Translated from the Odia by Dr. Snehaprava Das
Umakanta tore at the bandage in a fit of anger and frustration.
Blood oozed from the wound on his forehead. The day before Dr. Mishra had dressed and bandaged it. Umakanta sat in the doctor’s clinic and glanced absently at the human anatomy charts hanging on the wall. There was one that displayed the human bone structures supported by the spinal cord. The doctor’s eyes followed Umakanta’s gaze.
“Thank god that you were not injured at any of those crucial spots,” the doctor said, smiling. “It could have complicated things. Do not take the bandage off for a week. By the way, how did you get this injury? Did anyone hit you?”
Was the man a doctor or police? Umakanta felt disturbed.
He could not think of a convincing reply and kept silent.
Umakanta was not just hit at the head, it was his destiny that had been hit harder. A wound on the head draws blood out. But the blood that spills from a wound in one’s destiny always flows out as tears. The injury on the head could heal in time. A wounded destiny is beyond all cure. Twenty-five years back Umakanta himself had inflicted that wound on his destiny. He had no one else to shift the blame to.
He could vividly recollect the scene enacted twenty-five years before in the precipitating darkness of an evening in a cabin of Karuna Nursing Home. There was a power failure. He could still see the shadows of two pairs of hands, one of a woman and another of a man, surreptitiously coming into a flurry of action, and then both of them breathed a sigh of relief. He could see the hand of the man holding out a thick envelope and the woman’s hand grabbing it and could hear her confident whisper…
“Time for you to distribute sweets…”
Umakanta glanced at his palms. Were there blood stains on them? Was it the same blood that had stained his palms twenty-five years ago? How was that possible? Did he not wash his hands several times a day with expensive liquid soaps? Wherefrom did the blood marks come, then? He knew he had not murdered anyone. Why should then his hands be stained with blood? He was grilled with the questions of his own accusing self.
“Yes, you are a murderer! You have murdered someone’s trust.” A scream rose inside his heart, startling Umakanta…
In that flimsy darkness, Umakanta stared at his palms once again. The stains of blood looked frighteningly fresh.
“The blood stains may fade away when you kill a creature of flesh and blood. But they last a lifetime when you kill someone’s trust.”
Tears of remorse singed his eyes. He cast a quick glance around to ascertain that no one looked at him. He looked at his wristwatch. It was past midnight. Aparna, his wife, must be worried sick by now. She might be trying desperately to contact him on his mobile phone. Umakanta had deliberately left it at home, on the center table in the front room. There was no need for a mobile phone for him now, he decided gloomily.
His thoughts went back to that fateful evening. Truth be told, he had actually never forgotten what had transpired that evening, even though at that time he felt sure that time would erase its memory and the incident would remain a secret forever. It was but natural on his part to hope so since neither his wife Aparna nor the parents of Jogmaya have the slightest inkling of what had happened.
The name instantly brought back to his memory a pair of guileless eyes of a baby girl. The nurse told Umakanta that she had touched the nurse’s hand with her tiny fingers while she removed the identity tag from her wrist and slid it around the baby boy’s hand as if she was trying to stop the nurse from doing it. Umakanta’s eyes were bleary with tears.
“I am the real culprit.” Umakanta soliloquized. “I have abandoned goddess Durga and ushered the demon Mahishasura into my home. I must suffer the punishment for the sin I committed.”
A goods train rattled past the platform.
What went wrong? Umakanta failed to puzzle it out.
He and his wife had never been neglectful in discharging their filial responsibilities. They had put in all their possible efforts to rear their son up properly. They had put him in the best of schools and colleges. It seems all their efforts had been a pathetic waste.
His head felt heavy. Umakanta sat down on a bench in a comparatively dark corner of the railway platform. The day before Debadutta had hit his head hard with a cricket bat. It was because Aparna screamed loudly, the mad fellow’s grip on the handle of the bat had slackened and the blow had lost its intended force. Had it not been for that, the way Debadutta had brandished the bat, Umakanta recollected in fear, his head would have been cracked.
“Are the allegations the girl bringing against you true? How could you go down to this level?” Umakanta had demanded in a loud voice.
Umakanta had asked just this much, believing that he had every right to do so as a father. But the reply and reaction were staggering.
His twenty-five-year-old son had pulled out the cricket bat from under the bed and hit his father.
“To hell with this life!” He thought bitterly. The memory returned to gnaw at his conscience.
It was like an action replay. He was back in the Karuna Nursing Home at Cuttack. His wife and the wife of Kailash Mohanty each had delivered a baby at a short interval of five minutes. His wife had given birth to a baby girl and the latter had delivered a male child. Kailash Mahanty could not make it to the Nursing Home at the time of his wife’s delivery. She lay nearly unconscious in the bed in the labor cabin. Umakanta had exploited the situation to his advantage, to fulfill a nagging wish that he had nurtured secretly for many years. He had bribed the nurse who was in charge there and got the babies exchanged. The nurse, a shrewd woman was very persuasive in her reasoning. “The boy looks as handsome as lord Kartikeya. A son is after all a son. A daughter can never take that place. Once married, she no longer remains your daughter.”
Umakanta, startled at first at the suggestion, debated with his own conscience. The doctors have given their verdict. His wife could not conceive a baby again. Temptation and fear outdid his conscience. Who would take over his business unless he had a son of his own? The business empire he had built would go to dust after his death. Who would forward the family to posterity if he did not have a son? Fear gripped him of the grim possibilities.
“Don’t you worry,” the sly nurse had assured as if reading his mind. “I know your thoughts and can work out everything with absolute precision. But you too have to take care of me in return.” Umakanta, moving like a machine, brought out a hefty envelope from the pocket of his pants and put it in the greedy hand of the nurse. She went out and in no time the news of Umakanta’s wife delivering a son had spread out through the entire Nursing Home. Both the women had undergone a C-section and had to remain in the Nursing Home for a week. On the eighth day as Umakanta was fulfilling the hospital formalities of getting his wife and child discharged from the Nursing Home, he saw Kailash Mohanty leaving with his wife and baby daughter. Kailash Mohanty looked quite happy and there was not even the slightest semblance of any disappointment or doubt on his face. A wave of relief flooded over Umakakanta’s heart. No one had any inkling of what had happened, he thought gratefully.
Only four pairs of eyes witnessed the transaction that took place in that cabin of Karuna Nursing Home under the grim twilight twenty-five years back. Two pairs of eyes amongst the four belonged to a couple of newborn infants who had neither the capability of understanding nor acumen to express what they saw. The third pair was of the clever nurse Radharani who had played the most crucial role in the drama. Umakanta had learned that the nurse had quit this mortal world five years ago. The only pair of living eyes belonged to Umakanta himself.
While he returned home from the Nursing Home that day gripped in a euphoric mood, he envisioned the future of both the babies. Kailash Mohanty’s daughter, he thought, would struggle hard to get through the school finals and would go to a government college. She might somehow manage to secure the Bachelor’s Degree and that would be the end. Her father would find a match for her in the Block office where he worked as a senior clerk, a junior clerk possibly, and get his daughter married to him. That would be the fate of Kailash Mohanty’s daughter.
But his son would keep on climbing the ladder of success, rung after rung, without a stop. He would send his son to a reputed Business School in the USA. Umakanta’s business empire would keep expanding. He would get his son married to the daughter of some politician in power. Umakanta knew that the nexus of politics and business is an indispensable factor for building up an invincible business empire. Accordingly, he had fixed his son’s marriage with the daughter of Dibyasingha Mattagajray, an MLA of the ruling party. The would-be bride was the only child of her parents and she too had done her MBA from a recognized business management institute. Umakanta had kept his son updated on the progress of the marriage proposal from time to time. After the preliminary talks were over, the parents and relatives of the prospective bride had come to Umakanta’s house to take a look at the would-be groom. The ritual of an informal ring-exchange ceremony too had been performed. His son Debadutta and wife Aparna had visited the would-be bride’s home to fulfill their side of the formalities of the occasion.
Umakanta had never expected his son to be involved in such a heinous act. Debadutta hardly felt the necessity of speaking to his father or sharing his thoughts with him. It was only when he was in need of money that he came to his father. That little connection that he had with his father was broken too soon after Umakanta handed over the credit card. Debadutta was too busy to waste time communing with his parents.
Umakanta, however, kept track of Kailash Mohanty’s daughter. He collected every bit of news about Kailash Mohanty and his family. He knew that Kailash Mohanty was transferred to Baripada soon after the birth of his daughter. Umakanta breathed a sigh of relief. It was as if a heavy load had been taken off his head. But, to his utter dismay, Kailash Mohanty returned from Baripada after fourteen years, in the way lord Ramachandra returned to Ayodhya after spending the fourteen-year banishment in the forest.
But the most staggering shock came as a news item telecasted on TV on one evening of the month of April in the year 2020. As soon as the TV screen came to life, the face of Kailash Mohanty flashed on it, and soon followed the news of his daughter Jogamaya who topped the list of the successful candidates for the Odisha Matriculation examination. The TV anchor went on and on about how the girl had secured ninety-eight percent and achieved this grand success without the support of extra tutors or coaching classes. The picture of the father and the daughter feeding each other sweets flashed on the TV screen. Jogamaya’s mother stood by and watched them with eyes gleaming with pride and joy.
Umakanta turned off the TV, unable to stand the scene any longer.
“The girl is as beautiful as she is talented,” Aparna, who stood behind him watching the news, remarked.
Umakanta fled the room as if he was hit hard by a cane.
Since that day, the face of Jogamaya, like a still photograph, kept appearing before his eyes almost all the time. Jogamaya proved to be an achiever. She became the topper in the board examination of Plus Two Science, and then in the final MBBS. Later she became the topper in the entrance examination of AIIMS and did her PG there. She would now travel to London for six months to do the Common Wealth training course. The news of Jogamaya’s prospective journey to London had come in yesterday’s newspaper. Umakanta had torn away the page on which the news was printed. He had folded it neatly and stowed it in his wallet. Now, standing under the light post, he took out the piece of paper and squinted at Jogamaya’s photo. In the dim light, Jogamaya smiled at him from the photograph.
Isn’t it the bitterest irony that on the very day the news of Jogamaya’s success appeared in the newspaper, his son hit his Umakanta’s head with a cricket bat!!
In that lurid light, Umakanta looked closely at the eyes of Jogamaya. Doctors say that the shape and size of human eyes never change. All the other features and body parts undergo a change as a human being grows in age, but the eyes always remain the same. He had seen those eyes in a newborn infant’s face in that Nursing Home twenty-five years back when Kailash Mohanty’s wife was getting up into the rickshaw, cradling the baby girl in her arms. Umakanta had turned to look and his eyes fell on the face of the baby, and her beautiful eyes.
Umakanta slumped on the ground under the light post and broke into wild tears. Hard, choking sobs rocked his body. At that dark moment of truth, all his wealth, his social status, and his knowledge and power seemed like just a blank nothingness. He realized that henceforth he would die a little every passing day. The realization came as a shocking blow to his male vanity. How could he survive the humiliation of getting beaten by his son? His social image would be reduced to a sullied picture if the marriage of his son and the daughter of Balbantray failed to materialize. It would be so disgraceful!! He knew that Jogamaya’s curse would keep jinxing his world as long as he lived. To jump into the front of a moving train would be a much better alternative.
Another train rumbled past the platform. Umakanta slowly rose to his feet and walked towards the river Mahanadi.
The bitter memory of yesterday came flashing back. The final decision about Debadutta’s marriage was formally made on Sunday, the day before yesterday. The next day, on Monday, a girl came to the car showroom. Instead of looking at the cars in the showroom, the girl came to Umakanta’s chamber. It was about ten o’clock in the morning. Umakanta wondered why a girl would want to meet him in his office chamber. Maybe a customer who wanted a better discount, he conjectured. He cast a casual look at the girl and pointed at a chair. But the girl did not sit down on the chair. She came to him and touched his feet. Umakanta was now seriously surprised. No customer, as far as he could remember, had ever touched his feet. Perhaps the girl is the daughter of one of his old friends, he tried to guess.
“I am not able to recognize you, child,” he said, “would you please introduce yourself?”
Instead of answering, the girl had shot a question point-blank at him.
“Have you fixed Debadutta’s marriage with the daughter of Dibyasingh Mattagajray?”
This time Umakanta was really astonished. The news was kept confined to very few family members and relatives. How did this girl come to know about it?
“That is true. But how did you know about it? Are you a friend of the daughter of Dibyasingh Mattagajray?”
The girl cast a furtive look around the room. There was no third person in the chamber. She began to speak, lowering her eyes. What the girl said to him in that lonely office chamber had really rattled Umakanta.
“I am Tanushree,” the girl said. “Debadutta and I are in a relationship for the last three years. We had decided to get married. I am now two months pregnant. It feels so embarrassing to tell you this but I am not left with a choice. Debadutta is consciously avoiding me these days. It was only yesterday I chanced to learn from his friends that you have fixed his marriage with another girl. I have come to you with the hope that you would do justice to me.”
All blood ran from Umakanta’s face… His head began to spin. What the girl said was not only unbelievable, it was an absolute abomination. He picked up the glass of water from the table and emptied it in a few swallows.
Tanushree unzipped her vanity bag and took out a few photographs. She handed them to Umakanta. In each of them, Debadutta and Tanushree were together in compromising poses.
‘”You must have heard about my father. He Is the I.G of police, Mr. R.K. Singh. I have not told him anything, but my mother is in the know of the matter. I know you will surely do justice to me, Uncle!”
Tanushree rose to leave. Umakanta sprang up from his chair and stepped onto her front.
“Have mercy! The marriage is already finalized. You know what disgrace it will bring to me if this thing goes public. It will ruin my position in society!” He begged, folding his palms.
Tanushree’s face hardened. She no longer looked like the helpless, distressed damsel.
“You are very concerned about your own prestige and position. Aren’t you? Have you ever given thought to how ruinous it will be for me? I will give you two days. You have to sort things out during that time. I will be forced to seek the help of the Women’s Commission and the court of law unless you take steps to help me out of this crisis. I will approach the media. I will not hesitate to slander my name to teach a lecher like Debudutta, a lesson.”
Tanushree pronounced the ultimatum and strode out of the room.
Umakanta was soaked in sweat. The air conditioner continued to hum, but the room felt stiflingly hot as if it was lashed by an angry blast of hot air. He slumped into his chair as if all life has been drained out of him. He sat still for a long time.
Umakanta had taken the opinion of Debadutta and Aparna before he proceeded with the negotiation. It was only after he received the go-ahead signal from them that he discussed the matter with Dibyasingha Mattagajray. It would be a big blow to Dibyasingh babu’s political and social status if the proposal was dropped. He would take it as a defeat and would leave no stone unturned to avenge the humiliation. He was a powerful member of the ruling party and could bring Umakanta’s business empire down to dust. At the same time, it was not possible to ignore the threats of Tanushree. She could ruin Umakanta’s image beyond repair. Umakanta was caught between the devil and the deep sea.
The next morning he had asked his son if there was any truth in the girl’s allegation. But he had never expected such a wild reaction from Debadutta. His son had stripped him bare in public.
Last night Debudutta had returned home drunk. He was asleep when Umakanta went to his room at eleven thirty. Pulling him out of sleep, an enraged Umakanta hurtled the questions rather harshly.
Still under the alcoholic haze, Debadutta pulled the cricket bat from under the bed and swung it at Umakanta’s head blindly. Screaming in pain, Umakanta fell to the floor clasping his head with both hands. His wife rushed to the kitchen to get ice. Debadutta took the moment to flee the scene.
The moment kept flashing before him like an action replay. Umakanta wiped his tears. “Poor Aparna,” he thought gloomily. It was not her fault if she had pampered Debadutta. She did not know that Debadutta was not her own child. Umakanta was more her culprit than he was Jogamaya’s. Aparna would be more hurt than Jogamaya if the truth ever surfaced. Let things be as they are. The best solution to the crisis probably would be his disappearance from the scene. With him out of the picture, Umakanta deliberated, the dust would settle.
Why did he crave a son? Umakanta cursed himself. How would a monster like Debadutta carry forward the name of his family? How could a son who each day killed his parents a little keep them alive after their death?
At every age, the Jogamayas enter their mother’s womb with big dreams. But the fathers, driven by their blind love for a son hand them over to the demons called Kamsa. But the Jogamayas, as the goddess did, give a slip to the demon and take off to the sky as a lightning flash. They leap across the bounds of poverty, ignominy, and oppression. Glowing with the burnish of their talent, they tear open the blanket of darkness to emerge like the rising sun.
For one last time, Umakanta let his glance rove about his favorite city of Cuttack.
The night was about to be over. There was no point in delaying. It is better to put an end to this cursed life of his in the depth of the night, Umakanta decided darkly. He walked towards the far end of the platform. No one could see him here. He would walk up to the track as soon as the train crossed the bridge of river Kathjudi and move towards the station. All his agony would come to an end after that.
A hard glow of light swung along the railway tracks. Soon, he could hear the horn of an engine. Yes, a train was moving towards the platform. Umakanta strode across the stretch between the platform and the railway track, stumbling over the bushes, piles of dirt, and discarded plastic water bottles. Suddenly, his feet touched something like a soft bale of clothes. The next moment, a shrill whimper of a newborn infant came out of the bundle. The sound rattled his nerves bringing him to an abrupt stop. He bent down and peered at the bundle. A newborn baby lay there swathed in a sari. The sight gave him a jolt. He picked the baby up and looked at the train that was speeding towards him. It was only two or three hundred meters away. Should he throw the baby down and move up to the track, or should he walk up to the track with the baby in his arms? Two things happened almost simultaneously. Umakanta took a few quick steps back as if he was given a hard push, and the goods train sped past the platform with an earsplitting squeal.
Now Umakanta was not alone. There was a baby girl in his arms. He had no idea who had left it there to die, her ill-fated mother or a father that was a culprit like he himself was.
He stood still, the baby in his arms, puzzled and undecided.
He did not understand why God had chosen a person like him who had severed all ties with an illusive world and was about to bring his life to its end to put to such a tough test. He looked at the baby again. It was a fair complexioned, well-shaped baby girl. In the dissipating darkness of the departing night, the large eyes of the baby looked almost like the innocent eyes of Jogamaya.
Wisps of a cool breeze wafted from the direction of river Mahanadi and drenched him to the very core. In that brief moment of truth, he could realize that the baby was the resolve to all the dilemmas haunting him all these years. Life had given him another chance to atone for the crime he had committed twenty-five years ago.
Umakanta ran towards the platform, clutching the bundle to his chest. His aching head did not trouble him any longer. The baby had to be fed.
He called his house from a telephone booth on the platform. Aparna’s panicky voice floated down the line from the other end.
“Where have you been,” Aparna asked, sobbing, “I have been waiting for you all night, I called every possible place. Where are you speaking from?”
Umakanta’s voice was calm and steady as he answered.
“Listen to me. I know the driver wouldn’t have come so early in the morning. You have to drive the car. Come to platform no.1 of Cuttack station. I will be waiting for you. Be quick. I have a lot to tell you. I can’t say them over the phone.” Umakanta replaced the receiver and looked at the baby girl in his arms. The infant had stopped whining. Umakanta held it tenderly to his chest.
“Hang in there, my love! Your mother is on her way!”
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