same. He knew by then that he had to do once more what he had done seven years ago to Albert and his mother.
Dorje went deep into the shed and unlocked a door at the back. Hissing sounds emanated from the big cage behind it. It was full of snakes, all kinds, some striped, some black as the night. He had inserted one of them–an exotic Krait in Priya’s box of fruits.
About the Author Having spent her childhood in a civil servant family surrounded by voracious readers, Sreya nurtured a wish to write from an early age. She did her undergraduate studies in Political Science from Kolkata’s Presidency College and post-graduation from JNU, New Delhi. After her second Masters in Political Science at the University of Pennsylvania, she worked in U.S. think tanks and published non-fiction articles and op-eds for newspapers. More recently she has penned short stories that have been published in print and e-magazines in India and the U.S. Sreya currently lives in Boston with her husband and eight-year-old son.