Passengers travelling in the train develop intimacy within a short span of time without knowing much about each other. To cite a few examples, the young man did not hesitate to get down when the train arrived at a station, run to the water tap on the platform and hurry back to the compartment with bottle full of water for the young lady. The middle aged man in dhoti and kurta, a clerk in the commercial tax office of Bolangir offered the young man his cigarette, each time he lighted one.
We knew only each others’ destination and each others’ profession. The young woman was going to Rourkela with her father to her sister’s house. She was a lecturer in DAV College, Titilagarh. Her father slept on the upper berth. She sat by the window seat, and was reading a book. To a question about his profession, the young man replied, “I am an educated unemployed person. I have a first class in MA…. preparing for civil services, banking and other competitive exams. Lady Luck has not smiled on me as yet.”
We five of us were going to Rourkela. The sixth person who had a berth in our cabin was a businessman going to Jharsuguda. Hirakhand Express was running behind schedule by more than five hours. The striking students of Bargarh College had picketed on the rails at Bargarh Railway station for which Hirakhand Express was detained at Bolangir station for quite a long time. The train departed Bolangir after the police had cleared the picketing students off the Bargarh Railway station. Still, the train halted at small stations where it was not scheduled to stop. In the process, the train was getting more delayed. The unemployed young man said, “This is the principle of the Railways. If a train gets delayed they will delay it more. They will not allow the delayed train to adjust time, and in the process cause delay of other trains. Their priority is to try to facilitate other trains run in time.”
Over cups of tea, made available by the hawkers inside the compartment, we were engaged in small talks. After tea, the sales tax clerk and the unemployed young man smoked cigarettes. The young woman kept watch on her ailing father who was sleeping on the upper berth, and at the same time, was reading a book. The young woman sat on the window side seat. I was seated in front of the young lady and beside me, the young man and next to him, the sales tax clerk. The business man was visibly restless. He frequented the toilet or went to the entrance/exit of the compartment. We did not have much interaction with other passengers.
We were, no doubt, getting bored despite our non-stop gossiping. The way the train was running, I reckoned, we would not reach Rourkela before eleven at night. The sales tax clerk remarked, “That old man, Gandhi is responsible for all this. He left a legacy of hartal, demonstration, road blockade and all sorts of indiscipline. The students now gherao the principal, ransack the office and go on strike even when they are not allowed books to copy in the exam. You see, where we, as a nation, are heading…”
The business man said, “Of course, those were different times. The people were weak and weaponless. Gandhi wanted to unite a weak people to fight the strong.”
The business man did not want to present himself uneducated and uninformed. So he participated in the discussion.
There were many who, without thinking or having sufficient knowledge about great persons, loved to pass observations on them contrary to the accepted view of the people at large. By passing a shocking comment, they think themselves different from others or better informed than many. The observation of the sales tax clerk was of that kind. He might have heard such an unkind remark on Gandhi from an aged person not so educated when he was a child. He had neither read nor understood the Gandhian philosophy and harboured such half baked belief in his mind. The unemployed young man reacted sharply, “No. Gandhi’s satyagraha has not been properly understood. If Gandhi’s soul is witnessing that students demonstrate against ban on copying in the exam, his soul must be shedding sad tears.”
Within a few hours of our journey, I noticed, the young man took a small talk or a remark passed in a lighter vein to the level of an intellectual discussion. He started explaining, rather teaching Gandhian philosophy, “The fundamental principles of satygraha are truth and non violence. Some people think Satyagraha is for the weak and cowards, but that is not true. The first duty of a Satyagrahi is to protest injustice, but in a non-violent way. A Satyagrahi cannot remain a mere spectator of injustice. Suppose, one comes across an incident where anti socials are misbehaving with a woman or passing obscene comments. If a person sees it and avoids, goes away from the scene thinking it is none of his business or pretends not to see it, he cannot be a Satyagrahi. He has to protest, a Satyagrahi will protest, save the woman and fight against the anti socials, but in a non violent way. Protesting injustice requires strength and courage. Moral strength and courage of conviction. Satyagraha is for the strong, not for the weak. Gandhi has also said somewhere, given an option between violence and cowardice; I should rather opt for violence…”
Our discussion, rather the discourse on Gandhi by the young man woke up the old man sleeping on the upper berth. He changed his side and looked at the young man. His daughter looked at her father, closed the book placing one finger between the pages where she was reading and turned her attention to what the young man was saying. The young man felt encouraged and continued speaking on Gandhian philosophy citing many examples from the life and works of Gandhi and quoting great men of his time. The business man, stroking his pumpkin like paunch, said, “Who shall dare protest injustice at the risk of his life? We are tired of paying ‘protection money’ to the hooligans. If we don’t pay, they will beat us, set ablaze our shops, throw a bomb or even kidnap our child and kill. This happens. Everybody who reads newspaper knows it. If we inform the police, we invite more trouble. Police cannot provide protection. They are hands in gloves with the criminals. The police rather protect them, work with them against us. This is the reality…”
The sales tax clerk added, “People have now accepted it. Whether or not to protest is different, if one does not consider something unjust, there will be no reaction in his mind. Corruption is now a part of life, not considered unjust or illegal. Nothing happens in any office without greasing the palms of the officials. People come to the office mentally prepared to bribe in order to get the work done. I am telling from my own experience. You invite trouble if you stick to the rules. The hooligans will threaten you, your seniors will bear a grudge, the local politician will interfere and the minister may also transfer you. Too many risks for sticking to rules, and to work honestly. This is a vicious circle. Better, take money, do the work…”
He spat betel juice through the window of the train. First he took tea, then smoked cigarette and then chewed a paan after he finished smoking, in this order, every time. The way he was drinking tea, smoking and chewing pan, his salary would not be sufficient to meet his expenses towards tea, paan and cigarettes only. Of course, he had already indicated in course of discussion that he did not have any scruples to accept bribe, and had justified by arguing that one had no way except being corrupt in a kind of crooked system. The unemployed young man said, “Still there are persons in this society who walk on the path of justice, work against all odds, and stand against injustice. The number maybe few and far between, but there are some, we come across in the newspapers, who fight the system, don’t succumb to political pressure, and work according to their conscience.”
“Yes, of course. India goes on only for some persons like them; otherwise it would have gone to dogs. Do you think there are no such persons amongst us? Yes, there are. The media does not care to write on them. There are many who walk on a path of honesty and justice. They go unsung, their works remain unnoticed. I know of one person. Listen, I am telling. It was 1975-76. India was under national emergency, fundamental rights were suspended. Maintenance of Internal Security Act, that is, MISA was in force. There was a BDO in Purangarh…”
In the mean time, the old man got off the upper berth and sat at the window side seat in front of the clerk. The young man left the side seat to the old man and sat near him. The old man asked the clerk, “Were you in Purangarh at that time?”
The sales tax clerk replied, “No, sir. Then I had just joined as a junior clerk in the sales tax office at Bolangir. My uncle was head clerk in Purangarh block. I heard it from him. Besides, it was a matter of discussion in the whole district, especially among the officials working in the offices, at that time.”
The train reached Jharsuguda station. The businessman disembarked. The young woman was reading the book, and at times, looked outside through the window. Her father sat resting his body on the wall of the cabin. His head sometimes trembled involuntarily. Sometimes, he counted something with his fingers and murmured something which was not intelligible to others. Being a geriatric, the excessive delay of the train might have made him irksome and restless. The sales tax clerk continued, “That was the period of emergency, you must have been a child then and unaware of the events. All were afraid of it. Of course, there were also some good things happening during emergency. All the government offices functioned properly, the buses and trains ran on time, the employees had adjusted their watches five minutes ahead and reached the office rather earlier….”
“Then where did it go wrong? After emergency, the people rejected the Congress Party and the Janata Party formed the Government?” The young man asked. He did not have patience.
“I am telling. No doubt, emergency had something good for the common man and general public as well, but there were some oppressive persons, mainly; top bureaucrats, influential persons in the government and ruling party persons who did injustice. There was press censorship; the press was not at liberty to write whatever they liked. They could not publish news without prior approval of Government. Any person who incurred wrath or displeasure of those persons in power was thrown into the jail on the slightest pretext under MISA. Neither there was trial nor was any recourse available. There was a fear psychosis prevailing everywhere. One such oppressive officer was Nayar sahib. He was an IAS officer, then working as Revenue Divisional Commissioner.”
The train reached Rajgangpur. It was nine in the night. The scheduled time to arrive at Rourkela was fifteen past four afternoon. The train was running already late by five hours. The slow speed at which the train was running and the way it stopped at all big and small stations, it could not be predicted when it would reach Rourkela.
The young woman had stopped reading the book. The light of the compartment, though not so bright, but was sufficient to read. The young woman might have finished the book or was mentally too tired to concentrate in further reading. Her father sat silently closing his eyes. Sometimes he murmured something to himself. The clerk continued his story, “Nayar sahib was really a bad man. Black complexioned, he had a massive buffalo-like figure with his eyes being always red. He was drunk twenty four hours a day. He took beer before lunch, and at night, whisky with fried fish. He was a lecher; a lot many lurid stories were heard about him. The youth club of Purangarh was celebrating its annual function and on the occasion, was staging a drama. He was invited as the chief guest for the function. Nayar made an inspection tour to the Block. Every body was afraid, except the BDO. The BDO seemed not to care.”
The train left Rajgangpur. Cool breeze wafted into the compartment through the windows. The cool breeze fell short of soothing the disgust and restlessness of our minds. The old man moved his legs, and trembled his feet time and again as if in pain. I noticed his daughter had worries on her face. I asked, “Where are you to go in Rourkela?”
By way of talking with her, I wanted to lessen her worry, or, if they had any problem, I was also prepared to help. She said, “Sector Thirteen. We had intimated my elder sister. She and her husband are supposed to come to the Railway station.”
“That BDO was honest, straightforward and God fearing. He did not even accept a cup of tea from the contractors executing works in the Block. He would supervise the work himself and pass the bill for payment, if he was satisfied with the work. The Sub Collector and Collector had full confidence in him. The common people and his subordinates respected him. Nayar reached the Block office at around four in the afternoon. The function of the club was scheduled to begin at five. He took a cup of coffee in the Block office and left for the function. The BDO had also accompanied him. He told the BDO that he would inspect the work of the LSEO after the function was over, and instructed the BDO to say the LSEO to prepare accordingly.”
“LSEO?” asked the young man.
“Lady Social Education Organizer. The Block has a post by this designation. Then a young unmarried woman was in that post. Her name was Sabita Jena. She was extremely beautiful. While having coffee his eyes had fallen on her. The BDO did not speak anything. The function was over. Nayar asked, have you informed the LSEO? If not, inform now.”
“It was already ten at night. The BDO politely declined. He said it was already late, past ten. No one would be in the office. The RDC might inspect the office in the morning. That was enough. His reply, though said in the most polite manner infuriated Nayar. He roared like a wounded tiger, as if he would pounce upon the helpless BDO and tear him into pieces. The BDO did not listen to him and left the place. On his way back home, he dropped in the residence of Sabita Jena and told her not to go to Nayar in the night, if he called for her.”
“Then, what happened?”
“Nayar was to spend the night in the Revenue IB and the next morning he would have left after breakfast. Though the BDO had told in the night that he could inspect the office if he so desired, he did not believe Nayar would inspect the office the next day. But the BDO was prepared for any eventuality. Next day in the morning the BDO went to the IB. But he was surprised to be informed by the caretaker of the IB that Nayar had left the IB early in the morning. He returned to his residence and came to the office at ten. Sabita Jena had not come to the office. Then he learnt she was not in her residence also. Sabita Jena was missing…”
“Sabita Jena was staying alone in a rented house. Her nearest neighbour was a Junior Agriculture Officer. The JAO was newly married. He said he knew that the Block jeep had come at around ten at night. He thought the BDO might have come. He had not opened the door, nor seen the BDO. He guessed it from the sound of the jeep. He was taking his food. He slept after food. He had not heard any noise. He did not know whether or not anyone other than the person in the jeep had come to Sabita Jena in the night.”
“That day at around two in the afternoon some one informed the BDO that the dead body of Sabita Jena was floating on the bank of the river Mayabati, two kilometers away from the Block office.”
The clerk spat betel juice outside through the widow, drank water from the bottle and lighted a cigarette. The old man eyed him straight; the young woman looked at him also, waiting, perhaps, what next he would tell. The unemployed young man asked, “How did Sabita Jena die?”
“That was a case of rape and murder. When the BDO declined, he must have called for her by someone else. Many persons were there to please the most powerful RDC, to do errands for him. The RDC called for her, she might have gone out of fear lest she might incur his wrath and invite trouble for her. She could also lose her job. Nothing was impossible during that dark period. On the plea of inspection he had called her to the IB and there, in the late night, he must have ravished her. She might have protested, might have even shouted. Who had seen what had happened? The Revenue IB was away from the Block office, away from the town also, in a desolate place. Nothing of what had happened inside the closed door of the IB could be known. He must have raped and then killed her. Or, she might have been killed while being raped. Then, he might have thrown the dead body into the river Mayabati with the help of his driver or he might have one or two accomplices.”
“Nothing happened after this incident?”
“What would happen? Had it happened today the things would have been different. But that was emergency time. Beginning from Jayprakash to the student leader of the college, all were behind the bars. Even the person in the ruling party who opposed emergency was also arrested and thrown into jail. The Government servant who did not toe the line was suspended or transferred to a faraway place where he would be really in trouble or even was arrested on false charges. The press was gagged. Nothing was published in the newspaper without prior approval of the Government. Even the people were afraid of discussing anything against the Government policy in public. Demonstration, hartal and any public protest were banned. Only the members of the Bar demanded an enquiry into the unnatural death of Sabita Jena. An administrative enquiry was ordered, but it was eyewash. The BDO appeared before the Enquiry and testified that the RDC had told him to call for Sabita Jena, but he politely declined as it was late night. There was post mortem, but what would be the report was in their hands. The administrative enquiry submitted a report that it was a case of suicide. Nobody believed; there was murmur and gossiping for a few days, and those also died down after a few days.”
The clerk spat betel juice through the window. No one spoke anything. He seemed to have finished his story. But after a few minutes of silence he said, “It was a severe mental shock to the BDO. He was not only an honest and sincere officer, but also a God fearing conscientious man. He developed revulsion against his service and even against the society. He went on leave. He did not join after his leave period was over. He took voluntary retirement. Later, we heard he lost his balance of mind.”
The old man was silently listening to the clerk. All on a sudden and unexpectedly, he shrieked, “This is all rubbish… concocted. When the function was over, the RDC told the BDO to call for Sabita Jena and the BDO declined, who was present there, and had witnessed? It might have been also, the BDO might have obeyed Nayar, gone to the residence of Sabita Jena and told her that the RDC wanted to see a particular file. He might have instructed her to go to the IB with that file. Or, he might have even taken her in his jeep and dropped her in the IB telling Sabita Jena, you explain the RDC, I am coming back and joining you within a few minutes. He might not have returned according to a tacit understanding with the RDC. The next day when Sabita Jena was found missing and her dead body was discovered, he might have taken advantage of no one except himself present with the RDC when RDC wanted Sabita Jena. He might have lied to others that Nayar wanted Sabita Jena at that hours, but he declined. Was it improbable?”
“We heard it, we were not present. Then I was at Bolangir. This incident was talk of the employees of our office for a long time. My uncle was at that time head clerk of Puangarh Block. He used to tell that the BDO was an honest officer and a God fearing person. Appearing before the enquiry the BDO said….”
“Yes, he was an honest officer, who denies? But that was a different time; emergency period. Not only he might have lost his job, but there was also threat to his life. He could have been implicated as a sympathizer of Anandamargi or Naxals and thrown into jail under MISA. This sort of things one heard almost everyday during that time. Was it impossible? No one dared oppose openly emergency, no one also expected in 1976 that emergency would be lifted. Appearing before the enquiry the BDO stated he declined to instruct Sabia Jena to meet the RDC at that hour and also informed Sabita Jena not to go to RDC if he called for her in the night. His statement instead of helping the enquiry would have gone in favour of Nayar. Was Rath Babu present when the RDC asked the BDO for the LSEO?”
The old man was getting excited. His voice was unnaturally high. The clerk became silent. He stared at the old man quietly like a child caught while stealing money from the pocket of his father and scolded for the act. The young woman said to her father, “We will be reaching soon, let me pack up the things.” The young woman tried to divert her father’s attention. She did not want her ailing father should involve himself in heated arguments. The young man said, “After Gandhi was assassinated, Einstein had remarked something like this that people, after a few generations ahead, would not believe that such a man with flesh and blood had ever walked over this earth. We have come to such a pass and become too cynic to believe that there are also persons amongst us who live by their ideals and principles.”
“No, young man, no….” the old man spoke with force, “it can be put in another way. Ideals and principles have become already extinct in the society, man has become too selfish and individualistic and the situation has become so frustrating that to live in the society we imagine an ideal person, we create myth and we sustain to live by drawing inspiration and strength from our imagined ideal person and self created myth. Now look at the things what this gentleman says. Suppose, what he says, let it be true. If the BDO had real courage and moral strength, could he not save Sabita Jena? He could have brought with her in the jeep and given shelter for one night in his house. When Sabita Jena had gone to show files to Nayar on his pretext of inspection, the BDO would have remained present beside her. Could the RDC dare attempt rape in presence of another person? That BDO must be a hypocrite and, of course, he was …”
The young woman was packing up and arranging the things in the suitcase. Before putting the water bottle in the bag, she asked her father, “Would you like to drink some water or I would throw away?” Her purpose; he should not argue. The young woman also looked at the young man with entreaty in her eyes not to engage her father further in arguments. Her father was getting excited which was, perhaps, not good for his failing health. The clerk was sifting the book the young woman was reading.
The train reached Rourkela Railway station forty five past ten at night. No sooner did the train reach the station than the young man disappeared in the crowd. Daughter and son in law of the old man had come to the Railway station in their car to take both father and daughter home. The clerk and I were to go to Basanti Colony. We decided to hire one taxi and go together. At the time we parted, the clerk put namaskar to the old man with folded hands with humility and devotion. His two daughters escorted their father holding his hands to the car.
After they left I asked the clerk, “The way the old man reacted to you, rather with disgust and violence, when you finished the story of the BDO seemed to me unnatural. I was stunned. You must have been, also.”
“This old man was then the BDO of Purangarh when the incident of Sabita Jena happened.” The clerk replied.
“No, how could you reach such a conclusion?” I could not believe.
“You have not noticed, while arguing the old man said whether Rath babu was present when Nayar told the BDO about LSEO after the function was over. I had not told Rath babu was the head clerk while narrating the story. Rath babu was my uncle. I had mainly heard about the BDO and the incident of Sabita Jena from him. Later, I was sifting the pages of the book his daughter was reading. The name of the young woman, Anindita Pal was written in the book. The BDO was a Bengli bhadralok, my uncle used to say Pal Babu. The old man was the same Pal Babu, that BDO of Purangarh.”
The clerk lighted a cigarette and offered me one. He said, “A person like Pal Babu is rare, it is too difficult to find one, now a days.”
Sahadev Sahoo, writes in Odia. His stories are published in all the distinguished literary magazines of Odisha. He has eight collections of stories and two novels published so far. Visit his blog at : sahadevsworld.blogspot.com.