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Upcountry Tales

By Mark Tully

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From the story ‘Murder in Milanpur’

It was a quiet day in the thana at Milanpur, which was usual. There were no new complaints, no demands for filing First Information Reports, the lock-up was empty, and there had been no accidents since a tractor ran into a herd of goats the previous week. The vehicle, with its lights smashed and tyres slashed by the crowd which had gathered when the accident took place, was now parked in the thana courtyard. A little goat came sometimes to sleep on the driver’s seat.

It was a peaceful time of the day too. The sun was slowly sinking, and the mid-day heat had passed. Cows, with their milk-heavy udders swinging, were walking leisurely home from grazing in the fields, raising a thin film of dust as they plodded in a patient procession past the thana. The older villagers still called the hour godhuli, cow-dust time, and taking advantage of the evening cool, assisted by a whirring pedestal fan, the thanedar, Sub-inspector Prem Lal, sat outside listening to the radio.

Prem Lal was a reluctant police officer. He had never wanted to join the force, but when he did well in his school and college exams his family had insisted that he sit for the entrance exam for sub-inspectors. His father, a small-time farmer in Purvanchal, had said, ‘Just think of the prestige and power the thanedar enjoys. Who is a bigger man than him? When I was young, grandmothers would bless baby boys saying, “May you become a thanedar.”’

Prem Lal had argued that he wasn’t interested in privilege or power. He was interested in learning, so the best life for him would be that of a schoolmaster. His father had dismissed that as ‘not a job for a man’ and gone on to point out that a police officer made much more money. ‘Who bribes a schoolmaster? Students who want to pass their exams may give him a pumpkin or a bag of rice. Is that even a bribe?’ he said. ‘Police are as greedy for money as a starving man is for food, and they get plenty of opportunities to eat a lot of money. Have you ever seen a policeman without a big belly filled with the money he has eaten?’

Prem Lal maintained that he wasn’t that greedy for money, either. He just wanted enough to get by. His exasperated father shot back, ‘You are heartless, only thinking of yourself, never thinking of me and your mother. I have worked like a slave to get your sisters married and to give you the education I never had, and now you say you don’t want to be a big man and you don’t want to make money! You are the only son we have, there is no one else to look after us. How will you look when we die in poverty? Won’t you feel ashamed? We thought our days of misery were over, our son would change our kismet…’

To bring an end to his father’s diatribe, Prem Lal had intervened, ‘All right, all right. If it matters so much to you, I’ll join the police.’

But Prem Lal did not fulfil his father’s wishes entirely. He wasn’t always scrupulously honest, but he did not set out to fill his pocket. He had even come almost to enjoy his job, almost as he had enjoyed mathematics at school, without any thought of scoring high marks. That was why he found himself in charge of the thana at Milanpur, a small, insignificant dot on the map of India’s most populous state. He had spent his career in the countryside because he had not been willing to politic, to touch his superiors’ feet and grovel, to backstab his friends and rivals alike, all of which were necessary to get a profitable posting in towns and cities. He might still have become a city thanedar if he had the money to pay for the job, but he never had the required money, or even ambition. He was happy enough in sleepy Milanpur, where no one was a stranger and everyone had time enough for some gupshup and gossip.

That evening in the thana courtyard, in the summer of 1987, he was interrupted while listening to All India Radio by one of his regular visitors, a tall farmer in a dhoti, with a cream-coloured cotton shawl covering his head and a lathi in his hand, who said in a commanding voice, ‘Arrey thanedar sahib, why are you listening to the radio? It’s all lies. All government bakwaas.’ He then pulled up a chair, and without waiting for an invitation, sat down.

Prem Lal greeted the man, called to one of his underlings to bring them chai, and asked, ‘So what’s the news today, Ram Bhupinder ji?’

‘Nothing much. Everything is peaceful. There’s nothing going on. But it’s hot enough, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, it’s hot enough, but it could be worse. I’m very happy to hear that everything is peaceful, but then why have you come to see me?’

‘Just for a chat, thanedar sahib. You are better company than bechaaras like me. You were wise not to marry—wives and children have turned us into frogs trapped in a well. Anyhow, you always know more than I do about what’s happening. That’s why I come to see you. I’ve never known a thanedar like you. You seem to know things before they happen. The list of known offenders and badmaashes is always up to date in your thana. You find out the secrets of men sleeping with others’ wives and women losing their honour with someone else’s man…’

Ram Bhupinder waited for the thanedar to speak, but when Prem Lal offered nothing by way of local news to liven up his day, he added, ‘Oh, by the way, that reminds me, I’ve heard a rumour. I’ve heard there’s trouble between that carpenter Ram Swarup and his wife.’

The thanedar smiled knowingly. ‘Not surprising. I hear that thakur sahib has lured her into his bed.’

‘There you are! I knew I would get some news if I came to see you. That thakur—he thinks he can appoint his ploughman as a pradhan and take anyone’s wife to bed,’ Ram Bhupinder grumbled, although clearly delighted that his visit had not been a waste.

Exile in the country would have been boring for Prem Lal had he not kept his brain busy by staying abreast of the politics and events within the villages under his thana—collecting information as well as having information brought to him. He had an uncanny knack for telling when someone was lying, and figuring out who had been wronged in a dispute. He could see through the miasma of rumour which hung over villages like a clammy fog, and discern where the truth lay. With justification, he prided himself on being a good detective.

Having collected his bit of gossip and finished his cup of tea, Ram Bhupinder went on his way, promising to see if he could pick up any more information about the carpenter’s wife. Prem Lal retreated into the thana where he could indulge in the daily luxury he allowed himself, a small one, away from the prying eyes of villagers who might spread rumours about him. His luxury was just one large bottle of Kingfisher beer. One bottle was enough, and it had to be Kingfisher light, not strong. There was no question of spirits, whether they be the whisky classified as Indian-made Foreign Liquor, or the gut-rotting local distillations known as desi—country liquor.

Hardly had the thanedar lifted the cap off the bottle when he heard a distant clamour, a sound which spelt disturbance to him. Replacing the cap and concealing the bottle, he waited to see whether the clamour would come to him, or if he would have to go and investigate it…

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