It is said that one looks innocent in his sleep. Spending the night in the same train compartment and watching the man asleep on the next berth, Ashwini could hardly agree. He had been in agony from bouts of combined coughs and asthmatic attacks all night. His state was a torture to Ashwini as well. He was now sleeping with his head on Ashwini’s air pillow. He had a hideously cruel face. No, it was not as if the cruelty was written on his face; it was something innate. He probably couldn’t hide his real self when asleep. It was as if a horrible, torturous demon was pushing itself out, distorting his face.
Yes, this man was Ravi Dhar himself. Age, the salt-and-pepper beard, the cough, the asthma which nearly broke him into pieces - nothing could hide the real Ravi Dhar. Ashwini had met him only once and that too for just a few days. Met him, yes he did, quite a meeting it was. Fourteen years ago. Ramchandra was in exile for fourteen years. That probably made the number fourteen significantly long. But to Ashwini, it seemed like just the other day.
The man was tired, and he slept like a log. A sick and weak body. How old was Ravi Dhar fourteen years ago? Maybe fifty or fifty-five.
When Ashwini boarded the train at Malda, Ravi Dhar had been coughing, leaning on the wall of the compartment. It was a heartwrenching cough. When he stopped, he gasped hard. There weren’t many short-distance passengers. Three of the six berths were empty. Apart from Ashwini’s, only one other berth was now occupied.
Ravi Dhar’s bouts of coughing had dispersed the others in different directions. At around nine in the evening, Ashwini noticed that it was only he who was still there in the compartment, apart from Ravi Dhar. All the other passengers had moved away elsewhere, as it had become clear that this old man would be quite a disturbance through the night.
But Ashwini made no attempt to move. He had recognized Ravi Dhar as soon as he boarded the train. A much thinner body, moustached and bearded now, but nothing could hide this man from Ashwini’s eyes. It could be his curiosity and a crass desire to watch the man’s pitiable state that made Ashwini remain seated at his berth. Ravi Dhar sat with his back to the window. Ashwini was across from him, watching. He wondered what could have caused this degeneration.
Nearly an hour passed. Gradually, Ashwini got accustomed to the coughing, his gasping. With Ravi Dhar in front of him in such a state, his mind travelled back to that time fourteen years ago. With the darkness outside the window, the swaying train, the whistle of the engine, and the sound of motion time flew back fast -- till it stopped at a room with a high ceiling.
The room was dimly lit by a single dust-covered low-powered bulb. It gave a reddish glow. There was only one opening, with a heavy and large door locked from the outside. There were seven men and a girl inside. The girl and six of the men belonged to one group. They were all sitting or lying on the floor, huddled on one side. Ashwini was on the other side by himself. He didn’t know any of them, and they also didn’t know him.
They had been there before him. Ashwini had just been brought in. On his entry, they watched him in silence. Ashwini wanted to initiate a conversation. But, it seemed that a shield of suspicion kept them at bay. It was also significant that while Ashwini had just turned forty, no one in the other group was older than twenty-four or twenty-five.
The room smelled of feces, urine, dead rats and bleaching powder. Ashwini’s eyes wandered around and collected the details. The far corner of the room was to be used as the toilet. There was no window. High above, there was just a ventilator. If one was cooped up in this room long enough, it would be impossible to know if it was day or night in the world outside. He felt sick in the unhygienic odour. In the end, Ashwini sat with his head tucked between his knees and analyzed the sequence of events since last night.
He was taken in at three o’clock at dawn, in a village forty miles away from Calcutta. After keeping him in the local police station for a few hours, he was driven here in a closed van with substantial precaution.
Two constables were at guard outside. In the next room, at an old table, sat an aged, uniformed officer. When Ashwini was brought in, there were two more men in plain clothes, who, for some reason, seemed rather peculiar to Ashwini.
Just as the older officer asked his name, one of the plain-clothes men declared, His name is Bhola, the one-eared Bhola.
The man was holding all the documents. Ashwini came to know later that his name was Ravi Dhar.
He was already infamous for his brutal torture and innovative methods. Apparently, no one even came close to surpassing his cruel skills in breaking people into pieces.
Ashwini had said, my name is Ashwini Kumar Chattopadhyay.
The old man initially looked at Ashwini’s face with a strangely pitying gaze, then turned to Ravi Dhar and begged in an unbelievably thin voice, Ravibabu, a Brahmin lad --
Ravi Dhar thumped loudly on the table and barked, His name is Bhola, you understand? Write, the one-eared Bhola.
He uttered the three words “the one-eared Bhola” in as long a drawl as possible.
Ashwini then saw the old man write “the one-eared Bhola” in the space marked for name on the paper. The old man’s fingers were trembling.
He was amused at the drama being enacted at the time, but now inside this room and in control of himself, he felt there was a mystery to it. He hadn’t tried to hide his name. For, the local police knew his identity well enough.
Ashwini lifted his face and looked up. The six young men and the girl were observing him closely. Ashwini’s eyes met each one of theirs and noticed that they all looked away.
May I know who you are, please?
The bespectacled smart lad introduced their political selves. Ashwini gave the name of his own party. He had expected this.
As was the custom, he raised his fist. Red Salute?
None of them responded. Only the one who seemed to be the youngest was about to raise his fist but was refrained by the forbidding gesture of the bespectacled one.
Ashwini didn’t know how to overcome their hesitation and suspicion. He felt all the more uneasy. Being alone..
-- We are all travelers on the same road.
He made some such bookish statement.
-- How do we know that you’re not a bloody informer?
The bespectacled one gestured once again at the sauciness of the youngest one.
Ashwini smiled inwardly at the word “informer”. He was familiar with the word. It was a by-product of their struggle. A ridiculously juvenile term. These guys were trying to be extremely cautious. Ashwini felt that the young people needed to grow up to become more careful and alert. He knew from experience that he wouldn’t be able to resist the temptation of bragging to his comrades if he found some arms somewhere. Often, he deliberately brushed against the forbidden stuff to provoke his friends’ curiosity.
-- Your name, please?
This time, the bespectacled fellow asked.
Ashwini answered, and immediately the mystery regarding his name returned to his mind.
-- Where did you operate?
Ashwini gave the address of his workplace. Just then, the door opened noisily. A breath of fresh air intermingled with the smelly claustrophobic air inside. The one-armed constable came inside and asked for someone called Kailash Basu.
The other seven looked at Kailash silently. The young lad called Kailash rose diffidently, clenching his fist and whispering some greeting to the others, and went out with the constable. The door was closed behind him.
Amiya was sweating. He looked frustrated and disturbed. The others were also alarmed. Amiya returned to the others and smiled sheepishly. Glancing this side and that, he went to the corner, which was serving as the toilet.
Ashwini and the others observed him. Amiya turned his back to them, unzipped his pants and stood still for a while. He couldn’t urinate. Amiya turned. His face was pale and shy at the same time.
Ami, come here.
For the first time, Ashwini heard the girl speak.
Amiya zipped up his pants and returned to his group. His face was wet with sweat. The girl pulled him by his hand and made him sit next to her. Amiya said, I’m very hot, very!
The girl said, sit here in peace, Ami, you’ll feel hotter if you are restless.
Sailenda, do you have a cigarette? Amiya asked the bespectacled guy.
Six pairs of eyes turned to dissuade him. Amiya paid no heed. He didn’t meet anyone’s eyes.
Ashwini lit a bidi, handed one to Amiya and asked the others, any of you--?
None of them accepted the offer. Only Amiya lay flat on his back and smoked the bidi. He exhaled from his nose and mouth profusely.
The room turned stuffy in the uneasy calm. The door opened and Kailash walked in with unsteady steps. One of them tried to hold him but he yelled, I’m okay, you don’t have to hold me.
He spit on the floor--there was blood in it. He looked at it and said defiantly, , I’m okay, absolutely okay.
A combination of hatred, disgust and pride made Kailash distant to the others. He tried to squat but tumbled over. His knees were blue with clotted. He sat clutching his stomach with both hands and tried to suppress his pain, clenching his teeth.
The girl rose and sat next to Kailash. As she placed a hand on Kailash’s head, he trembled as if he were struck by lightning. He tried to lie down, but he trembled. The girl whispered, Kailash?
Kailash struggled to say, I’m all right, Maya.
Maya got up and banged on the door. It opened a little a while later. Maya asked, may we have some water?
The door closed again and after a while, the one-armed constable brought some water in a mug. Maya nursed Kailash.
There was silence in the room once again. Noise of buses and trams floated in from outside--the sounds of busy Calcutta. Except, this room was filled with an ancient silence. The city, which Ashwini knew so well, now reached them only through its sound.
Sleep was trying to overtake his tired body. He struggled to keep awake. The unknown and and the incomprehensible usually brought along it enormous fear. Sleep was at one level beyond the control of man, like death. Amiya had fallen asleep at a distance. A little earlier, this boy had looked arrogant and restless. Possibly, his restlessness had pushed him to sleep. How could it be so! But Amiya was really asleep. A helpless, innocent sleep.
Ashiwini was growing exhausted, like the others. If the seven men and the girl were not suspicious of him, he could discuss some political issue or the other with them. At least, he could try to solve the mystery of the ‘one-eared Bhola’. He decided to wait calmly for the next episode. Gradually, almost unknown to himself, his eyes closed and because his nerves were still alert, he could even hear his own snores.
His sleep was disturbed when Maya put a question to Kailash, too softly for him to hear clearly. Somebody else said almost at once, Maya, stop it. It sparked his curiosity to know what Kailash was asked.
Kailash said, no, they didn’t ask me anything.
Ashwini was fully alert although his eyes were closed.
That Ravi Dhar, we’ll never get hold of that swine. Kailash uttered in a fit of subdued rage. Keshav and Basu had warned me of that swine earlier. Kailash gasped.
Someone said, Stop Kailash. Don’t be so impatient.
How can I stop! The scoundrel didn’t even ask my name. Just kicked me like an animal. Kailash’s voice grew pitiable by the end.
Obviously, Kailash was scared. And the fear touched Ashwini, too. He could guess the reason of Kailash’s anxiety. They didn’t ask Kailash a thing. What did Kailash have as his defense? Even if they tried to get something out of Kailash, he would have gotten a chance to fight. He could even have had the pleasure of a victory. Maybe he had been preparing himself for something like that. They all were. Even Ashwini. But all he got was physical torture. There was just no need for any mental guard--they didn’t take recourse to any psychological torture to break down his preparations. They had no questions, no inquiry, and he did not get the satisfaction of making a sacrifice. There was no conflict between victory and failure. It was just the pain of torture and insult. A blatantly physical event of getting hit like a dumb animal.
These people, without a shred of character, did have their own methods. And the methods wereto be put to use. The ten thousand, or twenty thousand, or even more Naxal killings was the successful utilization of those methods. It was Kailash who was then in the grasp of that method directly, a method which grew out of a desire to torture. The strategy, the overpowering ego, an urge to rape were all part of that same method. Ashwini could well imagine Ravi Dhar and somebody else playing their method on Kailash’s body. May be the robustness of his body induced them to put their method to use even more meticulously. With the expert use of the method, Kailash’s pride over his physique was crushed to the ground. Kailash never expected this. He had only heard that Ravi Dhar was like an animal whose only happiness was in torturing. Now he experienced it.
The door opened once more. It was Manoj Ray’s turn now. Ashwini saw the most good-looking of the boys rising. Although his features bore the signs of indiscipline, it was obvious that he was from a well-to-do family.
Manoj stood up and raised his fist, giving a wry smile. He was visibly flabbergasted. Maybe he didn’t anticipate his turn would come so soon. An expression of surprised frustration was written on his face. Before walking out, he turned back and looked at the others. And just then, Kailash said, Manoj, you don’t need to prove anything.
At this, color returned slightly on Manoj’s face. He smiled and went out.
Sailen rose and started pacing up and down. He was upset. It was obvious that these people didn’t have enough confidence in Manoj. But, Ashwini wasn’t sure whether they had enough confidence in themselves either. He lit another bidi. Sailen came across to him and asked, can I have a bidi? In a calm voice. Ashwini handed him a bidi and said, Sit. Sailen sat. He lit the bidi and handed the matchbox back to Ashwini. Ashwini looked into his eyes. They were bright. Behind the powerful glasses, they were sharp and big. Close up, Ashwini felt he had seen him somewhere. He searched his mind and said, I might have seen you before.
Sailen looked surprised and kept his eyes on his. He asked, where? Ashwini said, maybe in some small meeting.
Sailen’s eyes nearly tore him to pieces. Ashwini was uneasy, but couldn’t remember. Yet, he knew he had seen Sailen somewhere. There were some faces which, if you saw once, stayed with you forever. They bore some characters. Sailen’s face was conspicuous for its eyes and brow. His face was not curved long, but had a longish appearance, for his wide brow dominated his face. Secondly, his eyes were very bright and sharp. People with such eyes could talk very convincingly.
Sailen gave one long puff at his bidi and said, you haven’t yet said where you saw me.
The flame of the bidi reflected with a red glow on his glasses.
Ashwini didn’t know whether he had made a mistake in saying it. But he felt weak. And inferior. He made another mistake. He smiled and said, you people are suspicious of me for no reason.
Sailen said, what does it matter? You’ve given me another bidi, thank you. Giving a last puff at the bidi, he threw it to the corner and exhaled, pursing his lips.
Ashwini couldn’t reply. A futile uneasy complex and the scorn hurt him. He could somehow understand Kailash or Manoj but he couldn’t make out Sailen so easily. Sailen was obviously their leader. He realized that Sailen was an introvert. He had the power to attract, and possibly Ashwini was himself attracted to him.
Time went by almost silently. Time has some tone, it could get longer or shorter, it becomes clear in times like these. The scale of time was not always the clock, the people here knew it too well.
Even after a long while, Manoj did not return. Maya raised the issue. As if at once, all of them were aware. The thinnest and tallest of them was from the start sitting with his back on the wall, his eyes closed. He was wearing a dhoti and shirt, his face strangely expressionless like the wall. He didn’t utter a word even now and didn’t even open his eyes. Kailash howled as he turned on his side. Sailen rose and started pacing up and down once again, the door opened and the constable called Maya.
Amiya was still asleep.
All of them turned to Maya silently. Even the young man leaning on the wall. Maya rose. Though she tried her best, she couldn’t keep her expression normal. An unknown fear took over her and she turned pale like a piece of white sheet. She tried to smile. She walked a couple of steps and stopped. Kailash had sat up. Maya said, Sailen I…
The constable left with Maya.
In half an hour, a man could age twice over. Amiya suddenly woke up and sat up. He looked at everybody desperately and screamed all of a sudden, where’s didi?
Just then, Maya’s shrill voice pierced through the wall and reached them. Amiya almost echoed the shriek. He screamed, ‘No’ and stood up with a jerk. Sailen held him. Amiya kept yelling. Sailen tried to pacify him. Amiya struggled to free himself from his hands and ran to the door. But before he could bang on the door, the young man leaning on the wall got up and pulled him back by his collar. Amiya turned to hit him but was slapped hard on his cheek. The young man scolded him, come to your senses, you fool. In broken Bengali, he said again, go and sit there, go.
Amiya fell to his knees and, hiding his face in his palms, wept like a child.
The door opened. Maya walked in. Shattered, clumsy. Her saree end covered her bosom. But Ashwini noticed her back was bare. She clutched her blouse in both her hands. Between her eyebrows, there was a round mark. Some ointment was rubbed there. It was dripping.
All seven were speechless. Only Amiya moved towards her. Maya said, Ami don’t come near me.
Maya sat with her back to all of them. The man who was leaning on the wall said, where’s Manoj?
Maya said, Manoj’s father has gotten him released.
Kailash yelled, didn’t I say so earlier?
The others kept silent. Even Amiya. Sailen said, Maya, I’m very sorry. But the man leaning on the wall said, don’t be silly, Sailen, she’s not a kid.
Maya mumbled, I didn’t expect this, I never expected this much --
Pat came the reply from the wall, Why didn’t you expect it?
Sailen said, Inder please.
Till now, Ashwini had felt that Maya’s relationship with Sailen was more than mere camaraderie. There were various indications supporting such an assumption. But now, that is, ever since Maya returned, it seemed otherwise. The young man near the wall, Inder, was showing such an aloof dominance over Maya that Ashwini had to assess the situation differently.
Inder didn’t stop even after Sailen said ‘please’. Rather, he hurt her in an unexpected way. He ordered Sailen, would you please ask her what’s wrong with her blouse?
Sailen pleaded, as before, Inder please, please.
Inder was growing more agitated. He told Sailen, but I don’t get why she’s behaving like a martyr. We have to know what happened. We have to understand.
Maya said calmly, you won’t understand even if I say. You don’t want to understand.
Inder sat up. He said, it’s true I don’t want to understand a few things. But at this moment, I want to understand one thing. And that is, what they asked you and what you replied. But before that, I would ask you to put your blouse on. And don’t create ascene, because we all know that we will be tortured.
Maya suddenly screamed and turning around, threw off her saree in an insane fit, actually making a scene.
Look, look you monster. Look what they’ve done to me.
All except Inder looked to the ground. Maya hid her face and body between her knees and sobbed.
Inder said without emotion, and surely they’ve kept your - I mean - your bra as a souvenir?
Maya looked up with bulging eyes and said, they have.
Ashwini didn’t really know these English-speaking young people. They were not of his class. He had heard that upper middle class, even upper class, youth had joined the struggle. But he didn’t know them.
Ashwini didn’t know at whom Inder’s acid tongue was directed, whether they were hurting each other or somebody else. When Maya bared her breasts, everybody except Inder was startled. There were torture marks on both her breasts. Maybe she was caressed by the flames of a lit cigar or cigarette.
But it didn’t shock Inder. Ashwini’s experienced and matured mind was trying to gauge who was creating a scene, whether it was Maya or it was Inder. Was Inder’s emotionless tough attitude really that strong?
Inder got up and sat near Maya.
Maya said, please leave me alone, please. Inder paid no heed to her. He asked, what did they ask you?
Maya didn’t reply.
Inder asked again, how much do they know about you?
Inder was speaking softly. Ashwini couldn’t hear all of it.
Maya said quite loudly, they know. Inder kept quiet for a while. And then asked, have you said anything?
Maya shook her head slowly. And then started to garble, but Inder, I’m very scared. If, if they do it once again---
Inder uttered something under his breath. Possibly something to boost Maya’s morale?
Maya interrupted him impatiently. She said, stop that bookish nonsense. All that sounds great, it feels good to utter it as long as you’re safe. But, reality, it’s reality that matters. You don’t know how far they can go.
Inder said, I don’t need to know that Maya. But if I know how far I can go, then I need not know how far they can go. I trust in our conviction.
Maya said, Inder, I’m breaking down into pieces. You don’t know what they did to me, you don’t know.
Inder said in a deep voice, I know. But you didn’t know. And if you know now, it doesn’t matter. If you give up, it brings you no relief. They have their own methods which I doubt they’ll ever hesitate to apply.
Maya cried, tell me what to do. Inder said, first put on your blouse. Maya said pitiably, but it hurts.
Inder said, even so.
Maya turned aside to put on her blouse. And then suddenly turned back to say, Oh, I forgot tell you, Sailenda Inder?
Sailen came near her.
Maya said, Ashwinibabu. I think Ashwinibabu---
Inder was impatient, what about Ashwinibabu?
Maya said slowly, I think they’ll kill Ashwinibabu.
How do you know?
That Mukunda, the one-arm constable. He told me when he was accompanying me back. He said if there’s any relative in Calcutta, he can inform them.
Ashwini was dumbstruck. All of them got involved at this new turn of events. A tangible problem, something for which an effort could be made.
Sailen said, Ashwinibabu?
Ashwini was at a loss. This was more drastic than being condemned to death. Like Inder had said, it was a method. And not everything was unanticipated. Nothing unusual. People did disappear. Dead bodies have been found at the maidan, next to railway tracks, in the canals of Ultadanga. Many have been killed in police encounters. Who were they? What was their identity?
Ashwini’s jigzaw puzzle was fitting into place. “Ravibabu, a brahmin lad”, “his name is one-eared Bhola”, all this got clear to Ashwini. But surprisingly, he had not got the hang of it at the time. It was strange how flabbergasted even someone like Ashwini, who was always hand in hand with danger, could be.
Maya said, Ashwinibabu, come here. She forgot the pain of her cigar-burns.
Ashwini mumbled, so that was why they had to change my name.
What name did they call you by?
Kailash said, you should have realized then, but you decided to keep quiet.
Sailen said, do you have anyone in Calcutta?
I have a sister only.
What does her husband do?
Civil servant. But should I disturb them?
Where do they live?
Maya got up and banged the door softly. One-arm Mukunda peeped in. Maya called for water. And then asked for paper and pencil in a whisper.
Even this was possible. They knew what Ashwini didn’t. This had happened before. Mukunda had saved the lives of some. Of course, there was a fee. It came to be known that the price of Ashwini’s life was only fifty rupees. The letter would reach the right place. The carrier of the letter would have to be given fifty rupees at once. On receipt of the letter, the sister or the brother-in-law would have to establish that a person called Ashwini Kumar Chattopadhyay was in custody of the police. Not one-eared Bhola, but Ashwini Kumar would be recorded in the government documents.
It was a difficult task. Would the brother-in-law be able to do it? Sailen wrote about the gravity of the situation in detail and handed it over to Ashwini to sign. Ashwini signed. His fingers were trembling.
Those fourteen years ago, his brother-in-law was able to raise a noise. And Ravi Dhar was disappointed. Of course, Ravi Dhar got his due. Ashwini still had scars on his body. One leg of his would never again take a step properly, Ravi Dhar had made sure of that. That same man lay in front of him. An old, weak, terrible looking asthmatic patient. Ashwini could easily strangle him to death and get off the train. Nobody would know. What would Sailen, Maya, Kailash, Inder do if they were in his place? He actually nursed the man. When he nearly fell off his berth in one of those bouts of coughing, Ashwini pulled him up and lay him down properly. He gave him a glass of water to take his medicine and even offered him his air pillow. Why? Ashwini was no missionary. Then why did he do all this?
As the train stopped with a jerk at Burdwan station, Ravi Dhar woke up. He lifted his head and asked, which station is this?
Ashwini said, Burdwan.
Ravi Dhar turned on his side. Ashwini called him by his name, Ravibabu.
The man turned to him, startled. The light was switched off. The compartment was dimly lit by the bulb on the passage. Ravi Dhar’s deep-set eyes sparkled in the faint light.
Ashwini raised his hand and switched on the light.
Ravi Dhar sat up.
How do you know my name? He struggled to speak.
You are a famous man. How can I not know your name? You’ve even got the President’s award, haven’t you?
Ravi Dhar looked at him, unblinking. He began to breathe hard.
What’s your name?
Ashwini smiled and said, my name is one-eared Bhola. Remember me?
No, I don’t remember you.
Quite likely. The thief Bhola, the pick-pocket Bhola, the one-eared Bhola, innumerable Bholas, weren’t there?
Ravi Dhar was bending backwards to lean on the wall.
When Ashwini stretched his hand to pull at the pillow, Ravi Dhar was startled.
Ashwini said, I want the pillow.
Ravi Dhar didn’t take his eyes off him.
Ashwini said, I’ll get off at Bandel. It’s almost there.
Ashwini stood up and as he got his suitcase down, Ravi Dhar gave a sharp yelp.
Ashwini fixed his eyes on him and picked up his suitcase. Said, why’re you scared?
In a fit of coughing, Ravi Dhar fell on the berth all of a sudden. It was a cough which, it seemed, wouldn’t stop till the lost bubble of air escaped the lungs.
Ashwini waited for the train to reach Bandel station.
Published in Parabaas, January 5, 2004