Kishore stood on the banks of the river Ganga, the longest and strongest of the Indian rivers. The Ganga crosses over to the neighboring state of Bihar completing its passage through the West Bengal at this point. The weather is unlike Kishore’s warm, humid hometown of Kolkata. While the sun is harsher, it does not seem to ever completely dispel the chill in the air. The grounds are not flat as he is used to see; they are rolling with hills made of rocky soil, dense with many unidentifiable greens, fennel, chief among them. The fennel blooms have thickened the air with something sweet, something intoxicating. Recent unseasonal rains have coated the landscape with fresh foliage, softening its raw appeal. Kishore stood smoking his habitual cigarette, enjoying the late afternoon warmth. A kingfisher swooped into the waters right before him and then veered back to the sky. Kishore looked hard at it, straining to spot a catch in its powerful beak.
Kishore reflected on the isolation of his current location with mixed emotions. A motorboat could ferry him to the nearest village, 15 km away across the river. To go by land, he would have to access the Bandh Bridge and that was more than a 100 kilometers away. There was no other human habitation nearby except for a row of hastily constructed shacks that now lined the open area not far from where he stood.
Today was unusually quiet, a pleasant respite from the roar of heavy machinery that has been disturbing the solitude here lately. This is because it was Sunday and Kishore and his men had the day off. They had all arrived a few weeks back, and set up camp at this spot, tasked to build a bridge over this segment of the Ganga. They had debated setting up camp on this side of the river long and hard. Finally, engineering considerations forced their hand. The two Bridge & Columns Inc. engineers have spent last several days pouring over their large draft sheets and calculations. Last week, the ground was broken and the digging started at full speed. In the coming week, they planned to begin pouring concrete.
When first offered, Kishore had not wanted to accept this assignment. He had recently gotten married. He did not want to leave Anita behind, and neither did he want her to live on construction sites with him. However this was too big an opportunity to pass up. Anita has come to visit Kishore over this weekend. They had rooms at a hotel on the other side of the river uptown. Just then though, she was, setting up the room Kishore had on the construction site. She seemed conflicted in her reaction to this place, alternately admiring of the natural beauty and dismayed at the pared down living conditions. The bare windows, the rough-hewn floors, the poorly lit bathroom had overwhelmed Anita at first. But she was adjusting, working their domestic help hard to set up a semblance of a home. The help, Buddhu, was a local man in his late fifties. He had no wife but a lovely daughter, Roopa that lived with him on the campsite and also worked as labor with the construction workers.
Kishore looked back to the waters. The aquamarine stretched endlessly before him in the bright afternoon light. Tiny waves broke into soft foam on the colorful rocks ashore. That idyllic picture did not fool Kishore. Some years ago he had been to a picnic spot by another segment of this same river. He was a final year engineering student at Shibpore at the time. His college crush, Tara, was with him that afternoon. She had worn her hair in two braids with red ribbons; braids, that he hated. He preferred her to wear her hair loose. It was a show of defiance, he knew. Tara hated Kishore’s friends. A shadow fell across his face as he recalled his days at his undergraduate college. He was constantly teased about Tara by his classmates in pretty unpalatable language. It was mostly harmless braggadocio; but it wasn't at some level. The friendly abuse used to get on his nerves. Especially when the boys made off-color remarks about Tara. He never could stand up to his friends; couldn’t defend his friends to Tara either.
The waters that afternoon had been as lovely and the breeze as gentle. Kishore could see Tara down at the river, playing with the water at her feet. He had asked her not to go into the waters, but again, she had chosen to ignore him. She and her friend were posing for photographs. From his vantage up on the high bank, Kishore watched her with that abandon you feel when you have an off chance to closely look at something you love, without needing to be self-conscious doing it. And then the other boys found him rudely interrupting his pleasant reverie. After tormenting Kishore for a while, they decided to head down to the riverbed as well to join the girls. Kishore stayed put as they went sniggering at their own sick jokes. And then... Then, came divine retribution.
At first it sounded like the temple bells. He looked around trying to locate the source. And then, it begun to sound more like alarm bells. Soon it was smothered by a much louder whooshing sound. Then he saw it. And instantly, he knew it was too late.
Huge waves of water came rushing down the riverbed. He began screaming for his classmates to get out. The water level rose by over five feet within seconds. His friends struggled for foothold in the fast rising water, shocked, confused and rapidly losing the battle. Before Kishore could absorb what really was happening, they were washed away, out of sight.
Not one of the seven had survived, including Tara. They had somehow missed the announcement around the opening of the dam gates scheduled for that afternoon. There was no notice at the site, no warning. Kishore staggered physically as that horrific memory washed over him with sickening force of immediacy.
"Are you alright?” There was Anita approaching him with a little basket in her hands, as Kishore returned to present day and time. She looked pretty in her printed blouse and jeans. Her freshly washed wet hair was hanging loose, left to air-dry. After their picnic, Kishore fell asleep on the grass. Anita sat watching him with quiet content. But as they lay on the banks, Anita became conscious that this was not her tame, green, constantly cured lawn from back home. The green here looked as alive as it looked luscious. What unfriendly creatures lurked in its diaphanous expanses? She tried to shake off her pessimism and give herself up to the present.
As they were walking back afterward, they noticed several holes in the ground, strewn here and there covering a largish area. The grass was less dense here, but enough to have camouflaged the existence of the holes from a distance. Both wondered at what they could be. Snakes, hedgehogs, wolves and wild cats – these were some of the unruly locals they had received warnings about. The holes looked like some kind of a burrowing animal’s handiwork. They could very well be snake pits realized Kishore. He did not say anything to avoid unnecessary alarm. The remainder of their silent walk wasn’t as comfortable as each tried to stem a flow of uncertain worries cropping up at the back of their minds.
Things begun to settle down at this little hamlet. Kishore’s quarters flourished with little curtains, printed bed-sheets and the smell of good food as Anita kept up her visits and added a bit of color every time she came. She even started a makeshift garden growing chilies and tomatoes. The couple and Dixit (one of the other engineers on site) spent many happy evenings here in each other's company. Kishore’s days were busy with backbreaking work, but things were moving forward as well as can be expected.
Some time into their second month, something interesting happened generating considerable excitement among the crew. Dixit was getting out of his shack. Just as he was stepping out, something fell on the area right in front of him at his door. It was a tiny snake, hissing vigorously, not more than six inches. Turned out that it was a harmless grass snake. Raju, a local little boy that hung about the site often, had come to Dixit's rescue, skillfully getting rid of the unwelcome visitor on a stick end.
Anita wasn’t happy that the snake wasn’t killed. However, the locals regarded snakes with some reverence and considered it ill advised to tempt the gods with an unnecessary act of aggression. For Kishore, the removal seemed sufficient, as it was after all just a harmless neighbor doing its morning rounds. In any case, it was unnerving to the urban tenants unaccustomed to life in the wild. They spent countless hours discussing and retelling the incident. One particular issue seemed beyond resolution. Was it the jaggery that drew the snake?
Upon inquiry, Kishore learnt the area did have poisonous snakes. This is why this bank of the river had remained uninhabited until they had come and set up camp. At the moment though, their only recourse was caution. They reacted by fortifying the camp with a generous spray of carbolic acid around the boundaries. And over the next few days, they remained on high alert; shining bright torches everywhere they went and thumping around excessively with sticks. Over time, the panic subsided bit by bit.
Dixit though, continued musing long after others were willing to forget the snake incident. His theory was, this was not an accident at all. He suspected the Jhara people of planting the animal to intimidate them. And why should the Jhara target them? Well, there was some slight context to that suspicion.
Dixit had started out extra friendly toward the tribal workmen. His lack of reserve had lowered the typical respect the lower class laborers will show gentlemen. But Dixit hadn’t been able to handle that as time progressed. Matters had come to a head over one evening’s excess consumption of cheap local liquor that had made Dixit sick. He had become the subject of some ridicule amongst the locals. The borderline-friendly audacious banter of the workmen begun to wear his patience thin.
Another bone of contention between Dixit and the workmen was brewing around Buddhu’s daughter. Dixit was strongly attracted to her. Soon though, he realized two things. First, that despite their own promiscuous habits, the Jhara was very protective of their girls as far as outsiders were concerned. His dalliance with Roopa had not gone unnoticed and it was unwelcome. Second, Roopa was generous with her affections with more than one man amongst the locals and although willing and flirtatious, didn’t hold him in any particular esteem. The feeling of being slighted by those he felt were inferior to him made him bitter and belligerent. And the loneliness of this place aggravated the problem, lacking any legitimate distractions.
Baidu Dnari came to see Kishore this afternoon at their construction site. Baidu was tolerated as the medical man of this community. The man was well into his late fifties, wore dirty western clothes and alluded to having lived in Kolkata in a prior life. He seemed to have considerable influence over the locals. He disbursed his own concoctions of medicinal potions and other assuredly illicit drugs. Kishore had a gut feeling that Baidu was a trained doctor whose license had been revoked due to some malpractice. He couldn’t quite put his finger on why that notion was born to him. Why else would a doctor seek life of abject anonymity in this nondescript corner of the earth? Clearly, Baidu had become integrated with the Jhara. His life was now with these people in the quagmire of voodoo, cheap magic, drugs and liquor. Baidu had tried to be friendly to the visiting engineers attempting to ingratiate himself as a gentleman. But they had not welcomed his advances. Kishore sensed something sinister in this man and had not wanted to do anything with him. At the moment, it seemed like the rooster had come home to roost.
Baidu was recounting that Dixit had been caught flirting with one of the tribal girls. The Jhara were not happy with Dixit’s behavior. In particular, Dixit had been observed drinking tnari, a kind of cheap liquor the other night with Roopa. Baidu’s eyes shone with lecherous insinuation. He continued to speak in serious tones though, of the threat from the locals if things were to go out of hand. Kishore pretended to disbelieve the allegations. He made a mental note to warn Dixit. He silently recalled having seen the dark and voluptuous Roopa hanging around Dixit on one too many occasions.
And so it went. The men worked at bridge building furiously. And although each maintained their distance, a sense of kinship seemed to engulf all living at such close quarters at the construction site, the team of engineers and their support staff alike. Anita learnt to make panta rice like the tribal women from leftover rice. She also learnt the special lopsided bun that was such a popular hairstyle with the Jhara women. Roopa sported borrowed nail polish and learnt to make french toast. Dixit continued in his fascination of the lovely Roopa, both attracted and repelled in equal parts by the animalism and insincerity so central to this woman. The summer passed quickly and the bridge neared completion in record time. Shortly before the finish line though the predictable rhythm of their lives was rudely interrupted one last fatal time.
It had been a warm day. An impromptu party at Dixit's house had buoyed up the mood for all. Kishore and Anita returned to their shack late, 8:30 almost. It was unusual to be out that late because of the lack of good lighting. This night however had the advantage of a full, luminous moon. They had not hurried. The couple stood knocking for a while waiting for Budhhu to open up. It had gotten cold. Both stood shivering and irritated at the delay. They had been noticing with annoyance that both Budhhu’s hearing and eyesight left much to be desired.
Finally, running out of patience, Kishore pulled hard on the door. The hoop that latched the door to the hook on the ceiling was jolted out and the door released. Kishore and Anita entered their room. As Anita switched the light on, Kishore proceeded to check on Budhhu who kept mostly to the adjoining kitchen area where he also slept. Budhhu was lying in the corner of his slender bed rolled out on the ground, crouched in an unusual fashion. As the light shone on his face, his eyes opened briefly. They were not focused and his mouth was foaming slightly. Kishore asked if he was sick. He did not get a response. Was this a case of tnari or marijuana? Or was it snakebite, which was a thought never far from the mind in these parts. His quick inspection of Budhhu’s legs and arms did not yield any telltale signs. He returned to find Anita in the main room.
Something had to be done. Kishore went back out to inform Dixit. To fetch a doctor, one would have to take the boat out across the river. And it was already pretty late. So they stood debating if that was really necessary or could it wait till the morning? Kishore, Anita, and Dixit were talking in low voices trying to come to a decision.
“Who’s there?” called out Dixit noticing a shadow near the door.
Raju, the little local boy, poked his head and declared, “Dnari Baba is waiting outside. They are here for Budhhu”.
Kishore stepped out. Baidu Dnari stood with a wicked half smile, visibly drunk. A crowd of over 50 people with a dirty looking sadhu at the helm, stood beside him. The sadhu was naked except an orange loincloth, unkempt hair, beard, and several rows of beads covering his chest-full of matted hair. He held a broom in one hand and a pitcher in the other. His eyes glittered with a mad gleam in the light from the flaming torch in the hands of one of their gang.
“What do you want?” asked Dixit.
“We have come for Budhhu. “, said one of the tribal women in the entourage. “An evil spirit has taken possession of Budhhu. He is very lucky that Doga baba is here. Doga baba will exorcise the evil from Budhhu’s body.” As she said the name of the sadhu, she joined her hands in respect and touched them to her forehead in prayer. The excess of vermillion on her burnished dark skin reminded Kishore of the goddess Kali.
“Budhhu is sick and we are going to take the boat out to get a doctor. You clear out, so we can get on with it,” said Dixit testily. Wham! Came a blow to his head. Dixit fell on his face and looked around in amazement as he held his reeling head now bleeding from a cut.
“You stay out of it, city boy.” Came a deep voice, as an unfamiliar face brandished a knife gleaming wickedly in his grip. These were not the laborers from their camp. Where had the additional people come from? Clearly, there were many here over whom the engineering team’s authority was non-existent.
The three people that were educated, that came from civil society, suddenly felt a shiver down their spine. They became acutely aware of the contrast and their vulnerability amongst these people. The decision making suddenly seemed very much taken out of their hands.
Kishore tried to intervene as calmly as he could. But the tribal men were adamant. Kishore appealed to Baidu to reason with the people. “He needs a doctor. You know that! Help me.” Baidu remained stone faced and unresponsive.
“What do you think is wrong with him? Will he survive the night?” implored Kishore with increasing panic. But Baidu’s drunk, blank mutiny was a denial of everything civilized, or rational. They hadn’t accepted him. He was one of these illiterate. He was not going to do anything to drive the course of tonight’s events how the engineers wanted it.
Kishore made a last ditch attempt to muscle in, but was soon crouching near the ground next to Dixit from blows delivered to his head. Budhhu’s fate seemed sealed. He was at the mercy of the hoodlums. The engineers and their family stood huddled in one corner, incapable of preventing the barbaric proceedings.
A bonfire had been lit. Budhhu lay listless, white as a sheet. And the sadhu was chanting unintelligible mantras as he circled Budhhu. Occasionally he would hit Budhhu with the broom. Bloody welts began appearing on Budhhu’s body. The crowd stood mesmerized and alternately rising to throes of frenzy responding to the sadhu’s ministrations. The exorcism proceeded with growing fervor. The smell of marijuana was strong in the air.
Kishore stood paralyzed with the group. Roopa sobbed hard as she stood with them. Roopa had tried to pull her father free, but been dragged out by the tribal women by her hair. She bled from kicks that had been aimed at her in the dark. She sought refuge from Anita, who held Roopa in tight embrace most of the remainder of that painful night. She was not only trying to console, but also fought to find some semblance of sanity for herself from that act, as they drowned in the madness of those unreal moments. In plain view of that group that evening, Budhhu Paswan was repeatedly beaten and beaten unto his death.
Next morning rose unforgivingly. Each of the helpless witnesses of the event struggled with the shock and the unavoidable guilt of the cruel death. An unshakable sense of impotence seemed to have sucked out the life from them. All wondered silently at what they could have done and didn’t do. Roopa left the settlement. Doga baba was banished from the camp premises. Kishore had wanted to turn him over to the police, but they were all accomplices to this murder. In the end, it did not happen. Anita left for Kolkata in shock and dismay.
Kishore couldn’t find any rest in his mind. What really had happened that night? Surely he was witness to the barbaric murder of the man, but what had gotten Budhhu sick in the first place? The engineers razed more of the shrubbery and fortified the area with more carbolic acid, suspecting snakebite. But they weren’t really sure. There was no sign of snakebite on Budhhu. All this activity was more to silence their own raging conscience than anything else. Kishore was also keenly conscious of his being the helpless witness to an act of what seemed like preventable tragedy, a second time in his life. Only as before, he had no idea how he could have intervened to change the course of events.
So what did kill Budhhu Paswan?
It was indeed snake venom, but not administrated by an accidental snakebite, discovered Kishore some days afterward.
Apparently, there is a type of snake whose venom has hallucinogenic properties in limited dosage. Someone had supplied this concoction to Budhhu, possibly for easing the back pain Budhhu kept complaining about. The dosage had been fatal. Kishore discovered the unfinished bottle amongst Budhhu’s belongings. He had its contents analyzed at a laboratory in Kolkata. He strongly suspected Baidu for having been the supplier. On inquiring at lal bazaar police station he learnt that a man matching Baidu’s description was indeed an anesthesiologist that had a warrant out in his name. It would explain the man’s inexplicable reticence that night when Kishore was pleading him to step in so that they could get some real help for Budhhu. And Baidu had gone missing ever since. Even as Kishore struggled meticulously to piece the story together, he knew there was no way to have justice served to the victim.
Today, five years since the completion of the bridge, the solitary bank has been completely transformed into a lively hub with new constructions, hotels, shops and residences. Anita and Kishore are sitting on the balcony of their hotel room sipping tea. The serenity of the place they had known from those years ago is a thing of the past. Most Jhara no longer live around here. They have receded further into the jungles downstream. Some Jhara women make long daily treks to come work as maidservants to the new settlers in the area. A dark girl comes to clear away their cups. Anita sighs, reminded of Roopa.
Kishore puts out a little wrapped packet in front of Anita. Somewhat surprised, Anita leans forward to take the box in her hand to check its contents. It is a pair of silver anklets, popular among the tribal women. He must have picked it up this morning when he was out by himself. Anita smiled remembering her fascination with these when she had first arrived after her marriage. She had asked Kishore to buy her a pair back then. But it had never happened. The heaviness they had been feeling ever since having gotten here, suddenly begun to lift. Anita gently tapped the anklets to make them jingle with their characteristic sweet melody. And then proceeded to wear them.