Thursday, Jul 07, 2022
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Weekend Reads

Short Story | The Birthday Gift

'What is this, Mummy?' The mother looked at her son and replied, 'Your birthday gift'.

The birthday gift, the box he left behind. (Representative image)
The birthday gift, the box he left behind. (Representative image) Shutterstock

“POLITICS, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.”
-- The Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce

I: The Village
 

It was a July morning, I remember when the sweet smell of earth that had been drenched by the previous night’s rain filled the surroundings of our village with an exciting aroma. It was a beautiful morning. The first rain of the season. It was a relief for the people of the village from the scorching heat of the months that had preceded the rain. The flora of the village seemed to be rejuvenated like a thirsty person whose thirst has been quenched. 

Initially, in the wee hours, the rain had been drizzling but then as soon as noon approached, the clouds could not hold back the weight of water in their womb. It began to rain incessantly. The day that had begun beautifully started to turn ugly with the heavy downpour. But it did not stop the flurry of activities that had started to gain momentum in the village.

It is true that news and rumours spread faster in villages than in cities. The news had spread throughout the village that a pall of gloom had descended on the Kumar household. It was a topic that was being discussed and talked over among people in houses, milk shops, barbershops, vegetable markets, as well as between the people in the remote agricultural land. Under the big tarpaulin sheet, supported by two bamboo poles, was the small shop of one of the villagers, who sold groceries to the people of his village. Outside the shop, a couple of people were standing and talking while smoking. The news had reached them and it could be heard what the people were talking about. 

“Have you heard the news?” one of the villagers asked his fellow villager.

“Which news?” the second villager asked enjoying his beedi.

“About the road accident!” the first villager whispered.

“Yes, I heard it a short while ago,” the second villager went on, scratching his right temple, “It was at around eleven-thirty near Sharma’s milk shop that I heard people talking about it.”

“I have heard that Shashi has been killed in the road accident.”

“I too heard. It is sad news.”

“If it is true, it’ll be a great tragedy.”

“A family is sure to fall on bad days.”

“He was the lone breadwinner of the family. Today he had left in the morning for the city market to buy a gift for his lone son’s seventh birthday on the coming Monday.”

“Really!!!” the villager asked.

“I don’t dare to broach this sad news to his family.”

“But someone has to...”

“I am weak-hearted. I can’t do so.”

“But how long will we hide it?” the second villager said letting out the smoke through his nose and mouth.

“No! No!... Let us pass by his house to assess the situation,” the first villager said patting gently on the second villager’s shoulder. 

The villager, who had been smoking, put out his beedi by dropping it and stepping on it. Then they both made a move to leave towards Shashi’s house walking through the muddy waters that had filled the kacha road of the village. From a distance, they could see a swarm of people moving in and outside the house. People had started to gather in front of the house, covering themselves with umbrellas, to know what exactly had happened. They started to talk in hush-hush tones which got buried under the loud noise of falling raindrops against the black, yellow, green, red, pink, blue and various multi-coloured umbrellas. They reached outside Shashi’s house and stopped near the gate. 

“I think the family has heard the news,” the first villager said addressing the second villager.

“Isn’t it obvious from the chest-beating of the women? Listen to the cries of the wailing women,” the second villager muttered.

“The scene here is unbearable and the shrieks penetrating. I don’t have such a heart to hear them.”

“Have courage. Let us see how we can help the family in this hour of grief.”

The two villagers entered the house, mixed with the other mourners, and got grooved in the grief. Loud cries and wails filled the scene.

Tears overwhelmed them while watching the unbearable scene. They saw Rashmi, the wife of the dead man beating her chest inconsolably. Her hair was let loose and her mascara was washed away by her tears. Her vermillion had been spread across her forehead.

Her eyes were tired and bleary. She was restless. Her face was pensively mournful. She had exhausted all her power yet a bevy of ladies was required to hold and comfort her. The ladies, while consoling the wailing woman, bemoaned:

‘O wailing woman
Stop streaming tears
Save them for future
For you have to suffer more
At the hands of heartless helmsmen
Who lend a deaf ear to please
To fight loneliness
To fight umpteen ordeals
That may come in oodles’


 

Drops of rain.Drops of rain. (Credit: Shutterstock)

Among the various villagers that had come, some were standing outside in the rain, some were standing inside the house and the rest remained squatted in the house waiting for the dead body to arrive. Meanwhile, some other villagers were busy preparing for the cremation. The morning turned into afternoon and the afternoon turned into the evening. But the rain did not stop nor did the wailing. And the body did not arrive. 

“See, darkness has descended. The body has not arrived yet,” the first villager was heard to say.

“One does not know how long we shall have to wait here,” remarked the second villager.

“Till the dead body arrives,” the first villager said suddenly.

“No. I can’t wait any further. Let us go home and come again tomorrow. Now, there will be no cremation after sunset,” the second villager said, turning his head towards the sky.

“Yes, religion forbids cremating people after the sun has set,” the first villager put in. 

At dusk, when the dead body did not arrive, people started to return. Although some people had already left in the afternoon, most people who had come had stayed till evening. However, a few ladies of the neighborhood chose to stay with the grieving woman. 

On the next day, the rain had not stopped and the sun had been gobbled up by the dark clouds of the sky. The villagers returned to Shashi’s house.

“Even now the corpse has not reached!” the first villager exclaimed.

“I don’t think it will reach now,” said the second villager.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that there is no dead body,” the second villager said making a strange facial expression.

“Haven’t you listened to the radio news?”

“No, what is the news?” asked the first villager, surprisingly.

“It was said that search is on for the missing bodies. Shashi is among them. Don’t you know how deep and deadly the river becomes in this season?”

“Yes, it has swallowed many people and animals in the past.”

“The continuous rain that has been falling since the day before has raised the level and increased the flow of the river. The rain has unleashed the fury of the river.”

“Oh God!”

“The government, however, has summoned special divers from outside. But the river does not discriminate. It will destroy everything that comes in its way. It will take the team take a couple of days to recover the missing bodies.”

 

‘O wailing woman, Stop streaming tears...' (Credit: Shutterstock)

II: The newspaper office

A few kilometres away from our village was a city that housed a reputed newspaper office that published bilingual news which was read by both the rich as well as the poor sections of the society. It was a big, white, three-storey building with gigantic reflective glass panels on its front side. Several vehicles were lined inside as well as outside the building. Today the building was more busy than usual. Inside the newspaper office, was Mrs Chaitra, the news editor, who was busy filing reports. She was seated behind a large wooden work-table facing her back towards the bookshelf that ran from one corner of the room to the other. The table was cluttered with various blank sheets, newspapers, books, pen stand, ashtray, pencils of different lengths- some well-sharpened, some blunt and some waiting to be used, a coffee cup, paperweight, a photo frame, glue sticks, drawing pins and pushpins, a laptop connected to a large monitor, desk-lamp, and various distinct items which were difficult to figure out. While she was busy filing some reports, someone knocked at the glass pane of the door. It was a leader of the opposition party who had come in person to the newspaper office. The leader entered the editor’s cabin and after greeting her he took out a piece of paper from the side pocket of his Nehru jacket and while handing it over to her, spoke, “Mrs Editor, include this condolence message in the news bulletin.” 

The message read: ‘I express my grief over the tragic road accident, and extend my heartfelt condolences to the grief-stricken family.’

After that, the leader left. In a short while, another knock struck at the door. This time it was the leader from the ruling party. One after the other, many politicians appeared making a beeline to express their condolences.

Politician: Read my message too.

Second politician: Read my message too.

Third politician: Mine too.

Fourth politician: Mine tooo.

The queue was not restricted to political leaders only. People from different strata of the society also came to express their condolences.

A social activist: Mine toooo.

A religious leader: Mine tooooo.

A film star: Mine toooooo

An unknown person: Mine tooooooo.

Once this motley group left the news editor’s room, she said to herself, holding her head in her hands, “Oh God! Don’t know from where these people tumble!”

The people who had come to express their condolences met once again outside the news office and exchanged a few words with each other. 

1st leader: This ritual is to be observed after every such incident.

2nd leader: Yes, to keep ourselves in public memory.

3rd leader: True, otherwise no one would recognize us.

Social activist: Well, it is the only time we get to play social activism.

1st leader: We should be thankful for such incidents.

All the people nodded their heads in agreement and left. 

III: The Collector’s Room

A few more kilometres away from our village, in the city, was the collector’s office. The news had reached him about the accident. The collector must have been in his thirties. He was clean-shaven and had short hair.


The collector looked at the office clerk and said pensively, “Bring me the cursed file.”
 
“Road accident file? Sir?” the clerk asked hesitatingly.

The collector looked at the clerk with his raised eyebrows and did not say anything. After some time the clerk brought the collector the file.

“This cursed file won’t spare me during my stay in this office,” the collector said in a defeated voice.

The office clerk left the room.

Skimming through the file, the collector spoke to himself, “I have to be ready to face the minister and the media.”

He put his finger into the sponge water pad lying on the table and summoned his assistant once again.

“Did you summon me, Sir?”

“You send press releases to both the print as well as the electronic media that a committee has been constituted to look into the cause of the accident.

“Yes sir,” the assistant responded.

“This way we can avoid public attention. Otherwise, we will have to face the public fury.”

“This is the custom we have been following.”

“Who is bothered after some time? People lose interest in no time. They have their own set of issues to cook.”

“True, Sir. Public memory is a short-lived phenomenon.”

“If that were not the case, our working would become difficult.”

“So many such tragedies have occurred, who has troubled himself to know what has happened to ARTs (Action Taken Reports)?” the assistant shrugged. 

“Gathering dust on shabby shelves in the room,” the collector smiled.“Isn’t it true?”

“Yes, Sir” the assistant replied. 

“Now go and do as told,” the collector cried.

IV: The State Minister’s official residence
 

As much the news of the accident had disturbed the villagers, so much had it annoyed various other people. The state minister, who was to leave for the accident site, was gheraoed by media people outside his official residence. Upon seeing a huge crowd, the beleaguered minister waved them to calm down.

“Calm down! Calm down! Ask what you want?” the minister addressed the crowd.

“Sir, last time you assured me that everything would be done to reduce the rate of accidents, instead it is going up,” one journalist from the crowd said.

“We have constituted many committees to study the case of an accident. They have not submitted their reports yet. Unless and until we know the cause, where shall we find the cure,” the minister said. “Moreover, why do you always hold government agencies responsible for these accidents?”

“Then whom shall we ask?” the journalist cried. 

“Public” the Minister replied. “Is not public responsible? Is not respecting the rules of the road their duty too? Is it mandatory for the government to wield a stick every time to remind people of their duties? If not still satisfied, then you may ask other agencies as well.”

Saying this, the Minister fled from the spot and the journalist who had questioned him went to other government agencies in the search of the answer. 

V: Office of the Traffic Unworthy Department 

At around three in the afternoon, the female journalist, after having questioned the Minister, arrived at the Office of the Traffic Unworthy Department and spoke to one of the officials there.

“People often blame this department for accidents. What are your thoughts on this matter?”

“It is easy to blame a department than to see its functioning under various constraints” the officer replied, cleaning his molars with a toothpick.

“What constraints?” the journalist asked.

“Man Power,” the officer replied. “Moreover, we too have constituted a committee to look into the cause of accidents. Besides, we are not responsible for the maintenance of roads. Bad roads are responsible for accidents.”

“If you are not responsible for the maintenance of roads then who is?” the journalist asked.

“The Public Un(welfare) Department!” the officer remarked with a smile. “You better talk to them.”

VI: Office of the Public Un(welfare) Department
 

After meeting with the state minister and the traffic department official, the journalist finally visited the Office of the Public (Un)welfare Department. There she went to an official, who was screaming from his work-table at some other office clerk, and asked.


“Sir, why is your department accused of not maintaining roads?”

The officer fell silent at the sudden question of the journalist. He studied the journalist’s face. After a moment of pause, without saying anything, he grabbed the cup of tea from his table that had been lying there for a while and drinking the leftover tea in one gulp, grunted. 

“There is a shortage of money, madam,” he went on after some silence, “besides, we too have constituted a committee to assess the condition of roads and it is not our business to prevent accidents. You better ask other agencies,” he replied, distractedly. 

"Other agencies." This was the reply that everyone gave to escape from being questioned and blamed. It seemed that there was no end to these agencies. However, the journalist continued to visit the ‘other agencies’ in the hope of finding an answer.

In one of the many other public offices, the journalist asked the official there, “What steps have you taken in this direction?”

“We have set up a committee and are committed to it. Buck does not stop here” the official assured her.

“Where does the buck after all stop?” the journalist said to herself.
 

Roads, unmaintained...Muddy waters filling kacha roads (Credit: Shutterstock)

VII: The Village

It had been four days since the news of Shashi’s death had spread in the village. His body was not found and his wife had continued to lament over her missing husband. She had forgotten all about her child who was being taken care of by his maternal parents who had come to console their daughter. Rashmi had withered like a senescent leaf. The activity outside the house had not ebbed. The people continued to visit the house. She was sitting on the verandah, shedding tears unstopped, waiting for her husband’s return. Grabbing a villager, who was standing beside her, by his leg, she pleaded, “Bhaiya! Please! Please bring me, my husband. He has never been late. Why this time? Four days have passed, he has not returned. Go, See where is he?”


The villager looked helplessly towards the wailing woman and said, “Do not worry! Do not worry! He will come. Soon.”

“You are lying to me! You have been saying this to me for the past four days. You are a liar. You are a liar,” she repeated mechanically but suddenly in a faint whisper.

Upon sensing that the villager to whom she was pleading was merely lying and giving her false hope, she turned towards another villager.
“Mukul Bhaiya! You have always been with us through thick and thin. What are you doing here? Go, Go, and find him. Today is Deva’s birthday. His son is waiting to celebrate his seventh birthday. How long shall he wait?” the widow implored. 

The villager could not utter even a single word. He was pained by the woman’s plight and decided to leave the house.

The widow, then, turned to a woman who was also sitting on the verandah and pleaded with her to bring his husband back.

“Calm down! Calm down! Minister has assured of all possible help” the woman said to the widow.

“Has he ever suffered such a pain? How can he understand our agony? The people always keep mouthing such nonsense,” the widow shouted in a frenzy.

Half an hour later, a government vehicle arrived in the village. The villagers began to rush hysterically towards the car to see who was coming into it. It was a police jeep. Two moustached police officers alighted from the jeep and enquired from villagers the address of Shashi’s house. Another police officer alighted from the vehicle with a box in his hand. The police officer asked one villager, “Where is Shashi Kumar’s house?”

“There,” the villager pointed towards a tree. “Behind that tree.”

The police officer looked at another police officer and said, “Bring the box along.”

Both of them advanced towards Shashi’s house. As they reached outside the house, all the villagers looked at them with a questioning glance.

The senior police officer climbed the three steps that lead to the verandah and standing before the window, took off his hat and said in a pensive voice, “Madam, we are sorry. We could not trace your husband’s body. We are extremely sorry.”

The woman burst again into tears and cries and yelled, “You are lying! You all are lying to me.”

The senior police officer stretched his hand and asked the other police officer, “Give me the box.”

“Only this has been found from the accident site. Please, take it” the officer said to the woman and put the box near her, on the floor.

The widow did not pay attention to the officer’s words or the box and continued to cry beside her son.

Her son looked at her and asked, “What is this Mummy?”

Deva did not get a reply from his mother who was still weeping. He took the box in his hands, opened it, and found a remote-control car inside it.

After handing over the box to the woman, the police officer reached out to his pocket and handed over her a cheque.

“Madam,” the police officer said wanting her to listen to his words. “The government has sanctioned an ex-gratia amount of only one lakh rupees.”

The son with the toy car in his hands, now pointed towards the cheque and asked his mother, again, “What is this, Mummy?” The mother looked at her son and replied, “Your birthday gift.”

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