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Published December 2022Become a subscriber
Dear editor, both bathrooms at the back of the Air India flight from New York to Mumbai were out of order. The doors had Not Working stickers pasted over their metal handles. Identical stickers, from different days, stuck on top of earlier ones.
In the op-ed that I had already begun to compose in my head, I was going to write that the bathroom doors were festooned with yellow stickers.
The plane hadn’t taken off yet from JFK. I needed to use the bathroom. But what I’m trying to tell you is that I felt I was already home.
Excuse me, I said to a passing flight attendant. These bathrooms can’t be used?
The woman was Indian, and I guessed Punjabi. She slowed down momentarily. With a show of patience that barely masked her contempt, she gave a tight smile and asked, Did you see the sticker?
I did, I said. And then, raising my voice, But the stickers look so old, so many of them, I wasn’t sure if there was one also from today.
She retained her smile, pretending that she had not heard me, and said that there were bathrooms in the front of the cabin.
What I really wanted her to confirm was that the bathrooms at the back hadn’t worked for many days. I wondered whether fresh – except fresh was the wrong word in this context – stickers were slapped on the doors before the plane took flight each day. Honesty is a more bracing ingredient than bad faith in a story, and I wanted the Air India staff to give me a candid account of what it was that I was witnessing. I got up from my seat but before wandering to the bathroom in the front I went back to the locked bathrooms and took pictures of the stickers on my phone.
My ability to exaggerate does on occasion get the better of me but, believe me, I’m not being fanciful when I say that even the blue carpet in the aisles exuded a faecal odour – no, a heavier element, a moist miasma, that entered the nose and seemed to paralyse the senses. This preceding sentence was going into the op-ed. Also this one: I had a ringing headache by the time we took off.
The flight attendants, betraying a suspicious expertise in the situation, walked down the aisle with the nozzles of air fresheners aimed only inches from the floor. I didn’t move in my seat, convinced that ordure was stuck to my shoes. From my breast pocket I extracted my notebook and wrote down what I was seeing and feeling, as if the tiny page that fitted into my palm was a window I could open. My neighbour in the next seat, a businessman from Surat, was amused by my agitation. He soothed me with the news that the previous month an Air India flight that had taken off from Mumbai for London was forced to return because a rat was racing up and down the length of the plane.
The hotel in Mumbai, where the wedding was being held, faced the sea. The lounge had impossibly high ceilings that gave the hotel’s plush interior a false sense of quiet. Young women in peacock-blue and orange saris stood behind the reception counter. The large glass windows framed a view of the swallowing darkness but close by, where the land ended, there stretched an undulating, glittering necklace of white lights. The wedding guests, some of whom had travelled huge distances and were counting the number of time zones they had crossed, sat on sofas holding drinks in their hands. Two Arab men in their spotless white robes turned away from the check-in desk and regarded our group. Had they not seen all of this before? No doubt some of the gold on display on the bodies of my fellow guests had been purchased in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
A waiter came by with a tray filled with dainty little sandwiches and then a couple of minutes later another one stopped by to offer a colourful, thoroughly exotic description of something small and elegant-looking at the end of a toothpick. The woman seated next to me was older than me by at least two decades; from her air of reserve, I guessed that she was a teacher or a bureaucrat. At her request, a waiter brought her a pot of green tea and she sipped solemnly from a delicate china cup. I, on the other hand, was in no mood to hold back on the jalapeño margaritas. After a few sips I turned to address her, even though I didn’t have a joke ready, but she was looking the other way. I decided to wait.
We were in the third week of December, 2016. The thought of the unwritten op-ed returned to me in a new way. In this last month of the year, hordes of desis settled abroad return to India and you can hear the twang of stretched-out Westernised syllables in upscale restaurants, chic boutiques and colonial-era clubs. The talk is always the same. A mix of arrogance and condescension accompanied by an ability for unceasing wonder at how bad things are in some places. As it is, those who speak in English in India generally speak louder to their children, to waiters, and even to strangers, but the assault on the ears is especially painful when the face is brown and the accent is American. Despite my long years abroad, I haven’t acquired the accent yet. Still, it struck me that I had become one of those I had so far been railing against.
I turned again to the woman sitting next to me. Was she deliberately keeping her face turned away from me?
I wished to confide in my neighbour. I wanted to say to her: Look at me. How crude, how banal, to have become that person who complains loudly about the smell of shit. Trump has just last month been elected President and if I, an Indian living in New York, make demeaning comments about India, don’t you think newspaper readers in Mumbai and Delhi will judge me harshly?
I was sure that on Twitter a troll would provide a link to my op-ed and paste a picture of the White House underneath with the question: Are you sure the smell isn’t coming from there?
As I took my second drink in hand, I saw Satish approaching with a smile. He bowed slightly in front of my neighbour and then looked inquiringly at me. I was seized by the sudden fear that he was signalling that the old woman was a teacher from our school and asking whether I had recognised her.
I looked at my neighbour again but I didn’t think I had seen her before. Satish asked her if she was comfortable and then looking at me said that he was going to make an announcement and he would appreciate it if I made a short speech after he was done.
What did he want me to speak about?
You are the writer, he said. Say anything you want.
Satish and I had first met at his mother’s school as eight-year-old boys. Minnie Aunty was the principal at Growing Minds in Patna. Three years before we met, his father had died. The plane in which he was travelling had crashed into the Himalayan ranges in the north-east, the fog so dense in the mountains that no search could be conducted for the next five days. But Minnie Aunty, almost single-handedly, established her school and made a life not just for herself and Satish but also for so many of us in that town.
When I rose up to speak, I took in the already bored faces of the guests, their excess finery, and it is possible I felt a bit superior, but I was also sharply conscious of my desire to engage my audience. I knew I could neither entertain nor enlighten them: these shortcomings were mine and not theirs. I said that on this occasion I missed Satish’s mother whom I had known as a boy. It was impossible for me to look back at Satish’s and my own childhood and not find Minnie Aunty in it: it was like imagining the earth without the grounding force of gravity. And now Satish and Ratna were seeing their daughter getting married. Our children were charting their own paths, discovering their own orbits. A new beginning, etc.
There was much that I did not mention in my speech.
When Satish and I were students at Growing Minds, Minnie Aunty would take us with her to visit every new district magistrate. She wanted to be the first to ask the officer’s kids to join her school. This was her unbending policy and I was too young to know why she did this. The school enjoyed many benefits, including the advantage of having a police tent outside the main gate. All the main events enjoyed some form of government patronage. Students from our school appeared each year at the Republic Day parade and presented the governor with a bouquet of flowers. In our home, although my mother disapproved of this, my father only referred to Minnie Aunty as ‘Indira Gandhi’. I had at first innocently assumed that he was simply thinking of her as a great leader. What added pathos to the comparison in my young mind was that just like the prime minister, Minnie Aunty was also a widow. When I grew older, I saw in my father’s words bitter criticism of Minnie Aunty’s drive to power, and then, when I was older still, I thought that perhaps my father had felt himself powerless in her company, a man without real ambition.
Time passed. Satish went away to an engineering college and then to MIT and from there to Wharton. In my case, after having toiled for years as a reporter in Delhi, I came to Georgetown to get a degree and visited Satish in New Jersey over Thanksgiving. I was seeing him after years. He picked me up in his BMW and drove me to his house, a mansion set down on eighteen acres of rolling greens in Hunterdon County. It didn’t take me long to realise that we had nothing in common except for our past. Perhaps Satish understood this too, but he wasn’t the type to be troubled by such thoughts. It was not in his nature. It is also possible that he had grown so enormously rich that my presence didn’t register as a question in his mind. I was only a small fact in his life, someone who had known his mother, his childhood home, and the white dog he had got when he was a teenager.
He believed, and rightly so, that I had reverence for his mother even though I was certain that he had misjudged its basis. I didn’t respect his mother because she had been the principal of our school, or because she was like a kind aunt to me and was now dead, but because she was forgiving. There had been that episode at school when I had hidden the Muhammad Ali autobiography under my jacket but had been stopped by the librarian. Once, I traded Satish’s stamps from Norway with one that I had from Nepal of the king wearing his crown with a plume of feathers. I had claimed that the stamp I had given him was an extremely rare one, and then, as luck would have it, a letter arrived for Minnie Aunty from Kathmandu with five of the same stamps on the envelope. Or, later still, the accident with Satish’s dog, Bhola, and its mangled paw.
When I look back now, there is always Minnie Aunty pointing to something good awaiting me in the future. Until she did that, I did not know what the future meant. I was fifteen, say, and sitting in the bus taking me to my grandmother’s village. Beside the road, standing in the hot glare of the sun, next to a cart with shrivelled green vegetables was a dark-skinned woman. I would wonder how much she would make that day, and how selling a bit of spinach and coriander was possibly going to satisfy her needs. Such questions, for which I had no answers, were what the word future meant to me. The future at that age was a wide river in flood, and I didn’t have a boat, and if I waded into the waters I would drown. Dear editor, The problem isn’t that the young desire to do wrong but, often, their inability to separate right from wrong. This ability arrives only with a sense of consequences, which is linked to an idea of time. The young cannot imagine a time outside their time. After the worst, most shameful incident, Minnie Aunty came to the jail where I had already spent a week. She signed the statements for my release, and two months later, I left for college and never looked back. I thought of Minnie Aunty often, and never without a great sense of gratitude. But you can’t tell all this to unknown wedding guests.
It turned out that the old woman seated next to me was Minnie Aunty’s closest friend. That is how she introduced herself. She said her name was Ranjana Ghosal.
I told her that I was afraid that she had been a teacher at our school and that I hadn’t recognised her. She laughed. She said she was a retired doctor.
Did she live in Mumbai now?
No, she said. I live in a small town very far from here.
I asked her the town’s name. She said, You won’t know the name. Khunti, it is close to Ranchi.
I gave a startled laugh. Khunti was a name from my childhood. I told her that my father had been a trainee magistrate there, living in a tiny government-owned house with my mother and sister.
Maybe it was because of the margaritas but I found myself telling the doctor that it was hard for me to imagine a similar conversation taking place with a stranger in the town where I live in America. The last wedding that I attended was in Clinton Corners in upstate New York; the groom was Chinese and the bride Italian. A beautiful event offering a lesson about how newness comes into the world. But there was nothing there to take me back to my past.
I asked Dr Ghosal if Growing Minds was still there. Had it closed down now?
No, she said, Ramesh runs it. He is doing a great job.
Every middle-class home in our town had a houseboy or maid from a lower caste, who ate leftovers and slept in a corner and, during festivals or time of need, sent a bit of money back to the family. The young man at Minnie Aunty’s house wore crisp, clean shirts and trousers. His name was Ramesh, and we were not allowed to call him Ramu. All of this was new to me, highly unusual and it took some getting used to because when we sat down at the dining table for meals, Ramesh always ate with us. This wasn’t the situation in my house, nor was this anything like I had seen in any other house. Ramesh addressed Minnie Aunty as Didi, or elder sister, and that too was new to me. Later I learned that Ramesh was attending classes at Growing Minds and, still later, that he had enrolled in Patna College.
And he was now the principal of the school!
A lesson in democracy. If I was honest, maybe this was the op-ed I would actually write.
Unbidden tears came to my eyes. I realised I was being melodramatic. The doctor noticed my eyes watering and said that she was sorry that she had made me sad. No, no, I said, I’m so moved. Believe me, I spend all year mocking the kinds of things that happen in India. I’ll be at a party and someone will begin to ask something about cows, for example, and even before their question is complete, I start asking the host or hostess where is my drink, where is my glass of cow urine. It is so easy to do that sort of thing. But then you think of someone like Ramesh –
I stopped because a waiter, probably hearing me ask about my drink, had now brought me another jalapeño margarita.
Dr Ghosal asked, What do you remember of your childhood in Khunti?
My parents left Khunti when I was perhaps two. My father was transferred to Patna. I had no memories. I was hungry, I told her, to learn from her. What was Khunti like in those years?
I suspect she was free of nostalgia. She looked at me kindly and then at her watch. It is as if she was about to count my pulse. Then she began to speak.
You will hear many people who are sitting around us complaining that when they stepped out on the hotel’s terrace they could not find a wi-fi connection. The trauma of bad connectivity in the jewellery market. That there is no HBO. Well, when I went to Khunti we were decades before the internet. Actually, there was no TV, and not even telephones for everyone. There was a telephone in the Civil Lines office. The particular distraction of watching sitcoms on TV wasn’t to come until two decades later, although you could go to Ranchi to watch a movie in a theatre. But where was the time to travel for an hour or more each way on the bus? We were in the middle of hills and iron ore mines. Thick sal forests surrounded us. I didn’t own a car for a long time. To make matters worse, there was famine in nearby parts, in Palamu, which gave an excuse for the government not to pay us on time. Salaries were delayed and the officials held up funds. I would have to use my own money, or borrow it, to buy what was needed in the clinic. Anything from a bar of Lifebuoy soap to purchasing penicillin for common infections. Or streptomycin for my tuberculosis patients. A life of scarcity. But there was one bit of pleasure in our lives, a nice thing to look forward to, and this was that we played badminton each evening. The subdivisional magistrate was a man in his late twenties named Kumar Raghuvansh. He was married and didn’t have any children when we first met. This man and his wife Sheela were very kind to me. The badminton court was in the open, on a part of their large, three- or four-acre official compound. We played under lights with the magistrate’s staff bringing us iced lemon or orange squash in the summer and milky tea with ginger and cardamom in the winter.
A young indigenous studies lecturer would come on weekends and after our badminton games we ate together. Chicken was cheaper there than in places like Patna. Fresh vegetables. We ate well. I liked this man, the Adivasi scholar, who was himself indigenous, who was good at many languages and also played the flute. His name was Ram Naresh Nag. We fell in love and got married. That was in 1971. Raghuvansh, the magistrate who had become our friend, was from a small royal family but he was committed to the people. At the time, Adivasis were displayed each year on Republic Day in Delhi as simple tribal folk with bows and arrows, the bare-chested aboriginal people who loved to sing and dance. Adivasis had educated leaders even then; we didn’t know about them, we were just privileged outsiders, dikus. But Raghuvansh was interested in the history of rebellion among the Adivasis and he was writing a biography of Birsa Munda who had been hanged by the British. I liked to see the two of them working together. The magistrate’s father had been the ruler of what was once a small principality under the British and his grandfather had attended Queen Victoria’s coronation as her guest. He had gifted an elephant for the ceremony. You can see the giant, placid creature in the archival photographs of the royal event even if it is difficult to make out Raghuvansh’s ancestor in the crowd. Birsa Munda was unknown to Indians at that time; now you find his portrait hanging in the halls of the Parliament in Delhi. That process of his discovery began in those years in Khunti when Raghuvansh would go into villages and examine the dusty government gazettes from decades ago to find out more about Birsa Munda and his fierce fight against the British.
During weekends, Ram Naresh and Raghuvansh would sit for hours translating songs and other texts from Mundari and Santhali to Hindi or English. At the day’s end, we would sit and eat, all of us always together. Ram would charm us by playing on the flute. We drove on Sundays in Raghuvansh’s ambassador car to the waterfalls nearby – Dassam, Perwaghagh, Panchghagh – all within a quick driving distance. There wasn’t much traffic in the forests in those days. We would pass peacocks. All around us the noise of waterfalls. We would stop and have our picnic on the giant rocks near the falling waters.
You know, when I travel to other parts of India, or even close by to places like Patna, at least in progressive circles or among intellectuals, there will be someone who will always ask me about the recent lynchings in the area where the Adivasis live. What is happening these days, people ask. I don’t know. There was violence before too. A few years before I started living there, a Catholic priest, a German, had been killed in Khunti. The priest was trying to protect a few Muslims from a Hindu mob. He said to the angry crowd that they would have to kill him before they could enter the church with their weapons. So, that is what they did. They hacked him to death right there at the threshold.
Your question was about what I remember of the past. And I don’t know whether I’m answering your question. Do you want me to go on?
Yes, I replied. Please, please go on. It wasn’t the alcohol, I was convinced that it was her story, her voice, warm and steady like a candle flame on a still night, that kept my attention focused on what she was telling me.
I said earlier that it took too much effort to drive all the way to Ranchi to watch a Hindi film. While that is true, we still made the trip on several occasions. When that happened, Ram would wait for us in Ranchi. Those were the years when Rajesh Khanna was the most popular actor in Bollywood. The driver and the magistrate sat in the front seat of the ambassador; Sheela and I sat at the back. Ram would meet us at the cinema hall. We always ate aloo chaat and drank Coca-Cola before the film started. Afterwards, we went to a restaurant for dinner before driving back.
Ram stayed in my flat after we got married. We had a civil ceremony. My mother wasn’t opposed to my marrying an Adivasi but the rest of my family was. My two maternal uncles were angry with me. They saw the dark-skinned Adivasis and thought of them as savages. My father had died when I was young and these uncles had assumed charge. But my mother was financially independent; she taught in the school where Minnie later became the principal. Minnie came down to Ranchi when I got married. She was my witness in the magistrate’s office.
Do you know what a softie is? There is a shop in Ranchi called Firayalal. It had a new machine for making softie ice cream. Ram, his friend Subhas, who was a teacher in Saraikela, and Minnie and I went on two rickshaws to Firayalal to have softies after we got out of the magistrate’s office. You wanted to know about the past. Well, there you have a little glimpse of what weddings were like in those days. We didn’t have the money to meet like this in five-star hotels.
The war with Pakistan happened, the war that led to the liberation of Bangladesh. I was asked to report to the army camp nearby where Pakistani prisoners of war were kept. It was winter. The prisoners were disciplined and I had to do a quick medical examination to determine whether or not they needed treatment. Most of them only wanted to be able to make the announcement on radio that they were alive and well. The radio announcement was broadcast also from a loudspeaker on top of a pole in the field where the prisoners sat in the sun. The prisoners heard their own voices from the loudspeaker – name, father’s name, name of village or town, regimental identification, and a short message about health and wellbeing – but I couldn’t understand how the announcement was also reaching the families in Pakistan. Raghuvansh, the magistrate, assured me that it was.
The doctor had stopped speaking. A waiter in a maroon jacket had come to us to say that the party was moving outside to the pool. The two of us got up from our sofa. Despite her age, the doctor held herself erect as she walked ahead of me. Her hair was gathered in a small bun. I wondered what she was thinking. I had only just met her but I was taken with her. I was unaware just how this transition had happened but mentally I had put her among the old women from Bhopal that, during an earlier visit, I had seen protesting outside the Supreme Court in Delhi. They wanted justice from Union Carbide. There had been no clean-up even though three decades had passed since the gas leak; new generations of children were still being born with deformed limbs. These old women seemed to have their own mind, their own strength, they were not owned by any party or political group; they had taken what life had thrown at them, over many decades, and they had hoarded their tribulations, and used this startling inventory of defeats and small triumphs to remind themselves and others that they were survivors. Nothing would move them, and they wanted answers. At the back of their minds, maybe there was also the thought that it could not be long before they would be dead and soon forgotten. And so, they were afraid of nothing. Dear editor, Most of the names on your masthead belong to men, and although I spot a smattering of women, do you have any older than sixty? Recently I met a woman in Mumbai, a retired doctor, who told me…
When we stepped out, I saw that a raised platform, decorated with flowers, was in place at the near end of the pool. Drinks were being served by a bartender standing under a festive umbrella bedecked with ornate flowers made entirely of sequins. We walked over to the chairs at the other end of the pool. White lights glowed underwater while the breeze ruffled the pool’s surface as if it were fur on an animal’s back.
What have you been drinking? I think I’ll have one too.
The doctor took a sip of her jalapeño margarita. She smiled and nodded, and then looked around.
Tell me, she said, because you have lived both here and abroad. Do you think that because weddings in India take so long to complete – do you think that is the reason why marriages last here so long too? In the West people probably get married in an hour and then divorced in a week. Or that is what many of us believe here.
I laughed with her. And then she calmly, unaffectedly, went on with her story.
Soon after I got married to Ram, she said, a government order informed me that I had been transferred to Dhanbad. I didn’t want to go. I had established myself in Khunti. The town was changing, growing fast, and I thought I was needed there anyway. I resigned from my government job and started my own practice in a rented room next to a machine parts and hardware store. Instead of calling the clinic Nursing Medical Home, Ram wanted me to call it Narsing Medical Home. Narsing is a Munda name popular among the Adivasis – it was also the name that had belonged to Ram’s father. Ram was playful that way. He said that just because of the name my clinic would be liked among his people. I accepted his suggestion.
My assistant at the government clinic agreed to work for me part-time, she continued. His job was to come in the evenings and serve as dispenser of medicines and blood tests. He was from Deoghar and his name was Adishankar. His wife had died recently and he had a little daughter. She came to the clinic with him and kept us amused, dancing the little filmi numbers, her hips moving this way and that. Adishankar was an efficient man, good at administering injections or swabs but also handy with tools. The table fan is making a ticking noise? Let Adishankar take a look! There is a water leak? Wait for Adishankar. If I rented a car, for myself or a patient, Adishankar was there as a driver. He had of course never owned a car, and he had never been employed as a driver before. Where had he learned to drive? I asked him but he just smiled.
I also had a female nurse, who was Adivasi like Ram, and also like him a Christian convert. She has remained with me all these years, a small, hard-working woman, ten or twelve years younger than me. Her name was Maryam. Over the years, I began to think of her as my shadow. So many times, when I was delivering a baby, or performing a minor surgery, I felt that she knew already what I was going to do next.
The story I want to tell you is about change, and the first inkling I got of it came from Maryam. She told me one morning that she had eaten a heavy meal the previous day. This was most probably in August or September in 1990. I remember that Rajiv Gandhi was the prime minister. He hadn’t been killed in that bomb blast yet. I asked Maryam to tell me about the occasion for the feast. She said that her brother Peter had become a Hindu at a ceremony organised by his employer. Everyone had been fed. There was a feast with rice, dal, two different vegetables. For dessert, sweet jalebis. A priest had done a puja. Peter had been given a new name. His name was now Ramsewak. Maryam began to laugh. She said that Peter’s employer, Anil Sharma, had washed Peter’s feet before the puja. The washing of the feet signified that after a long journey Peter had returned home: he wasn’t a Christian anymore and was back to being a Hindu. It could be argued that the Adivasis had never really been Hindus, but politicians like Sharma had their theories.
Peter now had three names. The name that the padre called him and which was on his ration card; the new name that the diku Sharma gave him; and his oldest name, his tribal name, Donka, that he had from his childhood. Maryam thought it was funny that all the four men who were converted were Anil Sharma’s employees. Peter drove one of the two buses that Sharma owned; another, an Oraon man, was the cleaner on the other bus; and two others worked in Sharma’s grocery store, Mata Top Quality Kirana.
Long before Peter started working for him, Anil Sharma had come to my clinic. By the town’s standards he was a prosperous man, but he had a rough look. His family owned a gas station in Jamshedpur, and his older brother was active in politics there. Sharma’s two buses plied the route daily between Ranchi, Khunti and Jamshedpur. When Sharma came to see me at the clinic the first time, he had in his hand what looked like a wad of raffle tickets. But no, he was collecting donations for our local Hanuman temple and for organising devotional meetings during which the faithful would sing bhajans. He wrote out the amount you donated and gave it to you with a flourish that suggested you had bought a ticket to heaven.
Sharma was chewing paan and wearing a yellow polyester shirt unbuttoned at the top. He implied, or did he say it more explicitly, that I had enough money to support the community because I had carried out abortions.
But abortions had been legal for more than a decade! I don’t think I pointed this out to Sharma in response. I guess I was numb with surprise or fright. A schoolteacher had recently come to me wanting an abortion because she said she had been raped by a colleague who taught physics at her school. She didn’t want anyone to know. Had word got around? Did Sharma have something to do with what had happened to her? There was another case. A local railway official’s wife, newly married, had also wanted an abortion. She said she would like to be able to tell her husband that she had suffered a miscarriage. I went ahead and did what she wanted.
Now, Sharma was sitting in my clinic making what seemed like a veiled threat. I felt I was being blackmailed just because I wanted to protect my patients. I stayed quiet for a few seconds, but Sharma was already trying a different method of attack. He said he was sure that my husband Ram supported his church, that the local Christian church had a lovely, shining dome, and wouldn’t it be nice if I also supported the house of worship of my own faith. The Christian church got money from Germany, from the far-off United States, he said, how was Hinduism to survive without support either from outside or inside the country?
I found Anil Sharma bullying and insulting. I don’t think I had ever met anyone who inspired so much anger in me even when he hadn’t said a word yet. I think it had to do with his brazenness. He was a rude and unsavoury character. When he produced his badly printed pink ticket, I didn’t want trouble and so I thought it better to pay a large amount and get rid of him. Our friend, the magistrate, was long gone. He had been promoted and had been given a desk job in Patna in the rural development department. I would have been ashamed to tell him what was happening in our town. Each Dussehra, I made the payment that Anil Sharma wanted and if there was some relief for me, it was that for several years, till Peter’s death, Sharma didn’t come to the clinic himself but sent Peter with that scrap of paper that looked like a raffle ticket and which I quickly threw away.
Maryam and I had both thought it funny that Peter had to change his name. Maryam is nothing if not a practical person and she accepted what Peter had done. What she hadn’t expected, and what surprised her, was how Peter himself would change. He was ambitious, he was making money from his driving, and he wanted to please Sharma. I was told that on the six-to-eight-hour round trips on the bus each day, he would play for his passengers these cassettes of so-called holy men and women delivering fiery lectures on how Hindus had been crushed by Muslim invaders and their temples destroyed. Peter learned from these cassettes that after arriving on these shores the foreign missionaries had destroyed the culture of the Adivasi tribals by converting them to the Christian faith. His passengers heard these lectures too, and whether they believed it or not, Peter told Anil Sharma repeatedly that he understood that his return to Hinduism was indeed a homecoming.
During that time there were riots in parts of the country but not in Khunti. Although there was trouble in Jamshedpur and curfew was imposed also in Ranchi, we were left untouched.
Yet the following year, during Holi, there was a clash in town. A group of youths in a car threw colour on strangers in a lane and shouted slogans that led to a fight. It was a scuffle between Hindus and Muslims and, as the fighting heated up through the day, Anil Sharma and his men got involved. Peter too. I should tell you that Peter wasn’t religious at all. The devotional meetings and bhajans were not for him. He liked that he had influence, and he certainly wanted power. I’m sure he entered the fray in order to play a role in the violence and emerge victorious. Unfortunately, the scuffle took a bad turn. A Hindu man lost an eye. By that night, everyone was in a frenzy.
I was told that Sharma was roaming the town in an open jeep haranguing small groups of Hindu youths to kill Muslims. An eye for an eye was the slogan now. Swords, spears, iron rods were put on display. The new magistrate, a young Sikh fellow, saw the conflict spilling out of control when Sharma’s procession reached the Muslim area and the mob torched a police vehicle. The magistrate ordered the policemen to fire over the heads of the rioting mob. But a bullet found Peter. Overnight, he became a martyr.
For Maryam, there was the pain and grief of losing her brother. But what was a different kind of pain was that Peter was taken away from her and turned into a symbol. Despite the curfew, two men from Sharma’s kirana store came to ask Maryam for a photograph of her brother. She gave it to them. In no time, the photograph had been enlarged, framed and garlanded. In the Hanuman Temple near the town’s central chowk, the photograph sat on a wooden stool. Incense sticks lent the air a sickly sweet odour. A Hindu shrine had sprung up around Peter’s framed portrait and the police didn’t dare remove it. Anil Sharma had a new loudspeaker installed over the temple and people sang bhajans. The state elections were still eight months away and people began talking about how Sharma would be the most popular candidate from the area. Just around then I began hearing from my husband’s students that he would make a good rival candidate but Ram dismissed the proposal. I hated the idea, sure that it would spell trouble.
The groom’s party was now making an entry into the hotel. The doctor said that she would talk to me after we had witnessed the preliminary ceremony. We both moved with the crowd to greet the guests. A wide, curving ramp led from the pool to the path below where the groom’s party had gathered. Satish’s soon-to-be son-in-law’s name was Paritosh. He was seated on a horse which stood at the bottom of the crowded ramp. A small stool with three steps had been placed by the animal’s side but there was to be a wait as a few rituals needed to be performed. Paritosh worked for Google in San Francisco where he presumably used a car instead of a horse. I assumed that his life was distant from a past in which anyone dressed in a knee-length sherwani and wore a bejewelled sword at the waist. But he now sat astride the horse with those trappings and a tall magenta turban on his head. Over his face fell a curtain of small white jasmine blossoms: the groom, like a woman lifting a veil in a Rajasthani miniature, parted the strings of jasmine every two minutes to acknowledge a friend or a family member. His teeth were perfectly white and the impression of his smile lingered under the jasmine.
Did the doctor guess what I was thinking? Handsome boy, she said.
She was still looking at the groom. She added, Ram used to say that the difference between Christians and Hindus is that while Christians put a Christmas tree in their homes, the Hindus plant one on a horse and bring it home to marry their daughter.
That line belonged in an op-ed! Dear editor, There is such unity in our difference…
I said to Dr Ghosal, I would have enjoyed meeting Ram.
I spoke those words with great sincerity because I meant them. The doctor looked up at me, not out of surprise, but simply out of a sense of shared feeling, a feeling perhaps also of deep loss.
She said, It is very crowded here. Let’s go back and sit down. I want to tell you a story about Ram.
Inside, in the lounge, the doctor began to speak again.
Ram was a complicated man, she said. I complained that the Adivasis were being fed lies by these people like Anil Sharma who distributed cassettes that distorted history. Ram must have been concerned but he was quite calm about it. He said that his hero Birsa Munda had told his followers that the guns of the British police would turn to wood and their bullets become water. Were they not lies? There is no field of politics where truth is a given and everyone agrees on it. For their part, Birsa’s followers believed that the authorities couldn’t arrest Birsa. He would turn into a log of wood. Even after his arrest, there were all sorts of rumours. That there was only a body of clay in the cell, Birsa had escaped and taken refuge in heaven.
I guess Ram was saying one couldn’t be fanatical about truth, the doctor said.
She went on, I tried to argue with him. What about the conversions or counter-conversions – were they not attempts to spread hate? Here again he appeared unperturbed. If a man or woman saw reason to convert to Christianity, or for that matter, to Hinduism, if that is what it was that Anil Sharma wanted him to do, Ram thought it was okay. Birsa too had converted to Christianity and then gone back to his traditional Adivasi faith, worshipping his Bonga-Buru, and even then, his method of preaching was what he had learned in the Christian missions. Birsa was also influenced by the Vaishnav preachers and wore a dhoti dyed in turmeric and the sacred thread worn by many Hindus. And, let’s not forget he also attacked the priesthood of the tribal bongas.
Ram’s strategy was to always argue against a too rigid or what he called authoritarian definition of culture or history. In the public gatherings organised by newspapers or the district administration, he became a trickster figure embarrassing his opponents by pointing out how reality or our lived existence was so much richer than what their ideology dictated.
Ram had enemies on all sides. Once, Maryam reported that during a meeting in town Anil Sharma’s brother from Jamshedpur had pointed to Ram’s picture in the newspaper and asked why the caption didn’t say that this was the poisonous snake of the forest, the Nag or the King Cobra. I didn’t tell Ram this. He lived in his own world. He was trying to teach his students, poor and from a background without books, with limited resources in a provincial college, the writings of philosophers like Jacques Rancière and Michel Foucault. One summer he adapted, in both Hindi and Mundari, Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem. He was a great admirer of the novels of Albert Camus. I’m painting him as someone very serious. Ram would joke that he is exactly the kind of Adivasi that the government in Delhi wants to display on Republic Day. He would say, I’m a living, walking, talking, dancing stereotype. Ram loved the taste of mahua and would accept it at any hour of the day. And when he was really drunk, especially during festivals, he danced through the night.
People have become more aware of their rights; but I wonder whether we know more of our own history. Once at a gathering organised by a municipal councillor, Ram said that what had happened in the country during our first war of independence in 1857 had been inverted in recent times in the drive to build a temple at Ayodhya. When Ram presented this analysis, and was leaving the meeting, someone threw a brick at him. It hit his shoulder and I was just thankful it missed his head. I didn’t look at the brick again but I was later told that these were special bricks with जय श्री राम written on them in Hindi. These bricks were headed to Ayodhya where they would be used to build a Ram temple.
I have told you so much, the doctor said. I should stop now.
The mention of the brick thrown at her husband’s head had an ominous ring to it. I said, Doctor, if you don’t mind me asking, how did Ram die?
She looked at me. We have been trained to talk about death, we are used to it, she said. But I’m tired. Let’s talk tomorrow. Satish has made me sign up for yoga with the bride’s aunts. But I’ll be free in the afternoon.
When I woke up in the morning, I was conscious that I had been dreaming. But I couldn’t recall more than a detail or two. I was on a bus. There had been an accident on the road. I knew I was in India. While I was safe, maybe the bus or another vehicle had killed an animal. The passengers disembarked and there was a roadside dhaba nearby selling tea and sweets. Flies buzzed around the plates of sweets. I wanted to sip my tea but the milk had curdled and I threw it away.
With free time before me, I sat at my computer and searched for Ram Naresh Nag. I found a picture of him playing the flute. Then I saw a story with the headline ‘Adivasi Scholar and Activist Murdered’. I didn’t feel like reading the story. The temptation was strong but I decided I would return to it after I had spoken to the doctor. A few seconds passed. I asked myself if I should search online for the doctor’s name. I hesitated because while the doctor knew that I was a writer I hadn’t told her that I was already shaping a story about her in my head. She didn’t know and most likely didn’t even suspect that I was sitting in the hotel room contemplating searching online for the details of her life which I would then make public.
Promptly at three, as we had decided, I saw the doctor coming towards me in the hotel’s restaurant. She looked altered, as if she has aged more during the night. Maybe it was only tiredness owing to travel and the setting. I got up from my chair and asked her if she was well.
No, she said plainly. But here we are.
She asked for tea.
As I watched the waiter pour the doctor’s tea the thought that came to me, clearly and unexpectedly, was that of course she was the one who had brought me into the world. She was the only doctor – certainly the only gynaecologist – in Khunti. Who else would have helped my mother?
A silence grew between us.
Thank you for talking to me last night, I said to her after a while. You were telling me about your husband when we parted.
I remember, she said. I was thinking all night about what I wanted to tell you. I’m not a writer. It is not always easy to line up the past so that it leads to the present.
I waited when she fell silent and then she spoke again after gathering her thoughts.
When Ram died in March 1997, I kept doing my work at the clinic, even though I felt hollowed-out, not just alone but also very old. For the first time in my life, I felt exhausted. Maryam was my big support, never shirking her duties, and yet finding the resources to attend to me too. There were other blows. Three years after my husband’s death, Adishankar, my assistant, discovered that he had cancer. All those years of smoking. We had worked together for close to thirty years. I was stricken. His wife had long been dead and the daughter who had been his life had been married for a few years. I looked at the X-rays and the report he brought from the oncologist in Ranchi. It looked bad. One month, three months? I told him that he should rest at home. We would take care of things in the clinic and we would also take care of him. He fell at my feet, crying. I thought he was afraid of a painful death – who wouldn’t be? But no, he was asking for forgiveness.
I kept asking him what he wanted to apologise for, but for a long time I couldn’t hear him above his crying.
He said that some men had come to his house one night during Dussehra, back when Ram was still alive. They had taken him to the home of an inspector in the Home Guards. The man’s name was Suresh Yadav. Anil Sharma was there too. They were waiting for him. The policeman Yadav first asked Adishankar if he recognised Anil Sharma. Sharma was friendly at first. You do good work at the clinic, he said to Adishankar. You are going to get your daughter married off soon. If you need help, if you want to hire our guest house, let me know. We will give it to you cheaply.
Adishankar said he stood with his hands folded. No, maalik, I don’t need anything, sir.
At which Anil Sharma laughed. He said to Adishankar, But I need something from you.
By now Adishankar had stopped crying. He could not meet my eyes. He still sat on the ground, and addressed my feet.
Anil Sharma had said to him that he needed to discuss the matter of Ram Naresh Nag. Sharma told Adishankar that he needed to talk to Ram for ten minutes in private. He had tried, he said, but not succeeded. This talk was necessary. It was urgent.
Sharma said, But you drive him sometimes from one place to another, don’t you?
Adishankar began wailing now, the doctor said, but I don’t know whether I could even hear him above the thumping of my own heart. After all these months and years, I was finally learning how Ram died.
The doctor said she made an attempt to come back to the present. Why didn’t you tell me, Adishankar? Why didn’t you tell the police?
He tried to touch my feet again.
Why? I must have been shouting by now, she said. He looked at me for the first time. He said, Bola ki hamari beti ko uttha lega. Hum ko phir khali uska nanga body dekhne ko milega. They said they would take my daughter away. That the next time I saw her it would be her naked corpse I would be looking at.
I didn’t want to hear any more. I told Adishankar to go away. The very next day, the deputy superintendent of police and a magistrate went to his home. He gave a sworn statement describing how he had gone late one evening to Anil Sharma’s shop and told him, while buying a prepaid calling card, that the next morning at eight he was to drive my new car to Tamar. There was no further conversation.
In the morning, Adishankar drove out with Ram. A few minutes after eight, just where the road splits left for Dasam Falls, two men stepped out on the road, waving down at the ground. Adishankar hadn’t even come to a stop before they opened the doors and quickly got inside. One sat in the front and the other at the back. From what he heard the man in the backseat say, Adishankar could guess that the stranger was pointing a gun at Ram. The man in the front, maybe thirty-five years old, a diku with a light beard, slapped Adishankar.
Drive, haraami bastard.
They drove for five minutes before they asked Adishankar to stop and wait on the other side of the road for a bus that would bring him back to Khunti. Adishankar told the magistrate that he had taken the bus as directed and he had come to report the matter to me at the clinic.
I should tell you what happened when Adishankar had made his sudden appearance that morning, looking wild-eyed, telling me how two strangers had taken Ram away. I called the superintendent of police, a young and decent man named Menon. He said he would alert the police at the checkpoints on all highways. He also sent me his official jeep to bring me to the police station. By the time I reached there, Menon and his team were getting ready to leave.
Please wait here, Menon said to me. We have received some information. Would you like tea?
I said I didn’t want tea. I told Menon, You will have to take me with you. Please.
Did we drive outside town for fifteen minutes? Twenty? The driver had switched on the siren in the jeep and I found the noise deafening. There was no conversation among the men. Then, a man seated in the back said, Yes, drive to the left. I can see it.
I could see nothing. My car, which I had bought six months earlier, was a red Maruti. The police jeep drew close to a car that was a mix of pale brown and grey. About twenty villagers stood nearby. Speaking either to me or his constables, the superintendent of police said, Dekhiye, metal bahut garam hoga. The metal will be very hot.
I’m a doctor. It seems I see death every day. But this was new to me. The glass on the windows of the car had exploded or melted, I don’t know, and I was to believe that instead of a tall man with beautiful, nearly shoulder-length hair, the charred, unrecognisable skeleton inside was my husband. No. The police officer’s hand was on my arm, but I only wanted to say no. Can you be sure? It was only a minute ago, well, just that morning that I had seen Ram wearing a light-blue, half-sleeve shirt, and a navy-blue vest. This sounds terrible but I thought they had set fire to a short Adivasi man – Mundas aren’t tall, though Ram was. He also had lighter skin. How could Ram have shrunk like this? Instead of my red car there was this ash-brown thing – except that you could see flecks of still-red paint in the front, especially in the middle of the hood.
Everyone was standing back. In my mind, or maybe even out loud, I kept saying No, no. Instead of this no, all the silent people around me were waiting for me to say yes and to make it all real for them. But does horror become real because you are told that they had locked the doors of the Maruti before throwing a burning rag in the fuel tank? No. It never became real to me. And it never became real enough for others either. So three years after the crime had been committed, on the basis of a dying man’s confession, the government authorities arrested Anil Sharma. His lawyer argued that the case was baseless and, besides, his client was suffering from diabetes and should be released. Sharma was in prison for two months and then the government accepted defeat. No other witness would come forward; the police never found the men who had abducted Ram in the car and then murdered him; the defence produced witnesses who exonerated Sharma. Adishankar also died. During his last days, I took care of him – I was helped by his daughter who had meant the world to him when he was alive.
Dear Editor, There is no justice, just us.
The doctor was catching a flight to Delhi, and then after spending two days there she was going to board a flight to Ranchi. I knew I would never see her again. She had been generous, extremely so, in talking to me, a stranger. Was I being vain in imagining that she had narrated her story to a writer so that it could be shared with others? I waited another day. Then, sitting down at my computer I searched online for her name. There was nothing except a link on the Dainik Jagran website, in the regional Jharkhand issue of the Hindi paper, a report from some years back. A small, not very consequential report, and yet, I felt it important to extend our conversation further just a bit. Perhaps distance or time would provide a different conclusion to our story. To emphasise this point, I sent the doctor an email inquiring, in the manner of the conventional journalistic interviewer, whether she had any regrets about her past. I also asked her to comment on the newspaper report. I told her I would write a report called ‘Narsing Medical’ about how a remote town fell under the sway of a violent and extremist way of thinking. I wasn’t sure how good a correspondent she would be but after four days I saw her reply in my inbox.
Under the subject line Re: Narsing Medical, she had written, I am happy to have had the chance to talk to you. In the normal course of my life, given the pace of work, and the wretched conditions in which people around me survived, it is impossible and even unnecessary to examine one’s motives. I have not been a character in my story, but you made me see myself as one in what I was telling you.
The news item you have mentioned refers to the death of a thirty-year-old woman in my clinic. It is accurate in telling us that she had lost a child in an accident at the Panchghagh Falls. What is its point? That a woman who had suffered a calamity was then not saved at my clinic? I cannot speculate on the motives. The reporter was searching, if you pardon the pun, for a cause.
What he has missed is the extraordinary events that happened prior to the woman’s tragic death. The woman’s child was three years old. He fell into the water when his mother’s foot slipped on a rock at the Panchghagh. The water moves very fast there. It was Christmas and so there was a big crowd at the waterfalls. But others got involved too. All along the narrow river, at regular intervals, ten or twelve men formed a slow-moving line, everyone joined by a rope they held in their hands, using their feet as net to catch the boy. They found the child’s body, so that the parents’ agony could find a resting place. Even in that short time, the river fish had already eaten his eyes and the father said that the boy’s eyes had been received by the river goddess. I was just impressed that long before the police could act, the people had got together and helped find the boy.
The mother was brought to the clinic because she was in pain. She was clutching her stomach. Her brother felt that she had hurt herself during her fall. But the woman told me that this pain, nearly unbearable, had been with her for several days. The smallest pressure on her abdomen where the appendix is located made her cry out in pain. There was no time to lose. I asked Maryam to prepare her for surgery. But it was too late. Her appendix had already ruptured, the abdominal cavity was severely inflamed, and the infection had spread. We gave her antibiotics but to no avail. She was also anaemic. A history of abdominal disorders as well as her recent attack of pneumonia suggested a weak immune system. I couldn’t save her.
I am a doctor. My job is to heal. What has perplexed me so much all my life as a healer is that I have seen the most violent, the most brutal people, I’m talking now of those who have the actual power, act as if they are the ones carrying the biggest wound in their histories and in their hearts. Can you please explain this to me?
If I was conceited about my work, or particularly stupid, I would imagine that the good doctor was asking me to write an op-ed. But that is not what she was asking. I returned to the rest of her email.
When I look at these people, she wrote, and some of our leaders are among them, I feel that theirs is a wound I can never heal because there is no medicine for bad faith. These are people who are lying to others and they are also lying to themselves. No mirror in the world can show them their true face. And at the end of the day, this knowledge is the only medicine I now have.
You have asked me if I have any regrets. In my professional life? No. In my personal life? Yes. I wish I could have saved Ram.
Less than three years after Ram was killed, there were riots in Gujarat. Everyone knows of the two thousand Muslims murdered by mobs of zealots but there was a Hindu woman killed in the riots who has a near-sacred place in my heart. I read about her in the papers. Her name was Geetaben. She was lynched in Ahmedabad, her clothes torn off, her head bashed in with a brick. They did this to her because she was trying to defend her Muslim lover. They gave a Bharat Ratna award to the man who was prime minister at that time, and there were no awards for the dead woman, and, one could add, no help for her either. So, please, put that at the top of my list of regrets. I regret not being there, as a woman, as a citizen, and as a Hindu, although I don’t know what that even means these days, to help Geetaben. I regret not having been Geetaben for Ram.
Amitava Kumar is a writer and journalist. He was born in Ara, India, and grew up in the nearby town of Patna, famous for its corruption, crushing poverty and delicious mangoes. Kumar is the author of the novels Immigrant, Montana and A Time Outside This Time, as well as several other books of non-fiction and […]Read more