Ali Baba’s Death


Eventually that man who was a lesser human being because he was one from that faceless crowd which runs the basic network of offices, one of the marginal creatures called clerks jumped from the topmost floor of his Town Hall office….

Next day, in the columns of the third pages of newspapers where ‘local news’ of robberies and rapes, suicides and accidents are printed, there were two-and-a-half-lines saying that Ram Lall, a clerk in the Municipal Corporation, jumped to his death from the top floor of the Town Hall….

The same afternoon, a ‘kitty party’ was in full swing at Mrs. Midha’s house. Mrs. Mathur always felt a little uneasy at such parties because her husband had been stuck for the last five years in very ‘unprofitable’ department of the Defence Ministry. She could neither afford to buy the latest sarees nor the solitaires that other women kept flashing. But she couldn’t just sit back and let the world go by. She had to be a part of this crowd, otherwise how would she go through every single boring day, week after week?

So she equipped herself with the latest news, taking special care to read the newspaper more thoroughly on the mornings of the parties. Yes, newspapers were the only source of news, if any. News on the idiot box was mostly about the powers that ruled not only the ‘box’ but the whole country, and it was no news’. Because the ‘box’ believed in the happy dictum that ‘no news is good news’.

Having read the papers carefully in the morning, Mrs. Mathur delicately balanced a piece of chicken tikka on the tip of her fork and sighed, “Who knows who that poor Ram Lall was who jumped to death yesterday from the top floor of his Town Hall office”!

Nobody else had read the paper that morning. A few clusters of diamonds twinkled on a couple of well-washed and perfumed ear-lobes, a few eye-lashes fluttered, and Mrs. Midha fulfilled the duty of a well-groomed hostess by whispering “Poor dear!”….

Next afternoon, at lunch time, the newspapermen were busy emptying out the beer bottles in the Press Club, ignoring the rickety tables and
not-too-clean surroundings. They were talking loudly about Tarapore Plant and Peace Keeping Force in Sri Lanka, about Indo-Chinese relations and the Punjab problem. Gupta, who brought out a four-page evening tabloid and had been nominated as a member of Rajya Sabha a couple of years back, asked his neighbours on the table, “Any news about that Ram Lall?”

“Ram Lall is doing the usual routine gimmicks. Every Chief Minister does those gimmicks when he is removed from power and is replaced by someone else. He starts looking for the dissidents, starts a whispering campaign against the present incumbent and unearths all his shady deals to be presented to the High Command. It is a vicious circle that never stops, one Humpty Dumpty being replaced by another. Ram Lall is also going through the same routine formula these days.” said Raj of Hindustan Times.

“No, I am not talking about that Ram Lall. I’m talking about the one who committed suicide yesterday.”

“Crime Reporter must be on the job. If there is any juice in the story, it would be filled tonight…”

But actually everybody had already got the ‘stories’ in their pockets since last night. Pawan Manchanda had helped them get to the bottom of the truth, though we know that at the bottom of every truth there is a residue of that little something which is called untruth.

Pawan Manchanda? Don’t you know Pawan Manchanda? Strange! He is always present at all the social functions in the capital where all the glitterati of the city congregate with the only objective of exhibiting themselves before others. One of those all-powerful jugglers whose job is make others see what is contrary to what is visible to the naked eye.

No, you are mistaken. There is no fraud involved. It is the poor chap’s job. He had been employed in the Corporation for this purpose. Every large undertaking, every Public Sector undertaking, every government organization, every large business house, even the Prime Minister himself keeps such people on their pay rolls.

Yes, your guess is correct. Pawan Manchanda is a Public Relations Officer. It is another thing that he, like all the other cousins of his clan, hardly finds time for the ‘public’ because he is too busy with the all-powerful ‘fourth estate’, the media.

Such deaths or suicides, strikes or lock-outs, labour unrest or any other ugly incident can be a matter of great embarrassment for any ‘respectable’ organization. So the news has to be suppressed; and if they can’t be made invisible, they should at least be diluted. That’s what is known as ‘watering down’ in the newspaper language: changing the intensity and the colour of mishaps.

In fact around mid-day yesterday, the Muncipal Commissioner had called Pawan Manchanda to his room. “What is happening? Who the hell was this Ram Lall? How did the news leak out to those vultures in the newspaper offices? I’ve had six phone calls since morning! Why couldn’t you do anything about it?”

Pawan Manchanda pasted a greasy smile on his pleasant face with the prematurely receding hairline and said in a meek humble voice, “Sir, when his dead body came down with a bang and lay sprawling in the open space below, how could I just make it disappear?”

“I don’t want excuses. If you couldn’t make the dead body disappear, you could at least make its news disappear,” the Commissioner Sahib’s fury couldn’t be extinguished with any shower of smiles from Pawan Manchanda today.

Anyway, both of them agreed on one point, that these newspapermen are very ungrateful. When they smell a juicy story, they forget about all the goodies that they have gulped down at the expense of their benefactors….

Pawan Manchanda was at the job now.

First of all he tried to trace down the trail of the suicide to the victim’s own house. So many people commit suicide because of domestic unhappiness, don’t they? There can be a million causes: Ram Lall’s wife might be having an affair with someone else; Ram Lall’s unmarried daughter might have become pregnant; Ram Lall’s son might have got himself involved in a robbery. Who knows!

But all his investigative efforts came to a dead end. Ram Lall’s wife looked haggard in her early thirties, and was clad in a colourless rag of a saree. Ram Lall’s daughter was only seven, so there was no chance of her eloping or getting pregnant. Ram Lall’s two sons were studying in the sixth and seventh, in a government school, where children are not taught how to conduct robberies. As you know, it is only the privileged sons of all-powerful politicians or heavy-weight industrialists who go to the best of public schools of the country and learn how to pull off million-dollar frauds and evade the law. And why not? The class of law-makers should at least be privileged to be above the law.

But something must be done, brooded Pawan Manchanda. After all he was paid month after month for doing things like this. And think of all the perks!

So he prepared a file. The file moved in a great, unprecedented hurry from table to table. This fast-moving file contained an initial complaint from some Mr.Bharadwaj — Pawan Manchanda was in such a tearing hurry that he couldn’t think of a better name, and it was with one Bharadwaj’s daughter that a go-between was trying to work out Pawan Manchanda’s marriage — that Ram Lall had demanded four hundred rupees from him as bribe to do him a favour regarding property tax.

The complaint was followed by a detailed enquiry when Ram Lall was allegedly caught ‘red-handed’ accepting the bribe. All of us know quite well that occasionally some small-time clerks and ‘babus’ are caught ‘red-handed’ accepting bribes running into three or four figures. Lighter bribes cannot help floating on the surface and are therefore visible; the heavier ones sink down because of their weight and become invisible. You cash scrutinise and scan the history off our decades of our independent India; you will always find small fries getting nabbed in these dirty acts.

The ‘file’ contained a charge-sheet and also a suspension order, which were allegedly awaiting the final signature of the top boss.

It is evident that when charge-sheet and suspension orders are taking a stroll in the corridors of any office, the concerned person cannot be unaware of the approaching gullotine, Pawan Manchand explained to the newsmen and the reporters over the phone, and invited them over for a drink and snacks’ to a five-star hotel in the evening.

For such important press conferences he was allowed to book a suite in a five-star and serve scotch with the best of snacks.

Scotch, as you know, is very effective in ‘watering down’ any scandalous ‘story’.

The most exciting thing about the whole operation is that both the parties think they are fooling the other. “This bastard P.R.O. is smiling like a prostitute. As if we don’t know…”, think the reporters, downing glassfuls of scotch and munching the choicest of ‘tikkas’ and ‘kabaabs’.

In the meanwhile the P.R.O. and the reporters keep smiling at each other, because that’s how all the dirty jobs are honourably done. Don’t you know we are cultured and civilized? Cultured people don’t bring out naked truths, they keep themselves and the truths decently clad and wrapped up.

Every P.R.O. knows that after downing free scotch, the reporters won’t be in a position to go to their offices and file their stories. They will just go home and fall flat in their beds. And well after midnight when they will be swinging between sleep and intoxication, they will make love to their wives, taking them to be Hema Malinis. What will happen to the poor, helpless story then?

But every problem has an inborn solution. So the ‘story’ is embargoed. Everybody slips it in his pocket and goes home. Each one of them would present it to their news editors the next day. Every profession has its own ethics after all.

So Ram Lall’s deadbody was deprived of the knowledge of his own misappropriations. The story would be published when his body would be reduced to a handful of ashes and a sackful of bones.

Soul? Soul is just a whiff of air. Moreover, who bothers about souls these days? One shouldn’t get unnecessarily worried about something which can’t harm anyone….

The next day, which was the third day of Ram Lall’s suicide, there was a news item in every newspaper that Ram Lall had been charge-sheeted because of a complaint of corruption and bribery. Fearing that he would be suspended, he had ended his life by jumping down from the top floor of his Town Hall office….

During, these two days, Ram Lall’s widow and her children had been feeling buried under a heap of rubble. His death had been like an earthquake for them.

The neighbours had been bringing them food.

All this doesn’t happen in the upper classes. There is a deathly silence in the house where someone dies, but life moves on. The servants have got to eat after all, so food is cooked and everybody eats. Then, the people who come to convey their condolence have to be served tea, and the kitchen cannot stop functioning.

The grief in the upper class is evidently a much more cultured and civilized affair than that in the lower-middle class people.

The lowest of the masses also don’t face any of these problems, because most of the time their hovels wear the look of deathly sorrow. The hearth remains cold most of the time. Death in the family means just loads of extra worry about the burial or cremation. Worrying about these extra expenses and running around to borrow from friends and neighbours, doesn’t leave any room for the luxury of grieving…

On the third day when the newspapers published the story of Ram Lall’s corruption and suspension, his wife didn’t come to know of it. Newspaper is a luxury which her sort of people can’t afford. These people hear only those pieces of news which come flying like crows and perch on their roof-tops. ‘Flying news’ which is popularly known as rumours.

Usually these pieces of news are connected with the happenings in their neighbours’ houses. The most important ones have something to do with the affairs of the young sons and daughters. Gradually, the important news of the city also filters in, informing them of robberies or killings or suicides. At the national level, the news generally whispered around is connected with important persons and their affairs. News that Indira Gandhi didn’t cry when her young son died in an air crash, that Rajeev Gandhi used to fly aeroplanes and now he is flying the kite named India, etc.

If you think objectively, how does the other news matter to these common masses? The Gobachev-Reagan treaty and the Non-Aligned Conference are as irrelevant as the presence of a red or a black government in Spain. What is happening in Kampuchea or Armenia doesn’t concern the people who are all the time worried about folding their legs and rolling themselves up like a ball because their sheets are too short to cover them.

Ram Lall’s wife hardly found time to gossip around, and was not aware of what was happening to the world. She was a deeply religious woman, but didn’t find time to sit down and meditate even. She had a small clay idol in the house. She bent her head before it every morning, and said a tiny little prayer for the welfare of her family.

Flowers and incense sticks are costly so their ‘bhagwan’ evidently couldn’t afford this luxury in Ram Lall’s house. But on some particular days like Janamashtami, Ram Lall picked up some flowers from the park on his way back from the milk booth. An incense stick and these flowers were enough to say ‘happy birthday’ to ‘bhagwan’.

Though Ram Lall’s wife didn’t know about the newspaper story concerning her husband, this story was the same type of juicy news which grows wings and reaches people, who find it spicy enough to whisper into the neighbour’s ears. Eventually the news came flying and descended right on the lap of Ram Lall’s widow Prema.

She beat her breast and cried ‘‘It is wrong. A gross lie. Only I know how I went through the thirty days of the month. His salary finished by the twentieth, and for the rest of the month we were always in debt. Anybody can check up from the grocer. We always owed money to him. If Baujee took any bribes, I won’t be sitting here today and worrying about feeding my children tomorrow.”

The neighbours listened, expressed their sympathy, and went about their work. Because you know, these people belonging to the lowest depths of the covered cauldron called ‘the middle class’, are very selfish. They are always worried about their own hearths and homes. They don’t have any time for others.

Ram Lall’s widow couldn’t sleep at night. She felt she was lying on live embers. And suddenly a thought flashed through her benumbed mind, “Baujee was a very quiet man. Always engrossed in his thoughts. Hardly talked about anything. There might be another woman in his life on whom he was spending all the ‘extra income’. Who knows! These men…!”

And thus that man, who was less of a human being and more of a bullock yoked to an oil press, with blinkers on, because he was a mere clerk, lost all his credentials within two and a half nights after his death.

He was stupid like many others of his clan, though this clan is getting extinct gradually. He always consoled himself by thinking that his children would at least be able to keep their heads high and feel proud of an honest father. It did not matter that his salary couldn’t see his family through the month. Nor was he bothered that he couldn’t buy himself a new suit for the last twenty years. The soles of his shoes were so worn out that he felt the boiling-hot coaltar of the road piercing through his skin. But he was bringing up his children in an atmosphere untarnished by the all-prevailing poisonous smoke of corruption. He was proud and untiring, and worked according to an inner ethical code of values, though he knew that these values sold cheaper than even onions in the market.

He was guilty of the twin sins of poverty and honesty. A poor man should be able to snatch his rights or rob them. If he is unable to do either, he would himself be robbed.

Ram Lall was thus destined to be robbed, though after his death….

In fact he came to know about the robbery a little before his death. When this knowledge dawned on him, he decided to call it a day.

This is how it happened.

It all started with his transfer which brought him to the chair of the private secretary to the Commissioner who was in charge of Public Works Department in the Town Hall of the city.

His fellow clerks congratulated him.

He said in a little bewilderment, “What for? This is not even a promotion. A clerk is just like a yoked bullock; it is immaterial whether he ploughs the fields or pulls a cart. What difference does it make!”

“Difference? You talk of difference! Ha ! My dear, you will come to know about the difference when you occupy that magical chair. Tons of money exchange hands in the room of your new boss. And when devotees come with their offerings to the gods, the priest also gets his share,” one of them said with a meaningful glee. Everybody laughed, and Ram Lall turned crimson. The light-hearted chatter seemed to him like a shower of pebbles.

He merely sighed and thought, “Oh, God, please save my honour and integrity in this cell of soot….”

When he started working, his boss dictated to him a list of important visitors. “If they ring up, connect them to me immediately. If they drop in, let them into my room at once,” he boss said. All the rest he had to understand himself, gradually, with experience. He also had to learn the meaning of the shades of the boss’s moods, manifested by the way his eyelashes fluttered and the angle to which his eyebrows were raised. Responding accurately to these different moods was directly connected with this job.

He had to decide at the drop of a hat who should be allowed to enter the all-powerful room, who should be offered tea if the boss was busy in a meeting, and who should be kept waiting even if the boss was free, puffing on his pipe, because there were people who were mere nuisance and it was not ‘profitable’ for the boss to meet them. Who wants to waste time anyway!

Sitting in his Private Secretary’s chair, Ram Lall entered a mysterious world where money was god, the Almighty one! If someone higher in the political echelons rang up the boss and wanted him to ‘help’ somebody, it only meant that the money had changed hands elsewhere.

Ram Lall realized that thieves surrounded him. Probably he himself was Ali Baba. Yes that’s what he was. Surrounded by not forty, but forty thousand thieves. He calculated all the counsellors, members of parliament and of state assemblies, big politicians looking after an army of smaller ones who helped them during elections and who needed to be carefully nurtured throughout, all those hordes of thieves.

There were a lot of smaller thieves behind every big thief, like those wooden Russian dolls. You open the bigger one, and hidden inside is a smaller one. You open that one, and there is still a smaller one inside. Dolls within dolls. Thieves within thieves.

The Ali Baba of Arabian Nights was able to make those forty thieves lick dust, but Ram Lall was unable to do anything. He would just curse the day he was transferred to this post. He felt all these thieves were out to rob him, because he was miniature India, a symbolic heir to the whole country which was being robbed.

Sitting in that chair he felt his third eye had opened. It was Shiva’s eye. But unlike Shiva he couldn’t destroy the universe with an angry look of that third eye. He could only see through things. Like Shiva he was drinking the poison of his new awareness.

With the third eye he saw how millions of people die without medicines, why children remain uneducated, why young limbs are eaten away by termites and how people rot away because there are no jobs for them even if they want to work, how freshly built roads develop bumps and potholes after the first monsoon shower, and why every politician spends lakhs to fight elections though after being elected his total salary would be less than that of Ram Lall’s.

But Ram Lall couldn’t do anything about it. He was supposed to say ‘Yes Sir’, and nothing else. He was supposed to take dictations from his boss and type out what was dictated, and attend to the telephone calls. In fact his job was the only identity that he had.

“Ram Lall? Which Ram Lall?”

“Ram Lall, son of Bhairon Prashad.”

“Who the hell is Bhairon Prashad? In this country millions of Ram Lalls and Bhairon Prashads are sold cheaper than turnips, and millions rot in the warehouses”.

“The Ram Lall who is private secretary to the Commissioner of Public Works, and works in the Town Hall”.

“All right, that Ram Lall.”

This was his only identity.

He had three children who needed food, clothes, medicines and money for fees, books and notebooks. They were the future of the country. It does not matter that this ‘future’ never had enough to eat, and never had new books when they went to the new classes. The trousers of ‘future’ were always coming off their seams, particularly from the back; and the shirts had always worn-out collars. Ram Lall’s wife Prema was like a juggler, who always managed to make their shirts by cutting off the rotten portions out of Ram Lall’s worn-out ones, and restitching them, shortening them to three different sizes for her children. She could shorten the length, do a little magic with the cuffs after shortening the sleeves, but she could never learn to make fresh collars. Therefore the same collars travelled from Ram Lall’s neck down to the necks of the children. Like the country’s hunger and poverty, these collars descended from one generation to the other and adorned the necks of the country’s ‘future’. This future was always accused and condemned by their teachers: for coming late, for not doing the homework properly, for not depositing the fees in time, and for being rude and rowdy.

Because Ram Lall was carrying the burden of this future of the country on his tired shoulders, he couldn’t even shrug them off like the mythological Atlas. But Atlas is, after all, a god. Gods are free to do many things : they can shrug their shoulders, can carry mountains on the palms of their hands, can steal butter and watch young nude girls taking bath, can have love affairs with married women, can abandon their pregnant wives to please the people they want to rule, can force their wives to walk through fire to prove their chastity; they can do all these and more because they are gods. But Ram Lall couldn’t even think of shrugging his shoulders because if he did that, he and his family would get buried in the rubble of the ensuing earthquake.

So Ram Lall was silently doing his job, and was gulping down all the poison of his newly-acquired knowledge….

The rainy season had begun. It constantly rained for two days, and on the third morning the roof of a newly-constructed school came down like a pack of cards, and four children died on the spot. Twenty-three of the seriously injured were taken to the hospital.

Ram Lall knew the contractor who had been commissioned to build that school. It was through Ram Lall that his boss had informed the contractor of his thousand-yard plot of land, asking him to suggest a good architect. The contractor smiled an all-knowing smile and said,“Why only an architect? I shall get the house built. Ask Sahib to leave it to me and stop worrying about it.”

Ram Lall felt filthy but dutifully conveyed the message to his boss.

He felt he was one of the accomplices.

The contractor kept his word and the house was constructed within six or seven months. One-and-a-half-storied bungalow. Marble was brought from Makrana, fans, air conditioners and all such items were purchased under the personal supervision of the Commissioner Sahib’s wife. Ram Lall was sometimes ordered to take ‘Mem Sahib’ to the market where she selected the fittings and accessories, and the contractor made the payments.

The house came up beautiful and sturdy because it was to be used by the second and third and fourth generations of the boss. Who bothers about school buildings! They are welcome to fall down even tomorrow.

The children who die under the rubble don’t count. There are millions of them in the country. Heaps of them are born every day.

And if you ask me honestly, who asks these children to go to schools? Why should they? They can shine shoes on the pavements, clean plates on the wayside ‘dhabas’, work as domestic servants in the backyards of factories, carry luggage, hawk newspapers at road-crossings. Well, they can do anything. Why the hell should they pick up their sachels and walk to the schools? Don’t they know that school buildings are make-believe structures and can fall down in the first monsoon shower?

Ram Lall was angry. He was angry with the children who were dead, with the boss, with the contractor, with himself….

In the afternoon, the boss called him and asked him with sweet politeness to collect all the files concerning the construction jobs given to the contractor who had built that school, and come to the ‘kothi’ in the evening….

When Ram Lall reached the Sahib’s house, carrying a huge load of concerned files in the evening, he found the contractor and his son too in the drawing room, having drinks with the boss.

The boss told him, “Well Ram Lall, keep the files on that table, and flag the concerned documents of the contract for the school building.”

Ram Lall started doing what he was told to do. Quietly, and mechanically.

The contractor realized Ram Lall’s importance, filled up a glass and offered it to him. Ram Lall said meekly that he had never touched liquor. But the contractor persisted, “We are honouring you, Ram Lall. You must have a sip. If you don’t, we’ll feel hurt.”

The boss was smiling silently, and was looking on with a patience he was not generally known to possess.

Ram Lall looked at him, felt grateful, took the glass and gulped it down in one go, held out the empty glass, and the contractor refilled it.

After gulping down the second peg, he sat back, relaxed. He opened his eyes and looked up. He had come to this room many a time, but always with downcast eyes. Today he looked up, for the first time in his life, and saw the T.V., the video, the Persian carpets, the flowers in the cut-glass vases, the dinner sets, the music systems.

And he got up, and walked out.

On his way home he kept abusing himself, “Ram Lall, you bastard, what did you achieve in life? What the hell did you accomplish? You couldn’t give two square meals to your family. You couldn’t save those unfortunate children who died under the rubble of the school building. You are a dead dog, Ram Lall…”

He was drunk and was therefore keenly aware of life.

The whole night he kept arguing with himself. The whole long night he was talking to himself and was angry with the whole world.

In the morning he got up. He was sober, and very serious. He took out a new blade, shaved himself, took his bath, changed, and went to his office. Kept climbing the stairs till he reached the top floor.

From there he jumped down.

Translated from Punjabi by the author.

Began her writing career as a romantic, and has matured into a realist. More recently she has emerged as a crusader for women’s issues in perceptive columns displaying a rare courage of convictions. She is the recipient of Punjabi Academy Award, 1984 and Sahitya Akademi Award, 1986 for Khana Badosh. Some of her important collections of short stories are Gulbano, Mahik Di Maut, But Shikan, Saviyan and Churiyan. Among her novelettes are Postmortem, Dhupa Wala Sheher, Khana Badosh and Kachche Ranga De Sheher. At present she is chairperson, Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, New Delhi.

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Began her writing career as a romantic, and has matured into a realist. More recently she has emerged as a crusader for women’s issues in perceptive columns displaying a rare courage of convictions. She is the recipient of Punjabi Academy Award, 1984 and Sahitya Akademi Award, 1986 for Khana Badosh. Some of her important collections of short stories are Gulbano, Mahik Di Maut, But Shikan, Saviyan and Churiyan. Among her novelettes are Postmortem, Dhupa Wala Sheher, Khana Badosh and Kachche Ranga De Sheher. At present she is chairperson, Academy of Fine Arts and Literature, New Delhi.

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