(The original story was written in 90’s and was included in author’s Odia anthology Dukha Apramita (ISBN: ISBN: 978- 81-7411-483-1) under the title ‘Mukti’. Unlike author’s other stories, it has not been translated into any Indian languages.)
I hadn’t thought we would ever meet like this. It seemed neither had she, standing, stunned at my presence. She regarded me with her large brown eyes as if she had something to say but had forgotten it because of this chance meeting. She lifted her hands to greet me with a namaste (good day greeting) but then dropped them. The bubble burst. The moment ended. The silence continued. Words came to my lips, trembled, and disappeared into the awkward silence like a leaf being cast away by the breeze. The silence continued.
A route out of this quagmire was provided by Dr. Samantray, who hailed her from inside one of the examination rooms. “Uma, would you come in here for moment, please?” Over time, I had forgotten her name even though I remembered her face and gait. Dr. Samatray’s call to her reminded me of her name -- Uma.
I never thought I would meet Uma again but here I was at Dr. Samantray’s office and here was Uma. She was just like I remembered her only now, she was wearing a saree instead of a dress. The questions and thoughts began flooding within me like a broken dam.
Would she remember me? Would she have changed her mind about me after so many years? Would she be angry with me or hate me? What must she be thinking about me? Would that smile plastered on her face be a reflection of her inner self or a mirror image of the hatred inside? Would she commiserate herself by murmuring that ‘no one rules for eternity?’ Would she be thinking when you were on your way up the ladder, your power flowed out for everyone to see, and now look at you: white hair, wrinkled skin, deficient eyes, and rotten teeth?
I then wondered if she questioned why I was there or did she think to herself did she come for arthritis or perhaps just for a common cold. Would the girl ever say, “Look at me, I didn’t blow away like a feather on the ground. I haven’t just withered away and died like an ant does after someone steps on it.” At this moment, I didn’t know what she was thinking about me.
Was she still thinking I had destroyed her future? How much must Dr. Samantray be paying her? Would her father be as humble as before or be stooped down carrying the burden of his daughter? I did not have the courage to ask these questions of Uma so they swam inside my mind.
While I was lost in thought, she had taken the opportunity to brush past me and disappeared into the examination rooms beyond the door in answer to Dr. Samantray’s call.
I wasn’t very popular with the students. I don’t know where this hardness existed inside me but it always seemed to flower right around the time of exams where I made sure that I wasn’t liked, especially amongst the student body. I had been aware of my hardline tendencies right from my first year of service. It had been a new job. I needed to prove my capability under all circumstances. I was motivated and zealous to the point of obsession. Uma and I became acquainted with each other under the torment of duty. It was the day for the year-end examination in English.
In a hall where about fifty students sat, my investigative eyes roamed around everywhere, from students’ laps to under their sheets to their feet. When I caught someone cheating, a feeling of victory swept through me. I felt elated, unconquerable. I caught girls who had copied everything onto their thighs under their plain white garden silk dresses. I would take them to the toilet and wash the answers from their thighs. I sometimes had to put my hand inside the girls’ dresses and take out the cheat sheets hidden amidst their chests. I had to ask the boys to remove their shoes and take out copies of answers hidden inside their socks. Like a blind person I would poke, prod, grab and ferret out these copies from their backs, sleeves, and trousers. Maybe it was my investigative eyes or my efforts in proving my capability or my desire to be lauded. Whatever it was, it made me very unpopular with both students and their parents.
Everyone at my home knew I would be in trouble one day because of this. That’s why my husband Ravi would be there with his scooter inside the college campus as soon as the examination would finish. He used to sit in front like a shield and I would sit behind him and relate my battle-laden moments as we sped off. Like a conqueror, I would describe what had happened; how I had uncovered copies from places they thought safe; what kind of threats I would receive as I made my way through the students on my way home. Ravi would tell me his thoughts only after we left the campus. “Think about what you’re doing. Who knows what this may lead to someday,” he would always say.
I would get irritated when he said this. “What do you think will happen? Do you think they’ll kick me out? Slap me around? If everyone was to think that way, no one would do anything good in this world. If you allow someone to do something wrong, first, you’re an accessory in whatever they’re doing and second, you’re doing an injustice to the person doing it by letting them get away with it.”
Ravi would flare up and say, “Don’t lecture me about what is just and unjust. No one has asked you to correct the nation. You’re going there to do a job. Just do that job and come back home. What’s the need to go beyond the call of duty?”
“What a strange thing! Aren’t examinations a part of my duty? Isn’t it my responsibility to make sure the examinations that are happening are conducted properly? You can’t understand since you’re not there. If you were in my place, you would find out how difficult it is to tolerate someone cheating.”
Ravi would respond, more irritated. “There’s no need to be so sincere. I am asking you not to do it and you will listen to me. That’s it. I don’t want to hear anything else.”
I understood the fear behind Ravi’s unhappiness. Not only Ravi but I guess my father-in-law as well had read of bad rumours when he read the Bengali newspaper in Majumdar’s shop. Once he called me in a soft voice and tried to make me realize the situation. It seemed like it was something he had wanted to say something for a while as it sounded well-rehearsed. “This world is not for good people. No one here understands the value of idealism. A good and ideal man always suffers. Did the Pandavas get any happiness in their whole lifetimes? Did Ram get it? Or how about Jesus Christ or Mahatma Gandhi? Did they ever get happiness? You must be thinking they are beyond death and some of them are worshipped by us. Fame, divinity, what do you gain by these things? Did any of them live to see fame and divinity?” I felt he could not say all that he wanted to though. There was a problem somewhere. In spite of this, I could understand his purpose. Then he would add, “Look, you’re a woman. There are obstacles at every step for you. How much can you oppose these things?”
I was surprised to hear these words of opposition from someone who had once been famous as a teaching idol. It made me think something had happened at one point which made both father and son have a certain fear. I wondered what that unknown fear was. What made both father and son so scared? Or was the son scared because the father was without knowing what it truly was?
Our neighbour’s son, who was studying in my college, was relatively comfortable speaking to me. He sometimes came to our house and gossiped about the different reactions of the students to how I did my job. The gossip usually ran amongst fairly similar lines. It was either they were discussing how to get back at me, threatening to smack me around, or surrounding the principal and complaining about me.
“Madam, don’t try and catch these students copying,” he would say.
“Why?” I asked in a determined voice.
“No, it’s just that sometimes they can throw acid balls.”
“Be quiet,” I admonished, getting irritated. “Are you their spokesman or something?”
Even though I argued with everyone and shunned their advice, fear had bound me from the inside much like a caged bird.
When for some reason Ravi could not come to fetch me after the examination, I only knew how breathless I became when I had to come up to the street square and get a rickshaw home. When I came across students outside the classroom, it seemed as if those disciplined students who quietly listened to the lectures inside the classroom had turned mad during the rush and would charge at me with swords. In reality, it was not as if the students had really turned into devils rather, it was my own fear which was haunting me. I never looked at anyone. I walked with my head down. However, the next day whenever I would enter the examination hall, all my fear would vanish. My seriousness and my pride would make me feel elevated, as if I was the empress on an invisible throne. When speaking in front of the class, I felt I could dictate to all my subjects and tell them to become donkeys or even ants just by waving my magic wand and anyone who protested would lose their freedom. All the old fear would vanish. I felt within the group, there were conniving people who needed to be caught and I was the one who had to catch them. Then the hide and seek game would begin. It is not that everyone in the examination hall resorted to such unjust acts but definitely one or two bad apples would always be identified. I used to think ‘Ha, I’ll always be one step ahead them.’
I met Uma under these circumstances. She was sitting on a sheet of test paper and copying the answers. I was first suspicious when I saw her unhurried penmanship but I could not catch her cheating while attending to question papers and other papers at my desk. I went to a distance and cautiously watched her from the corner of my eye. All of a sudden, like an eagle capturing its prey, I made her stand up and snatched away the piece of paper hidden beneath her. Her face turned red. She kept on staring at me with her large open brown eyes which looked just like a calf. I directed her to write her name and roll number on that piece of paper. When she was writing, I noticed her hand was shivering violently. I mocked her and said “Looking at your simple face, I would never have believed that you could be cheating. You are a sneaky thief, aren’t you? All right, sit down now. If I come across another copy, you will fail the exam.”
Two days after the incident I had invigilation duty again in her room. Since she was identified earlier, I went up to her without any pretense, searched all over her body, and found a lot of paper in the waistband of her salwar (trousers). I rebuked her. After unarming her, I directed her to write and said sternly, “This is your second warning. After this, don’t blame me for anything happens.” She just kept on staring at me with her innocent brown eyes.
I had completely forgotten about Uma after this incident. In fact, I hadn’t bothered to find out whether she passed or failed her examination. She was just another name for me. Similarly, anyone else who would have been in her place and had similarly been copying, I would have taken it away from that person out of duty and obligation and would think nothing more of it.
That year during the supplementary examination, I once again encountered Uma and came to realize that she had failed in the previous examination. I was hoping she would have changed by concentrating more on her studies. Hence, I was a little lenient. Buy one hour into the examination however, I noticed that she hadn’t changed. I was furious. I was full of irritation and hatred. I thought quite a malignant girl hid behind those innocent eyes. I had filled up a malpractice form (MP) and confiscated the copy material when a colleague of mine suggested I forgive her this time, and I succumbed. However, I didn’t feel pity for Uma anymore. I felt she was like an irritating fly hovering around me, humming unpleasantly, and I really ought to rid myself of her presence. After the examination, however, neither her face nor her identity mattered to me. Appearing for that single examination seemed to have become a habit for Uma as she had repeated it four to five times already. I thought to myself, ‘why does she not stop her education? Why doesn’t her family get her married? Is sitting the exam twenty-odd times actually doing her any good?’ I was amazed to see her and her parent’s patience. Gradually she appeared as a pile of garbage to me.
As far as I can remember, it was the last time Uma was appearing in that particular examination when I met a very humble gentleman. I was hastily trying to get off the rickshaw and enter the gates when a gentleman bent and greeted me with a namaste in utter humility. I responded with a polite namaste and was going on when he called from behind and asked me, “Could you spare a second? I’d like to ask you something.” I turned back and looked at him questioningly and replied, “You’d like to ask me something? I’m a bit busy at the moment.”
He replied with a lot of humility, “I understand. It’s time for the examination.” His words made me pause. He continued, “I had come to see off my daughter who is appearing for her examination today. I have a favour to ask of you and I don’t know how to say it.”
“Why are you hesitating? Whatever you want, just say it,” I responded, wanting to get on with my day.
Somewhat hesitantly, he explained, “My daughter is very scared of you. She forgets everything as soon as she sees you. She can’t remember anything of what she had studied. Please don’t be in her room. Poor thing.”
“What do you mean?” I was surprised. “I don’t know your daughter and yet she is so scared of me that she forgets her studies because of me? Can you tell me who your daughter is?
“She is appearing for this examination for the last two years. She hasn’t been able to pass. You have seen her. She limps because of polio.”
“Can you tell me who she is?” I asked again as I was still trying to remember.
“Her name is Uma,” he said with pride.
“Oh, Uma. Uma is your daughter? She brings a lot of copy material.”
These words came out naturally for me and he was ashamed to hear my words and said, “She can’t easily remember, even after lot of repetition. Moreover, she is disabled because of polio. I thought if she gets over her Twelfth Class, then for the rest of her education, there is the semester system, and I could give her some kind of training and get her into some sort of school.”
“What do you do for work?” I asked.
“I am a teacher at a high school located thirty kilometers from here.”
I looked at my wrist watch to give a subtle yet polite reminder that I was indeed getting late and then I looked at him. He looked as if he would break down with humility. I could understand his helplessness but I could not start a conversation about the copy materials then. Looking at him, I could understand this unfortunate father must be stuffing his daughter with copy text when she left home for the examination. I said, “Look, I don’t go into Uma’s hall out of choice. I have to go wherever I am assigned to do my duty.”
“Still, please do what you can,” he said, turning his bicycle to go and leaving me to enter the gate.
That day for the first time there were mixed reactions to my idealism. Are the children of ministers and bureaucrats so talented that they are always in the front row? There is so much happening everywhere and yet I am stuck with Uma. The first two days of my invigilation duty Uma was not in my examination room. I thanked God the girl must have finished her English examination and I had escaped from an uncomfortable situation. What troubled me more, though, was not whether I could catch and fail someone cheating but the fact that Uma forgot her studies whenever she saw me.
The examinations were due to get over soon. There was an optional paper and on that day, I found Uma in my examination room. That was the day when I first noticed the effects of her polio; she had crooked feet. I remembered her father’s words. I was roaming around keeping a safe distance from her. However, absentmindedly, I went into the row where she was seated. I was coming from behind towards the front of the hall. My attention went directly to Uma; the zip on her punjabi (dress) was open. As I went on to pull the zip, I found a handwritten paper. I snatched the paper immediately like an eagle and pulled the zip and left quietly from the place. I then remembered she forgets her studies when she sees me. I felt like a criminal. I should not have touched her. I went and stood far away from her. She did not see me.
As I watched her, I noticed she wasn’t writing. It was also true that day, she was not copying even though a piece of paper was found with her, but she wasn’t writing either. I kept on waiting there for a long time hoping she would begin to write but she didn’t. After a while, very hesitatingly, she must have written a few words.
That was the last time I saw Uma. She never came back to take her examination. From that day, her existence seemed to diminish just as grandfather’s picture turned yellow with age; just as infestation of ants attacked something and then disappeared; just as an infection of fungus ate away at a leaf. Did Uma ever pass her examination? What course did she end up pursuing, if any? She had faded into my memory but had not disappeared.
Sometimes when I contemplated my sins and reflected on whether my fortune or misfortune could be traced to my actions, her face always came to my mind.
As mentioned previously, Uma had gone inside to attend to Dr. Samantray’s call and didn’t come out again. She never even came and asked, “Madam, have you come for asthma or just a common cold? Have you contracted Filarasis or Malaria? I was hurt yet there was no reason to be hurt. Had either of us really changed over all these years?
After waiting awhile, I jumped the queue and showed my face to Dr. Samantray from the door. Without leaving his chair he inquired, “Did you get an asthma attack again?” I smiled; he got his answer from my dry smile. “Please come in” he said as he invited me inside. I went inside and sat on the stool next to him. Actually I could not sit, I had to bend forward. I was having more and more difficulty breathing. He put his stethoscope all around my body and started writing my prescription on a piece of paper and then directed me, “Take the injection now. I’ll prescribe some medicines which you can take back with you.” Then he called for Uma and asked her to give an injection of Deriphyllin to me.
I got up from the stool and sat down on another chair to take the injection. Uma went into the tiny room behind the curtain. The doctor was busy attending to other patients. I sat down and started reading the advertisements on the wall which promoted total polio eradication, vitamin A, and AIDS. Actually, I could not look straight at the wall as my pain was forcing me to bend my head and sit bent over in the chair. My whole body shivered with each breath. Was it an indication of death? What a fight for a handful of oxygen! It seemed as if the elements, earth, fire, air, and water were rebelling against me.
What was taking Uma so long? Couldn’t she see I was having issues and was in distress? Uma was not coming. I urgently looked at the curtain-covered room hoping she would come out with the promise of giving me a handful of oxygen. Uma was not coming. Is she taking her revenge on me? Why now? Was I just another patient to be forgotten at the end of the day? Had she not forgotten the past? Was she thinking back then she was asking for a favour from me and today I was asking a favour from her? Uma did not know and perhaps would never know that that day, I had sacrificed all my idealism and wanted her to pass her examination. Uma was not coming. She must have been stuck with other patients or must have been suffering from some kind of resentment. There was a longing for life in my body. ‘Please give me Deriphyllin; the pain in my chest is making me numb.’ I could not say these lines, only think them. I did not get up and look behind the curtain to see whether or not she was loading the injection or yawning on a chair with her legs on the table.
Dr. Samantray finished attending to one of the patients and when his eyes met mine asked me “Are you feeling better now?” I looked at him pathetically and said, “Better, where?” in a harsh, impatient, pleading tone.
“Why? It must be ten minutes since you took the injection. You should feel better now. Not to worry. You will feel better soon. Should I arrange for you to take the rest here or do you want to go home? Where is Sir today? Hasn’t he accompanied you?” I really wasn’t in the mood to be interrogated.
I fired back, “I haven’t had the injection yet. How could I feel better? ‘Sir’ has gone on tour. I am really having difficulty breathing now. Please help me”
His mood suddenly changed and he said, “Oh, you have not yet taken the injection? Is that what you’re saying?”
He then called for Uma. As soon as she heard him, she nervously came out from behind the curtain with the loaded syringe in her hand. “You could not push a Deriphyllin for my patient? Worthless” he said disgustedly. Uma listened to his rebuke and accepted it without a word. She had the syringe in her hand. I showed my arm after sliding my blouse from the shoulder. But she did not come forward with the cotton and spirit. She just stood there, frozen, with a blank stare. I looked at her face. Her hands were shivering.
I was shocked. Had she forgotten her lessons? Had she forgotten how to give an injection? What was in my eyes? What was in my stare? Why did she melt with my stare? Why did my stare make her nervous? I know at this moment there should not be any rudeness in my eyes, only my pleading for help. I began to pray for it felt like a matter of life and death now. No, I could not say a single word to Uma. Perhaps Dr. Samantray was observing this.
“What happened Uma?” he asked. “Are you not feeling well? Is something wrong?” Uma neither answered nor came forward to give me the injection I so needed. She remained frozen, scared. Dr. Samantray then freed himself from another patient and said, “Leave it. Give it to me.” He took the loaded syringe from her. She remained frozen.
He then turned to me and complained in an almost whispering voice, “How could one work with these people? She is shivering to give an injection. She has just joined fifteen days back. She had almost started picking up. Her father had pleaded a lot and hence I had brought her on.”
I was very angry with myself. I would have rather died rather than appear in front of Uma and have her see me like this. Why had my investigative eyes or my agonizing stare brought so much stress to her? I don’t know why but I felt I wanted freedom; freedom from Uma. I had the urge to violently shake her and plead, “Why are you so afraid of me? Why?” But instead I calmly told Dr. Samantray, “Uma is a nice girl. She was my student. Maybe that is the reason why she has issues giving me an injection. You keep her with you. She will learn the job very soon. I’m sure of it.”
I looked beyond Dr. Samantray and focused on Uma. Our eyes met. Although she remained frozen, tears flooded uncontrollably from her dark brown eyes. A lesson had been learnt that day by both of us.
I don’t know whether Dr. Samantray ever accepted my suggestions or not. He knew anything of the past between Uma and me. But somehow, I felt assured after this incident; Uma would not be scared anymore. She would not forget her lessons/studies. She would lead a comfortable life without any trouble...and I would as well. We were both now free.
(Translated by Gopa Nayak and edited by Paul McKenna)