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Fathomless

BY SIVA GOPAL OJHA

Two concrete benches are the only amenities available on the lonely platform of the small railway station. Adinath arrives there at nine in the morning. His train is running three hours late and that is already news in the locality. Both the benches are therefore unoccupied and he comfortably sits on one of them. Adinath, now a city dweller, visits his country home every weekend. He is now returning to the city. He has a book to read during the journey but Adinath prefers to wait.

A lonely man comes silently and occupies the other corner of the bench. Both of them preserve the stoic silence of the place till a third person comes noisily and makes himself comfortable in the no man’s land between the previous two.

The noisy man does not bother about the formality of introduction and tells Adinath. “ Unless I return to town, all my work will suffer. The three hours’ delay is equivalent to a day’s loss in my case.”

Adinath thinks that this man may provide him with the story he is looking for and says, “Are you a contractor by any chance?”

“Right sir, I inherited the company from my father. But can you please tell me how can I fulfill the expectations of so many people?”

Adinath is now sure that this man has a story seething inside him and asks, “Do you face any crisis of liquidity these days?”

“No sir, I was talking about the expectations of officers. The problem was there earlier, too, but there was a limit. Even one third of what is spent by the authority does not go into work these days. Most of it goes to satisfy the fathomless greed of the officers.”  

“Are you unable to carry on business if you do not bribe off the powers that be?” Adinath wants to know.

“True sir. The officers’ wives are also claiming money these days. They are even asking us for food packets and sweets. I settled the bill for the gall bladder operation of one such wife of an officer in a renowned nursing home the other day. The amount was around fifty thousand rupees, sir,” continues the noisy man, “The officer released a substantial amount from my outstanding bill as a reciprocating gesture.”

“The account was then settled. What, then is your grievance?” asks Adinath.

“I have no complaint on that account. But the officer’s wife humiliated me. She ordered me to send sweets for entertaining her neighbors who had wished her speedy recovery during her illness. Is this fair, sir?”

“Do you have any other specific case to prove your point?” Adinath is confident that a story is on the anvil.

Before the noisy man could muster an appropriate reply the lonely man intervenes, “I have been listening to you with interest, sir.”

Addressing the noisy man he says, “Whatever you are saying is absolutely true, babuji”. Then addressing both of them, he says, “If you permit me, I can tell you the love affair of one such memsahib.

The lonely man’s face has peck marks of pox all over. His teeth are worn off at places making them look irregular and broken. He is dark, heavily built and speaks the local dialect. “I am a businessman by caste – an Aggarwal to be precise. A small shop is what I have for earning my livelihood. I came to know of this love story from my friend, a contractor in the colliery field. But whether you can call this a love story or a saga depicting fathomless urge for sensual pleasure is for you to decide. I can only lay bare the facts.”

The halts in between the sentences, the smile, the dented face, the worn out teeth, all suggest that this man has crossed many a hurdle in his life. Is he telling his own story in the name of his friend?

Aggarwal continues, “Babuji told us about the illegal transactions between contractors and officers. But I shall now tell you what fate awaits beneficiaries of such transactions.”

Adinath tells Aggarwal, “Please start from the very beginning. I am a poor listener, you know.”

Aggarwal is apologetic and resumes his story – “My friend’s officer recently married a vivacious woman. She wanted a separate car. As soon as my friend, the contractor, got a hint of this he was most willing to oblige the officer who had to specify only three items - make, model and the color of the car. The officer, after talking to his wife, informed my friend that a red car of a popular model would be fine. The car arrived from the company’s show room in no time.”

”What followed?” asks Adinath.

Aggarwal continues, “A driver had to be arranged for training madam how to drive.”

“Then the problem was solved after all. Your friend must have bagged a fat order in return.” Adinath still failed to foresee any story developing.

The noisy man by this time had completed the mental arithmetic of how much should be the order value to account for the value of the car and said, “Your friend must have been rewarded with a contract of value not less than ten million and the deal was concluded. Isn’t it?”

“Only for the time being”, says Aggarwal and continues, “My friend doubted that madam had illicit affairs with others because the driver who was training her told him so. He engaged a detective to monitor the movements of the lady. To his surprise he came to know that of late she was involved with her milkman. This ruffian was obliging her by satisfying her physical hunger.”

Adinath finds that the story is gradually moving towards obscenity. It is below his dignity to listen to such a story from a stranger. But the story cannot be stopped at this stage. He cannot change the course of events even if he wishes to.

The noisy man asks, “What happened next?”

Aggarwal smiles, as if in anticipation that Adinath will reciprocate the smile recognizing him as a master storyteller and continues, “The milkman visited madam almost daily when the officer was not in the house. My friend reported the matter to the officer. One day both of them reached the bungalow unannounced in an odd hour and caught madam and her paramour in the act red handed.”

“Did they call the police?” asks the noisy man. 

“As far as I know, the police has nothing to do in such cases. If two adult persons willingly engage themselves in an illicit relationship, what can the police do? Is it not sir? The police acts on complaints only.”

“That is what I meant. Did the officer complain to the police? He had a witness with him. On the basis of a complaint he could have obtained a divorce from the court,” says the noisy man.

“He did not have a lawyer in tow. Both the officer and my friend were so surprised with their discovery that they were not in their normal frame of mind. The officer was silent. God knows what was going on in his mind. But his wife was non-repentant, at least visibly. She remained totally unruffled.” Aggarwal continues with the story till he is interrupted again. 

“After the initial shock subsided, the officer asked his wife to pack up. She obeyed and packed all her belongings. All the four of them boarded the new red car and drove off.” Aggarwal is gradually coming to the end of his story.

“Where were they heading?” The noisy man cannot suppress his interest.

“They went to the milkman’s khatal. My friend and the officer left the woman with her paramour there with the new car and all her belongings. They then returned to the bungalow. My friend had some other job in hand. So he left the place.  I heard the story up to this point from my friend. After this nobody knows what really happened.” Aggarwal seems to have come to the end of his story. 

“Oh no! You can’t end the story unfinished like this.” Cries the noisy man.

“The burnt car of the officer with a totally charred body inside was found the next morning. Nobody knew for certain whether the body belonged to the officer or not. But he was never seen again.” says Aggarwal. 

“What fate awaited the woman?” asks the noisy man.

“She married the milkman and completely changed her lifestyle. She gave birth to several children. Whenever drunk, the milkman used to beat her mercilessly and wept for the good officer.” Aggarwal concludes his story and smiles again.

The train’s arrival is now being announced over the public address system.

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