| Paromita Goswami | October 2023 | Short Story |
Tulsiram stops to catch his breath on the steps of the single-story building with a wide porch. The outdated structure is in dire need of maintenance, but a District Collector’s office always exudes an air of importance, no matter what the architecture looks like. Since the days of the Raj, this is the office which common people associate with the mai baap sarkar in every district of the country. And like the hundreds of thousands who have climbed the stairs before him, Tulsiram too enters the place with trepidation. ‘Will my work be done? Will I finally get to see the Sahib?’ His throat feels dry as he moves ahead.
Tulsiram remembers the very first time he had seen the Collector’s Office – seen it from the outside, not entered the premises. He had crouched five hours in a truck with other villagers to attend a political rally. With hundreds of others, he had squatted on the tarred road and listened to speeches. ‘Zameen amchya hakkachi! Nahi kunachya baapachi! – the land belongs to us, not to anyone’s father!’ Tulsiram was momentarily convinced that chanting the slogan like a mantra in the rally would indeed save their land. But time showed him that once the Sarkari notice is stuck on your door, nothing can save your land – not a rally, not fiery speeches outside the government office.
The national highway cut right through their paddy land and the outskirts of the surrounding forests. First came the officers and then the contractors with big machines and an army of labourers who worked around the clock. Tulsiram’s father along with other villagers was called one day to the office of the Sub-Division Officer; they were forced to accept cheques and that was that. The land had been ‘acquired’ for a pittance and henceforth they were not to enter it.
A mere acre and a half was left of their six acres of paddy land, and yet Tulsiram considered himself fortunate – many families he knew, were left with nothing at all. One by one these landless families, including his two uncles, left the village in search of work and settled near the coalmines. Tulsiram farmed the scraggly plot of land, barely enough to feed the family with a sack or two left over to sell. He caught fish from the village tank and his wife weaved bamboo baskets to sell in the village market. A quiet man, he kept to himself and hardly ever set foot outside the village except for the annual bullock race and fair.
His son Ramesh on the other hand, had travelled far and wide. At seventeen he had hopped into a labour contractor’s van and returned after working six months in a plastic factory in Pune. Since then he has worked in a fruit juice factory in Ratnagiri, picked chili fields in Khammam, built roads in Chennai, and unloaded cement trucks in many sites of the country.
Three months had passed since Ramesh had returned from loading sugarcane somewhere in Karnataka, but unlike in the past, he was not prepared to leave again. It was clear that something was worrying him like a worm burrowing into a brinjal. One night after dinner he said to Tulsiram, “I want the prakalpagrast dakhla – Project-affected Certificate.”
Tulsiram was sitting in his courtyard with his nightly bidi. “What is that?” he asked concealing the sudden increase in heartbeat. He spat out the phlegm that rose in his throat.
“The contractor said that if I could bring a certificate saying we had lost land in the highway project, he would find me a permanent job in the new factory. He said, he knew the owner and would speak for me.”
Tulsiram wiped his eyes and sighed, “Do you think this thekedar can be trusted? … Anyway I don’t have any certificate.”
Ramesh was a foot taller than Tulsiram, strong and well-built. Furious at his father’s callous attitude, he jumped up and snapped his fingers in front of Tulsiram’s face in a menacing gesture. “Don’t mess with me,” he growled, “Didn’t you lose land in the highway project?”
“Yes,” replied Tulsiram, “But that was many years ago. Before you were born and your grandfather was still alive. The land was in your grandfather’s name and he did all the transactions.”
“I don’t care who did the transactions and whose name the land was in. I know that you lost land which means you are project-affected, which means I am also project-affected and that means we must get a certificate,” hissed Ramesh.
Tulsiram raised his eyes to look at his headstrong son glaring at him. He knew this was the beginning of trouble. The next morning he handed over his cloth bag with every scrap of paper he had saved to Ramesh.
“There is no certificate here! Ata kasa’i kar ni mala collectorkadun dakhla anun de! Now you go to the Collector’s office and get me the certificate! Don’t show me your face otherwise! Tond dakhavu nakos!”
Tulsiram pretended to be busy inspecting the fishing nets. Without looking up from the nylon in his hands, he said, “I am too old now. Why don’t you go?”
“I can’t go because I have to go to work every day. Where do you think the food on your plate is coming from? Here I am, slogging day and night like a slave, and you cannot get me the certificate?!”
It became a bone of contention between father and son. Ramesh hollered, fought, and cursed the old man till their small hut seemed to shake with his anger.
Tulsiram could bear it no longer. “Okay,” he said, “let me find the village Patil and seek his counsel.”
“Don’t you dare!” screamed Ramesh, “The wily old Patil has three sons. If he comes to know of the contractor’s offer, he will make sure that his sons get the job and I remain a head-loader till my death!”
The hapless Tulsiram gave in. One morning he caught the bus from his village to the district headquarters. Thus began his interminable journey to procure the piece of paper which would satisfy his son and restore his peace of mind. On the first day, Tulsiram wandered around, trying to gather his courage. He was stopped at the gate by the doorman and sent back.
“You must bring an application Kaka, otherwise how will the Sahib understand your problem?” the doorman spelled out each word. His overly patient voice reminded Tulsiram of the village nurse explaining to the women why they must not allow their children to lick dirty fingers.
Tulsiram managed to locate the busy young typist hunched over this typewriter under a tin shed across the road, tapping out applications quicker than a woodpecker chips at wood. Tulsiram chewed his last piece of betel nut and waited his turn.
The typist stuffed his money in a tin box, handed over the typed copies to Tulsiram and threw in some good advice for free. “Give one copy of the application to the Rehabilitation Deputy Collector,” he said and chuckled at the lost look on Tulsiram’s face. “Go to the Aavak-Jaavak the INWARD-OUTWARD COUNTER in the Rehabilitation Office and give one copy to the clerk. And make sure to ask for a receipt. It is never enough to just hand over your application Kaka; it is important to have a receipt. If you don’t get the stamped receipt in your hand, it is as if you never set foot in this place. It’s like snakes and ladders, the snake gobbles you at square 99 of the game and you go right back to square one, got it?”
Tulsiram was drenched in sweat, searching for the INWARD-OUTWARD COUNTER. One lady took a fleeting look at the application in his hand and scowled, “Why are you wasting my time here?” The rubber stamp in her hand moved mechanically from the blue ink pad to the huge bundle of papers on her table, stamping paper after paper. Tulsiram moved away without asking for directions. He returned home exhausted that day and vowed never to go near the administrative offices ever again.
Tulsiram pleaded and begged his son not to send him back, but the dream of a permanent job blinded Ramesh to his aged father’s helplessness. He desired that job more than he desired anything else, and he was in no mood to listen to excuses. Tulsiram’s life changed. He was no longer free, he could not go fishing when he wanted to or while away afternoons gossiping under the tamarind tree with his friends. Every few days he caught the morning bus to the district city, limped to the Collector’s office, and each time learned why he would need to return at a later date – ‘Sahib is on leave’, ‘Sahib has gone to Mumbai’, ‘Sahib is with the Minister’, ‘Don’t you know Sahib does not meet the public on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays?’
Tulsiram’s cloth bag grew heavier with all the applications that he submitted to different offices. Naturally, he never received a single reply – he was just another peasant in this vast country, making the endless, hope-sucking, dignity-stripping, Sisyphean rounds of government offices.
Today is yet another hot, rainless day in July. Tulsiram has dragged himself to the Collector’s office for the sake of his son. The white car parked on the porch indicates Sahib is in office. It is barely eleven o’clock and already the long verandah is crowded. Some people are conferring in groups while others stand alone glum-faced. Like Tulsiram they all carry papers – applications and memoranda in duplicates and triplicates; one copy for the Sahib and one for their file. For once, the constable at the gate does not stop him. A group of women cluster together, their faces lined with concern. Their leader in a dark pink sari with a golden border reassures them, “We will not leave without discussing this issue today.” Tulsiram overhears these words and wonders for a moment whether he should approach this forceful woman and ask her to resolve his little problem as well. He pushes aside the thought almost as soon as it rises.
The Sahib has not yet started meeting visitors. The crowd parts automatically as several policemen troop in with an air of urgency. A firm hand falls on Tulsiram’s bony shoulder and he feels a hard pressure – “Chala Kaka! move aside! The S.P Sahib is coming.” He looks up at the policeman with a foolish, apologetic grin and shrinks away towards the wall.
He stands for a long time with his back to the wall, his lowered eyes watching the shiny shoes and high heels walk by, entering and exiting multiple office doors lining the verandah. He feels dizzy; he has not slept well last night. The doorman rushes to hold the door open and the Superintendent of Police emerges in his crisp uniform, taking long purposeful strides. Frantic policemen scurry around like fussy mother hens, making sure the S.P. is safely ensconced in his car. As the car pulls away, the posse of policemen disappears as well.
The doorman closes the door of the Collector’s cabin and heaves a sigh – “the meeting with S.P Sahib is over,” he announces to no one in particular.
The leader in the pink and gold sari sweeps forward instantly, “We want to go in now. Our women have travelled from Sindewahi, two hours away,” she insists.
Tulsiram’s brow furrows. He wants to say, “Hey lady! I am from beyond Sindewahi. It takes me three hours to reach here, sometimes even four. Why shouldn’t I go in first?” But he blinks and utters nothing.
The doorman is accosted by a large group of men in black coats. “Did you give Collector Sir our visiting cards? Did you notify him that there is a delegation from the Progressive Lawyers’ Association? We have to return to court so you better hurry up!” they say in grave voices.
“Arey Baba, I am only the doorman! Can I do anything beyond keeping your visiting cards on Sahib’s table? The Sahib alone decides whom to meet,” says the doorman in his good-natured way.
“How come people who came just now were allowed to go in when we have been waiting for so long? Last week you allowed another group to enter even though I was first in line,” complains a thin young man in a whining tone, but he is ignored.
“We had an appointment at eleven o’clock. … Cancer Welfare Foundation…” says another man in a tie, “Please inform Sahib that our vice-chairman is waiting.”
“Sahib is busy … S.P. has left but CEO Sahib is still inside. Meeting is going on.”
A lady constable who has just arrived on the scene saunters towards the crowd. “Hey, why are all of you troubling the doorman? Chala, mage vha … move back, move back. We will let you inside as soon as Sahib is free. Please don’t crowd the door. Sahib can see on his screen inside. Can’t you see the CCTV camera?” she points at the camera on top of the door with its tiny red steady eye.
Tulsiram slowly shuffles over to a corner, beyond the last sofa lined against the wall on which four people have squeezed themselves. None of them look at him as he removes his black rubber sandals and squats on them. He holds his bag between his knees and wipes his face with the towel on his shoulder. A fat lady with an aluminum kettle walks by with plastic glasses in her hand.
“Bai,” he calls out softly from his corner, “Lady! Can I have some tea?”
“Hey Kaka,” snaps the Lower Division Clerk dashing past, “you can’t have tea on Sahib’s verandah. You have to go out to the canteen.”
“Okay,” he mumbles and draws his knees closer to his body.
The atmosphere in the verandah is stifling. Nobody wants to leave without meeting the Sahib, but all they can do is grumble at the doorman. ‘Oh, it is only for two minutes that we want to meet him.’ ‘We just want to hand in this application that is all.’ ‘Just two minutes to discuss the census.’ ‘Just two minutes to invite him to the charity show.’
It is a sultry day. People are sweating and tempers fly at the least provocation. The Collector’s verandah does not have fans and the throng is increasingly restless, shifting around like discontented beasts in a huge, invisible cage. The chairs are taken by the two police constables. The doorman pops in and out of the door at the sound of Sahib’s bell. Tulsiram leans against the side of the sofa and waits for his turn. Those with money go out for a smoke or a snack, but Tulsiram’s hunger is quelled with the tiny pouch of kharra in his pocket – a potent mixture of betel nut bits mixed with tobacco flakes and lime.
A sudden commotion at the door startles him to alertness. It is the lady in the pink and gold sari whose sharp, incensed voice cuts through the unhappy murmur that envelops the verandah.
“Why have you put this board here?” she snaps at the doorman, pointing at a blue board with white lettering. “Why have you written Visitor Hours – 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.? Why do you mislead the public?”
Tulsiram peers from his corner as the good people flock together near the blue board and everyone starts burst into angry cackles, haranguing the helpless doorman.
“Answer the lady! Why have you put up this board?” says one.
“Such boards should be used to light chulhas!” sniggers another.
“Yes, instead of Visitor Timings you should write Officers’ Timings.” says a third sarcastically.
The policemen leave their chairs and stand to face the crowd in postures of authoritative intimidation. Some people move back not wanting to get into trouble but not the lady in the pink and gold sari. “You people have no respect for the public,” she continues vociferously, “Go and tell Collector Sahib that we were waiting for the entire day and don’t have any patience left.”
Her shrill voice floats deep enough into the cavernous office block to create a stir somewhere in its dark, unseen interiors, for soon a man in thick glasses materializes. It is the Sahib’s P.A or perhaps one of the other staff members.
“Sorry, sorry Madam. Sahib is very busy…the assembly session is around the corner and Sahib has to prepare. There is a video conference going on with Chief Secretary Sahib just now. Please try to understand. Why don’t you meet the Additional Collector instead? Or the Deputy Collector?” suggests the man. Tulsiram watches from his corner as the people shout, threaten, argue, insist while the young man in glasses continues his miserable efforts to explain and pacify.
The matter would have certainly continued longer but is brought to a halt by the thick, black clouds that had suddenly gathered in the sky. After the first burst of thunder followed by the ominous crack of thunder, people find themselves in a hurry to disperse. The lawyers and the ladies decide to take their matters to the Additional Collector; a few others gravitate towards the Resident Deputy Collector and many leave, muttering curses under their breaths. Tulsiram sits in his invisible corner as the last vestige of hope plummets in his soul like an injured bird.
Dry leaves chase each other on the ground, and the air fills with the smell of fecund, wet earth. The rain arrives in a torrential downpour making the tube lights flicker. The verandah is empty, except for the doorman and a constable. The fat lady returns to serve them a last cup of tea after which the constable settles down to scroll his mobile phone. The Sahib’s bell rings and the doorman jumps up from his stool and rushes inside.
Tulsiram realizes it is time to leave his corner of the Sahib’s verandah but Ramesh’s livid face hovers before his eyes and he tries to brush it away. The sheet of rain makes the darkness nearly opaque. He shivers at the rush of cold, rain-soaked wind and clenches his teeth. Almost unwillingly he allows his aching limbs to succumb to the intense yearning for rest. Tulsiram huddles and presses his body against the side of the sofa. Shifting on his haunches, he pulls his cloth bag between his knees, and closes his eyes.
The Sahib, the constable, and the clerks depart after the day’s work. The doorman is locking up and preparing to leave when the crouching figure in the corner catches his eye. He recognizes the old man and quickens his pace. “Hey Kaka!” he calls out, “The offices have closed! All the Sahibs have gone home! Get up, get up! Come tomorrow with your work!”
The doorman’s words do not penetrate Tulsiram’s deep slumber; he does not stir.
Paromita Goswami is an activist working on issues of land, labour and forest. She lives in Chandrapur with her husband and daughter. She has published in academic journals like Economic and Political Weekly, NUJS Law Review, Community Development Journal and Indian Journal of Social Work.
Her stories have appeared in Jaggery Lit, Out of Print, Muse India, The Himal Southasian and Kitaab International.
Photo by Hari Gaddigopula via Unsplash
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