Thursday 15 August 2013

Short Story 2013, Second Prize Amar Agarwala

An Auditing Error

Hazari Prasad Trivedi was a practicing Chartered Accountant, unlike any other you would find in the city of Patna.  He was a short modestly built man with a bulging middle and catechu stained teeth. Past his sixtieth summer, his scanty hair barely managed to cover his balding pate and the most glaring part of his facial features were his large rounded eyes which lay framed behind thick horn rimmed spectacles, held in place by his rather garish rabbit like ears with  protruding spiky hairs which appeared like dry unkempt bushes in arid shrub land. Hazari Prasad never bothered to trim them, rather took pride that it was a sign of scholarly distinction.

Besides, he possessed traits which were not exactly common with accountants, even though he endeavored hard to portray them as habits necessary to deal with his occupational vagaries. To begin with, he was distrustful of others, difficult to please and seldom smiled.  Those who had the distinction of seeming him laugh, would say, that it sounded more like a constipated rasping grunt than a humored laugh. 

Amongst his friends, he was known to be painfully boring, orthodox and reserved, some even said that his temperament was weird and it was a rather mild description to the way he was.  Most however found it difficult to accept his strange demeanor and many kept a distance, including a few in his family.  The saying went that he was proud and stuck-up for he had come into money having been diligently performing the vagaries of his profession with a stingy single-minded devotion since more than thirty five years.  The impression did not bother him in the least and he felt that people were jealous of him – a common human weakness to which he had little remedy, even though it was admittedly poor solace. 

Come the month of March, Statutory Bank Audits becomes the most talked about issue for most Chartered Accountants, and Hazari Prasad was no different. The audits allocated by the Reserve Bank of India, were known to be gratifying and fetched Chartered Accountants a handsome pay-off for working only a few days.  Hazari Prasad was no different from his flock, save that he would not easily reveal his eagerness, for him, exhibiting his emotions and feelings was no lesser than a heinous crime.  This he followed with a stoic like attitude, be it home or at work.  While his family members had long given up on him, many of his clients were wary of his ways, and they often felt that he was more difficult than needed during the audit assignments they allotted him. Undeniably, he was diligent about his duties but was a tough task-master, more so when it came to his bedraggled bunch of employees who would struggle to keep up with their master’s nuances being wary of his demanding ways of working and a peculiar stingy temperament.

His sole-proprietorship firm: M/s. Hazari Prasad & Associates, was allocated a single but large branch of the Syndicate Bank, which was located in a town named Monghyr, entailing travel into the heartland of Bihar.  He was to soon set about the journey with two of his juniors, one being a senior named: Dubeyji, a quiet man of advanced age, who had been with him for donkey’s years and was accustomed to his virulent ways and another being a young recruit, a fresher and trainee clerk, who was the son of Hazari Prasad’s family priest, named: Padam Shastri. The young trainee was explained the guidelines of the audit by Dubeyji and also the temperament of the boss, and Padam was terribly nervous at what he gathered, besides the fact that it was his first audit assignment, that too out of town. 

The trio set about their journey in the first week of April, when the state of Bihar seethes like a heated cauldron. The work schedules were lengthy, there were time limits stipulated by the Bank to complete the audit. As was common before any travel plan was executed, Hazari Prasad sternly insisted on the cheapest mode of transport, he was against wasteful extravagance. With scarce options at hand, Dubeyji had pleaded urgency with his railway agent, but with summer’s peaking and the holiday season just around the corner, they found it impossible to get reserved train tickets for the eight hour journey from the capital.  He had hesitatingly informed his senior who was visibly annoyed but decided against road travel, considering the exorbitant fares and pitiable conditions of motorable roads. To add, the tedious ten hour journey in the scorching conditions which prevailed seemed far from appealing. Left with meager alternative, the auditors were compelled to travel by unreserved railway coach from Patna.  

On the anointed day, the men reached the Patna Railway Station well in time, to find it looking like a strife-torn battle-zone. The place was far too noisy and crowded than what they had fathomed in their wildest imagination – garbled announcements blared over defective public address system, the stale smelling dusty precincts of the station with countless harried commuters and vendors rushing around carrying their belongings, piled-up bundles lay lined for their harrowed redemption in luggage vans, rude shouting coolies pushing over-burdened luggage trolleys, and an air of unpalatable, insipid urgency seeping through every tangible being - living or non-living, making it look like a motion picture being shot at the doorsteps of hell. 

Hazari Prasad broke into cold sweat at the prospect of jostling the crowds to find a toe-hold on the train, the prospect of the journey seemed more intimidating than ever. He unmindfully sought his senior’s help to enquire the cause of such unprecedented rush.  Dubeyji soon melted into the maddening sea of humanity and surfaced after long heart-stopping minutes, the alarming news being that the surging crowds owed their alliance to Baishakhi Festivities commencing the following day and was scheduled to continue for a week. Hence many were returning to their native villages, and that most trains that day were overbooked, it was really an understatement in a state like Bihar, known for unruly and undisciplined behavior, particularly when it came to mode of transport – more so trains. 

The trio had to wage unsavory battles - both physical and verbal, wrestled and swore to get a toe-hold in an unreserved bogey.  Padam used all his skills and street smart antics to miraculously manage a tiny sitting space, which he gallantly offered to his boss, who grunted his thanks and squeezed himself between a young rakish lad and an overweight middle-aged lady who smelled like she had not bathed in days. It was a palpable relief for Hazari Prasad who was near collapse in extreme exhaustion from the efforts of embarking the confines of the compartment which was a shade more chaotic than it was on the platform. Understandably so, it was crowded beyond capacity with jostling rustics, uncouth passengers, screaming vendors, crying children, disproportionately large tin trunks and an assortment of heavy voluptuous bundles being shoved into every conceivable nook and cranny – be it the overhead luggage racks or under the seats. Any movement while standing or sitting was froth with orthopedic dangers, giving them an unenviable ring-side view of the gallows of hell, in which they found themselves to be in. 

Soon after the train jerked into motion, Hazari Prasad heaved sigh of relief for he could breathe easier with some air coming into the oxygen-starved coach from the iron-grilled windows which were thankfully un-shuttered. The journey had commenced but it turned out to be more tedious and deploringly pathetic than what Hazari Prasad had vouched for, threatening to mark the chronicles of his life with a stain he wouldn’t be able to wipe away. To shut out the dismal hadic surrounds he pulled out a small packet of catechu from his breast pocket and hastily stuffed some into his mouth and then wearily closed his eyes chewing at it disconsolately, as he sat stiffly between his co-passengers sweating profusely and letting his pot-belly roll in tandem with the lolling rickety motions of the train. Within the next half an hour, the lady beside was heavily leaning on him, having fallen asleep oblivious to the disdainful and claustrophobic confines. Hazari Prasad had irritatingly nudged her sides a couple of times with his elbows, but the fat cow took no heed, to top it he could hear the rising decibels of her snoring puncturing his ear drums. 

He felt resigned to his fate as he tried hard to summon the last vestiges of his patience, which seemed to be undergoing an acid-test like never before. Times he would pries open his eyes to glance at his watch, letting the sweat crowding his brow seep  disconcertedly into his eyes, causing them to burn and itch, making him swear inaudibly that it was last time he was traveling packed like canned sardine. Time crawled snail-like and nothing seemed to shorten the excruciating discomfort which seemed mindless and unbearable. A couple of hours passed in a traumatic maze and a diabetic Hazari Prasad was desperate to answer nature’s call. It was an incredible thought to plough through the wretched mass of man and luggage to reach the toilet which he was dead sure would have been packed too.  The thought nauseated Hazari Prasad who was fervently praying that he reached his destination in time to keep his sanity intact, besides he was not sure of holding on to the vestiges of his dignity with his bladder giving him several rude reminders. 

He cursed himself for not using the washroom while at the station, before boarding the train. It was a cardinal error which would burn the pages of his rather sedate history. The train came to a halt in the middle of nowhere, he could see the endless yellowed undulating corn fields lay baking in the hot afternoon sun, stretching away to as far as the eyes could see on either side of the railway line.  The jumbled cacophony of human voices growing louder in anticipated curiosity about the unscheduled stoppage was getting on to his nerves. It was high noon and a hot loo was now blowing unhindered across the cornfields, through the un-shuttered windows and doors. Time seemed to have halted along with the train. The coach exhibited no visible signs of movement, it’s passive stillness seemed stifling as the temperatures within the cloistered confines soared and Hazari Prasad found the obnoxiously on goings unbearable as he restlessly gestured to Dubeyji who stood near. 

Some flies were constantly droning a summer’s parody near his bushy ears, time and again he irritatingly tried to wave them away but they seemed stubborn and undeterred. The hot air was dry and he felt a growing thirst, but it came with an unsavory clause – of his fast filling up bladder which would perhaps not take the onslaught of another dosage of water. But just to break the obnoxious monotony of the surroundings and to relieve his parched throat he sought some water, which Dubeyji had dutifully carried for his boss.  The water in the bottled plastic container was hot and Hazari Prasad noisily gulped a few mouthfuls of it, managing to spill some on his face and shirt, wincing at the flat taste of the boiled water and handed back the bottle to Dubeyji with a disgusted look on his sweaty face. 

“Can you find out- why are stuck here?” Hazari Prasad snapped at his hapless junior in extreme irritation, trying to keep the remain ants of the catechu in his mouth with some effort.  The air coming in from the windows was now spearing the inmates like hot sauna jets, except for the fact that it was dry and seemed to burn blisters on the skin. For a few moments, Hazari Prasad seemed to feel the compartment reel around and he quickly closed his eyes to let the nauseous feeling wear off.  For long minutes he remained in suspended anorexic animation, then for some moments he felt the train had moved. It did not but Dubeyji’s stark statement moved his panicked thoughts, “Sir…Sir-” finding his boss in a pretended stupor, Dubeyji wondered if he should relay the meek findings of his preliminary investigation about the unscheduled stoppage. 

Hazari Prasad slowly opened his eyes and found to his relief the reeling feeling had subsided.  Looking up at his junior, he nodded, “Yes,” his heart hammering in anticipation of encouraging news.

“Sir.. there was a small accident a little ahead at the level crossing and that is why it is taking time.”
Hazari Prasad stared incredulously at his junior, the words having a sledge-hammer impact on his senses, “Accident.. Oh God! That will take a lot of time,” his own statement startling him, making him feel almost ill. He wondered how longer he would be able enough to fend away nature’s call, which suddenly threatened his sanity with renewed vigor.  The strings of catechu in his mouth suddenly felt bitter and he was desperate to spit it out in disgust but was unable to move.  Reaching the side windows would be almost incredible and so he quickly swallowed it and winced in disgust, but was unable to stop a trickle of his saliva from slipping out unsuspected from the corner of his mouth and drip onto his trousers.  He was sick and livid, at his own doings and wiped his chin with the back of his hands in disgust.

He knew it demanded a serious introspection, irrespective of the daunting circumstances, besides it’s relentless onslaught had caused the aching muscles of his pelvis to contract and expand beyond measure.  Without much thought, he blurted out, “Dubeyji, caann I go to the toilet..” he was miffed with his own dialect, finding no plausible reason to seek his junior’s permission to tackle a routine urgency which needed no consent. Dubeyji was no less stupefied with his boss’s utterances and looked at him with a mixture of dismayed apology, well comprehending the arduous task which lay ahead if mission toilet was to succeed.

“Sir… you may find it a little inconvenient to reach the toilets.. they are at the other side of the coach,” it was the understatement of his life and he was unsure of what to say next.
“But how far is Monghyr from here... How many hours?” Hazari Prasad knew the answer but sought verbal assurance, knowing well he wouldn’t get any.  He did not, when Dubeyji uttered, “About five hours.. Sir. That too if the train moves soon enough,” the unsavory truth making him look away towards the gate where a small scuffle had broken out between some passengers, adding to the purposeless commotion. The words brought Hazari Prasad out into cold sweat, it would be impossible for him to hold on to himself for that long.

The growing compulsion and a weakening physical prowess to dominate his bladder made him order Dubeyji to occupy his seat while he was gone. Then he got up on wobbly legs and tried to cut across the rustic maze of denizens and man-made barriers.  Curses and loud protests followed as he unsuccessfully weaned his way towards his destination, trampling feet, hands and even somebody’s buttocks sitting near the aisle, the disgruntled owner – an emancipated elderly lady distraught at being stamped by leather shoes, shouted her choicest abuses at the trespasser which stung Hazari Prasad bee-like, but he was concentrating on the direction of his movements rather than the craven obstacles.  He knew he would need to be insolent as much as he needed to be deaf and dumb if he was to have an outside chance to reach his final destination. Besides, being sensitive in the gallows of a hell was not advisable, it was the only sage consolation he managed to give himself.

He found himself in a pitched battle while wading his way through the jungle of human bodies, but a sense of smell guided his movements rather than the direction for he was unsighted most of the time.  The stronger the stench of the loo, the closer he felt he was to it, the thought of entering one was already making his bursting bladder summersault in agonized anticipation. Took him a good ten minutes to reach near the doors of the toilet which appeared locked from within.  He could not sight the one opposite to it, besides he was already at his wit’s end and no longer had the stamina to combat another unrelenting wall of human bodies.  He asked an old wrinkled man standing plastered between two other commuters, if the toilets were vacant.  The man gave him a toothless smile and mumbled that he had no idea.  Another man beside said he would need to knock, which he dutifully did but there seemed no semblance of a response.  He was now palpitating, the surge of water in his bladder was threatening to erupt any moment and he pounded at the door and yelled at the occupant to open up.  The force of his blows hurt his knuckles but he was beyond caring and after a long minute of crazed nothingness, a latch seemed to slide down noisily and the door was pushed ajar from within, a long vertical semi-luminescent slit opened uncertainly between the door and the frame.  As if in slow motion a turbaned head peeped from within, the dark seedy eyes were suspicious and restless, it made Hazari Prasad livid with unbridled rage.

“Open up.. stupid man.. you rascal, have you gone to sleep inside?” The Accountant had lost his profanity, his physical urgings was now bordering upon insanity. Then he pushed at the door leaning with his weight against the worn-out frame; some commuters behind ridiculed his urgencies and pushed at him with their combined might. The sea-saw battle continued, akin to Greeks laying siege to the city of Troy. The men inside were unable to fend away the combined might and their hold gave way, and Hazari Prasad found himself catapulted  into the  dimly lit confines and the door shut behind him with a noisy cranky protest. The Trojan Horse had breached the fort walls but looked far from being a humble offering to the God of Sanitation within. He almost tripped upon stale, stinky bodies and felt horrified to find three people inside squatting around the toilet-pan, and a little boy was huddling upon it.. he was obviously just sitting there on his haunches and not using it.

“Move.. move,” Hazari Prasad yelled in a palpitating tone, catechu colored saliva frothy at the corners of his quivering lips while he grappled with the chain of his trousers with trembling fingers but seemed unable to unzip it.  The window was pulled down and someone had hung a dirty cloth upon the translucent glass frame to dry it, from the sides of which sunlight haltingly filtered through, which ensured bare visibility.  Sweating and cursing at the commuters he sought space to use the pan… offering a mere token of a protest the huddled denizens moved around to allow him space and the little boy eased himself upon the lap of one of the commuters allowing him pretended privacy to complete his bodily rituals.  

Hazari Prasad was almost panting and he could barely breathe in the stinky, hot suffocating interiors of the toilet which seemed to have non-existent ventilation.  He wondered how could people possibly journey within it, while he tried to unzip his trousers and also reach for his handkerchief, to blot out the unbearable stench inside.  He also felt his shoes had stepped into a wet puddle but he was beyond caring if it was water draining out from the cistern pipes above or urine from one of the corner’s. With his sweaty unsteady fingers unable to work on the jammed zip, he tugged desperately at his leather belt and almost pulled down his trousers. Desperately fumbling with the familiar counters of his member he realized that in the melee he had partially wet his underpants, but finally found what he was looking for and turned around facing the window in a peculiar acute angle to keep some semblance of dignity in place.  He had not in all his life urinated with so many onlookers crowding around, but he knew that he barely had moments to lose and seemed to have lost the finer sense of embarrassment.  Gasping for breath, he felt that he could tolerate the smell than not the abysmal force being generated in his lower abdomen. Then with closed eyes he let loose the rasping cannon jet of water which sprayed first against the soiled toilet walls and then into the rusty tin container kept in a corner, chained to its walls and finally Hazari Prasad managed to veer the raging fountain into the pan.  The relief was enormous as the water flushed out of his shaken system and down the pan like a runaway mountain stream in rained agony, he did not even care for the loud unwholesome pattering sound it made against the aluminum pan. Just stood like he was about to lose a battle of tug-of-war, in grotesque poise with his eyes shut and jaws hanging open though which he breathed in short gasps, little involuntary shudders telegraphing across his body in orgasmic spasms.

Barely half way through his motions, and without warning the train suddenly stirred into motion.  The abrupt pull and jerk dis-balanced Hazari Prasad who was standing at a twisted angle, holding on to his limp shame with one hand and the other holding his trousers which was hanging below his waist. It knocked his head hard against the window sill, the blow twisting his spectacle frames and then he toppled over while still in the midst of completing his physical ablutions.  The spray caught the little boy flush on his face and then he collapsed spread-eagled with a sickening thud on the lap of two of the men in the semi-darkness still holding on to his absurdities, his pants somewhere below his knees. He got no time to stop the flow and the effluent spilled on to his trousers, hands and onto the lap of the huddled man who was stunned by the unholy impact. For endless moments, they sat almost statue-like unable to grasp at the obnoxious on goings. Then as if in slow motion the men within gauged reality and immediately started cursing loudly. His task undone, Hazari Prasad managed to get up with some difficulties holding on to the shoulders of his unwanted rescuers, shouting explicates on the railways and all around, not quite managing to sheathe the remainants of his shame.  The commuters inside hurled their angry protests in unison and the little boy started howling from the fright of it all and having had an unwanted face wash with tepid saline water. A little scuffle broke out inside the murky confines of the toilet, with the occupiers trying to push out the Trojan Horse, while he battled unsuccessfully to cover his shame at the same time fending off unruly physical assault.  

After a brief and unwholesome struggle they managed to rudely shove him out of the filthy confines, for their combined might was too much for Hazari Prasad to withstand, moreover in the wretched condition he found himself to be in with his armour out of place. Swearing under his breath, he found himself stuck outside the door frame, traumatic, red-faced, his mouth and chin stained red with his own saliva and holding on to his trousers with its chain torn, and the belt missing, perhaps it was one of the noted casualties of his aborted stay in the toilet. The Trojan Horse being thrown out of the guarded confines of Troy, history could not repeat itself, something a beleaguered Hazari Prasad had inadvertently ensured. Then suddenly without warning his cell phone rang out, like a warning bell, almost like an indication that the wrestling match was done with. Its shrill ring tone, playing a Bihari folk song jangled his nerves and he wished he had flushed down his cell in the toilet.  A few young boys standing just beside, leered at his state, even took impolite verbal jibes for his spectacle had come lose on his nose and his trousers were soaking wet. Then for long moments he stood trembling and unsure of what he could do next. Someone taunted him from the crowd, if he had finished the deed upon himself rather than the loo, at which he protested his obvious displeasure, asking them to stop such rude behavior with a senior citizen, a terminology he abhorred but had to resort to it to gain a semblance of respect in the harrowing conditions he found himself to be in.  Thankfully his cell phone had stopped ringing but his abdomen hurt more than ever, then without further thought he pulled and pushed his way across the commuters who were trying to be a little accommodating seeing his vigorous movements and for the fact that he stank of urine and looked a shambling soggy mess. 
Nearing the door, he found to his relief that train was slowing down as it entered a small non-descript station.  He could not read the name of the place for his spectacles were blurred with sweat and moisture besides being twisted at an obtuse angle, but nonetheless decided to get down without any further delay.  As soon as the train came to a halt he lunged down upon the cemented platform, it felt like being released from the confines of Tihar Jail, and Hazari Prasad breathed in lungful of dusty air abounding on the almost deserted platform, then he staggered away briskly holding his pants. Some stray dogs loitering listlessly found it strange that a passenger alighted at the station, barked in a curious orchestra … not quite sure of the credentials of the visitor.  Hazari Prasad shuffled away as quickly as he could, for he did not favor being chased by canines after the harrowing ordeal he had just suffered. A volley of thoughts hurtled through his mind: one being to call Dubeyji and tell him to continue the journey, the other being a plausible reason for his having disembarked - for he found none too tenable. Then the idea of lodging a strong complaint with the station master for deficiency in service but finally better sense prevailed and he was able to desist from such futility, for it would not yield any concrete results, which he knew well.  

A few onlookers on the station and a tea-store vendor looked at him with unabashed curiosity, finding his attire and demeanor akin to a lunatic,  He decided not to cater to such rowdy thoughts and went in search for a toilet, where he could first relieve himself for his lower abdomen was a sea of pain and perhaps he also needed to gain a semblance of dignity.  His quick search proved futile and he was unable to find any, he stood under a guava tree at the far end of the platform and relieved himself letting out audible groans of relief. Had never in his life felt such elation at a task as elementary as that.   A tap stood just across, upon reaching it, he fiddled with the knob to be further dismayed for it had no water.  He sat down with a effort on the wooden staircase of the over-bridge nearby and wondered why had something so unpleasant happened to a meticulous god-fearing auditor like himself – he always planned his schedules to precision – to be caught in such a piteous situation, it was an unforgivable lapse for a distinguished Chartered Accountant like himself.  

Finally, he met the Station Master and sought his quarters to wash up instead of lodging a complaint.  He felt it was more important to regain some self-dignity and look civil than delving into unsavory complaints. Upon knowing the purpose of travel as an auditor for the Reserve Bank of India, and his rank the meek officer hastily allowed him the privilege in his modest one roomed lodgings and was good to offer him some cool sherbet. For long moments Hazari Prasad looked befuddled at the tumbler of water – the supposed perpetrator of his hallowed ordeals and then not completely unconvinced, drank it thirstily, as a semblance of gratitude to his savior.  

Much later, and with some help from the Station Master he reluctantly managed to hire a vehicle from near the railway station – the affable old driver seemed to be well conversant with the topography of the area and it was a big load of his shoulder. Having taken leave from the affable railway officer, he soon began his onward journey having managed to inform Dubeyji, who was obviously flustered at the long absence of his boss and then mystified by his sudden exit and change of plans. 

As the worn-out rickety ambassador rattled and bumped across the potholed highway, Hazari Prasad felt a overwhelming tiredness seeping through his body but felt a shade relaxed too despite the crippling heat. Slumped back against the cracked Rusk-skin seats of the ancient vehicle, his eyelids felt heavy, but he could not sleep thinking if he had really committed a serious auditing error but was pleased nonetheless that it would go unreported. Afterall, had he not been penalized enough for it. Looking at the endless speeding paddy-fields and trees on either side, he felt a strange reassurance, the lush green expanse balmed his eyes and relaxed his taut abdominal muscles. The ordeal had drained him completely and he heaved a sigh of relief that finally it was all over. At last, the oppressive heat fused with the jerky motions of the vehicle numbed his senses and induced uneasy sleep. His last waking thought being - it would make a very comfortable journey after all – with just a wizened old driver for company and scenic, natural open toilets on either side.

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