By Dev Chaudhry
Despite being tired after a busy day in the office and going to the bed early, Vijay is not able to lull his hyperactive mind to sleep. Mosquitoes are buzzing around, despite the repellant burning hot and bright for almost an hour. The railway tickets are safely tucked in his wallet under his pillow. His eyes are wide open, not an iota of sleep in them. He reminds himself that he has to catch an early morning train to reach Morena the next day. Changing side in the bed after every few minutes, he has been constantly weighing the pros and cons of his visit.
He very well knows that a storyteller is generally not a doer; he is mostly a narrator, who sits on the sidelines and observes, and then creates and recreates a story out of his observations. ‘In a country like India, stories are strewn everywhere. Vijay, this country lives through stories only. You throw a pebble and there is every likelihood that it will hit a storyteller. For that matter, you throw that pebble anywhere in India and before you know, it will be picked up by someone and turned into a story,’ he thinks as he turns on the bed again. ‘Haven’t you seen how people react when they meet the writers of the stories that have intrigued them, beguiled them, inspired them and saddened them? They find the writers pretty normal people; people they generally meet in their offices, colonies, their normal day-to-day life. And you know it very well Vijay that on such occasions, people tend to disbelieve the writer but not the story, the story remains intact because, by that time, the story is already a part of them, a part of their life,’ he exhales with some sort of happy resignation. This very thought, though, makes him doubtful of his plans for the next day. From the very beginning, he has been hesitant to go to Morena and claim the story as his.
His mind, still highly active, reasons with him, ‘But it is not that simple Vijay. These kissas, kahanis, tales need a writer. A story is always out there but it waits for someone to come, to find it, to nourish it, and to narrate it. Without a writer, it is just like an abandoned boat on some forlorn seashore waiting for a traveler or a seed on a placid surface of the earth waiting for the rains to drench its soul or a mirror on the wall in a crumbling deserted house where no one lives.’ His mind remonstrates against its own reasoning of a minute ago as he shifts his position in the bed, again.
Okay, I think I need to come in here (yes, sometimes a writer might also need someone to narrate his story). Mr. Vijay Prakash is not a literary critic or a philosopher. He has no pretensions of solving any literary riddle or of making some profound philosophical statement on the creator, the created, and the subject of the creation. He is facing a personal problem and he knows it very well that he is not able to make up his mind. One question that is bothering him and keeping him awake is: ‘Should he go there or not?’
Tired with his own mind and fed up with his own indecisiveness, he gets up, fiddles with his sleepers to put them on, goes to the washroom and splashes some cold water on his face from the tap. He comes back to the bed and lights a cigarette. After few puffs, he decides that the question that is keeping him awake needs a closure. He smiles to himself, thinking of the word ‘closure’, how he hates these kinds of words, and pities people who use them. And now he himself is using one such fancy word.
Vijay wakes up with a start in the morning at the sound of the alarm clock. He is surprised that he actually fell asleep. He gets up, gets ready, gets in a cab, and reaches the railway station just in time. He likes the caresses of the early morning cool and faintly wet breeze on his face. He falls asleep as soon as the train leaves the city and sets into a rhythmic motion. Soon the train reaches Morena. He gets down, comes out of the station, and sees his mother standing on the other side of the road. He crosses the road and they both start walking. They stop in front of a well decorated banquet hall. He sees the girl standing there, surrounded by a pool of people. He gets agitated seeing her standing there all happy and laughing. He takes his mother’s hand in his hand and pulls her towards the girl. And when he reaches there and is about to say something, his mother snaps at him, takes her hand away from his hand and…This makes him tense, anxious, and a little agitated. And then he feels someone shaking him by his shoulder rather brusquely and saying, ‘Get up, bhai saab, get up. This is Morena.’
Still dazed, he sees a face not very far from his own face, which slowly starts acquiring humanly dimensions. The Train TT, in all whites, is saying something to him. He picks up his bag, thanks the TT and gets down. He looks at his watch, half past twelve, so the train reached on time, he thinks to himself. He orders tea at a shop just outside the station. He starts thinking of the encounter with the girl once again by carefully going over the details of his plan for the day, with each gulp of the tea – how he is going to reach there, how he is going to enquire about the whereabouts of the girl, and what he is going to say when he meets her. Soon the tea is over. ‘These tiny tea cups, who makes these such small silly cups,’ he asks the chaiwala and tells him to give some more tea but in a bigger mug or a glass, this time. He lights a cigarette, finally a smoke, after so many hours.
After finishing his tea, he sets out to find a cab and sees one parked just next to the exit gate of the railway station but the driver is nowhere in the sight. He pats the cab hard and shouts, ‘Driver? Where is the driver?’ A young boy emerges from the side lane zipping up his pant and asks him what his problem is. In response he tells the irritated young man to take him to a village called Bachher.
‘Speak with some respect. Bachher is a not a village, it is a town. Where exactly do you want to go?’
‘Chalo to pehle, first you start the cab.’
‘Okay. Are you from there?’
‘Do you know me, you recognize me?’
‘Why will I? Should I?’ It seems that the question makes the driver a little nervous and suspicious at the same time because he abruptly asks, ‘You have the money, na?’ Vijay lets out a full-throated cackle, ‘Haha. Yes. Hai. Do not worry. You just drive babu and take me there.’
On reaching after a journey of two hours, he finds out that Bachher is still a village, but for sure it was no more the small village of his childhood. He enquires about the girl from several people in the village. He does not tell anyone the real reason of his enquiry. He tells that he is a journalist (which, let me tell you, is indeed true) and is looking for the girl who has studied in London and has become the Sarpanch of her village at the age of just twenty one.
After crisscrossing almost half of the village, he decides to take a break to have tea at a window-in-the-wall tea stall. So far he has been able to gather that he will have to go back to Morena, where a function has been organized to felicitate the girl that evening but he is yet to find out the exact location. ‘Felicitate for what?’ even before completing the sentence he asks, ‘Where?’ ‘In the Banquet Hall,’ replies the chaiwalla. He further enquires, ‘Which banquet hall?’ The chaiwala laughs at this question, and smirks his wife too, her beautiful beaming face becomes visible in the next window hole in the wall. Seeing his irritated expression, the chaiwala says, ‘Babu, how many good banquet halls there are in Morena? The one next to the railway station.’
He rushes back to the cab and wakes up the driver, who by then had dozed off. He tells the driver to take him to the best banquet hall in Morena. The cab driver grins and says, ‘Good idea. Even I have not had good food for some time.’ He ignores the comment and asks, ‘Is there any banquet hall near the railway station?’
‘Is it the best in Morena?’
‘What is it called?’
‘The Morena Pride.’
‘Great. Take me there,’ chuckles Vijay thinking of the great inventiveness employed in naming the banquet hall. Chuckles our cab driver too, thinking about all the delicious dishes he is about to savour.
After another two hours of drive, he is there. At the gate of Morena Pride. At the venue of his redemption, his moment of glory, his closure. However, he is hesitant to go in. The cab driver is looking at him all puzzled. The cab driver gets restless and asks him what he is waiting for. He also tells him, as if to reassure him, that food there is the best in the whole town. He snaps at the driver and asks him to keep shut. He thinks how he could tell him that this is about a story and that all along this time he has been looking for a girl. He looks back, the driver is nowhere to be seen. He is standing there at the gate, all alone, all eyes on him, and he feels naked at that moment, bereft of any thought.
Okay, it is important for me to come in here again and give the background of the happenings so far. So from where to start? Okay, I get it. Mr. Vijay Prakash is a journalist. He has always been an aspiring writer also. His mother wanted him to become an IAS officer but Vijay always wanted to be a writer. He could not clear the civil services examination and became a journalist with a national daily, instead. The hectic routine of a journalist’s life made him forget about his dream of becoming a writer. One fine day, when the ennui of the work hit him hard enough or maybe this was the day when he noticed the grey streak in his hair, he, all of a sudden, remembered his cherished dream of becoming a writer. He wrote a story and sent it to a story-blog website for publishing with ‘anonymous’ as the name of the writer without giving any information about himself. He did so because, in his opinion, this was necessary to assess his true potential as a writer in an objective and impartial way. The blog editors were initially hesitant to publish the story without the writer’s name and particulars but they eventually relented because they really liked the story (it is what Vijay assumed, and I have no sound reason to disagree with him).
The story became very popular, went viral as some said, within few days of it appearing on the website. The blog editors tried to contact Vijay through the email address he had used to send the story. Vijay never responded. He, however, kept a regular tab on the blog, counted the likes, saw the profiles of people who liked the story and read all the comments. The comment section was full of praise for the story; some praised the story for its authentic portrayal of the rural life; some found the story a testimony to woman empowerment; and some found it a tale of dalit empowerment. However, the most heartening thing for our writer was that most of the comments mentioned that the story touched their heart and that the story was told very honestly, without much recourse to literary flair and airy language.
Our now-almost-famous writer had written a story of a woman from Bediya community in Morena district in Madhya Pradesh. This was a story of a girl, who rebelled against her destiny of becoming a performing artist, which was each girl’s fate in her community. Instead, she decided to go to the school that Snehi Baba ran for girls like her. Baba was also from her own community. His mission was to educate every girl and boy of the community so that the community leaves, for good, its occupation of traditional sex work and performing arts. He ran a small school in the heart of Morena town. The girl, the protagonist of the story, passed out of that school and climbed several ladders in her life. Our now-almost-famous writer had written the story of this woman, the story of his mother.
The story became very popular, so popular that a local newspaper in Gwalior ran a news piece that the story was about Abha. A girl from Bediya community, Abha had become the first woman village head from the community. It narrated the similarities between the story and Abha’s life. Soon, the story was picked up by a national English daily. And then by other newspapers. Abha was interviewed by TV channels. Soon an Abha fan-club started on a social media site. The Abha fan-club started claiming that the story was written by Abha herself. To be fair to Abha, she first refuted this, then she started refusing to comment on this topic, and then she started refusing to refuse or accept it. She just smiled whenever she was asked this question.
This was an attractive story, not only for media but others too including women’s groups, dalit groups, and adivasi groups. In such a scenario, how the politicians could be left behind? Every other day, there was this or that function, by this or that politician, from this or that party, to felicitate her.
Vijay first enjoyed these things, with a sense of glory for his story. But soon, he started getting agitated and angry with these developments. He had written the story with minute details and in all honesty but more importantly with love, as a homage to the life of his mother. However, one mistake that he had made was that he had garnished the story with some extra tadka and masala. He did not do that out of any intention to lie or cheat but simply because he wanted to make the story little grander, more powerful, more legendry. So, for example, whereas his mother had done her graduation from a collage in Delhi University, in the story he made her study in Oxford University. After studies, she returned to the village, contested the election for village panchayat member, and lost. She returned to Delhi to teach in a college. In the story, he made her return from the Oxford University, contest the election for village panchayat head, and become one.
Now these exaggerations were coming to haunt him because Abha had actually done that. Born in the community, she rebelled against her family, studied in Baba’s school, and then in Oxford. She came back to the village and became the village panchayat head.
All eyes are at him as he enters the hall. Some elderly people recognize him. He also recognizes them. The village elders hug him and take him where others including Abha are standing. One of them announces, ‘Bhanu kaki’s son Vijay has come, after so many years.’ Then he points to the girl and says, ‘Abha, come here. Greet your uncle. You know, he is the son of that great lady Bhanumati kaki.’ After some more introductions and greetings, the crowd settles in the rows of chairs. Abha, some elders, and one person looking like a politician take seats on the stage.
Sitting in the front row and trying to decide what to say and at what time, now or later when the function is over, he hears his name being announced. Still lost in his thoughts, he hears someone saying, ‘Now, I request Vijay Kaku to come on the stage and say something.’ He looks, sees Abha at the mike making gestures with her hand for him to come onto the stage. Still lost in his thoughts, he shakes his head to check whether it is actually happening or he is having some dream. He gathers strength to get up. He arranges his thoughts once again. He wants his message – about his mother, the story and the writer – to be clear and forceful.
He takes the mike, looks at Abha and says, ‘Well, I think it is already very late. I will be brief, actually very brief. We are human beings. We all have stories. We all love stories. Everyone here knows an aunt or a grandpa who tells stories. Or an uncle who is retired from the army and who now regales you with all kind of bizarre stories. But there is a difference between the stories you hear and you read.’
At this point, Vijay takes a pause and something flashes in front of his eyes – the last part of the dream when the train TT had woken him up. He sees that as he is about to say something to the girl…her mother snaps…her hand leaves his hand…she moves towards the girl and turns into that girl. Seeing these things flashing in from of his eyes, Vijay starts feeling very weak in his knees and is about to fall when Abha, who was standing next to him, holds and steadies him. She gives him some water. He asks Abha to hold his hand. He wipes the sweat on his forehead, sips some more water, clears his throat and starts to speak, ‘I would like to say only this … nobody knows where a story starts and nobody knows where it ends but we all know that a story, once written or told, belongs to one and all.’
He gets down from the stage and scampers out of the hall as he has a train to catch.
Dev Chaudhry has been associated with the development sector for last 15 or so years. He has worked with several national and international NGOs. A social scientist by training, he did his master’s programme in sociology at JNU, New Delhi and as a result loves to observe people and their behaviours. He did his Ph.D. in Community Health Sciences from University of Manitoba, Canada and his thesis was on ‘migration and health’. He loves to read all kinds of books but his first preference lies with poetry and fiction. He is currently based in Delhi.
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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Travel: Cities, Places, People’, edited by Nishi Pulugurtha, academic, Kolkata, India.