Tuesday 10 August 2021

Anindita Das, ShortStory 2021 Longlist


For the last three weeks Jaya’s mornings have found a new routine. She would drape a starched saree, adjust the bindi on her brow and tread to the branch of a commercial bank where Amit, her husband served as an assistant manager. She made sure to make her walk as free of digression as possible and therefore brisk, even as she fought the temptation to procure the fresh catch of the day while passing by a malodorous fish market. Her mind would focus solely on the phone call that would come at ten a.m., sharp, from Amit, away in Calcutta for a month on an official tour.

Like a lover on her way to a date, Jaya would conjure up details to be expressed during the phone call. But once the receiver resonated with Amit’s voice, she would forget all the details and allow Amit to do all the talking. Occasionally she would respond with an ‘okay’, a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ but more often than not she chose to be the listener. The call would not be free of disruptions though, punctuated as it would be with moments of static and unexplained inaudibility, making its effective duration rather short. But it was not the duration or the content of the call that was of significance to Jaya. Amit’s voice, his chat on prosaic matters like the Calcutta smog, the boredom of the training sessions, the bland food served at the canteen- were an assurance of him being alive - not having been knocked down by a speeding bus in a big city. This assurance acted like an elixir for Jaya, spurring her to trudge through an otherwise mundane day.

For the last three days however, the customary call has not come making Jaya anxious. Her attempts to establish contact have failed too- either the phone did not connect, or if it did, no one responded. So, today also, she stuck a bindi on her forehead, pleated the free end of the saree, cascading down her left shoulder and headed to the branch. Like the previous days, she exchanged a cursory smile with the moustachioed sentinel manning the gate, before settling herself on a worn-out sofa where she gulped sips of water. Earlier the premises would be bustling with throngs of depositors and withdrawers, litanies of pensioners and pleas of loan-seekers. But of late, customer traffic has been dwindling and Jaya feared it would not swell any time soon.

She placed her index finger gingerly on the hole of a dial-clock and rotated it. Her gaze followed the wheel returning to the start position with a swoosh before she rotated it again. Despair hung on her eyes as she waited for what seemed like eternity. She was about to replace the receiver when a voice, unexpectedly, came floating by, “Hello.”

“Can you please connect me to Amit Dutta?”

Deep furrows lined her brow as she held the receiver close to her ear.


“Okay,” she swallowed, nodding her head in acknowledgement.

A man, whose corpulent frame struggled to fit the dimensions of the swivel chair he occupied, was trying to read the contortions on Jaya’s face. Wearing thick-rimmed glasses and a double-chin, he was impatient to learn the details of the conversation when Jaya hung up.

“What delays a twelve-hour journey so much?” Jaya sighed.

Amit had left the training centre four days back for Siliguri, a town too touristy to earn the title of ‘The gateway to the Northeast’, but too insignificant to become a district. Its winters are chilly and summers pleasant- peppered with brief spells of rain, until the monsoons arrive clogging the drains of every para and pally- suffices to neighbourhoods. It is in one such para where Jaya has been living with her husband and daughter, for the last twelve years.

Titli, too young to imagine the misgivings clouding her mother’s mind but mature enough to sense not all was well with her father, asked innocuously, “Is he missing?”

Sensing apprehension in Jaya, the double-chinned man rose from his chair. He was the manager of the branch who cleaned his ears with ball pens at disposal.

“Surely, the trains must be running late.”

“Two other colleagues have accompanied him. He is not alone.”

“I will send you a word as soon as I hear one from Amit.”

The words, though well-meaning, did little to assure Jaya.

“Thank you dada,” saying this she left the bank.


Back at home, Jaya tuned in to Doordarshan to watch the evening news. A video of a mob, wielding swords and lathis and scraps of cloth, appeared on the monitor. With bandanas girdling their scruffy heads, the mob jostled for a toehold on the arched dome of what appeared to be a mosque. Chanting religious slogans in unison, the men looked like angry chimpanzees- their jaws agape, their eyes fiery. The collective image prompted Titli to shoot a fusillade of questions at her mother.

“Why are so many people standing on the roof?”

“Why are they screaming like that?”

“You are too young to understand these things Titli.”

“What things ma?”

“Titli.” Jaya raised her voice.

“No,” the little girl protested. “I am big enough to know the shape of the country’s flag. What is that triangle-shaped flag doing there?” She gestured at the pennant fluttering on the spire of the mosque.

Jaya shoved a plate of rice and fish curry at Titli. The newsreader further read reports of arson, pillage, and decapitations. The riots had spread to every pocket of the country- cities and towns alike. Jaya was thankful at the absence of corroborating images documenting the violence.

“Ma, why are they fighting? You and Rufiya aunty never fight.”

“Eat,” Jaya said firmly.

The newscaster’s tone, devoid of any pitch, belied the violence she was reporting. In her gossamer saree, draped staidly, she could well be reading an obituary in that monotone. With a rose tucked behind her right ear and her lips a continual pucker, her extraordinarily stolid aura was a stark contrast to her pronounced words.

“Ten burnt alive in Lucknow.”

“Twenty missing in Thane.”

“Girls violated, until they bled to death.”

Jaya shuddered as she imagined the real impact of the reports on the victims.

“Issh!” the imagination made her cry out in empathy. In the same breath, she heaved a sigh of relief as the news ended with no report of rampage of a railway station or a passenger train being put on fire.


Having been introduced to an atlas only recently, Titli’s knowledge of using the map-book was limited to merely identifying the four oceans. Often, she would open the book at the centre where the world map was and roll it so it took the shape of a cylinder. She would begin from the west, off the coast of California and trail her finger across an endless water body- turquoise- flecked with tiny, uninhabited islands. Finally, she would touch the landmass in the east in Tokyo and marvel at the sheer expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

But that evening, she turned the page of the atlas to the political map of India and searched for the city where the mosque was. Touching the dot demarking the ancient city, she ran her slender finger east across the thumb-shaped state of Uttar Pradesh, passed Bihar until she located Siliguri in northern West Bengal after much struggle. Printed in tiny fonts, the town was marked just below Darjeeling, depicted in bold. Her finger, then, travelled to Calcutta where her father was, before treading all the way down to the Southern tip, where the Indian Ocean girdled it.

The knowledge, that a mosque, demolished in the North could incite violence in distant South or provoke grown-up men to kill each other in the name of religion or delay trains inordinately and thereby hinder the reunion of families- staggered her. She wondered about the other children who, like her, were waiting to be united with their fathers or mothers or uncles or aunts. She imagined their mothers walking to the nearest telephone booth or shop or bank to gather information about their fathers. The news aired on TV has helped to expand her knowledge on vocabulary too. For, in her school textbooks, she had never come across terms like arson, pillage, curfew, riot. But now she not only knew their meanings but could also use them in relevance.

“Will there be riots in Siliguri too?”

“If curfew is imposed, how will baba reach home?”

The nine-year-old had more questions than her mother could answer.


Three days back Rufiya, their house help, had narrated how the night before, a mob had stormed their colony, calling them names, threatening them to leave their houses.

On the second day she recounted how they had torched the kitchen abutting their neighbour’s house. The rioters had dipped bread slices in combustible fuel, ignited them and hurled the fireballs at the neighbour’s thatch-roofed kitchen.

“I saw the neighbours rummaging through the ashes in the morning,” Rufiya’s eyes quivered as she sluiced the dinner plates.

On the following day Rufiya did not report to work, making Jaya fret about her well-being.

With the schools shut, Titli spent a better part of her day playing with the kids at her neighbour’s, the Mazumdars. Other kids from the para joined too. Occasionally, when the children would tire themselves of playing hide-n-seek, lock-n-key or hopscotch, they plonked themselves before the television and watched children’s movies on loop, played on a videocassette recorder. On most days, Titli refused to go home at lunch time. Squatting on the floor with her friends and having a meal of rice, lentils and brinjal fritters is what enticed her.

As the hour of sundown drew closer by the day, the evenings grew longer, and the nights colder. In the neighbourhood, curtains would be drawn, slatted windows shut way before five even as a dense fog would roll in the night. Over cups of smoking tea, families would huddle under warm blankets. At dinner time, Jaya would turn on the TV, listen to the monotone, be stupefied at the newsreader’s nonchalance as graphic images of violence would crowd the screen. The news was relayed with the customary impassivity- of a train set on fire near Mughalsarai. Twelve passengers were burnt alive. “Beyond recognition,” the report stressed. Jaya watched, her eyes unblinking, the video of thick smoke billowing from compartments that had halted on their tracks, in the middle of nowhere.

Almost spontaneously, she began to bite her lower lip while keeping an eye transfixed on the wall clock whose hands seemed to trudge. Her dinner went cold as she watched other news unfold- a batsman hit a ball across the boundary to empty stands- men, swaddled in coarse blankets, huddled around a feebly lit bonfire- headlights of vehicles beeped as they crawled on the foggy streets of the national capital- the maximum and minimum temperatures of the four metropolises appeared in a grid. Finally, when the newsreader wished a perfunctory goodnight to her viewers, Jaya could shove the first morsel of grainy rice down her throat.

The following morning, the branch manager brought tidings that Amit had left for Siliguri by the Darjeeling Mail three days back. The information was conveyed to him by the receptionist of a hotel where Amit had been staying. Though Jaya was relieved to finally get some news of her husband, she failed to see the rationale behind Amit leaving a word with the receptionist instead of him making the call. She also wondered at the exigency that prompted him to leave the safety of a training college and move to a chaotic Sealdah hotel.

However, she put these qualms behind and deemed it judicious to prepare for Amit’s arrival. That there was no news of a train set on fire or one having met with an accident in West Bengal put her mind at peace. She counted three on the pads of her small finger and ascertained that Amit would arrive by that night. Euphoric at the realisation, she ran errands procuring fish and vegetables from the nearby market as Titli played at her neighbour’s. She diced potatoes and cauliflower florets on an arched blade of iron and rustled up a runny fish curry with the vegetables dunked in the gravy. As dinner time approached, the signature tune announced the beginning of the news. Jaya was in the kitchen ladling rice for Titli when she missed a report of a train, that had originated from Sealdah, being torched in a town where the Ganges grew turgid every monsoon. One person had died.

After putting Titli to bed, Jaya occupied the wicker chair in the balcony and waited for Amit’s arrival, a habit she dutifully followed every time Amit would be late from office. The periwinkle glow of the streetlight lit the contours of her face as she curled up in an oversized shawl. She calculated, rocking back and forth- the train had left Sealdah seventy-two hours ago, delayed even if for all the unforeseen reasons, it should not take more than three days to cover the five hundred odd kilometre distance. She pictured Amit in an autorickshaw on the way home, snaking through the by-lanes of the sleepy town. She was sure that Amit would arrive any moment. The happy thought made her break into a Tagore song- a conversation between two friends about love- its longing and agony. Every now and then she would rub the tip of her nose that would go numb from the December cold. When she had reluctantly progressed to the sixth song and Amit had still not arrived, she craned her neck over the parapet to get a better view of the obscure road. At that hour only a few stray dogs hung around, bickering noisily.

Normally, her night-time routine would comprise mandatory chores like scooping out the post-dinner leftovers in lidded containers and depositing them on the fridge racks. Or moving around the house, turning off lights and fans or checking the lock of the main door. On this occasion though, she let the rice and fish curry, both untouched, go cold on the kitchen countertop. Likewise, the lights remained on, neither was the lock checked. She crept to the bed and lay next to Titli. She drowsed off to a fretful sleep. In her dream she saw the reddish-brown compartments of a train, up in orange flames. The driver was scrambling through the vestibules and the smoke-filled compartments towards the head of the train. Coughing, his face was caked in soot, only his eyes glared. He stumbled upon charred bodies and luggage bags burnt to ashes but there was no sight of an engine. Jaya woke up with a startle, her maxi dress damp in sweat, was sticking to her back.


Sometime late in the morning, Mrs Mazumdar was drying laundry on the terrace. Her saree was hitched way up revealing her unshaven ankles. Noticing Jaya in the balcony she yelled, “Did you follow last night’s news? They burnt a train somewhere in Maldah.”

She wrung out a towel and shook them in the air scattering the crows.

“Which train kakima? Baba is coming by the Darjeeling Mail.” Titli’s eyes peered over the coarse parapet.

“How does it matter tell me, how does it matter? One person has lost his life,” she lamented as she lugged the laundry bucket to the adjacent clothesline. “What was his fault tell me? These scoundrels I tell you,” she wrung out another wet cloth as though she were strangulating one of the scoundrels.

As she was securing the clothes with plastic clips, she realised what she had said. Almost in spontaneity she bit her tongue, “Oh ho Titli, you are just a little girl. I shouldn’t be discussing these things with you.”

Aware of her gaffe, she tried to divert the girl’s attention.

“Why don’t you come over for lunch Titli?”

Sensing an opportunity to play with her friends, the girl tugged at her mother’s saree, “Ma can I go?”

The winter sun could barely make its way through the grey sky. Sparrows chirruped perching down the eaves of the adjacent house as a bicycle trundled along the lane, its bell tinkling sharply.

None of the sounds could penetrate Jaya’s ears though. Mrs Mazumdar’s words made her freeze. A radio silence engulfed her. She wanted to glean information frantically, but how? It being a Sunday, she knew the bank would be closed. The nearest public telephone booth was a couple of kilometres away and rickshaws had gone off the road. The few that plied preferred to rest on Sundays. None of the houses in the neighbourhood had a telephone. The realisation that she may not see Amit again made her throat go dry. She lugged to the living room and sank on the sofa.

“What happened ma?” Titli tugged at her mother’s saree.

“Your father, your father…” Jaya mumbled as she drew the girl close to her bosom.


That evening she could not watch the news owing to an hour-long power cut. She decided to wait for the next day when she could visit the bank. At around ten, she heard an auto-rickshaw pull over at the gate. Her heart skipped a beat when she saw Amit emerge from the vehicle. With his eyes burrowed in their sockets and a stubbly chin, he looked like he had aged over a decade. His pyjamas were soiled, and his pullover smelled of pee and grime. Seeing Jaya, he dropped his luggage and embraced her, muttering, “I never imagined I will get to hold you again.”


Five days ago, Amit and his two colleagues left the training centre on the eastern fringes of the city. Riots had broken out in small pockets of the metropolis leading to the imposition of localised curfews. With trains running way behind schedule or getting cancelled en masse, they thought it wise to board one of the nondescript hotels lining the Sealdah flyover opposite to the eponymous railway station. The three colleagues kept their luggage bags packed all the time. They took turns, two at a time, thrice a day, to visit the station to enquire about departures. Every now and then Amit would attempt to contact the branch in Siliguri, only to fail in as many times. On the third evening, a young scraggly boy, who served drinking water on glass pitchers to boarders, informed them that the Darjeeling Mail was about to leave in half an hour. They settled the bill briskly and left the hotel, their packed luggage allowed them to optimize the little time they had.

Amit and his colleagues boarded the Darjeeling Mail without having to check out for their names on the reservation chart that would normally be plastered next to the door of each compartment. With no checks on tickets or berth reservation, the two hundred odd travellers corralled in three AC compartments. For a while, the train ran steadily but upon crossing Bardhaman, it barely moved, gaining speed only sporadically. Every time it halted at an unspecified location, in the middle of nowhere, it led to gasps and moans. Children grew restless. The adults became bored, prompting frequent plaints and curses.

“No good will ever come upon this God forsaken country.”

“Next time vote wisely.”

“As if this is a democracy. This is a mobocracy,” thundered a visibly angry one.

Many chortled, others smirked. But despite their differing opinions, they preferred to remain unified- their collective fear and anxiety acting as a glue. To while away their time they played cards, occasionally breaking into noisy squabbles. After the second day when most ran out of food, they rationed among themselves whatever little they were left with-biscuits, puffed rice, spiced up flat rice, breads gone musty, overripe bananas and chewy rotis. As time stretched, so did their patience. Water in the bathrooms ran out, the compartments became muggy as the AC gave in, leading them to disperse to the sleeper coaches.

One of the passengers, frail and travelling alone, preferred to lie down for a large part of the journey. Even when he sat up to eat or visit the bathroom, he appeared visibly infirm. Ailing from a terminal lung infection, he would cough intermittently. He said that he would visit Calcutta periodically for a medical check-up, but this time he got stranded after the riots broke out.

When the train halted at Maldah, few passengers got down to replenish the empty water bottles. As soon as they hopped back to the compartment, bolting the door behind them, blows, enough to make one’s blood curdle, rained on the door waking the sleeping passengers. Few began to debate whether to open the door, until one of them pulled down the slatted shutter.

“Board the train parked in the next platform. That will leave earlier,” a man said, his face barely visible in the ill-lit platform. Running out of breath, he uttered the words haltingly, in quick bursts.

“You don’t have time. Hurry up!”

“Who are you?” a passenger asked.

“Doesn’t matter. Do as I say,” his tone almost threatening.

Saying this he disappeared in the engulfing darkness.

As the passengers crowded near the door, bickering, few agreeing, others disagreeing, one of them brought information that the train on the next platform was indeed headed to Siliguri.

Amit and a few others tried to wake up the frail man, lying supine on the upper berth. He had stopped coughing for a while leading the others to believe he had fallen asleep.

“O dada, uthun.” The passengers had called.

Few had tried to lift him but his body felt heavy like a rock.

“His hand felt unusually cold upon touch,” Amit recalled to Jaya later. “I don’t know if it was the cold or he was dead.”

The passengers had debated among them whether to desert the man. They looked for a railway personnel in the dark when the other train had whistled. It was much later at Dalkhola when Amit and the other passengers received the news of the Darjeeling Mail being torched shortly after they had disembarked it. Many broke down upon hearing the news, apprehending what would have happened had they not changed trains. Amit thought about the man they had been compelled to desert. Gripped by pangs of guilt, he said to no one in particular, “We let him die. We let him die.”


Jaya sat at Amit’s feet as she listened to his account of his and the fellow passengers’ fortuitous survival.

“It could have been anyone of us. It could have been me,” Amit muttered under his breath.

The horror of the morning replayed in Jaya’s mind- Mrs Mazumdar’s dramatic narration of the torched train and the casualty, the subsequent information blackhole, Jaya’s consternation at the thought of having lost her husband made a chill run down her spine.

“Who was the man who asked you to change trains?” she asked.

Amit tried to recall the face of the man. But only his words echoed.

“I don’t know.” He grazed his chin, ruminating.

Jaya shut her eyes briefly and thanked the household deity. She, then, rested her chin on Amit’s knees.


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