“Wait a second,” I called out. “Please.”
“Don’t worry,” Dutta answered. “I’m not leaving you behind.
Besides, there’s nothing to be afraid of.”
“Sure thing, nothing to be afraid of. It’s just this bloody shoe of mine. The lace has come untied.”
“That’s all right,” he grunted, slowing down. “Take your
I couldn’t for the world imagine why I lied about the lace,
since it was the shoe itself that was pinching my right foot. Not simply pinching—it was hurting, my old shoe was, and badly.
I bent down to fiddle with the lace, pretending to tie it. It was then I fixed my gaze on my companion’s smooth, well-draped back, held so stiff and straight, so large that it blocked out everything else in my line of vision. Damn, I muttered under my breath. Damn, if only I’d known….
There was the sound of firing and people scrambling for cover. I quickened my pace and almost tripped over a basket. What the hell was a stupid old basket doing in the middle of the sidewalk?
Dutta turned around. “Sorry,” he said. “It’s not far from here.
The car’s parked just around the corner. Near the Bata store.”
Not far! Like hell, I thought, catching up with him. How could he have noticed how far we’d already gone—since he knew all
the crooked lanes and by-lanes of the city like the back of his hand. Oh, the vanity of the man! If only I had had an inkling of all this, I wouldn’t have put my right foot forward.
Bata Square wore a deserted look. The shops had been shuttered, and the pavement hawkers had vanished. Right in the middle of the road, a mangy pariah stood waving its clipped tail like a banner of freedom. Fine show, I thought. But what was that fellow in a lungi, leaning against the lamppost, up to? What was that in his hand? A stone or something else?
All this seemed a hoax—this broad deserted street, this sudden lull, this cessation of activities. People in lungis and towels swarmed the lines, itching for action. To pitch in at the right moment. To usher in the revolution.
The revolution! The revolution, I panted euphorically. My companion didn’t believe in it. Naturally.
He put his hand on my shoulder, and I started. No thanks, I thought, as I wriggled free. Don’t expect me to follow in your footsteps. To hell with the crap of your camaraderie.
He put his hand on my shoulder again. I shrugged it off, and
he got the message.
The din caught up with us from behind. Chased from their hideouts, people were scurrying across the street. I panicked.
Dutta grabbed me from behind. “Don’t,” he instructed, looking me in the eye. “Walk. Don’t break into a run. Unless you want to get royally screwed, that is.”
I stole a glance at the mob and cursed myself. If my bloody shoe hadn’t been hurting me, I could have walked as fast as Dutta. Or for that matter, as fast as anyone in the mob. As one of them. Drunk as they were with the heady wine of revolution. With the police giving us chase, a run for our lives. With all their sticks, rifles, tear gas shells and what not. And how many would be gunned down? We weren’t one, two or three—we were many: thousands, millions. Five hundred million. We might stumble and fall, but we’d rise again. Like ghosts we’d rise and plunge back into the struggle.
Sounds of gunfire. Clip-clop of charging horses. Smoke of
tear gas shells.
They poured into the streets, hands raised in abject surrender, looking over their shoulders for the police. They were there—all around, encircling, engulfing us.
Two policemen ran past, brandishing their sticks and shields. My heart jumped. I raised my hands, spitting amply to show my disgust. Let them see my disrespect for cops, for the agents of law and order, for the whole system. But did the mob ever notice? Did it have eyes and ears? And the companion of mine—that robot—how he strutted, grunted and stared straight ahead, stiff as a poker, looking neither this way nor that!
I called out not to God but to History. Take me out of here, I begged. Put me in your chariot and drive me to where the action is. Let me do something. Anything. Any little thing.
And here was my companion pushing me towards his goddamn car. Phew! Who wants your car, buddy? Get me a fighter bomber. Or at least a helicopter. But I know you can’t, and I have to choose between your car and walking; so I suppose your bloody car will have to do. Better than walking so disgracefully, like POWs.
A volley of shellfire. More smoke. More burning eyes. Hell, where was the car? I wondered. How far away?
Dutta was unruffled as we weaved through the unruly throng. “Thank you,” I said, when we reached his car.
It was one of those sleek imported ones, squatting in profound unconcern, beyond the pale of revolution. My blood boiled. Had it been necessary to bring out this eyesore today of all days? Wasn’t he offensive enough in his immaculate Saville Row suit? Why, who the hell did he think he was? Look here, you running dog of capitalism, I told him off silently. You fully deserve to be punished. Surely you’ve brains enough to understand this, haven’t you? But arrogance got the better of your discretion, I guess. Never mind, it’s none of my business to point this out.
He opened the door and I sank into the seat. The upholstery was so plush and velvety that for a moment I was afraid I might drop off to sleep, consigning myself to the inviting arms of oblivion and turning my back on the struggle, the revolution. But I caught hold of myself. How could I forget my identity just because I happened to be
in this fellow’s company by the oddest of chances? Maybe right then, trapped inside his car, I was undone, but I could never forget that my place was with the nameless, faceless masses outside being clubbed to death by the cops. Let no one imagine I’d already jumped onto Dutta’s bandwagon.
I began to curse myself for having relished the comforts of
Dutta rolled up the windows. Through the smoked glass I
looked at the mob. At my brothers, my brothers-in-arms. Couldn’t they see me? Couldn’t they see my sympathies were with them? Listen brothers, I’ll never break with you. How could I? I, who, not so long ago, was a village schoolmaster and am now an upper division clerk here in Calcutta?
I caught sight of myself in the car mirror. My sharp little face with its prominent cheekbones, a hint of fire in my narrow eyes, and my close-cropped hair sticking out like porcupine quills. Surely no one would confuse me with my companion, with his sleek, smooth, well- cared-for looks!
As Dutta started the car, I saw something that had escaped my notice—at the far end of the street a car had been set ablaze.
“There, there!” I plucked at his sleeves. “Do you see that?”
It didn’t seem to bother him. “Yes,” he said casually. “We’ll take a different route.”
What could I do in the face of such cold arrogance? I wished he’d laughed or been flippant so I could have taken him on, but he hadn’t obliged. Let this awful journey be over quickly, I prayed.
Battle was raging in Bata square. I turned my face away. There was not a cop in sight. The roar was deafening.
We approached a narrow lane, where life seemed untouched by the storm. Naked children with big bulging eyes roamed about. A small thatched shop sold bananas and packets of dust tea. A decrepit old woman, her wispy hair flying in the breeze, stood on a veranda. How nice it would be to stop here and take shelter in one of these cool recesses, I thought, until it all blew over.
The traffic on the road had thinned, just a couple of police vans and ambulances. Our car pressed majestically ahead. Dutta
refrained from blowing the horn—we had a stake in not proclaiming our royal presence. But how could a Nandighosh of a car like his escape notice? True, the revolutionaries, the activists, had been left behind. But who could say there weren’t some waiting in the wings to have a go at us?
I looked out of the window. The sky was achingly blue, with no hint of smoke anywhere. Cows grazed on the Maidan, lowing with satisfaction. The guns were dead.
My heart gave a lurch. Doubts assailed me. Had it already petered out, the revolution? Or was it just a dream? Don’t tell me this companion of mine would swagger through this storm without turning a hair, as if it was all just an awful lot of hot air! Don’t tell me he’d prove once again that the elephant—with its size, trunk and tusks
—was more powerful than the ants! Oh, this damned elephant—his bloody size, his bloody nonchalance.
I writhed in shame. Upendra Das, I told myself, you’ve contributed in no mean measure to this fellow’s victory. In fact, you’ve brought it about. And you’ve saved your own skin by clutching to his tail. Man, how are you going to explain yourself on the day of reckoning before the People’s Court?
The further we drove, the cooler the air seemed, and the more my anger grew. The winds of peace had swept away the pungent smell of the struggle.
We passed a pond. A herd of swans were gliding about
The devil in me stirred. I had a tremendous urge to wring
my companion’s swan-like neck. That’d be great, I thought. Imagine people reading in the papers that a poor little clerk named Upendra Das had finished off a capitalist right in his lair, strangling him on the plush seat of his imported car!
A young boy emerged from nowhere and ran across the road, shouting something I couldn’t make out. But I had a feeling he too was in the struggle, although he carried no arms. Maybe he was just a herald, a town crier.
Something hit our car, and I started. Before I could collect my wits, another stone went whistling by. I ducked. It narrowly missed
Then I saw the fellow. He wasn’t wearing a lungi or a towel, but a pair of tight trousers. His long hair fell over his face like storm clouds and his deep-set eyes smoldered with hatred.
A shiver ran down my spine and my skin broke out in gooseflesh. I looked at Dutta out of the corner of my eye: how he’d have loved to squash the stone-thrower like a bug!
How I loathed Dutta at that moment. Please, God, I prayed, let there be more stones. The more the merrier. I wouldn’t care if my head was split open; as long as cool, unexcitable Dutta hadn’t been made to buckle under, I’d know no peace. I wanted him to grovel, to throw himself on the mercy of the stone-thrower, the protagonist of the revolution.
As if in answer to my prayer, a huge stone landed on the windshield. I ducked, half expecting the splinters to pierce our heads. But nothing happened. The glass merely cracked.
“The bastard doesn’t know this is Triplex Glass,” Dutta
muttered through his teeth.
I had lost my tongue and my whole body was shaking. There, there, Dutta, I wanted to tell him. You’re dead wrong. The stone is mightier than the Glass. Besides, two stones are not the end of it; there’ll be plenty more where they came from. Oh, you poor bastard, you’re going to die, you see. Maybe I will too. That can’t be helped, I guess. But as long as you end up dead, I couldn’t care less.
Then I saw him, the genie, looming large in front of the car out of nowhere, a round object in his hand.
What was it—a stone, a bomb? Oh God! Yes, a bomb. Why, no one would survive the blast, to see the bloody mess he’d be reduced to! Bang and you’re gone! No! No, no! Listen, friend. Listen to me. I’m in your camp, and I certainly am…am not afraid to die for the cause. But this bomb and stuff—why, it’s madness! Sheer madness.
“Stop,” I screamed.
A hiss that would have put a snake to shame escaped Dutta’s clenched teeth. Suddenly, he stepped on the accelerator.
Was he going to mow the fellow down? One of those desperate do-or-die attempts? Why, this man must be crazy, completely out of
I tried to stop him. He pushed me away. I screamed—or rather howled—that both of them were crazy fools. Crazy. Fools. By God!
Vaguely I heard a police van screech to a halt. A shot went off. Someone fell with a thud. I thought Dutta slapped me. Or maybe he only screamed into my ears. I saw the road was splattered with blood. I tried to jump out of the car, before passing out cold.
When I came to, I found myself flat out on a string cot in a tin shed. Standing over me, Dutta was panting, and over his shoulder, a Sikh was smiling benignly.
The whole scene was so nauseating and so unlike me that although my head was splitting I sat up. “Come on,” I croaked. “Nothing’s the matter with me. Let’s push off.”
“Sure thing!” Dutta said gravely, putting his arm around me. “I guess we should.”
The Sikh smiled. “Thank your lucky stars you got off so lightly.”
It revived me wonderfully, did Dutta’s touch. I was glad to be alive, glad to have him around. Maybe the chap wasn’t as despicable a creep as I’d imagined.
Dusk was falling. We decided to walk to Dutta’s sister-in-law’s place, which he said was not very far. He entrusted his broken-down car to the care of the Sikh. The two of them seemed to have struck up an enviable rapport. What made them behave like Bhima and Arjuna? But my head was splitting and I was on the verge of fainting from hunger. I had no inclination to pursue my investigation.
Anuradha. That was Dutta’s sister-in-law’s name. One look at her as she opened the door and I was convinced she was just the kind to be Dutta’s sister-in-law. Lucky dog, I thought. Anuradha was tall, slender, statuesque. She had deep black eyes, a graceful gait and a husky voice. Damn it, she knew all too well how good-looking she was. I couldn’t say for sure which of them was more self-possessed— Dutta or his sister-in-law. Dutta was apt to lose his cool under trying circumstances. He fumed and fretted. But not Anuradha. What care did she have, this pretty, protected, lovable doll?
I didn’t doubt her smile to me was any less inviting than the
one to her brother-in-law. Its warmth began to seep into me.
And, again, when she turned and showed us a liberal chunk of her velvety, scantily covered back, I felt the display was not entirely for her brother-in-law’s benefit.
Ten brief minutes in her company and I felt so expansive, I began to look upon her as my own sister-in-law. Why the hell not? I thought. Hadn’t both Dutta and I been through the same trouble? Didn’t I relish her charms as much as Dutta did? Wasn’t I as pleased as Dutta to relish her proximity? Didn’t I appreciate her ikebana, her Van Gogh, her Moghul miniatures, her books (oh, she had a copy of War and Peace!) in her cozy little drawing room as much as her brother-in- law did? A shade more, if you ask me. Dutta didn’t know more about any of these things than I did, did he?
On her bookshelf, I spotted the tome on classical drama I had once helped Dutta buy. That reminded me of our first encounters, in a downtown bookshop. Dutta was frantic, unable to choose the best among the dozen or so books on classical drama the shop had to offer. I thought I ought to pitch in, and I did. One thing led to another and soon we were asking each other where we worked and all that. “Good God,” he said, discovering our offices were in the same building. “Why, we’re neighbours. I suppose I could call on your help in the future if I want to buy books. You wouldn’t mind, would you?” Of course not, why on earth would I?
I cast an appreciative glance around. The drawing room had been done up with taste. The sister-in-law was gorgeous. I did have a hand here, I thought dreamily. An unobtrusive hand, a tiny hand. Behind the books, maybe. Good enough.
“Please have another sandesh,” Anuradha offered. “No thanks,” I murmured.
“Never say no to Anu’s sandesh,” laughed Dutta. “It’s famous the world over. By God, if I’d known that before getting married….”
“What would you have done?” Anuradha fluttered her eyelashes. “Come on, out with it. Has the cat got your tongue?”
I enjoyed their delicious banter.
“O thou vain woman!” Dutta declaimed theatrically. “Save me from my shyness so that I may pour my heart out.”
Anuradha was not to be outdone. “O thou large-hearted one!” she said in a singsong voice. “Arise and speak up. Thou art no coward, though thou hast returned from the battle with thy chariot mangled.”
They broke into peals of laughter. I found myself joining in too. Then I had a great urge to round it off with: ‘And thou hast dispatched to his death some poor man!’
Goodness gracious, I thought, resisting the temptation. Why was I always such a wet blanket? Why did I always make heavy weather of everything? Was I certain Dutta had really bumped that fellow off ? “How about coffee?” Anuradha asked, leaning forward towards me. “Espresso or plain?” Her slender light-brown neck
exuded an aroma of coffee.
“Espresso,” I mumbled. “Thank you.”
As we waited for the coffee, the devil within me started pestering me. But I decided to be firm. What the hell—that fellow had tried to use a bomb against us and met a violent fate. What was there to be upset about? One of us had to die. Besides, Dutta did not gun the fellow down. It must have been the police.
I was curious to know the details. What had happened to the fellow with the bomb? What had happened to me? Where did the blood come from? How had the Sikh come into the picture?
But I didn’t ask Dutta.
He had offered Anuradha nothing beyond the information that we’d been in a bit of a tight spot. If he took it so cool, I thought, then why the hell shouldn’t I? Why do I have to knit my eyebrows, let my coffee go cold and behave generally like a big bore? Why should my hostess come to the conclusion that I was a…?
Now, now! The devil piped up from within. Upendra Das, how could you think Dutta would gloat about his heroics? What? Did you forget he’s an old war-horse, a regular blue-blooded one here and that you’re not in the same league? So shut the hell up and sip your coffee.
All right, all right. I snapped back at him. Very well then, I’ll sit silently and sip my coffee. I’ll drown myself in this heady air of levity, laughter and lust. I’ll let myself go. I’ll bloody hell do as I please. Damn it, I too could be a hero like Dutta here. Give me a
house brimming with books and paintings, a sleek automobile with shatterproof glass, handsome looks that inspire awe and respect in others, including bloody cops; throw in a sister-in-law like this one here, and I’ll show you. You can make a hero out of a worm if you grant him all these.
I looked out of the window. Everything was deathly quiet. The struggle seemed to have fizzled out, and an air of defeat hung heavily in the air. The battle cries had stopped.
This chilled me. But then what could I do? I muttered under my breath, as if I’d been asked for an explanation. I didn’t say I was a leader. Or a hero either. I couldn’t have done anything for the cause. Therefore, as far as I’m concerned, there was no desertion. Although technically I belong to their ranks, my dreams soar beyond their expectations. What I look forward to is prosperity, not poverty. True, I have a house of my own, but not one with carpets and air-conditioners. No porticoes, no balconies. No, not yet. My house is more a hovel, without a sofa set, or even a decent table. In the front room—couldn’t call it a drawing room by any stretch of imagination—hangs a dim electric bulb, thanks to my wife’s drive for cutting down on expenses. It dampens my reading, the only passion I’ve still managed to retain. Books are something I really love. People like Dutta hang on to my advice while buying books. I don’t buy many myself, I can’t afford to. I borrow. My bookshelf is not stacked with expensive leather-bound first editions. Then there’s art. Now art is something I do know a little something about; I recognise a master the moment I see one. But I don’t possess a piece of painting myself. Tell me, why shouldn’t I have had all these? They were within my reach, weren’t they? Of course they were. If only I’d persevered a little more, just a little more….Now, you’ve got me, don’t you? If it came to choosing a path, I guess I would opt for this one. It would be a lot easier; the climbing would not be difficult; besides, one would become a hero much faster, almost overnight. Oh boy, once I became a hero…! Then I’d ride the crest of the revolution. Folks, just you watch and wait, you’ll all be blessed. Got it now? Look, I swear there’d be no repetition of what happened today.
Dutta and his sister-in-law were looking out the window.
Dutta kept glancing at his watch. I wondered who they were expecting. “It’s not that late,” said Dutta. “He might arrive any moment
“I know,” she smiled. “There’s every reason why he should be
delayed tonight. He has to count the heads, you know….”
“Subhas Mitra,” he said, turning to me with a smile. “Our precious sister-in-law’s hubby. An opportunist, if ever there was one. Secret police, if you please. He’ll give us the real low-down. You’ve heard of him, haven’t you?”
No, I answered in my mind. I haven’t. Nor do I wish to. What are you up to, Dutta—trying to drive me away from here, huh? Why mention the police? Do you imagine I’ll take to my heels, racked by the memories of the gruesome afternoon? Damn you, man. You won’t succeed in your little games. I’ll close my ears to you, I mustn’t get worked up. No Subhash Mitra with his gory statistics is going to intimidate me.
A thin smile curled Anuradha’s lips, as if she was tickled by her husband’s bizarre profession. Dutta, done with his nasty trick of trying to scare me, was now leafing through a glossy magazine.
I stared at them. So cool, I thought, so unflappable, both of them. So much at ease, so full of bluff. Why, that’s the stuff heroes are made of. The whole bloody breed of heroes—the industrialist, the capitalist, the dogs of the capitalist, his police, his women. Didn’t I know that? Of course, what I’d learnt today was more useful and I’d never forget it. No, I wouldn’t budge from here. I’d sit back and watch them. How about another round of coffee, Anuradha? My dear, did you smile, or just smack your pretty lips? None of these tricks with me, please. Don’t try to distract me. Can’t you see how much I desire you and the splendours of your world? They’re within my reach, aren’t they? Just a few more steps to climb, and….
Dutta ambled over and put his hand on my shoulder. ‘How do you feel?’ he said. “It’s getting late, you know. Don’t you want to go home?” Not waiting for my reply, he continued, “I’m afraid you’ll have to leg it. Take the Lower Circular Road. Where did you say you lived—Mominpur, is that right? Well, that’s not very far. Shouldn’t take you long. But remember not to keep looking over your shoulder.”
I didn’t move. Did I have to leave? My heart sobbed. Oh, did I have to? What if I forgot these blessed folks before I reached home? What if those…those I didn’t want to remember stole back into my mind?
Anuradha smiled her cheesy grin and implored me to call on her sometime. Dutta came down to see me off at the gate.
The street wore a deserted look. Strewn all around under the
lampposts were shards of broken glass and stones mocking the sky. “Don’t run,” Dutta reminded me. “Walk. The road’s straight.
Never show you’re nervous.”