The Unadorned

My literary blog to keep track of my creative mood swings with poems n short stories, book reviews n humorous prose, travelogues n photography, reflections n translations, both in English n Hindi.

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I'm a peace-loving married Indian male on the right side of '50 with college-going children, and presently employed under government. Educationally I've a master's degree in History, and another in Computer Application. Besides, I've a post graduate diploma in Management. My published works are:- (1)"In Harness", ISBN 81-8157-183-5, a poetry collections and (2) "The Remix of Orchid", ISBN 978-81-7525-729-0, a short story collections with a foreword by Mr. Ruskin Bond, (3) "Virasat", ISBN 978-81-7525-982-9, again a short story collection but in Hindi, (4) "Ek Saal Baad," ISBN 978-81-906496-8-1, my second Story Collection in Hindi.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Pair of Coffins

Here is the story, translated into, nay transcreated in English for the benefit of this blog readers who would prefer to read it in English. I have in the meantime translated some more than ten stories from Virasat for this blog. In time my efforts will build up an interesting archive in my blog. I look forward to that day when all my thirty stories from that book will get translated in the process.
A Pair of Coffins

We’re from Dalit sections—is that our fault? Aren’t you going to remove the letterbox from our lane only for that? Do anything as you wish to but do it with care, or else take it from me, you’ll be inviting a satyagrah,’ Y. Madhav Rao minced no word as he warned the Senior Superintendent of Post Offices.

‘Just listen to me for a second, Mr Rao, please. The matter is something else. There’re two letterboxes within a distance of one hundred metres only. And there’s hardly any user of the facility. So, any one between them will have to be moved. Please allow me to do that,’ the Senior Superintendent of Post Offices Mr Balakrishnan was trying his best to convince Mr Y. Madhav Rao.

Despite his efforts to explain his compulsions, the grass-roots leader Mr Madhav Rao was in no mood to care for the logic. On the other hand, buttressing the stand of their leader, his supporters present there resorted to sloganeering. ‘Agree to our demands—our demand, our demand. The letterbox will remain there—there, there, forever. Exploitations in any form—down-down, down-down.’

Before leaving Madhav Rao made it clear that if it was absolutely essential to remove a letterbox then the one in front of Mr Vikram Rao should be chosen. ‘After all, Dalits have some rights! How can Postal Department so easily forget it?’

Mr Vikram Rao was no less powerful a leader than Mr Y. Madhav Rao. Agreed, he was the leader of upper caste but he had cultivated effective contacts with leaders of all castes. Even the Member of Parliament representing Madhupur constituency respected him. Just for the sake of a prank, nobody would ever dare to remove the letterbox planted in front of his house. So, one day Mr Vikram Rao paid a visit to the office of the Superintendent of Post Offices and made his stand clear, ‘Better be warned Mr Balakrishnan, the letterbox in front of my house is the question of my prestige. If anybody ever conspires to remove that, I’m not going to be a silent spectator. I’ll take the matter to the highest political level of the country. I’ll raise the issue in Parliament and see to it that all the officers here get transferred out. You better take note of our feelings.’

Madhupur could be a small town, but then again it was just a boiling cauldron of politics. It was within everybody’s competence to make a big issue of a small happening and to organise a public meeting on it. As if a matter of public entertainment, all enjoyed seeing an ordinary issue spiralling itself into a hot topic before them. It used to happen day in, day out and nobody had the patience to wait for the notification of a general election just to raise an issue. One day one might find a picketing programme in front of the office of the inspector of schools in protest against the exploitation of school children whereas the issue of police excess could lead to a press meet the very next day. Some day the protest could be against the increase in the price of petrol and on some other day a proper public strike might take place to decry the US for its attack on Iraq.

Mr Balakrishnan was the head of the division and it was his intention that action should be taken to explore all the possibilities of the improvement of the postal services. He was aware of the responsibility of the department to provide service to all: the Universal Service Obligation or the USO in short. Wherever there were more post offices than absolutely required, some of them were to be closed to enable their opening at the place of its requirement. But then who had got the guts to talk of closing down a post office? There was an occasion Mr Balakrishnan happened to think aloud, and it was enough to stir up a real hornet’s nest. In no time the news reached the newspaper fellows and from there to the upper political circle. Finally the department had to say it clearly that it had no such proposal to close down post offices of any description. As a result opening a post office in a new residential area proved impossible. It appeared there were two types of localities in the same town: one, where there were surfeit of post offices; and the other, where there was an indefinite waiting for a post office to be sanctioned.

When Mr Balakrishnan failed to relocate a post office, he diverted his attention towards letterbox. He was aware that the availability of letterboxes in his division was far more than it was actually necessary. He tried to draw a chart that would enumerate the number and distribution of letterboxes in his division. With this objective in view he distributed the work among all the sub-divisional inspectors and ordered them strictly that the entire job be finished in two months at the maximum.

In this way a letterbox in Madhupur became an object of current focus for both a government functionary on the one hand and the local politicians on the other. Naturally, the situation in Madhupur was destined to become tense. With a view to settling the issue the Senior Superintendent racked his brain. On visiting the spot, he called the prominent persons from both sides and opened a prolonged series of consultation over the matter. But an acceptable solution just eluded him. How could he expect to succeed in his attempt when neither side was willing to relax its stand?

Finally the Senior Superintendent put forth a proposal from his side. Explaining the gist of his proposal he said, ‘The quantity of mails dropped in both the letterboxes put together is so negligible that allowing both of them to exist at a distance of just one hundred meters from each other is not possible. Only one box is enough and the other one has to go. This is decided. So from whose door the letterbox is to be removed remains to be finalized now. And my decision is that, between you two leaders, he who has booked more registered letters than the other during last six months will be entitled to have a letterbox in front of his house. Right?’

Initially neither side was willing to accept the condition, but the Senior Superintendent made his intention clear. ‘If you people aren’t in a position to produce registered receipts in support of your demand, well, this would mean that you don’t use the services offered by the Department of Posts. And this fact would go to prove further that really you all have left using postal services and are in habit of using the service of private couriers. Then, tell me, in what use will it come, if I get two or two thousand letterboxes planted here?’

In the group of Mr Madhav Rao there was a shrewd boy who knew quite a few things about the day-to-day operations in a post office. He just stepped in to convince his leader, ‘Dear leader, it’s not a big deal to arrange registered receipts, for there’re no mention of the particulars of sender on a registered letter. So all of us will bring our receipts and together it will constitute a big number. And I’m sure as hell, it’ll come to that. So, easily we can prove that we’re the biggest users of the postal services, and not Mr Madhav Rao and his cronies. Won’t it work this way?’

People mulling so much over an issue as ticklish as that allowed the above words of conviction to sink in. It was a piece of advice that Y. Madhav Rao liked so very much. And he accepted it then and there though he warned his people to keep the strategy secret, at least from the supporters of Mr Vikram Rao. As for Vikram Rao, he was not a person to be cowed down by such a flimsy condition. He was in no way less daring than his adversary in matter of accepting challenges. He did not delay his response, ‘Take it that there’s no objection from my side. I’m game for the challenge.’

The challenge was no easy one. Both sides searched and searched but none from either side was able to recall if he or she had any occasion to use the registration service of the post office. They had even forgotten how to write a letter, especially since the day there came a flood of mobile phones in the town. It would have been otherwise a really formidable task before them had they been called upon to compete in writing a letter, the longer the winner. As far as government statistics was concerned, Madhupur was one among the fully literate towns, but actually there were more cell phones in the town than the literate souls. Anybody who was taken to be a literate fellow for the purpose of statistics had, in fact, the knowledge how to count from 1 to 9. Well, that was more than sufficient to help them use a gadget like cell phone.

The Senior Superintendent Mr Balakrishnan allowed them a week to produce the receipts. When it was about to be over Mr Vikram Rao managed to produce only one receipt whereas Mr Madhav Rao could not even arrange one. So how could he come back to show his face?

The Senior Superintendent kept such a funny condition before the warring parties after a lot of thinking. He knew the post office near those two letterboxes had not booked even a single registered letter during last six months. So, why should he go in for a contest any easier than that? There was, however, another consideration behind his choice of this mind-boggling condition: he just wanted that the truth behind the situation be laid bare. Maybe he wished to say, ‘Post office, postman and letterbox—they’re just kept alive to enhance the status of people, to help those who would like to feel nostalgic for a change. They’re never the objects of their current use.’

Now Mr Balakrishnan was astonished as to how Mr Vikram Rao could manage to produce even a lone receipt, given the fact that there was not a single transaction of registration booking in the nearby post office during last six months. And then he hastened to open the receipt to examine it. It was both a moment of shock and vindication of his hunch—whatever was produced was not a registration receipt; rather it was a receipt granted by a private courier.

The Senior Superintendent should have been happy, even if for moment, realising that his point had been proved beyond doubt, yet he could not enjoy the comical irony of the moment. Really, he was now miles away from the decision as to which was the letterbox he should order to uproot. Finally he decided: he should wait for a month before he took an appropriate decision on the issue. He had a feeling that time would throw up a solution that would be acceptable to all.

Ultimately the unfolding of events proved that not for nothing Mr Balakrishnan was expecting something reasonable to happen.

Time went by, albeit slowly. The march of development necessitated the widening of roads and this in turn the uprooting of the two controversial letterboxes of Madhupur, the symbol of status of the two grass-roots politicians. And the letterboxes were uprooted, simply and silently.

The whole world knew that the two letterboxes uprooted were the property of the central government. It was the duty of the contractor to restore them to the place they belonged. So he took them to the nearest post office and left them on its premises. Despite the reputation of Madhupur, politically the most vocal town of the state, everything happened silently as a tree would shed its last leaf in the winter.

It appeared as though the coffins of two martyrs had just arrived at their place of birth.
Berhampur / 01-08-2007
A N Nanda

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Blogger NS said...

Dear Sir,
The story “ A pair of coffins” is very interesting. It depicts how people are fighting for the reasons even not known to them. From the beginning the controversy is only based on ego and maintaining illusive popularity between two groups. Sir, it is better if the competition might be on the basis of letters to be posted in the letterboxes for one or two months and make the competition live one. However the climax is gruesome that nobody cared both the letter boxes. This shows nobody is interested for letter box but their ego. Nice story again Sir
Thanking you Sir
----- N.Subramanian Tirupur

4:29 AM  
Blogger A_N_Nanda said...

Thank you, NS, for devoting some of your time on reading and reflecting on the story. As to your suggestion that the competition could have been organised on the basis of letters posted, well, it could have been so. But I thought instead of generating chain letters to succeed in the competition I thought to confront them with their past as past bore their credentials. Anyway, if my message is conveyed, the story would aspire to score a point. That is to be seen.

8:26 AM  
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