Keep going, Ramesh exhorted himself, clenching his teeth. Never mind how slowly, but for heaven’s sake don’t stop. One step at a time; then a second, and then another—the summit isn’t far away. His leg muscles, tied in knots, seemed ready to give out; his heart thumped heavily; beads of sweat hung from the brim of his straw hat like raindrops; his short pants and short-sleeved shirt were soaking wet; and yet his body propelled itself upwards as if pushed from behind by the wind.
The forest of tall trees, long left behind in the lower reaches, formed a canopy when seen from above and the footpath resembled a mysterious staircase descending into the womb of the earth. The summit was smooth, bald, with a fringe of green grass. The deep blue sky hung low over it.
Climbing, Ramesh admitted to himself, was no joke. As tough a business as any. But it would have shamed him to openly acknowledge as much; after all, he was the youngest of them all – the others were middle-aged, some quite old – and besides, he was in charge; it was for him to set an example, even if it meant putting up with pain that threatened to overwhelm him.
“Why,” he grunted to his peon, biting his lips, “you seem to tire so easily!” To emphasise how effortless the climb was, he skipped over the narrow ledges.
Hissing like an old steam engine, Binu inched his way up. A squat, dark man in a cotton suit, a gold ring in his nose, a rifle and a flask slung from his shoulders, he looked strange, if not outlandish. As he climbed, his turban bobbed up and down. A big brown mushroom. He stopped in front of Ramesh, breathing through his mouth. Then he turned around and hollered to the porters, “Hurry up, you lazy bums!” He took his position behind his boss, stiff as a board.
“Baile . . . baile . . .” came the answering refrain of a chorus at a distance. Then the bodies heaved into sight, one after another, all eight of them, from amidst the tall elephant grass. Bare-bodied Kondh porters, clad only in loincloths.
“Miserable lazy bums!” Binu swore. “Forever falling behind. Slowpokes! No amount of scolding does any good.”
“We’re old and decrepit, sir!” said a porter, and they all started laughing. They sat down at a respectable distance and lit their cigars.
Binu uncorked the flask and poured a cup of tea for Ramesh, who was resting in the shade of an Amla tree.
“When were you up here last, Binu?” Ramesh asked, taking a sip.
“About two years ago, sir. But before that, fairly regularly.”
“Did any of the other officers climb the hills?”
“Yes sir, quite a few. After all, this is the only route to the market.”
Ramesh suddenly felt deflated. Others had beaten him to it. From childhood he had taken pride in being first, in being ahead of others; that was the key to his success. Born into a dirt poor family in a nondescript village in north Balasore, he had seen many of his village friends fall by the wayside early in life. Some dropped out of school, others out of college; he alone went on to finish his studies, thanks to a string of scholarships along the way. What a long procession of prizes and medals, victories and trophies along the winding road of life. Thrilling memories. Then came the job, and congratulations pouring in; friends, acquaintances, even perfect strangers, queuing up to pay respect; peons and minions rushing to salaam; insurance agents by the dozen with invitations for tea; a barrage of marriage proposals. One college friend, Umesh, had been brazen enough to say to him, “Brother, just tell me who I should talk to about your marriage.” People looking up to him, people toadying up to him. The just fruits of hard-earned success. He had arrived. He had become somebody. Unlike any of those he had left behind, all of whom had amounted to nothing.
But sometimes, as now, his ego was pricked when he realised that he wasn’t really big enough, that there were many who had climbed the hills and were way ahead of him, that compared to them he was completely insignificant. That morning when he had started out, he had had the heady feeling that perhaps he was the first big shot – maybe the first person from civilisation – to make the climb. Now he had been told that there had been many officers before him.
“I remember once when one big boss was up here,” continued Binu. “He camped for five full days. It looked as if a new town had sprung up. Hunting and merry-making went on and on without interruption.”
Ramesh sighed softly. So many men had been up here. And left, too. Only the woods remained the same as ever—dense, deep, dark.
“Even the hills are no longer the same, sir. The forests have become thin and ragged, decimated by the Kondhs. Once upon a time the whole place was dotted with Kondh villages, but as the woods thinned, tigers went on the prowl and killed enough people to force the others to move out.”
“The woods seem dense enough to me.”
“It’s not the same as before, sir. These trees have grown from the trunks of those that were cut down.”
That’s the way life goes, Ramesh mused. Men came, penetrated the forests, retreated, came back again; man’s sorrows and joys were not altogether obliterated in the hills; they were simply camouflaged, like a small brook trickling beneath the stones.
Ramesh’s feeling of pride surfaced again and burgeoned into a vast sense of satisfaction: life went on wherever there were people.
Meanwhile a ragged line of ants had emerged from somewhere and were carrying away biscuit crumbs. He watched them with a half-smile. So not only had human beings reached these heights, but ants too. What were the ants looking for at this altitude, nearly four thousand feet above sea level? They reminded him of the purpose of his visit, and he sprang up with a suddenness that startled his peon and the porters.
“Binu,” he inquired. “Are you sure we’ll be able to catch the smugglers red-handed?”
“Yes sir. No matter what tricks they use to smuggle out rice, the entire hoard will first surface in Kaspawalsa market. It’s only ten o’ clock, there’s enough time to swoop down on them. We should be there by two in the afternoon. We’ll catch them all, sir, every one of them. There’s no way they can escape.”
“Fine. Let’s get a move on.”
The rest was too short, but what choice did Binu have. As he rose to his reluctant feet, he took it out on the porters. “Hey there,” he screamed. “Make haste, you lazy louts, will you?”
The Kondhs grumbled: no rest, only run, run. They bared their teeth like monkeys and cursed the peon and his ancestors to perdition, secure in the knowledge that the man could understand nothing of their language. Both the peon and his boss seemed possessed by demons. Who else would be mad enough to run through dense forests and up steep hills just because some poor devils wanted to carry a bit of rice from one place to another! Wasn’t it like trying to catch mice? Didn’t they know that hunger was universal, that it hit people equally everywhere, that it knew no barriers, no boundaries? Why didn’t they understand that whoever wanted to buy rice must be in utter need of it? And what did it matter to the hungry where the rice came from—whether this state or that? They were all part of the same country, after all. And who produced the rice—these fools from the plains, these fools who had fancy notions about themselves? They’d find fault with you for everything, for brewing liquor to felling trees to buying rice to sitting down for a smoke and a rest after you’d carried a heavy load a long, long distance. They’d find fault with you for every damn thing, for being around, for being what you are! That thin stick of a peon, how he barked, and that boss of his, how he ran down the hill!
The Kondhs rose to their feet and, stringing all their complaints against the unfair, unjust ways into an impromptu rhyme, they lifted their voices.
All Ramesh could make out was the refrain: “Baile. . .baile . . .” It had a sweet ring to it. But what did the words mean? Something about their tribal pride?
“Binu,” Ramesh commanded.
Wobbling precariously on the rocks, and silently heaping curses on Ramesh, the peon darted towards him. Fifty-five, if a day, with a smooth bald crown and six precious teeth missing, he obviously did not relish climbing hills. His body ached for a rest, longed to take small, slow steps. But the young and energetic boss was a damn sight too spirited, he didn’t let you catch your breath, he made you seek out untrodden paths. Not only was the boss unhinged, he seemed set to drive everyone else raving mad. Binu sighed. His job was getting tougher by the day. He persisted not so much for the money as for the power; he knew it would vanish the moment his job was gone, and without power he’d be reduced to his tribal self again. He’d be forced to return to those he had once preyed on like a jackal after a tiger has finished with its kill. How he’d hate to become a nonentity again! It was this impulse of fear which in the end drove him to scale hills and thread his way through forests.
“I say, Binu,” said Ramesh, “these people sing very well!”
“Very well indeed, sir.”
“What do the words mean?”
“It’s a festival song, sir.” The peon nodded his turbaned head.
“But what does the song say?”
“The same old thing, sir—boy and girl related stuff!” Binu gave a croak of a laugh. “Like how a boy goes: hey girl, my little mustard flower, I love you! Hey jasmine blossom, when will you come to my place, sweetheart?”
“Do they sing the same song all the time?”
“Yes sir. The same song all the time.”
“What does ‘baile’ mean—mustard flower?”
“You’ve got it, sir. At this rate you’ll be a master of the Kondh language in no time.”
“Even the old fellows are fond of these love songs?”
“No one grows old in this land, sir.”
“Baile” meant mustard flower – Ramesh tried to commit it to memory – and the Kondhs, young or old, sang only love songs.
Binu felt better. He had made a fool of his boss.
After the songs in which they cursed the peon and his boss, the porters made up songs out of their misfortune. Occasionally they ran into people from their tribe on their way to the market; when those people heard the songs they laughed and added couplets of their own. Sometimes the porters fell silent because they were tired of singing, but Binu screamed at them: “Hey lazybones, go on. Don’t stop singing.”
What, one never grew old in this land? Binu fell to thinking about his own lot. His third wife was a pretty young thing. Although his first and second wives were still around, he’d married the third barely a year ago, practically snatching her from the hands of a hopeful suitor by offering her father a fatter bride price. In the jungle country your prowess was the yardstick of your success; and in this game men beat the beasts hollow. Behind all his success – orchards, land, houses, cattle – lurked one lasting regret, however: no children. As he grew older, it hurt all the more. He badly wanted a son. Would his third wife be able to give him one? What might she be doing now, at this moment? Were the other wives being kind to her? Was she happy? Because if she wasn’t she would run away; such things happened often enough. And that young peon, that rascal Bishi, who by some convoluted social relationship claimed to be the third wife’s grandson—might he be dropping in as often to flirt with his pretty little grandmother? Who knew what mischief that good-for-nothing might be up to!
“Why can’t we catch the rice smugglers before they reach the market? They must be hoarding their stock somewhere before carting it off to Madras. Market or no market the merchants could always reach them there, couldn’t they? We’ve already been walking for four days from Koraput, visited so many places, been to so many faraway villages, but how come we haven’t seen a single hoarder?”
“How can they openly transport such large quantities of rice, sir?” Binu regretted it immediately. He himself had sent out nearly one hundred maunds of rice at an exorbitant rate. He sincerely believed that in a society where one had to struggle hard, to dig the earth with one’s own horns as it were, pushing an elbow here, pulling at a leg there, hitching a piggyback ride on some poor devil’s back, cheating or smuggling rice was simply something normal that meant you are smarter than the others. Either that or you remained dirt poor all your life. It was every dog for himself. So putting one’s own interest ahead of the common good was the natural thing to do. Binu was only scared of getting caught someday.
“Sir, actually no one hoards rice in large quantities.” He wanted to play it down. “Otherwise it’d have come to our notice. Once you reach the market you’ll see for yourself that people buy and sell only in small quantities, five or ten sers at the most. The Madras border is only four miles away, and the big merchants assemble on the other side with bullock carts, gunny sacks and money-bags. Small quantities make large quantities; they’re quickly poured into sacks and the sacks are sewn up and loaded onto the carts, which then trundle along to places like Bishakhapatna, Parbatipur, Bobili and Makua. The merchants have their ways of operating, sir.”
“Which means that before the small sellers deliver the rice to the merchants we should pounce on them and confiscate their stock.” His eyes shone with the instinctive brilliance of a seasoned hunter. There was only one thought that nagged at him: why should Orissa rice be allowed to be smuggled out at all? It was like a personal affront.
Just what did he mean by Orissa rice? Which Orissa? The Orissa of the past, of history, with its glorious conquests of lands beyond the Godavari? From the debris of illustrious history his mind turned to the lack-lustre present-day land of Orissa. The only way to lessen the sense of anguish over the present fate of the state was to pour scorn on the neighbouring states.
“They’ve eaten away at the whole country,” he muttered under his breath.
The dark green forests rekindled the hunter in him. The rice smugglers had to be tracked down. “If only I can catch them—” He gritted his teeth. What exactly would he do if he did catch them? He didn’t know himself.
Race down the hill, he exhorted himself. Quickly, swiftly. Down. Further down. The chill and exertions of the journey produced the pleasant sensations of a spring day. Wherever he looked he could see the fullness of beautiful trees. A village at the foot of the hill took his breath away. Mango groves, paddy fields, the smooth harvesting floor, rows of huts. A small child, taking fright at the sight of strangers, burst into tears and scampered away, yelling for his mother. The cattle tethered at their pegs by the roadside, lowed and strained at their ropes. From behind the doors the women watched them warily. But one after another the men came out to meet them.
Ramesh found it to be such a familiar sight. Stopping under the thick shade of a leafy tree, he looked around. The hill in the background seemed to crouch over the village like a monster. Old Binu was panting, the porters were catching up.
“Can we get clean drinking water here, Binu?”
“Of course, sir.” Binu opened his bag, took out a bowl and a tumbler and went into the village. The porters lowered their loads to the ground and rested, wiping off their sweat. Ramesh waited.
In no time a string cot materialised. Someone brought a bowl of warm milk, another a bunch of ripe bananas. Six or seven peasants – Telugu, Oriya, all tribals – begged him: “Sir, it’s too hot already. If you don’t take a break and eat and rest here, the villagers will mind.”
Rest? Ramesh smiled. All along the way he had received similar invitations. Even in the back of beyond, sealed off by forests and hills, human beings still sought out human beings: stranger, stop here for the night; sir, stay awhile in our village.
Ramesh sighed. The shadows of trees, wisps of smoke curling up from thatched roofs, men and women going about their chores. Only he, Ramesh, was a stranger to this world. He was not part of the woods and the hills, either, although surrounded by them on all sides.
He had no time to tarry here, he had to press on. The affection lavished by the village would have to be left behind; maybe its fragrance would follow him for some distance until the breeze chased it away.
Binu returned with water.
Ramesh found it refreshing. “Let’s get going,” he said, wiping his mouth on his sleeve.
An old woman came up and, spreading her arms wide, barred his path. “Leave without a morsel of food at this hour, son?” She had a wonderful warm smile. “That’s not possible. Would you have done this to your own mother? Don’t you have a mother or a sister in this village?”
The crowd tittered.
The old woman, a merry mixture of Kondh, Telugu and Kondadora blood, repeated her question: “Tell me, son, don’t you have a mother or a sister in this village?”
Ramesh could feel shadows swirling beyond the vision of his brooding eyes. “No, no,” he said loudly, but more to himself than to anyone else. “Can’t waste time here. A lot of work to be done.”
The maternal face of the old tribal woman would remain etched in his mind. Only a mother had such a gentle voice, such loving concern, her eyes able to look right into her son’s stomach. No matter the language, the caste, mothers are the same everywhere.
For quite some time he had forgotten all about rice smuggling, but just then he saw some men carrying loads of rice on their heads.
“How far is the market from here, Binu?”
“Not very far, sir. We’re almost there.”
“Be careful, then. Don’t make any noise.”
“Right, sir.” Binu turned to the porters. “Hey, stop singing, and don’t make the slightest noise. Tread as softly as you can.” The peon smiled as if he was a hunter going deep into the forest for big game—all quiet on the outside, very tense within.
Ramesh made a quick review of his plan of action. He couldn’t end the smuggling in one fell swoop; he’d have to think up some permanent measures. He’d prepare a comprehensive report, which would earn him high praise. Praise all the way; a quick climb up the ladder; the sweet smell of success. Why else should one trudge through these inaccessible forests and hills at the height of summer and the depths of winter? He felt like Livingstone out in the Congo, but while the white man had set out to discover the source of a river, he, Ramesh, hoped to stem the tide of rice smuggling. A feeling of well-being surged through him; a sense of self-importance thrilled him.
A little way ahead he noticed a family gathered under a tree; they had just finished cooking and had sat down to eat. A small baby lying on the ground began to bawl, flailing his feeble hands and legs about, and his young mother, pathetically thin, her hair unkempt, got up in the middle of her meal, brushed her ragged sari off her breast and began to suckle the baby. Her withered breasts hung down like half-wet clothes. Cradling her baby, she looked at the approaching party. She seemed to have no body, only an unruly crop of dry, stringy hair and two large eyes without a flicker of curiosity. Although her eyes were open to the outside world, her gaze seemed to be riveted somewhere within, perhaps on the very source of the life-force, where hunger and thirst no longer mattered but from where a tremendous love for her child flowed. The three others – an old couple and a young man – continued eating. They were all skin and bones. Thick thatches of dry, matted hair and eyes as shiny as the white grains of rice on their large round Siali leaves. They were gulping down their food, like dogs. A few dented and chipped aluminum bowls and pots lay scattered around the makeshift oven under the tree. Ramesh found the scene suffocating.
“Who are these people, Binu?” he asked.
“Telugus from down south, sir,” Binu explained. “Hunger has driven them up into the forests. You’ll find groups of such people around everywhere.”
Ramesh was speechless.
Binu turned to the strangers. “Hey, where’re you from?”
After he had repeated the question three times, the old man replied irritably, without taking his eyes off his food, “Simhachalam.”
“That’s some sixty miles away, sir,” Binu explained.
Simhachalam? Hadn’t it once been part of Orissa? Of course. A long, long time ago, though. The past loomed up like a huge hill, then shrank to a tiny speck and finally sank into the ground, leaving a deep depression. Like the sunken eyes of the hungry young mother, oblivious to everything as she continued to suckle her child, running her fingers fondly through his unruly mop of hair. Simhachalam was no longer a part of Orissa, but so what? Wasn’t it still a part of the good old planet earth? Didn’t it have its share of hungry people?
“They’ve taken to roaming the forests in large numbers, sir,” Binu added. “No longer afraid of tigers or bears. It’s their stomachs they’re more afraid of. Hunger is the fiercest of beasts.”
“True,” the porters chimed in a chorus, catching up. “In hunger, as in sorrow, everyone’s the same. Look at us. We’re so hungry. When will you give us some food, peon Sahib?’
Ramesh strode on in silence, his thoughts in a tangle. He wanted to mete out justice but had already forgotten the meaning of it. As an officer, he had always chosen the straight and narrow path of right and wrong, bowing to the rule book, sticking to the hard and fast line of the law; for him looking beyond the law was taboo, an act of blasphemy. Sometimes he found the law diametrically opposed to natural justice, but he had assuaged his conscience by reminding himself that he was a creature of the rules, a small cog in a remorseless wheel. One time he had had to try somebody who, driven by hunger, had stolen something. His young wife, a baby at her breast, had turned up in his court. She had rolled on the floor, begging him to let her husband off. She had no other breadwinner and if her husband went to jail she and the baby would starve to death. But the law said the man should be sent to jail, and that was where Ramesh had sent him. Another time a petty thief with one previous conviction came up for trial. He had been caught lifting a pumpkin from someone’s vegetable patch. Ramesh had handed him a prison sentence of a year because that’s what the law provided for second-time offenders. The law was the law, duty was duty. The smuggling of rice had to be stamped out in the same spirit and a permanent end must be put to it.
He could hear the din of the market at a distance. The stink of raw, untreated hides wafted up and hit his nostrils. Men and women seemed to emerge from the crannies and crevices of the hill, carrying loads on their heads, shoulders, hips—rice bags, children and chickens strung together by their legs. On the winding forest path they appeared one moment and disappeared the next, only to reappear soon after. Ramesh’s heart skipped a beat: the quarry was close at hand.
“Binu!” he hissed and ran down, jumping nimbly from rock to rock.
The market. What a sight! A swirling, eddying throng of busy ants. A riot of colours, smells and noises. A heap of cattle skins lay in a pile, releasing stinking clouds into the air; a school of dried-fish sellers with their smelly merchandise; men and women, as thick as flies, hovering above them; the sharp, penetrating odour of illicit liquor.
He saw a cluster of lepers. He saw several people suffering from yaws, raw red sores on their granite-black backs. He saw a gaggle of clacking black ducks. Men and women jostled, chatted, laughed, moved on.
His eyes fell on a young woman, a robust handsome Kondh beauty, her complexion the kind that would easily put a golden champak flower to shame, but one cheek ravaged by yaws. The other cheek, too, was beginning to turn pink—a matter of months before it, too, went. But she was bursting with life: wild flowers in her hair and dressed in her finery. She wove her way through the crowd, nibbling on a corncob, sending ripples of excitement all around. Her sidelong glances were brazenly inviting.
He leaned against a tree in the middle of the market, his eyes shut. The din was earsplitting. Images crowded his mind: the Kondh beauty, smiles narrowing her eyes and crinkling her one unaffected cheek; a group of merry urchins dancing atop a tired old hill; men in a forest clearing, tending clandestine fires and brewing liquor. His mind began to wander. Weren’t people quite like the paddy plants in the rains—growing taller and raising their heads above the water just when it threatened to overwhelm them? And that incomparable Kondh beauty—cheeks surrendered to yaws, but lips dedicated to sweet smiles. A rose blooming in bleak soil. The petals already darkening at the edges, but what does that matter? The merry laughter and seductive smiles more than make up for everything.
Ramesh opened his eyes.
Binu handed him a cup of tea.
Ramesh looked around. The crowd was even thicker than before.
“Sir,” Binu whispered. “There’s plenty of rice being traded. We’ll catch the smugglers, but not here. The exit at the end of the market is narrow, in a gorge, and there’s a mud hut overlooking it.” He couldn’t help but chuckle. “It’ll be just like waiting for game on a raised platform.”
He steered Ramesh there and produced a chair for him. “Now I’ll go and put the final touches on the arrangements, sir.”
Ramesh looked around. The steep slope of the hill was dotted with isolated huts, and high up there was a village, perhaps a Kondh settlement. String cots in front of open doorways. Idle dogs. A bunch of unruly urchins beating a huge drum. One malarial old man on his doorstep retching onto the ground. An old woman – his wife? – gently thumping him on the back. A goat on top of a mud heap, unmistakably a homestead not long ago, munching green leaves and twigs.
As he watched it all, Ramesh slowly lost track of time. He wiped his face with a handkerchief, blew into it to clear his nostrils of the dust and smell of the market place. The late winter sun was already dipping; the shadows had begun to lengthen. Up above, the little Kondh village with its stark outlines seemed like a painting against the backdrop of an immense void.
There was a sudden burst of wailing, and the villagers shot out of their huts and shanties. The urchins stopped beating the drum. A crowd collected in front of a hut and started a mourning chant, beating their breasts, pulling at their hair and clawing at their cheeks. “Alas, alas! It got him! He’s gone!”
Binu came back. “Have seen to the arrangements, sir. The sepoys will merely have to herd them all down here.”
“Why are they wailing, Binu, those people over there?”
“Somebody must have died, sir. Must be a malaria victim; it’s a big cause of death around here.”
The wailing got to Ramesh. The wheel, he mused, the eternal wheel. Rolling remorselessly on. Death. Birth. Procreation. New. Old. New. Only a change of scene, but the same play. Before his blurred vision rose pictures of Kantipur, his village. He saw his home, his parents, the neighbours, the familiar faces of old men, young men and young girls, the temple in the middle of the village and the cremation ground at the edge. Subject to the same cycle of birth and death. They were the same as the people here: they did nobody any harm, didn’t spoil for a fight, suffered untold miseries through no fault of their own.
A renewed wave of lamentations.
How many people have died already? Just how many? In the darkest night of the year their descendants still light a torch and call out to them: “Ancestors, come visit us, we’ve lit the torch to chase away the darkness and light your path!” Death was the ultimate leveller; it treated all alike. Languages, countries, boundaries made no difference. In death, finally, everyone was equal.
Standing behind him, Binu, too, was lost in his own thoughts. What was he thinking about—his home, his youngest wife, or Bishi the unwelcome visitor? With a sudden violence he slapped himself on the cheek.
Ramesh came out of his reverie.
“Big mosquitoes around here, sir.” Binu rubbed his cheek. “They sting like the devil.”
A shudder shot through Ramesh. His vision blurred again. More pictures: he was in bed with a fever, shaking violently, his eyes red like a kumbhatua bird’s. He slowly turned black as a bear, as his temperature shot past a hundred and three. He had a terrible wish to hit out, to bite and scratch and maul everyone in sight, to lash out, to throw up . . . What next? Raging fever, racing pulse. What next? Death? Then birth again? Life. Death. The eternal cycle. All man-made laws and rules and statutes gone, swept away. Only an unbroken cycle of birth and death, death and birth.
He looked down the hill. The sight was unlike anything he had ever seen. Men and women hurrying away. Hundreds of them. All walking away, into the gathering twilight. An endless line of people. Market-day had ended and people were going home. Didn’t he know each one of them? Didn’t they all have as much misery awaiting them at home as they’d had to put up with outside? Yet they were on their feet, walking along. With the same inarticulate words on their lips: we’re all the same, we all belong to the same species, there’s no difference between us. Their faces so familiar, so like the faces of the people of Kantipur. Like ants, they stopped now and then and looked at each other, exchanging a word here, a smile there, perhaps telling one another that they were all alike, all using their legs to walk, hands to carry, eyes to see, that the earth under the sky was the same everywhere, that their only enemies were those who stole the food out of their mouths or crushed them under their heels or poured blazing embers onto their heads.
An endless line of hurrying, scurrying ants.
In the depths of his heart Ramesh felt a spark come to life—a flame aglow with smiles.
There was a sudden commotion. The sepoys came into sight prodding and pushing a gaggle of men and women burdened with bags and baskets. In the next moment Ramesh was transformed back into the stern government officer that he was. He stood rigidly as the sepoys saluted him.
“The sepoys will herd them here in groups, sir,” Binu said.
Ramesh remained silent.
“Sir,” a sepoy said. “These people are very cunning. They were trying to smuggle rice. Just look into their bags and baskets, sir. Below a thin layer of chillies, or turmeric, or tobacco leaves, they’re full of rice. They buy rice up here in the hills for a song and sell it down in the plains at a hefty profit. Bloodsuckers, sir.”
Ramesh stared at them, at the bloodsuckers. Living skeletons, every one of them. Their bones jutted out like sticks, their wrinkled skin hung down like flapping bats, their shrunken bellies stuck to their backs. Shocks of unkempt hair and burning holes for eyes. Were they human at all? Ghosts more likely. And in the inchoate language of phantoms they were crying out to him, begging him, flailing their long, stick-like arms, beating their shrivelled stomachs, making mysterious gestures.
A fresh outburst of lamentations. Much closer this time. Perhaps the body had been taken out of the hut. Ramesh looked up. A bunch of men and women were walking ahead of the corpse, throwing their heads back and forth, wailing in a chorus: “Dead. Gone. Dead. Gone.”
He looked down.
At the mouth of the narrow exit there stood a bunch of living ghosts. All of them lifting their voices in hoarse whispers: “Leave us, sir. Lord and master . . .” What language was it—Telugu?
“Silence!” Binu and the sepoys commanded them. “Now open up your bags, sacks and baskets. Come on, hurry up . . .”
Ramesh felt dizzy. An enormous fatigue had taken over him. His eyes closed, and the visions appeared: a writhing grey mass of men and women, a luscious cheek lost to yaws, smiles, the flapping of wrinkled skin, feverish eyes burrowing into their sockets, funeral lamentations, cries of hunger and poverty, the fire and the fury raging in the recesses of sunken souls.
“Sir! Lord and master!” The whispers rose to a crescendo.
What did they want? For him to take a good look at them, at their condition?
A tall, stick-thin old man, black as charcoal, elbowed his way to the front and began to shake like a palm tree in high wind. His reed-like hands shot above his head and he bent over and doubled, as if broken in half. “Lord and master!” His empty voice broke into a long litany which Ramesh couldn’t follow. What was the grotesque old man trying to say? But then, was language needed to understand his piteous cries? The fellow hit his head on a stone, rolled his eyes to the heavens, and flailed his hands and legs.
Hadn’t Ramesh seen this familiar apparition before, this image of a starving wretch? Weren’t all these people familiar? Weren’t they from his own home, his own village, these creatures of suffering and deprivation? That bent-back man over there—didn’t he look like Uncle Sapani? The same shock of matted hair, the same stubble of unkempt beard, the same jutting bones. Only this one looked a shade more defeated, perhaps a bit hungrier, and certainly more terrified at the spectre of death. And that one there with a curling moustache—didn’t he look like the old blacksmith from Kantipur?
Only the other day all these bags of bones had been sturdy young fellows, stealing into groves and gobbling up unripe guavas, and these women, who looked like overturned canoes, had been in full bloom, competing with one another to be the first to go out and collect dry twigs and wood in the forest.
“Go away,” Ramesh began to scream, his eyes shut, hanging his head. “Go away, all of you.”
Binu winced. What had come over the boss? Asking the smugglers to go away? “Sir!” He cried. “Sir!”
“Leave them alone. Let them go home. It’s getting dark.”
The peon’s lips curled in derision. This boss man was no good. Too young, too soft, his moustache tender. A boss must be like a tiger. But this one? Hah! Binu had taken his measure.
Ramesh stood staring ahead. The history of Orissa had evaporated. There was no past—no Kapilendradev, no Purushottamadev, no Konark, no land, no country, no language, nothing. Only ants. Ants, ants and more ants. Ants everywhere. Hungry ants, hurrying, scurrying, carting away tiny morsels of food. An endless line of ants, crawling away, coming together, dispersing, gathering again, in an unceasing expedition—all they wanted was to survive.
Ramesh gave a start, a chill ran through his body.
The sun had gone down, the day was done. A film of fog was falling over the hills. Another cold night was coming on.