Tuesday 10 August 2021

Subhendu Beura, ShortStory 2021 Longlist

Karma Theory

His eyes opened to find the light gray ceiling of the bedroom flicker with ghostly lights, like the flamboyance of aurora. A deep bass voice reverberated in the spacious expanse of the bedroom. “Your Karma to decide whether you will have Covid or not. It is God’s way of punishment for committing bad Karma.” The words buried him as lumps of horror that had weight and texture. He tried to shout, move his head, legs, and hands but could not. Transfixed in fear, he thought, he was dead.

After a while, he could hear his wife’s whistling snore that usually annoyed him. That night, he was thankful to her. Slowly he could feel drops of sweat rolling down his face like worms. He panted heavily. His heart palpitated riotously. He looked around for the source of the sound. The expensive television that covered half of the front wall beamed a spiritual channel. A turbaned sadhu

clad in saffron, wearing a flowing white beard was preaching a sermon. His forehead was smeared with a strange whiteness. His eyes were half-closed as if in a trance. His lips did not move when he spoke. Only the sadhu’s beard quivered.

He got up from the cushiony bed, drank some water kept in the marble-topped bedside table, and switched off the television. He wiped sweat in his neck and face that drenched him completely; he looked at the nightglow wall clock. It was 3:20. He tried to get some sleep. But the words kept repeating inside him. He recalled the sadhu’s words that followed later – reading the Holy book and doing some good Karma are the best ways to recompense bad Karma.

Since the time he had retired, three years back, his life was a repetition of a closely followed routine. He got up at seven o’clock in the morning. After


taking a hot cup of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee he went for a morning walk. He would go to take bath while secretly taking binoculars with him. He peeped at a nearby apartment where a woman took bath at that time. He took his breakfast, called few friends, checked his bank balance, took lunch followed by a nap, went to a nearby club, met friends to have drinks, came back to have dinner, and would go to bed. The onset of the Pandemic had disrupted his routine.

That day, he did not take binoculars to the bathroom. After taking bath, he entered the prayer room and sat beside his wife with folded hand and cross legged. His wife’s half-closed eyes opened in surprise. She was chanting a hymn. She checked his forehead with her fingers.

“I am fine,” he said softly. He looked around the spacious prayer room. He was perhaps coming for the second time. The Italian marbles, the decorative false ceiling, designer vinyl wallpapers, a tower air-conditioner, intricately carved idol shelves in the shape of a temple reminded him of a contractor who did everything for free. Few idols were unrecognizable under the smear of sandalwood paste and vermillion. The smoke of incense sticks and the ghee lamp rolled up and became part of breathing.

His eyes fixed on a book with a red cover on the bottom shelf. He pulled out the book and glanced at the cover. It contained a photograph of Lord Krishna blowing conch shell while warrior Arjuna readied himself for the holy war. “The Gita” was written in white. He opened the first chapter and murmured.

“Now it’s time for meditation. To be done silently,” he heard his wife’s voice after a while.

“I know. I know,” he said and kept the book in the shelf. He closed his eyes and tried to concentrate.


Thoughts, relentless as sea waves, curled and broke inside. He felt restless. He saw blurred faces of the three tribal girls he slept with, when he was the block development officer in a remote village. He could not recall their faces – only a feeling of immorality in the shape of numbers – a thought of bad karma struck him. He shivered. Assurance to marry his childhood girlfriend, her pregnancy, her abortion, abandoning her, her suicide – he thought he had buried her memories. His frequent travel to red light areas in Thailand in the guise of official works for many years. His wealth from bribes, the bribes that sponsored everything – his son’s education, his daughter’s marriage, his wife’s heavy golden necklaces on her birthdays, cars, and his luxurious penthouse where he stayed. He tried to think of the good Karma in his life but could not recall anything. What if he got the disease and lose everything he possessed. He felt sad for a while. He opened his eyes. His wife was still meditating. He looked at the idols and felt as if he was being watched. He closed his eyes again.

Services of two maids and one cook were discontinued after the pandemic struck. His wife had pleaded for them to continue their services, in order not to stop their incomes. But he was adamant. God knew wherefrom they would carry the disease and transmit?

His wife called him for breakfast. “Only bread and butter?” He was about to ask but hesitated. He was the person responsible for the removal of the domestic helps. He ate in silence. The bread was hard and chewy, as life had become.

“I was surprised to find you in prayer room today,” his wife said, smiling. “I had to pinch myself to believe that you were reading Holy book.”

“I was in the prayer room for a change. It was good. I am planning to join you in the prayer every day,” he said nonchalantly.


A robotic floor cleaner whirred and moved around the shining floor like a disoriented fat cat. “ How many times shall I tell you to call a technician,” his wife said. “Now you also stopped the maid.” He scratched his head quietly. She wrapped the loose end of her sari around her waist, tucked in and started chopping vegetables.

“Could you get some groceries from the stores. I have prepared the list and kept on the coffee table,” his wife said. The list was long. He sighed.

He wore two masks, a cap, and hand gloves before opening the front door. He held a bag with one hand and in the other, a sanitizer can. He also slipped a small bottle of sanitizer in his trouser pocket.

He did not use the lift. He climbed down the stairs slowly while avoiding the handrail. After few floors, the stairs seemed endless. He looked down to check the final landing, spiraling down – still a long way to go. On one floor, children played near the stairs. He maneuvered between them to maintain distance. How careless were their parents? On another floor, few women talked to each other while sitting on the steps and leaning against the balustrade. The indifference to the disease guidelines annoyed him. He shook his head.

“These stupid people will not change,” he murmured to himself. The blurred utterances through the mask attracted attention. “Excuse me, please. Are you saying something?” One of the women asked. He looked at her inquisitive eyes. It reminded him of a woman who filed a sexual harassment case against him while he was the district collector. His promotion was delayed by two years. His eyes widened in horror. He shook his head once again and almost ran down the stairs. On another floor, he found three men talking to each other near the stairs. He looked like a stranger to them. When they asked him about his identity, he had to introduce them as the retired additional secretary staying


in the penthouse. The incident repeated for two more stairs. Finally, he landed on the ground floor and swore not to use the stairs in the future.

The grocery store was inside the boundary of the housing society. There were few customers. He meandered through them and the walkway between tall shelves. After picking each item, he sprayed the sanitizer in his hand and on his torso. The shopping finished. He sprayed himself with the lemon-scented sanitizer and stepped out of the store carrying the heavy bag.

He was about to enter the lift, when last night’s cautionary words haunted him for a moment. He turned around to do some good Karma. A security guard stood attentively at the entrance. He kept the bag near him and asked him to take care till he returned back. He pulled out a hundred-rupee note from his wallet and gave him. The security guard’s eyes popped out in surprise.

He walked slowly and exited out of the main gate. There was a temple beside the boundary of the housing complex. He opened the gate of the temple carefully and sprayed sanitizer in his hand. He climbed five steps and reached the wide assembly hall. The door of its sanctum sanctorum was closed. He found a donation box near the closed door. He folded five hundred rupees note and inserted in the slit.

He recalled the time; he used to accompany his mother to temples. “Whatever you wish from God with a clear heart, will be granted,” his mother used to say. “Even your coming first in the examination.” She had sent a message from the hospital bed. She wanted to see her only son. He had ignored her call. He had presumed her message to be a plea of extracting money from him. He apprehended at the thought. He had become a bookkeeper of karma.

He looked around and prostrated on the marbled floor in the direction of the sanctum sanctorum. With folded hands and closed eyes he visualized God.


“Oh God, I have done many wrong things in life. Please save me from this disease. I will donate fifty thousand rupees,” he murmured. “No. I will donate one hundred thousand rupees.”

“Gods are not prayed in closed temples.” He heard a hoarse voice and sprang up instantly. Before a stray feeling crossed his mind that it was a voice from the God, he found a man sitting in the assembly hall leaning against the carved pillar. Disheveled hair and beard covered most of his grimy face. The man wore untidy and torn clothes. His stretched feet were covered in dirt. Could be a beggar. He pulled out fifty rupees note from his wallet and showed to him. The beggar looked at him but did not reach out for the money. He dropped the note. It rested between his legs. “Shall I eat this note?” the beggar laughed aloud. He turned around and walked briskly out of the gate.

Vegetable vendors sitting on the edge of the road shouted the names and costs of the vegetables. Customers were few. Their shouting was entreating. He found his driver and maid among the vendors. He was trying to avoid them but both of them recognized him. He bought some vegetables and offered payment. But they refused to receive.

“These vegetables are for Madam. She has helped us to start this small venture,” the maid said.

“Saheb, please start the cars once in a week to avoid battery malfunction,” the driver said as he walked past them.

Before entering the apartment complex, he thought of seeing his cars and went to the basement. A thin layer of dust settled on his two luxury cars. He circumambulated the cars for some time and came back to the entrance. The security guard handed him over the bag and saluted him. “Can you dust off my


cars? I will give you five hundred rupees per month,” he asked. The security guard nodded.

He ensured, no one was accompanying him in the lift and used the bottle guard to operate the button. After taking bath he put all his clothes in the washing machine and switched on.

In the evening he looked through the transparent door of the minibar. It stood majestically in the corner of the living room. Exotic liquor bottles looked enticing. He covered the transparency with a sheet of cloth. He pulled out a religious book from the library, maintained by his wife, and sank into the sofa. He went through the first chapter. His eyebrows furrowed in surprise. He straightened himself and looked at the kitchen.

“Do you know that Sage Valmiki was a robber before being a Saint?” he asked inquisitively.

“Yes,” his wife said. “What happened?”

“Mythology says that, provoked by a holy man, the bandit before transforming into sage Valmiki, asked his wife, children, and aged parents, whether they would be part of the sin, he had committed in his profession while providing livelihood for all of them,” he said.

“You are amazed because you are reading for the first time. You will find many such instances as you read further.” She smiled.

Hardly had he started the second chapter of the book, he heard his wife talking over the phone. “Do you know? Suddenly your Dad has become religious. He has quit alcohol and has started reading religious books.”

He heard her laugh loudly. The laugh reminded him of wild Kukaburra’s laugh in a New Zealand forest, he had gone with a woman named Katie. Thought of


Katie brought back some passionate memories. He closed his eyes and murmured a chant to himself to ward off the feeling. A moment later his wife handed him over the phone.

“Papa, don’t get scared. Here in our LA, cases are rising all around us. But we have taken sufficient precautions. Isolation, Guru’s herbal treatment, and Yoga can improve your immune system to fight the disease.” He heard his son smiling over the phone.

On the dining table, he was quieter than usual. The food was tasteless. His wife looked attentively at a television channel that beamed panel discussion on the spread of viruses. News had become a dish to forget the blandness of the food. Covid cases increased rapidly followed by death. One of the panelists said death due to corona was like drowning in water, in a more tragic way.

“Can’t we see any channel other than news on the virus?” He asked.

“See, how sinners are being punished by God?” His wife said. Her face gleamed.

He took control of the remote and randomly changed the channel. A scantily clad woman heaved her ample bosom while squinting at a man, and danced around. The couple was enacting a romantic song in a verdant landscape under drizzle.

“All these channels are spreading sin and must be banned.” His wife said and snatched the remote to change the channel once again to the news channel.

“If I were in the place of that robber before he transformed into sage Valmiki, would you have shared the sins I have committed?” He said softly. His wife muted the television and looked at him sternly.

“Have you done anything wrong other than boozing in the evening?” she said.


“No no no no… nothing. Sometimes I feel that being in government jobs, one is exposed to corruption. Isn’t that a sin?”

“But…which are the things you feel are funded by such money?”

“Few things… Our cars, son’s education, daughter’s marriage, this penthouse,” he looked at his wife’s heavy gold necklace that contrasted against her navy blue silky nightgown.

“My father also used to work for the government and sometimes received gifts. But he regularly made donations to temples,” she said. “Why didn’t you do that?”

“I had gone today and donated in the box,” he said. “But not sure whether it would reach God. The temple is closed.”

“You better donate through online money transfer to a reputed temples,” his wife said. “And for God’s sake, do not ever touch those liquor. Once our maid joins, I will throw everything.”

Before retiring, in the bedroom his wife watched a spiritual channel on the television. He did not try to change the channel to his favorite movie channels. He waited for the sadhu who had impacted his life significantly. The sadhu did not appear. Before closing his eyes, he ensured to switch off the television.

Next day, in the prayer room, he helped his wife in cleaning the floor, decorating the idols with flowers, vermillion, and sandalwood paste. He read the Holy book for a longer time.

After breakfast, he opened the webpage of a famous temple in his laptop. His wife sat beside him while sipping tea. The options for the donation started with five hundred rupees and its multiples.


“For the type of sin you are indulged in, it would require at least five thousand rupees,” his wife said. “My guru had clarified yesterday. You also can add another one thousand rupee for not believing in God for so many years.” She said.

While his wife diced vegetables for lunch, he read a religious book. He read two pages quietly. A call came in his wife’s phone. “Oh my God…really. May God rest his soul in peace?” His wife’s wide eyes and quivering voice scared him. He stopped reading and looked at her with jaws wide open.

“Your former colleague Mr Raman died of Covid,” she said.

His heart raced. A sensation of chill traveled through his spine. His mouth dried. Beads of sweat formed on his temple and rolled down. Raman was more corrupt. The virus was targeting sinners in descending order. His could be next. He looked around the living room. He visualized his world without luxury, the bad karma had bestowed on him – the shiny Italian marbled floor, huge round sofa, Turkish chandelier, Iranian carpet, and luxury cars. He had to relinquish everything? A prisoner of bad karma, he looked sadder.

“Do not waste time. Take some cash and distribute to the beggars outside,” his worried wife said.

After two hours he came back. He looked tired and sunburnt. He washed his hands up to elbows and counted up to twenty. He asked for some water.

“Do you feel better now?” His wife asked and kept a glassful of icy water on the high gloss coffee table.

“I could not find a single soul outside,” he said with a languid look. “Today there is a total shutdown. Everything is closed except medicine stores. The temple gate also is closed.”


“So what you did?”

“I gave five hundred rupees to the security guard. I could not even scold him for having scratched one of our cars while dusting off,” he said.

“I do not know when the government will again relax the shutdown.” “This shutdown, lockdown, curfew will kill me.”

“Better to donate something today in that online temple site.”

“When the temples are closed, Gods are on vacation, do you think the donation will be counted as a good Karma?”

“Not a single leaf sways in the wind without the knowledge of God. God would know once you decide to donate.”

“Does the God know everything?”


He drank the glass of water. He looked at the curtain that covered his minibar. He had never missed his favorite liquor so dearly. Then thought about the omniscience of God suddenly struck him. He murmured a hymn while closing his eyes. His wife looked at him curiously.

“You have become religious more than required,” she said and went to the kitchen.

In the afternoon he felt an itch in his throat. The feeling aggravated and by late evening, he had a sore throat. He gargled, mildly salted lukewarm water while following his wife’s advice. She prepared a concoction adding holy basil, rock candy, black pepper, bay leaves, ginger, heart-leaved moonseed stems.

“Sip while it is still hot. It is our Guru’s prescription,” she said and kept a jug full of steaming liquid before him. He sipped the liquid and grimaced.


“Whatever tastes good is bad for our health. The reverse also is true,” his wife said. He sipped the concoction quietly. Before going to bed, he complained of malaise with mild temperature.

“It is not even ninety-nine degrees Fahrenheit,” his wife said while checking the thermometer. “Sleep peacefully. Tomorrow you will feel better.”

But he could not sleep. Regular drinking of concoction went on. His wife started snoring. He switched on the bedside lamp and read the Holy book frantically. Night progressed. The solitude felt suffocating. A strange feeling of dying scared him. He got up from the bed and sauntered towards the living room. He switched on the light, sat on the sofa, and stretched his legs on the coffee table. He went to the prayer room and switched on the light. He looked at the idols – their unblinking eyes. Had they seen everything? He knelt on the floor, folded his hands, bowed his head, and asked for forgiveness. After spending some time in the prayer room, he went to the second bedroom. He opened a secret wall safe beside the cupboard. He pulled out bundles of cash and cylindrical packets of gold coins. He piled up everything on the bed and started counting. He felt relaxed. His face lighted up. He put back the valuables and locked the safe. He ran his fingers on the outline of the safe. Could he sacrifice the wealth for the sake of his life? What would remain? Is it worth living? He would have to look for other options to do Good Karma. He closed the door and came back to the bed. He took a sedative pill. Soon, the slumber overwhelmed him.

Sore throat and malaise did not improve the next day. He browsed through webpages to check symptoms of Covid. He called his family doctor. The doctor refused to come and prescribed some medicines over the phone. He suggested conducting a Covid test. It frightened him further. In the evening, he


was found either in the prayer room sitting in Lotus position murmuring hymns, reading the Holy book, or sipping the Guru’s concoction.

Next day, the effect of malaise was gone. He continued with the new routine obediently. Other than the holy book, he had a jug full of herbal concoction to sip throughout the day and do Yoga in the morning and evening along with breathing exercises.

“It seems, He is taking a test of your patience and devotion,” his wife said while stirring the concoction. “You also should think of some other ways of doing good Karma… Sooner or later everyone takes refuge in the God” Her voice choked when she mentioned God. She wiped her eyes with her sari.

In the evening, he browsed different websites to know different ways to do good Karma during unusual times. He looked sad while taking dinner quietly. He could not realize that his wife had forgotten to add salt in the insipid pumpkin curry.

“It seems good Karma is not possible without the involvement of people,” he said.

“Shall we call back our maids, cook, and drivers who are suffering without any income?” His wife asked while sprinkling salt to the curry. “Do you want some salt in the curry?”

“What if they come with the disease?” He shook his head, shoved a spoonful of vegetable curry in his mouth, and chewed nonchalantly. How tedious it could have been if he were a bovine, ruminating once again. He partly closed his eyes and tried to visualize.

“I know how you struggle to eat. I have forgotten cooking for a long time. This is the maximum what I can do,” his wife said. “Can’t we call at least the cook?”


His attention was directed at an announcement that played on the television. “Phase two trial of an effective vaccine is under progress. For the success of its implementation, we need the support of volunteers from all age groups. If you are a healthy individual, above eighteen years, and hold a passion in your heart to do the most sacred work, this appeal is for you. Please come to the government hospital a day after tomorrow after ten o’clock. Your contribution shall be written in the annals of medical records.” The health minister appealed with folded hands.

His face lit up. “ I think I will go there,” he said smiling. “ I think that is more than all the good Karmas combined together.”

“But what if you get infected during vaccination.”

“Good Karma will outweigh everything.” He got up from the chair triumphantly.

Masked, gloved, face-shielded, he drove his car and reached the hospital sharply at ten o’clock. There was a couple before him. They were called in one after the other. He waited in the lobby. A nurse came and invited him. The masked nurse’s hazel eyes rimmed with long and dark eyelashes reminded him of a beautiful escort who stayed with him for three days in Morocco. Her name was Ghislaine. His mind drifted away. He softly murmured the hymn while following her.

“How old are you Sir?” A doctor asked him gently, inside a room that smelt of mild antiseptic. An aged nurse, wearing thick glasses stood beside him. Wide shelves holding transparent boxes leaned to one side. Behind a partly opened partition curtain he saw a washbasin and an examination table.

“Sixty Four.”


“You do not look so.”

The doctor talked to someone over phone. He sought advice on a vaccination trial on a senior citizen.

“First of all, we would like to thank you for volunteering for the vaccination trial at an advanced age when younger people are hesitating,” he said. “But we need to run few tests and take samples from you as per protocol.”

The hazel-eyed nurse placed a one-page document before him. “It is a declaration of your voluntary consent to become a part of the trial,” the nurse said in a husky voice. He did not read the document. He signed while looking at the nurse’s rosy, slender fingers.

After completion of the formalities, the nurse, checked his blood pressure and pulses. The nurse’s gloved touch drifted his mind once again to some old memories buried inside him. He could not keep his eyes off her. The nurse extracted a blood sample from him and pressed a cotton ball on the puncture. While making him fold his elbow to hold the cotton ball, she looked at him.

“Uncle, please wait for the doctor?” The nurse asked him softly. He kept quiet.

The doctor told him that, once the results were available in the next two days, he would be injected with the trial vaccine. While leaving he saw all of them folding their hands as a mark of respect. He reciprocated.

After two days, in the late afternoon, while he was reading the Holy book, stretching on the sofa, his cell phone rang.

“Sir, we have an important information to share,” said a male voice. He introduced him as the doctor in the hospital.

“Tell me when shall I have to come to take the trial vaccine.” He said excitedly. “But we are sorry to inform you that, you can not be a trial candidate.”


“But what for?” he said. His furrowed eyebrows exhibited concern. “Sir you have already developed antibodies.”

“What do you say? I don’t understand.”

“Sir, you had Covid infection and cured now,” the doctor said. “ As you were asymptomatic, you could not notice any changes in your body.”

“When could this have happened?” He said after a long pause. “We are not very sure but most probably, between two to three weeks before.” “That means Covid can’t do any harm to me anymore?”

“Your getting infected once again is less probable unless it is a different stain. But we would recommend you to follow the guidelines.”

“Thank you so much doctor.” He smiled radiantly and closed the Holy book. “Sir, can we request you for a help?”

“Tell me please.”

“Sir, your blood plasma has life-saving properties and is valuable for critical Covid patients. Could you please come down here to donate your blood?”

“Well, let me think over this. I will call you if I decide to donate my blood.” He said. “I have one query doctor. Can I ask?”

“Yes sir.”

“Do you think my wife could have been infected with the disease?”

“If she is staying with you, she could be. But better to get her checked. Should I send someone to collect samples?”

“That would be a great help. Please send someone to take her sample.” He put down the phone after dictating his address.


He placed the Holy book in the bookshelf and walked slowly with a rhythm that seemed as a dance form. After removing the curtain of the minibar he looked at the liquor bottles with a brutal craving. He decorated the coffee table with his most favorite liquor, sliced fruits, potato chips, and green salad. His eyes moistened when he poured the liquor into the glass. Before taking a sip, he smelt the liquor. The misty vapor rejuvenated his senses. He slowly sipped the liquor while stretching on the sofa. Light music played slowly as he commanded the smart speaker. He got up and danced with easy steps with his left hand stretched as if he was holding an imaginary figurine. He thought of the beautiful women who had come in his life – one by one. Then he forgot counting.

His reverie broke when he heard his wife’s shrill voice.

“Are you in your right mind?” She scowled and looked around – the coffee table brimming with liquor and food – the speaker playing a romantic song –his frozen weird dance pose. “What happened to your good Karma?” She threw her hands up in the air.

“A medical team is coming tomorrow to take your samples for Covid test,” he said smiling. “I have had enough Karma to get over this.”

He closed his eyes, hummed the tune of the song and danced once again.


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