आज़ादी विशेषांक / Freedom Special

दिसंबर २०१२ / December 2012

The Reckoning: Mitra Phukan

The letter, awaited with such anxiety, reached them at last. Okon found the plain white envelope just inside the front door, lying innocently on the polished wooden floor as though it was an everyday missive, an invitation to a flower-show, perhaps, or a letter from a friend in the city.

The night-chowkidars were questioned. They knew nothing of how it had got there, though they swore that they had been patrolling throughout the night. The policemen who had been appointed to keep a picket outside the gates were as surprised as anybody. How could anybody have entered the Manager’s compound in the Betbagaan Tea Estate and slipped a letter under the doorway in the dead of the night? That, too, such an important letter!

Actually, of course, it was quite easy. The bungalow was situated in a vast compound. Many stretches along its perimeter were unfenced. Tea bushes and kitchen garden merged into each other at the back, undivided by pale, hedge or fence. And even the white-painted picket fences in the front sweep of the deep-green lawn were decorative rather than functional. Anybody could have got in, slipped in the note when the chowkidars were on the other side of the enormous garden, and then run fleet-footedly away.

The address on the envelope said, “Mr Ranjit Choudhury, Manager, Betbagaan Tea Estate.” But Ranjit was away at the moment, having left at dawn, as usual, for his supervisory rounds of the garden. Yet it was so obvious that this was the letter. Should it be given to the policemen outside? Should she, Shrabana, open it? What about such things as fingerprints, evidence, and so on? What should she do?

Okon stood before Shrabana, proffering the letter respectfully to her on a polished silver tray. Shrabana put up a hand to her forehead. This scene – this feeling of déjà vu - it had all happened before. This tension-filled wait for an expected missive, its arrival one morning, and the liveried bearer’s holding it out respectfully… she shook her head. With trembling fingers, she took the letter.

Rahul. Where was he now? What were they doing to him? Was he aware that this letter had been written to his father?

“What’s the matter, Baideo? You’re looking very unwell.” Jona’s voice broke into her thoughts. Wordlessly, Shrabana turned to her, and held out the unopened envelope. Jona’s eyes widened.

“It’s come, then?” She reached out a hand to steady Shrabana, and led her to a chair. “I’ll call Ronojoy…”

Shrabana watched Jona rush off to call her husband in. She was glad that they were here, at this time. Perhaps it was human nature that people should turn to each other in times of crisis. Children to parents, brothers to sisters, wives to husbands. And vice versa. She, who wasn’t even on talking terms with her husband any more – hadn’t been for months – she felt the lack of these binding chains in her life most acutely now. This would be the time for a husband and wife to draw sustenance from each other. Whereas Ranjit and she…

The huge black weight that had lain on her chest for the last seven days seemed to grow larger and heavier as it turned over and settled back in its pit again.

Ronojoy strode into the room, followed closely by Jona. Their faces were tense, their bodies taut with fear and anxious anticipation.

Shrabana looked down at her hands and watched their trembling turn slowly into clenched fists. She knew exactly what would happen now, the sequence that was to follow. Déjà vu. The past unspooled into the present, as Ronojoy questioned the now-nervous Okon about how and in which spot he had come upon the letter.

*

In that light, in that stance, Ronojoy looked just like Ranjit, his brother. The same tableau had been enacted just there, in that very spot. Six months, no, almost a year ago now.

Ranjit’s hands hadn’t trembled when he had read the first letter that had been brought to him on a polished silver salver a year ago. But Shrabana, watching from this same chair, had noticed the habitual crease-line on his forehead furrow deeper as he read it.

“What is it?” she had asked, wearing the right mixture of concern and innocence on her face. They had still been on talking terms then. Talking, but only of essential domestic matters, not communicating. And of course, not sharing a bed, or even a room.

He hadn’t looked at her then, or replied. Thrusting the letter, envelope and all, into the breast pocket of his bush-shirt, he had turned abruptly and walked out of the room. Minutes later, she had heard him start the Jeep. There had been the angry sound of furious wheels on gravel. And he had gone.

*

Looking at Ronojoy now, she shook her head slightly. Past images coalesced again with the present reality.

“Open it,” said Shrabana softly. “I want to know…” She couldn’t find the strength to continue further.

Jona came towards her and held her close in her arms. But Shrabana refused to yield to the comfort of hysteria. Not now. Not until it was over, one way or the other.

“Shouldn’t we wait for Ranjit…?” asked Ronojoy in an undecided voice. “I have already sent the bearer to fetch him.”

“Open it,” said Shrabana again, not pleading. “Rahul is my son, after all.”

The hands – Ronojoy’s now, Ranjit’s a year ago – carefully tore open the envelope. Ronojoy took out a single sheet of paper. He read through it quickly, then handed it wordlessly to Shrabana. Unclenching her fists, she took it from her brother-in-law.

The letterhead on the single white sheet was an incongruous, frivolous pink. But the message on it was as grim as she had expected. In a surprisingly beautiful copperplate hand, it informed the Manager, Betbagaan Tea Estate, that his son was safe. To ensure his further safety, as well as his return to his parents, his father would have to part with a certain sum of money, the amount to be negotiated at a date and place that would be intimated to them later. If he valued his son’s life, on no account was the respected Manager Saab to do anything rash. The letter ended with a salute to the Cause for which they, Rahul’s kidnappers, were working.

Safe. Shrabana latched on to the word, written in black ink on the white notepaper, as though it were a lifeboat that would take her and Rahul away from the shipwreck of their lives. A small, insistent throbbing at the back of her head tried to tell her that what she perceived to be a lifeboat was after all only a straw. But she refused to let the pulse become an articulated thought. She did not want any voice, even her own inner voice, to give form and shape to her terror, to unlock the gates that would let the darkness come roaring in. She knew, of course she did, that a kidnapper’s word was not to be believed, even if the kidnappers used pink letterheads and had highly-educated handwriting. But if life was to go on, if the universe was not to come to a standstill, she had to believe that Rahul was safe.

Shrabana slumped back in her chair, not even trying to stop the shaking in her hands, in her entire body, now.

The thought came to her fevered mind that, through contact with the kidnapper’s note, she had touched Rahul himself. Her fingers had touched the note, which had been written by the kidnapper, who had probably touched Rahul several times during these last seven days. It was a link. Tenuous, but a link nevertheless.

Had the kidnappers’ hands steadied her son as he had been marched through the snake and leech infested forests? Rahul feared snakes, though, like any other 16-year-old, he always tried to cover it up with bravado. But his eyes, and the look of suppressed horror in them when he saw them slithering across their garden, gave him away every time.

Rahul’s eyes had had the same look in them when they had taken him away. The twelve people who had encircled Rahul on the veranda had each had guns. One of which was smoking. Lassie, their Labrador, had barked too loudly. Casually, one of the twelve had pumped three bullets into Lassie’s leaping body.

Shrabana had been inside. She had come rushing out at the sound. Two guns were immediately lifted towards her. This wouldn’t have stopped her from trying to tear Rahul away from the men. But the ten other guns had been aimed at Rahul’s head.

“We’re taking him.” The man had been brusque.

“Where? Why? – Chowkidar!” Her voice had gone out of control. A scream had come bubbling out of her throat.

“Don’t make a noise. It won’t help you.”

“Please – What do you want? – Take anything – Please – Leave him.” She couldn’t bear to see that frightened-of-snakes look in Rahul’s eyes. “Take me – Yes – I’ll go instead of him.”

One of the men had laughed. “You? The Manager won’t pay even a paisa of ransom for you!”

Even these men knew. She had felt no shame. Not then, not now. She was bottling up her emotions; she would take them out later. If there was to be a later. All her energies had been concentrated at keeping the darkness at bay.

Another man, whose eyes above his beard seemed to burn with the flame of idealism rather than greed, had spoken up. His voice had been soft. “Don’t worry. He will come to no harm.”

All had had beards. All were young. All had guns. The cold of that January morning had seeped into her bones as they had marched him away.

“Let me give him some warm clothes, at least. He’ll feel cold at night…” she had whispered, despairingly. Rahul had been wearing just his jeans and a thin T-shirt with the name of a rock band printed on it. And, of all things, his Kohlapuri sandals.

The twelve hadn’t bothered to pause, or reply. But Rahul had turned around once. With the guns still on him, he had said, (the look still in his eyes, but his voice steady) “Don’t worry, Ma. I’ll be back soon.”

Tall, with a tennis-player’s build, but with a soft, open, vulnerable face still. Her Rahul. Her son. Flesh of her flesh. Heartbeat to heartbeat for nine luminous months. And they had marched him away, guns to his head.

“Don’t worry.” How often had Rahul said these words to her in the past couple of years? Trying to be a man, because his childhood had been taken away from him.

*

His words, the expression on his face when he had found out about Ranjit, were seared onto her mind. Perhaps she could have forgiven Ranjit if only her own feelings, her own future had been involved. But Rahul’s bewildered vulnerability had made her turn against Ranjit in a cold, unforgiving fury.

The Annual Winter Ball and Tea Meet had been held at the Gymkhana Club, fifty kilometres away from the Betbagaan Tea Estate. Ranjit had told her about his involvement with Noyona by then. They were already sleeping separately. But they had still, at that time, been keeping up the facade of appearing together for social functions at the nearby clubs, and for dinners and lunches at friends’ houses. The chains and bonds of fifteen years of matrimony were being snapped apart, but slowly, link by painful link.

Rahul, of course, had gone along. Increasingly, he was being used as a shield by both of them. Without him, without his constant chatter and his schoolboy humour, the 50 kilometre journey through lonely roads that cut across monotonous carpets of manicured tea-bushes would have been unbearable. For, by then, Ranjit and she had reached an impasse - there had been nothing left to say. Recriminations, tears, on her side; defences, accusations and stubbornness on Ranjit’s: all had been played out. There was only silence between them then. As now. Rahul had been home from his boarding school in the hills and the desolate spaces between Ranjit and herself had been cushioned by his presence in the huge bungalow.

The next day, however, Rahul had been subdued. He sat opposite Shrabana in the sunny dining room with its French windows leading to the flower-filled garden.

“What’s the matter?” she remembered teasing him. “Didn’t any of the girls pay you any attention last night?”

Rahul had always been frank and open with both his parents. But that morning, he had refused to even look at her.

“No - it’s not that…” he had mumbled.

This uncharacteristic reticence had caused a small ant-bite of worry to surface in her consciousness.

She had asked gently, “What is it, Rahul, sweetheart? What’s bothering you?”

She had half-expected him to flinch away from her in the pride of his newly-dawning manhood. But he hadn’t done so. Instead, he had looked up at her. His eyes had been filled with sudden anguish. His upper lip, soft with a golden down of which he was inordinately proud, trembled slightly.

The iron weight on her chest shifted its weight and settled down even more heavily now, when she remembered the vulnerability of his young face that morning.

“Father’s having - he’s involved with another woman, isn’t he?” The words had come out like weighted cannon balls in that sunny room with flowers outside and framed pictures on the walls.

She had thought that she could - that they, Ranjit and she, could - keep the whole thing a secret from their son. But chance words overheard, looks interpreted accurately by an intelligent, sensitive mind, and the whole sordid episode had been laid bare before Rahul. Besides, she could well imagine that nobody in the closed confines of the tea circles in which they moved would miss an opportunity to talk and gossip and make barbed comments on Ranjit’s adulterous relationship. What did they care if the barbs homed in on a 14-year-old’s mind, instead?

The anger that had festered within her had burst its skin and come roiling out at that moment. The humiliation of being cast off for a younger woman, the pain and insecurity that had followed Ranjit’s unemotional announcement that he wanted a divorce, the sleepless, tortured nights spent imagining Ranjit together with Noyona, had all coalesced into fury that a defenceless boy had had to find out, in the worst possible way, about his father’s infidelity. Even the pain that she felt when she imagined Ranjit’s familiar body in the embrace of another woman, even that sense of deep betrayal had paled against the glittering rage that she had felt at that moment, faced with Rahul’s uncertain, bewildered look.

Till that moment, she had only thought of the situation that she was in, with despair. In some of her less controlled moments, with her pillow damp with fevered tears, her imagination had tossed up impossible schemes for revenge. Taking a lover, or better still, inducing Noyona to take up with another man, if possible a man who was richer, younger and taller than Ranjit. But these were only night-time schemes. In the bright light of morning, she knew that there was nothing that she could do to get Ranjit back. Of course she had refused to give him a divorce, taking perverse pleasure in the knowledge that this would alienate him from her even more. But why should she make it easy for him? She had given up a promising career, a job with a multinational company in Mumbai and followed him here, to this remote, terrorist-infested place. He would provide for her, he had said, after he had asked for a divorce. But how could he compensate for those lost years, those stilled ambitions, those silenced desires? She had channelled all her energies into this marriage, sublimated all her career ambitions into keeping a picture-perfect house and garden. Her home, her garden, her parties were the talk of the tea-circles. She lavished hospitality on visitors. People openly attributed Ranjit’s rapid rise up the managerial rungs to his wife’s wonderful ways with all kinds of people. She was the woman behind his success.

And he had dared to tell her that he would provide for her.

Boyhood had fallen away from Rahul that morning in the room fronting the garden, as she had looked helplessly on, unable to speak, numb with a double-edged dagger in her heart. Like greedy hands stripping away a warm garment from another person on a cold morning, his father’s actions had stripped innocence and security away from Rahul. Her son’s sudden maturity had sent waves of pain bludgeoning deep within her, the effects of which were quite different from those of his father’s perfidy. Ranjit’s actions had hurt her, yes, but that hurt had come wrapped in layers of humiliation and anger. Whereas the pain that she felt when she saw her son’s suddenly-quiet ways now, was a raw, aching hurt, which seemed to emanate from some primeval, maternal part of her psyche.

*

Shrabana sat with her eyes closed as Ronojoy, his voice sharp with urgency, made the necessary telephone calls. She did not attempt to follow the process of calling in the law-enforcers. It would take its course. All that mattered was that Rahul was not with her any more.

There was a roaring, apocalyptic hurricane of unrest whipping the sky above all of them who lived in this unfortunate land. And they, playing out their lives in remote, far-flung tea-gardens where “security” was just a high-sounding word for a lathi-wielding chowkidar or two, they were completely at the mercy of whoever wished to target them for extortion, whichever terrorist group, or anti-social outfit in the guise of insurgents, wished to kidnap them to score a victory against the ruling powers. Insurgency, terrorism, a breakdown in the law-and-order situation: these words had swirled around her for a long time now. But till a couple of years ago, safe in her cocoon of ordered domestic felicity, those words had never had the power to pierce the armour that had protected her from the chaos outside. She had within her a small candle-flame of conviction that these things happened only to other people, never to her.

Ronojoy’s urgent voice on the telephone summoned all those uniformed men who had been waiting for just such a letter to be delivered. Once again, her mind strayed to that earlier letter in Ranjit’s hand, then twitched back, like a leech coming into contact with a grain of salt. Shrabana couldn’t bear to think of the parallels any more. Was it just a parallel, actually, a mere coincidence, that these things were happening in the same house, repeating themselves within such a short time? Or was it - the word, lurking in a membrane of denial, finally burst its thin, containing skin and popped into her consciousness, fully formed – was all this her Nemesis? Punishment by a sportive being who had a weakness for the neat ironical phrase, inflicted, unerringly, where it hurt the most?

She pushed away the thought, and concentrated, instead, on Jona’s palm on her head. It was a cool bandage across the iron band that had clamped down heavily on her brow at the moment when they had taken Rahul away.

Rahul’s hand on her brow had not felt the same. His were a teenage boy’s hands, a tennis player’s palms, rough and callused. Yet his touch had been more soothing than Jona’s soft, well-intentioned palms…

*

That morning, Shrabana had not been able to answer Rahul’s question. She had clasped him to herself and, stroking his hair, had rocked him gently over their mingled tears.

It had pained her immeasurably, in a way that Ranjit’s betrayal never had, to see the light of understanding dawn in her son’s eyes that day. With his own chatter stilled, he had become aware of the echoing silences in the house. Only the most basic of communication was taking place between Shrabana and Ranjit then. Ranjit talked to her only to say things such as, “Shrivastava from Head Office is dropping in tomorrow. He will probably stay the night.” And Shrabana, too, had stuck to the most essential of communications, such as, “Pooja has invited us to dinner this Saturday. Should I accept?” Sometimes, especially if they had had a series of company guests that month, she had to ask Ranjit for extra housekeeping money. She had always budgeted efficiently, and the occasions when she had had to ask for extra money in the past had been rare. But now, knowing that Ranjit was probably spending large sums on Noyona, money that should rightfully have come to their own family, money that should have been set aside for Rahul’s future, Shrabana began to take a secret delight in asking for more whenever the opportunity rose. She began to squirrel some of it away every month, and also to spend on things that had never interested her in the past - things such as fancy face-creams that promised to keep even incipient wrinkles at bay, and bestow the user a glowing skin overnight.

With his suddenly-mature, observant eyes, Rahul had noticed the silences, the lack of any proper conversation between his parents. He would reassure her, “Don’t worry, Ma,” when he caught her gazing desolately after Ranjit as he left the bungalow in his car in the evenings, without telling either of them where he was heading.

Sometimes, when he was unaware that his mother was watching, Rahul would let his guard down. The cocky veneer would drop from his eyes, and a look of hurt and puzzled bewilderment would appear. Her son, who had always been a fun-loving, outdoorsy extrovert, now began to avoid his friends in the neighbouring gardens when he was on holiday.

Every change, however small and in itself insignificant, that she had seen in Rahul, had added to the rage seething within her. How dare Ranjit forget, not just that he had a wife, but also that he was the father of a boy who was at an impressionable age? Couldn’t he see what his behaviour was doing to his son? Or was he so besotted with that woman that he was blind to all else? An image of Noyona, small, slim, with a waterfall of hair to her waist, rose in her mind. What did Ranjit see in her, this woman who was twenty-nine to Ranjit’s forty-eight, a nurse in the hospital of the Betbagaan Tea Estate? How could this woman make him forget that his son was at the age when he needed to hero-worship his father?

After Rahul’s vacations had ended and he had gone back to school, the questions had continued to plague her. Sitting in that vast, echoing bungalow, with its carefully maintained perfection making a mockery of her marriage, alone except for the throngs of domestic help around her, the expressions on Rahul’s face had continued to torment her. And for all she knew, Ranjit was away at that very moment with Noyona, seeking fulfilment in some secluded, tree-shaded patch of mossy coolness.

If only she could punish him. Her thoughts would always come back to this focus.

The idea had come to her suddenly, full-blown, one night. She had woken up from sleep, with the entire plan fully formed in her mind. Of course. Since she couldn’t actually do anything, she would learn from what the terrorists around them were doing so successfully all the time. She would terrorize him, make him so fearful that he would become a limp puppet. Fear would make him hers, would put him in her power. Fear would castrate, would emasculate him. Unlike the insurgents teeming around them, she would not do it for money, or to score a political point, or for a convoluted love of country. She would terrorize him to get even. He, who had taken away Rahul’s secure childhood forever, would pay for it by losing his own peace of mind.

It had all been quite easy, once she had made up her mind. The long hours when she was alone were now spent in composing threatening letters, instead of in brooding. She had visited the families of enough victims of terrorist attacks to know exactly how to go about it. True, she did not have the official notepaper of any of the main terrorist groups that were active in the area. But it did not matter. In the chaos that prevailed in these anarchic times, there were many small opportunistic outfits that made the most of the general lawlessness to get themselves some easy money.

She spent long afternoons carefully cutting up the alphabets and words from old issues of “The Assam Tribune.” If ever some intelligent policeman got hold of the notes that she planned to send, it would be highly unlikely that the typeface of the cut-out alphabets would point in her direction, since this was a paper seen in all homes, offices and business establishments around them. In any case, it was highly unlikely in itself that any particularly zealous policeman would be assigned to the case. In the face of the frequent terrorist attacks, the bomb-blasts, the gun-snatchings and the train derailments that convulsed the land, the police forces were a demoralised, confused lot.

Remembered bits of information, of habits practised by successful crooks in detective novels, came back to her. She was careful to burn the papers that she cut up; careful also to paste the letters and words on plain foolscap paper, easily available even in the local village shops. The envelope that she used, too, was flimsy and innocuous-looking. She wondered for a long time how she should go about writing the address on it. Typing it out on Ranjit’s typewriter was of course out of the question. She knew, once again from remembered detective stories, that it was quite easy to trace the typed paper back to the typewriter on which it had originated. So easy, in fact, that even the local police could clue themselves on to it once they made up their minds to do so. She couldn’t use the computer because terrorists did not have access to computers. In the end, she had printed Ranjit’s name and address in cramped capital letters, using black ink. She herself normally used only royal blue. It was amazing how different the writing looked from her usual bold, flowing hand.

Posting the letter posed a problem. Normally, the daak-wallah collected all letters from the Manager Sahab’s Bungalow and took them to the office, from where they were again taken to the local post-office. Obviously she couldn’t send her note that way. Nor was it feasible to go down to the village post-office and post it there. The postmark would point to the place where it had been dropped. And if the police ever questioned the postal workers there, they would surely remember that the Memsahib of the Betbagaan Tea Estate had taken to posting her letters herself recently.

In the end the solution had been quite simple, as easy as lying. After the houseboys had gone to bed, and she had locked the many doors that opened out to the deep verandas encircling the house, she had merely slipped the note under the main door. Half in, half out, with the address facing downwards. Okon, whose job it was to open the doors and windows every morning, would find it there, and hand it to Ranjit.

Shrabana listened to Ronojoy on the telephone now, but the images that flickered under her closed eyelids were of Ranjit.

Ranjit opening the letters as they were handed to him, one by one, at random intervals. Even though they were not communicating at all by then, it was quite apparent to Shrabana that the first few letters had disturbed him greatly. The police had been contacted, the servants had been questioned, a few token security-men had been deputed to guard the bungalow. Token, because it was apparent that they were laughably inadequate against any terrorists who might wish to attack them.

As expected, nothing had come of the enquiries. The letters had continued to arrive.

And each time Ranjit opened them, Shrabana had rejoiced. She would position herself in a nearby spot, unobtrusively, when she knew that it was time for Okon to deliver the letter. She savoured the way Ranjit’s face appeared to shrink, the way worry lines appeared on his forehead, the way his expression tautened, every time he saw the letters. By the time he received the second one, he had come to recognise the handwriting, as she had intended he should. His hands hadn’t trembled when he had received the first letter; but from the second time onwards, they had begun to shake uncontrollably as soon as he recognised the handwriting. She had relished the way his hands shook as he opened the envelope, gloated over the way his face slackened with fear as he read the message. She had read along with him, silently, with burning eyes. In the scales of justice in her mind, each letter was a small blow for the way his behaviour had changed Rahul for ever.

The messages had all carried the same refrain, using different phrases. The Manager of the Betbagaan Tea Estate should leave as soon as possible. Otherwise, there would be drastic (though unspecified) consequences. It hadn’t been difficult to vary the phrases. She had sent out eight letters so far, over a period of a year. And each one of them had arrowed in to the vulnerable place in Ranjit’s mind.

*

Now, with her eyes still closed, she heard the door open, and Ranjit’s unmistakable footsteps walk heavily across the wooden floor of the veranda outside. Now. She would have to tell them now. Tell them that Rahul’s kidnappers were not the same people who had sent out those eight letters. Tell them – tell Ranjit especially – that those threats had been hollow. That it was no use wasting time trying to find links between those letters and this one, or those letters and Rahul’s kidnapping, as the police were trying to do. It would lead them nowhere; it was a waste of time.

Why weren’t they doing anything, she thought with a sudden, despairing spurt of fresh anguish. She wanted to run out of the house in eight different directions at once, barefoot, with her hair streaming behind her, screaming out to the winds for her son. But of course it wasn’t possible. The impulse subsided as soon as it came. They might shoot him if they were pursued. There was nothing left to do but wait. Count the nanoseconds as they crawled endlessly by, and remember Rahul’s afraid-of-snakes look as he had been lead away by the twelve bearded, gun-wielding men.

And wonder, always wonder, whether this heart-stopping thing had happened because of her. Because she, by indulging her craving for revenge, had invited disaster with her letters. Tempted fate. Given ideas to the gods, who were now laughing mockingly at her. Was this what was meant by retribution? Was this Nemesis? Yes, it was.

Ranjit was in the room now. She opened her eyes and looked dully around her. Gently, but with steady hands, she pushed away Jona’s palms from her forehead, and took a deep breath.

It was time to talk. This was it. The final reckoning. The time to pay for her actions of the past year.

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