Short story

Black ink

Print edition : January 03, 2020

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Sanjay Kumar Bag, the author of this story, is one of the most promising young Dalit writers in Odia. He has a doctorate in folklore and teaches at the Eastern Regional Language Centre, Bhubaneswar. The original Odia title of this story is “Kalasyahi”, the indelible ink used in elections.

Raj Kumar, the translator of this story, is Professor, Department of English, Delhi University. His research areas include autobiographical studies, Dalit literature, Indian Writing in English, Odia literature and postcolonial studies.

Translation of Odia short story Kalasyahi.

Black Ink, published in the anthology Listen to Flames, is a story about electoral practices to build vote banks in newly independent India which turns out to be a futile exercise for illiterate populations. The Dalit's dream of independence is shattered but the memory and impact of Gandhiji persists.

Gandhiji was in our village on the day our country got Independence. He sat under the banyan tree in the school compound. When the tricolour flags made waves all over the country and the national anthem was heard everywhere, Gandhiji broke the news of India’s Independence, achieved after a long struggle.

Some people in our village were surprised and asked him, “What is a country? What is independence?” because they had neither seen any tricolour flag nor heard the national anthem before. They could not grasp what Gandhiji explained to them. Gandhiji, it seems, had said, “Kingship is over. We now have democracy. There will be elections. People will choose their own representatives and form their own government.” Later the Gauntia, the landlord of our village, explained Gandhiji’s speech to the people in simple language.

But for a very long time my Budhadada could not understand how kingship had ended. Neither did he understand Gandhiji nor democracy nor even India’s independence. That was because the day Gandhiji came to our village, Budhadada was busy preparing the Gauntia’s paddy field which was to be sown the next day. He had just heard all those terms from others.

Gandhiji, it seems, was a Mahatma—a God in the form of a man. When he walked, a lotus bloomed under every step he took. The moment he blessed the poor, their sufferings disappeared. When he touched sick people, they were cured. Just like Krishna crushed Kalia, Gandhiji defeated the British. He fought a lot for our country’s freedom. Therefore, people, as a mark of respect, collected dust from his feet and smeared it on their foreheads. All this made my Budhadada very sad. He was obsessed with Gandhiji. So he went straight to the premises of the school at midnight and collected a little dust from the place where Gandhiji had sat. He then smeared it on his forehead. He could not sleep that night. The next day, early in the morning when he went to complete his work he asked the Gauntia about Gandhiji. The Gauntia chided him saying that Gandhiji had wanted to see him, and being unable to do so, had left rather sadly. Believing this to be a joke, my Budhadada made no reply but in his heart of hearts he wished to meet Gandhiji in future.

Contrary to Gandhiji’s declaration, kingship continued. The Gauntia was all in all. Whatever he decided was the law in the entire village. Actually, the Gauntia was the local king. He had hundreds of acres of land. All the landless labourers and poor peasants worked in his fields. Did he pay wages? Hah! If the Gauntia willed it one could not get a roof over one’s head. Following this convention, my Budhadada, leaving his own land, went to work the Gauntia’s fields. To work for the Gauntia for free was nothing new. People were used to it. In the distant past there was no Gauntia system in the village. The local king brought him from somewhere and installed him in the village. The Gauntia was a Brahmin by caste who looked like a God and was close to the king. Therefore people treated him like a God.

For a long time my Budhadada could not understand how kingship had come to an end and democracy had begun. Once in a while, he would ask people what Gandhiji had actually said. He would also ask them what democracy and independence really meant. The Gauntia would now and then call him to work as a free labourer. Abandoning all his work, my grandfather would run to work for the Gauntia even though he had no interest in doing so.

After a few years of Independence, whenever elections were round the corner, people wearing clean white khadi clothes came to our village. Like Gandhiji, they also declared that kingship was over and democracy was on the right track. In between their speeches they would shout “Jindabad, Jindabad” and request the villagers to cast their votes on certain symbols. My Budhadada could never make anything of their speeches. So he, like many others, was baffled.

One thing he did understand was that something called the “election” had arrived. The day he cast his vote for the first time, he got a black ink mark on his finger. He was very happy that day. He went to everyone, and showing the black mark, said, “See, I have cast my vote”. The black mark on his finger was both democracy and independence for him.

My Budhadada was very happy because voting took place in the same school where Gandhiji had announced India’s Independence. Before casting his vote, he went to the banyan tree where Gandhiji had sat and bowed to it with reverence. Someone had told my Budhadada that Gandhiji would visit the village again during the election and speak about Independence. He would also explain how people could choose the representatives who would rule them. This made my Budhadada very happy. He was sure that Gandhiji would visit our village.

But Gandhiji never came to our village again. He had come only once, the day our country got Independence. Nevertheless, my Budhadada eagerly waited for his second coming.

The day Gandhiji did come to our village, it was the Gauntia who sat very close to him and talked a lot. No one else had the courage to sit by Gandhiji. Later he explained those topics to the villagers in simple language. Gandhiji had been so impressed by the Gauntia’s depth of knowledge that he had patted him. The villagers were also surprised to witness the Gauntia’s capacity to talk so wisely. They realised that he was worthy of their salutes from a distance of not less than ten feet. During election, the Gauntia was out on the street. The khadi clothes he wore suited his personality. As such he was the head of the village. So no one disobeyed him because they knew that the representative would be a man of his choosing. To tell you the truth, there was no one in the village to challenge his leadership. Therefore people could not think of giving their votes to anyone else.

My Budhadada told us that the Gauntia once came to our neighbourhood. That day, the people of our locality had realised that the Independence Gandhiji had talked about was really true. Otherwise, how was it possible for the Gauntia to come to our locality? In the past the Gauntia never came to our little universe. If he needed anyone’s service, he would call him through his halia, his servant. Once the halia called someone’s name, the work was supposed to be done by that person. People left their own work even though it was important and attended to the Gauntia’s work instantly. When the Gauntia came to our neighbourhood on the day of the election, he instructed our people to cast their votes on certain symbols. He said, “Vote for this symbol. This symbol belongs to you. If you vote for this, our country will change for the better. The country will reap gold.” Without bothering to even look at the symbol, our people voted for it. The Gauntia further said, “It is not I who am telling you to vote on this symbol. It is Gandhiji who has instructed us. This is Gandhiji’s symbol. You are voting for Gandhiji.” The reference to Gandhiji was enough. People went mad hearing his name. They could choose their own representative and therefore they cast their votes. There was black ink on everyone’s finger. People were really happy to be associated with Gandhiji.

While asking for their vote, the Gauntia took out his nine-layered sacred thread and asked everyone to touch it as if taking a pledge. The people of our locality were astonished. This, they thought, must really be independence. Otherwise how could they touch the sacred thread of the Gauntia whom they would otherwise pay respect to from a distance? When the black ink was smeared on their fingers, they did not see anything. They just voted. When my Budhadada was narrating this event, we thought we were listening to a fairy tale. He said, “It must be the good deeds of the past that I was able to touch the nine-layered sacred thread in this life.”

After meeting Gandhiji and interacting closely with him, the Gauntia began to appear like Gandhiji. While Gandhiji had come only once to talk about independence, the Gauntia came again and again to explain about very many things. In the meantime the Gauntia had changed so much that he started explaining about Independence, votes, and so on even to the women of our locality. None of them had been able to either listen to or understand Gandhiji’s speech. So they listened to the Gauntia attentively. Above all, he was the head of the village. So no one disobeyed him. The day the Gauntia came to our place to talk about democracy, he brought a tulsi plant along with him and installed it in the centre so that people could worship it. He then asked everyone to take a vow and vote for his candidate. It was amazing to see a tulsi plant in the Dom locality. At first, the women in our neighbourhood were surprised. They could not believe that they were so fortunate now as to be able to worship Ma Brundabati by offering dhupa (incense), a lamp and water. While casting their votes they could only remember Ma Brundabati. Their votes came like their ululations. My Budhadada told us that everyone in our locality was really happy. They were happy because first, they had had an opportunity to touch the nine-layered sacred thread and second, they now had Ma Brundabati installed.

No doubt there was magic in Gandhiji’s words. But now the new attraction was the super-fine khadi clothes. When election time arrived, apart from the Gauntia many others walked about, asking for votes. They explained democracy and people’s voting rights to us simple-minded villagers. It so happened that one day our Hari sir’s son came out to fight the election, dressed in khadi.

When I was studying in the seventh class, Hari sir was the headmaster of our middle school. One day while he was teaching us literature, he compared voting to the spring season and said that the former was more enjoyable than the latter. We, of course, could not understand the significance of the statement because we were not yet eighteen, not yet citizens of our country. However, we were happy to listen to the songs from the loudspeakers and see the flags during the election.

It was gradually becoming clear that after the Gauntia, Hari sir’s son would be the representative of the village. He used to move about explaining the importance of voting. Once while making a speech in our neighbourhood, he said, “I am hungry. Give me something to eat,” and shocked everyone. The elders were hugely worried that this could happen only in the Kaliyuga. They recollected how fortunate they had been to have touched the sacred thread and worshipped the tulsi plant. The goodness of the Gauntia! And now democracy could do another magic. Hadn’t Gandhiji said so? Remembering him, they felt intense gratitude towards him. Actually Hari sir’s son was the Gauntia’s nephew. How could they share their food with a high-caste person? Noting their reluctance, Hari sir’s son reminded them about Gandhiji’s speech about equality. He had clearly stated that there was no difference between the Brahmin and the Dom and that all were equal. It was a great event for our people.

The news that Hari sir’s son had eaten cooked food from the Dom pada spread to every nook and corner of the village. How could he, a Brahmin, take food from an untouchable home considered to be a hundred times more “polluting” than liquor? Everyone in his family cursed him and prevented him from entering his home. But Hari sir’s son went on defending his act by arguing that he could not bear the charges made by the opposition which accused his family members of deliberately keeping the Doms in darkness for so long. As a slap on their faces, he decided to eat food prepared by the Doms. This explanation was immediately accepted by the Gauntia who supported him, arguing that there was nothing wrong in eating a little food from the Doms. In the age of democracy, what was important was to get support from the maximum number of people in order to win the elections. He told him how, in order to get support from the Doms in the past, he had asked them to touch his sacred thread without bothering about pollution. He also cited a reference from the purana saying how during a time of need, Krishna had to touch a donkey’s feet. Everyone now accepted the Gauntia’s explanations. True enough, the election results declared Hari sir’s son’s victory. He was then taken in a procession with garlands.

Just before breathing his last, my Budhadada asked someone to go out and see whether Gandhiji had finally arrived. My Budhadada died without seeing Gandhiji and there were still many others who had neither seen him nor understood the meaning of independence, democracy, etc. They believed that one day Gandhiji would surely visit and every election time found them asking whether Gandhiji was around.

When the elections arrived, it was not just the Gauntia or Hari sir’s son but a whole lot of people who came out to talk about democracy. They made great speeches, greater than Gandhiji’s, explaining many things in simple language. They ran from one place to another whether it was hot or cold, day or night. They would canvass for their candidates, asking for votes while accusing their opponents and calling them thieves. They urged people not to be afraid of anyone since they belonged to an independent country.

Interestingly, on election day, Nari from our neighbourhood was seen standing at the corner of the school, offering snacks and tea to the voters. This was the same Nari from whose home Hari sir’s son had eaten watered rice and roasted dried fish. Nari, after serving snacks and tea, would secretly give the voters a ten-rupee note and instruct them to cast their votes on such-and-such symbol. People could never understand anything. After having their breakfast they collected their rupee note and went to their voting booths.

Generally the voting took place on the school verandah where Gandhiji had spoken. At the back of the school was the canteen where Nari gave out ten-rupee notes for liquor. On witnessing such a scene some people were reminded of the greatness of democracy that Gandhiji had talked about. But those people who had snacks and liquor were quite thrilled that in exchange for a single vote they could get so many things for free. When they got drunk, they thought it was the real taste of democracy. But some people thought that Gandhiji should have made these things clear in his speeches. People of our locality, however, could not recollect what Gandhiji had really said. Therefore they were anxious to hear him once again. Whenever there was an election they would run, hoping to see Gandhiji.

This time the election was somewhat different. It was also quite mysterious. While some people said that the country was shining like silver, others compared it with a diamond. Some others compared the country shining with Vajpayee’s smile. And the statement that our country was shining was a fact. Our village was proof of this. Actually the majority of the people in our village were smiling along with Vajpayee. When they cast their votes, it felt like there were smiling lotuses imprinted on their forefingers.

Everyone thought that India was not just shining but was also smiling. All the miseries of the country were over. Henceforth people would live happily, and as if to prove this, many people dressed in white khadi and carried lots of money with them. There were songs on the theme of India shining. They also emphasised the idea of India progressing when they asked for votes. So all eyes were focussed on the latter group. The campaigners had realised that their speeches were not enough to win over the confidence of these people. They also knew that giving them some snacks, tea or liquor for their votes was not enough. The greed of these people had risen with every election. How difficult it was to control people in a democracy!

The people who could not understand many of the speeches during daytime suddenly found many scraps of paper with the image of Gandhiji floating all around their pada. Actually the images also had marks encircled on them. People understood that those were the election symbols. Those who had not known anything about Gandhiji were so happy to have got the five hundred-rupee note. Along with the note, there were requests coming from behind to vote for so-and-so. Sagadia Dadi who was a contemporary of my Budhadada and had heard enough about democracy was astonished at the images of Gandhiji. At first it was a mild shock but when he recovered, he started jumping, catching all the notes floating down to us. People whose hearts had been beating fearfully now gathered around him asking him what had happened. Sagadia Dadi started making speeches. He said, “Those people who are now talking about Independence and democracy, they have magical powers and that is how they have controlled Gandhiji and sent him to us. Do not be afraid of their charms. Give them all to me. I’ll do what needs to be done.”

He began tearing up the notes.

Story selected by Mini Krishnan

Reprinted courtesy Oxford University Press

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