It was a particularly dry summer when I decided to quit my job at the Mithilesh University of Arts and Commerce in Shamli, where I worked as a lecturer in the Sociology Department. I was in dire need of a break, and my hometown, Pichrapur, which was a few kilometres from the campus, seemed like the best retreat, not just to recuperate from the mind-numbing job I had been in, but also to finally prepare my synopsis for a Doctoral thesis.
Summer had just started settling in when I arrived. The air was warm and heavy, and the thick rustic scents made me nostalgic abut my childhood here. I woke up late every day and, after eating the morning meal, went for a walk around the village. When I came back, I either read on the chaarpoy in front of the house, or watched something on Netflix in my room. After lunch, I took a long siesta.
My tauji and taiji did not mind my aloofness. They were happy to just have me around. They were aged and lonely. Their five children had gone abroad, or to big cities, and visited rarely. I could image that the house would get full and cheery when more people occupied the corners, but otherwise, the darkened rooms stared vacantly. My tauji, who had had a paralytic attack a few years ago, was generally confined to his room at the back of the house, and that room looked pretty glum for most part of the day. My room was adjacent to his. Sometimes, I sat next to him and ready my newspapers.
Days passed like this. Soon, I befriended a local senior Secondary school master, Bulan Pandey, who lived a few houses away. He taught eleventh and twelfth class students mathematics and science. He could play chess rather well, and I found a bearable companion in him. Every day after evening tuition, he came around, or I went over to his, for a cup of tea and a game. Sometimes we sat for hours, until dinner, when his wife came around to ask if she should serve food.
He was newly married and the bride seemed no more than twenty. He was about my age, or older – he did not know exactly. And it didn’t matter. I was satisfied with his company for the long evenings when I would have sat in my room doing nothing.
Bulan was my only companion in Pichrapur. Since we were both pedagogues at different levels, we often discussed politics and education. He was fascinated by what I told him about higher education in our country. He was grossly unaware of the grim state of things in universities, especially private universities like Mithilesh, where they observed no standards whatsoever and often swindled the students’ families for money.
I told him at length about fund cuts and job uncertainty in universities like Delhi University, where I used to be an ad-hoc teacher earlier, and how they were fighting against the commercialisation of higher education. I told him I wanted to get a job in DU again because I wanted eventually to live in a big city…I had a lot to tell, and he listened intently, lapping up the exciting bits about politics and dharnas and jail-bharos, and JNU and Jamia.
Of course he had been aware of everything, but getting information from me seemed to make all of it more real for him. He had many questions. He even told me he wanted to study further too, and might some day go to Delhi.
Over time, our friendship deepened, and as we spent more and more time together, we became more aware of each others personal lives as well. I told him about my ex-girlfriend, and how she had cheated on me repeatedly. The relationship had got so toxic that I had decided to leave Delhi and work at the obscure Mithilesh University for a year or so, until I healed. I had no financial worries at the time. I had completed my M Phil course that same year so there was nothing tethering me to Delhi per se. My stint at Mithilesh was deadening, but at least it gave me a break from my ex.
Bulan was thoroughly fascinated with the idea of city girls. He asked if I had a photo and I showed him a few of our intimate pictures. He laughed when I said I still shagged myself with her nudes. Once I showed him one and he almost toppled over. I got the sense that, although physically robust, he was sexually timid.
It was about that time that I began to notice how his wife was overly coy around me, and deliberately tried to catch my attention as Bulan and I discussed matters. Soon it began happening quite frequently, and I finally began giving her attention as she moved around with a kind of languid sensuality when I was present. I noticed that her clothes, although modest, were cut to stylish designs, and her hair was done differently every day. She wore heels, although cheap-looking, but adequately fashionable. Her face was always done up with powdery make-up, and shiny eyeshadow which made clear that she was aware of her good looks, even though she maintained a distance and barely ever spoke.
Then one day, Bulan told me about his “secret problem”, and Shalini’s behaviour around me made complete sense to me.
She was sexually deprived.
Bulan had been having premature ejaculations ever since they had been married. “I have tried many churans,” he told me, embarrassed but hysterical. “You name a baba around this village and I have been to him. I have called every number on every advertisement around here. I have taken homeopathy, Ayurveda, and even allopathy…every ‘yon amrit’ and sex formula there is! Nothing works…But yesterday, I saw a board of a hakim on the east side of the village who can cure this…shighrapratan ailment…Do you think I should go?”
The sad bastard. It looked like I was the only one who had been made privy to this information. He looked helpless and defeated, with a slight bit of madness – the kind that comes on when you lay bare your innermost secrets and have nothing more to hide. I recalled the large posters about “shighragrapratan” and erectile dysfunction that hung on walls of buildings around the village. The advertisements often read: “kamzor mard apne sharirik samasyao se mukti paaye”. Somewhere else I had read, “gupt rogon ka ilaaj le, aur zindagi ke haseen palon ka maza uthaye”…
I didn’t know what to tell him. I stared, mouth agape, unable to think of an appropriate response. Maybe I could have a little something with his wife and it would help everybody. Did she not “accidentally” brush her ass against my groin while passing by a few times? How often her dupatta fell off her shoulder to reveal her cleavage as she served is tea or dinner! If anything did happen between us, she would never tell, and if somehow Bulan found out, he would never say anything either.
I almost blurted it out. I was sex-deprived for quite a few months now after all. But obviously, it was out of question. I tried to focus. Of course, if the Hakim’s medication turned out to be hocus-pocus, it might make him worse, or induce some other complication. But I did not have the heart to tell him. “Are you sure it will work?” I asked him.
He simply said, “I must try, brother.”
And that was it. I could not stand in the way of a man’s lust for his wife. It was only fair that he tried everything he could.
The odd thing about Pichrapur was it was actually not as “pichra” as one would think.
It had its own railway station, which was a big thing because mostly only towns had them. There were vast fields of cotton as you went towards the main area of the village. I was told there were sesame fields around as well. When you went further in, there was a school, and houses of farmers. A canal went right through the middle of the village, cutting it in half.
As you went around the marketplace, it became more colourful. Posters of movies were pasted on walls, advertisements of mobile phones, tractors, fertilisers etcetera. As you moved further in, you could see the hustle bustle of a small town, with school students moving about with books and bags, young boys ambling about aimlessly, middle-aged men gathered around to play taash. Sometimes you could see the panchayat assembled in the chaupal area, heatedly discussing some matter – whatever was hot and latest. A few days ago, there was some sordid business relating to adultery, and a woman was sent away.
About six months passed. I got a job offer as a trainer in a coaching centre in the next town. I was tempted to take it, but the lull of the village was starting to get addictive.
It had been almost five months in Pichrapur now. I had written a paper on the connection of the drainage system with the caste hierarchies in the village, and had sent it to a journal recently. But after that, I had barely studied anything for my PhD synopsis.
For the first time in years, I was doing nothing, writing nothing, and barely thinking about anything. But somehow, the time seemed fertile. There was a sense of anticipation. I was going to write, very soon.
The village was in turmoil. News had come in that a well-known MLA, Sh Pankaj Chaudhury, who was supposedly from the same village, was going to visit the following week.
Within a day posters were put up throughout the village, and his smiling face leered from every corner. He was a celebrated man – the son of a farmer who had risen into the political echelons and become the MLA of the Naingarh area.
Preparations were still to be made. The Panchayat assembled to discuss the event, and tauji told me how they were going to build a proper pandal to welcome the minister. Elections were due soon, and already the parties had been rallying in the village. Trucks with banners and rusty megaphones moved about emitting slogans. Children ran after the trucks as they ambled through the streets, oftentimes with Haryanvi music blaring from the speakers. The men and teenaged boys hired by the parties who rode in the trucks danced and cheered as the crowd parted to let them pass.
I watched them go by through my window as I sat in front of my laptop glowing dimly in my unlit room. Sometimes, they interrupted my porn and I had to finish off hastily in case my taiji banged on my door to tell me something random about the party whose rally was in progress at the time. And when the news about the MLA came, the activity in the village only increased, much to my annoyance, as I had come to relish the general inertia of the place, and the utter lack of excitement.
Within a month of the MLA’s visit, the state newspaper published a front page article stating that Pichrapur was going to be divided.
I read a few of several articles on the subject. I was mildly intrigued because of the great hullaballoo that had ensued in the village. Regularly now, media vans came in and interviewed the people as they went about their daily lives. Once a journalist sprang a surprise on my poor unsuspecting taiji and she blushed and tittered and fell into my arms and had to be taken away from the cameras and mikes. Luckily, nobody came up to me. But they did meet Bulan.
Bulan had told me a few things about the supposed division. Apparently, the MLA who had visited had talked about a “list” the government was going to prepare. Everyone in the villages would be marked and put on the list for “official purposes”. The idea was to study the population, and even though nobody said it in these terms, to tabulate the number of Hindus and Muslims in the area.
I had barely grasped the idea when I began to receive videos on WhatsApp in which the MLA was making the announcements. Much of the video was unclear and the voice muffled. But the captions claimed that the so-called list was supposed to be for the development of the nation as a whole. I went through a few forwards that my tauji had sent – which I had earlier ignored.
Most of them were about the government’s initiative to “understand” the people in India, for which the list was being made. The newspapers and news channels were working in tandem with the government, discussing the merits of the initiative. The idea of desh-prem gripped everyone.
The following week, the Panchayat, after hours of deliberation, decided that they would support the party to which their MLA belonged, and in fact, make their work easier by drawing up two separate lists of Hindus and Muslims.
Bulan and I chanced upon one of the meetings one day. As expected, they were discussing the development of the nation. A lot of phrases that had been going around on social media and popular media were being thrown around.
Someone said: “We are known as Pichrapur, but we must prove that the days of backwardness are behind us.”
“These are modern times. We have to show that even though our village is small, we are not any less significant than any of the neighbouring villages.”
“Chaudhury saab has assured us that if we show our solidarity with the party this time, we will get funds for the construction of a movie hall near the station…”
Bulan and I moved away. As we walked, we passed posters of B grade movies splattered across dilapidated walls. One of the titles read, Raat ka Shikari. I nudged Bulan. He laughed nervously. We were going to the Hakim after much debate.
Since everything else had failed, even I believed that perhaps the Unani medicine was his only hope.
It was not long before the Panchayat decided that in order for the new scheme to work efficiently, they must bring changes in the way the village was designed.
It began with Shrimati Dahiya, the Sarpanch, speaking eloquently about desh prem and desh bhakti and other such sundries. She was the daughter of a former Sarpanch, and was heavily influenced by her husband, Vikram Kumar Dahiya’s ideology and everyone knew that she only parroted him.
She spoke about the necessity of complying by whatever schemes, policies, and bills the government brought out. She then told everyone that if they showed solidarity with the government with regard to the list, it would reflect well on them and improve their reputation.
It was ultimately decided that before the government could even begin making the list, they themselves ought to make it and hand it over when the officials came, to “facilitate the process”.
The challenge was to do it speedily.
Work began. But within a week it became clear that the villagers were ill-equipped in these matters. When Vikas Mallik, one of the Panchayat members, began doing rounds with his team, he found it difficult to resist the temptation to take tea and sweets at the houses he went to. Sometimes he would be offered pakore and the lady of the house insisted he have the fresh sabzi she had cooked with rotis that she could make within seconds. Naturally then, after a hearty lunch in winter, it was only justified that he took a short nap on the chaarpoy that the families hospitably offered to him.
The food cooked in desi ghee made him soporific. He was about sixty years of age after all. His vast belly bloated badly after eating. His gastric problems were only worsened in the cold. By evening, when he woke up, he had to eat again. After a glass of tea with mathri, it was time to call it a day.
He managed to make a list of a total of twenty-four people in seven days. He explained he would have had a longer list but the work was too hard. Besides, there were a number of scheduled caste families which he couldn’t decided whether to approach or not. The decision-making regarding a particular Chamaar caste family itself took two days.
When the Panchayat met the following week, Vikas Mallik explained the complexity of the task in great detail. He was lauded for his efforts, but the Panchayat decided to mull over things once more.
Finally, it was decided that the village itself would be divided so that the list could be made quickly. Wasn’t it the ultimate aim anyway? Someone recalled one of the WhatsApp videos saying so.
The division began. The canal that cut through the village was taken as the boundary and Hindus were asked to move to one side, and Muslims to the other. It was to be a temporary arrangement – just until they made the list and handed it to the officials. The MLA would definitely be pleased.
The work began within a couple of days. Half the people on the side where we lived were Muslims and they packed their belongings and moved to the other side, into temporary camps. The Hindus on the other side did the same. The head count and the preparation of the lists would begin the next day. Malik was supposed to lead the team on our side, and a Muslim man from the Panchayat, Umair Khan, was to lead the team on the other side.
It was not long before media vans began coming again, flocking around the chaupal area and interviewing the members of the Panchayat. Pichrapur had suddenly become a prominent subject of discussion and the newspapers regularly published news about the village’s endorsement of the government’s Hindustani Deshwadi Suchi. The division of the village which had happened so thoughtlessly was suddenly being reported live from the area.
I remained in the background, observing everything but not commenting.
This time, things progressed without any hurdle. It was incredible how efficient the authorities were when it came to executing absolute buffoonery.
News about Pichrapur’s initiative to make its own list spread across India.
Conflicting news was coming in about the government’s initiative, which was being called pro-nation and anti-nation alternatively. But everybody knew the MLA was a true nationalist and whatever he said was the absolute truth. When he came to visit again, he was met with greater enthusiasm because, apparently, the government was undertaking a difficult task in the face of great opposition from anti-national elements who did not want progress.
According to some WhatsApp messages, Pichrapur had been nominated for the national award for “sarkar sahyogita” or some such thing. According to another message, Pichrapur had been given an international award for the same thing. I did not have the heart to ask my poor naive tauji about the veracity of the news. What did I have to do with what happened in this godforsaken place? I was going to leave soon.
There was just one problem. Hakim Suleman had moved to the other side.
Bulan was a simpleton, but he was a man with a libidinous wife. And a man with a libidinous wife, who is young and pretty too, can go to great lengths to satiate her desires.
Somehow, he had discovered that Shalini was having an affair with the milkman, and that same night he stole into the abandoned clinic of the Hakim on our side of the canal to find the medicines which he was sure were still inside. He later told me that the clinic, which quite a big chamber, was being used by the government officials for their paperwork as it had been abandoned.
What actually happened in the clinic – which he later told me – was that when he broke in, he had an idea that since the list was being made so that the Muslims could be counted and ultimately sent back, he should destroy the files altogether. That way the Hakim wouldn’t be sent anywhere.
“I wasn’t thinking,” he told me that night. He had come straight to my house and woken me up. “I had to do something…I needed the pills”.
I looked at his terror-striken face, pale in the light of my laptop. There was nothing to be done now.
News of the burnt-down office circulated on WhatsApp and news. Video clips of a burning building with screams in the background were sent around. I received a video in which a double-storied building which was burning was being filmed from one side. But the camera zoomed in on a white woman crying and it was clear that it was a “fake video”.
Some more videos were in circulation. In one of them, someone had manage to capture papers going up in flames with ash falling around. It was really quite dramatic. In another video, it seemed like someone was trying to douse the fire with mud, but got burnt himself.
Media vans were everywhere the next day. It seemed like the work of leftist groups and anti-national elements who wanted to derail the government’s initiative.
A number of left party members were named. Some video surfaced in which a leftist gunda was shown to be pelting stones. The question arose, were stones pelted that night? Could it be linked to Kashmiris? The news was splattered with rumours about JNU walas who had recently shouted slogans about “desh ke tukde tukde”. It was somehow discovered that someone’s nephew in the village was studying in JNU and was actually a member of one of the left student union parties. Did that mean that the fire was linked to JNU leftists’ anarchy? They were sworn anti-nationals after all. It was not impossible. The media was in a frenzy tracing the links.
In the meantime, Bulan sunk into deeper states of melancholy.
A few days later, there was news about another fire in a neighbouring village.
The office where work related to the list was underway went up in flames. WhatsApp videos about the incident showed people rushing from one place to another even as the blaze lit up the night. On the news, as journalists reported from the site of destruction, young boys jumped in front of the camera, grinning and pushing one another, eager to be on TV.
The media had barely managed to blame the leftists in this case when another arson case was reported from another village.
Within the next few days, there were about seventy-three fires. It seemed like a meticulously planned insurgence. In New Delhi, protesters marched to Jantar Mantar to protest against the making of the list, even as government workers boycotted work.
The bloody thing had become a movement.
Bulan had fucking started a revolution.
It wasn’t long before it was discovered that Bulan Chautala was behind the act in Pichrapur. By then the movement had become so massive that the bill was being taken back by the government.
Bulan had become a hero, an anti-national, an activist, and leftist martyr. He was kicked out of his job and put in jail for a few months. My tauji told me that they were thinking of nominating him for the Panchayat in the village.
The last I saw him was on TV as he was being interviewed by a top journalist after being released.
He simply told the journalist, “I did it because I had to.”
And that was the simple truth.
Ipshita Nath teaches English Literature at Delhi University. She enjoys reading Victorian literature, travel writing, fantasy, dystopian, and lately, noir fiction. Her debut book of short stories, The Rickshaw Reveries, is being published by Simon & Schuster in March 2020.