Two men stand on a causeway, arguing about the nature of change and the fragility of lives
Translated from the Hindi by Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar
“Why do you keep on falling into trouble?”
“Just like that.”
“What do you mean by ‘Just like that?’ Are troubles ever any good?”
“There’s a special kind of pleasure in enduring trouble, especially if one endures that trouble to alleviate the pain of others.”
“That means you keep looking for opportunities to land yourself in trouble.”
“There was a gang of unruly kids in my school who used to bully and beat up someone or the other just to maintain their clout.”
“And you used to jump into those fights for no good reason, right?”
“Yes. I don’t know what happened to me at those times. I felt an unseen power take hold of me. And that unseen power dragged me into those fights. But I did not get into those fights to fight back. I got into those fights to get beaten up. I often returned home with broken/missing buttons and a torn shirt and bruises all over my body. I graduated from school, but this habit of mine seems to have stayed on.”
“Well, this matter is no longer a ‘habit’ anymore. And these fights too have grown in magnitude. They are not those small street fights anymore. You do realise that you have got yourself into a bigger battle, don’t you? Do you even know its consequences?”
“Yes, I am aware of the fact that my troubles will grow. Earlier, my mother would get worried when I returned home with bruises and torn clothes after a street fight. But my mother doesn’t worry about me anymore. She has perhaps realised that I am beyond any and all correction now.”
“I do not understand why you need to get into such fights…”
“You won’t be able to understand.”
“Why? Why won’t I be able to understand?”
“Because you are too wise.”
“Wah! What makes you think so?”
“It’s just that wise people often do not understand small things.”
“And what does that mean?”
“It means that there is pleasure even in trouble. You perhaps haven’t understood this yet.”
“But why would one need such pleasure?”
“It’s necessary, as a human.”
“Right. So, you mean to say that any person who is not in trouble is not human?”
“Yes. Like you. You’re a successful agent, but you’re not human.”
The conversation came to a halt after that rejoinder as the two men stood staring at one another.
They stood in the middle of a low causeway built over a river in a desolate, forested area.
The man who was called “agent” wore black trousers and a shirt the colour of the sky with a tie around his neck. He held a briefcase in his right hand and from his left, he slung his coat. Even during that short conversation, he had glanced several times at his wristwatch, indicating that he did not have much time to spare. It was quite unbelievable to see a successful city slicker like him there, on that bridge in that desolate, forested area; but then, time and circumstances can compel a person to end up just anywhere.
The other man was dressed in a crumpled kurta the colour of dirt, and a pair of cheap jeans that could have been procured anywhere. He had a gamchha around his neck, and rubber flip-flops on his feet. He looked so relaxed—as if he had all the time in the world.
The causeway was built so low that one could bend and touch the water flowing below. The river flowed strongly, nowhere in its course did it allow the earth to rise above the surface of the water. There were tall trees by that river, their tops susurrating in the wind. Herons glided over the shimmering water of the river. Creepers, twined around the shoots and branches of the trees, were in full bloom, their leaves and petals raining over the river in a colourful shower before being carried away in an equally colourful tableau. Just like the landscape, the sounds of the forest too were enchanting. There was the soothing clamouring of birds, the gurgling of the river, and the occasional cooing of a cuckoo .
The successful agent, however, was oblivious to it all. He could see neither the creepers laden with blossoms, nor could he hear the cuckoo singing. He could see only that man standing with him on that causeway, the man he was supposed to deal with on behalf of the Company.
He took another glance at his watch and, opening his briefcase, very decisively, took out a sheaf of papers and showed them to the other man.
“Look,” the man in formal clothes said to the man with the gamchha around his neck. “These papers bear the signatures of all those people who have, under this contract, handed over their lands to the Company. But now, they too have started opposing this project. I have been told that you are leading this protest.”
The man with the gamchha around his neck listened attentively and replied, “These papers and the signatures on them are the legal proof of the contract you speak about. But do you know the reality on the ground? Do you know how the police dragged the farmers and held guns against their heads to make them sign these papers?”
“I’m not here to investigate all that,” the agent said brusquely. “I’m here only to talk about things that matter.”
He placed the sheaf of papers in the briefcase and retrieved another paper, a single sheet, which he handed to the other man and said, “This is a special proposal from the Company, and it is only for you. Read it, and tell me your decision immediately.”
The man with the gamchha around his neck took that sheet of paper from the agent and, without even reading the proposal, started folding the piece of paper.
His eyes were fixed on the agent, even as he deftly shaped the sheet of paper into a boat.
“This is my decision,” he said, waving the paper boat before the agent’s face, as if mocking him. “I can do it. See, it is so easy.”
Then he looked lovingly at the boat he had created, bent down, and placed it in the flowing river.
The river carried the boat away. It seemed that the boat would topple and capsize, but it didn’t.
It maintained its balance, steadied itself, and flowed away.
“Do you see that?” the man with the gamchha around his neck asked the agent. “How easy it is to make a boat of paper and launch it on its journey in a river! But sad, you won’t be able to accomplish even a task as simple as this.”
The agent looked on as his proposal flowed down the river in the shape of a boat.
Gradually, the boat turned into a speck, and then it disappeared. What remained were the river, its gurgling, the trees on its banks, the creepers, and the clamouring of birds.
The agent could now see it all, hear it all. He craned his neck up at the sky and took in its blue expanse. Then he began speaking like someone who had seen it all, knew it all.
“This nature, humans and animals and birds, the love for nature…these cannot be bought and sold. But I work in an office that stinks of conspiracy, where day and night plots are hatched to grab everything that is invaluable. I feel helpless, working there as a convict imprisoned for life. It struck me several times that perhaps I should not do this work. It struck me several times that perhaps I should do what you are doing. But destiny perhaps chose me for this work. To destroy nature and lives. Your paper boat stands no chance before the flood of anarchy that I have been assigned to unleash.”
The agent paused.
He took a few deep breaths, then said, “No person can change their destiny. But they can certainly run to save themselves from that destiny. No matter what dangers that person may have to run through.”
He paused again and stood silent for some time.
He placed his briefcase and coat on the causeway and began taking off his shoes and clothes.
Once he had taken off all his clothes, the agent turned towards the man with the gamchha around his neck and said, “I can do it. I can run. It’s easy.”
Then he stepped off the causeway and into the river. He stumbled, initially, almost slipping on the stones in the river, almost falling; but then he found his balance and steadied himself, like that paper boat.
He went far in the river, deep into the water.
Mid-river, the agent looked up at the sky.
He turned around and looked at the man with the gamchha around his neck. He had taken the gamchha off his neck and stood holding its ends. Stretched. Tense. Surprised. As if he could not understand what the agent was trying to do.
The agent spoke loudly, almost hollering, so that the man standing on the causeway might be able to hear him.
“It is said that people who are afraid of forest and water should not venture into the forest and step into the water. I too used to fear the forest and the water. But now I fear neither. Look, I am going into the forest through this river. Could you take my briefcase to my office? Could you place the contract papers in my briefcase on the table of the Managing Director of the Company and fold those into paper boats? Perhaps, no. You won’t be able to do it.”
The man standing on the causeway was unable to speak a word.
He just kept on looking at the pile of clothes and the briefcase the naked man had left behind.
Manoj Rupda writes in Hindi, and is the author of the collections of stories Tower Of Silence, Saaz-Naasaaz, and Aamaajgaah, and the novels Pratisansaar and I Named My Sister Silence, shortlisted for the JCB Prize for Literature 2023.
Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar is the author of a collection of short stories The Adivasi Will Not Dance and the novels My Father’s Garden and The Mysterious Ailment Of Rupi Baskey. He has translated Manoj Rupda’s Hindi novel, Kaale Adhyaay, into English as I Named My Sister Silence.
Read all the Lounge Fiction Special 2024 stories here