The storm had receded. There was no force in the wind now. But the rain was still dripping lightly. There was quite some time left before the break of dawn. The night sky was lit up by occasional flashes of forked lightning. Constable Nimai had just drifted into his after-meal sleep when a voice called out. He jerked out of sleep and sat up groggily. Who could be calling him at this ungodly hour, he wondered and pricked his ears to listen.
‘Do you have a bidi?’ the voice came again.
‘Bidi?’ Nimai repeated and immediately guessed that it was the voice of suspect Sanatan who was in the adjacent room, handcuffed and chained to the window railings. Nimai was vexed. What a horrible fellow! He felt an irresistible urge to rush to him and slap him just below his ear. That would drown his cravings for a bidi, he thought mean-spiritedly. But the hectic activities he had been engaged in all through the day had so drained him that he did not have much strength left to climb off the bed and put his thought to action.
‘Shut up, you…. Go to sleep,’ he hollered. ’One more sound out of you and I will break your leg.’
‘What does this fellow think of me?’ he added, speaking into the darkness …’That crazy inspector is not able to assess my real worth. He must not know I can easily handle even diehard criminals!’
He slumped back into the bed and pulled the sheet over his face.
Not even half an hour had passed that Nimai was again jolted out of sleep by some creepy sound. He tried to listen closely. Someone was groaning, as if he was in great pain. He was slightly afraid. It was the culprit Sana. But why was he making such a frightening sound? Was he really in pain or just faking in order to make an escape?
Nimai cursed himself for joining the force. He remembered a couplet he had heard from someone.
Go for the Hilsha if you want good fish
If you want a good job, join the police
The fellow who wrote those lines must be a liar of the first order. He would handcuff the fellow and drag him to the police station if even ever he caught sight of him and charge him for writing such crap.
Joining the police force! He would not wish that even on one of his worst enemies. He failed to imagine why his father had begged that Mangraj fellow to get his son such a cursed job. There is neither money nor respect here. Even his own wife looked upon him with abject contempt. She did not live with him but stayed in the village. She only came just before payday, collected the money from him and left. When Nimai tried to hold her hand affectionately, she would shove his hand off in utter distaste.
‘Your father lied to us. He said you were a habildar. We have been cheated. Get yourself promoted to the post of habildar first and then hold my hand. Not before that…’ She would sneer.
Nimai felt so belittled that he wished he would beat his head against the wall. He felt an overwhelming urge to slap her hard and make all her teeth fall out. But all his fire died as if someone had thrown a bucketful of water on it, the moment he looked at her eyes. He shrank inside.
And she would go away, leaving behind long, lonely nights.
The sound came again. The culprit Sana, in the other room was groaning loudly now. Nimai got down from the bed. The feeble flame of a lantern standing in a corner threw a dim light around. A patina of black had settled on the upper portion of the inner side of its glass. Nimai raised the flame a little and looked through the window that opened to the other room. He could not see anything. His heart skipped a beat. ‘Where did the fellow go?’ he lifted the lantern to the level of the window and tilted it a little. Now he could see Sana. He was lying on the floor and beating his hands and legs.
What is the matter with this fellow? Nimai wondered. He was all right earlier in the evening. He must be feigning. He had come across many such characters during his service career. He remembered the one who had slashed his own arm with a sharp blade. Blood spilled out from the wound and made a red pool on the floor of the cell. Nimai had newly joined the post of a constable. He was horrified at the sight of so much blood and went inside unlocking the door of the cell. But as soon as he entered the fellow gave him a hard shove and ran away.
But Sana seemed to be in real pain. Nimai focused the light of the lantern on him and looked closely. He could see him frothing at the corners of his mouth. Had he eaten poison? Nimai was worried. What a bother!! Everyone would put the blame on him if the fellow died. The inspector would not wait to listen to any explanations and would immediately take action against him. And then there were the media people, he thought gingerly. What an irony!! He thought bitterly. The police in this country are afraid of the thieves, lest they be charged with the violation of the Human Rights Act.
Nimai rapped at the bars of the cell window with his baton.
‘Hey you! Why are you faking? Can’t you sit quiet?’
Sanatan’s lips moved. He tried to say something. But his voice was almost inaudible. Nor was what he said intelligible to Nimai. Sana stretched out a bony hand and spoke a little more clearly.
‘Sir, give me a little wine to drink, or else I will die! My throat is parched!’
‘The fellow is an alcohol addict,’ Nimai thought. ‘He will die unless he drinks. What a terrible situation!!’
Suddenly he remembered the unopened bottle of liquor in his tin trunk. He had snatched a couple of large bottles of liquor during the raid on a liquor shop. Nimai was supposed to make arrangements for the liquor when the senior inspectors made a visit to this outpost. He always kept a stock of liquor for such occasions. Out of the two bottles, Nimai remembered, one was taken away by Pranakrishna but the other one was still there. Nimai opened the trunk and took out the bottle. He removed the cap and poured out a generous amount into an aluminium glass.
‘Here, take it,’ he held out the glass to Sana through the bars in the cell window. With one quick movement he jumped off the floor, snatched the glass from Nimai’s hand and emptied it in a few large swags.
Babu, this will be added to your virtues!’ Sanatan said gratefully, joining his palms.
‘Virtue, my foot!’, Nimai snapped. ‘I do not need any virtue. All your damned virtues put together could not get me promotion to the post of habildar. And, look, how that Pranakrishn moves about flaunting those three stripes of sash on the shoulder of his Habildar uniform. How I have served my seniors! But nothing I ever did bore any result for me! To hell with virtue!!’
Sanatan did not say anything.
Nimai returned to his cot. But sleep had vanished from his eyes.
‘How can one sleep after getting messed up with these criminals? Not much of the night as such was left now. There is no point in trying to sleep. I would rather wait up till the daybreak and then take the fellow to the police station. His responsibility would be over once the inspector at the Police station took charge of the culprit. He would try to catch some sleep only after he had discharged that duty.
Nimai was caught in a difficult situation. The news of the thief Sana having come back to his village had reached their outpost the night before. He and the others in the outpost were given orders that Sana had to be arrested Sana by any means. Accordingly, he and Balbant Ray, the other constable, had arrested Sana taking him from his house that morning. They had taken all precautions not to give the culprit the slightest chance to escape, but surprisingly Sana did not try to escape nor did he offer any resistance. The doors of his shack were open and he lay spread-eagled on the floor. They woke him up, handcuffed him and walked him to the outpost. But as ill luck would have it, it began raining in torrents. Wind blew in wild gusts. It rained nonstop for two hours. The roads were flooded. Another disaster awaited them when finally, with much difficulty, they reached the outpost. The south wall of the outpost had collapsed under the heavy rain.
The glaring problem now was where should the culprit be kept. The habildar had already left for his village. Balbantray, that unscrupulous fellow had left too as soon as they reached the outpost. Nimai was now left with Sana under his sole custody.
Evening deepened into night. Rain kept pouring on. Nimai wondered if the rain god Indra made up his mind to empty his pitcher on one single day. The river was swelling with floodwater. Nimai doubted that it would be possible to transfer the culprit to the police station on the other side of the river. Finding no alternative he brought the culprit to his own office quarters, a shabby two room affair. He kept Sana in the bedroom, locked the door from outside and rested in the front room. Rested? No,’ kept guard’ would rather be the right words, Nimai thought bitterly.
What kind of a government was this, a vexed Nimai thought, which did not take proper steps to repair the walls of a police outpost? The matter had been taken note of and was discussed in meetings, but without any positive outcome. The wall of the outpost now was damaged by the rain and the constable was forced to keep a culprit in his own office quarters!! How ridiculous!! But the senior officers of his department did not show the slightest hint of shame in their eyes!!
Nimai had desperately tried to please the new inspector when the latter took office. On his first official visit to this outpost, Nimai had prepared fresh cheese and green coconuts for him. He also got special coffee prepared for the inspector with a hope to earn his good graces so that he would recommend his name for promotion to the post of habildar. But the insulting words he spoke while leaving the outpost splashed cold water on his kindling hopes.
‘Babu Nimai charana!!’, the inspector had said with a sneer, ‘They would have dismissed you after four months hadn’t the government extended the age for superannuation by two years. You haven’t made any significant contribution in your entire service period. You have now two more years to prove yourself. Do something noteworthy during the time. I wonder why you joined the police force after all. You have a name that has a religious touch to it. Had you been a monk or something like that and sang kirtan in some monastery or temple, at least you would have lived up to your name. ‘
All others at the outpost had let out a derisive laughter at the inspector’s ugly, mindless joke. Nimai winced, his face flushing in utter shame and anger.
‘All these bloody officers are birds of the same feather!’ he thought angrily.
There are several occasions when Nimai brooded despairingly over his unsuccessful career. It would perhaps have been better had he not joined the force. What is so special about this job that his poor father had agreed to slave away at the home of that villain Mangaraj for fifteen years and pay him a bribe of five thousand in addition to that in order to get Nimai’ s name recommended ? Aren’t there people engaged in other professions and living a contented life? He, too, could have found some other form of livelihood and been better off for it.
He had been posted in about seven different police stations during his service period. His experience had taught him to appraise the characters of these police officers.
He turned on his side. ‘But tomorrow everyone will come to know how he had fulfilled the mission of arresting this culprit who had been eluding the police for four years, he thought proudly. The whole world would acclaim his success. They would know how constable Nimai had singlehandedly taken custody of a criminal like Sana, who had been accused not only of selling liquor without a license, but also of committing murder. It was in fact true that Sanatan had absconded with the money after murdering Rudra Mahapatra, the sarpanch of Patapur village. The police had investigated the case with thorough precision and the press had made a furore over it, but Sana had got away.
The night was still dark and rainy. In the evening news reports on television said that all the rivers were swelling with flood water. It appears once again the flood will wash away half of Odisha.
Such rainy nights weigh heavily on Nimai’s loneliness. He had often told Mala, his wife, about it. Time and again he had suggested that both of them should live together.
‘In thirty years you could not get me a child ..!’ She would shoot back. ‘What is the point in getting so overwhelmed with love at this old age?’
Nimai wondered why he had to put up with such humiliation. A woman’s character is as difficult to work out as the movement of a flooding river. But Nimai knew that he too could have earned well outside of his constable’s salary had he not been conscientious. He too could have had a fat bank balance, jewellery and even a large patch of land in a posh locality.
Sana’s voice broke the flow of his thoughts.
‘What does he want now?’
‘I want to take a pee,’ Sana said.
‘What a bother!’ Nimai cursed his fate once again.
‘The rogue had drunk like a pig , and now he wants to go out to take a pee.’
Nimai was feeling a little dubious. Should he let this man go out to the open to urinate?
Suppose he gave him a slip and got away …!
All his dreams of getting promoted to the post of a habildar would go up in smoke. Instead, he would end up being suspended from his job.
‘But the fellow has an injured leg. How could he run away?’ Nimai debated with himself.
He unlocked the door. ‘Well, come! Get it done, quick!’ Nimai held tightly the length of rope which was tied to the handcuff. But Sana seemed to have no intention of escaping. Slowly he limped down the steps of the veranda and went to the backyard of the house. He returned soon, to the relief of Nimai. ‘Do you have a bidi ?’ he asked Nimai as he came closer.
‘Shut up! Not again! I don’t have any bidi’ Nimai snapped.
‘I will not get away. So, do not get so worked up. Do you think I was not aware that the Patapur police would arrest me? I would not have returned to the village had I had any intention of escaping being arrested. I do not want to live. Tell me why would anyone who had no interest in living any longer try to get away?’
Nimai gaped at the culprit. He had never expected such an answer from him. What an absurd remark! Why should one be so disinterested in life? There are so many people with so many handicaps in this world. There are people crushed by abject poverty , people incapacitated with old-age and ailments. But they cling on to life. Even the lepers want to live out their diseased life. It is written in the holy Srimad Bhagabat that Yama, the god of Death, cannot take a life away even one single moment before one’s preordained time of death. Hmm… the fellow is just rambling on under the influence of alcohol.’
A gust of rain soaked wind flowed towards the veranda and swept past Nimai’s face. It felt as if the clouds sprayed rain water on his drowsy eyes. Sana limped into the inner room and Nimai locked the door from outside. He was feeling disturbed. Why did Sana say that he had lost the will to live on? There must be some secret stored in his heart. Does his wife too ignore Sana the way Mala ignored him?
He got up from his bed and walked to the window. He looked inside.
‘Why do you say you have lost the will to live?’ he asked Sana, unable to hold his curiosity in check. ’Or ,do you want to draw sympathy by emotionally influencing me? But be sure that such tricks are not going to pay off. You do not know how strict a person I am. The prey of a tiger might escape its clutches, but a criminal, having once come under constable Nimai’s clutches, can never get away.’
There was no reply. Nimai was not sure whether Sana had heard at all what he said. He went on stroking his injured leg.
‘Could you give me some more?’ Sana said after sometime.
‘What is it you want, you fool?’ Nimai asked impatiently.
‘Liquor,’ Sana answered, ‘I have seen that there is still a lot of it left in that bottle. Please give me some more. My body has started trembling once again.’
‘What kind of a drunkard are you, you pig? Haven’t you had a full glass of liquor, and that without water too, just a little while ago? I could give some to you. I don’t drink. But what if the inspector wants the bottle and there won’t much left? What am to say if he wants to know who consumed it? No, I cannot take that risk. Forget about the liquor.’ Nimai said determinedly.
But Sana was implacable. He begged on. ‘Just a few drops… or else I will die.’
In that dim light Nimai saw a man of about forty, who had once been a man of sturdy and robust built, now reduced to a haggardly wreck. The straggled hair, the unkempt beard and the red and swollen eyes made him look like a deranged lunatic. He kept licking his dry lips with his tongue. Nimai’s heart went out to him. He took out the bottle and poured some of the liquid into the aluminium glass.’ It seems you can’t survive without alcohol..’ he said as he handed the glass to Sana through the bars.
Rudra Mahapatra had only one obsession in life.. land. Acres and acres of it..’ Sana began to speak haltingly. Nimai moved a little closer to the window to hear clearly.
I started working in Rudra Mahapatra’s distillery at the age of thirty one. That is where I developed my drinking habit.
I married Rajani. She had lost her parents. Her uncle worked as a farmhand for Rudra Mahapatra. I asked my wife to join me at work in the distillery, but she refused. She wanted me to stop working for Rudra Mahapatra. ‘Let both of us work at the road construction site.’ Rajani suggested. I have thought to approach a SHG organization which will help me get a loan from the bank. I will make pickles and badi and the organization will take care of the marketing.’
I laughed. ‘Who will let me work there?’
But, amazingly I got employed as a labourer on daily wages at the construction site. The money I was paid had no strings attached to it as was with the job at the distillery. Rajni also got a bank loan with low interest and her small business with pickles sped along nicely. We were all set to raise a family once we saved enough to build a small house of our own.’
Sana stopped abruptly. He sat brooding, resting his head on the wall.
‘Why did you stop?’ Nimai asked, his growing curiosity.
What Nimai made out by putting together the broken sentences Sana mumbled out through his alcoholic haze could be summed up like this:
Five years before Sanatan had chanced upon Rudra Mahapatra on the road that passed by his distillery. Rudra Mahapatra greeted Sana effusively and coaxed him to have a drink with him.
‘This is special brand,’ Rudra said. ‘Not like what we prepare in the distillery.’ The special brand worked its way to Sana’s brain and he felt like floating in the air. Rudra made a deal with him. Sanatan would supply the liquor made in Rudra’s distillery to the labourers who worked at the construction site of the bridge over the river Naguni. Rudra would take care of the police and the excise officers. In return Sana would not only receive good commission but would have as much of the special liquor as he wanted for free.
Rajani protested. She tried to dissuade her husband from falling into Rudra’s trap, but Sana did not pay heed to her. He worked for Rudra, drank regularly and reduced himself to a sot.
A few days before the bridge was completed the excise people launched a raid over the shop from where Sana supplied liquor to the labourers. The shop was seized by the police and Sana was arrested. Rudra had somehow got him acquitted of the charge by bribing the police but did not employ Sana in his distillery. ‘The excise people might trace out my connection with you if I let you work here.’
But Sana had started to be addicted to liquor by that time and needed money. He did not work regularly but spent every single paisa he earned as wages on liquor. He coerced his wife to give him more money for buying drinks. He stole or snatched whatever little Rajni had saved and squandered everything on liquor. When he had sold away everything of value in his house to afford the liquor he bartered Rajni. Not caring in the least for Rajni’s tearful pleas, Sana forced her to work as domestic help in Rudra Mahapatra’s home.
‘He could get us low income, government sponsored housing if you would please him,’ he said to his wife. Slowly Rudra began to compel Rajni to cater to his obstinate needs.
And then came that fateful evening. There was a light drizzle. Sanatan sat outside, drunk to the core as always. Rudra came. Ignoring Sana’s presence he began to pull at Rajni’s sari. Rajani screamed for help, begged her husband to come to her rescue. ‘Help me, please. Think of your baby that is growing inside me, ‘ she cried. But Sana did not budge, nor did he seem to listen to his wife’s howling and screaming. In that drunken state he was not able to perceive things clearly. He appeared to be enjoying the fun of it.
‘Why do you shout?’ Rudra jeered, his lips curled in an evil twist.
‘It was because of you that he left my job and worked at the construction site. You joined the SHG unit and tried to mend his habits and to lead him on the right path. It was because of you that he gave up drinking. You had become an entrepreneur, hadn’t you? Did you succeed in your efforts?’ Rudra paused and glared at Rajni. ‘SHG!! My foot!! I have whipped all the stupid ideologies out of the members of many such SHG the way I whip work out of my bullocks in my threshing yard! I have so charmed your husband that he cannot live a day without liquor. You work at the construction site but I have laid the snare on his way. He cannot escape it. He will bring all your hard-earned money to my liquor shop.
Of what use is such a man to you now? Too much drinking has made him hollow inside. How can this wretch satisfy the demands of your young body? Besides, he has borrowed a whole lot of money from me. It will not be possible for you to pay the loan back with all the money you earn working your entire life as a day labourer. It will be better if you give yourself to me willingly, or this man will bring you to me dragging you by your hair. Where will you go to lodge your complaint? No one will help you. I own them as I own this distillery.’ Rudra bared his teeth in a nasty smile and began to pull at the sari with insane urgency.
Rajni screamed and screamed. But their house stood by the riverside at quite some distance from the village and so all this noise was drowned in the silence of the solitude.
‘I cannot recall what happened next in exact details. The loud screams pierced through my drunken delirium and brought me back to my senses for a brief moment. I rushed to the backyard and picking up a crowbar ran back to where Rudra stood manhandling Rajni and drove it through his belly with all the force I could muster. I would have murdered Rajni too, but she ran away towards the river. waiting I too ran immediately along the lonely road towards the railway station.’
Sana took a pause here.
‘Well…..?’ Nimai prodded on.
‘I went away to Surat and worked there. I was constantly goaded by anxiety that the police might track me down to there. I had no idea what happened to Rajni. I thought that she would be living a peaceful life with her baby. I had not been able to give up drinking and spent all my earnings on liquor. it was only on the Ganesh Chaturthi last year I learnt that Rajni had drowned herself along with her baby son.’
Sana began to weep now. The pent -up sorrow was unleashed as loud sobs that rocked his frail body.
‘Stop it. It was all your doing. What is the point in repenting now?’ Nimai said.
‘I would not have come back. But something inside me compelled me to take a look at the place where my Rajni and my son were cremated. I want to shed tears of remorse sitting at the spot.’
‘Did you see it?’
‘I could not find the cremation ground. The floodwater has removed all traces of it.’
Constable Nimai’s hands went up to his eyes to wipe the tears. It was an involuntary movement. He had no idea when the tears had come.
‘I don’t fear death, babu,’ Sana went on in his broken, wet voice. ‘What is there in this world for me to live for? I am afraid to live on. Each moment hangs heavy like a year on me. In all my sober moments I contemplate putting an end to this wretched life of mine. This life has become a living death for me. It is only by drinking liquor that I get to a state of delirious forgetfulness, and that has helped me survive the agony.’
Nimai stood still, wordless.
‘Would you answer a question, babu?’ Sana asked.
Nimai looked at him quizzically.
Sana asked.. not exactly asked… it was more like an interrogation.
‘In this country of ours there are so many police, so many courts of law and so many acts are passed to preserve justice and destroy crime. How then do criminals like Rudra Mahapatra thrive here? How do they grow and expand their illegal business? I fell into his trap because I am illiterate and an alcoholic.
But what about the officers who are holding high posts.. do they think under the impact of alcohol too? How do the people at the helm of affairs surrender their morals and extend their support to these rogues? Not just that, these blood suckers even run in elections! Why?’
Nimai had no answer to that.
‘It would have been better for this Sana criminal not to have been arrested. Last night, after bringing Sana in handcuff here, Nimai thought that his long cherished dream was finally going to come true. He would be promoted to the post of habildar as a reward for arresting a criminal like Sana who was accused of murder. After listening to the criminal’s story, his dream of promotion had lost all its glamour for Nimai..
He turned his eyes to look at the front- gate of his office quarters. Someone was coming in wearing a mackintosh. The dawn was getting brighter and Nimai recognized the fellow. He was Balbantaray, the other constable of the outpost.
The criminal had to be moved to the police station now.
But Nimai’s feet refused to move.
Dr. Gourahari Das is a major voice in contemporary Odia fiction. He was born in 1960, in a back-of-the -beyond Indian village, Sandhagara near river Mantei. Real-life experiences acquired while growing up in an impoverished monastery sharpened his skills as a writer and endowed him with a sensibility laced with compassion and humour, which gives his creative being its distinctive character. His first book, Juara Bhatta (High Tide, Low tide), a short story collection, was published when he was only 21 years old. He has now as many as 70 books to his credit, which include novels, short-story collections, vignettes, travelogues, plays, poetry and essays. Gourahari has visited many countries across the continents and written 3 travelogs on USA, Sweden and China. Many of his works have been made into telefilms and telecast on different channels and translated into English and Hindi which include The Little Monk and Other Stories, The Nail and Other Stories, Koraput and Other Stories ,The Shades of Life ( in English) and Jhoot Ka Ped, Janjeer Tatha Anya Kahaniyan, Kanta Tatha Anya Kahaniyan and Door Akash Ka Pancchi ( in Hindi). Gourahari Was the Member of Executive committee of Sahitya Akademi and the Convener of Odia Advisory Board from 2013-2018. He has received several awards such as Sahitya Akademi (India’s national Akademi of letters) Award, Odisha Sahitya Akademi Award, Utkal Sahitya Samaj Prize, Nayi Dhara Samman, Patna, CHASO Award, Andhra Pradesh and Kalinga Life Time Achievement Award. He was a Senior Fellow of the Ministry of Culture of India and a Writer in Residency of Sahitya Akademi. Gourahari lives in Bhubaneswar, India. He is the President of the premier Theatre Group of Odisha “Shatabdira Kalakar” and Life Member of Mahabodhi Society of India. He is the Feature Editor of the largest circulated Odia Daily, Sambad and Editor of fiction monthly KATHA published from Bhubaneswar. Address:-“Anubhav”, 378 Baramunda Village,Bhubaneswar 751 003, Odisha Tel: +91 674 -2354136, Mob: 9437077288, Email: email@example.com