'Our only child. A Communist.'
'There was an encounter by the police inside this room, five years ago. He was shot in one arm, but managed to escape.'
'Missing since then. May Jesus keep him alive.'
A revealing excerpt from Asim Mukhopadhyay's Half Man: A Novel On The Naxal Movement.
All Illustrations: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com
Subi received a call from the Divisonal Commissioner, Nagpur.
'Keep a close watch on the Godolwahi and Yerkad regions in the Gadchiroli tehsils where a Naxalite infiltration from West Bengal through Bihar has been reported by the state's intelligence department. They are settling down in the Surajgarh forest and planning to upset the state's mining projects.'
Next day, Subi left for Gadchiroli, along with the SP and a small contingent of policemen in plain clothes.
Bhola accompanied him.
They reached Gatta, a village of pristine beauty and infinite peace.
It had a rich deposit of iron ore and limestone.
A few days ago, some people came in a blue car and did some survey work.
They did not talk to the Gonds, living in the village and the vicinity for centuries.
But nobody saw any 'Bangali babu' or any other stranger.
On many occasions, the negative impact of an incident has far-reaching consequences.
The macabre tale of the Kashipur-Baranagar massacre haunted the ruling parties in India and they saw the ghosts of the deceased Naxalites even in the daytime.
Subi sent back the SP and his men, camped in Gundjur, another Gond village, for seven days.
One afternoon, some women came up to him.
'Sahib, our land helps us to grow rice, sell tendu leaves and celebrate with mahua. Please! Don't wrest it from us.'
After they left, Bhola said, 'Sir, I smell a storm in the air.'
Two months later, Subi received an application from a multinational mining company requesting a lease of 348 hectares of forest land to mine iron ore.
'Please visit Brahmapuri to enquire if a group of Naxalites is active in the guise of social activists.' The DC called Subi once again.
So the cat came out to chase the rat.
But no catch was available there, except a small pox vaccination team, comprising seven people that included two women.
Yes, there were disturbances caused by members of a religious minority group, misled by the local witch doctors.
'I advise all of you to haul your tails away from my village,' said an old man with flowing white beard.
He was identified and arrested.
But there was no trace of any big cat, striped or spotted.
It remained as elusive as ever.
The DC was replaced by a new one.
But not the Naxalite obsession.
The new man sent Subi to Etapalli in the Surajgarh forest on a new adventure.
No ultra-left or ultra-right element was found.
The Ungoti and Phungoti Gonds were quite happy with their rice, potato, tendu and mahua.
They could be happier if they could have a little more salt to go with the rice.
The tired Collector decided to pack up.
But an untoward incident was waiting for him.
One afternoon, three overzealous cops dragged in a young Ungoti couple before him.
'They were moving around your tent for about an hour and paid no heed to our warnings,' said one.
Since nobody in the camp knew the Gond language, the headman was summoned.
It was learnt that the couple, newly married, had come to beg for some salt, but did not dare approach the Collector.
The husband showed several bruises on his back, arms and legs, that he had received from the cops instead of a few pinches of salt.
Subi left the village like a vanquished villain followed by Bhola.
Five years passed by chasing the invisible.
Chandrapur was the largest district in the country with dense forests and large deposits of iron ore, limestone, coal, dolomite and white clay, and of course the omnipresent invisible 'Naxalite'.
Subi was fed up being its Collector.
At last the proverb 'patience pays' came true.
Though he did not find the big cat, he was to see its pug marks soon.
Once on his way back to Chandrapur town from Jivati, Subi stopped at a roadside weekly market at a village called Kaoni.
All over India, such markets have lots of fun in store to amuse people.
Subi bought some vegetables, a bunch of blood-red roses, and jostled his way out of the crowd.
Some people were amused by his anglicised look, particularly the suspender worn to keep his trousers right in place, but could not recognise him as the Collector sahib.
When he got back to the car a bearded cyclist stopped beside him.
The man observed him minutely and remarked with a bantering smile, 'The English have left the country, but the half-English haven't.'
He then gave a light pull at Subi's suspender and asked, 'Driven out of London, my sony, eh?'
Bhola flew into a rage at the man's audacity and gave him chase.
But the cyclist, though above fifty, was a good rider.
He zigzagged on his wheels through the crowd and disappeared.
As the car drove past the weekly market, flickers of monsoon lightnings across the sky warned of the advent of a violent storm.
Fierce clouds overhead growled like hungry carnivores.
Shortly after, a deluge came down.
The driver switched on the wipers.
But the visibility being too poor, he parked the car beside a dilapidated house.
With the doors and windows all closed and the walls wet to the skin, the building looked mysterious and forbidding.
Since the air inside the car was getting suffocating, Subi decided to enter the house for shelter.
As usual Bhola accompanied him.
After banging on the door several times, it was opened by a middle-aged woman, all skin and bones.
'We're stranded by the rain,' Subi said.
'I understand. You're welcome. Come along,' she said and climbed the crumbling stairs.
Two tiny rooms.
Plasterless, untidy, inundated ankle deep by rain waters that had percolated through numerous leakages in the ceiling.
In the front room, on a simple cot was seated a sexagenarian man.
Sickly, emaciated, with hollowed cheeks and eyes sunken deep inside sockets, he looked like a living corpse.
'My husband -- dumb,' the woman said with a dry smile.
She took them to the next room.
On the wall, there was a photo of a young man in his early thirties.
Handsome, bold, eyes sparkling.
'Our only child. A Communist. There was an encounter by the police inside this room, five years ago. He was shot in one arm, but managed to escape. Missing since then. It's said he is in Srikakulam in Andhra. May Jesus keep him alive.'
'How do you subsist?' Subi seemed confused.
'I'm a primary school teacher. But the salary is already spent footing my husband's medical bills.' She sighed.
The Collector fished into his pocket and brought out his wallet.
The woman shook her head.
'Sorry, a Communist's mother does not live on charity.'
The rain let up around six thirty in the evening.
The air inside the car was stuffy.
So the windows were opened.
A gust of soothing, cold wind sneaked inside and said, 'Hello everybody!' The driver switched on the engine.
A little later, Subi ordered the driver to look for a roadside eatery.
'I feel thirsty. Find a place that serves tea and begunis.'
He had taken a fancy to the dish during his stint in West Bengal.
It is a popular snack made of sliced brinjals, dipped into pasted gram and deep fried on a steady fire.
It is available in roadside tea shops all over West Bengal, from the hilly villages of Darjeeling to the mosquitoe-infested Sunderbans.
The more shabby the tea shop, the more appetising the beguni, says the common refrain.
The driver stopped the car at a small vegetable stall where a hurricane lantern was trying desperately to keep its conjunctivitis-affected eyes open, ignoring the all-pervading darkness wet with eerie silence.
The enterprising seller had no buyer, only scores of dragonflies, grasshoppers and other tiny winged guests buzzing around the lantern.
In front of the man, in big baskets, were tomatoes, potatoes, onions and some brinjals.
Subi bought one kilogramme each of brinjals and potatoes for home.
'Is there any tea shop nearby?' Subi asked the greengrocer who pointed his finger to a shabby, tin-roofed structure.
'Go there. It's run by a Muslim couple from West Bengal. They serve good tea and Bengali pakoras,' the man replied.
'It is closed,' Subi said.
'No, Sir, it's a house-cum shop closed because of the rain.'
Subi and the others went to the shop and banged on the tin structure.
Once, twice, thrice. A faint female voice responded. 'Who's there?' Some children echoed her voice in a chorus. 'Who's there?'
'Customers. We want tea and begunis,' Subi replied.
'Customers! At this odd hour!' The voice was fraught with suspicion.
'Yes, we are. We are teachers from a school at Chandrapur, returning home from the Kaoni weekly market.'
Subi's men were surprised at the glibness he lied with. 'An ideal bureaucrat,' one bodyguard whispered to the other.
'Selim's father, should I open the door?' the woman sought somebody's consent.
'Hain, khulo. Bhay nai. Ami achhi na. Jai, namaz pori gia (Yes, open. No fear since I'm present. I'm going to say my prayers)' -- a male voice floated out.
The door was opened. 'Please come in,' said a pretty, early-fortyish woman.
'Please come in,' parroted six children.
Subi looked around.
A few benches for customers and a table to keep the tea things.
Two feet away from the table was a hearth, still burning.
Though the air outside was quite cold, everybody felt a warmth inside the damp, dingy room.
'What do you want to have?' the woman asked.
'What do you want to have?' the children repeated.
The driver and the bodyguards burst into laughter.
The woman shooed the kids away.
'We want tea and begunis,' Subi said.
The woman noticed the brinjals kept on a bench.
She smiled. 'We don't have any brinjals. May I take three from yours?' she was apologetic.
Subi nodded enthusiastically.
The woman carefully selected three brinjals and sat down on the floor and started to cut them up.
After ten minutes she placed three platefuls of begunis before her customers.
Thereafter, she served tea.
The begunis made the rain-soaked evening delicious.
'Now it is time to leave. How much should I pay you?' Subi asked the woman.
'Pay fifteen rupees for the tea. You need not pay for the snacks. The brinjals were yours,' she smiled.
'But the oil is yours. The wok is yours. The labour is yours,' Subi countered.
'That's right. But you're our mehman, our guest,' she cast a mesmerising glance at him.
'You're our mehman.' The kids were back. The woman giggled. Subi gave her a hundred-rupee note.
'I don't have any change. Let me call in my husband. He might have finished his namaz.'
'O Selim's father, please come in,' she shouted and lifted the curtain that separated the shop from the interior.
There appeared a man from behind the curtain, the great traditionalist who had poked fun at Subi at the weekly market at Kaoni.
'Driven out of London, my sony, eh?' The two stood face to face, eyeball to eyeball, dumbfounded. Suvenallah!
Two big jolts in the same evening. More piercing than two gunshots.
Excerpted from Half Man: A Novel On The Naxal Movement by Asim Mukhopadhyay, with the kind permission of the publishers, Niyogi Books Pvt Ltd.