Translated from the Hindi by Rituparna Mukherjee
The bridge seems to connect two worlds…
As soon as I get out of the school, darkness has fallen; there was an inspection, and all the important papers needed to be sent right after. I don’t really prefer being the in-charge principal on the weekends, because whenever that happens, there is quite a lot of work. I usually leave for the city on Saturdays and by that time, my mind gets bored with everything here. I will have to drive my car for hours. I am headed to my destination driving slowly through the muddy, broken road. I have left the village of the Bhil community behind, there are scarcely one or two people and pets or cattle visible; my heart skips a beat. I should really have left sooner. I cannot drive my car any faster on this road. The roads are pitched but they are in such terrible condition that one wonders if the contractors have a lot of supporters in the province. The capital allocates a lot of money to this distant province but the money roams the hands of many middlemen, making them rich, the Adivasis meanwhile remain as they are.
My family was overjoyed when I finally got the job of a teacher in a government school this year. My relatives started saying that I must have done something extraordinary in my previous birth to be so fortunate as to get a government job in this one. My first posting was far away from the city, amidst the Adivasis, but my relatives asked me to have courage—adjust for a few days and then apply for a transfer. I stay in one of the rooms in the school. I have purchased an old car with which I cross the hills, rivers, forests and valley every weekend and head to my home in the city.
I am slowly driving down the hillside. The road will become better once I reach the bridge across the river. And once I cross the forest and the valley and take the national highway, I don’t need to worry. But my heart always beats faster on this particular hill. I become aware that this car is second-hand; if I try to drive it too fast, it might break down. I don’t know how to drive that well either. Sometimes I think of getting myself a driver and travelling the distance every day. At least at night, I would get to be with my pregnant wife, with my unborn child, in the comforts of my home. But the immense cost of the entire affair stops me. My wife now wants to separate from our joint family. She is saving every penny to buy a flat here and I… I drive my second-hand car, despite being a poor driver, against my wishes.
I can see the bridge now, and the large banyan tree by its side. I had tied a thread on one of its long prop roots last Monday on my way back to school. Ever since my wife came to know about this banyan tree, she has wanted me to tie a thread on one of the prop roots, conveying our heartfelt wishes. I didn’t have the heart to deny her wish, but I personally do not believe in these things. Its all wasteful superstition! Now-a-days, I quietly listen to every word she says and sometimes obey them as well. Especially since she has been saying this for a long time and that day after a narrow escape from a terrible accident, I not only tied the proverbial thread but also wrote out an application sitting by the bridge. Respected Education Minister, please transfer me to my home town or else transfer me so far that I cannot travel to my home on weekends. My wife does not want to stay with me in the place of my current posting nor can she stay more than four or six days away because of my child. I felt emotional while writing that application. I love my wife, my unborn child a lot, and she doesn’t ask for much! Just that I arrange for a transfer to my home city and live happily with my family. She had spent many an inconvenient and insulting day in the joint family while I worked as a part-time teacher. It is now my duty to… I crumpled the application and threw it from the bridge into the river. While throwing away the paper, I cast a fleeting glance at the river and was immediately taken. It was an enchanting river—the rock-filled, wild river flowed down with a soothing sound, its waters transparent, sparkling. I wondered how elixir looked—probably looked like this. I don’t know how long I would have stared at the beauty of the sight when I heard someone calling.
“Babuji, are you planning to give up your life?”
When I turned, I saw a shepherd with his flock of sheep.
“I am just looking at the flowing water; not planning to give my life.”
“Even if you don’t plan on doing it, it will take yours, as it has of many. I would advise you to leave immediately.”
He stood there as though he was the protector of my life.
“Water gives life.”
“I am not talking about the water, just the place where you are standing.”
“Place!” I laughed; then glanced at my watch on my wrist. I hurried. I wanted to reach school at least before the second half began. I was the teacher-in-charge for the week. I moved towards my car. He said from behind, “I sacrifice chickens every year and goats every third year. Otherwise none of my sheep will get out alive from this place.”
I don’t know what else he might have said, I left the place. I now think that his words about that place were quite interesting.
And the place was right in front of me. The babbling sound in the dense darkness signaled the presence of the living waters. Had it been a moonlit night, I would have stopped and stared at the beauty of the river. But the night was so dark that one could scarcely make out one’s own hands. I don’t exactly remember what my wife was telling me about the phone… is it dead? She must be waiting for me for long now, I drive my car forward cautiously.
Someone is standing next to the banyan tree by the bridge. Who is it? Must be someone. I don’t think it prudent to stop the car. I have moved forward but is the shadow of the individual moving along or is it someone else? It could be someone in desperate need, it could be a robber. But what do I have that would interest a thief? The second-hand car, my wrist watch that I got on my marriage, my cellphone that keeps shutting down, or the two thousand rupees in my wallet that seems to fly away faster than I can keep a track. Or is he after my life? I have heard many people from the city being victims of robberies in this particular place. I move my car forward and then abruptly stop. There’s a teacher in me after all. Once a teacher, always a teacher. It is often hard for professionals to discern when the profession subsumes life itself. I shift the things on the seat beside me to the back of the car. During the surprise inspection in school earlier today, the clerk had hurriedly kept the incomplete files in my car. The attendance register and a few other documents were also kept along with the files. If I forget the register at home, the entire next week will be spoiled. This is a needless hassle.
I opened the door to the empty seat beside me and allowed the shadow to enter. As soon as he takes the seat, I move the car forward. I pretend to be nonchalant to the other person as if offering lifts to strangers in the darkness was routine for me.
“It will be really kind of you to drop me at the next valley.”
The man was speaking and I tried to gauge him from his voice. He appeared to be a man of work, an Adivasi who was aware of the ways of the city.
“What were you doing there in such darkness?”
I merely ask this question to have a normal conversation. I feel better at having company in the midst of this forest. He answers my question with a question himself, with a degree of familiarity as if he knows me quite well, “You are late today, masterji?”
“Yes, today… do you know me?” saying this, I wonder at the redundancy of my question, of course everyone knows school teachers in such a small place.
“The child that you helped to get admitted to the hospital the other day, Jugnu, I am his father.”
“Oh, alright.” Accepting his gratitude, I began to think about the events of that day. While taking my usual evening stroll, I saw the tribesmen pressing the neck of a small boy deep into the mud and dung. He was my student. On moving closer, I found out that the boy had been electrocuted and the simple-minded, illiterate locals tried to keep him stable by putting his head to the ground, waiting for the arrival of a witch-doctor for treatment.
“He will die this way. Take him out of the mud immediately. I am getting my car. Hurry.”
I had scolded the group as if all of them were my students. They hurriedly placed the child in the back of my car and an old tribeswoman sat beside him.
“Is there no one else with him?”
“Just his grandmother, sir Bansakhiya Bau.”
I took the grandmother and her grandchild to the hospital where fortunately for the child, a nurse was present otherwise the officers in these government buildings vanish as easily as wheels from a car. Before returning, I gave the old grandmother, Bansakhiya, two hundred rupees. After reaching the school, I asked the caretaker to wash my car which was full of mud and dung. I didn’t think the matter significant enough to inform other people. I kept thinking how desperately the place, the people needed more teachers. And I had forgotten about this matter, but today, while the boy’s father is sitting right beside me, I ask, “Where were you at that time?”
“I was there.”
I thought to myself that perhaps he had gone to get some help and by the time I had reached out to help the grandmother and her grandchild, he didn’t approach me in hesitation. Whatever it was, I ask, “How is the child now?”
“You have saved him.” he says with folded hands.
I keep driving in silence. I am stressed as usual. My wife will start the same topic of my transfer as soon as I reach home.
“You will receive your transfer, masterji.” says the man next to me.
“Has anyone in the village said that I am trying for a transfer?”
I feel both angry with myself and upset. I often listen to stories from the old caretaker by the fire after school, and talk about myself as well. I have never considered what a tattle-tale the old caretaker could be.
“Anyone who comes here wants a transfer.”
“You will get your transfer as well.”
“Yes, it will happen sometime or other.”
“I firmly believe that once you reach home today, you will find the letter on your table.”
I laugh at his words; this simple Adivasi is giving me such good wishes just because I helped his child out.
“Should it happen as you say, I will give thrice my salary…”
As soon as these words come out of my mouth, I stop; how can a teacher speak this way! Only God will understand under what circumstances I had bribed my brother-in-law’s friend, a middleman.
“But masterji…” he tells me.
“If every masterji takes a transfer and leaves this place, who will teach our children?”
How do I answer this question; it feels as if someone has spoken in the voice of my conscience. I keep driving steadily keeping my eyes fixed on the roads of the jungle. Fireflies light tiny splashes of darkness, I hear the sounds of animals nearby. The air carries the intoxicating smell of roots and herbs that can even bring the dead to life. How far does my complicated life allow me to get outside to experience this ancient beauty! Even so, I am after all a part of all of this.
There seems to be something dead lying in front of the car.
“No, don’t stop the car.”
He says that in such a cold voice that I don’t stop the car even though I am almost about to; I become suddenly agitated.
“Could that have been an accident? He might be alive. Shouldn’t we stop?” I don’t know why I am asking this stranger everything.
“That was nothing. Keep driving.”
“Was that an animal then?”
“It was an illusion.”
I become absolutely quiet.
When we reached the opening to the valley, he says, “Please stop here.”
“Where will you go from here in such darkness?”
I have heard the old caretaker talk of many old legends about this particular isolated valley, stories that I have often dismissed as local folklore.
I cannot stop myself from asking. He is looking in all directions, and says with worry creeping into his voice, like one who cares for me, “You had better leave immediately. Go absolutely straight on the road. Do not stop.”
I make my way forward along the highway. Where will he go in such darkness?
My colleague, Anandnath, accompanied me one Saturday and he kept referring to scary stories. When we had stopped for some tea at a kiosk near the bridge, he said that ghosts often roam the area all the way to the forest and there was a hidden village populated by ghosts somewhere nearby. I pointed out a makeshift path leading away from the highway. Of course, there must be some denizens living in the deep forest. Why would ghosts need pathways? But Anandnath clung so obstinately to his argument that I resigned midway. He said that just the dirt road was visible, never a village, never any villagers, even the shepherds who would lose their way never made it back from that place.
Thinking about all this has made me stressed. I drive with extra caution. I am relieved on seeing the bright lights of my city and all worry leaves me by the time I reach home.
“These letters have come for you. Have a look. I am setting the plates for dinner.”
I go through the letters and see a government envelope which takes my breath away for a second or two. I have guessed correctly—it is the order letter for my transfer. I am really shocked—how can someone be so accurate in his prediction?
I pull myself up somehow. Do I tell my wife? I recall the words by Jugnu’s father, “If all teachers leave, who will teach our children?”
I should be happy, why does my heart feel unbearably heavy? Why am I considering cancelling my transfer?
“You are still sitting in this condition? Please wash your face and hands.”
My wife stands in front of me with a glass of water but I feel uncomfortable in her presence.
“I ought to get the stuff from my car.”
I lift the laptop bag from the backseat when I glance at the files. I take the attendance register and come inside. I don’t know what prompts me to look for the name of my student’s father. What was the name of the child that he had said—Jugnu?
I turn the pages. I come to the list of the students of class three where I spot Jugnu Pardhi’s name. There are three students by this name—the first one’s father is late Parvat Pardhi, the second is Cheeta Pardhi, and the third child’s father is called late Meghraj Pardhi.
Now I wonder if it was Cheeta Pardhi who I met today, what was he doing in the valley next to the bridge in such darkness?