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Contagion – Ajay Navaria

May 8, 2021 | Fiction, Front And Center | 0 comments

Translated from the Hindi by Umesh Kumar Dubey

Milind looked out the window as the plane made a landing, and he saw the city of Tokyo, bathed in the rays of the rising sun. From this vantage point, it seemed to be a masterpiece by an accomplished artist.
Just as the aircraft was touching down, there was a cabin announcement, asking all those who were flying in from India to cooperate with the authorities and sign up, post landing, for a medical check-up. Milind knew that India was reeling under a contagion caused by a virus, though he was not aware that everyone traveling from India was being asked to get themselves checked out. It took some time, as a couple of his fellow passengers were found suffering from a light fever. They were detained at the airport for further investigation. This was the first time they had seen such a bright morning. As they looked around, their eyes fell automatically on a cleaner, cleaning the walls. This person was beloved, and was silently absorbed in his work, detached from the world around him.
They walked out of the airport, in deliberate steps. There was a small crowd waiting outside, looking for their acquaintances and guests. Some were carrying placards in their hands. Even as Milind looked for his name in the displays, he heard somebody calling for “Mr. Milind Bharati”. Milind turned towards the voice, and he saw a Japanese gentleman waving his hands. He continued in that direction. As Milind reached him, the man put out his hand and said, “Jai Bheem, Mr. Milind”. Milind responded with “Jai Bheem”, albeit a bit surprised and grabbed the proffered hand.
The Japanese gentleman smiled to see the surprise on his face and said (in Hindi), “I know Hindi. I have read your autobiography and some of your other works. My name is Professor Hideaki Ishida and I teach Hindi language and literature here.”
“How long have you been a professor, Ishida san?” asked Milind while simultaneously dragging his suitcase onward. Milind was aware the affix “san” was a respectful form of address in Japan, just like “ji” was in Hindi.
Professor Ishida smiled on hearing the term “san”. “I shall be retiring this December. I will be sixty-five,” he said.

Once again Milind was surprised. He gazed anew at him, and then blushed, sensing the bulge of his own stomach.
“You should be around twenty-five years junior to me, Milind ji,” said Ishida san, as he moved ahead with long strides.
The slight chill in the morning air was still present and made him shiver a bit. Though the sun was brighter, and it seemed to be warming up, the air was still cold and one couldn’t do without a coat or jacket.
Japan, or Nippon – the Land of the Rising Sun in Japanese, was buzzing with activity, even though it was early morning. There was a lovely smell around the city of Tokyo; the entire city was engulfed in the fragrance of Sakura blossoms, just like a beloved who is held in her lover’s arms. Sakura flowers bloomed for just two months, March and April, before they disappeared for the rest of the year, leaving the city and its ecosystem pining for its lover to return.
Originally, he was to come in February, but he had the organizers shift his visit to the end of March. He knew Sakura would be in blossom by that time. He had also read through the collection “March, Ma aur Sakura” by the Hindi writer Gitanjali-shree, along with some other works, before embarking on this trip.
They both waited for the bus that was to take them from the airport to the city center. They traveled an hour to reach the Tokyo Metro station. Another hour and two changes of trains later, they reached the hotel.
“As most of the directions are in Japanese, I don’t think I would be able to move around on my own,” Milind said. He had noticed that the signs on the Underground were in Japanese and had kept quiet about it, but could not avoid blurting this out on finding the AC remote markings in the same script.
Professor Ishida adjusted the air conditioner and set the temperature. “Yes, it is so. But don’t worry, we have made all arrangements for you. You are our distinguished guest for the next five days. The Japanese translation of your novel is widely read here, the students and teachers are all looking forward to meeting you. They are eager to learn about the life of Dalits. They won’t let you be alone.”

During the conversation, Professor Ishida explained that he had lived in places like Maharashtra, Varanasi and Delhi, so he had some idea of these issues. He had visited the Dalit areas in Mumbai and met several Dalit writers – both male and female.
“Why didn’t you meet me then?”
Professor replied, as he sat down, “It was not so, dear friend. I did try to meet you twice during my stay but came to know on both occasions that you were traveling abroad.”
“It was just bad luck then.”
“Isn’t it correct that good luck or fortune is only for the big metropolises, and never for the small towns and villages?” This comment made Milind feel that Professor Ishida didn’t mince his words, and also that he had a good understanding of Dalit literature.
Delhi had become a power center of Hindi literature. Those who were outside of Delhi, had no chance of experiencing this power, which their compatriots in the nation’s capital could. Literature, and particularly Hindi literature was a very minor part of the power structure, but even here, there were conflicts and power struggles, and even for minor things a lot of jealousy and rivalry was all over the place..
As Milind mulled over this thought, it took him back to his own village. Radhepur was a small village in the Aara district of Bihar state. The images of killings and rapes perpetrated by the upper and forward castes went through his mind; the upper castes had total control on all things that mattered — water, the wives and daughters of the Dalits, everything. It was shocking that just because these individuals hailed from the upper caste, they became devils even for others of the same faith. This made the Hindu faith truly strange, to the extent that the same people who, while still Hindus, were mistreated just because they were untouchables, became respectable once they converted to another religion.
A knock on the door interrupted Milind’s thoughts.
Professor Ishida jumped up to open the door, saying, “It must be Maya”. Milind saw an exceptionally beautiful lady entering the room. She had a triangular face, long nose, small but beautiful eyes, fair complexion, and a smile on her face.

Professor Ishida made the introductions. “Professor Milind Bharati, meet Dr. Maya Suzuki, the organizer of this visit.”

Maya folded her hands in a namaste, and Milind returned the gesture. Maya too could speak and follow Hindi. A few years ago, she had spent one whole year with a self-help organization working for the emancipation of the employees engaged in cleaning activities. Upon her return to Japan, she had started teaching in this university.
In the next ten minutes she explained to Milind all about the program, his travel arrangements, who will accompany him at various times, and other necessary things. She also gave him sufficient yen for his daily expenses in advance.
They, Professor Ishida and Maya Suzuki, were at the door, putting their shoes on, which they had removed before entering the room. Professor Ishida had already told Milind to do the same, as Japanese do not walk with their shoes on in others’ rooms.
“Maya, your city truly has a wonderful cleaning system, the entire city is shining.” Milind couldn’t stop himself from saying this when they were on their way.
Maya smiled and replied immediately, “Milind ji, we do not have any designated sweepers or cleaning people; we all are cleaners. We are raised to hate filth and taught to keep clean. Right from childhood the habit to stay clean and keep the surroundings clean is inculcated in us. On weekends, we volunteer to clean up places where we notice any dirt or muck. We don’t wait for anybody. We don’t throw our muck in front of our neighbouring homes.”
She continued. “And yes, do take care of this when you go around here. Please do not throw any paper on the streets. The Japanese will be offended.” That reminded Milind that he had not seen any waste bins or other public trash receptacles anywhere here.
And then his mind went back to his village, where, in his primary school, he had been made fun of by the higher caste boys for simply wearing clean clothes.
“You will not get food in this hotel. Please eat at the restaurants outside on the road,” Professor Ishida said, as he was leaving.
It was ten o’clock and he decided to take some rest. Suddenly the bell rang. He opened the door to see a young woman standing outside. She appeared to be South Asian. Milind looked at her questioningly, “Yes?”
“Housekeeping, Sir,” she responded, and Milind shook his head indicating he did not need the service.
The room was still clean, he had just checked in. As he tried to sleep, the memories of his village came to his mind. Had he ever even dreamed then that he would be traveling to and delivering lectures in Japan, Russia, America, Egypt, Australia, Brazil, and Spain, and that he would be enjoying such facilities at luxury hotels? He thought of his schoolmate Shobha, who was from a neighbouring village, and who had got the highest marks in twelfth grade examinations in the entire Bihar state. Later she had studied with him in Patna. She became a good friend. She too had received the state government’s scholarship for Dalit students so she could study further. At the end of the first year, the summer vacations had loomed.
One day before returning home they were chatting in college. “We shall meet again after two months,” she had uttered in a soft voice.
“Why? I will come over to meet you, your village is not even a kilometer away,” Milind had responded, more seriously.

“Don’t come there, my village is not good. People come to blows just like that.” Shobha’s voice was sad. “I really don’t want to go back to my village. Here in the city I have respect. There, it is insults all the time. That world is full of complicated and evil people.”
“No Shobha, the world is not so complicated, it is very simple…extremely so. It is the love for the self that makes the world run. This instinct is there for things and feelings too. And if you don’t need anything from anybody, then even evil cannot do you any damage.”
“Just don’t get close to anybody there or have any expectations from them,” Milind continued.
Shobha had laughed on hearing this. “Oh my innocent friend, this is the village and not Patna city; it appears you have become a Patnaiya (a Patna resident).”
Milind felt embarrassed by this and caressing the college bench, said, “Tell me. How will I live for so many days without seeing you?”

Her face lit up with affection and love. “Oh, you are a liar! How come you have become a good citizen?” She was looking even more beautiful. Love lends that glow to the body, the face, the world.
Milind had teased her. “Becoming a good citizen is like dying by suicide.”
“No, you of all people should not say this,” Shobha said, clamping her hands over her ears.
Milind thought it over a bit, and said, “Okay then, it is possibly like eating food with no salt in it, this matter of being a good citizen. It is a space where there is no room for being concerned for the self.”
“And being a family man?” Shobha asked looking into Milind’s eyes.
“That’s like eating a bland meal with very little spice,” Milind shrugged and replied.
Shobha smiled and said, “Then it’s better if you become a family man, and let me be so too. This is what is okay for us.”
Two months later, the Shobha that returned from the village was not the same Shobha. She had changed a lot. She was silent, avoided others. Milind tried to talk to her a few times, but she did not want to.
“Our castes are different, Milind. Our lives will separate. Don’t come near or even try to see me” was the last thing Shobha had told Milind.
As he remembered this, Milind’s eyes turned moist. He could never forget Shobha, nor could he ever connect with anybody else.

Then he slept, and woke up at one in the afternoon.
He got ready and came out of the hotel. Close by, there were some Japanese restaurants. But all of them served beef and pork. Milind was restricted (by habit) to eating chicken. He walked around looking for a suitable place. At last he was directed to an Indian restaurant. It was just called “Indian Restaurant”. The people who ran it were from Nepal. They knew Hindi and they gave Milind rice, dal, chicken, and naan. The naan was sweetish, but he still found the food tasty, possibly because of his hunger.
Next morning, he was getting ready to go out for a city visit. He was waiting for Hiroko Arakawa.
The bell rang and he opened the door, expecting it to be Hiroko, but it was the smiling young lady from housekeeping, the South Asian.
“Room cleaning,” she said. Milind stood at one side as she walked in confidently and started her work. She changed the bedsheet, vacuumed the floor and went into the toilet to clean it. Meanwhile, Milind continued getting ready. The young lady, wearing gloves, finished the entire job in fifteen minutes.

“Are you Indian?” she asked as she was leaving.
“Yes,” Milind warmly replied.
“Great! I am from Uttarakhand state,” the young lady spoke brightly in Hindi and held out her hand.
“What is your name?”
“Shweta. I study here and do this work part-time. It helps with the expenses, everybody does so here,” she explained cheerfully.
The doorbell rang again. On opening, he saw a Japanese woman, aged twenty-seven or twenty-eight.
“I am Hiroko Arakawa,” she introduced herself to Milind as she bowed slightly.

Shweta had gone out of the room and was waiting by the door. As she was leaving, she said something to Hiroko in Japanese.
“What did she say?” Milind asked Hiroko.
Hiroko explained that Shweta was an old friend of hers. Both had studied together at Delhi University some time ago. Shweta was now here doing a PhD in a Japanese university. Hiroko knew good Hindi. She had done her MA in Hindi in 2012.

Milind went round Tokyo that day, visiting the smaller markets.
“I love going to small local markets. One can touch the city’s soul in these places. The bigger markets are the same all over the world.”
Hiroko kept discussing about the characters in his novel.
As evening came, it started to rain lightly. They entered a restaurant and had their dinner, and sake. The intoxication of sake affected both of them. Hiroko continued discussing Hindi literature and his process of writing as they walked back to the hotel. She left him at the hotel gate and went away.
The bell rang next morning at around ten. It was Shweta. She came in and started cleaning. Milind had a free day. There was nobody to take him out, as Hiroko had suddenly fallen sick.
“Sir, are you not going out today?” Shweta asked before turning on the vacuum. He explained about Hiroko.
“Oh, that’s sad,” she responded and got back to her work.
As she switched off the vacuum cleaner, she asked, “You are a professor and a writer too! I am very curious about the life led by those who write. How are they in their private moments, in their own lives! Are they too like us or different? What is their thought process?”
She continued, while changing the bedsheet. “You didn’t bring your wife along?”
Milind put up his hand and said, “No, I am thinking of marrying some Japanese girl. Everybody is now asking about marriage.”
This brought a light in her eyes. Stopping at the door on her way out Shweta paused and informed him that she would be free from her tasks by one in the afternoon and if he wanted, she could take him around the city. Milind liked the idea very much and assented immediately.
Shweta came back exactly at one. She was carrying a bunch of Sakura flowers. “For the great Indian writer,” she proclaimed dramatically and handed over the Sakura branch to Milind, and proceeded to hug him. She appeared to be quite a free-spirited girl to Milind. He was already dressed up, and they both left for their trip. They took a train from the nearby Metro station and went up the Tokyo Tower. Together they wandered through the localities and narrow lanes. Time passed nicely, in eating, drinking, chatting…and it was evening. Three hours later darkness had descended.
“I don’t eat pork and beef,” Milind informed Shweta before ordering dinner at a restaurant. She smiled at this. “You should eat these. I do eat them. Gives me strength.” She winked at him and asked, “At least I can eat these, no?”

Milind made a very uncharacteristic gesture, waving his hands, as he said, “Why should I object to what you eat?” He was surprised at the implication of the wink and the assertion of “strength”. He was a bit uncomfortable too. Continuing, he said, “Everybody has his own taste in eating and drinking.”

“Would you like some octopus?” Shweta asked Milind, and he was a bit shocked. Now what is this new problem he thought, but then he recollected Shweta’s earlier conversation and said “will try” but without much conviction.
“You are very handsome, Milind Sir,” Shweta remarked, looking into his eyes, as she spoke.
Milind felt embarrassed. He replied, “Thanks. And you too are very beautiful.”

Shweta was talking nonstop. Milind felt that this was because she was meeting somebody from her homeland in an alien place after a long time, and hence she wanted to relish it. Listening to her chatter made the time pass nicely for Milind.
Shweta‘s sharp eyes caught his embarrassment. “What’s your age, Professor?” she asked in a different tone.
“Thirty-seven,” Milind responded, acknowledging the change in tone.
“You don’t look thirty-seven, not even thirty.” Milind could notice a hint of naughtiness in Shweta’s eyes.
“Thanks Shweta, it is just a matter of chance,” he responded, and continued eating with his head lowered.
“You do drink, isn’t it?”
“Yes, occasionally.”
“Then let us have sake, the famous local wine…okay?” Her voice did not just carry a request; there was an urge, an invitation of some kind. Milind said yes. “Had it with Hiroko too, last evening.”
She ordered and got sake. They were now drinking. Shweta finished three glasses, one after the other. Sake is indeed delightful.

When they left the restaurant both were well-nigh drunk. They went back to the hotel room and kept chatting. Soon it was eleven.
In order to drop a hint Milind asked, “How far is your home, Shweta?”
“There is nobody there, Sir. Only loneliness. It is very lonely here.” As she said this, she spread out her hands on the table in front of her.
“I have been alone for the last four years. You cannot gauge this loneliness without having lived here.” As she said this, she appeared lost in a world of her own.

“Do you have any more wine?” She was looking into his eyes, with endearment.

Everything was clear to Milind now. It was like looking at large stones through the clear waters of the lake. Obviously, her intention was transparent. But Milind hesitated, he didn’t have the nerve to go ahead.
Milind shrugged his shoulders and said, “No. No wine here but I do have whiskey which I brought over from India.”

“Oh great, that will be fun! Please take it out.” She was very excited.

Milind opened his suitcase and took out the bottle. Shweta poured two pegs immediately, said cheers and drank it at one go. She poured herself another large peg.

In the meantime, Milind glanced again at his watch…it was almost eleven thirty.
“Will you get a Metro train at this time?” He was confused as to what was going to happen now. His mind could not come to any conclusion. Several thoughts raced through his mind, rapidly, one after another, and faded.
“What will I do by going back there now, who will be waiting for me there, except empty walls?” Her uninhibited laughter burst into the room like glittering pearls, amongst whom Milind discerned a few honey-soaked, shining moons.
“Everybody has friends. Only you are alone here Shweta, alone for the last four years.” It was as if she was talking to herself. She remembered her India, Delhi and Uttarakhand. She told him that they had a lot of land in her village, where they farmed. Then she spoke about her happy days at the university.

“Have you become old, Sir?” she suddenly spoke, putting her hands on Milind’s shoulders.

A shockwave of heat ran through the body of Milind. He held himself back. Though he too needed this company a lot, he controlled his mind. This short period was a very difficult time for Milind.

With some effort, he replied clearly. “Yes, possibly. That is why I am sleepy now.”
However, there was no soul behind these words, and they just hung in the air, between the two of them. Shweta’s big eyes, her healthy body were pulling him toward her and he was being carried along rapidly in the flow. He wanted to evade this. Even in the alcoholic stupor, he could not forget that he was in a foreign country, where he had been invited with great respect.

“Sleep,” Shweta laughed loudly. “Sir, you are something. You sleep when you go to heaven.” Saying this, and breaking his resolve, she moved toward him and kissed him nicely on his lips, and went back to the chair. “We shall both sit and smile at these memories when we are old.”

There was a maelstrom of thoughts and feelings in Milind’s mind. His forehead was sweating. Does she just want money from him? Or has she really taken a liking for him? Is it just her physical longing that has been churning her insides for a long time? But if somebody comes to know, then…but no, nobody here knows. It was as if Milind had fallen into a whirlpool.

He wanted to squeeze her hard in his arms, but he found himself unable to move from his place. He started reading WhatsApp messages on his mobile, ones he had already read, but even as his eyes were on the mobile screen his mind was floating around Shweta. There was a storm raging inside. “Nobody will come to know.” Milind tried to get going again and again. “She is willing, she wants to stay the night. Do understand Milind, fulfilling somebody’s need is not at all a wrong thing, it is an act of help, of support — to them.”

At some point of time, he stood up, fully besotted, and grabbed Shweta in his arms. She in turn wrapped herself round him…and they both became like one. She was kissing him non-stop. In her excitement she bit his lips till blood came out, but she did not let go of his lips.
He took Shweta in his arms and put her on the bed with care.
And a few minutes later Shweta became extremely wild and aggressive.
“Totally a devil,” she muttered in her drunk condition and clasped Milind in her arms, tightly.
Just at this time, almost jokingly, and softly, Milind whispered into her ears, “After all, I am a Dalit.” And after uttering these words, he entrapped Shweta’s lips between his teeth, and held them for a long time.

This single sentence went through Shweta’s consciousness like a poisoned arrow. Suddenly her clasp loosened. Her passion totally cooled off in moments, and she turned into a lifeless body.
On the other hand, Milind was like a gale on the open sea, out of bounds, and in this situation, against this force, Shweta could not remain unmoved and toppled over like a small boat. Not that she had no reaction in her mind, several objections arose in her thoughts a number of times, but she could not bring herself to push Milind away…she was indeed caught…trapped in an unavoidable passion. She went on doing whatever he said as if she was bewitched. Milind was carried on by his passion, and was unmindful of the smaller counter signals that came from her.
There is no memory of when Milind went to sleep and when Shweta left. When he got up it was eight in the morning. He waited for Shweta until eleven, but she did not come for work.

He left the hotel and went to the university, which was just a ten minutes’ walk from the hotel.
Lunch had been arranged at the university. Maya introduced him to many people, but he could not remember any of the names. First, these names were all new for him and secondly, he was still stuck in Shweta’s beehive.
“And this is Professor Sneha Tripathi. She has been teaching English here for the last thirty years.”

After the introductions, everybody went down to eat. Professor Sneha Tripathi told him the names of the dishes that were laid out, and yet he had forgotten the previous name by the time the next dish was served. Picking up their plates they went and sat together. They talked about Indian and Japanese food till they veered onto Dalit literature. Professor Sneha told him that she had translated some Dalit poems from Marathi to English, and that if Milind would listen to them, it will delight her and her husband Mr. Kulkarni. As he heard the name “Kulkarni”, Milind understood that her husband was a Marathi. Professor Sneha also invited Milind for dinner, but he made an excuse of some prior engagement for the evening.
“Then please come for dinner the day after tomorrow.” This too Milind declined, citing that his entire program had been planned.

The program commenced after lunch. Students and teachers asked questions about his autobiography, about his novel and some of his stories. Nearly everybody asked this question, “Are untouchability and inter-caste violence still around there?” The audience was very excited about this subject. Some brought over their copies of the novel for an autograph and to get photographed with him. But Milind’s mind was totally “ruled” by Shweta; she was going round and round in his mind like a merry-go-round. Memories of Shweta’s chatter, her smell…all were making him restless. Again and again her recollections from last night tickled his brain. As if her kisses were still chasing him. He suddenly remembered his cut lips and smiled. He tried to shrug off the thoughts, but like hungry lambs, they clung on, not letting him go.
“How is your health now, Hiroko?” he asked Hiroko who was standing near him and she smiled and replied, “I am okay now.”

He had dinner with a Japanese writer Yutaka Fuji and Hiroko at a Japanese restaurant. Yutaka’s interest was in the caste system in its present form, and he wanted to know more. In addition to sushi, they also had a glass of sake. Today he really enjoyed the food and the sake. After dinner, Hiroko came up to the hotel with him, and left, after leaving him there.
The next morning, again, he waited for Shweta, because he found his room had been cleaned up after he had left. His clothes were all folded and kept on his bed. However, ten o’clock came but nobody arrived. His mind was restless, he couldn’t read or write. It was a peculiar state of madness. He had smoked seven or eight cigarettes already. It was eleven thirty. The university had called. Both Maya and Hiroko had phoned. Professor Ishida too had rang him once. Milind knew he was being unmannerly, but he was helpless. “I am just starting,” was his evasive response to all of the calls. He was desperate to meet Shweta. He walked into the corridor a few times. He looked around the other row of rooms too. He looked at the time. It was quarter to twelve. Giving up, he got out of the room and went into the corridor again. He returned to his rooms, threw a few clothes on the bed and left.

He came back at ten in the night…everything was shipshape in his room. Clothes had been folded, toilet paper replenished, towel and shaving kit had been replaced, only Shweta was missing. Where has she gone? Milind was desperate.

This was the fifth day. He was to leave the hotel by eleven the next morning. He wanted to meet Shweta at least once before leaving. But who could he ask about her? Asking at the hotel desk would be uncivil.
Nobody came until eleven as he waited. Finally, he had to get out of the hotel. Today Maya, Professor Ishida and a couple of more students had come.
“Hasn’t Hiroko come?” Milind asked Maya.
“ No. She will be here shortly. She will also be dropping you off to the airport bus tomorrow.”

They went around visiting the sights the whole day. Hiroko joined them a short while later. Sansoji Buddha Temple, Nakamise Shopping Street, Ameya Yokocho Market…They all had coffee at a coffee house. After the coffee, Ishida, Maya and the two students left.
It was almost evening. Just Hiroko and Milind were there, and both went to a pub to have beer.
After some food and drinks, they were coming back by the Metro. The train was virtually empty. The announcement for Shinagawa station was heard. They were to get off at the Tamachi, the station after Shinagawa. The station was very well lit and clean, there was no smell at all.
“There have been a number of deaths in India due to the virus spreading all over,” Hiroko said in a soft voice.
Milind responded, “Hmm”. Milind recalled that all passengers had to undergo a medical test when they had disembarked at Narita. Doctors had taken away two passengers who had signs of the contagion.
There was sadness in Hiroko’s voice. “This is sad, extremely sad, for people to die like this, human life is invaluable.”

Both got off at Tamachi station. Hiroko came out of the station to see him off. There was little traffic around at this hour. People had returned home from their jobs. Milind was in a quandary — should he ask Hiroko about Shweta or not. He looked at his watch. He was still feeling restrained.
“Where has Shweta gone?” he finally couldn’t stop himself asking.

“Nowhere. She is here.” Hiroko answered and looked away, appearing disinterested, looking in the direction from where the sound of a halting Metro train had just been heard.
“She met me on just one day, the day you were sick. She took me around and gave me a lot of time, and never met me again.” There was hesitation, but Milind was forced to talk.

“Yes, I know that.” Hiroko’s face was sad again. She was again looking in the same direction as before. “Can I go?”

Milind was impatient. He cracked his fingers. Hiroko was not showing any interest in talking about Shweta, and this was causing him more puzzlement.

In the end, Milind could not stop himself and he blurted out, unrestrained, “I want to thank her…can you get her to talk to me? I had phoned Shweta, but…”
Now Hiroko was looking into his eyes and she spoke, “Will you be able to bear with what she said? It is very sad. I am apologizing before I tell you.”
Milind nodded his assent with great difficulty.

“Shweta will not talk to you anymore, she told me with a lot of hate. She told me, ‘I had no idea about that person, and how could I have cleaned his toilet and his room in front of him. He is an untouchable, they work in our homes, as our servants.’” There was sadness in Hiroko’s voice. She said that Shweta has taken a week off, from that day, just for this reason.

“Oh,” Milind felt as if somebody had pushed him into the cess pool. He had been insulted due to his caste in the past, but what Shweta did, shook him to his very core. The memory of that night came back again. He touched his face that Shweta had said was handsome. His tongue swept over his lips, which Shweta had bitten in her passion. The insult had gone to his core.
“Oh, this happened only because I told her that I was a Dalit. If I had said I was a Brahmin or a Rajput, then?” His mind was all jumbled up.
But he quickly recovered. “Thanks Hiroko, it is definitely sad…but they don’t know what they are doing…one should have pity on them. They don’t know that the wheels of change are in motion and no God can make them swerve aside. All have to accept this. Shweta is a woman, the one who is most exploited, by her caste, religion and country…and still…”

Hiroko’s soft eyes were wet. “You are correct, Milind san. It is a regret that she thinks like this.”

Milind’s eyes seemed lost, staring aimlessly. Hiroko understood his feelings, so she stayed around for some time.
“Please excuse me, I will come tomorrow,” she said as she went away.

He was thinking, it is worrying that the virus has spread here, so far from India. He returns to the same contagion-hit place tomorrow, where the poison of the virus is waiting with its mouth open.

The fragrance of Sakura was all around. But the same smell that made him feel alive over the past five days was now making him itch all over.
In front of his eyes, he could see a bunch of Sakura, along with its small branch and his ears were echoing with the words, “For the great Indian writer.”

Milind took a long breath and thought, “We are the esteemed Indian citizens. We the people of India…?” Then he smiled. He walked back towards the hotel, slowly. His mind was in a storm. “Is Shweta the only one doing so? Most of them do the same. Isn’t the Dalit woman in the same situation inside the Dalit society? Don’t they too live a life of a slave to the men?” His anger abated a bit, his sense of insult lightened, and his mind became strong.
He saw the Nepali youth who ran the Indian restaurant nearby. He had a Nepali cap on his head.

As he approached, he asked Milind, “Wow, how are you Daju (big brother)? Where are you lost?”

“I am okay, I’m returning tomorrow.”

“So soon, Daju?” Saying so he was walking with him.
“Come along to the restaurant for a while. I will give you my own brewed wine. I will make it for you,” he smiled and winked.

Milind started walking with him. At the restaurant, he was given a drink made from ginger. It was indeed very good. He used to make it for himself, on the sly. There was something to eat too. But when Milind wanted to pay while leaving for his hotel, he just stood with his folded hands, “I will not take it, it was from a younger brother.” The love-dipped words accompanied Milind back to his hotel.

“If you do not talk about yourself, how much love, how much respect you command,” Milind laughed at his Indian fate.

On reaching his hotel, he changed his dress and lay down. Shortly, a message flashed on his mobile. Looking at the name, he was jolted…and he read the message without taking a breath. He was not satisfied, so he read and re-read. It was a message from Shweta.

“Dear Milind, I am terribly ashamed. If possible, please forgive me. We are conditioned, our sub-conscious mind has probably been trained. We are not at fault for this…it is our family or society, that trains us, gives us this value system, which makes us think like this. I read your autobiography over the last three days, and for the first time I came to know and understood your sadness and insult; possibly for the first time my mind went in your direction on how you all are forced, how you are kept enslaved and how they dominate you. You have stated perfectly how women are treated as slaves of slaves. This system of caste, class, is stronger than steel and yet invisible like the air. They don’t leave you even after death. Not only us, we have infected Gods too with this contagion. I thought, isn’t the condition of the progressive class of women in the stifling patriarchal society same as it is for people like you? Aren’t we too just like common insects or slaves, enmeshed in this structure? A slave, in a slightly different manner. You have written correctly…No woman, in her next life, if there is rebirth, that is, would ever want to be a woman again. Why should she? A slave all the time, at risk of insult all the time, and condemned.
But dear Milind, contagion is not only bad, it is also good. The contagion that I have caught from your writing…is the true contagion now.
Your flight is tomorrow at two in the afternoon. Hiroko told me a short while ago that she is coming over to drop you at the airport bus stop. She will be there at nine.Can I come over to meet you in the morning at seven?
Waiting for your response.

Shweta”

After thinking it over for a while, he sent a reply. “OK.”

Ajay Navaria

Ajay Navaria

Ajay Navaria is the author of two collections of short stories in Hindi, Patkatha aur Anya Kahaniyan (2006) and Yes Sir (2012), and a novel, Udhar ke Log (2008). He has been associated with the premier Hindi literary journal, Hans. He is an associate professor of Hindi literature at Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi who he shot to international fame after Unclaimed Terrain an anthology of his stories in English translation, came out in 2013. He is considered as one of the most exciting voices in contemporary Dalit literature.

 

Umesh K Dubey

Umesh K Dubey

Umesh K Dubey is a retired engineer and an avid reader. He does occasional translations. Umesh lives in Kolkata, India.

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