The narrow road edging the foot of the hill is still wet from the rain. It goes winding up, the rise of hills on the right, the drop of ravines on the left, and the forest-covered valley in between. Descending from the hill, this road slopes gently and merges with the state highway forty kilometres west. The two cars move quietly in the dark, the red light atop Ajayendra’s car turned off. He’s sitting on my right, by the window. We’ll get back to Mahuldiha tonight, via Kumardihi, no matter how late it gets. We started out day before yesterday. Both of us are tired. After getting back in the car, neither has spoken to the other. For quite some time Ajayendra fidgets in his seat, a slight tension at work inside him.

Quietly I say to him, “If you want to smoke, go ahead. I don’t mind.”

“Oh, many thanks.” Instantly his hand goes to his pocket. He holds the cigarette away, his right hand extending outside a bit. He reacts to my kindness by acting like a camel allowed inside a tent in the desert! Intelligent young man. Again, silence for a while.

Clearing his throat he says, “I beg your pardon for making that remark.”

“Which one?”

“I said, they push the women ahead when they see you; that was a rotten thing to say, terribly unfair, please do forgive me.”

“Are you still feeling guilty on account of Misra?”

“How did you know?” Even in the dark Ajayendra glances at me, smiling silently. “A bit, yes,” he says. Quite a smart, competent young man. He’s had quick promotions too. This could prove to be a blot on his career. I know his family; we were neighbours for some time in Jabalpur when I was young. That’s why I’m feeling a little upset. He adds: “I’m the villain, after all. No name from your section came up in the report! But I had to mention Rupak’s name. My subordinates will never be able to forget this.”

Annoyance edging my voice, I say, “Ajay, in all this time I haven’t been able to make you understand one thing. You still haven’t shed this habit of thinking who’s under me and who’s under you. Are we any different?

Depending on the circumstances, the names that come up in the reports belong sometimes to one section and sometimes to another. Most times no names come up at all. No one even gets to know what’s going on in the darkness of night, or even in broad daylight.

Perhaps I haven’t told you about this: that day when I was crossing the river on my way back from Jarangloi, Stan was waiting for me at the Khamarpara ghat, with old Tetri and some of the young wives and daughters from Kureshpur. The first time I went to Kureshpur, they were glad to see me. ‘Great!’ they said, ‘We can now show you the marks on our backs, we won’t have to cover ourselves up to enter your office’. I didn’t even imagine that so soon after that there’d be marks on their bodies again. Your men were not involved in that raid. My excise forces were. But, in effect, what is the difference?”

“You haven’t told me about this.”

“There was not much to tell, Ajay. We haven’t left any scope for the histories of Kureshpur and Chiri to turn out any different. There’s just one difference, the adivasis there are all small or landless farmers; unlike Chiri no iron ore has come out of the ground. Old Tetri was telling me that when she was young, men and women both drank rice liquor on festive occasions, mahua liquor was available at home all year round. But beating one’s wife, thrashing one’s children – all that has started recently. Khamarpara now has two licensed country liquor shops, yet in every village liquor is brewed for sale – the agents of Suresh Bhatia, Johnny Agarwala and the like have this whole area under their thumb. Drinking and gambling. The stupid men pawn wristwatches, transistor radios, bicycles, everything they have, then come home and make trouble. I was the one who suggested to the women, ‘Why don’t you get together and give the men a good thrashing once in a while?’

They looked at me with doubtful eyes – ‘But that’s forbidden in the shastras, you know, the raising of your hands against your men.’ How can it be, I asked them. In that case, raising hands on women must also be forbidden in the shastras.

I went out of my way to tell them the story of Sitamma of Nellore. How the women in Nellore organised themselves to picket the liquor shops after reading about Sitamma’s anti-liquor campaign in their literacy centre. They listened and their eyes shone with interest. And after I had made them listen to that account, the excise forces under me went on a raid, ostensibly on my orders. They broke some ten or twelve liquor vats in homes, dragged the women out, ransacked their belongings and terrorised them before leaving. The leader of that raiding party was another of our polished bright of officers – Swadhin Kumar! And the vehicle he drove? Well, Suresh Bhatia’s ambassador car. It was beneath him to sit in the rattling government-owned diesel jeep! And he was accompanied by the liquor dealer’s agent. Where do we stand in this, Ajay? Can you see how deep this shamelessness of ours has spread its roots? Even after this, you can’t refrain from making the ‘yours and mine’ distinction?”

Ajay has been looking steadily at my face. When I stop, he sighs and shakes his head. Smilingly, he says, “Uhf-f, you’re so terribly emotional. All right, I agree, there’s no distinction between my officers and yours. But, what was Stan doing there? From what I heard, isn’t his project office near Kumardihi, at Satnala?”

“Orre Baba, from now on I’ll have to ask him to travel with some sort of area permit from you. Stan was going for a meeting, to their head office in Delhi, and taking highway number forty-seven from Khamarpara cuts the journey to the airport by two hours. He saw a knot of Kureshpur women, and stopped to talk to them, and then because he waited for me Stan ended up missing the evening flight.”

“I’ve been told to keep watch on his movements, that’s why I asked. You probably know him from before, right?”

Leaning my aching back on the seat, I looked at the small reading light overhead. It hasn’t been working for some time. Without it, I can’t read anything on a long night tour. Trying to read with a torch in one hand in a moving car is too difficult, and my time-beaten eyes start aching. Sanatan hasn’t had the time to take the car to the garage for repair: because I never know when I’ll have to go out, neither Sanatan nor the car get much rest. The two veins on the sides of my forehead are throbbing. From suppressed tension. Anger. Sorrow.

I respond to Ajayendra’s question without looking at him, “While studying at Osmania, Stan used to dabble in politics. Radical left. He was the students’ union secretary when he was finishing his undergraduate degree. In Delhi too he was active in politics. I’ve known of him for the last four or five years, really only by name – we met for the first time only a year and a half ago at a friend’s party. That’s when I heard: he had joined a non-government organisation, and would probably come to work in this area – well, aren’t you making notes? Now you may have to keep a watch on me too from time to time.”

Rummaging through his pocket, Ajayendra brings out the empty cigarette packet. He feels cheated. By his calculation there should be two still in it. This imported brand waits in a carton on a shelf in his bedroom cupboard. Along this forest road it is impossible to get his favourite brand in any shop. Crumpling the packet and throwing it out of the window, Ajayendra says in a tone of deep sadness, “I give up. It’s impossible for me to carry on a conversation with you.”

That’s quite all right. Let him stay silent. I too very much need to be by myself for a while. It will be midnight when we reach Mahuldiha. Somehow I’ll have barely five hours of sleep. I’ve to sit down in the morning with a pile of files, I have to dictate a court verdict, and look into investigations and assorted matters. Having managed to half-block each of the arrows that Ajayendra has absently hurled at my conscience, and turn them back at him, even if not very consciously, I feel a kind of cruel joy. And why shouldn’t I? Outwardly he’s so seamlessly self-possessed, polished, bright, always correct and well-mannered – yet so fragile inside! Even a minor attack can break him. Why should I be the one always riddled inside with anger, misery? Whenever the sensitive person within me awakens, the ultimate weapons swiftly come at me from my environment “Come on, you’re so emotional!” “Oh-ho Kamalika, you’re not being objective, consider it with a cool head!” As though the responsibility for all the high-wire acts in this world is on my shoulders.

They’re going to watch Stan D’Souza. Let them. While the world’s arms dealers, owners of gambling rings, smugglers, food adulterers, go about in starched clean white collars and smooth smiles laid on a platter in the company of elite circles, and have a passport to cross any threshold, fixing someone’s son’s medical admission, someone else’s daughter’s trip abroad, here we’ll pronounce the Stan D’Souzas guilty at the merest hint of suspicion and wash our hands clean. “Everything about him is so very suspicious!”

With an honours degree in physics, a management degree after that, a BTech over and above, why does this fellow dress in homespun dhoti and kurta? What’s his problem? Why the rough cotton wrapper on his shoulder? Why has he grown a beard?

Going from village to village collecting facts on the lives and livelihoods of weavers, blacksmiths, potters and fisherfolk, writing down stuff in a thick notebook – does it add up to a credible occupation? He has set up office in a dusty, drought-parched village near Kumardihi, in a brick-walled structure, plastered but not yet colour-washed, roofed with tiles. This fellow is the project director. He sits in a communal kitchen with his workers on datepalm mats eating coarse-grained rice with curried eggplant. Eggplants are grown in Kumardihi throughout the year and they sell cheap. In a corner of the kitchen is a pile of eggplants. Why? He’s training adivasi young men and women in building leadership qualities. What’s the country going to do with so many leaders? Only one will win the election, after all. In the training camp the young men and women live and eat together without shame; when they’ve finished eating, they wash the pots and pans, store them in their place, and then enjoy themselves singing and dancing. What’s this all about? O hey, middle-babu – the middle- babu isn’t here? – Well then the junior-babu, come on now and find out what’s going on – debauchery, or preparation for religious conversion? A young man, in good health, with a solid physique, and intelligent as well, why does he hang out here, languishing, what’s his motive, how do you explain it? Go on, watch him, watch him and inform us.

Excerpted with permission from Mahuldiha Days, Anita Agnihotri, translated by Kalpana Bardhan, Zubaan.