Fiction | ‘Somebody Else’s Problem’ by Kruti Brahmbhatt

‘Where is the purifier?’ asked the assistant commissioner.

‘The purifier?’ the junior officer responded.

‘Yes, what else?’

‘Oh, the air purifier…’

‘I told you, a week ago.’

‘Yes, sir. I didn’t forget. By tomorrow–?’

‘No, not tomorrow. By evening, in the conference room.’

‘I thought he wasn’t serious,’ said the junior officer, returning to his desk.

‘Air purifier?’ the typist responded.

‘Yes.’

‘Is there such a thing?’

‘Yes, a purifier, an air purifier, and there exists such a thing.’

Glancing towards the main door, the junior officer spotted the peon sweeping the floor as if he was aiming a fast paced ball with his broom. ‘Kanu, come with me.’ Halfway down the stairs, the assistant stopped by the office of the scientist who was calculating some numbers on a brand new computer, almost the size of a window. He tapped the scientists’ shoulder.

‘Emergency.’

‘Where to find that air purifier?’

‘You told me only last week. I thought we had some time.’

‘No, no. Need to get it by this eve-’

‘The scientist is in Chandigarh.’

‘So we go there, check the instrument and get the damn thing by evening. Okay?’

‘But I need to come up with some figures. For the meeting tomorrow.’

‘Do it in the evening. Without that purifier, both of us won’t be here tomorrow. Still on probation, remember.’

The scientist joined reluctantly but didn’t seem to care about this unplanned trip to Chandigarh. He continued to scribble something, some numbers, in his diary even when they were in an auto rickshaw going through a bumpy road. Kanu sat with the driver in the front, two of them on separate ends in the back seat.

‘Sir, why are we going to Chandigarh?’

‘To get the air purifier, Kanu.’

‘Sir, is it so big that all three of us need to go?

‘Any problem? Do you have to present a budget in the parliament?’

‘No, no, sir. I was just asking, sir.’

‘Let’s look for the Delhi-Chandigarh bus at the station.’

The station was a mile away.

‘I have to derive numbers by tonight. Mr. Aurangabadkar need them for tomorrow,’ said the scientist, scribbling something in his diary.

‘This air purifier is also for Mr. Aurangabadkar and it’s also for tomorrow,’ said the junior officer.

‘Yes, yes. I know.’

They continued their journey, the assistant looking at the giant buses, one of them read Delhi-Chandigarh. They got out of the auto rickshaw and hopped on the bus, paid for their tickets and sat in the first row. The scientist occupied the window seat. He periodically stared outside at the gray sky and as and when a giant bus passed by their bus, covered his nose with a muffler. Twice, when the junior officer had looked his way, not for any reason other than to understand the reason behind the scientist’s heightened sensitivity for pollution.

Almost an hour later, despite witnessing its many manifestations – air pollution by trucks and buses, agriculture activities and mining activities, huge factories and little chulhas – the junior assistant remained unperturbed. They saw a group of farmers gathered on their farm to sprinkle pesticides – again air pollution. The scientist pointed his finger in that direction but didn’t waste words.

‘We work in the environment department but don’t be so sensitive,’ said the junior officer. ‘At least this pollution will kill people years later. If they don’t earn with whatever means available, they’ll die now. A dog’s death, you see. I am with Mr. Aurangabadkar on this.’

‘My cousin died of cancer five years ago and he was only forty-eight and when we asked the cause, the doctor said that constant exposure to pollution was possibly the culprit. And this is only going to get worse in Delhi.’

‘Which year was this?’

‘Almost five years ago, in 1985.’

‘I’d still say,’ said the junior officer who had taken upon himself the duty of justifying development at the expense of pollution, ‘It’s lesser of the evil.’

‘What?’

‘It’s all about the short run, my brother. In the long run, we are going to be dead anyway. Then, why worry? Think about now. This worked out for the west. Hopefully, it would for us too.’

‘But this is not a sustainable model. And, why do we need to imitate?’

‘No, we don’t. But, this is how the world works. This is how the business lobby thinks. And this is how the politicians think. And this is how Mr. Aurangabadkar thinks.’

At that moment the bus stopped for a break. All three, went outside to relieve themselves.

‘Now, don’t tell me we can’t piss next to the tree. That must also add to some kind of pollution, right?’

‘No, it’s actually good for the soil, for the tree. Kanu, don’t you people use urine in the biogas plant in your village?”

‘Yes, sir. They add cow dung, and urine and all kinds of things.’

At that moment the bus conductor called everyone. All three, stepped up and sat on their respective places one by one.

‘There, I see that fellow in green sweater, still drinking tea,’ the conductor shouted, pointing to an obese man drinking tea and chatting away with the tea-stall owner. He finally heard the conductor, paid money to the tea-stall guy and almost ran to catch the moving bus.

In exactly, four hours and thirty minutes, they reached Chandigarh. The greenery in the city pleased their senses. The junior officer ordered both of them to walk faster to the manufacturer’s shop.

‘Are you sure it was in sector 25?’

‘Yes. Two-minute walk from here.’

‘We have to be back to Delhi by evening.’

‘Shouldn’t be a problem, a bus is at two another one at three.’

‘Let’s aim for the first one. Leaves us an hour to close the deal.’

‘No more than thousand rupees.’

The shop owner cum scientist was cleaning some machine parts. When he saw the buyers, he left the instruments on the table and came up to the front desk to welcome them.

‘So where is the purifier?’ said the scientist.

‘Sir, here it is. The only piece I have,’ responded the shop owner. ‘It’s a futuristic invention, sir.’

‘What’s the price?’ said the scientist.

‘Only twenty five hundred rupees, sir,’ said the scientist, his back supported by the thick cushion on his chair. Everybody knew that these shops quoted double the price to begin with. But this was more than double.

‘Please quote the final price. At this price, no one will buy,’ said the junior officer.

‘Two thousand rupees for you, sir.’

‘We have no budget to go beyond nine hundred rupees.’

‘I can’t afford to sell at that price, sir. No, no. Not possible.’

‘Look, nobody knows about this damn thing. It will only rot in your shop.  It’s too early to be commercialised. You understand, right? We might be able to find ways to sell it in the future and at that time you will have an edge over others. First mover’s advantage, you know.’

‘Nine hundred and fifty, the final price.’

‘Okay, let’s see the instrument.’

‘Sir, you switch it on and it purifies the air in the room. Nothing else to do. Leave it on like you leave a cooler on in the summers.’

‘Here, take nine hundred and fifty rupees.’

The junior assistant and the scientist helped Kanu to carry the box with a shining blue ribbon around it. Kanu kept the box next to his seat in the bus. When they were getting off to Adhchini, a little girl came close to the scientist and asked if it contained a present for someone. The scientist smiled and shook his head before waving the girl goodbye.

It was close to seven in the evening. They rushed back to the office. The assistant commissioner’s office was quiet. The peons outside were moving chairs and tables to the conference room.

*

 The assistant commissioner was drawing some figures on the black board.

‘Sir, we’ve got the air purifier. It’s in the conference room.’

‘What’s the price? One thousand rupees?’ He turned around.

‘Yes, sir, one thousand rupees. We negotiated hard but it’s a rare machine so we had to pay what we had to pay.’

‘Don’t worry. Will get it reimbursed.’

‘Yes, sir. This thing will be useful to convince the NGO people. They can be stubborn.’

‘Never quite liked them. Bullshit arguments. Bring CNG, save environment, disrupt the economy. Stupid they are. You understand, stupid people.’

‘You are absolutely right, sir.’

‘Even if the boss tries to pass this bill, will he get the funding from businesses in the next election? Will he get votes from people who’d bear the inconvenience initially? People are interested to solve a problem only when it comes to their own backyard.’

‘Yes, sir, right sir.’

‘If they don’t want to pay the price, why should we?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Show that thing and finish the demo quickly.’

‘Yes, sir. I have it set up in the conference room.’ The junior assistant leads the assistant commissioner to the conference room on the top floor.

‘Sir, I will start the machine and talk about how it purifies polluted air. We can say if the situation deteriorate in the future, say in two decades from now, we can even subsidise the air purifiers for the poor.’

‘And-’

‘And that intervention will be better than disrupting the system now.’

‘What intervention and all, huh?’

‘Sir-’

‘Don’t use jargons and all.’

‘Sir, I thought it would impress the audience.’

‘Most ministers present tomorrow aren’t even matric pass, you understand.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Think of your audience first.’

‘Right, sir.’

‘You can’t hit six on every ball, you see?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘But, don’t worry about the presentation. Let Ashok handle everything. You keep your focus on the air purifier. It should work. That’s all.’

‘Sure sir. I have understood it properly.’

 ‘Good. Good. Now send that Ashok in my cabin.’

‘Sir, he had also come with me. He might still be working on the numbers as he was on the way.’

‘He could have prepared the whole thing before a day, at least. Send him right away.’

*

‘Ha ha, so Ashok you went to Chandigarh as well?’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Where are the numbers?’

‘Sir, I am done calculating most figures. Pollution deaths per year, cost of implementing CNG, benefits of using the diesel vehicles–everything is ready.’

‘Do what you have to do. Get me numbers that can convince people. In fact, put up only those numbers which can help us maintain the status quo.’

‘Yes, sir. But I have a small objection.’

‘What?’

‘Sir, if we put up all the numbers. The decision is likely to be in favour of the CNG buses. We will save lives. We will save the environment. And, in the long run, everybody will be better off.’

‘Yes, we will save the environment. Sure. We will also save lives. But what about those lives which will be affected by this decision now?’

‘Sir, I know. CNG, unlike diesel, cannot be adulterated, cannot be siphoned off, and there is no money in its spot purchases.’

‘That’s why I got you on this job, Ashok. You are sharp. Sharp is what you are. Good. Very good. But what’s the point in backing the option which won’t get implemented?’

‘Sir, Environment Protection Act passed two years back. And it empowers the government of India to take all measures necessary for the purpose of protecting and improving the quality of the environment.’

‘Ha ha, you’ve become a textbook parrot. Academic knowledge is good but doesn’t work in the real world.’ Mr. Aurangabadkar walked upto the blackboard, scribbled something. ‘Now, read this out loud.’

‘Laws are symbols of intention and not of action,’ Ashok read without a pause.

‘See health, disease, and polluted air are not part of the public discourse right now. Convenience of commuters and transporters matter. The poor will suffer, but they’ll also have cheaper option to commute.’

‘Sir, unfortunately they are the ones who’d most adversely be affected in the long run.’

‘See, it’s not going to be that bad. The positives and the negatives cancel each other out.’

‘Sir, but what about their well-being?’

‘Look, you want your job, don’t you? Let this be somebody else’s problem twenty years from now,’ said Mr. Aurangabadkar, taking his seat. ‘It’s a shame, I have to explain this to you at this level. It’s not the world of Gandhi and Vivekananda we live in. A big animal eats the smaller one, it’s a law of the jungle. Period. Do you get it?’

‘Sir, I am only suggesting that we could get all the data to the decision makers. That way at least we will have shouldered our moral responsibility.’

‘You are single, right?’

‘What, sir, yes, sir.’

‘That’s why so much idealism.’

‘Sir, I do have a family of six to support.’

‘In that case, Mr. Bhatnagar, it’s sorted. We have only one responsibility. To save our damn jobs. Do you get it? I don’t have any more time for this.’

‘Sir, I was only suggesting.’

‘Good. That’s good. Discussion is always good. But now focus on the data to present tomorrow. These NGO people should be on board. Do you get it?’ the assistant commissioner tapped his fingers on the table.

‘Yes, sir.’

‘If you can’t explain, what do you do?’ Mr. Aurangabadkar takes off his glasses and rubs them with a white handkerchief. ‘Tell me, what would you do?’

‘I will try to simplify things, sir.’

‘No, no. Wrong answer. If you can’t explain, what you do is you confuse people. Throw more confusing options. So the indecision remains. Status quo remains. Anyway, what’s your argument?’

‘Sir, we must carry on with the diesel buses. If the air quality deteriorates in a couple of decades, we can fix the problem through masks, air purifiers and even oxygen bars. That’s going to be cheaper than disrupting the transport business at this stage. Also, will highlight the difficulties in implementation.

‘But what’s the slogan? What will you put in the posters?’

Garibi hatao, desh bachao.

‘Excellent.’ The assistant commissioner stood on his place and began packing his bag. ‘I see you are a bright young man. You have a very promising future. Keep it up.’

‘Thank you, sir. Whatever I have learnt, I have learnt only from you.’

*

When the assistant commissioner reached home that evening and stood at his door he saw two giant boxes by the shoe rack.

‘Any idea when did these arrive?’ he asked his wife when she opened the door.

‘No. Nobody rang the bell. Who sent them?’

‘Long story.’

‘Let’s take them inside first.’

‘Tell me, is it a surprise gift for me?’

‘No.’

‘You are always busy on the phone, be aware of these things.  Such huge boxes they are. They were lying outside god knows for how long.’

‘But who sent them?’

‘They must be from Mr. Agarwal or Mr. Rana or maybe the Patel brothers.’

‘How do you know?’

‘I know. Must be for tomorrow.’

Both of them uncovered the gift boxes and found a TV set and a music system. Mr. Aurangabadkar saw a card inside and it was from Mr. Agarwal and it said the gift was for their wedding anniversary next week.

‘How do they know these things?’

‘They know. They always do.’

‘What do they want from you?’

‘I know what they want.’ Mr. Aurangabadkar busied himself in setting up the music system in the drawing room. ‘I know very well what they want. Good, I like smart people.’

‘They were the ones who sent twenty boxes of Soan Papdi on Diwali last year. Didn’t they?’

‘Yes. Prepare an envelope with your calendar tomorrow. Those handmade ones made by the orphans in your organization. It would look good. Will give it when I see him tomorrow.’

Before Mr. Aurangabadkar could open the box of TV fully, their daughter scuttled down the stairs. The blue ribbons, extricated stapled pins and thermacol pieces scattered in the entire drawing room. When his daughter came running towards him, she got hurt by the stapled pins on the way. Mr. Aurangabadkar immediately got the first aid kit and put a Dettol on her toe. Before she let out a cry, he showed her the new TV set and the music system. The child forgot about the wound and began experimenting with the remote control buttons.

*

The scientist, was looking out of the window and saw a ragpicker collecting plastic bags, plastic bottles and other junk on the road side. He walked at a leisurely pace with his oversized jute bag, picking things on the way. After a few minutes, two beggar kids appeared out of nowhere and asked him for something. Before asking them to wait under a banyan tree, he placed his bag by their side and kept walking in an opposite direction, towards a shop. He came out with a packet of Parle G biscuits and distributed between them. The scientist kept staring the ragpicker until he disappeared with his jute bag. Somebody knocked at the time.

The peon asked if posters were ready to be put up. The scientists said that they’d be ready early morning tomorrow. He picked up posters, began filling them up with data and charts, compelling pictures and quotes.

‘Ashok sir, do you need tea before I leave?’ asked a peon.

‘No, you go.’

‘Sir, I have closed all doors. The watchman will close the building after you leave.’

The peon was certain that the scientist would not complain to the assistant director if he left the office before he did. He could not imagine leaving the premise when the assistant commissioner sat in the office working till late sometimes.

 ‘Ashok sir.’

‘Huh…What is it?’

‘Nothing…Sir, is it a very important meeting tomorrow?

‘Who said?’

‘I was just asking. I saw other peons running around with tables and chairs so I thought–’

‘Some people are coming, yes.’

‘I have been asked to serve fresh orange juice tomorrow along with tea, coffee and biscuits. That’s why I wondered if–.’

‘You’ll know tomorrow, if that’s the case,’ Ashok continued writing on the poster with a marker.

*

The junior officer was at the office early morning. The scientist came upto him and made a request to help him putting up the posters on the conference walls which he did, but his focus was on rehearsing dialogues he’d exchange with the assistant commissioner in the evening while talking about his permanent employment.

When the peon saw the pot-bellied man coming out of a white ambassador, he did not even wait for him to climb all the stairs. He alerted the scientist and the junior officer first and then went straight to the office kitchen to bring refreshments.

‘Mr. Aurangabadkar is not in,’ the scientist said, though he had entered the building and he could be seen heading towards the fourth floor. The junior officer and the scientist sat with the minister in the guest room. First came water, then tea, followed by crème rolls and wafer biscuits. The peon had standing instructions. More ministers, NGO heads and transport business tycoons joined in, and at last when the media representatives joined in, Mr. Aurangabadkar requested everybody to shift to the conference room.

The agriculture minister walked at a slower pace, left hand on his round belly, chewing tobacco on the way. Dressed in white kurta and pyjama, his gold rings shone in the sun light. The transport minister, dressed in a crisp white shirt and black trousers, caught up with him.

‘What is happening in this country? It’s unimaginable.’

‘Sad, truly sad.’

‘These foreigners have no respect for our values. And we are talking about liberalization, privatization, globalization. Don’t know how far it can help.’

‘We need policies that can help our farmers. Look at the number of farmers’ suicides?’

‘But the economy. You see the economy. It’s in distress.’

‘What were we doing till now? Sleeping, snoring away?’

‘Ha ha, I hope you are not referring to my nap during the parliament session. Are you?’

‘No, no, what are you saying?’

 ‘These media people are after me. You see, I had a high fever, was on medication that day. So-’

‘No, no. I was saying in general.’

‘But you can’t also ignore the deplorable state of our foreign reserves.’

‘Yes, yes. That’s also an important issue.’

Mr. Aurangabadkar requested the group of ministers to sit in the middle of the conference room, the NGO people on the left side, businessmen on the right side, the media officials all the way in the back.

After wasting few minutes on the introduction of guests and their achievements, Mr. Aurangabadkar said that his team had worked day and night to bring the most pertinent data for them. He carried on with his rehearsed speech until he was reading out facts and points from the posters. His tone changed when he read out points he hadn’t approved.

Mr. Aurangabadkar looked in Ashok’s direction, he wore a mischievous half smile. There were no words exchanged the whole day between the two men. That day Mr. Aurangabadkar tried to turn around the situation and played a card of being an unbiased presenter who genuinely thought status quo was the best possible option.

At the end of the meeting, neither did he acknowledge the scientist’s contribution, nor presence. He shook hands with the entire team, including the peons and watchmen on special duty but not with the scientist.

By the evening, when the scientists had packed his bag, he had also stuffed his parents’ photo stuck on his desk, the Bhagawad Gita and a box of pencils he had brought on the first day of the job. A day later, when a newspaper headline read, ‘Whose interest CNG is stepping on?’ the scientist chuckled sitting in a reclining chair at home, at that moment he knew that in the tussle between the positives and the negatives, at least now they won’t cancel each other out.


Kruti Brahmbhatt is educated in the U.S. and India and currently lives in Ahmedabad. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Forge Literary Magazine, the Stockholm Review of Literature, North Dakota Quarterly, Canyon Voices, the Pangolin Review and others. She has also received an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers. She is a 2014 Young India Fellow.

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