The bus screeches to a halt. A few people manage to get out without shouting out swear words. One of them is Devendra. He makes his way out of the crowd and gets into a tempo, filled with eight other people. He sits patiently, as the tempo driver speeds into the sunlight and smog of New Delhi.
Devendra Kumar Bisht is a simple man. He works at a small firm in Delhi and does what his job asks of him. He doesn’t aim for anything in particular. He lives in a rundown apartment with two other men. He gets his morning chai, and a plate of daal and four rotis, with a piece of onion, twice a day, and that is enough for him. His father, his wife and a son, live in Sikar, a small dusty town in Rajasthan. Every Friday evening, he travels to Sikar to be with his family. Every Monday morning, he travels back to Delhi.
Today is Monday, and Devendra is sitting in the tempo that is ferrying him from the bus stand to his office. He wipes the sweat off his forehead as he stares at the traffic on the streets. Suddenly there is a noise, and a bike is lying on the road, and the two people who were on the bike are sprawled across the black asphalt. The white car which bumped into the bike is speeding away. The people in the tempo start their varied exclamations.
“Are re!” says the man sitting opposite to Devendra. “They must have been badly hurt.”
“Bloody car wallahs,” says the tempo driver. “They think they own the road.”
“And he runs away!” exclaims a woman. “Bhaiya,” she says addressing the driver. “We should take them to the hospital.”
The driver doesn’t stop. “Madamji,” he says. “These things keep happening in cities every day. If we start taking care of everyone, who will take care of us?”
Devendra looks at his watch. If he doesn’t reach his office within ten minutes, he would lose half a day’s salary.
“Bhaiya,” he says to the driver. “You’re right. It’s best to be blind in these situations.”
Devendra enters the office and goes to his desk. There is a heap of files on his table. He stands up again as he sees his boss, Mr Verma.
“Good morning sir,” says Devendra.
“Bisht,” says Verma. “Please come to my cabin.”
Devendra walks in.
“Bisht, Bansal is on leave today,” he says, sitting in his chair. “There are some memos Bansal had to send out. He had asked the peon to keep the files on your desk. Did you get those?”
Devendra suddenly feels very tired. He had boarded the 4 am bus to reach the office on time. He feels angry at Bansal for being absent. The six-hour journey, the scorching June heat, the traffic, the accident, is all getting to him now. He remembers his own words “It’s best to be blind in these situations”.
“Bisht,” his boss says again. “I am asking if you got Bansal’s files.”
“I didn’t see them, sir.”
“Ask the peon. He might have them.”
Devendra walks back to his desk. He is not going to do Bansal’s work in addition to his own. He is going to remain blind for the rest of the day. He wouldn’t have to see Bansal’s files then.
As the clock strikes six, Devendra gets up, pleased with himself. Being blind works for him. He didn’t have to do Bansal’s work. He even refused to look at the woman who had dropped all her paperwork on the floor. So he didn’t have to go and help her. He walks back to his apartment and goes to sleep thinking about his family and his maize fields.
Tuesday dawns bright and scorching. Devendra wakes up and looks at his phone. “Why couldn’t I hear the alarm?” he says and runs to the bathroom.
Devendra’s ears are ringing because of the din of the traffic. He reaches his office in a hurry and is still the first to reach there. He sits back in his chair, closes his eyes, and absorbs the silence of the office. Soon there would be mindless chatter all around him. “It would be so nice,” he thinks “If I could just shut out the sounds whenever I wanted, and be selectively deaf.”
“Bishtbabu” comes a small voice. Devendra opens his eyes and sees Bansal sitting in a chair next to him.
“Bishtbabu, good morning,” says Bansal in his sugar-coated voice.
“Good morning,” says Devendra, and gets busy with his files.
“How are you?”
Devendra frowns and doesn’t look at him. “I wish I could just tune him out. I don’t want to hear his voice” he mutters to himself.
“Bishtbabu, are you listening?”
“I am working.”
“Oho” exclaims Bansal, pulling his chair closer to Devendra’s. “Work will always be there. But I have a breaking news for you. Don’t you want to listen?”
“Another of his gossips,” thinks Devendra.
“It’s about Mr Verma.”
“So? I said I’m busy.”
“Fine. Later, when you wonder why Mr. Verma lost his job, come to me.”
Bansal moved away. Devendra kept staring at his back, his mouth slightly open. He couldn’t believe it. Mr Verma was a highly respected employee of the company. Why would he lose his job?
“Why should I be concerned?” he thinks.“I haven’t heard anything.”
He moves to the small canteen for a cup of tea. There, a group of his colleagues is chatting about Mr Verma.
“I always knew,” says Singh. “That person is not of a good character. God knows what all he has done.”
“A person with AIDS working in the office with us! Unthinkable” says Mishra.
Devendra cannot believe his ears. He stands there dumbfounded as Bansal rushes past him and joins the group.
“Guys, I have the latest update,” says Bansal. “The management is ready to revise their decision if any of us can vouch for his character.”
“Who knows what will happen to that person then?” says Singh.
Devendra throws his paper cup in the dustbin and moves to his desk. Mr Verma is a distant relative of his father’s friend, and Devendra had met him a few times before joining the office. From what he knew, Mr Verma was a pretty decent person. AIDS could happen to anyone. “Poor Mr Verma,” he thinks. “He’ll lose his job in this illness. Such a sad condition.”
He thinks about what Bansal said, about someone vouching for his character. Should he do that? “But what if everybody turns against me?” he thinks.“What if I lose my job for supporting an AIDS patient?”
Devendra’s fear overpowers his conscience and he says to himself, “I didn’t hear anyone say anything. It’s best to be deaf here.”
The day passes by with Devendra being scrupulously deaf to any conversation.
Wednesday morning is dull and cloudy. Devendra walks into the office apprehensively. Today Mr Verma’s fate would be announced. In his heart, Devendra already knows the outcome. He sits at his desk, opens his files, but can’t concentrate on his work. After doing nothing for the entire morning, he takes a stack of papers to the copier. On the way, he bumps into Bansal.
“Bishtbabu,” says Bansal. “You are a lost being today.”
When Devendra says nothing, Bansal says in a whisper, “Do you know? The decision has been made.”
“About what?” asks Devendra absent-mindedly.
“About that fellow,” says Bansal, looking in the direction of Verma’s cabin. “No one stood up for him. Today is his last day.”
Devendra doesn’t say anything.
“Why do you look so worried? You don’t have AIDS, right?” says Bansal, and laughs at his own joke. “Come, let’s go for lunch.”
In the cafeteria, Devendra opens his boxes of dal, roti, and onion, as Bansal sits opposite him.
Devendra is lost in his own thoughts. “Should I have stood up for Mr Verma?” he thinks. “But then, what could I have done? Would my word alone have mattered?”
He picks up a piece of onion, dips it in the dal, and puts it in his mouth. He chews on it and looks at Bansal as he stares back at him. Puzzled, Devendra looks at his plate and realises what he has been doing. But he can’t taste any difference.
“How does it matter?” he thinks. “Everything tastes the same.”
As Devendra leaves the office, it starts raining. He walks into the downpour and lets himself get drenched to the core.
Thursday morning is beautiful after the rain. Devendra wakes up with his head heavy and his nostrils blocked from a cold. He takes his bath and lights an incense stick. When he can’t smell the floral scent, he curses himself for walking out in the rain.
He reaches his office with a handkerchief to his nose and sits at his desk. A peon comes and hands him a white envelope. Surprised, Devendra opens it to find a letter addressed to him.
“Dear Mr D. Bisht,
In the absence of Mr R. Verma, you are requested to temporarily handle his duties until the new manager is able to join.”
It is signed by all five members of the management. Devendra can’t believe what he is reading. He is the most hard-working person in the team. But how can he be the manager suddenly?
At that moment, a bunch of his colleagues come to his desk to congratulate him.
“We always knew that you had the capability,” says Singh.
“I bet we can all smell the smoke rising from Mishra’s heart right now,” says Bansal, playfully slapping Mishra on the back.
Mishra grimaces and moves away. When everyone has left, Bansal takes Devendra aside.
“Bishtbabu,” he says. “Aren’t you wondering why you got this?”
Devendra stares at him blankly.
“I’ll tell you” Bansal continues. “It’s not because you’re the most eligible person or anything. It’s just because nobody else wants it. They say it’s jinxed.”
“Yes. The last three managers were removed from their posts. Now it’s your turn. You make just one mistake, and you are ruined.”
“I don’t want this job.”
“No use now. They know you won’t be able to reject the offer. You are that kind of a person. Like a scared mouse. But the mouse needs to smell out the dangers before he gets killed.”
Little beads of sweat form on Devendra’s forehead as he listens to Bansal. As he looks around, he sees Mishra laughing with a group of his cronies, smirking at him.
“If you listen to me,” says Bansal. “It’s always best to leave before they throw you out.”
Devendra’s head starts spinning. “Why did I come here in the first place?” he thinks. “My family needed more money, so here I am, away from my beloved maize fields. But what have I got here? I don’t understand half the things that go on here. Each of them is in on this. What am I doing here?”
He leaves the office in a daze, with a handkerchief to his nose.
Friday morning is as numb as Devendra himself. He reaches the office and observes that everybody is looking at him differently. But he doesn’t feel anything – no anger, no fear, no resentment, no happiness, and no confusion. He has made his decision. He is going back. He is leaving this godforsaken place and going back to his family and to his maize fields. He sits at his desk and finishes the day’s work. He catches an early bus and reaches home.
He wakes up early on Saturday morning and sits on the charpai outside his house. His wife, Seema, comes and sits next to him.
“You are up so early today?” she asks him.
He smiles. “I have never felt so peaceful in my life.”
After a moment, he says, “You know Seema, I should never have left this place. The city is not the right place for me. The people are different, the life is different. I’ve decided I am not going back. I’ll leave my job and stay here.”
“What?” Seema asks him. “Is everything ok?”
“No. They want to make me the manager temporarily.”
“But that is a good thing, right?”
“It is all a part of office politics. I don’t understand these people, but I know what they are up to.”
“Are you sure?” she asks him. “What if this is just your interpretation?”
Devendra says nothing. He gets up and walks to the field. He is happy to be back. He can see the sun rays scattered over the tops of trees. He can hear the birds chirping in their nests. He can smell the dry earth bathed in the early morning dew. He can feel the cool breeze rush past him. His wife brings him a glass of milk. The taste of the fresh warm milk tells him that he has to stay here, where he belongs.
“What will you do here?” asks Seema.
“What do you mean? This is my home. These are my fields.”
“But you’ve rented them out.”
“So? I’ll get them back.”
“One year, when you had a bad crop, you ran away saying farming is not your thing. Now you’re facing difficulties in the office, and you run away from there as well.”
“Seema!” shouts Devendra.
“Go on. Shout at me. Don’t ever show this boldness in the outside world.”
Seema goes back inside the house. Devendra wanders further away in the fields. He spends the entire day in the fields, taking in the beauty with all his senses. By nightfall, he comes back home. Seema is waiting for him.
“Have you ever thought?” she asks. “About how we are going to cope? Bittoo goes to high school next year. Your father keeps falling ill every other day. Will the meagre rent from the fields cover all the expenses?”
Devendra is silent. He finishes his dinner and goes to bed.
On Sunday morning, he wakes up late but doesn’t get out of bed. He thinks of the events of the past week and about what his wife said. He does run away from everything. He is a coward. But he doesn’t feel ashamed. He feels nothing. He knows his son is doing his homework sitting next to him. But he can’t see him. He knows his father is very sick in the next room, but he can’t hear him coughing. He knows his wife is preparing lunch, but he can’t smell the smoke from the stove. He knows he is happy about being back, but he can’t taste his joy. He ought to feel relieved about not going back to the city, but he doesn’t. It’s as if he is in a limbo. He sleeps the entire day.
It’s 4 am the next morning. Devendra gets on the bus travelling to Delhi, in order to reach his office on time.