A short story By: Pankaj Thakur
This is a chapter from my first year of service. The year was 1972. I was then holding the post of sub inspector of statistics in the department of animal husbandry and veterinary under the Government of Assam. We had our office attached to the main office at Chenikuthi, Guwahati. I met on joining my colleagues Bipin Sarma, Profulla Sarma (late) and Sajidur Rehman. They were all true gentlemen. In that large spacious office premise, four of us were the only occupants and so working environment was quite congenial and pleasant. In those days there was the system of sending regular reports by field assistants on the vaccination given to domestic animals particularly of the cattle population in different parts of Assam. On the day after I joined I was given the responsibility to see to if the report was in order and prepare a report based on the census of the animal population and the number of those who have been vaccinated. I sat down seriously to the task at hand. It seemed that I made quite a good progress in this regard. And then suddenly an incident happened. The then research officer of statistical wing of the veterinary department Narahari Das came to our office room along with a somber looking gentleman. I too stood up with the others and greeted them though I could not quite place the other somber looking gentleman. Just then Bipin Bora who was adept at handling any awkward situation with his presence of mind said “sir, he is Pankaj Thakur, he has recently joined us as Assistant Inspector. Bora informed me in an undertone who that other person was. But I could not quite make any sense of it. And just then the grave looking gentleman threw a question at me “what do you mean by statistics?” As I heard that question, I don’t know why, I could feel a strange bout of laughter rise inside me. And so in reply I uttered that phrase which I had heard elsewhere ‘ it is a legalized lie, sir’
‘What! What do you mean by that? Can you prove it?’
‘Yes sir, I can do that from the statistics that I have currently been compiling.’
‘What is that?
‘ sir, I have been scrutinizing and compiling the field reports giving details of cattle population of Assam and the number of cattle vaccinated in a particular period. As per those reports, Sir, the number of vaccinated cattle population is much more than the cattle population.’
As I came to the close of the matter I could sense that the situation was slowly turning to be a little tense. No one said a word. a very awkward and serious situation. Then that unfamiliar gentleman spoke ‘I want a thorough probing of this matter.’
The gentleman walked out. Nrahari Das left with him. Though it would have been proper to show them to the door but Bipin and Prafulla Sarma were so stunned that none of them took a step towards it. Only Bora spoke breaking the silence saying ‘Thakur today you have done a terrible thing. It seems we are all going to lose our jobs. Why did you speak like that?’
I then understood that the matter had taken a serious turn but I could do nothing after I had uttered those words. I had assumed that it is always better to fall back on truth in the moment of peril and so I had said those words without juggling with them too much. But who was that man? I asked Bipin Bora after a moment of hesitation – ‘who was he?’
‘He is the Director of Statistical department of government of Assam. He has his office in Shillong. He had come today to inspect our office.’ Bipin Bora’s explanation left me in no doubt that whether Bora or others would lose their jobs I would not know but one thing was certain that I would not last too long in this service. Well, as we whiled away our time waiting for the outcome to arrive, a peon came to inform us that the Director of veterinary department Captain Jnanmollo Bujarbaruah was asking for me. I could discern a mournful look tumbling from the eyes of Bora, Sarma and Rehman.
I stood before Captain Bujarbaruah.
‘Thakur, what are these things that I am hearing?’
I expressed my regret over that matter and explained that when the statistical data are collected in toto, and then the situation seems to be just that, the number of animals vaccinated exceeds the real population of those animals. There is no doubt that the report sent by the Field officer on a regular basis is in fact all false. He remained quiet for a while and then said – ‘ you do one thing, you go on a tour tomorrow and visit all those doubtful centres and try to discover whether those field officers are doing their jobs well or not and submit me with a confidential report. Take one or more months as you deem it necessary. I have written to Choudhury (Kamakhya Prasad Choudhury) who was then the superintendent in veterinary department to give you an advance’ he said and handed me a small slip of paper.
The journey began on the next day. I decided at first to visit Sapekhati since a field officer was appointed under the supervision of a BDO and the report by that field officer was full of errors with irregular, improbable facts. Since I had no idea if there would be any accommodation for me to stay at Sapekhati, so I took the early morning train and without getting down at Sapekhati arrived at Duliajaan by midnight. It was because it takes only two and a half hour by train to reach Sapekhati from Duliajaan that I decided to leave in the morning. I stayed at an aunt’s place at Duliajaan. Next day I took the 7o’clock train and by 10 got down at Sapekhati rail station. It was a small railway station and most trains rarely make a stop here. In those days the movement of trains was rather infrequent. Probably only two passenger trains ran in the Guwahati Tinsukia patch. There were hardly any passengers at the station. I was the only one to alight. I collected the details about the BDO’s office/ residence from the station master. I assumed that seeing me with the bundle of files, he seemed to be trying to guess the reason for my visit. However, without giving away my real intent, I tried to gather the details about the location, distance and the way to reach the BDO’s office. He pointed his finger towards a large field and said that he had heard that the BDO’s office was somewhere beyond it. It would be approximately 4/5 kilometers away and added that there was no other to reach it, I would have to walk that distance.
His words prepared me for a hopeless situation though I already thought of an alternative way out of it. I thanked him and moved towards the field. I could spot one or two persons here and there and some cattle and buffaloes roaming about. After walking a little ahead, I could not find my way, so I went near to an elderly man who was tilling the land with a spade. He listened to my query and scanned me from top to toe and wiping his face with a gamocha that was tied across his head, said – ‘ my dear, it will be difficult to go like this.’
‘It is rather too far.’ He spoke and then looked at my feet. I followed his gaze and saw that my pair of shoes had turned quite muddy and a few mud splashes were splattered on my new black colored trousers. The man thought for a while and then called out to someone. He called out again and then someone from the other side called back with that same signal as it were a definite message was thus delivered. The man said – my dear, please wait. Let me do something.’
Little while later, a middle aged man arrived sitting on the back of a thin and emaciated buffalo. Its two horns were unnaturally big. The man again wiped his face with the gamocha and said – ‘my dear, you may go this way. He will drop you off at the BDO’s office.’ I was taken aback as I listened to what he was saying. The man could arrange such a spectacular thing at such short notice and that too for a complete stranger. I quietly acknowledged his simple, generous gesture.
Now, the problem was how to get on the back of that buffalo. I had never done this before and I have never heard of anyone taking a long journey by sitting on the back this animal. True, there are tales of people riding on the back of horses and elephants. Just then, the one sitting o the buffalo said to me – ‘get up, you will be able to do it.’ I came face down from the flight of fancy back to the harsh reality. I tucked in the file inside my shirt. Thankfully it was not a very thick file. And then I prepared myself to jump carefully on to the back of the thin buffalo. I need not add that the old man whom I had first met assisted me in doing that. He too understood that it was not an easy task for me and he led the animal towards a raised hump on the field.
The journey thus resumed on the back of the buffalo. I could not decide then if I should be grateful or feel something else for that field officer for filing the false report. I knew that buffaloes do have rough backs but that day, I realized that it was indeed truly very rough and since the animal was thin and so my discomfort became very severe. Though the buffalo did not sway beautifully and yet it had its own definite rhythm. A little further ahead, I could feel somewhat easy and I could balance myself well without clutching on to the back of the other rider.
A little later we arrived at the BDO’s office. I did not have to waste time over the enquiry; it became clear from what the BDO explained that though he had been working for the last one and half year in that area, he had never met the field officer. It came to this that the field officer had not done his duty for the last one and half year though he has been regularly sending those reports from somewhere. It was now time for me to return. The BDO explained that his motorcycle was out of order and that he was sorry that he would not be able to help me in this matter and then I realised that my return journey would not be a comfortable one. However, I stepped on to the path that had the tale tell marks of being trammeled by mere animals, cycles and bullock carts. This time I did not meet any generous soul who would be seen tilling the land, I did not see any buffaloes either. I walked on. I seemed to hear sometime later a screeching noise at intervals. I turned and saw that it was a bicycle. As it neared me, I noticed that a young adolescent boy was trying with all his might to push it ahead across the path which I too was then taking. He saw me signal, got down and I asked him ‘what’s the matter? Why is the cycle making so much noise?’ The boy answered little awkwardly- ‘nothing is wrong. It is always like this.’
‘How long has it been making this noise?’ The boy replied easily ‘ always.’
I understood, there was no point in probing any further, I came back to my main difficulty and told him –‘ I have to go to the rail station, will you be going that way? If you do, let me ride the cycle and you may sit on the carrier. Will that do?’
The boy nodded quickly and gave his consent. I struggled a lot to push the cycle ahead. I do not need to say that it was indeed an extraordinary feat on my part to ride that aged cycle with no brakes across three kilometer distance of rough uneven path.
We arrived at the station. I felt tired and hungry too. My first worry was how I would return. I again went over to the station master and learnt that there would be no train traveling towards Duliajaan/ Tinsukia until midnight. It was then only 2o’clock. The station master reassured me that saying – ‘what can you do, there is no other way. Take some rest. My hunger and fatigue grew twice as much then as I thought of the delay. I enquired- ‘is there a tea stall where I can have something?’
The man smiled awkwardly at my question and pointed his finger towards a small thatched shed near a pond on the other side of the rail line. ‘ I guess people do get to eat something at that place. There is no other shop here. Try and have a look.’
I went towards it as per his advice. Though the shed was of one piece, it was quite spacious. I noticed a pair of desks and benches. I seemed there were people who lived in there. There were several huts scattered near by. Some minutes passed. There was no sign of life. I thought I would not be lucky enough to get a glass of water to drink. And then I sensed that someone had entered the shed from the other side. I saw a fifteen year old healthy looking girl, she was wearing a frank open smile on her face and there was her spirited nature wrapped within the rustic simplicity, she was wearing a long pink frock. I could discern faint mark of impoverishment in it though it failed to leave any impression on her personality.
This was Bini.
Bini asked me –‘what do you want?’
‘could I get something to eat?’
‘what would you want to eat?’
‘rice, roti, anything.’
Bini thought for a while and did some mental calculations and said-‘ will some rotis do?’
And then fidgeted and said –‘give me two rupees.’
This surprised me a little. An advance payment for two rotis! I had not come to eat on credit. Did she think that I would walk away without paying? I tried to measure this new episode with the balancing scale of my other city bred experiences and so doing I mechanically took out the two rupee note and put it in Bini’s hand. She surprised me even more by vanishing among the huts. I had no other option but to wait for the next turn of events. About twenty minutes later Bini came carrying in one hand a paper packet and with the other she held the hand of a four year old girl. She is very sweet looking. Bini came near me and said simply-‘people don’t often come here looking for rice and roti and so we don’t generally keep foodstuff with us. This is my little sister.’ The matter became very clear to me; Bini had taken the two rupee note as advance from me to buy some flour to prepare the rotis. Could I be hopeful enough to have something else with it. I doubt it.
The little girl came hesitatingly towards me. Her eyes were on my watch. She touched it once. She understood something and then smiled. Her cheeks dimpled when she smiled. Would Bini’s cheek dimple when she smiled? I have seen it yet. This time the little girl’s eyes went to my files. She picked up the files, thought of something, put them down on the ground and tried to sit on them. I coaxed her and picked up the files and thus saved the situation. I asked her – ‘ will you tell me your name?’
She simply smiled at me as if she meant to say – ‘what would it matter if you are to know my name, now that you have taken the files away from me?’ Bini replied from inside –‘Her name is Pokhila, we call her Pokhi. She is very naughty.’
It was hard to say so soon if Pokhila was truly naughty or not. I had nothing much to do but pass the time talking to the little girl. A little later, Bini tells her-‘ Pokhi, show him your dance.’ I had never imagined that at a place like Sapekhati while preparing food at a tea stall for the customers such kind of entertainment was also in the offing
Anyway, I waited for the dance to begin. I did not have to wait too long for it. Pokhi put her two hands on either side of her waist and got busy demonstrating a bihu dance. Looking at her age, it seemed Pokhi performed like an expert dancer. I wondered if that girl had been not Pokhi but Bini how would it be? I tried to put that picture within a mental frame. Meanwhile Bini came holding a plate in one hand and a glass of water in the other and set them down on the table before me and said- ‘ please eat.’ I did not waste any time and began to eat. The plate had two hot rotis and a few teaspoons of sugar. I wasn’t too happy with this offering. And yet tried without protesting much to put a piece of roti with a little bit of sugar into my mouth. Though I had said nothing perhaps my face gave away my distaste and that certainly could not escape from Bini’s sharp watchful eyes…Suddenly I found that Bini once again rushed towards someone’s house. It took me sometime to swallow that dry piece of roti. So I chewed on dispassionately at the piece of roti, wondered why Bini had left so quickly and looked towards the way she had gone. I noticed that Bini was running from one house to the other and collected something and quickly went into the kitchen. A few minutes later Bini returned with a glass of hot milk for me. It did not take long to comprehend that she had sensed my discomfort and had in a mature business like maneuver had collected this glass of milk from several houses. I savoured a great relished sipping that glass of milk and felt reassured that a profound satisfaction may sometimes be hidden in the simplest thing that is offered with devotion. I thanked Bini and Pokhi and bade farewell with a promise to visit Sapekhati whenever I would come that way.
I returned to the railway platform. I had plenty of time to spare. I whiled away walking up and down the platform. And then the station master came running towards me.
: there is a possibility, will you take it?
:of course I will go, tell me what is it?
:An engine is arriving from Mariyani on way to Tinsukia. It should arrive in one hour. You stay with me. I will inform the driver. The engines do not generally halt here. As it reduces speed you try to jump on to it. It is better than waiting till midnight, what do you say?
I agreed. I again placed the file under my shirt just as I had done while taking that ride on the back of the buffalo…..I was immersed in so many thoughts that the hour seemed to have passed off quite quickly. The whistle was heard in the distance. I stood with the station master waiting to jump on to the train with much the same kind of anticipation that a soldier in the battlefront prepares to pull the trigger as soon as the signal is received. The sound of the engine was coming closer. It seemed that the train was reducing speed from quite a distance. A little later the engine neared the platform and though it had reduced speed from quite a long distance yet it passed the railway platform and as it hesitated to stop altogether I jumped on to the train just as the station master had advised me. It was an old engine that was running on coal. Its height was more compared to that of the bogeys. I climbed up three steps and tried to keep my balance by holding on to an iron post a few feet away from me.
The engine picked up speed once again.
The man who was feeding coal non stop into the engine looked at me and smiled. It was difficult to say much about the colour of his skin since this thin emaciated man who constantly handled coal was wearing that color of coal on his skin. I could see only his two pairs of white teeth when he smiled. I too greeted him with a smile. The driver was a little serious looking. He observed me and then said
: do you have a handkerchief?
: cover your head or else your hair will turn all black.
I took out the handkerchief with one hand but it was difficult to tie it because I had just that space of about two feet in that area near the coal chamber and as soon as the train picked up speed, the coal chamber threatened to tear itself away from the engine and it shook like an earthquake in every 5/10 seconds. And so I could not tie the handkerchief. In the end the driver took out space near him and made it possible to tie the handkerchief.
In a bid to ease the situation I thought it wise to get into a conversation with the driver
: How is it that you are driving only the engine? Where have you left the bogeys?
My question seemed to amuse the driver. HE addressed me as brother and said
: brother, this engine has lost connection with the bogeys for a long time. It was lying in Mariyani. We are now taking it to be repaired in Tinsukia. This is a very old engine.
: how old?
:very old, it was made before the world wars. It must be more than forty years.
: before the world wars? Do engines run so long?
He smiled and said
: it is running
: you said are taking it to be repaired, what is it that needs repairing?
: brother, this engine has no brake. Tinsukia is a big junction. It has a well furnished workshop, may be they can fix it, we want to give it a try.
An engine without brakes! The reason why it did not stop at the platform became very clear now. And I felt my heart ache as I thought about it. I held tightly on to the iron post to pull myself together. I implored unable to contain my anxiety
:I will get down at Duliajaan, I hope you will be able to stop there?
: we will brother don’t worry, if not exactly at the station at least somewhere near about. We are the only one coming from Mriyani. They have stopped all other trains from coming from the other side.
I felt at ease hearing these words. I felt a little light hearted thinking there was at least no fear of dying because of the crash of two engines.
Silence for a while. Suddenly I sensed that the engine was slowing down. As far as I knew, there was no station in that vicinity. I asked why we had to halt. Either of the driver or the coal man did not reply. I felt agitated though I kept quite. A short while later, the driver pulled here and there very quickly and managed to bring the engine under control and that act of suppression did work in the end. Finally, the engine stopped altogether. And then I noticed that on either side of the railway tracks several people were crowding around to throw in quickly, without wasting a word, bunches of bananas, goats, bagful of vegetable. In less than two minutes the whole maneuver was over, a few men sat on those bags and began to puff bidis and the engine once again began hiss ahead. Though the driver and the coal man did not explain the matter to me, I understood that this was a matter of long and intimate understanding between the traders and the railway driver. And today, this train having no brakes will not usurp that faith in this old arrangement.
Meanwhile the night had thickened. I then had no other concern but how to get down at Duliajaan. I pondered thinking that since it could stop here so well it would do like wise at Duliajaan. As I looked back on the strange experiences that I gathered on the first day of inspection as part of my official responsibility, I wondered what more experiences the other field officers are keeping in reserve for me. …. A few minutes passed. The frequent whistles brought me back to where I was. The driver said
: it wont take too long to reach Duliajaan.
I stood prepared I checked if the file was in the right place I was surprised as I caught a quick glimpse of my shirt in the light from the furnace – the yellow colored shirt was turning almost black. I passed my hand over my face. It felt coarse…..Far away I could see the lights from the railway station. The driver attempted once again to bring the engine expertly under control by making too many interludes of noises with the engine. As before, the train stopped though not exactly at the station but a little beyond. I thanked both of them and jumped down and told myself that life does not move in easy straight lines and moved towards house no.1717 in the oil town at Duliajaan