I have translated couple of short stories of Indira Parthasarathy. ‘Distance‘ figures in most of the top short stories lists. Jeyamohan writes about the author, ‘Delhi is Indira Parthasarathy’s playground. He looks it as a machine with two large spare parts. One, it is about the people who wield unlimited power, the bureaucrats and the politicians, two, its about the people on whom the power is wielded, the clerks who are slaves to those masters and this power hangs over their heads.’
We need to remember this Delhi is the old Delhi where it had only the Government offices before it became a industrial powerhouse as well, mostly the 1970s.
Ritual is one such story. It portrays the callousness of the Government employees which lead the populace developing a cynical attitude towards the very Government they elect.
யக்ஞம் – இந்திரா பார்த்தசாரதி
Mohan knew, he would not get a transport, at this time, to go to Connaught Place. He still looked towards the bus station. Human mosquitos were swarming a bus which had just arrived. At other places, at least during peak hours, there would be a queue. Ram Nagar never had one.
One can walk from Ram Nagar to Connaught Place; it would take about half an hour. Mohan looked at his watch. It was 9.30. He needed to be in Connaught Place at 10.30.
He was wondering how cycle rickshaws, horse carts (Tonga), auto Rickshaws, buses and cars were passing through such a narrow road. He was not sure how they allowed movement of so many vehicles. During ‘Emergency,’ to widen the roads, the Government had demolished so many buildings. He hoped the same thing would happen in Ram Nagar also. He wrote letters to the press. Neither did his letters get published, nor ‘Emergency’ looked at Ram Nagar.
It was difficult to walk in the crowd. He could not understand how vehicles passed by the road. Faceless crowd. Legs walked on stomach’s command. A motorist should know the technique of the circus man who walk on thin ropes. Look … the sardarji zig zagged his scooter as he drove past.
The bridge near New Delhi station appeared in his view. He realized he was walking at fair clip.
If you take a right turn, Sheela Cinema was at the end of the road. Crowds always swelled there. He wondered how so many people came to cinema during office hours? More importantly, it was 30th the last day of the month. If you count using, how many people watch movies every day, as a yardstick, you can conclude there is no poverty in India.
No poverty? – there are millions who live under sky as their roof. But it was strange. The underside of bridge was empty. No beggar was to be seen. I am wrong. There was one under the bridge lying in a curled posture.
Mohan went near him. There were flied over his eyelids and there was no movement in them. What did that mean?
Mohan bent down and looked at him. Saliva that dripped from the mouth had gone dry. He was perhaps forty years old. From his hair he could guess as much. But his face indicated he was born eons ago.
Mohan touched the beggar’s hand. It was cold. He had a doubt if he (beggar) was lying dead for at least a few days there. Even if it was true, no one would have known that. He realized, just then, why other beggars have vacated the place.
For a moment, he thought he should also just leave him/it? as others did. Actually that would be a good decision. But if he did that, he would lose his sleep for many days.
He thought if he informed the policeman, the policeman would take of the situation.
He walked a little. Near the traffic signal, a policeman was standing.
Mohan explained to him what happened. The policeman looked at him from head to toe. There was a silence. He explained the situation again.
Mohan asked the policeman, ‘Can I take leave? Will you arrange for the cremation?’
‘Do you think that beggar is my brother in law? If you are so much interested in public welfare, call the corporation. They will take care of the body.’ replied the policeman.
Mohan said, ‘He is not my brother in law either. I told you this because you may want to make sure it is a natural death.’
‘Then go and complain in a police station. I am responsible for the traffic. Is it my job to deduce who killed the beggar? If you walk to your right, you can see Paharganj police station.’ He lit a beedi as he completed his advise.
‘I don’t think this is a murder. I think this death is due to hunger.’
‘Then complain to the corporation.’
‘Thank you – you have given a useful suggestion.’
The policeman nodded his head, Mohan realized the joke was lost.
His next challenge was deciding whether to go to Paharganj police station or call the corporation. ‘Who would murder a beggar? It must be a natural death!’ So he decided to go to the railway station and call the corporation.
When he reached the telephone booth and opened his wallet, he could see he had only one ten paisa coin. He went to the ticket counter and asked him to give ten – ten paisa coins for one rupee. The booth clerk who was slurping his tea, looking at the ceiling replied a curt ‘no.’
‘Someone is dead. I need to make some calls. Will you please give me change?’
Mohan thought the clerk would not be bothered even if his wife was dead. He was not even ready to listen to Mohan. He kept looking elsewhere.
‘Do you need ten paisa? I will give. Who is dead?’ asked a man standing next to him in near the counter.
‘My God. Please make your phone call. He opened his purse and offered him a ten paisa and a twenty paisa coin.’
‘You can make only two calls.’
Mohan said, ‘Thank you so much sir.’
It was becoming difficult to find out the number of the relevant department. He could make only two calls. So it was advisable to find the correct number first.
After a twenty minute search Mohan could figure out whom to call. He dialed the number and explained the situation.
There was a silence for few seconds. Then a calm voice asked him, ‘What should we do?’
‘Bring your van and take the corpse.’
‘Where is the corpse?’
‘Under the bridge near New Delhi railway station.’
‘Oh! then call the municipal corporation of New Delhi. This does not concern us.’
‘I have change only for one more call. Can you please call them explain?’
‘That is your problem. Call municipal corporation of New Delhi,’ the man disconnected the call with a thud.
When he realized it is not easy to figure out the relevant department’s number in New Delhi Municipal Corporation, he started feeling, ‘it is just an orphan’s corpse. Why should I bother, leaving all my work behind?’ But then, it became a prestige issue for him. How can he abandon some work he had started.
He was not a religious person. But still he understood wholeheartedly, the meaning of the ‘saying,’ ‘to help cremate an orphan’s corpse is the biggest ritual.’ The directory which was struggling with its life, gave up its ghost and fell down as he flipped the pages to find out the number of New Delhi Municipal Corporation. As it fell down, the pages scattered everywhere making it useless for anyone.
He decided to go the shop opposite to the station and call from there and came out of the booth.
It was a shop that sold electrical items and a Sardarji with a calm face was sitting in the counter. Mohan thought he may allow him to use the telephone. A huge picture of Guru Nanak was hanging at the entrance.
‘Sat sri akaal ji’ Mohan greeted him.
‘Sat sri akaal! What do you want?’
‘Can I use the telephone?’
‘Sure. Go ahead. Sixty paisa.’
‘I need the directory as well.’
Shopkeeper looked at him as if to convey, ‘What a third rate customer in the morning?’ threw the directory at him and looked outside.
He could locate the relevant department’s number in the directory.
As he spoke the Sardarji looked at him, surprised.
‘What do you want us to do?’ from the other end.
‘Bring your vehicle and take the corpse.’
‘Where is it?’
‘Under the bridge new New Delhi railway Station.’
‘Oh! is it. Then call the corporation of Delhi. It doesn’t concern us.’
‘They only asked me to call you.’
‘We are not sure whether the place under the bridge belongs to Delhi Corporation or New Delhi Municipal Corporation. We need to check the records to find out.’
‘By that time the corpse will decay. And it may affect public health.’
‘Then call the health department.’ the line got disconnected. Mohan counted sixty paisa and gave to Sardarji.
‘Thirty paisa is enough.’
‘You made the call as a concerned citizen for public welfare. Should I not cooperate with you? But I want to say something.’ the Sardarji hesitated a bit.
‘Few months back, at Punjabi Bagh where I live, a dog was lying dead for a week. Then corporation election was announced. One of the contestant from my constituency, made it an election issue and won the election. Then the dog had a grand funeral with garlands and all….’
‘What do you want to say? if the corpse rots there till the next election, there is a chance for someone to make it an election issue and win?’
The Sardarji started laughing and said, ‘If there is no personal benefit, it is foolish to get involved in public affairs. You should forget this and get on with your work. That will be wise.’
Mohan came out of the shop without offering a reply.
He looked at his watch. It was 10.21. In ten minutes he had to reach his destination. Interview was scheduled at 10.30. It was not exactly an interview. ‘Let him come and meet me at 10.30.’ his brother’s friend’s boss had informed. His brother’s friend warned him that his boss was very strict and punctual.
He had already lost any hope of landing a job. It is one year since he completed his Masters in Philosophy. His brother had warned to study something useful, meaning which can get him a job. Who said, ‘Philosophy will not bake bread!’ He forgot who but it was true.
Can he reach in ten minutes? He had a doubt, ‘did the feeling that I won’t get a job turned into a gesture of humanity and egged me to waste time in this futile exercise?’
He checked his wallet. He had Seven Rupees and Forty Paisa. Should I take a taxi? But is that necessary? Someone is going to ask him about the trade and tools he did not know and reject him. At least he can stay back and help cremate an orphan corpse.
But who could he contact? That was a challenge. He had tried his best. No one can blame him he did not try.
He decided to go to Connaught Place and attend the interview.
An auto rickshaw was passing by, he stopped it and asked the driver to take him Connaught Place. ‘You stopped to ride such a short distance?’ irritation was pulpable on the face of the auto driver.
It was 10.50 when Mohan reached the office. He felt if there was no traffic jams, he could have reached earlier.
It was a moderate sized office. There were about fifteen people working in the hall. When he walked inside no one looked at him. His brother’s friend warning about the strict boss came to Mohan’s mind. He reached out to an old man and told him he wanted to meet the boos and his name. ‘Meet Mr. Mathur’ he said mechanically and buried his face in the file.
Fortunately every table had a name board. Mr. Mathur must be about fifty years old. He was wearing a pair of thick spectacles and looked at him through bottom part of the eyeglass.
He told him name and name of the person he wanted to meet.
‘Do you have an appointment?’
‘At what time?’
‘What’s the time now?’
He showed him a pad. He could read, ‘10.30 to 10.40 – Mohan.’
‘Sorry I got delayed. But he will understand when I explain him the circumstances.’
‘Who sent you?’
‘Mr. Anil Mehra. He works at our Dharia Ganj office.’
‘He stood up, went inside and came back after a few seconds.’
‘Boss is calling you. Go.’
The boss had a square face; without any expression whatsoever, which reminded him of the ice in Antarctica Continent.
As soon as he went in, he looked at his watch.
‘I apologize. I am sorry. There was a corpse lying under the bridge near New Delhi railway station. No one seemed to bother about it. I wanted to make arrangements for burying the corpse. But I could not get that done either.’
‘Do you know type writing?’
‘I don’t. Corporation is saying this is the responsibility of New Delhi Municipal Corporation and they are saying this is corporation’s responsibility.’
‘I don’t know. I though only being alive is a problem in this country. But is being dead also a problem?’
‘Learn Shorthand and typing and come and see me.’
‘He looked at him, smiled and said, ‘Thank you.’
As he started walking towards the door, he called Mohan. Mohan turned and looked at him.
‘Take this fifty rupees and make arrangements for the cremation of the orphan corpse. Don’t forget to learn shorthand and typing.’ He debated with himself for a moment, should he take the money or not. He felt having that would help. He took the money.
Anyway he is in Connaught Place. ‘Why should I not go to Municipal Corporation?’ thought Mohan.
The multistoried New Delhi Municipal Corporation building opposite to Jantar Mantar was heaving with activities. He remembered the Public Relation Officer was a Tamil. His brother had spoken about him once.
He went to him, explained the situation to him and why did he come to meet him. He spoke to him in Tamil.
He thought for a couple of minutes and asked him in Hindi, ‘What’s your name?’
Mohan told him.
‘I feel it is better if you don’t poke your nose in this. Tomorrow, if someone disappears, the police will try to prove it was that orphan beggar. Then questions will rise. And that will land you into trouble. No one will praise you that you did something good. Please get on with your work and forget this.’ he spoke fluently in Hindi.
‘I can give fifty rupees. With that, can you arrange a van to pick up the corpse?’ Mohan was not ready to lose hope yet.
‘For that you need to go to NMDC office in Mandir Marg. They will ask you for police certificate even for a orphan corpse. You will get into trouble. You are a Tamil like me. That’s why I am advising you.’
‘Why are you then talking in Hindi and not Tamil?’
‘My wife is from Uttar Pradesh. Children talk in Hindi at home. It’s not that I can’t speak. But it will not be fluent.’
It was 12.30 when he took leave from the PRO. He was explaining Mohan all the tricks one had to have for not getting into trouble during ‘Emergency.’ You should not put your signature anywhere. You should use all your intelligence to face the issues. That’s why I did not get affected when the New Government took over. Could you see that?’
He was hungry when he came out of the building. He thought of going to a good restaurant to eat. He had the fifty rupees the boss gave him for making funeral arrangements for the orphan corpse. But he realized there is no way he could get that done now. There were so many challenges.
It would be ethical to go and give the money back. But the fifty rupees was not a big deal for the boss who earned so much.
How could he justify that fifty rupees did not matter to that boss. He wanted to do good. But there was so much confusion and no one seemed to have an idea how to go about that. It looked as if a spider had spun a huge web around itself, from which it could not get out.
If that money helped to address his hunger, it is good money. The dead is gone. To keep the living alive is a big ritual.
He went to Volga Restaurant and ate to his heart’s content. The bill came to Thirty Two Rupees and Tips Three Rupees.
When he came out, a beggar holding a cane looked at him with pitiful eyes. Mohan put the fifteen rupees balance in the beggar’s plate.
He felt, he had put down a huge load off his shoulders.
How many people will attain peace like me doing this? As he thought about this, a smile appeared on Mohan’s face.
Indira Parthasarathy (commonly known as Ee. Paa.) is the pen name of R. Parthasarathy, a noted Tamil writer and playwright. He was born in July 7 1930. He has published 16 novels, 10 plays, anthologies of short stories, and essays. He is best known for his plays, “Aurangzeb”, “Nandan Kathai” and “Ramanujar”.
He has been awarded the Saraswati Samman (1999), and is the only Tamil writer to receive both the Sahitya Akademi Award (1999) and the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (2004). He received Padma Shri in the year 2010, given by Government of India.