It was the beginning of the last year of the last century. Our state was governed by the Leftist political party. I was then working as a Lecturer in English at a Government college in Kolkata. One morning I was terribly perturbed to read in both the English and Bengali newspapers a piece of horrifying news about our village, Ijjatpur, which was some 250 kilometres away from Kolkata. I learnt that Asish Ghosh, the local leader of the ruling party, was killed by some boys of our village. The newspapers reported that “primary investigation confirms that it is the offshoot of a long-standing political rivalry between the loyalists of the ruling party and the supporters of the opposition, the latter supposedly propped up by the coal muffias and the Maoists.”
I immediately called Bipadtaran, my most intimate friend in the village, because I needed to know in detail the state of affairs as they stood there in our village, and more importantly, because I needed to talk to my aged and ailing parents, through his phone, because they could not operate a cell phone, and landline telephones had not yet arrived within a radius of ten kilometres of our village. Bipadtaran received my call, but he said he was not in a position to talk to me then. He promised that he would call me at night.
What Bipadtaran narrated to me over the phone at night upset me like never before. He told, “You know, Asish Ghosh was a Hitler. He was the most notorious and tyrannical leader in the entire area of about twelve villages around. All the people of all these villages had completely surrendered to his despotic rule. But, you know the nature of the boys and men of our village. They’re stubborn. They wouldn’t succumb to him. They’d been fighting unequal battles with the accomplices and henchmen of Asish Ghosh and his party for the last ten to twelve years. Recently, the tyranny of Asish Ghosh went beyond the limit of their patience and tolerance. The boys became desperate and killed him with hand-made bombs last afternoon, when he came to our village accompanied only by his bodyguard.”
“I’ve read it in the newspapers. What happened after that?” I asked Bipadtaran impatiently.
He resumed, “Soon after that, thousands of men armed with bombs and guns—guns of various types and bombs of different sizes— assisted by hundreds of policemen stormed our village. The boys of our village tried hard to resist the attack. But, very soon, they had to give up and flee the village, because all their arms and ammunitions were spent up in no time. I had to flee too. So, what I shall be telling you is what I heard later from my wife.”
I didn’t interrupt Bipadtaran. He went on:
“After that our village was completely captured by the supporters of the ruling party and policemen. All the houses — barring those few of the supporters of Asish Ghosh and his party — were thoroughly looted and then set on fire. They heard the sound of trucks and lorries. Of things being packed into them. The looting continued for the whole night. They heard the sound of big things like almirahs, things made of iron, utensils, all being packed into trucks and lorries. There were the sounds of cows and buffaloes, and goats and sheep, and ducks and hens and dogs and men. And there was fire. Most of the women and some old men took shelter in our house, although your parents didn’t come out of their house.
With the approach of the dawn, the noise began to subside. There was almost no human voice; only the sound of the hissing of fire as it spread from one house to another. They understood that the predators had left. Suddenly they heard a knocking at the door — repeated and insistent but not violent. Someone said from the other side of the door:
Boudi, please open the door…Boudi, please…I’m Bhonku. I’ve been shot in my leg. I can't walk. Be quick.
My wife hurriedly went downstairs, opened the door, and came back after a few minutes, holding Bhonku limping, his right leg bleeding profusely.She carried Bhonku inside the hall. Bhonku lay on the floor. He went on bleeding. My wife found out a sari, and wrapped it up thickly around his thigh. But the bleeding didn’t stop. Some women, sure that there was no man left in the village to help them, lifted Bhonku onto a rope cot, and at once went out, carrying him to the doctor at Gorabazaar, each of the four women holding a leg of the cot on her shoulder. Adori, Bhonku’s mother, followed them, gasping in muffled sobs, and praying to the gods continually in whispers.
All other women came out. They were struck dumb on seeing the condition of the village. You cannot imagine. Even tigers and wolves would not have been so cruel to men. The houses with hey roofs were reduced to ashes. The tin-roofed houses were blackened and smoking still. The roofs of the pucca houses were damaged with dynamites. The whole village had turned into an ash-heap. This year we had bumper crops. The harvest was good, and done in time. Almost every house had plenty of paddy sheaths kept in huge and neatly arranged mounds. They were about to begin the threshing work. But everything’s finished.”
“What about our house?” I couldn’t wait to ask Bipadtaran.
I had got a two-storeyed pucca house built for my parents, because they refused to come to live with me in Kolkata, because they hated the idea of having to leave the place where they’d spent the major part of their lives until they’d grown old. I also got a handpump set up for water of a very high quality. My parents were happy and proud.
The phone was disconnected. I called back Bipadtaran. He received my call at once, and informed me that a large portion of the roof of our house showed a gaping hole so that one could see the sky through it, because they blasted it with dynamite. The floors of the rooms had been dug with sharp crowbars and pickaxes, and the handpump was broken.
“What about my parents? Are they physically alright? I’m going tomorrow.” I said.
“No. No. Please don’t come now. We’ve heard that the police camp is going to be set up in our village from today itself, and the supporters of the ruling party have decided that they’re not going to allow any boy above ten or any man below seventy to enter into the village. But, don’t worry. Your parents are physically alright. My wife and other women are in constant touch with them. Let things become a little normal, and then I’ll let you know. You come then. I’ll call you later.” Bipadtaran said and hung up the phone.
I had been trying to contact Bipadtaran for three-four times every week ever since then. But I couldn’t get through to him. Every time I pressed his number, I heard a mechanical, recorded voice telling me, “The number you have dialed is invalid. Please check the number and dial again.” Nor did I find any more news regarding our village in any of the newspapers. One day, after more than three months had passed, I hit upon an idea. I decided to go to the colliery where Bipadtaran used to work as a mechanic. The colliery was about five kilometres before our village.
I reached Pandavpur Colliery much earlier than I had expected. I didn’t like collieries. I hated the scattered heaps of black dust. When the winds blew hard, the dust would assail my face and eyes. So many years had passed after I left my village in my boyhood years. So many times had the river that flowed by the Pandavpur Colliery run dry and so many times had it become filled to the brim with water again. But the Colliery sites had remained unchanged. The same sight: lorries waiting in queue to be filled with coal, an uncouth, shabby, worn out, sulking goods train standing immobile on the track at some distance, loud and harsh and grating sounds of gigantic machines and yellow dumper trucks adding to the irritation of air around the place, a few people in dirty half-pants, coal-dust-covered white vests and cap-lamps tied to their helmets, walking towards the mine-shaft or rising out of it like apparitions.
I went straight to the office, where all the workers had to sign or put their Thumb Impression in a fat register before joining their works for the day. There was only a bald-headed, bespectacled, unshaven, middle-aged man calculating something on the unprinted space of a newspaper with his pen, his head bent down on some numbers written by him. He raised his head, adjusted his glass, and looked at me:
“Does some Bipadtaran Adhikary work in this Colliery? He’s a Fitter or Mechanic or something like that.”
Bipadtaran told me that everybody in his Colliery knew him, and that the engineers themselves couldn’t do without him. Whenever a machine would go out of order, the educated, high-salaried engineers would work hard for hours to mend it. And when they would be sweating hard, they would look for Bipadtaran, who would go, observe the thing carefully for some time, and would set it right in half an hour.
“Has he come today?” I asked the pot-bellied man.
“Yes, yes. I’ve seen him in the morning. Why?” He responded without looking at me.
“I’m his friend. I stay in Kolkata. I want to meet him.” I said promptly.
The man opened a thick register, checked something page after page, stopped his thumb at a point, underscored a line in it with his forefinger, consulted his watch, and assured me that Bipadtaran would come to that room after about half an hour more. He offered me a chair, and asked me to sit down there and wait. Then he stood up, scratched his hairy tummy like a monkey, and moved out of the door.
Bipadtaran came after about twenty minutes, signed the register, and no sooner did he look at me than he shouted, “Arrey, it’s you, Sisir! So wonderful to meet you! How long have you been waiting here? Why didn’t you call me? Oh! I’m sorry. How will you? I lost my phone some three months back. I’ve bought a new mobile and got a new number too. I had to. Hope you understand. But I’ve lost all the numbers, including yours. So, I couldn’t contact you.”
“How long will you have to work today? Eight hours?”, I asked.
“Arrey, don’t worry. I won’t work for that long today. I’ll just go to the underground pit once to repair a machine. Maximum, one hour. And I’ll be back. You just see the places around…Or, do one thing. Have you ever seen what an underground pit of a colliery looks like?” He asked.
“No.” I said. “Can I go with you to the place where you’ll be working?”
“Of course, you can. Arrey, you are Bipadtaran’s friend! Don’t worry. I’ll arrange.” Bipadtaran went out to talk to the man who had asked me to sit in the chair and wait for him.
He came back in a minute, and asked me to keep my bag in the office and get ready.
I’d visit the underground Pit of a colliery! Excited by the new thrill, I almost forgot why I had come there. I was extremely curious to see how so much of coal was dug out from under the earth on the surface of which men walked and played and buses plied and trains ran. It would be like diving into the Unconscious of the human psyche. I was made to wear a helmet, and a Cap Lamp was tied around my head so that the lamp was just above my forehead to light the path ahead of him. They made me wear a thick and wide black belt around my waist to support a heavy battery for the lamp too. I wondered whether thus dressed I didn’t look like Shashi Kapoor or Shatrughan Sinha in the Bollywood film Kaala Paththar. I got into a roofless lift, walled on three sides up to the waist level. It began to glide down and down, down and further down, till it struck the underground floor with a thud. Bipadtaran held my right hand, and asked me to walk carefully and to keep away from the haulage line, because huge iron trollies packed with coal might come along that track any time. With these words of caution, he left, and was immediately lost in the darkness. Initially I saw a few pillars and posts in the faint light over my head. But then as I proceeded farther and farther into the densely dark dungeon inside the invisible intestines of the earth, all I could see in the feeble light of the Cap Lamp were vaults and caverns of condensed blackness. It was a darkness visible to anyone who had eyes to see, a darkness with which were built the roof over my head, the path under my feet, and the walls all around me, a darkness I could touch and hold tight and twist hard or cut with a knife into slices and put some of them into my pockets. It was a darkness that would give a creep even to the ghastliest of ghosts, a darkness that transformed my hands and feet and head and my whole body into coal. Even if the sun could somehow for once be coaxed to come into this primordial and prehistoric cell of darkness, it would itself be immediately metamorphosed into coal. I feared that I might stumble upon the mounds of darkness and my knees might get bruised. I feared that I might fall into the wells of darkness and would have to swim desperately till I would get exhausted and drown there. While wading through the waves of intangible tar, I timidly lifted my left hand to touch the concrete slabs of darkness forming the roof and the walls of the infernal tunnel. I had a turbid glimpse of a few angels of darkness pushing trollies loaded with coal. I thought they were real heroes, engaged in the brave task of digging out black diamond from the unyielding, interminably vast appendices of the mother earth, and hauling it up to the men above, men who would use it as fuel to get fire, the source of light, and the source of life. I thought they were greater heroes than Prometheus. After sometime, I began to suffer from claustrophobia. I felt as if the long, monstrous hands of darkness were stretched to strangle me. I do not remember after how long and from which direction Bipadtaran came back to me and took me out of the Shaft, but I knew that for a few nights after this visit to the endless domain of darkness, I would often wake up from sleep, sit on the bed, and sweat heavily.
While following Bipadtaran silently out of the precincts of the Colliery, I saw a strange sight. Many men were standing in a long queue facing an open-windowed counter. A few muscular men looking like goons were standing close beside the line at a regular gap of about three to four feet. At a little distance from the queue, a drunken, bare-bodied man in a soiled half-pant was sitting on his knees, holding the feet of one of the men, sobbing constantly, and appealing earnestly:
Babu, please give me five hundred more. Please....
Five hundred? Have you gone mad?
Only for this month, Babu. Won’t ask for it ever again.
I’ve given you two hundred. Make do with it. If you take more, you will drink more.
No, Babu. Not for drinking, Babu. My daughter’s ill. Took her to a doctor. He said a lot money was required.
You sister-fucker, always telling lies. Always cooking up stories. One month your daughter is ill and another month your wife is ill. Someone or the other will be ill every month. Only excuses for drinking! Go hence!! You motherfucker.
Saying this, he knocked the man on his head with his boots. The drunken man fell down on the ground, and began to scream. A woman came running to him, lifted him carefully, and they slowly walked away together.
They were speaking in Hindi. I heard the conversation distinctly, and stared at the sight. I felt it hard to control myself. Bipadtaran was talking to somebody at some distance away from me. I walked up to the spot and talked to both the men to learn what the matter was. The muscular man came fiercely forward, and pushed me so hard that I fell down. His eyes were red with anger, and he was reeking pungently of alcohol. He picked me up by holding the collar of my shirt, and said menacingly:
You want to know the matter, right? Come with me to this side.
Saying this, he began to drag me towards a place behind a yellow house.
Bipadtaran rushed forward and held my hand. He patted the man on his back, and pacified him by saying:
Aare, dear, he’s my friend. He stays in Kolkatta. He’s a professor. He’s come to see me. Leave him, please. Please go and do your work.
The man measured me out from top to bottom with his stony eyes, and then walked towards the queue, warning Bipadtaran:
Ask your professor friend to mind his own business, and not try to know more than he needs to.
Bipadtaran moved hurriedly to the cycle shed, and in a minute, came back to me riding a new motorcycle. He asked me to sit on the bike behind him, and sped away.
After driving his bike for a kilometre or so along the pucca road, Bipadtaran curved to the left along a kuchcha road leading to the river. We reached the riverside. Bipadtaran stopped his vehicle, tilted it on the left, and lowered its side-stand on to the ground. We chose a spot on the riverbed, and sat down there. The sun had mellowed. But the sands of the river were emitting a heat that added to the fiery surge of the summer afternoon.
I was obsessed with what I had just experienced. Bipadtaran understood it well. He explained to me what all that meant:
“Today is pay day. Most of the men standing in the queue are dredgers or loaders or plain labourers. Their work is to fill the trollies with coal and push them up to where the lorries or dumpers are standing. Most of them have borrowed money from the mahajans (usurers), all of whom were leaders of the ruling political party, and whose agents were standing beside the queue. Just after taking the salary in cash, they’ll have to hand the entire amount over to the mahajans’ men. The mahajans’ aides will give them some two hundred or three hundred rupees every month, and the workers will have to make do with that much.”
“How much salary do they get?” I asked.
“Not less than four or five thousand. Some of them get even more.” Bipadtaran replied.
“But they can’t take home more than just a few hundred a month! Is it possible to run a family with just two or three hundred rupees?”
“No, no. The money the mahajans’ deputies give them is only for meeting their emergency expenses, and for spending as pocket money.”
“Then who’s going to pay for the grocer’s shop, the vegetable market, the clothes, and sundry other things that men need as bare necessities?”
“The mahajans themselves. They will give clear instruction to the grocer, the vegetable seller, the cloth-shop owner that a particular worker should be given things worth a specific amount of money every month. Even the owners of the country liquor shops know which worker can be given how much of liquor to drink every month. They maintain accounts against the name of every worker. Understand? The man who was asking for some more money to meet the expenses of his daughter’s treatment and did not get it, may be a drunkard, but he does not tell lies.”
I heaved a deep sigh, and looked at a distance where a woman had been digging the sands and searching for something. I asked Bipadtaran:
“Why don’t the workers pay off the debts, and become free to spend their hard-earned money in the way they like to spend and need to spend?”
“Not possible in this life!”
“The mahajans won’t allow them to pay off all the debts at a time. Or else where will they get interest from? The workers are caught in a net. Once you borrow, you cannot pay off the debt. Interests grow up to the size of mountains. Interest of interest. Interest of that interest. All interests accumulate to form a formidable amount.”
I felt that the darkness inside the coal mine was nothing compared to the darkness of life lived by the workers outside it. It was the darkness of a hell made by man, and the light of millions of suns couldn’t dispel it.
The woman who had been diverting my attention for quite some time from a distance had come very near us by then. Her sari was dirty. Her blouse was tattered around her shoulders. Her cheeks were sunken. Her red eyeballs were bulging out of their sockets. Her hair was disheveled, as if her head was covered with tassels of gray jute fibre. As I looked close enough, I seemed to faintly recognize her even in the dusk. She was Adori. But how terribly changed! I couldn’t believe my eyes. She looked like a haggard old woman. Could a person change so utterly? In just three-four months? How many hells did I have to pass through? I broke down within, and called out:
“Adori-di, can’t you recognize me? I’m Sisir. What are you doing here? So far from our village? At this time of the day?”
Adori didn’t seem to be able to either recognize me or to understand my words. She looked at me once, and then vacantly stared at Bipadtaran, who mildly scolded her:
“Go home. It’s evening. It’ll soon be dark. We’ll leave the place. Then you’ll be alone. Go home. Come tomorrow again. Go home now.”
Adori paid no attention to Bipadtaran’s words. She mumbled her own words under her breath:
“He will be safe wherever he is. He will be safe. He told me himself. How can they kill him? BabaBishwakarma will give him new hands and new feet. He would have shown them the fun if they had untied his hands and feet… He will marry. I’ll have a grandson. I’ll play with him. Can even their fourteen forefathers kill him? He will be safe wherever he is. Baba Budhorai will protect him.”
Bipadtaran scolded Adori in a louder voice: “Why don’t you hear me? Go home. Come tomorrow again.”
Adori calmed down, lowered her eyes, touched her forehead with the tips of the fingers of her right hand, muttered like an automaton JoiBaba Budhorai, Joi Baba Budhorai, and walked towards the pucca road.
“What a change, Bipadtaran! How did it happen?”
“She’s gone mad.”
“But how? I mean why?”
“That’s another story.”
“Still another! How many stories do I have to suffer, Bipadtaran? How many stories do I have to survive?” I heard myself mumble.
I kept silent for a while, and then asked him:
“Where will Adori go now from here?”
“Back to Ijjatpur.”
“Will she walk all the way?”
“Why didn’t you give her a lift?”
“Impossible! Nobody can make her sit on a motorcycle.”
“Afraid of falling down?”
“After Asish Ghosh was murdered, the Ijjatpur boys fought for three hours to resist the party men and the police. Bhonku, Adori’s son, was doing a lot to resist the mob. He could set good aims, and he was also an expert in using big guns. But suddenly, a bullet pierced his right thigh. He staggered and limped here and there for the whole night, and ultimately took shelter in…”
“How do you know?”
“You told me what your wife told you. He bled for the whole night. In the dawn, four women carried him on a rope cot to the doctor at Gorabazaar. Adori followed them. I don’t know what happened after that.”
Bipadtaran was driving rather slowly, because the road had been broken in many places. And he was frequently talking by turning his mouth to his extreme left so that I could clearly hear his words despite the wind.
“What happened after that was gruesome.”
He resumed: “The four women from Ijjatpur, accompanied by Adori, had taken him to the only quack available at Kishanpur. The quack surgeon had taken the bullet out of Bhonku’s thigh, and Bhonku was feeling much better. His bleeding had stopped. He was sleeping. When the noon was rolling on towards afternoon, two men came to the doctor’s chamber by a black motorcycle. They told the doctor that they would take Bhonku to a better place for treatment. The doctor smelt something foul in their design. So, he tried to resist. But they were aggressive and too strong for the aged man. They lifted Bhonku and put him onto the motorcycle between them. Adori began to run after them. The motorcycle stopped beside a bush by the river. Two other men were waiting there. They were all men of the same political party of which Asish Ghosh was the local leader. A little later, Adori had reached the place too. She scuffled with the men in an attempt to set her son free from their clutches. She even bit off some flesh from the hand of one of the men. She shouted and screamed and yelled slurs at the men for some time. Then the young men tied her hands at her back, tore a long piece of cloth from her sari, and gagged her. They also tied the hands and feet of Bhonku and carried him to the riverbed, near the place where we were sitting. They stuffed handfuls of sands and some pieces of cloth into Bhonku’s mouth too. Then when the darkness set in, they killed Bhonku. They chopped off his limbs one by one, first his hands, then his legs, and finally his head, and buried the pieces of his body in different places under the sands of the river. They did all this before Adori’s own eyes. Two days later, police came with their sniffer dogs, and found out the mutilated body parts from under the river sands. The culprits have been arrested. They are now in jail. But Adori has lost her mental balance after that incident. She comes to this place every afternoon, digs the sands, and repeats the same words to anyone she meets or to herself, the words you heard, the words which Bhonku might have told her sometime.”
I could not decide where the darkness was denser— on the surface of the earth or in the hollowed crevices under its crust?
I was feeling sick.
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