The Waiting Room

I am the echo
of a long forgotten song
reverberating in a chamber.
My voice is made up of counterpoints: 
one blasphemy and one prayer.

————————————————————

The company clerk wipes the sweat over his face; and as his hands move over his mouth, he momentarily admires the new french-cut which he is sporting. The dull humid song of an October afternoon in Guwahati continues to play as the old fan in the chamber rotates eccentrically. The fan is dangling from the ceiling, which is quite high and makes the other people look smaller than they are, the clerk thinks, while smugly noticing that he is taller than all of them. Time is not at its best behaviour, and the office of the BDO (Block Development Officer) is forlorn, because it is lunch hour. Hunger hits the clerk, but he reminds himself that he is fasting. After a while, hunger does not hit the clerk anymore, and he is free to observe. One by one, and sometimes in pairs, they all leave. After a while, he sees that there is only one more person in the BDO’s office waiting for the BDO to come, a young woman. He is not alone, the clerk exclaims in his mind. He continues to observe her.

Her face is wax– stolid, disinterested and yellowish. Her heart must have molten. She must’ve combed her hair neatly in the morning, but they are not obeying her earliest commands at this moment; some tufts choose to fall over her eyes and her forehead. Her head is bowed and she is taking no notice of the clerk as he watches her. The clerk continues to observe.

There is something familiar about her face; the clerk cannot put his fingers on it. It reminds him of his sister, only it is much paler; or perhaps a friend in some previous incarnation. Perhaps, too much fasting, or maybe she is poor. Her clothes are colorful, and her lips are red from chewing betelnuts; but her sandals are absolutely tattered. She lifts her head once, looks around, notices the clerk who shifts his gaze as fast as a gazelle chased by a panther. There is something righteous about her eyes and her way of seeing; she does not consider herself an object of pity. The clerk revises his gaze, and returns them upon her casually. Her head is bowed again. Her neck is beautiful– taut, slender and spotless.

The clock strikes 2.00 and the BDO should be available any moment. The peon is punctual, already on time at his desk.

While the clerk hands over the company visiting card to the peon, the lady initiates a conversation with the peon in Assamese. She is visibly pleading and the peon angrily thwarts her from speaking further. Then, he changes the demeanour of his face and again greets the clerk. The clerk hands him over his company card, which the peon takes into the BDO’s chamber. He returns expectantly, and says: Dada will see you now.

The clerk casts one more glance at the woman. She is sitting in her corner. This time, she is crying with her head in her hands. Her muffled voice will not pierce the curtains into which the clerk now walks.

————————————————–

Dada is sitting on his chair, looking benevolent and merciful. Civilized cultures demand that some hours be given off duty after the lunch for dozing off to sleep; it is scientifically proven that siesta, or bhaat-ghoom as they call it in Assam, makes men healtier and sweet-tempered. As soon as the clerk enters the BDO’s chambers, he begins to feel happier and cheerful, and lazy. Perhaps the BDO finds this atmosphere congenial for working. Perhaps, the BDO is as healthy and sweet-tempered, the clerk conjectures.

“Come, come, have a seat. I have a big order for you. I spoke with your boss. We have a long relation that goes back in history. OK, you want red tea?”

So far, so good.

“No, thanks. I prefer it with milk. And sugar.” The clerk is trying to put on his best behaviour without trying to give the impression of being an uninitiated fool. Perhaps, the BDO is doing the same.

“Mixing sugar in tea will spoil all the taste. But anyways, you are new here. Aye, Fokrul, come here.”

He gives clear instructions on the preparation of the two varieties of tea, as elaborate as a connoisseur, and as patient as a mother, and Fokrul seems to understand everything. The clerk sits comprehending nothing linguistically; but observes that Fokrul knows beforehand what he must prepare, although he still likes to listen to his boss when the boss is giving his orders. The boss likes giving orders; Fokrul likes taking them. There is a tacit undertsanding between the master and the slave, and there is something shamelessly graceful about it.

The clerk is quite sure about the deal. He is confident about his cleverness; what worries him is the number that he will be able to clock. 10 or 15. Can he make it 18? That should please the boss. But he must begin somewhere…

“Dada, there was that lady outside… She was weeping. What happened?”

“Oh. She’s still there?”

Pause. Dada takes a deep breath, and sighs. He is about to deliver something profound. He is looking emotionally constipated.

“Very sad story, sad story… You see she’s a widow. This Pooja only, last month, her husband passed away. Drunken driving accident. No insurance, nothing. She is a fisherwoman from a village thirty kilometers away. Some idiot in her village told her that my office gives ten thousand rupees compensation to widows if they apply on time. She started walking at 3.00 in the night to reach at my office before it opens. Of course, there is no such scheme. We told her she was misinformed. But she wouldn’t relent. She does not even have the money to go back. I did not have the heart to have her thrown out. There’s really nothing we can do for her, you know.”

Pause. The clerk takes a deep breath, and sighs.

“Yes, God only can help.”

The two finish the tea in a hurry, as Dada beckons Fokrul to clear the table.

“OK, Dada, maybe if the department had a decent transport… The new government order allows purchase authority to the BDO. Here…”

Dada looks at the government order, looks at the reverse side, glances at some of the pages in the middle, and then inadvertently throws it back on the table.

“Hmmm. I have spoken to your boss. We have been offered a very attractive deal. We had submitted the tender already. I believe you have come for the cheque.”

Dada shifts the drawer; and then for a moment savours it between his eyes while bringing them closer, and looks piercingly at the clerk. The clerk smiles. He knows the job is done. Dada begins to sign the cheques with a royal effect.

“Dada, we were thinking your department is the biggest here; it will need atleast 20.”

“Aichsaala! 17 is all I can manage. I also have to answer. You will understand. Here is the cheque for 10, and here another for 7. Get them deposited today itself.”

Dada takes out his packet of cigarettes and begins to light one. He offers one to the clerk; the clerk takes out his own packet. Both smoke, talking in between about the rising fuel prices and issues of governance and insurgency.

Dada has the last word: Governance is like driving a diesel vehicle; unless there is traction, you don’t enjoy it.

The clerk knows he is merely playing a role. He does not have to do anything. He is a clerk after all. He does not do anything; he merely watches things as they happen, and makes reports. As he stubs out his cigarette, some of the smoke goes into his eyes. He walks past the curtains, back into the waiting room.

————————————————————

She is not in the waiting room outside the BDO’s office. He expected to find her still sitting and crying in the waiting room. But she is not there.

He bows his head down, and leaves the office. As he walks out, he thinks he should call his boss and inform him about the success of the deal. He begins to dial the number on his mobile phone, and keeps on walking to the exit. There, near the gate, she stands, gazing at the road, looking at nothing, with her back facing the clerk.

The phone begins to ring.

“Hello?”

“Boss, sorry, I will call you back later. It’s done.”

He cuts the phone and walks to her. He takes out his wallet, and gives her a 500 rupee note, without exchanging any words. He is still unable to look into her eyes. She refuses, perhaps out of shame. Now, he looks at her– into her eyes– with a pleading look asking her to take it. She bows down to touch his feet. Before she completes the action, the clerk is on his feet, running away from her as fast as he can, as if in fear and exasperation. She does not know that it is the ground beneath her feet and the dust beneath her tattered sandals that the clerk finds worth worshipping.

All the tears which had been held back ever since he had walked inside the curtain are escaping his control. Humbled by the tremendous epiphany of his littleness, he is sweating from the burst of running; he does not know that it has started raining. The clouds are sprinkling water on the face of the earth, even as the merciful breeze whispers in his ears: You have done nothing.

————————————————————

Like the darkness of a fathomless sea darkened
by wave above wave
and above it all, clouds.
Layers over layers of dark.
If one stretches forth his hand, he can scarcely see it.
For he, for whom God has not set up a light, has no light.
– The Holy Quran

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~ by Bombadil on October 5, 2009.

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