Sangita woke up with a start. Another night of restlessness, another overslept morning, another day when her Zoom probably wouldn’t connect to the feeble network and Mrs Sengupta would send her yet another WhatsApp message about commitment to teaching. Sangita’s surname was Mondol and Mrs Sengupta made sure she never failed to remind her that if the game was fair, she would not be teaching at the Naminpur Girl’s College. Her late entry into the Zoom call today would put another nail in Mrs Sengupta’s collection of unpainted talons.
Sangita muttered a few of the choicest words under her breath and decided not to take a shower rightaway, which would further delay her entry into her virtual classroom. Instead, she could always switch off her video and blame it on a bad network. But, more important, she really needed to sort out the thoughts that had been bothering her since the previous week. Or else she might permanently lose her sleep and her balance in life, not to mention her inconsequential ad hoc position as Zoology lecturer at the college.
Wouldn’t that make Mrs Sengupta glad though. She would then be able to fluff the pleats of her sari and sanctimoniously proclaim that she always knew education could only be properly imparted by those of standard or higher birth than a mere Mondol, no matter what the namesake Commission professed.
Could it really be true, what her calculations had determined last week? Sangita had repeatedly gone over the data she had painstakingly collected through various friends, networks and other troublemakers. She had re-applied each formula used, every equation implemented. The results come out the same every time, and they had reduced her to a sleepless mess of a nightmare.
It had all started rather casually with some questions and jokes, leading to more enquiries and friends asking other friends, followed by WhatsApp forwards and unreported anecdotes. It was all meant to be a way to understand which areas in Naminpur needed more relief from the paltry support that was coming from the government. No one in this region could ever claim to have gone beyond the borders of the country, but that did not keep the COVID-19 virus shy of Naminpur.
Three weeks into the national lockdown three patients were found, one of whom died of pneumonia soon afterwards. Thus Naminpur was suddenly in the red or orange or pink – whatever colour that was deemed fit – zone, and all sorts of words were being used to control people’s movements in the area, including quarantine, lockdown, containment, segregation, and what have you.
But amidst all this, people, as they usually do, and more now than before, were dying of hunger. So the local administration had asked all government staff at educational institutes to help make lists so that rations of some worm-eaten rice, rancid oil and salt could be distributed. That’s how Sangita had got involved in this in the first place.
She always had a penchant for getting into troublesome territory, but she had learnt some lessons, which included keeping herself to herself when the times were tough. And if one were to believe everything that the television said, then the times had never been worse. It seemed like the end of the world, but a worse end than the one the nuns had taught Sangita at school, because even Jesus wouldn’t be able to travel down without the fear of getting infected. So basically without moral sorting, everyone might as well go to hell.
Anyway, while putting together the information on those who needed ration kits during this pandemic, Sangita had accidentally stumbled upon a very strange and unlikely possibility. It had unsettled her so much that she had sent some of the mathematical calculations of her discovery to Mr Ganguly, the Mathematics Professor, whom she normally stayed far away from.
Mr Ganguly did not like women in general and Sangita in particular. Sangita talked too much and too loudly for his meditative nature, and always failed to look up to him, as was fitting of all those who were inept as a species at working on mathematical problems.
Sangita insisted she was good at maths, and unfortunately for Mr Ganguly, she actually was, and thus assigned no special value to his superior masculine intelligence. And yet she had sent her calculations to Mr Ganguly, feeding him some rat and mouse story about a zoology problem that she had to solve, and had requested him to check if they were correct. To her cheap delight Mr Ganguly had sent a curt response, saying, “The calculations are fine. But the font size could have been larger.”
So the data was fine, and the calculations were fine – so the result must be fine too, Sangita fretted. But how could they be? How could one aberration of nature, or possibly a random accident of fate, change the very foundation on which the history of the world and its people had been built? As she tried to connect to the Zoom call for her second year students, Sangita knew she would spend some more restless nights.
Now in the third month since the first patient was spotted, Covid-19 had raged havoc across the globe. Never before had each and every resident of this planet felt the wrath of a disease quite this way. Already in twelve weeks it had successfully dismantled carefully propped up global economies, management of borders and defence, and the feeling of invincibility of rich people and countries. Starting with a three percent mortality rate, it soon reached forty-eight percent – which meant half the number of infected people would die.
This effectively meant half the population of this little blue planet could die. It had brought to its knees the sureties of financial futures, guarantees of romantic relationships, and expected returns on social investments. It had drawn back the covers that shamelessly hid large-scale poverty and hunger, ill-equipped healthcare systems, and general apathy to the millions who didn’t matter.
It was the best of times and the worst of times for journalists, and since Rabia’s cynicism had not as yet pushed her out the door of the regional TV channel, she decided to cover the impact of COVID-19 on her home town Naminpur. It would also be good to meet Sangita after almost two years.
The two women have been friends since childhood, and a few broken promises, bruised hearts and shattered homes apart, they had managed to maintain an unsentimental camaraderie resembling the one amongst the crew of a large sinking ship. Rabia left a voice message for Sangita a couple of days before her trip from Kolkata to Naminpur, and by return voice message was told that the rum was running low but would be shared if she spent a night at Sangita’s quarters.
Growing up in Naminpur had taught Rabia and Sangita many invaluable lessons, including the ability to kill mosquitoes with oiled plates, to tune in and out of conversations that were either depressing or offensive or both, and to never fall in love with men who did not have government jobs. They also knew not to venture into local bars where diesel kababs hung from the window panes.
Instead, women in towns like Naminpur asked a male friend to buy sealed bottles (even when the unsealed were cheaper than the MRP) and drank quietly at home. So on the appointed day Rabia landed up at Sangita’s quarters in her press-tagged car which allowed her mobility through the various degrees of lockdown across town. The driver, Haripada babu, was thrilled to hear that she would spend the night at her friend’s house and he should pick her up only the next morning. Late morning.
He had been working non-stop for various local and regional journalists whose lives had got busy after the first corona death. Interviews with captive citizens on how they were feeling, coping, shopping, moping, washing their hands, brushing their teeth, and so on needed to be recorded and sent off to various television channels across the state. Haripada babu’s was one of the two cars available with pre-approved special permission from the police to go into the worst zones. This was thanks to his pragmatism, that had kept the Station House Office in good humour since non corona times.
The Station House Officer’s wife and daughter used his car much like their own private carriage whenever needed. Leaving an overjoyed Haripada babu behind in the car, Rabia held her breath for a few seconds and pressed the bell outside Sangita’s quarters. This prepared her to meet her loud and over-talkative friend who worried about many little things, including recurring dandruff in her hair and sickly marigolds in her green patch.
Over the next few hours, Rabia and Sangita caught up on every item of gossip they had missed, every snide remark they had saved for each other, and almost all the reasons they were both still single and uncaring. The quantity of rum was more than Rabia had expected, given that this was the middle of a lockdown and Sangita’s evenings were otherwise empty. But through the evening Rabia kept feeling there was something going on beneath all the slush talk.
Sangita was anxious about something and was on the verge of spilling the beans several times, but had held back. Since the time these two women had their first bleeding days they had held back almost nothing from each other, even though their responses to situations often varied. This was evident in the fact that Rabia ran away from Naminpur at the first opportunity she got, and Sangita decided to come back to the town after spending a few years away.
“Just tell me, Sango”, Rabia cut into the middle of Sangita’s long-winded elaboration on why Mrs Sengupta was totally unfit for her role as the Principal of her college. “You are obviously worried about something and I have no clue why you won’t just tell me.”
“It’s that obvious, is it? Actually I can’t believe it myself – what have I got myself into.”
“Now you are trying my wafer-thin patience and you know it”
“You know how all government staff have to make lists for COVID relief in Naminpur, right?”
“Yes, I guess they don’t have an option.”
“So I am on the team and I have been collecting data…”
“…of hundreds of people…”
“…of those who need food mainly, and don’t have wages or any money to get it.”
“Yeah so?” Rabia’s patience was a millisecond away from snapping.
“I’ve noticed something really unbelievable.”
“…you won’t believe it if I tell you.”
“Yes, you said ‘unbelievable’. Several times. Means the same thing. Tell me.”
“So when I did not believe it, I asked some friends to get me more information from other parts of the town.”
“And I couldn’t believe what I saw in the data…in all the data…I couldn’t just couldn’t.”
“Sango…just tell me. What is it? You are just rambling on and on.”
“…what’s the point? You’ll just think I’m drunk…”
“Which you are. But if you tell me it will be over, right? Then I won’t ask you again and we can both go back to the inane conversations we were having earlier and bitch some more about people we unfortunately know. Tell me now. ”
“…or obsessed, or just being too fantastical!”
“Sango…listen either you tell me or say you will not and I can call Haripada babu and leave. I just can’t sit here with you on tenterhooks and seething with some secret worry and pretend that nothing is wrong and we are fine”
“Ok…so this is it. I think there is something in the body of some people that makes them immune to this novel coronavirus.”
“That’s a very vague way of saying something that could have been important. What is it?”
“Just immunity. The virus is harmless then, it cannot affect you.”
“Ok. So how does one get this…er…this immunity?” Rabia was always indulgent with her friend.
“One does not get it. One has it.”
“Who has it?”
“Yes. Those who live in abject poverty.”
“Yes, they have it in degrees. The poorer you are, the stronger the immunity.”
“What are you saying?
“Yes. No roti, no kapda, no makaan type of poor really have it in plenty. But the less poor – the ones that go hungry for some days every week – they have it too”
“Are you insane?”
“No. That’s what all my data shows.”
“Fuck off. You are nuts. You are sounding like those bleeding heart Communists who wish every good thing on this earth upon poor people, but have no clue how to get it to them.”
“Rabia…listen to me. I can fully understand why you won’t believe this. But as soon as I started getting my initial data together, I had this hunch. I got more friends and friends of friends to get me more information and data. Then I went pretending to be from some hospital and took swab samples. I tested. I formulated the equations and did the calculations. I retested, checked and rechecked. I even sent my calculations to that pompous prick Mr Ganguly who confirmed that they were correct. There is something common I am finding in the saliva of poor people. And it is there in degrees – gets stronger as you get poorer. I don’t quite know what it is yet, but it correlates almost ninety-eight percent to those who seem to have some sort of immunity to the virus.”
“I don’t believe a word you are saying. Nothing. And I won’t till you explain this to me step by step,” Rabia was serious.
Over the next two hours Sangita painstakingly explained her entire research with over 400 samples collected across various areas of Naminpur where the poor lived. These samples cut across diversities of age, gender, caste, religion and even sexuality – which was hard to spot in a town such as this one. The one thing common to them was that they mostly fell below the poverty line as defined by the government and through several other parameters collated by aid agencies.
Sangita detailed the methodology she had used. She explained how she had divided the data into separate batches depending on their levels of poverty. She dragged Rabia through the equations she employed, her early misgivings, the initial mistakes, and the resultant findings. She described the pattern that emerged and its implications. She explained how she slept on it, pretended it was a nightmare and started work from scratch again.
Sangita and Rabia discussed and debated each of the aspects of the research threadbare. Rabia’s rapid-fire questions scanned and ripped open every piece of evidence. But slowly they ceased, and she fell silent. The enormity of the moment descended on them.
Finished with her explanations and thoroughly exhausted, Sangita gulped down the last of her rum and sighed, “But Rabia I will never know for sure. The amount of funds, the technology and the humongous scale at which this research needs to be done to fully prove what this early pattern is showing me are impossible to even dream of. This is material for the Johns Hopkins Centre you know, or the Harvard School of Medicine or something! What do I do with this half knowledge, this shadow of truth, this whisper of a possibility that has the potential to topple the power equations of our worlds the way we know it? To imagine that the only immunity against this killer disease is poverty – that the poorer you, the safer you are – is to change the course of civilisation itself!”
Rabia listened. Rabia listened very carefully.
The world woke up to an unprecedented morning. It started with whispers in the corridors of television channels and zoom meetings of online media, but by eight o’ clock in India the world media was abuzz with an unverified but miraculous news report. It blasted from television screens and computers across homes and offices, infiltrated every WhatsApp group there was, and was the breaking news on all online forums.
It was possible, the news said, to be immune to Covid-19 – you just had to be poor! “The poorer you are, the safer you are from the virus,” quoted reporters from the anonymous “tip”. The utter surprise, shock and often disbelief in their voices and expressions were quite evident, no matter what language they spoke in or which country they were broadcasting from.
Most channels also mentioned that the news had reached their offices through a recorded message in a female voice that gave some details of how this discovery had come about, but there was no record of where or whom it was received from. It seemed like a ghost had delivered a much-needed message that the world had no clue how to deal with.
The news gave rise to stories, the stories to rumours, and the rumours in turn coloured the news. Soon there were whispers floating around about a shaman in the jungles of the Amazon having discovered this fact through dream reading, and another about the scientists of the erstwhile Soviet Union who were now living underground in Siberia having cracked it. There was also gossip about extra terrestrial beings, psychic nihilists and dragon-heart witches being responsible in some way for this breakthrough.
Some reports must have been purposely leaked from eminent scientific institutions which neither negated nor corroborated the news, but demanded ample funding from governments to investigate the matter further. Some really efficient research outfits sought permission to segregate these immune poor people and conduct chemical and neurological experiments on them to test the accuracy of the news. In a matter of days there were articles, editorials, analyses, and even songs and poetry coming out of every corner of this world, exploring, doubting, critiquing, celebrating and decimating the news report.
While there were plenty of raised eyebrows initially over the veracity and credibility of the news report, soon accounts started coming in from different countries around the world of how various communities, colonies, shanties and ghetto townships of the poor remained unaffected by the virus. Earlier, no media house had actually sent its reporters there to check how they were doing through this crisis, simply because these people were not worth reporting about. But now the situation was changing.
So they found out that while the people in these poor localities were still dying, as they do unceremoniously and unattended to, the reasons were hunger and a lack of general medical care, and, now, more than ever – the lack of income. But not Covid-19. These stories started supporting and building a strong case, propping up the original news item – “The Finding” – as it was now christened by international press.
A section of the media started searching for the origins of The Finding – but the investigations mostly led to blind lanes or roads branching into so many alleys that they were impossible to follow. Nevertheless, some journalists kept at it and sometimes traded half lies and partially compromised information to seek the real identity of the finder of The Finding.
What was quite astonishing though was that poor people – the thoroughly disenfranchised lot of this wretched earth – who had never been of any consequence before, were now part of so many conversations, bagged many hours of footage on media, and took up considerable space in the minds of the powerful – and the rich!
There were many questions. How poor did one have to be? How long did one have to be poor? Could you become poor now for the immunity to develop or did you have to be born poor? In India people started relating this to caste and in the USA, to race. Soon there were discussions on the concept and reality of poverty everywhere. Relative levels of poverty across communities and nations were debated as much as how governments and aid agencies defined the poverty line.
The multi-billionaires of the world hired the best of consultants to figure out what “poor” meant. Questions around sustainable luxury came up, as did arguments about the number of houses a freshly minted “poor” family could possess. The answers shocked many – especially to know that there were people in this world who had never known a day of rest or leisure.
Questions on poverty led to questions on work and how work was valued and paid for. Questions on work led to questions of production and relationships between capital and labour. Many were astonished to realise that discussions that should have taken place many decades earlier, about the transforming nature of both capital and labour, had not taken place owing to the laziness of scholars and shrewdness of invested interests.
Images of Karl Marx across walls and books seemed to wear a fresh glint in the eye. Data on poverty rolled out from research institutes across the world. Who knew so much work had been done on poverty, enabling so many people to earn a livelihood from it, when actually not much had changed on the ground in the lives of the poor? There were no answers, of course, but many, many assumptions and hypotheses were offered.
Next came the response of the rich. A burgeoning wave of “philanthropy” washed over the world. It was as bizarre and as unprecedented as the coronavirus catastrophe itself. It started slowly, with the super-rich giving away sizeable portions of their wealth to their foundations and charities. Then the world saw politicians and businessmen announcing huge relief funds for Covid-19.
Soon, European countries, America, UK and Australia were holding “bilateral” conversations with countries in Africa and some part of Asia to double and triple their aid and waiving all earlier loans, including interest. There were stories about miraculous immunity developed by families which managed to give away all their wealth and moved from their palatial houses to one-bedroom slum dwellings. There was also the story of a family of poor people who accepted the wealth of a local drug-lord and in two days all the members of that family were detected with the corona virus. No one heard what happened to the drug-lord.
This was all hearsay, often unverified stories, and yet the power they wielded over people across the world was unparalleled. A few stories gave rise to more, and those to some more, which floated around the internet and all kinds of communications mediums to create an almost magical environment.
But soon enough the poor got smart. They started refusing the wealth they were coaxed, and often coerced, to accept. They built barricades around their ghettos to stop the rich from coming in with their massive cars and sacks full of cash to distribute them. Poor mothers warned poor children not to be lured by the glitter of ornaments, and taught them that it could be life-threatening to accept innocent looking passwords that led to large volumes of shares of multi crore companies.
Poor people walked around with mace sprays to ward off rich people from accosting them on streets and supermarkets to coax them to accept their wealth. The practice of gifting all but vanished because motives and intents were now full of suspicion.
There were also stories about those rich families who were trying to game the whole immunity thing. They were arriving at deals – percentages of wealth for full transfers now, to be returned after the crisis ended, commissioned safe-keeping, retainerships for current holdings, and future trading in time and life.
But, somehow, none of the tricks of the rich was working this time – or so the reports in asserted. Those who tried to hoodwink The Finding were soon detected with the virus. If one wasn’t rational and scientific, one might have said that the disease attacked them with more ferocity than it did others, as if it knew the unethical practices at play.
But between the rich and the poor lay the “middle class”, defined by a lack of definition. It seemed the world had divided itself between the rich desperately attempting to become poor, and the poor trying hard to stay poor. The middle classes wondered what they should do.
They had always thought they were poor! They had always wanted to be rich and did everything in their power to work for the rich and support the rich thus hoping that some of the richness would rub off on them. Unfortunately all they did manage was make the rich richer.
Over the centuries, this had generally been their contribution to society. And now they had no idea what to do. Would they be vulnerable because they were richer than the poor, or safe because they were poorer than the rich? There were no answers. Just a lot of panic, idle talk and false bravado – as was the case with anything that concerned the middle classes.
However, quite rapidly equations around the world were changing. There was unconfirmed news about hundreds of ships carrying riches being dumped in the middle of the ocean. Countries in Africa and parts of Asia locked down their borders to stop the immoral wealth from coming in from richer countries to change the destiny of their people – this time, like every other time, for the worse.
One fateful night stock markets across the world – in Tokyo, New York, Mumbai and London – were set of fire and the servers that supposedly held the details of the wealth of the world and the fates of its people were destroyed. The notional wealth of the one percent of billionaires who controlled the earth and beyond evaporated into thin air.
One afternoon on the shores of the Atlantic Ocean, people awoke from their siesta to find bright and shiny stones strewn all over the beach. The entire inventory of diamonds in the world – or at least a large part of it – had found its way to the beach, and no one dared pick up even one tiny stone.
Overnight, big cities around the world saw artworks being left on the road and the pavements became galleries where people caressed paintings that were cold and distant from years of untouchability. The world was seized by a sheer desperation to be poor, to stay alive.
There was chaos, confusion and total anarchy everywhere. This monumental effort of wealth redistribution was beyond the belief of even the most hardcore of Communists. In fact, since no one was at the receiving end of the distribution – the wealth was actually being demolished.
Naren Samanta was hiding behind the lamp-post so that no one on the other side of the road could spot him. It was dark except for the sickle moon and the flickering bulb of the lamp-post. All the houses nearby seemed to have gone off to sleep. Or were dead. That happened a lot these days. If all the members of the house died, it would lie dead too for a long time till the authorities came to clear it up and lock it away.
Naren had been doing this for a whole week now but had failed to nab his quarry so far. Tonight, he reflected, had to see the finale of this cat and mouse game. For a second he wondered who the cat was and who the mouse, or whether the equation that had worked earlier between the cat and the mouse was still in place. The cataclysmic coronavirus and The Finding had changed the power relationships of the world forever now.
Naren pricked up his ears. Someone was walking up from the end of the road. He could see the silhouette of the tall, wiry frame of the man, head bent over, walking quickly. As the man passed the lamp-post Naren sprang out of the dark and confronted him.
“Babla, have you decided?”
“Naren babu, you again!”
“Please Babla, at least think of your mother. She will have some comfort at least at the end of her life.”
“Who said this is the end of her life?”
“She is over 70, is she not?”
“So is your mother, Naren babu. Is this how you speak of her as well?”
Naren muttered under his breath. If the times had been different, he knew exactly what he would have done to Babla for speaking this way to him. He was Naren Samanta – the most successful businessman of Naminpur. A century ago his forefathers would have burnt Babla’s forefathers alive for such insolence. But to survive one has to adapt to changing times. That is the sign of a successful man – how fast and well he adapts to the world shifting around him.
Having shifted his allegiance from one political colour to another several times over the years, Naren knew that nothing stuck to his body more than his profits. But these times were not just difficult, they were also totally uncertain. He needed Babla to agree to his proposition. Or else his whole family would be in danger.
Naren had seen how the Mukherjees, Gangulys and Agarwals had lost their entire families, one after another, to this disease. They were the richest people around here. Other than him of course. And he saw how no one from the Aguripada basti had fallen ill. They strutted around wearing their masks as though they had conquered the earth – bloody rascals of low birth. So now he was afraid, very afraid. And convincing Babla was his only way out of this.
“Babla, you have no idea what this money, this amount of money, could buy you. Houses, cars, maids at home, food you have never tasted, medical help – you name it. You can buy as many women you want too Babla. Be reasonable.”
“And what if we get the virus after we take your money?”
“Well, you can afford the best medical care with the money I am giving you.”
“Naren Babu, you know the mortality rate. Half of those who get infected will die. What will medical help do now. I needed medical help when Baba discovered his heart problem. But then we did not have the money, nor did anyone give us any. He died without any medical help. Now, this disease is good in that sense – once you get it, it treats everyone the same way. Or at least half of them. With or without medical help.”
“Take my wealth Babla. Let me live.”
“So that is it, isn’t it? You want to buy my life for yourself? What’s the price of this life Naren Babu? Where did you get it valued? Can you afford it with your ill-gotten wealth?”
“My wealth is not ill-gotten Babla. I worked hard for it. You poor people never understand that, do you.”
“All wealth is ill-gotten Naren Babu. That’s why it’s wealth. It is more than what should have been your share of this earth. And it is not more because you deserved it. It is more because you took it, stole it, looted it. And now that you are scared of how vulnerable it has made you, you are afraid of it. You don’t want it. And not only do you not want it, you want to give it away to us! So that we get your disease.”
“Our disease – how is this our disease Babla? How dare you.”
The sickle moon had drifted to one side of the sky and its faint light seemed stronger behind Babla’s head. The lamp-post stood between the two men, quietly witnessing the end of history. “I dare, Naren Babu. I more than dare. This disease is yours – it belongs to your ilk. We always knew that when it travelled into this country through those who came in from foreign countries. And now nature too has proved it. It is a rich man’s disease in the most literal sense. So yes, the disease is yours and you keep it. You rot in it. We refuse to die, again and again, and all over again for your comfort. The answer is…No.”
Babla walked off into the darkness to the other side of the road, where he lived with his mother and two sisters. He used to pull a rickshaw before all this started. One of his sisters worked as a cook for a number of families, while the other was an ayah in the local nursing home. She continued to work there now and earned more than she ever had. The salaries of all health-workers had shot up in the past few weeks. The world had started changing.
Jogen Khyapa opened the box of sweets Sangita handed him.
“I wanted the one with the pink centre,” he complained. “These stick in my throat.”
“You can’t eat three of them at the same time, Khyapa. That’s why they stick in your throat. Have them one by one. And drink some water.”
Sangita flicked a small disk like stone into the water sideways. When she was a little girl the banks of this lake – the Madari jheel – was the place her Baba would bring her to on Saturdays, when he came home to Naminpur from Kolkata for the weekend. They sat next to each other and flicked stones into the water that skipped and jumped over the surface. Tadpoles, she would scream. Baba smiled.
This was where he had told her that he wanted her to go to college in the big city, live life on her own terms, help people, and not get married if she didn’t want to. This was where she had told him about falling in love with Stanley, of their dream of setting up a music school for blind children, and, later, of his accident. The bamboo forest behind the lake had grown old and dense in the past thirty years. But she could hear her Baba here softly reciting the Annada Mangal, his favourite verse, in tune with the wind that came in from the west. This place brought her great comfort.
“I knew all along. You can’t fool me,” Jogen Khyapa veered towards the edge of the lake.
“Khyapa stop fidgeting and sit properly. If you fall into the water I cannot pull you out,” Sangita said in irritation.
Jogen Khyapa giggled. He was about 70. Or more. Or less. No one knew. And no one knew where he came from, some 30 years ago, and made the streets of this neighbourhood his home. One morning Ghoshal babu found him huddled next to the gate of their house. He was hungry and had a fever. Mrs Ghoshal gave him some leftover rice and he recovered in a couple of days.
Ever since then he had lived on these streets. When it rained he took shelter under the verandah of the Shani temple. He talked only to himself initially, but slowly opened up to people around him. He would hang around the tea shop and listen to people’s conversations. Sometimes he would say the most innocuous things that had no relevance to the topic at hand.
He said his name was Jogen Majhi but soon people started calling him Jogen Khyapa – Crazy Jogen. When they asked him where he came from, he would tell a different story every time. Sometimes it was the floods in Assam that had made him flee; at others it was the circus shutting down.
There were some gory stories of police brutality in Chhattisgarh; and then again how his mother, the Queen of Gamphutipur, was still looking for him. He was a farmer whose debt had driven him away from his village, or a magician who had lost the power to make mice fly. His tales included a family or announced his loneliness, depending on his moods. Listening to his ramblings, one would occasionally think he was well-out educated, but soon figured that his incessant digressions were a bunch of nonsense.
The neighbourhood managed to feed him and sometimes even clothe him. On most days he would look up at the sky for hours and mutter, conducting his own negotiations with the overlords. Soon Jogen Khyapa was a fixture around this part of town. When he was not around, people missed him and asked about him. He would appear and disappear at will, pretending that he had the powers of invisibility.
“The poor have magic, all the babus of the world – the poor can vanish – phokka!” he would say and jump up and down, clapping his hands. Sangita’s Baba liked Jogen Khyapa and would always buy him sweets. And give him a blanket when it was very cold or an old umbrella during the monsoon. He said Jogen Khyapa spoke the truth.
The man did have a black tongue for sure, and sometimes there were uncanny resemblances to what he would mumble in his madness and the news that the papers carried. Sangita kept up some of these rituals of her Baba’s. At least once or twice a week she bought him sweets from Chandan’s shop.
“But whatever you say, you cannot fool me. I can see.”
“What can you see Khyapa?”
“From beginning to end, I see all. The other side of time is a mirror,” Jogen Khyapa said with a great deal of gravitas.
“And what can’t I hide from you?”
“That all this is the blessing of the mother.”
“Dhai kir kir kir, dhai kir kir kir, the mother’s blessing on the plate of time, time is a land of mirrors,” Jogen Khyapa was lost in his own mirth and moved his head to the rhythm inside his head.
Sangita stared at the water. The water was like a mirror.
“Look, everything is different now. The world is becoming new. Like the moon of Eid. Even Manotosh does not hit me any more when I stand in front of his shop. He gives me fresh luchi and alur dom.”
Sangita listened quietly. There was a stillness in the air.
“The mother brought the blessing. In disguise. So the earth could heal,” he started counting on his left hand.
Sangita looked at Jogen Khyapa. His eyes were burning like those of an incandescent man. Like you could see the future in them.
“You cannot hide from me. You are the mother. You always were.”
Sangita looked back at the water. It was morphing in the sunset.
“Look Khyapa, the water is changing colour. The light is breaking in.”
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