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The ex-Minister visited the Department of Village Roads without informing Yograj. In the corridor he met the pony-tailed peon who said, ‘There’s no work happening here.’
The Commissioner-cum-Secretary’s mother had undergone a hip replacement and he had taken a week’s long leave. The laxity caused by his absence had rippled down like an invisible executive order. The officers were not in their offices, and the babunis and the clerks luxuriated in their freedom. It was lunch time when the ex-Minister visited and he saw them gathered around tables, surrounded by files accumulated on their desks in straggly yellow towers. The odour of urine was strong; this was the floor where the unfixable toilet was located. But they seemed inured to the stench. They shared their lunches and a clerk waved a jalebi in that piss-flavoured air, offering it to anyone who wanted it.
The ex-Minister longed to ask everyone their castes and sub-castes but controlled himself, as he had learnt to do.
The pony-tailed peon was beside him. ‘Do you see? I told you.’ ‘Even Pradeep DE?’
The peon grinned. ‘He’s here all right. He won’t go anywhere.’
He went to Pradeep DE’s office and glanced at the plaque above the entrance to his office.
Inside, he saw his son in conversation with his stenographer. Heera Babuni sat in the visitor’s chair, her elbow on the table and her chin in her hand. Peanuts were scattered in the space between them; they pecked at these languidly.
The ex-Minister said, ‘Chhori, please open the window. Outside you can smell nothing but piss, inside you can smell nothing but scent.’
Heera Babuni stood up and left the room. Pradeep DE watched her leave and turned to his father. ‘She was hurt, you know?’
The ex-Minister protested that his nausea was genuine; her perfume was very heavy. Pradeep DE looked pained. ‘It’s not easy. Everybody going on leave. It’s not my fault, no? You have to learn to be patient if you’re going to work with the government. You talk like I’m not helping Yograj. Peanuts?’ He pushed some towards his father.
The ex-Minister waved them away and said, ‘And is he still meeting that babuni?’
‘Julie Babuni. I haven’t heard anyone talking and he says they broke up. I send Heera Babuni to watch whenever he visits the office. Outside the office, I don’t have the time to follow him around.’
The ex-Minister spoke with a resigned pride, ‘We have to get him married soon.’
Pradeep DE was eager to end the meeting. He said, ‘He’s on the right path. Don’t worry about him.’
His father stood to leave. ‘And change the sign, I’m telling you for the last time.’
After the ex-Minister left, Pradeep DE broke open a peanut pod and thought: like father, like son. Such an unwelcome intrusion, and to think it was made just as Heera Babuni was opening up about her wayward husband. They may be in the government, but they too had lives and hearts. Her presence was like a cup of tea on a winter’s morning, and it was what made the Department of Village Roads bearable, packed as it was with idiots and thieves.
Their proximity dated to the previous winter, when he had been passed up for a transfer, one that he had worked hard for, and had received a new office room as a consolation. It was a large room on the top floor, traditionally the Commissioner-cum-Secretary’s room, but he had recently moved to a new office. Its only drawback was that it did not have a separate room for the stenographer but a cubicle within the large office. Pradeep DE was to work in the same space as his stenographer. Their first few days were awkward.
‘Babuni, you must not talk on the phone for such long periods and so loudly. Your private life should be left outside the office,’ he had said on the third day.
You know what happens in my home. But do you know what happens inside my life?’ she had answered.
From such curt exchanges they had moved towards each other gradually, like continents yearning for an eventual union, and chats had progressed to conversations. He appreciated the spatial constraints which had led to their companionship, and grew to be grateful for her hair which, when left loose, fell on the sides of her face like a partial curtain, her perfume which enveloped her like a fragrant aura. He discovered aspects of her without her sanction: her husband had left her for another woman, now she lived only for her children; when she hurt colleagues with her sharp candour, she made it a point to be kind afterwards; and her eye shadow always matched her lipstick. Then, last month, there was the letter in Sikkim Everyday.
Just yesterday I was walking back from office towards home when I saw a baby girl crying in the street because her father had beaten up her mother and then left with another loose-charactered woman. I asked myself, ‘Is there no justice in the world?’
In more advanced places of the world domestic violence is on its deathbed but here in Sikkim, it is alive and kicking, literally speaking. How many children are there in Sikkim who have been abandoned by their fathers? And what is the Department of Social Welfare doing? Does it have any facts and figures to show us? An iota of concern can work wonders.
They must care for the children, and ensure that the fathers who indulge in these sort of ‘hit-and-run’ antics are made to be responsible for their children. Let us not forget that great souls have opined, ‘The child is the father of man’.
Lastly but not leastly, I call upon the concerned mothers to be more open about such abuse. Please remember that in your courage lies your beauty.
A Concerned Citizen
Two days later, there was no indication yet from Heera Babuni that she had read it. He sat in his chair, hummed, and scanned the newspaper. He looked up to see her in a lemon jacket, cream bakkhu and yellow pumps, settling her work space. Above the letter, in the editorial page, was an article printed by a local botanist on the many virtues of the stinging nettle.
‘Babuni, look at this. Did you know the sishnu was so useful?’
‘It’s good for one thing only, in my opinion. And there are many people I could use it on.’ The stinging nettle, when dipped in water and applied to the flesh is uniquely painful, and has traditionally been used on thieves and errant children.
She sat down at her desk to type. He walked over and kept the newspaper on her desk. ‘It’s on this page.’
He went out, not trusting himself to look or be seen looking. When he returned, he found his fond hope fulfilled. She had read the letter and was weeping for the child left on the road. She made a cone from a tissue and poked the corner of her eyes, to soak up her tears, which could not be allowed to run down her cheeks, for her mascara had taken time in the morning. ‘This man has written the letter with his pen dipped in my heart.’
He had rehearsed his answers. ‘No woman should have to go through what you are going through.’
She held his hand. He hoped that she didn’t notice his trembling. ‘No man can replace a child’s father. But I could try and be a good uncle.’ She let go of his hand and looked away. ‘What’s the use? You too will leave in some time.’
She sat down, facing her computer, and he stood beside her. She took his hand again and kissed it. He turned away lest she see the effects of her action straining against his trousers, for it would only validate her regular assertions that all men were animals whose hearts were located inside their underpants. He returned to his desk but could not work. He opened the window beside him to air the room. There was a fine mist outside and everything around, the houses and the trees close by and the landscape beyond, was shrouded in it.
Pradeep DE left for a meeting at the Commissioner-cum-Secretary’s office and when he returned found the note Heera Babuni had left for him. It said: ‘I know you did it for me.’ She had kissed it and the lipstick marks were still fresh.