Smoke
 
 
By Sarojini Sahoo
 
 

It seemed as if the whole city had become mad, inebriated with hemp. No one ate rice anymore, but only hemp. The man coming to this new city carried in his suitcase hemp instead of clothes and papers. The man going out of this city also secretly kept some hemp in his suitcase along with his brush, toothpaste, safety razor and other things.

That is not all. Instead of growing cabbage, peas, spinach or flower plants like rose or dahlia in the garden, people are busy growing marijuana plants. College going guys are taking pen and pipe together to college. While going to the market with vegetables, rice, egg, bread or milk in the morning, vendors drop by at the Hanuman temple to seek blessings. A bearded old man distributes prasad of sugar candy from the plate, and from under it marijuana.

May be women and children have been spared from the impact of hemp. Not that no woman had ever been arrested. A few were accused of supplying hemp under burqa. While investigating a theft case, the police would discover the reason: not money or riches, but hemp. If there was a murder in the city, the police would claim to the media that the cause behind the murder was hemp; and they were trying to crack the racket soon.

Once, a sensational news spread from market place to nooks and corners of every house. Some politician or a reporter spread the rumour that a hemp plant of a man’s height was there in the bungalow of the Collector himself. The police kept calling the bungalow to know the truth. Reporters of dailies and weeklies, vigilance officers, some tout politicians, and a few NGOs rushed to the spot to verify the incident, but found a cement platform instead of hemp plant. The matter did not end there. A rustic reporter came panting on his cycle and reported that a hemp sapling had sprouted on the highway where, for about two kilometers, there was absolutely nothing earlier except for grass.

All this was a matter for police records and newspapers. Going through police records or newspapers will never create a good impression about a city. But a variety of news items about this city used to be published in the newspapers before a year or two. Police did not only record theft, criminal or looting cases; they sometimes nabbed an absconding lover and tied him in matrimony to his deserted beloved, in the premises of the police station itself. The papers also published items like a woman giving birth to three girls at a time; or the demand of the farmers before the Chief Minister for declaration of ‘drought affected areas.’ But no one really knows when and how this marijuana stealthily made its way into this city.

Life seemed utterly insecure. There was fear if one had to go to station to catch a mid-night train. If the patrolling police stopped someone in suspicion, it would be impossible to catch the train. There was also a fear to stop by at a betel shop for an hour or so to read newspaper as the police night suspect; fear of going to second show cinema; fear of spending more time at a friend’s house. Such fears had made life of townspeople intolerable.

Suppose there is no other such city in the world… and this one is only a fictitious city. In the court of the SDJM of this fictitious city, the trial of a case about a hawker was going on. When the entire city was hazy with the smoke of marijuana, what else could the case be in the court except that of marijuana? The case could have been settled much earlier, but it could not because of only one person. The man was very head-strong, obstinate and self-oblivious. The name of that oblivious man was Anurag Kumar, Village – Hakimpur; District – Munger; and State – Bihar. By profession he was a doctor. His obsession was reading newspaper from first to the last page. His dislike was conjugal household. His belief: good times will someday come. His sorrow was that no one understood him. And his dreams? Perhaps he never had one. Our story is about this self–oblivious man..

As Anurag reached the court, the government lawyer took him to a corner and persuaded him, “Do you remember, doctor; what you have to say in the court? You’ll say that the hawker was already intoxicated with marijuana when he was brought to the hospital. Then you can speak all that you know about the injury.”

Anurag remained silent for a while. He was thinking about the white dress of the advocate, and the black over-court that the man had put on, like a cover on a book. He thought, the man who had selected such a uniform for the judiciary must have done so with noble intentions. Black symbolizes all evils like rape, murder, theft, abduction, cheating, injustice; and white - dazzling truth that had to be elicited from all this. But this government lawyer perhaps doesn’t know anything about this. He had taken it for granted that he would look like a lawyer in white shirt and black coat; and has unhesitatingly been making Anurag mouth a lie.

Anurag protested, “No, as far as I remember, the man was never intoxicated. Why should I tell a lie?”

“ What did you have for lunch yesterday,” questioned the advocate meaningfully.

“ Whatever the cook of the Guest House had served.”

“ Yes, of course; but what did you eat?”

“ But what relation does that have with this case?” Anurag countered with an obvious annoyance in his voice. “I don’t remember.”

“ That’s it!” The advocate beamed as if he had found the key to his problem. “I want to say the same thing; you cannot remember what you had taken for lunch yesterday, so how can you remember an incident of a year ago, that you say so emphatically that the man had not taken marijuana? Whether he took it or not is not the matter; if you speak so, where is the problem?”

The two fell into an argument regarding that incident. And then, the irritated lawyer said, “Ok, speak whatever you like.”

When Anurag knew a few days earlier that the hearing-date was approaching, he had once again looked through the file of this medico-legal case.

Road–side injury patient

Name: Purna Chandra Mallick

Father’s Name – Maheswar Mallick

Matia Sahi, Adarsh Nagar,

Dist – Panagarh.

Injury: Below the left ear – left side temple – right-hand wrist.

Weapon: Blunt Weapon, came with the police at 6.40 in the evening.

Anurag would be happy whenever there was a hearing at the court, because it meant that he wouldn’t have to sit in the outpatient that day, and was free from a routine life. As it is, there was such a heavy rush of patients in the outpatient in the rainy season that one hardly found time even to go for a cup of tea. One had to bear the pallid complexion of the patients, their howling in pain, their apprehension of some incurable disease, and strange and hyperbolic description of the symptoms of their disease. Sometimes Anurag felt amused when patients could not feel or tell where the pain was – whether in the feet or in the knees, in the belly or in the chest. Some female patients came so heavily dressed up that Anurag would wonder whether they had come to a hospital or a cinema hall. From bangles to nail polish – everything would be matching; with deep coloured lipstick, shampooed hair, glamour in the eyes, they spread such a smile as if they were some old acquaintance. Anurag suspected that freedom for these poor ladies was only to this extent! Hospital was such a place that nobody would forbid them from visiting it, and they could enjoy their freedom to the core of their heart. Miss Kuisku, the schizophrenic lady doctor sitting by Anurag mostly dozed off in the chair under the influence of sleeping pills. And, Anurag had to face these beautiful women; when asked about their problem, one would say sweet pain in the bosom, and another would complain of lack of sound sleep at night.

Pain, after all, is pain; but what is this sweet pain? No such pain is known in medical terminology! Mostly Anurag would refer such patients to Dr. Purhohit. But when in mood, he would joke with them and prescribe some gelusil antacid tablets.

Each day was the same; jugglery with names of same medicines, like playing with coins on a carom board. You had to move through Sinarest, Paracetamol, Dysmen, Digene, or Chloroquin. It appeared that Butia, the quack, was happier than him. Atleast, he could provide some solace to people in exchange for their money. People say his is a very good hand; he can cure all diseases, from TB to Cancer. Some people even went away from Anurag to the quack, Dr. Butia. But he never felt sorry or humiliated. His sorrow was somewhere else. Who cares for MBBS these days? He wants to soar higher and higher; and therefore reads The Times of India in great detail; underlines some vital points. Sometimes, applies to go away to some very distant place. But in these seven years he had not been able to rise beyond those Chloroquin and Paracetamols. Atleast, a court hearing gave him his much sought after freedom from this killing monotony and disgust.

Anurag had already decided that on his way back from the court he would pause at the L’Oreal Bar. It had been a long time since he visited the Bar; since Paritosh Majumdar left for kolkata. He always returned home straight from hospital. Couching on the bed of that bare room he again read the stale newspapers. Switching over to different channels he heard the same news from different newsreaders. Sometimes visiting his neighbours, he either got bored or in turn bored them. Because, the concept of happiness and misery for those family people was different. The routine of their lives was altogether different. Who had the leisure to sit in the drawing room for hours, and bear such a fellow like Anurag?

Anurag had also sometime tried to set his household; bought utensils, rice, dal, turmeric, ghee and shelfed them in the kitchen. Of course, he used to take his meals in the Guest House, but he had to cook something for that boy. Anurag didn’t know cooking. So he would boil rice, dal and vegetables all together, and then pouring some ghee over it he would keep it for the boy, and caution him to go to school on time. Anurag had to go to hospital at 8 in the morning and the boy to school at 10. The only work the boy had to do was sweep the house twice daily. He would often wash clothes for Anurag, and buy him betel from a particular shop twice a day.

But the boy couldn’t do even this much properly. At first, Anurag freed him from washing clothes. He did not know whether the boy swept the house or not; he was not bothered about it either. He only wanted the boy to read; at least sit with the books. But in a few months, the boy kicked away the domesticity of Anurag and vanished.

Anurag had searched for the boy for sometime but couldn’t find him. Once the police officer had came to the hospital regarding a medico-legal case. In the course of conversation Anurag spoke about the boy. The police officer was quite an experienced man; and asked, “Where had you brought the boy from?”

“ Where would I? Dying of hunger the boy had run away from Ganjam area to a relative uncle of his. His uncle couldn’t provide him a square meal. The cook of the Guest House had brought the boy to me. But there is no work to be done in my house; and as such the boy did not know anything. I got him admitted in the sixth class in a school.” The police officer smiled at Anurag.

“ But didn’t the boy steal away anything?”

“ No, everything is OK. Besides, what is there in my house worth stealing?”

“ At least, the boy could get something to eat; what problem was there that he ran away? Did you beat him?”

Yes, I had slapped him. I was furious with him that day. I had come home early, canceling all other programmes to teach him English; but found him listening to walkman. When I asked how he got it, I discovered that he had so far been cheating me! I always buy costly betel from Shiva’s shop; but he buys me cheaper ones from another shop and keeps the rest money for himself. And from this – the walkman. He had been listening to walkman in my absence instead of reading; and he had also cheated me! I became furious and boxed the boy’s ears heavily. But I did not know the boy would run away because of this”.

The police officer gave out a laugh at his words; and said, “Don’t worry; he wouldn’t have committed suicide. Such children do not commit suicide. That scoundrel would have reached somebody else’s house. If you lodge an F.I.R., you’ll be trapped in a child-labour-case. Leave it. Forget all about that.”

That police officer had left this place since long. Here is now a new officer. Anurag is not that much acquainted with this man. The incident regarding the hawker happened during the period of this new officer. Anurag had completely forgotten the face of the hawker whom he had treated a year ago. But he could now recall as he saw him in the court; and could recognize him. Bright, dream–laden eyes.

The government lawyer interrogated Anurag in front of the judge as to when he had seen this lanky, moderately high, dark skinned young man. Anurag answered that he was on emergency duty that day. After the OPD had been closed the police brought this youngman in the evening.

“ Can you tell the exact time?”

“ About 6.45 PM.”

“ What did you see?”

“ The young man had injuries below his left ear and on the left temple; and his right hand wrist had some scratches. Someone might have hit him with stick; not with knife. The injury was no so deep, after all.”

“ Was the youngman intoxicated when he came to the hospital?”

“ No, not at all.”

“ But the police record says that he had taken marijuana.”

“ No, He was not intoxicated at all.”

“ How did you know that?”

“ I am a doctor. Can’t I know if a man is intoxicated or not?” Anurag was a little irritated; and then resumed. “His activities were not a bit abnormal. No smell emanated from his mouth either. Besides his eyeballs were also quite normal.”

“ How can you speak that with so much confidence? Do you have any record about it?”

“ Yes, it may be there in the register of the hospital. I don’t have one with me right now.”

The lawyer expressed annoyance. He already had apprehensions that all his persuasion might go in vain! Perhaps he did not want to drag the case any further. Perhaps the hawker would have been proved guilty with Anurag’s statement and his punishment would have been pronounced the same day or within a few days; but that couldn’t happen. The judge adjourned the trail till; a later date and ordered to bring the register the next time.

Anurag was looking for a rickshaw outside the court premises; a middle-aged man came and bowed to him. Anurag learnt that he was the elder brother of that hawker. He had brought his unemployed, graduate brother from village to this city to enable him eke out a living, arranged ten thousand rupees for him to invest in a business. And then purchasing attractive stationary items in Raipur, this young man would move from door to door to sell them. He could mesmerize the ladies with his pleasing manners; and was beginning to earn handsomely. He said, he had plans to open a shop in a year or two. But where did he borrow again for his business that all this uproar and attack regarding collection of money!

After narrating everything in details the elder brother pleaded quite helplessly with Anurag for mercy. “Please, save my brother, sir, you can save him if you please. I am a poor man. How much do I earn from working in the shop of Mani Seth, that I’ll manage my family, and give a lawyer?”

“ Don’t worry; I’ll see to it,” Anurag consoled and got into the rickshaw. He had been feeling acute headache for quite sometime. The L’oreal Bar passed before his eyes, but he didn’t feel a desire to pause there. When will that Paritosh Majumdar return from Kolkata? He had thought of spending the day in luxury, but nothing of that sort happened. He returned home quietly.

And a tussle had started in his ignorance since that day. The police had not taken the case as lightly as Anurag had expected. An elderly man told Anurag that this was nothing; the police had filed the case capriciously only to meet its target. They have to give explanations to their authority if they could not reach the target set.

The police officer sent for Anurag in the evening. He was then going for a drink, but with the call from the officer, kept the bottle aside and went out. The officer smiled at him and welcomed, “Please come, doctor. You look too exhausted,” and ordered the peon to bring tea; and it came immediately as if it was there, prepared. Then the officer resumed, “Please don’t think that I have sent for you in connection with any official matter. Mm… you cannot imagine how complicated the time is now. I wish to leave this job and go away, but cannot; because my living depends on it. Whether day or night, you have always to be alert. God has given only two eyes; but you have to work with ten eyes. Yet none understands our problem. Just look at our locality. People say the place was quite peaceful. But I have observed many things go on here secretively although everything seems placid on the surface. You will be surprised to know that the whole city has become a haven for marijuana. It’s not easy to discern one’s motive. Remember that report? – in the newspapers a few days ago about the murder of a U.P. school teacher in a cashew plantation; do you know the reason? He was a master marijuana supplier. I’m telling you about the report of a week ago; you have not gone through it perhaps?”

“ No, I haven’t; I don’t know Oriya,” replied Anurag.

“ Oh yes, I had forgotten it. But don’t take that hawker so lightly. You may be feeling pity at his innocent appearance. You are too young; therefore have an excess of emotionality. Besides; young blood – it must be amusing you to be arguing with the lawyer.”

Anurag could not understand whether the police officer was trying to persuade him or was ridiculing him. Too young? He was now thirty four years and nine months; already halfway through his life on this earth.

“ Oh, your tea is getting cold, please take it,” said the police officer.

“ Sorry, I don’t take tea.”

The police officer did not say anything more. Nor did Anurag. They both sat silently. Before Anurag rose to go in a while, he asked the officer if he had anything more to say. “No, no, nothing, absolutely,” said the officer. “Perhaps the next hearing date is the day after; if you come here we’ll go together. What do you say?”

“ I’ll try,” Anurag said non-commitedly as he came out. He went straight to the Guest House instead of his quarters. It has been a long time since Paritosh Majumdar went to Kolkata; when will he return?

When Anurag was busy among some patients the next day, his higher officer called him to his chamber. “General Manager has sent for you. I know not for what. Perhaps his driver has come with the jeep. Or else you can take the ambulance.”

Anurag thought for a moment, was it an order or a request? An unpleasant situation involving him had already happened earlier. That had become a subject of discussion among his staff. The incident had happened only a month ago. When he was absorbed among patients one day, the driver of the General Manager had come and asked him to come along.

“ Where?”

“ Memsaab is ill; just see her.”

What had happened to Anurag? Without caring for the driver he continued to examine patient after patient.

The driver became impatient and said, “Please come along.”

“ I cannot leave the OPD now. Go and tell your memsaab that if she is ill, she may come here.”

God knows how much colour the driver had added while reporting this to the GM that he immediately threatened the higher officer. And the higher officer’s threat to Anurag proved futile. A stubbornness took over Anurag. He raged before his authority, “You need promotion, posting in favourable places, need money from training and purchase - so you may fawn him but I need none of these. I am prepared to go anywhere I am sent. Am I in luxury here that I may lose elsewhere? You may not sanction my leave, if you don’t want to.”

Why has the GM sent for him again now? Hasn’t he forgotten the incident? Ok, let’s see – with such an attitude Anurag came out of the crowd of patients. The patients stared at each other seeing the doctor go away.

While coming out of the GM’s office, Anurag was frowning. The GM was an aged man. His hair had turned white with experience. He tried to persuade Anurag – “that hawker is no relation of yours. It should matter nothing to you whether he is punished or not. Why do you unnecessarily get into this imbroglio? Think of your career. What will you get from such childishness?”

Anurag felt much irritated but tried to control his emotions as he began to speak. “Everything can’t be assessed in terms of gain or loss, sir. Besides, that hawker is not an industry that his life should be looked upon with a concern for gain or loss. Will it be all right if all of us turn traders?”

“ That’s not the point.” The tone of the GM was getting harsh, as the tone of a maser. But what was it in the attitude of Anurag, that made GM soft in his words when his eyes met Anurag’s?

“ Look, it is not wise to bear enmity with crocodile while residing in water. We have always to deal with the police. There are several problems in the company at different times. If we do not cooperate with the police to day, they will not help us at times of our need. The SP had telephoned today. I have almost assured him… …” Then the GM gave a few instances from his experience to show that one gets crushed to pieces like glass unless one adopts himself to changing circumstances.

Anurag could not understand why so many people were so much worried about such a trivial a matter. As if the hawker was a Abhimanyu besieged by a hostile army and had no way to escape!

Anurag reached the court for the next hearing. He had borne these two-three days in much pain. He could not sleep; could not reach the Guest House in time for his meals. The most surprising thing was that he didn’t betray any emotion at the sight of Nikita. As if there had never been any episode with that girl. No sorrow, no regret; neither hatred nor love. He experienced nothing. Nikita’s frame spoke of happiness now. She was coming with her husband. As she caught sight of Anurag, she bowed. Does a beloved bow to her lover? Did he love that girl? The girl would visit his house with a variety of food items for him; their houses faced each other. People thought that there was an affair between the two. Nikita was a Brahmin and he was a Harijan. But he himself did not know if he had any love for the girl. Paritosh Majumdar had once smiled very mysteriously, and asked, “how is it going?” People would concoct every foul story about them. Once Anurag noticed a big lock hanging on her door. It remained locked for almost fifteen days. And when the house opened, he learnt that the girl had already married a computer engineer working in the Middle East. He felt a vacuity in his bosom. Sometimes the vacuity grew, and then diminished. And one day, he could no more feel the vacuity. Is this vacuity love?

Many think that Anurag lives a haphazard life only because he has been jilted in love. He considers everything in an eccentric manner; never practical. And perhaps, he did not marry because of this. Waiting for him, his younger brother got married in the end. And that girl, who people believe had inflicted an insufferably deep wound on Anurag, asked him, “I heard, you have been trapped in some complication? Papa was mentioning it to Joshi Uncle……”

Anurag only smiled in reply – he has, then, become such a marked personality in the meantime! But why doesn’t anyone think about that man who had borrowed money for the business of his brother? And that youngman – the dreamer – to rise to become an industrialist from a hawker?

The Government lawyer looked beaming in the court as if he had traced out a service error in the register. “Please tell me one thing doctor. How come that the name, address, age and sex of this particular person has been recorded in the register, when no such details about any other patient is mentioned?”

“ Normally, detailed information about patients coming to OPD is not mentioned in the register.
But since this is a medico–legal case, the information had to be recorded.”

“ But there are two different handwritings in the register? While the names of all other patients are in one handwriting, the particulars of this man, it is clear, had been written by another,”

“ I’ve said from the beginning that the case was brought after OPD had closed for the day. So someone else might have written it at that time.”

“ But is there any proof that you haven’t written it?”

“ What a strange thing! Would I be benefited by doing so?”

Anurag was quite irritated.

“ That you only would know. But there are two different handwritings in the register – you cannot refute that.”

“ There are two clerks to handle OPD records. They will be in a better position to tell about that”.

The case remained unresolved there that day. Life seemed embarrassing to Anurag. He had never been to a court earlier in matters relating to his paternal property, or any youthful hassle, or for any personal reason; but he had now been so entrapped in a maze that he could not find his way out. He was very tired; thought of returning home and sleeping the whole night undisturbed. But when he returned he saw the motorcycle of Paritosh Majumdar in front of his house. As if a surge of delight ran through his spine. Paritosh has, then, returned from Kolkata? Paritosh did not ask him anything about the matter. They just kick started the motorcycle and vanished.

By the time of the next court hearing Anurag had learnt the rest of the story from the OPD clerks. The clerk who had mentioned the particulars about the hawker in the register had become so entangled in the interrogation by the lawyer that he had no other way than to succumb to defeat.

The lawyer had asked, “Is this different hand-writing yours?”

“ Yes”

“ Then you had not left the OPD even after it was closed?”

“ No. I just reached there at that time.”

“ Where were you the whole day? Why isn’t the name of any other patient of that day written in your handwriting?”

“ I was on leave that day. As I was ill I had come in the evening to take an injection; and that case was brought at that time. Since the other clerk had already left, someone asked me to write his particulars in the register.”

“ You say that you were on leave. But how did you work when you were on leave?”
How could the clerk answer anymore? The lawyer convinced the judge that the particulars have been written later deliberately to save the hawker. And not only the hawker, but many other people might be involved in this business of marijuana.

Anurag’s turn had come the next day of this incident. As soon as Anurag reached the court, the lawyer took him to a corner and tried to persuade him. “Why are you so obstinate, doctor? This is surely not the only case in your life; hundreds of cases would have come, and will be coming too. Who will you fight for? When the police want that the hawker be punished, he should be punished. Do you know, you have now become a party too? The police may, at any moment, file a case against you, implicating you in the trading of marijuana. What will you do then? You would have no way.”

As he approached the witness box, Anurag felt that all this was meaningless; meaningless was all the chatter of these people in black coats; meaningless was any hope of justice that had been lost in the rush of dates; meaningless was all his efforts. A book wrapped in a piece of red cloth was put before him. He did not know whether there was The Gita beneath the piece of cloth on not. Still he took an oath mechanically, to speak the truth. But he felt that the oath too was completely meaningless. Everything seemed meaningless to him – The Gita, his oath, and the farce of searching for truth.

“ Why have we come here, my lord?” He wanted to speak aloud; but words would not come out of this throat. “Why such a farce with life, society and civilization? We are all in a jungle, my lord; from the beginning of the Universe till doom. From the first day of sunrise to the last sunset – we are all in the darkness of the jungle. Where is the light, My Lord?”

He wanted to speak but could not. Then he cast a look at the accused standing before him. Is this the man the police had brought a year ago? Whom had the police really brought then? Did anything really happen a year ago? Suddenly, he began to mistrust himself. How is his memory getting so weak now?

It seemed to Anurag that the entire place around him had been suffused with smoke; smoke of sweet fragrance. Suddenly he felt that he recognized the fragrance. As if, he had somewhere some familiarity with this fragrance. But where did so much smoke come from? Not of incense, but of a different fragrance. “What is the name of this fragrance, My Lord?” he wanted to ask aloud; but no body replied.

A misty figure emerged out of the smoke and asked him humbly: “Your name? Your father’s name? Your occupation?” Why a word can’t come out of Anurag’s throat? As if this smoke suffocates him! He tried to speak. But cough would come out instead of words. He was asked, “Do you recognize the man in that witness box?” Smoke was spreading everywhere around. Where is the lawyer; where is the accused; where is the judge amid this smoke? Where are you, Paritosh? Words this time emanated from his throat with much difficulty: “I can’t recall anything, my lord. So many people come to the hospital. Can one remember a matter of a year ago?”

The entire room had been suffused with smoke; smoke of a pleasant fragrance. Emerging out of that smoke someone patted his back, and said: “Bravo! Well said!”
Note:

Abhimanyu: Son of Subhadra and Arjuna, deceitfully killed by Kaurava warriors in the Mahabharat war.

 
     
     
 
 
 
 
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