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(b. August 3, 1935), a well
known writer and columnist of Orissa has 9 short story collections, one Novel,
two Travelogues, two Essay Collections, one Translation (107 letters of
Rabindranath Tagore) to his credit. He was president of the Cultural
Academy a literary organization of repute in the state, now member of the
editorial board of ISTAHAR, a quarterly literary magazine of high order in
Orissa. He has received a number of Awards and honours. Has travelled widely in
the country while in service. A native of the
north-coastal district of Baleshwar, he has retired as Deputy Commandant,
Central Industrial Security Force under the Home Ministry of Government of
India.] Now after retirement, has settled in Rourkela (Orissa)
Address : L-45, Chhend Colony, Kathagarh, Rourkela (Orissa) - 769 015
Phone : 0661-2480380, M-099371-48415
By Bhupen Mohapatra
I was taken aback at the sight of the
visiting card on my table. In fact it was my Grievance Day, and I was attending
to the petitioners by the names on the visiting cards. It was a Saturday – my
Grievance Day. I must, as per the government circular, meet seekers of justice
on this day and attend to their grievances. The word ‘grievance’ has become so
popular from the Imperial times that it is being used by governments in letters
and circulars even today. Of course the non-Oriya Ministers and Officials, who
would not get the Oriya equivalent of the word right, substitute the word with
their own version – ‘Complaint’. Otherwise the old version – ‘Grievance’ – is
normally used by all. I too like the word; after all this olden word with its
antiquity of days gone by, has braved the onslaught of modernism till date and
stood up with its head high – this is not a joke. I have directed my Personal
Assistant to keep the Grievance Register ready before me on Saturdays.
On that particular Grievance Day, when I was through with four or five complainants, and bumped into the visiting card, I became a bit more enthusiastic. The card carried in ordinary D.T.P. inscriptions the name of its owner: M.K.Gandhi. I was both curious and irritated, and to an equal extent, to have come across the card. Someone must have sent in the slip to play the fool simply – I told myself – so that I would send for him in preference to others. This even fanned a little anger within me, but the next moment I reasoned: could be, the name was real; he must be having a genuine grievance to make. There cannot be a single soul in our democracy who will not have a grievance. Democracy and grievance complement each other. They cannot be separated. I cherish a particular opinion on this subject. I believe that death of grievance amounts to death of democracy. Therefore the fact that M.K.Gandhi will not seek justice just because he is M.K.Gandhi does not make any sense to me.
‘Shall I send him in?’ asked Sri Krushna, my peon.
I find Sri Krushna to be rather abstruse. I feel particularly bad for him, because even though named after Lord Krishna, he has to do the chores of an official handyman. I suffer the same degree of embarrassment when I have to ask him to wash the used teacups in the office as well as my clothes at home in the absence of other regular servants. I never address Sri Krushna with a dismissing ‘tu’ like other officials; for his name I rate him highly among other peons.
‘Sri Krushna! Come here,’ I said. He had stood outside, by the partly opened door awaiting my permission. Perhaps M.K.Gandhi had anticipated his turn and was getting to his feet, and Sri Krushna gestured to him to wait and came near me rubbing his palms.
I asked: ‘Have you seen this man M.K.Gandhi who has come to seek redressal?’
‘Which man Sir, do you mean Gandhi?’
‘How does he look? Does he look like our Mahatma Gandhi?’
‘Sir, I’ve not seen Mahatma Gandhi. This man looks humble. I mean he is in a dhoti; he has worn his dhoti in the north-Indian style, with one of the ends running between the legs and tucked into the waistline at the back. He has no clothes on his upper body, his head is bald. He is in a pair of ordinary chappals. He is carrying a long staff in his hand. Must be someone from the Below Poverty Line category.’
Sri Krushna spoke resolutely.
‘Ah!’ I cut him short, ‘You think you would have seen Mahatma Gandhi or what? Gandhi has been dead since many years.’
‘Gandhi is dead?’ Sri Krishna countered. ‘Who said that he is dead? The other day we celebrated his birth anniversary. Everyone in the meeting said, Gandhi is not dead; he is alive.’
I was shocked at Sri Krushna’s knowledge of Gandhi. Matriculates apply for the posts of peons nowadays. I was shocked to know how terribly lacking in knowledge today’s Matriculates could be.
‘Then are you really saying that Gandhi has not died?’ I asked him.
‘Not at all. If so, would this country be there? This country too would have died by now. Sir, you don’t know our fellow countrymen.’
Krushna was all chuckles as he said this.
I was flabbergasted at his words. I felt as though Sri Krushna was not a Matriculate; he had done his Master’s degree. Because there was not an iota of doubt that whatever he said was correct. His remarks led me to rear an idea: those who say that Gandhi is alive are those who have killed him in real; and if Gandhi still survives today, it is because of people like Sri Krushna, who are never bothered of his physical existence in the first place.
I grew more curious on Sri Krushna’s thesis of Gandhi. I said, ‘What do you say then? Gandhi has not died?’
‘Not me Sir, everyone else says this. I say, Gandhi is missing.’
‘Missing? You mean neither dead nor alive?’ I asked.
Sri Krushna quaked and put his index finger on his closed lips – he must not speak a word more. He tried to ensure if he had committed a mistake. Then he wanted to correct himself: what would be a right response? He must answer his boss correctly. Otherwise, would not the boss take him for a fool? He scratched his head in a state of vacillation.
Right at that point I fired my next question, ‘How can such a great soul go missing?’
I was eager to know Sri Krushna’s answer to my question. But I had no idea that he had at his disposal such an easy and smart answer to my question.
He said, ‘Why? You think Subhas Bose is dead? If he had died, would so many people be looking for him for all these years? Someone was saying the other day that the Indian Government is investigating into the issue all over again.’
He paused for a while and continued, as he caressed the skin below his ear ‘Sir, I have another story to tell.’
‘Go ahead’ I said. I was expecting another bizarre episode from Sri Krushna.
‘The Chief Constable of our village Police Station is a noble man,’ he continued.
‘Really?’ I said. ‘Very good. But what do you want to say exactly?’
‘He should be sent to locate Subhas Bose instead of the high-profile cops,’ Sri Krushna said. ‘He would fetch Subhas Bose from the netherworld even during the day hours. The man has apprehended real thieves…’
I could not hide my laughter. He saw me laugh and thought he was stupid; he should not have come out with the topic in the first place.
‘Well, who do you think can fetch Mahatma Gandhi then?’ I asked.
‘We all, one and all. If the government announces a proclamation on the matter, everyone will get to their toes. If all are not involved, a lost person can’t be located.’
My Personal Assistant entered the room and informed, ‘Sir, there’s just one complainant waiting. I suggested he come some other day. But he does not budge from his place. He is sitting there like a rock. He doesn’t move; as though he is meditating.’
So I told Sri Krushna, ‘Go, send him in.’
The man entered the room. I was shocked to see him. He was the selfsame M.K.Gandhi. The selfsame appearance. Frail body. Bald head. Bare body except for the knee-length dhoti. He can barely stand straight, but he hasn’t had a stick for support. I sprang off my chair, stood up and said pitifully with folded palms, ‘Bapu, you!’
He laughed. That unchanged laughter, unsoiled and openhearted. I felt that Bapu was the best among all the laughers of toothless lips. Only Kasturba, Bapu’s wife disliked her husband’s laughter. Nobody else, in the world, has criticized that laughter. ‘Why are you grinning at everything?’ Kasturba would ask, ‘you laugh when you are praised, when you are criticized; if someone abuses you, you grin; if someone admires you, you grin. Has God given you laughter to waste like this?’
Kasturba used to chastise Bapu for his habits.
‘Don’t err,’ the man said through his laughter. ‘I’m not the one you take me to be. I am another person. The M.K.Gandhi that you take me for has died long long ago. You know the Sanskrit hymn – can the body that has been singed to ashes come back? M.K.Gandhi has died, can he be here again?’
I thought of Sri Krushna then. I wanted to call out for him. But can I be audible if I yell out from my closed room? If you want to call out for someone, the door should be kept open. I forgot then that I could press the bell and summon someone. Gandhi has not died – Sri Krushna was saying this emphatically a little while ago.
‘You are trying to hoodwink me. You can never do that. Don’t I know you? Haven’t I seen you before? Who hasn’t seen or known you, Sir?’
‘You might have seen him before. How can you see him now?’ he said with indifference.
‘No, I see him even today, look there,’ I gestured at the photograph of M.K.Gandhi hanging from the wall at the back of my chair.
‘You think that is my photo?’ he countered.
I was shaken. I cast my glance on the photograph. Then I let it scan the man. He had wrapped his chest with a chadar in the photograph. But here, in the room, he had nothing on his upper body. You could count his ribs distinctly. I switched off the air conditioner in the room to save him from feeling cold. The room was still cool inside. ‘Should I fetch a chadar for you?’ I said. ‘You must be feeling cold.’
He said, ‘I was born like this, without clothes. I’ll die without clothes on my body. What will I do with a chadar? My bare body can withstand it all – winter, summer…’
He paused for a while and added, ‘You put off that machine, wouldn’t you be uneasy?’
I felt as though someone slapped me hard on my cheek. My hand rose in a reflex to caress the cheek.
Perhaps he realized what I went through. He smiled. The similar smile once again.
‘Leave it,’ he said, ‘could be you have seen me earlier. I’ve nothing to add to that. But yes, I am M.K.Gandhi. I have come to put forth my grievance. I have been planning to come here since long. But what to do?’
‘You could have sent for me,’ I said. ‘Why did you take the trouble…’
He burst into laughter again. This time tears showed up in his eyes as he laughed. Both the eyes filled with water. His voice somehow throttled from within. As if he wanted to say something, but was unable to do it. In some time he managed to rein in his stifling breath, let out a deep sigh and said, ‘If only that had happened…India would have been a land of gold by now.’
He hung down his face and remained glued to his chair, like the M.K.Gandhi at the Round Table Conference, somber and quiet as he had submitted the memorandum to the British government.
I was studying his face. As if myriad sorrows and concerns began to shine their hues there.
That brief sentence from him drove me to immense embarrassment. I had no way to slip away. When an entire colossal empire remained subservient to his grip, cried for relief, and had to surrender and flee its colony, who am I? I am so petty and inconsequential!’
Now I too toyed with the idea of how to escape. I mustered courage and said, ‘Okay Sir, let me listen to your grievance now. If you are not M.K.Gandhi, then let me know what complaint you have. And make it fast. Be specific too. I have very little time. There is a lot of backlog. Quiet a few meetings with the Chief and the Heads of the Departments. The month-long session of the Assembly begins from tomorrow. They don’t want replies there, only questions. I have to be ready with that. Where do I have time for all this here? Yes, tell me. You should have come prepared.’
He let out his identifiable laughter and coughed repeatedly as he began to say something. ‘Have some water,’ I passed the glass of water to him.
He waved his hand to refuse. ‘I haven’t touched water for seven days now,’ he said. ‘How can I drink it here? What will they think of me?’
‘You have not touched water? Why? Who are you talking about? I don’t understand.’
‘Those who have squatted before your gate to protest,’ he said.
‘Oh, that’s none of your problem. That’s a different matter.’
I sent for my Personal Assistant. I too sent for Sri Krushna. They had to work hard to persuade M.K.Gandhi to leave the room. I thought I was saved from an uncomfortable situation and sat for a while resting my head on the table.
After some time I heard a ruckus outside and rushed out of my room. I saw M.K.Gandhi standing there, surrounded by my Personal Assistant and a few others. I walked near them; they scampered to one corner and huddled there.
‘What’s the matter?’ I asked.
‘While going to your office,’ M.K.Gandhi replied, ‘I had left my staff with your P.A. He said, the rule does not permit to carry the staff to the Officer’s room. Now I can’t find my staff. What do I do now?’
Meanwhile Sri Krushna ran towards us from the corridor. He gasped for breath as he said, ‘A scuffle started near the gate of the building and the policemen rushed there. They had taken the staff along with them. Come with me, babu, I’ll get you your staff at the gate. What will the police people do with that staff anyway?’
(translated by:Lipipusap Nayak)
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