Thursday 1 September 2016

Short Story 2016 Second Prize Mohit MRao


The paper shakes violently, as if its portentous nature needs more drama. The words fly about, but his eyes are too unfocused to read them anyway. He had died. Two years ago. An accident. A government seal affirmed that. The death certificate of Satyavana, a copy of it, is now in Satyavana’s hand.

Balu…No! he can’t possibly be called Balu now; the affection of abbreviation left him and was instead replaced by the seething elongation of revenge. Balasubramani had signed it, so had Mani…Manivanana. Two brothers had testified to the death. A letter, in the steady handwriting of the greedy in its mission, relayed the death of Satyavana in an accident. Fatigue, the letter said. The death was unfortunate, they lied.

With circuitous pathways surrounded by dull grey cupboards and high piles of papers stacked as if to support the ceiling, the Births and Death Department of the Municipality’s east division resembles a morgue. Even the light in the room dulls and softens to just yellow and grey tones to pay respect to the souls contained in the stacked files. It is here that the departed are given a seal, a government sanction to proceed towards rebirth or heaven or eternal fire and torment.
It was here that Satyavana was declared dead.

“This isn’t true. How can I be dead? You see me standing in front you, no?” he said with a quivering voice tinged with hesitancy and uncertainty. He wasn’t dead, was he?
“Then how did this certificate get issued?” said the man irritated, confounded by an apparition that questioned unerring government protocol. A bald scalp reflected light that seeped through grime-covered grills. The windows were shackled, with thick panes: perhaps, to keep people from entering after work hours, and perhaps also to keep souls from going out.
The junior assistant gestured at Satyavana to go away. Looking back at his file, he signs on the left column, then right, middle, and before he can repeat the hallowed funeral ritual for the next page, Satyavana spoke.

“This cannot be. You have to cancel this certificate. I am still living. Don’t you think it is strange that a living man is holding his own death certificate?”
“What do you want me to do? I am only a clerk. If the government has decided you are dead, then you must be.”
“How can it --”
“I cannot do anything. There are rules. Go see the AR. Ask him what to do. Go away. Shoo. Can’t you see I’m working here.”
The man, with his lips scowling in contempt, sharply jutted his face to the right and then returned to his file. He searched for the stamp, and with loud bangs, brought it down on the paper in one, two, three places, then flipped the page, bang, bang…

“Where should I go?”
Tsk. Can’t you understand anything? Go down the hall, take a right. Ask the superintendent if you want anything. Why are you troubling me? I did not issue the certificate. Why should I break my head for you?”
Feeling an intense glare from the junior assistant, Satyavana scurried along. Solitary workmen laboured underneath creaking fans. They were signing papers and scribbling notes, or laughing aloud on phones or in serious tones discussing last night’s cricket match with another across the translucent cubicle.

Up ahead stood three cubicles, covered with translucent glass showing figures moving around inside, working, deciding, giving new life and in exchange, taking it. Superintendent, Senior, and in the corner cubicle, with a black fan spinning slowly above, Assistant Registrar.
Inexplicably, he expected Yama to be sitting in there. Yama, with a bull by his side, to tell him his soul had been taken but a clerical error had seen his body left behind unseen for a year. The god of death would thank him for pointing out the procedural lapse, an inquiry would be launched he would assure, the error would be rectified, he would say, and with that conviction, Satyavana would collapse into the netherworlds.

Even in the dank, warm, overbearing, heavy air of the office, the hairs of his arm had stood up and the whisper of “Hare Ram, Hare Krishna” lingered on his lips as he opened the AR’s door.
A lady was at the computer in the corner, rapidly typing, stopping only to look at a sheet beside her. At the table, covered with green felt, with files and paper forming its boundary, three men were in conversation. A thin man sat between the table and a wall that carried a large map of his jurisdiction in the city. The man was smartly dressed, his glasses pivoted upward and seemingly of use only to the third eye hidden in the tuft of hair. He fidgeted with a large mobile kept on the table.

All eyes look at Satyavana, who failing in his attempt to talk, sends out a low hum instead.
“What do you want?” said a gentle voice that rose from the thin frame of the AR.
“I…um…” mumbled Satyavana as he bent over to hand him the piece of paper.
The AR pivoted his spectacles back to the bridge of the nose and his eyes darted around the paper. “So?”
“I’m Satyavana, sir. I am not dead, but the government thinks I am.”

He let out another ‘Oho”, nodded his head, and said: “But how did this happen?”
“My brothers signed the documents, sir. I was a truck driver and got into a terrible accident. But it didn’t kill me, as you can see, sir. For weeks my family did not know whether I was dead or alive. My brothers declared me dead so that they could take over my dead father’s house in our native village, which came to me as I am the elder son. They wanted to ---”
“This is some family fight?”
“It is greed, sir.”
Che che. Sit outside for now, I’ll finish this meeting and then you can come in.”

Satyavana bowed, whispered a thank you. As he was leaving the room, he heard the AR tell the two men: “See, as officials we have to deal with these kind of minor, trivial family issues. How much can the government to do for them? We can’t keep an eye on everyone.”
Satyavana felt dizzy and he plonked on a stool outside. He let out a low prayer and hoped the certificate would be cancelled today. What would he tell Savithri otherwise?
Why he, pious all his life, is being put through this test, he does not know. He scratches around nebulous memory for an answer, and his mind replays what had been replayed numerous times before.
It was the night of no moon, and he was making his way up north. A two-day journey he was undertaking alone. The headlights of the truck scattered through the mist, and the road...
With loud voices the two men emerge from the room and the AR follows. They walk briskly by, deep in their conversation.

“Yes, oh…um…It is time for lunch. If I meet you now, other people will also demand I meet them. Then I can never have lunch! You sit here, and I will return soon,” said the AR, rapidly, distractedly, rather jovially, unthinkingly. Without slackening their pace, the three men disappear into the gaps between the cupboards, the echo of their laughter ringing through pillars of papers.
Now only the fans creak noisily in the empty office. He felt a shudder, as if he was left with the dead. Fear drove his mind to the night of no moon.

The headlights of the truck scattered through the mist, and the road stretched out bare before him. All around rice, sugarcane and cotton fields and small thatched houses zipped by. His eyes were drooping and he found his grip on the steering wheel loosen. The drone of the engine played out like a lullaby, minutes stretched out as hours and the scenery played out infinite. He felt himself go to sleep when he heard a shrill bleat, cutting through the mist, inhumane, unlike any animal he had heard, like the cry of a soul departing an unjust body. His chest felt hollow, and he pressed on the accelerator as the shriek pierced through again.

Dazed by the absolute fear that had gripped him, he saw something staring back at some distance. Through the mist, he saw a creature, a cow or a buffalo – its mouth wide open, its eyes gleaming red. It stood in the middle of the road, letting out one fierce shriek after another, unafraid of the speeding truck. The image sprinted to the right, while Satyavana, with a mind steered by panic, veered left.
The tree must have popped up from somewhere, but Satyavana memory of the incident ends with the shrieking creature.

Time had elapsed before Satyavana found himself wake up at a government hospital, and a few weeks later, he had gained enough memory to be sent home. He recalled, furtively in dark nights, the image of the creature, and gradually, he was convinced it was not a dream or an illusion. It wasn’t an ordinary water buffalo. It was the vehicle of Yama, sent to rope him.
He had not told Savithri his revelations…and how would he express it? He was sure Savithri would laugh at it, call it the imaginings of a broken mind.

As he waited now in the dour government office, he felt the futility of his task. What use is to correct a governmental error when the celestial had condemned one to death?
But then, there was Savithri. Even if Yama does come himself to reclaim what is his, he had to ensure he left the material world without leaving the crushing burden of loans on her.
Perhaps, it was no mistake at all, he thought now. Perhaps, the gods had only given him a sign, a purpose: he was given time to undo the miseries descended on Savithri. It isn’t uncommon for the pious to be given a warning; it was only in the unannounced death of the wicked that the gods took pleasure in.

If he had died on the night of no moon, she would be worse than a widow; it would be worse than sati, for she would be helpless while the flames of debt slowly killed her, he thought.
Strangely, he felt better; his meek frame filled up with courage and determination. When the certificate is cancelled, he can sell his father’s land, which though far beyond the fringes of the city, would fetch 10 lakh Rupees. Loans could be repaid, a small rented room in the chawls, and the rest put in a bank to look after Savithri for years.
He was basking in this courage and purpose when the AR came up to him.
“Give me the certificate. Where was this issued? Ah, it has the seal of this division, so it did come from here.”

The AR called to an office boy who sat with his mobile on the other end of the corridor. “Tell Chitragupta to send the documents...this is the certificate. He will know where the files are,” he told the boy, and then to Satyavana, “You wait here till the boy returns.”
The AR disappeared into the room and the door screeched shut. Satyavana knew not how long he sat there, but soon his mind turned to the journey back home and how crowded the trains will be at this time.

With papers in hand, the office boy entered the AR’s room, shut the door, was given instructions, and when he came out he gestured for Satyavana to enter.
“See…I don’t understand. The documents seem valid. What can we do if your own brothers want you dead?” The paper was dropped on the table, then picked up by the AR, and then dropped again as if the strange ritual tested its validity. 

“Sir, I am in front of you… I am not dead…this certificate is false, sir.”
“You brothers’ documents may have lied, but this office has followed procedure. If we stop believing family after someone’s death, then no one will get a death certificate. See…there is even the post-mortem report, signed by the Government city hospital.”
“Sir…my brothers must have forged that, or shown the doctor someone else’s body, or paid the doctor to give that report. Sir, I am in front of…”

The AR gave a short, hollow laugh. “Yes, yes. I know you are here. You don’t have to keep telling me. I understand your situation. But you must understand mine too. I don’t have the power to cancel a death certificate. I could have recommended your case to the Deputy Registrar – who can ask the Registrar General to cancel the certificate. But I can only do that if my subordinates had erred, which they haven’t. Now, if I write to my superiors, I will look like a fool. You tell me what I can do, even if you repeatedly say you are not a ghost?”
Satyavana mumbled a prolonged ‘sir’ in confusion.

“Listen. As I see it you have only two options. One is to lodge a writ asking the court to direct the Registrar General to cancel the certificate. And then you can proceed with a criminal case against your brothers. But you and I know that courts take a long time to decide. By the time they decide, you would have been long dead,” he said with a snort that rang in the chamber.
“I genuinely feel for you. I can only imagine the kind of hardship you and your family are going through… And you must need the money from the property urgently, no? This is why I am telling you option number two. I am saving you the trouble of travelling to court daily, or paying lawyer’s fees. See, for you, I can make these files disappear.”
“Disappear?” mumbled Satyavana, imagining souls being sent to government-approved perdition until the celestial could make up their mind.
“Yes. I can make the files go away. You see, the documents I hold in my hand prove that you are…well, dead. If I destroy these files, and you throw away your certificate, then your brothers cannot prove their certificate is genuine. Without your father’s will, am I right in assuming it is taking time for your brothers to transfer the property in their names?”

“Yes, sir,” said Satyavana, optimism surging through his veins and out through his voice. The AR’s words stripped him of his inhibitions. “They have not yet. They don’t even know the survey numbers! They have only just applied for fresh property deeds and their applications are still under process.”
As the AR said “Yes Yes, good good.” Satyavana leaned forward with the confidence of a chess player who has seen the final move and all he had to do was push a pawn forward. His mind raced in the excitement of scheming.
“See. It all fits, doesn’t it? I can send your brothers a notice, and if they produce this certificate, I can tell them we don’t have supporting documents, and that they forged the certificate. I can threaten them with a forgery case, unless they take back their applications. Even if they do not relent, you can always tell revenue officers that the certificate is a fake, and I can provide you a letter confirming that...Believe me, the brothers can be easily intimidated.”

His thin lips curled into a self-satisfactory smile, and Satyavana’s mimicked it. It could be done by today, and all it needed was an open window and the flick of the AR’s wrists. Or, out of the window? In a bonfire? He didn’t know, he didn’t bother much with the details of disappearance. His mind was walking and prancing all the way to the slum, to Savithri.
“Thank you so much, sir. May God ble---”
“Wait, wait. Don’t jump so fast. This is very risky for me. If someone finds out I misplaced the documents, I could lose my job and retirement benefits. It is a big risk, for who knows how many people have seen these documents in the past year.”

Suddenly Satyavana’s world crashed around him.
“I will take the risk for you though. But I need to be compensated.”
“Sir…I am poor man in debt…I need to sell my father’s land just to get out of it.”
“How much will you get from your father’s land?”
“Sir…around Rs. 10 lakh. But then…”
“Then you can pay Rs. 1 lakh and the files will disappear.”
“Sir! I do not have that much money. I have no money at all. I am in debt!”
“Listen. You take a loan of one lakh now, I’m sure there are financiers and dalals living close to your house. Anyway, you will get the Rs. 10 lakh soon. Pukka. Guarantee”

“Sir, but…”
“See. I am going out of the way to help you, because I pity your situation. And you must understand the kind of trouble I am taking for you. I will keep the documents with me for now. Come on Monday. Believe me, the process will get over within a week.”
Satyavanaa hesitated while the AR put the file in the drawer, and pulled out another sheet that he glanced rapidly, then signed.
“Sir, but I have no money. I cannot take out more loans.”
Che. Don’t be a pest. You sound like a stuck tape recorder, repeating the same things again and again. Talk to your wife. See if she had more sense than you. Now go. I have work to do,” he ended with a sweep of his hand, fingers pointing at the door.

He got up slowly, keeping an eye on the officer. The AR remained engrossed in his papers.
Through the pushing and shoving in the suburban train, Satyavana felt the death certificate burn through his palm. The paper had brought him and Savithri so much trouble. They had been married for about six months now, and from the start, all he could give her was debt. She was far too smart to be stuck with a dead man, he thought. How clever was she, how good with her fingers. How much she remembered, how quickly she learnt. If she had married to a richer man, how much she could have achieved?
As he left the station and made the slow walk to the slum, he suddenly remembered their wedding day. In the small affair, at the village temple, standing along with the couple, barely two kms from their father’s land, were Balasubramani and Manivanana. They had just witnessed a dead man marry Savithri. They had known all along the curse on his head. He felt violence in his fists.

“They saw you holding the certificate, didn’t they?” asked Savithri, again.
The two were lying next to each other, both staring at the buckling roof above. Dogs howled at a distance; kerosene light from the neighbour’s house filtered through the gap between the doors. The air was heavy. Footsteps were heard, while from the main road nearby, reverberating thuds of engines echoed in narrow alleys of the slum.
Dinner was quiet, through which Savithri had continued looking at the certificate. She had asked him twice whether he had showed them his ration card for identification.

“I also told them I have no money.”
“These government wallah’s! They have no soul. They need a certificate for being dead on the inside.”
Both looked pensively at the ceiling. He was floating in his world of despair, of life after death, when Savithri pulled him back to the hard coir mat they slept on.
“What are you going to do now?”
“Umm…the official talked about some general who can cancel the certificate. I will go to his office tomorrow.”

“Do you think he will talk to you?”
“I have to try, re. There is no other option. We cannot give him one lakh.”
“Why not? We are already under loan. One lakh, and then we’ll sell the land. It will cover everything and we can start afresh.”
Suddenly the apparition of the red-eyed beast charging towards his truck came in view, and he shut his eyes tight until his eyelids ached.
“No, we can’t give the money. We just can’t.”
“From when did you start having principles?”

“There is no guarantee this will work. It is only his opinion that this is our only viable option, and obviously he said that for the money. Just leave it to me. I will go to the office tomorrow.”
After a pause, she said: “Okay. Do whatever you want. If you don’t get anywhere, then we have to pay him.”

He had not kept any secrets from her so far, and the secret of his impending death seemed to burn in him. Is he thinking wrong? But don’t the signs point to it? May be he should see an astrologer. But the thought of death declared and confirmed scared him.
He needed to save every paisa for her. For her future, to live away from the slums, to have enough for the next few years at least. She was still a handsome woman, lithe, strong, with sharp features, and luscious hair that looked prettier when she tied it up as a ball behind her head. She would find another husband. But until then…
He shot a quick glance at her and found her looking at him, and suddenly became conscious of her fingers running across his arms. She continued to look at him, at his cheeks, not taking notice of the eyes that returned her stare.

“What?” he asked, with intonations of mock-irritation.
“One realises the value of something only when it is gone. And this certificate saves me from having the regret that usually comes when it is too late.” She kissed his cheek, and with sudden diffidence, turned away, rested her head on his hand and closed her eyes. And just as his emotions spiralled into despair, his wife spoke softly: “I’d not just fight the government, but Yama himself to keep you alive.”
Though a life spent in a blissful quiet, he felt a surging courage to take on the swirling drama up ahead.

The Deputy Registrar brushed him aside, just a gruff word asking him to give a written complaint. The written complaint was filed, and he knew not where the machinery had digested and dumped it. He was sent from one office to another; the higher in the government echelons he got, the lower the stack of papers, the less creakier the fans, the larger the rooms and the more intimidating the officials became.

It was in the circles of the bureaucracy he roamed, with the damned certificate in hand, spending his time in the waiting rooms wilting under judgmental glares of personal assistants. Days became weeks and weeks stretched to months. He lost count. He worked now as a casual construction labourer in two shifts, one in the night outside the city to make up for the loss of pay during the days he spent working his way through long corridors and paper-pushing officials. For days and months, the couple subsisted on one meal, some with no meals, their stomachs churning with the sorrow of the declared death.

Finally, progress. A clerk in the Registrar General’s office put him onto a government lawyer. In the dingy confines of a British Raj building, Satyavana spent the week bouncing from one disinterested lawyer to another. But, just when cynicism of gathered experience had led him to resolve to take out a loan and pay out the AR – even though the offer was long past its due date – his file was thrust upon a young man who, with a glint in his eye, saw the possibility of his first legal victory as a government prosecutor.

With the lawyer guiding him, Satyavana slid through the maze of the judiciary. A peon was greased here and there, and his petition would jump its queue to get an early trial date. First the opening remarks, then another peon greased, then statements, then a little money to ensure the file marched on towards an early date, and then the questioning. As he took the witness box, he saw Balasubramani and Manivanna, both pale as limestone, both shivering like a leaf in the monsoon winds, both scared of the forgery they possessed.
A last peon given money, and the judgment date was posted for the next week.

A stray brick shakes with the wind. The cement has too much sand, and the warm days have dried it brittle. Swoosh comes the pre-monsoon wind, and with a dance amidst grey dust, the brick topples.
A shooting pain makes its way across Satyavana's shoulders, and he can no more ignore it. He counts the coins in his pocket, gives it to the chaiwallah whose call he has just heard. He vacillates. He feels guilt for spending money he should be accruing. He feels crippled by the pain in his shoulder.
Waiting for the tea in its plastic cup to cool down, he leans against the cold concrete mixer and he thinks about the fight he has had with Savithri. Normal water buffaloes do not charge at trucks. He knew she will not understand. He needed to save enough, needed to work all day and night, to make a pilgrimage to the Omkarnath temple, to offer enough to please Shiva, the Kalantaka, the ender of death, who will keep Yama at bay.

But, she did not understand. She had screamed. “All this running around has gotten into your thick head. Now you believe even the gods have procedures for death!” She was always a disbeliever, but to mock him!
The tea was too watery, hardly any milk, and he feels guilt for wasting Rs. 5 on it.
Above him, cutting through the air noiselessly, in a curving motion, the brick found, in a sea of emptiness, the only living soul, who was sipping tea by a concrete mixer.
He was taken from one government hospital to another: first to the rural healthcare centre where, seeing his sputtering face split open like a betel nut, the doctor sent him to the city. The ambulance driver was cursing midnight motorists who criss-crossed on the highway, when Satyavana cried out in a hoarse voice why he, so pious all his life, was chosen.

She didn’t cry much. She bottled them inside, until shock, guilt, pain and anger mangled into a void. There was emptiness now.
The loans had died along with Satyavana, for the financiers took possession of their hut, and Savithri moved back with her parents in the northern end of the city. She didn’t want the land, for she held even the shrubs on the property to blame for her husband’s death.
A week after Satyavana’s death, the lawyer told her the court’s judgment was in his favour. The government now had to declare Satyavana as alive. 

Savithri’s sense of bereavement was visible, perhaps even overwhelming, in the sepulchral confines of the east division of the Births and Deaths department. A fresh certificate had to be made, compensation under the government’s unorganised workers insurance scheme had to be claimed. Procedures had to be followed.
The junior assistant placed a finger on the form, pulled out the format, reached out for the rubber stamp, held it high in the air, as if to take out some domestic anger on the paper.
“Wait…this report is incomplete.”
“My husband is dead. How can you dispute that now?”
“Yes, yes. I know he is dead. But it doesn’t say where. The accident happened outside municipality limits. It doesn’t say where he died.”
“How does that matter? He is dead.”

“Don’t get short with me. I am only following procedure. If he died outside the limits, then rural division will give the certificate. If he died in this part of the city, then we will give. But it is not clear…No, no. I can’t give. It will be a violation. Best if you go talk to the AR.”
When she rose and grabbed the report from his table, the junior assistant saw, in the dull yellow light seeping through thick windows behind him, the face of a defeated woman. A once handsome face, now creased with sorrow and mourning; eyes that shone soft amidst a sea of fatigue.
She sat on the stool, glaring at the frosted glass of the AR’s office, as if it was his unseen hand that had dislodged the brick.

Savithri was ushered in, and the AR bore a grim look as he perused the report. “It is incomplete,” he muttered. He explained to her procedure – if we didn’t follow it, everyone can get multiple death certificates! – and the trouble he would be in if he granted a certificate. She told him in a frigid voice that her husband was dead.

“How much compensation are you ---”
Savithrigrabbed the report, pushed aside a peon that stood in the corridor, walked out of the office with her lips pursing and eyes tearing, and broke down near the gate, letting out a reservoir of grief that had been dammed for days.
Two days later, coaxed by her mother, she went to the Rural office. The officer of births, deaths and marriages department there told her the report was signed by the city general hospital coroner. Where was the logic in the rural division handing out the certificate? As he explained the rules, she snatched the report, flung it aside, and hurled a cutting invective that stopped the noise of typing and whispered gossip.
On the train back, letting out a deep breath, vainly exhaling her sorrow and remembering a failed promise, she resolved that Satyavana would be immortal, a man with no death, forever in the perdition of her mind.

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