Translated from the Bengali by Mahasweta Ray
“You thought I would never find you again?” asked Yashwant Sinha.
I did but I could not say the same straight on his face, so I stared in the distance for a few seconds. The path had taken a mild curve and ended near the old Iron Gate. A ramshackle watchtower stood beside the gate. Long back, soldiers used to be posted there. Now deep green vegetation spread all over the structure. The gate was not visible from here, rather the pale yellow boundary wall can be seen, and the watch tower of the Presidency jail beyond. The night sky is overcast with frutescent rain-filled clouds, it’s still raining softly. It’s a premature rain in early February. The path is scattered with Mango panicles. The Mango tree sways suddenly like the plumes of a lion making the rain seem heavier. I am feeling cold. An umbrella is covering my head, there are mosquito repellent mats and tea-leaves inside a polythene packet in my hand. The store is near. I was coming back from the store. Yashwant doesn’t have an umbrella. He is getting drenched heedlessly. But I cannot ask him to share my umbrella. It is impossible to ask him to come inside the house. Only if some known face appears, can I possibly escape. But even then, will Yashwant Sinha let me go? No, he is not that sort of a person. He is shameless, obstinate, with pincer-jawed determination. Then should I walk fast and enter the house? And should not look back? But why? Am I afraid or have I done something wrong, which I should keep secret? Rather, Yashwant has several reasons to stay away from society.
I am not looking at him, yet I am realizing how much Yashwant has changed. His height must not have decreased but his body has bent, a few sparse straight hairs on his head- I have noticed that in the split seconds that I had looked at him. As he is stooping, his hairy hands are hanging like that of a chimpanzee. His cheeks seem hollow, the thick pair of moustaches has vanished. His body consists of a layer of skin on a wide boney structure, devoid of any fat. What remains unchanged is the pair of sharp, hunting eyes and that grave, smooth, low-scaled voice, which at one time, made my heart murmur in irritation and tension. “Have some Paan Masala?” I saw Yashwant bringing out a torn, glittering packet out of the pocket of his dirty safari suit and stare at me eagerly.
I remained silent.
“Oh, do not eat these.” saying so, he started pouring some amount on his palm, and I remembered the smell. I had got a whiff of the same only on those couple of times when Yashwant had stood so close by to me as now, that too fifteen or sixteen years ago, but those momentary memories are so sharp that the smell is embedded in my head perfectly. “Good to know that you have not changed. Neither in your taste, nor by your look”, he said and stared at my dress in a way that irritated me to the core. Yashwant purposefully denied to notice that. With a brief sniff, he said,” This city of Kalkatta changes people. Humans do not remain human here. Such a big city; so many professions; here,” he brings out something from the pocket of his pants,” I have brought flowers for you!” Flowers inside a trouser pocket! “What flower?” I blurted out.
In my inquisitiveness I had probably stooped towards him with my umbrella, and I noticed droplets of water from the umbrella on his shoulder and back. Without paying heed to that, Yashwant said with enthusiasm, “ What! Aren’t you a poet? Kavi? Don’t you write poems about these things? But you cannot identify. Strange! This is what a Bengali intellectual is. These are Sahjan flowers, the ones that you call Sajina.”
I remembered that evening immediately. Yashwant had called. My first collection of poems had been published. It was not even easily accessible in the book shops in Kolkata, a thin book designed out of gloomy papers. But Yashwant had procured a copy.
“Today I came to know of a new identity of yours, Sahiba! You are a poet, really! Ha ha! This is good – Sajina phooler maato paousher din alo kore – “ I had realized from his reading style that Yashwant had the line written in Hindi script in front of him. Hence the Bengali words were sounding strange. “Anyway, listen,” he had put forth his main proposal, “Next Sunday, I am holding a small get-together in my house. I hope you understand, important people of the town will be there, your friends; you can call some poets from Kolkata. You will read poetry, we will enjoy it, followed by a small party…what do you say! No one knows until now that you…”
I cut him midway, “Are you a landlord and am I your steward, that I will go to your farmhouse and recite poems? What do you think of yourself! If I hear this again…” Yashwant had mellowed down on the other side of the phone and said, “I did not mean it that way, actually I thought this needs celebration…” I had disconnected the line.
In the dull light of the street, I am seeing a tall, slightly stooped man patiently getting drenched in rain, with a palm-full of Sajina flowers in his extended hand. Yashwant looks into my eyes sharply and says, “Today I have come to your home. Hope you will recite poetry?” I turn away. An eighteen years old droughty day flashed in front of my eyes along with a few yellow and green sun-dried paddies. That was the first time I got the hint of Yashwant, like the whiff of gunpowder mixed in the air. He was somewhere near, strolling silently like a cheetah, keeping surveillance, but not appearing in the forefront. Let me share it.
It was a small subdivision in the Chhotanagpur colliery area. I was the sub-divisional magistrate. Those who were sure that a Bengali woman would not last long there, were hopelessly watching the situation. I was personally thrilled with the idea that I had managed to establish rule of law within the first two months. And then towards the end of August, while travelling in my jeep along the river, I faced a large deputation of farmers. There were sixty to seventy farmers and a mixed crowd. They were quite agitated. They didn’t have any arms but could get enraged any moment. They had waited for me with crumbled papers filled with blurry writings. They knew I was on my way, and awaited the jeep’s arrival.
I am a person of democracy. I did not keep a police escort with me. I came down from the jeep. What’s the problem? What happened? They said, paddy plants in nearly fifty acres of land next to the river were wilting and drying in front of their eyes due to the lack of rain. This situation was unbearable. But the river, brimming with water, was passing through the vicinity. Hence the water from the river should be brought in to save the crop immediately. There had been a couple of wells, but they were broken. Digging new wells won’t save the crop, and that would require time too. How was I to know why no one else did not install a lift point earlier? A few of those who were in the forefront explained to me that if two or three pumps with more horsepower could be used to bring the river water using pipelines, then all the crops would be saved, and it would be a faster process. Monsoon’s gone for now, and in this month —
Okay then do that! With my encouraging approval they lifted the dharna. I was a novice then, and had no idea about the theories of water distribution. At the sub-division office, the engineers were adamant. This was an outlandish plan, the cost would sky-rocket, and it would be difficult to put forth this as cost effective. Above all, if we comply with the demands of the farmers here, then such demands will start pouring in from the whole subdivision. What will we do then? I was feeling depressed. I put forth our rough estimate to the district magistrate and asked for the money. He guffawed over the phone. I was glumly wondering how to face those farmers if they came again, when I received the news that pumps had been set up on the bank of the river. Loads of pipes had arrived, tents had been set and laborers had started working. Work was in progress even in the petromax-lit evening. The Gramsevak, Panchuram, had brought the news that the farmers were very happy. They were blessing me wholeheartedly. I became even more confused. What was happening! Who was getting things done?
The serious, sarcasm-laden voice called when I was preparing to hit bed, “This is Yashwant Sinha speaking.”
– “Yes, please go on.”
-” I hope you are happy!”
-”Why should I be?”
– ”I arranged for the water. Don’t worry about the expenditure. I’ll take care of everything. I don’t care about those estimates by the engineers, twenty lakhs, twenty five lakhs, whatever needs to be spent.”
What was that?
Next morning, I called the tehsildar. We needed to remove all the pipes and pumps with help from the police. They were not government appointed, there was no sanction of the scheme. How could they set up the pipes? How could they dig next to a river owned by the government?
The elderly tehsildar,Mithilesh Jha, said, “Sahiba, why would you do this? The farmers will create problems, there will be a dharna again. The government didn’t have to spend anything, why are we bothered? After all, what has happened is good.”
“Does Yashwant Sinha own lands there? Directly or indirectly?”
I could do nothing. I remained disturbed with anger and irritation for a few days. Then one day, I faced the sudden guerilla attack of Yashwant. The incident was similar to the previous one. The same grudge for wish-fulfillment. As far as I remember, it was the end of autumn.
There were a few adivasi villages surrounded by forests near the border of the sub-division. In the middle of nowhere, a health center stood like a specter. The local inhabitants from within eight to ten kilometers distance used to receive medical care in the outdoor section. There were six beds, a few ill-fated patients, barely alive on smelly linens. Both the patients and the doctors said that the roof was tiled. With rotten wood and broken tiles, the condition was dire. In monsoons, water poured down on the beds. The patients got drenched. Buckets and tubs placed on the floor could not control the situation. Could the roof be repaired? I started feeling even more helpless seeing the face of the young doctor. It would cost around twenty to twenty-two thousand rupees. It was not a big amount. But it had already been decided that dispensary would be shifted from the border and towards the south. At the moment, it would be illegal to spend on that building. The auditors would surely notice later.
Now, even if it was an untimely rain, the patients had to suffer.
I was thoughtful while returning. What could I do? Could I take money from the Red Cross to repair the dispensary? Or could I ask any industry to help in the matter? That is also against my nature. I have never made such requests. Three days later, the Medical Officer sent me a wireless message via the police station. A thank you note. The roof was getting repaired. This time there was no secrecy. A close associate of Yashwant Sinha had provided sand, cement, wood, tiles and had even sent a mason.
Returning home, I felt a hidden tension looking at the phone. It seemed like a call would come at any moment! Any moment! But Yashwant left me unhurt this time.
By then I had realized, someone was watching me secretly. That dharna by the farmers was planned. Yashwant’s men were watching my every movement. The very thought gave me an uncanny sensation. Meanwhile I was able to collect some news with the help of spies. Yashwant had studied in Ranchi, up to BCom. He took care of his family business of mica, but that was negligible. He was not bad in studies. But he started his career with Panchayat-level politics. Gradually he had climbed up the ladder and become a member of the Legislative Assembly. He lost the position in the last election. But it was surprising that Yashwant Sinha’s political influence was extraordinary. Even Cabinet Ministers were supposedly consulting this ex-M.L.A on various issues. People said he was a kingmaker. He had a large, ancestral home with a surrounding garden in town. Apart from the mica colliery, he had an iron ore factory. But those were nothing. Yashwant Sinha seemed to have a superhuman influence on the public psyche. No one had any idea about how high he would be, hence everyone wanted to satisfy him – from industrialists to colliery mafia leaders, panchayat heads to heavyweight ministers. Yashwant’s words, even simple signals could not be neglected; his kindness, when arrived, needed to be looted away; his wrath was terrible – vengeful and long. He destroyed those who roused in him extreme displeasure. The knowledge that such a personality as Yashwant Sinha was trying to take me, a lonely Bengali woman in a far-off land, under the shelter of his wide wings should have made me happy but effectively increased my disgust.
Maintaining general cordiality, I never misbehaved over the phone — but realizing that Yashwant has taken up this stringent vow of appeasing me, I engaged myself in an invisible game of hide-and-seek.
I was travelling a distance, for the inauguration of a girls’ school building in some poor panchayat; on the way, I suddenly saw two or three large gateways made with blue cloth and decorated with fringes of Indian Fir leaves. Some queries revealed that Yashwant’s men had been seen carrying those Indian Fir leaves the previous day. I changed my route. Now when I think back, it seems childish. Back then, I was adamant. What did he think? Could everything be achieved by spending money? Everyone gets controlled? Why else would such expensive gifts appear overnight as prizes for the sports event of the sub-division’s secondary school? Each year one pen and a certificate were given as prizes — due to the funding crunch. I was the president of the school committee. All the other prizes remained untouched. I came back to distribute the pens etc as I had the previous year. I was feeling very insulted. It was a strange feeling of self-injury. I could not speak about this with anyone, I could not share this shame with anyone. It was as if Yashwant Sinha were present everywhere with a grip without a periphery. Wherever I might go, I would not be able cross that encirclement. A couple of years later, the coalmine mafia became active for my transfer. They were disturbed by the continuous arrests of the babus and leaders among the mine workers, who were bankrollers too. However much they bragged, their monthly incomes were decreasing. They had almost arranged for the transfer order by persuading the capital, but then Yashwant decided to hold back for some unknown reason. I guess he was aware of the happenings. The external behavior was just a big pretense. This time the phone came from one of his bona fide political leaders. The latter asked me very politely to call Yashwant — just once; only Yashwant would be able to stall the transfer. My answer, interspersed with incisive laughter and disdain, surely must have reached Yashwant in manifold proportion, I thought so. My transfer was stalled, and various strange harassments started.
The large bungalow was on top of a hillock. One could see the water of Damodar from there. A grey forest stood on the other side. I slept in one room, the other was the living room. The whole house remained mostly empty for the whole day. A young local boy cooked, cleaned and made my bed, because on most days I returned quite late. One early morning, I found all my precious belongings, the marriage jewelry and about one thousand rupees that were kept in the bedroom — were gone. The boy had left the window near the headboard open either forgetfully or for some reason. And this happened. A theft in the house of the magistrate made the half-pant clad police hyperactive. All sorts of poor, petty thieves were called in to the police station and questioned, often with third degree torture, and then they took away that boy—Santu. Santu was crying ruefully while leaving. He knew how those who were taken away, came back with bones broken and morphed. I could accept it no more. I took back the First Information Report. I could no longer endure that tumult in the name of investigation. A year later, I remember I was in Ranchi then, I got back one thing by post, from possibly a fake address. It was the mangalsutra that I had worn on the day of my marriage. It was a gift from the in-laws’ family. I never wore that necklace again, as I suspected Yashwant’s dirty hands had touched it.
Then started the series of threat letters — fanciful ones mentioning that the house would be bombed in one of the dark colliery nights; mines would be put in the courtroom. I went on working unaffected and did not stop my night vigil. The handwriting expert of the police department grew older while continuing testing the handwriting of those anonymous letters, and the Deputy Superintendent of Police remained duty bound to follow me with his escort. If something happened to me, it would be to their discredit. Once again an amusing game of hide-and-seek started. An invisible Yashwant followed me, and Yashwant was followed by the visible police. Then suddenly everything subsided. Yashwant went on changing his guerilla tactics. I was gheraoed by mobs in the middle of the night, roads were blocked, wrong excuses were given. The attitude was to watch my actions. The more I remained level-headed, the more Yashwant’s stubbornness increased, he became more fierce, relentless and unreasonable. Alas, no Dove of Peace flew towards his office. Many days passed similarly. I left the land of Damodar and coalmines. I travelled so many districts and reached the capital. Like a tree, I have gradually become wise, aged and thoughtful. I did not confront Yashwant in these places. But twice a year, at the New Year and on Vijaya Dashami, I did get greeting cards, people came to deliver sweets and fruits. Those fruits remained and got wasted outside, in the courtyard, no one in our home touched them. That Yashwant kept note of all my new addresses and that he would keep on doing so, was understood and accepted. On the day I was leaving the old sub-division, he appeared with a warm smile, a bouquet of flowers in hand and paan masala in his pocket. Casually saying ,”Oh, you do not eat these things” and keeping the masala nonchalantly back in the pocket, he hid himself amidst the crowd. I did not bother to look for him.
I kept on changing my address and got Yashwant’s news once in a while through newspapers. I was not surprised when I heard he was involved in an infamous poverty related scam in South Chhotanagpur, in which loads of money had been transferred to his family treasury by several means and that he was the brain behind the conspiracy. It was as if this was destined. That I avoided being controlled by the Yashwant magic, made me secretly proud too. Meanwhile, there had been two political shifts. I had come to know that Yashwant was being targeted by the police and the Central Bureau of Investigation . Yashwant absconded. Finally he received a chargesheet and was arrested in the airport as soon as he landed in Delhi. I was relieved, thinking that his stalking had finally come to an end.
I barely remembered him in the last five years. Amidst my numerous works, family, writing —where was Yashwant! I last saw him at Bhopal. That too almost six years ago. The plane was grounded unexpectedly. A local hotel was arranged by the airways company, which many were disapproving of. So I was hesitant. A stranger came near and whispered in my ear, “Our car is waiting outside, please come.” I went and found Yashwant waiting silently next to a big Toyota. I immediately took the airline bus to that musty hotel. That was the last encounter.
And then, today.
“What do you want?” a mumbling, blunt sound came out of my throat. Yashwant is now almost fully drenched, more stooped, dejected. The tiny gate of our garden can be reached crossing the mango tree, there’s our lawn and verandah. The light of the verandah was visible, the voices of the children studying could be heard. Glancing that way for a while, Yashwant said, “We have run a lot. I am tired of running. Sahiba, don’t think you have won this race. No one has won. Neither you, nor me. But my race has truly ended. Cancer has affected my bones. Terminal stage. I am not saying this to raise your sympathy. My reserves are nearly gone. The supporters have moved on. You know well, no one even smells the shadow of one whom CBI picks up. Now I have only one place. That verandah. Please do not send me back, I have come decided that I will not go away. Give me a small mat, a pillow, I will just remain there. I will die there, in your presence. This is my last wish. Please say you approve of it.”
My lips sensed danger and wanted to scream, no, no no! How is that possible?
But my heart let me go astray.
Under the rain, I opened the small wooden gate and made way for Yashwant. Darkness laced with the fragrance of mango panicles showered on us.
At The Antonym, we believe that writing is an important tool for women to voice their experiences of identity, sexuality, marriage, love, family, and life. Our magazine is taking a measured look at the Bengali women who have contributed to contemporary Bengali literature. They are all borne out of different life experiences and have created a distinct storytelling style that not only differentiates them from men writers but also from women. Their distinct approaches have made us believe that we could bring a new focus on Bengali women writers and explore and expand our scope in the form of translating their contributions to Bengali literature. To read about the different Bengali women writers that we have translated, please visit the following page of The Antonym magazine: