Sukesh looked outside the window, and stared for some time. There were dry hills at a distance; Bahava–the golden shower trees were in the middle and a few birds kept flying near the window; probably just to make sure that there were indeed humans inside, who were sitting so quietly. Sukesh wasn’t looking at any of them in particular. He was just lost in another one of his daydreams.
He was unusually happy today. One reason could be that he got a seat near the window, in this huge reading hall – fully packed and completely silent. Another reason could be a comment on his Facebook post. He admired Satyajit Ingle, a PhD scholar and poet. And when he wrote that particular comment, appreciating his post about farmer suicides, Sukesh felt a sense of achievement.
The first floor of the university reading hall is not usually this crowded around the year. But it was April, the harvest period, the time when the civil services exam is around the corner, and Sukesh was one of the millions who was about to give the exam this year. Again. He considered himself a realist; enough to know he cannot clear it this time either, and nor could most of the people in the hall.
He was still looking outside the window, a book open in his hands, when his phone started vibrating on the table. A boy sitting two chairs away with his head on the table woke up from his sleep, startled. Sukesh panicked, looked at the screen and immediately stood up. Pushing aside a chair, he started walking towards the door hastily, making more necks turn in his direction. He slowed down, and had his eyes glued to the screen while passing through long rows of tables filled with books, kept in disorganized piles and thick bundles of murky rough papers.
He reached the door and received the call before stepping out.
“Haa Dada1? Haa aaloch!”
He came down the stairs as swiftly as he could and as he was about to exit the gate, he turned right, to go into the smaller and darker ground floor section of the building. He knew exactly where Shankar would be sitting now.
The canteen was just a few meters away, but he borrowed Shankar’s scooty to reach there. No matter how occupied the hall was, Shankar would always manage to get the same spot. He was always early and could be found there all day.
Sukesh rode through the main road of the university which was a favourite of many students and locals. It was broad with tall trees on both sides. The trees created a long canopy of branches over heads, stretching along the road. And beyond those trees, were gardens on either side. They were not well maintained and the trees were not very lush either. But perhaps, this place would not have been so comforting if they were.
However, the road was riddled with potholes, and when someone like Sukesh raised their accelerator and disturbed the peace, it would make their vehicle tremble.
After reaching the canteen, he dialed the last name in his call logs – ‘Golu Patil’.
“The person you have dialed is busy,” it said. It was surely an apt description of Golu. No one knew what he was busy with exactly. But he was always busy.
He received a call from the same number a few seconds later.
“Haa ye na, aat ye.”
It wasn’t difficult to find him. Golu was sitting, quite literally on the edge of his seat and talking to the man at the canteen counter from a distance of at least three tables. Next to him was a man, in full white clothes, sitting relaxed against the chair and busy using his phone. Sukesh recognized and greeted him before he could see Golu.
“Prashant Dada, Jay Bhim2,” Sukesh said, after giving a slight smile and a slighter bow to Golu.
“Jay Bhim, Sukyaa! Kasha ahes?” Turning he said, “Sachin! Teen golden chaha aan,” in a low voice but with conviction.
“Arre Nai, order only two. I’ll leave, I have some work,” Golu said, fingers tapping steadily on his phone and slowly got up.
Sukesh asked, hesitantly, “But aren’t we supposed to go? For my job. I thought…”
“I am not going to my funeral Mitra. I’ll come in about fifteen minutes. Got some urgent work,” he said as his phone rang.
“Hello! Arre please ask her to wait. I am coming! Five minutes tops. I am just outside the department.”
Turning he said, “It looks like I am going to my funeral. You have tea with dada. I am just coming and we will leave immediately.”
“Samasa ghenar?” Prashant asked Sukesh, sipping his tea.
“Nai Dada, I have just eaten.”
“So what else… How is the journalism department? Are classes still on?”
“No, they are over. The exams start next week.”
“Oh. Prepare well for it then.”
“No. I won’t be giving this exam. I graduated last year. Now I am preparing for the competitive exams. You forgot.”
“Oh haan… In other words, you are doing nothing these days.” He smirked.
“Exactly,” Sukesh replied after a brief pause.
“Are you sure you won’t have samosa?”
“No, I am fine,” Sukesh said hesitantly, thinking of something to say to keep the conversation going.
“Let’s go outside. This place is suffocating,” Prashant said, getting up.
Sukesh gulped his tea and walked outside after Prashant.
“Is this your scooty? Bring it here,” Prashant said, pulling his own bike towards an empty ground behind the canteen, not waiting for a reply.
He parked it under a tree and asked Sukesh to park his behind it.
In the afternoon sun of Marathwada, a small patch under the tree was the only shade on the ground. They both sat on their bikes, facing the hills with their backs towards the crowded canteen.
They stayed silent for a while, until Prashant lit a cigarette and asked, “What about you? How was the yield this year?”
“The crop is good this year. Not sure at what rate it will go. If it goes at all.”
“You didn’t go for harvest?”
“No…The questions of villagers never stop. For how long will you study? Who will marry you?”
“And they are right. For how long will this go?”
“I am trying Dada. I’ve applied to all the newspapers and websites. There is no opening, simply. I also had an internship experience for three months with a newspaper. Even they didn’t pay a single rupee.”
“You should have stayed at that newspaper for a while. They would have given you a full time job. Why are you always in such hurry?”
“They would never. There was a vacancy for a trainee reporter two months ago. They gave it to a junior of mine, who had absolutely no experience. He had never published a single story. And interestingly he himself admitted as much to our sub-editor. He said that was fine, and that he would learn once around.”
“What is his name? This junior of yours?”
“Hmm, Kulkarni after all. No need to discuss that further. And who is the bureau chief there these days?”
“There you go! I think I have said this to you before. These people have not left any space for us in media, or any industry for that matter. We don’t know who controls the whole ball game, and how it is controlling all of us in return. That’s why our voice is completely absent.”
“I remember you saying something like that.”
“Where is this Patil taking you to?” Prashant asked after taking a long puff.
“He didn’t give any details. But he said there is a vacancy in a PR agency which provides some services to different political parties. He said he knows some people there and can get me a job by recommendation.”
“I see…Look, we work for different parties, but I can’t deny that he is smart and more importantly, very helpful. Take advantage of that. But be careful as well.”
After taking a last puff and putting off the cigarette, Prashant asked, “What do you think of him?”
“I wonder why a man that skinny can be named Golu. And how does he get those damn clothes, which are skin tight, even for him.”
They both laughed as if they were desperately waiting to.
“You know what I think sometimes?” Prashant said, staring at the hills. “That we should have never left our villages and come here. That we should have kept farming on whatever land we had, and remained happy.”
“But you know that things are not that simple there, or convenient I would say.” Sukesh said after a small pause. “There are all types of problems, and discrimination. There is no escape from humiliation either. And most importantly, we know who is controlling and dominating whom there. We would have had to live with all of this, for all our lives.”
“Correct. But at least we would not be trapped in the illusion that we can change it.”
“I think we can,” Sukesh said.
“By pointlessly preparing for civil services?”
“Not really. By working in the media for one. I know I am not able to work there now. But one day I will. Media has the power to bring change.”
“Fine,” Prashant said, smiling, and put the keys to ignition in his bike. “WhatsApp me when it comes. I need to go now. Patil has said he will just come, which means even you can go and wrap up a pending thing or two. Ani ya job sathi subhecha9.”
After waiting for a few minutes, Sukesh rested his hand and then his head on the handle of the scooty, stretched his legs towards the end of its seat, and pulled out his phone.
He scrolled through his Facebook wall and came across a piece of news: ‘55 year old dairy darmer lynched in Alwar. The incident took place on a busy highway. Video vira-’
His phone vibrated again and he got up. “Haan, Dada? I am outside the canteen, just coming.”
Golu Patil was sitting at the usual spot and had ordered tea already.
“Where is Prashant Dada?” he asked.
“He had some work.”
“Oh of course, he is very busy… Look, a friend is coming, and then we’ll leave immediately.”
“Fine. Here’s your pen drive. I edited the photos, and the movies you asked for are in the folder ‘MOVIES.’”
“Are wah! It looks your brother will have a new Facebook DP tonight. By the way, you seem to be having quite a time on Facebook, huh? I saw one of your posts had twenty shares or something.”
“Arre, it just happens sometimes.”
“Great. Will you have a samosa till then?”
“No. I am fine. I had lunch just a while ago.”
“Have one at least. He has started making really small ones anyway…Sachin! Don Samose! I don’t think you have met Nilin Deshpande. He used to work in the PR office I told you about. He has made some great contacts with politicians while working there. Now he is handling big projects for them. The day you told me you are looking for a job, I met him in the evening and spoke about you. He said you have the perfect skillset for the job. He had come here to the administration building for some work so I thought I should call you and take you to the office with him.”
“Thank you so much for this Dada! But to be honest with you, I wanted a job in the mainstream media. But I can definitely work here till I get that.”
“Exactly! What’s most important is having a job.”
“Are you sure you won’t have samosa?”
“Yes, I am full.”
“Sachin! Ekach aan Samosa!” he shouted and then said softy, “I think it’s better not to waste anything.”
A few minutes later, Sukesh left the scooty under the tree. The three of them left the university on Deshpande’s bike when Golu said his bike is at the office and Sukesh can come with him on their way back to the university.
Nilin Deshpande rode the bike towards the office, Golu Patil sat in the middle and Sukesh Kumar at the end, trying to fit in.
After passing through some narrow roads, they took the flyover. The newly built flyover with broad roads was, in fact, broader than the university road. But unlike the latter, it didn’t have gardens on either side. It had absolutely nothing. The road was smooth and would never make someone tremble, unless some sensitive soul realized that dozens and dozens of homeless are under their feet and starts imagining their plight.
They didn’t speak for long. In the middle of the flyover, Nilin seemed to have forgotten everything else and was enjoying the breeze on his face. Satisfied, he gathered himself and continued a short conversation they had at the university gate.
“I think you didn’t understand quite well what kind of job this is,” Nilin said while riding the bike down the flyover and turning his neck slightly. “This is a proper media job, Sukesh. Just like the one you wanted. You have to write sufficient content – reports, opinion pieces, analysis. You will have a good graphics team to turn your piece and opinions into clickbait and visually friendly content. In fact, this is better and bigger than any media house you know.”
Golu was busy with his cellphone and Sukesh nodded along with little confusion.
“The readability of the content you will write or even a small tweet would be sharper than what most of your big editors sitting in Mumbai and Delhi produce,” Nilin continued.
Sukesh found these words amusing and was wondering why Nilin was making such exaggerations. It was only a matter of minutes before Sukesh would realise that these words were quite the understatement.
The building seemed to be newly constructed. One could smell the fresh paint the moment one entered the building. The office was on the third floor and the elevators were not functional yet. They started climbing the stairs.
Nilin waited for Sukesh to come forward, put his arm across his shoulder and said, “They don’t usually allow this. But I thought I should show you the office and tell you more about the work. You will have to face an interview and if you clear it, which I hope you will, there will be a training period for a couple of weeks. And don’t worry; you’ll get a stipend for that as well.”
Sukesh kept listening with his head bowed, matching the speed of the much taller and broader Nilin, while climbing the narrow and steep staircase.
“And as I told you, the power of opinion making we hold is unmatchable. We have the support of the established authorities. Or maybe, they are authorities today because of our support. In fact, we are bigger than anything else in this country if I may say so myself. We control everything, because we make the narrative. We decide what the Prime Minister will say and what he will not. We decide what the media will discuss on Prime Time and what arguments will take place at the tea stalls tonight.”
Sukesh remained silent, unable to understand what to ask next. When they reached the corridor, Nilin asked him to switch off the phone. Golu had already switched off his. Walking through that silent corridor, they opened a thick door and entered a huge hall, fully packed, and noisy. Nilin walked towards the manager’s cabin at the other end of the room and Sukesh followed.
There was a lot going on, all around. Bewildered, he slowed down and kept staring at one of the many screens to understand what was happening here. Upon realizing that Nilin has gone much ahead, he walked faster, passing through long rows of tables filled with neatly arranged mobile phones and laptops. Each person had at least six mobile phones and a laptop in front of them. All of them appeared to be of the same model with different serial numbers stuck on them in dark and bold letters.
They spent fifteen minutes in the manager’s cabin and all the confusion in Sukesh’s head was gone. He came out and walked towards the door, but this time without looking at the tables and those screens. He saw Golu standing in the corridor.
“Nilin Dada?” He asked after looking at Sukesh.
“He said he will stay and asked me to leave if I want. And I definitely want to. Immediately.”
Golu dusted his bike with a cloth from the next bike, while Sukesh turned his mobile on and they left for the university. The sun was still blazing fire and the roads were empty.
“You knew what that place was?” Sukesh asked after a few minutes.
“I don’t know the exact details of the job. But of course, I know what they do there.”
“You told me it is a PR agency!”
“Of course it is”
“No it is not…”
“It is a PR agency, for a party, for their senior members. I didn’t lie to you.”
“Lie? The very foundation of that place is lying, and spreading those lies. And their lies destroy the lives of people on a daily basis. It is a bloody IT cell! Their job is peddling hate and anger. Nothing else.”
“A lie depends on which side you take. You have been told that look, this is the only truth and you keep believing it. And now whatever is on the other side, is a lie to you.”
“So you knew about them and still brought me here?”
“I knew about them, yes, that is why I brought you here…Look you are talented, and if you wait for those newspapers to hire you, you will be waiting forever. Even if you get a job, they won’t pay you even half of this.”
“It is not about money…”
“It is about money! I am surprised you didn’t understand this till now…”
Sukesh’s phone rang.
“Yes Shankar… Yes, I have the keys. I am coming in five minutes. I am just outside the university.”
Sukesh sat on a slightly elevated platform near the administrative building, lost in his thoughts. Golu’s bike was next to him. Golu had gone inside the building to check on the progress of the application Nilin had submitted before the lunch break.
His phone threw up another notification – ‘Man lynched in Alwar dies in hospital. BJP MLA defends mob, blames the victim.’
Slowly the fragrance of sand disappeared and the smell of beedi turned bitter.
“I don’t know why such useless people work here. They forgot about the application that was given just hours ago. And when I reminded them, they asked me to come after two weeks,” Golu said sitting next to Sukesh. “What about you? Did you decide something?”
“About working there”
“Why do you still think I will work there?”
“I don’t understand why you are overreacting.”
“Overreacting? You are asking me to be a an enabler, almost a killer.”
“You don’t know anything about this world. Do you?”
“What I know is that the innocent people who are victims of this horrible crime have a life. They have a family.”
“What crime, what family? How is any of that that related to this?”
“Read this…It says the cow vigilantes had no weapons with them. Well, that is wrong. The weapons of this murder are WhatsApp forwards and tweets. And I know from where this organized misinformation and hate come from.”
“You really think one or two WhatsApp forwards or an article you might be commissioned to write might result in these kinds of lynchings? It is just a part of dhanda, business. The cattle traders need to pay some protection money. It has been going on since years. If they fail to do so, there comes a need to create fear among the community. Even if they pay the money on time, sometimes they feel there is a need to establish dominance. This is done for business, plain and simple. Some silly WhatsApp forward does not kill.”
“But it definitely kills the conscience of the people, it makes this normal, justifies it. It stops us from asking the tough questions and allow this to continue.”
“You are too naïve and charged up. I don’t know who teaches you all this, is it the same WhatsApp university you were berating sometime back? But it is totally up to you, I need to go now. You have their number, you know what to do. Think it over, calmly, not about this, but about the job, the future.
Sukesh read poetry in his room–his go-to activity to deal with every kind of emotion. The faint colored walls of the small room had just two things on it – a tiny plastic mirror and a big poster of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar.
A little past eight, he went to the terrace of the hostel building. It was a full moon night. He stood near the edge and enjoyed the view of how his university was reflecting the tender moonlight. He saw Shankar returning from the reading hall on his scooty. A big tiffin in hand, he came up and stood next to Sukesh.
“So you are saying you finally found a job and a job with more salary than you had imagined. But you don’t want to do it?”
“Yes,” Sukesh said after a pause.
“What is wrong in working at an IT cell? You are just helping a leader and a party to win…”
“But at what cost?” Sukesh interfered while opening the tiffin box. “They will ask us to demonize Muslims, communists, journalists and everyone who speaks against you-know-who,” he continued.
“You don’t understand why this is important. You have not read any history of how we were dominated, humiliated, but still fought back for our pride, for our dignity. If that happens again, this time we will not have a chance to even defend ourselves.”
“But look at what is happening because of that. Have you not seen about the lynching that is happening, in the media?”
“Media? Seriously? You think they are unbiased? Violence should no doubt be avoided. But do they ever speak about the violence on cows, which is happening every minute in our country? And when such isolated accidents happen, they immediately start erupting. They clearly have an agenda.”
“These are not isolated incidents, Shankar. They are increasing every day”
“They will stop, when the slaughter stops.”
At some distance, a few students had gathered, some ladders were put up on the walls of the hostel, and nails were being hammered. The university was being decorated for 14th April.
“I think I know where all this is coming from. You think these people, with their jholas and daflis and red and blue flags know anything?” Shankar continued.
“I hardly ever go to their protests and rallies.”
“But you go to their seminars and attend lectures of their professors. They have different ways to brainwash everyone. Now look, they will do all kinds of programs for the Jayanti but will hardly read his books. They will portray themselves as the greatest flag bearers of equality, while all they do is create differences.”
Sukesh was looking at the going ons downstairs but turned to focus on Shankar and asked, “You think they don’t believe in equality?”
“Not in reality. You will see that in the next two weeks. Most of their speeches will not be about teaching Babasaheb to the people. It will be about teaching hatred towards the other leaders of his time and their organizations. They will keep pitting Babasaheb against Veer Savarkar and the Sangh. What do they know about it? Did you know Babasaheb had regular meetings with the top leaders of the Sangh?”
“Neither do they. Or even if they do, they don’t tell it because it doesn’t suit their agenda. In 1939, or 1940… when Babasaheb was invited to the Sangh in Pune, he was greatly impressed with the discipline and equality of the uniformed men. He saw the untouchables were eating with the upper caste in the same plate, just like you and me. They worked together for the same goal all their lives. Instead of telling this, they will flaunt the posters of Gandhi next to him, against whom Babasaheb had written and spoken enormously. They have also put names of Mohameddian speakers on the posters this time. What do they have anything to do with him?”
“I have heard once, somewhere…When Dr. Babasaheb left Hinduism, he asked some of his followers to accept Islam as their relig-”
“That’s the problem with you. You just take in partial information. Read what he wrote in the books that he especially wrote about them. You will know what he felt about the beliefs and the loyalty of these people towards our nation. As I said, these jholas and daflis have different ways to brainwash and you got caught in one of them.”
Sukesh remained silent for a while and continued eating and then suddenly said, “I may or may not have been influenced by the people you are talking about. But I simply cannot work like Nazi propagandists there.”
“Again. They said Hitler was a crazy man who just wanted to kill all the Jews and you believed them, like all of them did. There is always a reason for a man’s action, a justification. You will never read and listen to what the Jews did. Hitler did what he did to protect the dignity and purity of his people. He wanted to save his country from getting destroyed by the outsiders.”
“Did you just justify state murder of six million people by one man wanting to pure, or whatever you called it, the lineage? You cannot, you did not.”
“Where is the evidence of it all, or of that number? And who?”
Golu was restless after having waited for this long outside the Registrar’s office in the administrative building. He saw Nilin coming out of the office finally and stood up to greet the Registrar from the slightly opened door.
“What happened?” he asked Nilin.
“Wasn’t approving the tender. But I did what I had to. Will be cleared within a week hopefully. Don’t worry.”
“The last time they had asked me to come in two weeks, and then they took more than a month. It is already May. If it is gets cleared quickly this time, we can start the work in June.”
“Don’t be in a hurry all the time Patil. We will get that tender eventually. We cannot expect anything better from these people who are not appointed by merit but some charity. Come let’s have chai.”
They entered the canteen and saw Prashant in his usual white attire.
“Arre Prashant Dada. Jay Bhīm! Khup diwsa nantar darshan dile,” Nilin said in a loud voice.
“Are tumich yet nahi gariban kade.”
“Did you have tea? Even if you did, you have to take another one with us.”
“No, no. I have to leave. I just came to…eh… visit the university.”
“Where are you going in such a hurry dada?” Golu asked.
“To my village.”
“Are wah. When are you returning?”
All of them laughed as Prashant left.
“He reminded me of that Sukesh. Have you talked to him recently?” Golu asked.
“Did a few months ago, but not recently. Give him a call,” Prashant replied typing on his phone.
Sukesh was sitting in a chair near the window, trying to look outside, but was unable to. The view was blocked. He continued to read when his phone vibrated on the table and he immediately stood up to walk towards the door. As it kept ringing, his pace increased. He passed through long rows of tables, filled with neatly arranged mobile phones and laptops. They had sharp stickers of dark and bold serial numbers on them. He pushed open a thick door and picked up the phone in the silent corridor.
1 – Dada – brother (used for someone older or respectful)
2 – Jay Bhim (greeting used by mostly Dalits or followers of Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar)
3 – “How are you? Sachin! Bring 3 golden tea.”
4 – Are Nai – Oh No
5 – Mitra – Friend
6 – “Somasa ghenar?” – “Will you have samosa?”
7 – “Are nai Dada, Jevan zhala attach” – “No brother, I just had my lunch”
8 – Kulkarni – Name of a Brahman (or most superior as per the caste system)
9 – “Best of luck for this job”
10 – Sachin! Two samosas
11 – Birth anniversary of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar
12 – Birth Anniversary
13 – “Prashant Sir. Greetings. You showed up after many days.”
14 – “You are the one who is not ready to meet this poor thing.”
Imaad ul Hasan is a freelance writer and journalist based in New Delhi. He hails from Aurangabad, Maharashtra. Imaad writes fiction and non-fiction on human rights and conservation of environment and historical monuments. He is currently studying at AJK Mass Communication Research Center, Jamia Milia Islamia. He can be reached on Instagram and Facebook.
A The Bombay Review Creative Writing Workshop story.