“Calling all dentists,” the email said. “This is the first national dental conference to be held since the Liberation. All of you are invited to make the event a major success with your presence. Welcome!”
I didn’t hesitate long. I needed a break anyway. The way my life was going, I couldn’t last much longer without falling apart if I didn’t take a break. The person I’d hoped to spend my life with had dumped me out of the blue, the patients had suddenly deserted my practice while the latest currency devaluation had sent equipment costs through the roof, my rent had been raised again, and just a few days ago a neighbour’s wall had collapsed on my house, demolishing half of it. The thing was going to end up in the courts, I could already see that.
If I could have taken a vacation, I would gladly have done so; but a vacation was no longer something that I could even think of without a sigh of nostalgia. I’d no particular desire to attend the conference, but there was one thing that it could offer me that a vacation never would: as the email confirmed, it was a legitimate business expense and so was fully tax deductible.
Two days later I was on a train rattling south west towards the new capital, Indraprastha, named after the abode of the gods. Flying was both too expensive, and, after the events of the Liberation, still far too uncertain. The train was hot and stuffy, the AC was on the blink, and the toilets were backed up. Still, it was moving, and only a few hours late. That, so soon after the Liberation, was something to be grateful for anyway.
Outside the train’s tinted window, the flat countryside slid by, fields stretching on and on towards an impossibly far horizon, marked only by the dots of a few distant trees. Except for an occasional dusty red tractor, the fields were deserted. The farmers were almost all gone, forced off the land by drought and debt, crowding the slums of the cities. The new national patriotic media had announced that they would be given jobs in industry, and that a new renaissance was at hand. I’d shrugged and decided I’d wait and see for myself.
I soon tired of looking out of the window at the empty fields and the dusty little stations, which were exactly the same as they’d always been except that they now flew the new triangular saffron national flag with the Aum emblem, and took out a book. I’d barely opened it before a voice came from the seat opposite. “Hey, you.”
I looked up. It was someone who’d got on at the last station, a man with a thin face and ashes and sandalwood paste smeared across his balding forehead. “Yes?”
“That,” he pointed at the object in my hands, “is a foreign book. Why are you reading it?”
I shrugged. “It’s a book on Chinese history. What’s wrong with it?”
It seemed to be the equivalent of the metaphorical red rag to a bull. “Why don’t you read our history? The new books, written by the patriotic historians? Everyone should read those. Not foreign trash.”
“I’ll do that,” I said, “as soon as I’ve finished this one, thanks.” He subsided, muttering, but I could feel the waves of disapproval coming off him for the next couple of hundred kilometres until he got off again.
Indraprastha was far more congested than I’d anticipated, the station platform crammed with people. I couldn’t decide if they’d just arrived or were waiting for a train out. Armed guards were everywhere, in their black uniforms with saffron headbands. A couple of them glared at me suspiciously, and I could feel them trying to decide if I might be a Christian or a Muslim. But they let me go by, without even asking to see my identity card. Maybe they’d just wanted to make me sweat.
I took a cab. The driver was a thin man with a thick moustache who seemed to take a while deciding whether to take me where I wanted to go. Eventually he nodded. “Get in.” And as soon as I was inside, he began playing devotional music over the speakers, loud enough to drown out anything I might say.
I wasn’t in the mood for conversation anyway,
The venue of the conference was a “model village” on the outskirts, a strikingly rustic looking retreat with low, quite thickly wooded hills and thatched-roofed cottages set around a meandering little stream flowing between red earth banks. Apart from the inevitable cows, there were swans and even a section set apart for a small herd of elephants. It was really quite charming, and one would never have guessed that just on the other side of a high wall was the edge of the city, with a broad road lined by shops and thick with traffic.
As I was registering at the office, a woman with the kind of face that fell naturally into a smile came up to me. “You’re the first one from your part of the country to turn up,” she said. “We didn’t really have a lot of response from the east.”
It felt almost like an accusation. I shrugged. “Well...it’s a long way.”
“Yes, isn’t it.” She grinned and offered me her hand, realised at the last moment what she was doing, and snatched it back hurriedly. There was a brief moment of mutual embarrassment, which she broke with another grin. “I’m Savitri Moomphali. Dr Savitri Moomphali.”
It sounded familiar, and then I remembered. “I saw your name on the list of organisers.” It had struck me mostly because it was the only woman’s name on the list. I’d been faintly surprised even to find the one; post-Liberation, women were now officially “encouraged” to stay at home and raise families, not to work. “It’s nice to meet you.”
“It’s nice of you to say so.” She was older than I’d thought at first, probably around my own age, her hair shot through with threads of silver. “I’m in charge of the delegates’ accommodation, so if you have any problems, you’re welcome to contact me.”
“I will, thanks.” I looked at her curiously. She was dressed rather anachronistically for the post-Liberation era, in black jeans and jacket over a dark red T shirt. Maybe she thought it was making a statement. I just hoped it wouldn’t get her into trouble. “I think I read a paper by you in the Journal of Hindustani Dentistry. About the incidence of oral cancers in the village communities of Hastinapur and their correlation with tendu leaf chewing, wasn’t that so?”
She smiled. “Yes, I’m the district community dentist there. It’s a great opportunity for research.” She reached for a small card and checked off my name. “You’ll want to freshen up after your journey. Someone will show you to your room.”
My room had wooden walls and floor, and a large open window giving on to a balcony buttressed by thick bamboo posts, which overlooked the river. There were two beds. I’d just finished unpacking my things when my roommate entered.
“Hi,” he said, friendlily enough. “I’m Krishan Nariyal. You’re planning to stay all the six days of the conference?”
“That’s right.” I introduced myself. “Not that I’m planning to present any papers or anything. I’m here to learn, not to teach.”
“Ah, there’s plenty to learn.” He was a tall individual with a toothbrush moustache and green eyes which almost vanished when he smiled. “I’m presenting a paper on the therapeutic effects of cowdung-based toothpaste. It’s really quite amazing how effective it is.”
He was obviously highly enthusiastic on the topic – as other things, going by the little trident badge on his chest – so I just sat back and listened to him talk. When he finally paused for breath I took the opportunity to change the subject. “Is this your first time here?”
“Oh, no. I come here at least a couple of times a month. I’ve had a lot of work with the government after the Liberation.”
“That’s nice,” I said. “I’m a stranger in town, myself.”
“I’ll show you around if you want,” he said. “I love this city. It’s more like my home than my real home is.”
The conference was to begin the next morning, so we went down to lunch. It was in a large open air space with tables scattered around among trees, whose leaves were rustled by cool breezes. The whole effect was very charming, and only spoilt by a few television sets on stands which had been set up so that there was always one in view no matter which way you faced.
I met Savitri Moomphali, who was coming away from the buffet with her plate filled with food. “Liking it here?” she asked.
“Yes, it’s nice so far.”
“It grows on you a bit,” she said. “How’s your part of the country? I’m told it’s beautiful.”
I thought about the empty clinic and my house, half-buried under rubble. “Not really, no. I’m rather thinking of moving. Do you know of any jobs around?”
She smiled tightly. “If there were, I can assure you there would be ten candidates already lined up. But if I ever hear anything I’ll let you know.”
I got some food and sat beside Nariyal, who was already half way through his lunch. The man ate with amazing speed. “I see you were talking to our ex-Christian.”
He jerked his head. “The Moomphali woman. Everyone knows she was a Christian who converted just before the Liberation. Just like them, isn’t it, to run over to the winning side to save their skins?”
I didn’t say anything. The food was bland but not bad, plantain and boiled rice and a few other vegetarian dishes on the side. Long before I’d got through it, Nariyal had gone for a second helping, and finished it off too.
“Want to come out to the town later?” he asked, stretching. “Lots of places to see.”
“Might as well,” I said.
We walked out through the gate and into the city. Nearby there was a high enclosure with a head-high concrete wall surmounted by thick iron rods. I’d noticed it earlier when the cab was driving in and asked Nariyal about it now.
“You’ll probably find out,” he said drily. “It’s used a time or two every week, anyway.”
I took another look. It looked like an open topped cage. On one side was a curved horseshoe of concrete, rising in a terrace like a stadium. It was for some kind of game, I supposed. I detested sports, and hoped I wouldn’t be forced to attend.
“It’s a nice spectacle,” Nariyal said. “Very compelling. You’ll like it.”
There was a gate on one side, very tall, and a couple of workers were welding a section of it, supervised by a man in a white cap and white T shirt. He noticed me watching, frowned, and waved me away. He looked like an irritable type anyway, with a reddish face and deep-sunken eyes. His moustache was like a bar between his nose and upper lip.
We took an autorickshaw and drove around town while Nariyal showed me its wonders. It wasn’t anything like as special as he seemed to think. I’d visited better, both abroad, before the Liberation, when I could still afford to travel and there were no restrictions on which countries one could visit, and even here. But then I wasn’t seeing it through his eyes.
“Look,” he said enthusiastically, pointing to a temple, a towering structure of spires and gateways, surmounted by saffron flags. “There was a mosque here once, and now we’ve taken back what was ours. Now at last our people have risen again!”
For an instant I looked away, and saw the autorickshaw driver watching us in the rear view mirror, and at that moment I knew, with absolute certainty, that he was a Muslim or a Christian, camouflaged for his own safety. He noticed me looking back, glanced away quickly, and accelerated. At that moment he was probably praying fervently to Allah or Mother Mary or someone that I hadn’t realised what he was and wouldn’t give him away.
I shrugged inwardly. It was no affair of mine anyway. As an atheist, I was almost at as much risk as he was. Not as much, but almost.
We came back to the village when the evening was shading towards night, just in time for supper. The television sets were on, and they were all turned to the same channel.
An elderly white woman in a nun’s wimple was speaking. A subtitle identified her as Sister Dana. She was saying something about a church being desecrated. “They destroyed everything,” she said as we arrived. “And what they couldn’t destroy, they burned.”
A few people cheered. “And tomorrow we’ll burn you too, witch!”
The scene cut to a government office, where a bearded man in saffron robes looked solemnly at the camera. “We had already revoked Sister Dana’s visa,” he said. “She has been staying on illegally in this country and will be deported by the end of the week. We’ll investigate how she was permitted to stay on for so long.”
Supper was even blander than lunch. And afterwards Nariyal offered me some of his cowdung toothpaste.
“No, thanks,” I said. “I’ll stick to the one I use. Thanks anyway.”
“Suit yourself,” he shrugged. “Pretty soon all the other brands will be made illegal, and then you won’t have a choice. The file’s just waiting for the minister’s signature.”
And that night I discovered that Nariyal snored. Shrilly.
The next morning there was alarm and excitement. Some woman had been attacked in the city, gang-raped and murdered. The perpetrators were known, the TV said. They included three Christians.
“Please remain calm,” the government spokesman said on the TV sets. “The criminals will be tracked down. We know why they did it – it’s in revenge for the government deporting the nun Dana. They’ll be captured, very soon, and suffer the consequences.”
“There’s already been some consequences,” someone said, audibly. “I hear some Christians and Muslims have been caught and taught a lesson.” He laughed. “They seem to need lessons every now and then, don’t they?”
The conference opened shortly afterwards. The inauguration was of course entirely religious, with priests chanting over a sacred fire. Nariyal then took the centre stage and spent the entire morning on his cowdung toothpaste. He spent more time quoting ancient texts than modern laboratory work, and that too was entirely in accordance with government guidelines. After that he came over to me.
“How did it go?” he asked.
“Great,” I said. “You’ll have them all brushing with it in no time.”
“I do hope the neem stick crowd don’t throw a wrench in the works,” he said, looking at the afternoon’s schedule. “They’re demanding that we all abandon toothpaste completely and use neem chew-sticks instead.”
“You have science on your side,” I told him.
“True,” he said gloomily. “But they have tradition, and they can quote scriptural references, and that’s all that matters.”
As the conference closed for the day there was a brief flutter of excitement. “Come along,” Nariyal told me. “There’s something you have to see.”
“Come along where?”
“To the gate. If we hurry, we can still get front row seats.”
There was already a crowd gathering when we arrived, with a number of black-clad security men watching. Inside the cage, I saw, were ten or fifteen young men. Some of them looked as though they were from the far north of the country, with slanted eyes and high-cheekboned faces. All but one of them were gathered in a knot in the centre, looking around nervously.
“Christians,” Nariyal said. “They were caught in the town today. The rapists might even be among them.”
“What?” I asked. “If you aren’t even sure that they’re the rapists, what –”
“Don’t you understand? We’ve got to make an example.”
“What are you going to do with them?”
I noticed the one man who was not part of the group, and who seemed to be trying desperately to climb up the iron rods. He seemed familiar, and suddenly I recognised him. It was the man in the white cap who had been supervising the welding of the gate the previous day. “What about him?”
“Oh, him. I think one of the rapists has been identified as a relative of his. It’ll be a deterrent.”
A hush suddenly fell over the crowd, which had grown so large by now that it had overflowed the stands and was pressing us against the concrete wall. I had to rise on tiptoe to look over it.
The huge gates at the far end had opened, and when I saw what was coming in through there, I realised why everyone had fallen silent.
I turned my head away as the men in the cage, screaming, made a rush for the wall. A hand clutched at the rod next to my head and was abruptly snatched away. There was a shrill, infuriated trumpeting.
“Don’t look away,” Nariyal said in my ear. “If you’re caught not watching, you’ll draw suspicion and you might end up there yourself.”
Later, when it was over, Nariyal took me to a stall where green coconuts were on sale. “You look like you need one,” he said, as the vendor chopped off the top and put in a straw. “The first time’s always the worst, but you’ll get used to it, never fear.”
“True,” the coconut vendor said. “Each time there’s one of these, my business does much better.”
I watched as the three elephants were led out of the cage. Their tusks were smeared with blood. One of them raised its trunk and trumpeted in my direction.
“They only kill when ordered to,” the coconut vendor said, laughing. “So you don’t have to worry at all, master.”
Later, after I’d packed my bags and began my trek down to the gate, I passed the dining area. There was only one person there. I recognised Savitri Moomphali, who was sitting over a small plate of food. She waved and I walked over.
“What’s this?” she asked. “You’re leaving us already?”
“Yeah, well,” I said. “Something’s come up, an emergency at home. I’ve to get back right away.”
“That’s sad,” she said. “We were hoping to have you for the full duration.”
“Maybe I’ll be back next time,” I said.
“Yeah, I hope so.” She smiled, rather wanly. “Hey – you were talking about a job, weren’t you? I think I might be able to get you one.”
“Is that so?” I asked. “Where?”
“Hastinapur,” she said. “There’s an opening for a dentist in charge of the district.”
“Hastinapur?” I repeated. “But isn’t there where you...” There seemed to be something wrong about her, and I suddenly realised what. She was awkwardly spooning food up with her left hand. And now I saw her right arm was swinging uselessly by her side. She saw me looking.
“Yes, well,” she said. “They weren’t to know. They believed this rumour that I was a Christian, you see.”
Copyright B Purkayastha 2015
Note to reader: This is an almost exact account of a dream I had on the night of 23rd/24th November 2015, changed only to leave out a few of the usual dream inconsistencies and to fit it into a narrative framework.