01 March, 2010

Mahasweta Devi’s Knife was first published in 1985 as Chhuri in Anushtup, a Bengali literary magazine. Some 25 years later, this powerful story comes to us still somewhat from across the divide, even after the publication of much of the author’s work in English over the last decade or so. Set in a suburban town bordering Bangladesh, this tale of gang warfare gives us rural West Bengal after the Naxalites have been finished off, where their killers now reign supreme, goondas are called ‘controllers’ and ganglords called Germany hold sway.

Excerpted with permission from Bait: Four Stories, by Mahasweta Devi, part of the series What Was Communism? edited by Tariq Ali. (Seagull Books, April 2010)

Translated from the Bengali by SUMANTA BANERJEE

A DISMAL RAINY EVENING. A small town in West Bengal. A district near the border. The shops that have sprouted up on either side of the main road, the slums behind them, the countless shanties that crowd around the railway tracks, suddenly reverberate with the sound of bomb blasts, shaken by one explosion after another.

The shutters drop. Pedestrians, rickshaw-pullers, street-dogs, begin to run. Inside a jhopri—hut—near the railway lines, Hamid and Nelo look at each other.

Nelo says, The police will start firing.

Which side is the sound coming from?

Near the cinema hall.

Then they won’t fire.


It’s just Germany’s gang.


In reality, this town has many gangs, many divisions. A small town. But since it is near the border, since there is an abundant supply of essential commodities like smuggled guns, brassieres, drugs, ‘Monaco’ brand cassette-players, adulterated medicines, blue films in ‘Jawan’ video-cassettes (foreign goods), this small town generates brisk business; trade flourishes.

Besides, the business of smuggling of cows, goats, rice and clothes from one side of the border to another, that too is no less profitable.

It’s because of all this that the controllers don’t want to relinquish their hold on this town. They are also the rulers. Germany, Sachcha, Baba, Bota, Paolan—these are the select few worthy citizens known to the rest of the town’s residents as the controllers.

They believe in ‘freedom’, in ‘struggle’. Let the black-marketeers do what they want. They must be given the ‘freedom’ to carry on with business as usual. The controllers collect paybacks from them on a regular basis.

Just as this fundamental ‘freedom’ is ensured, so too the ‘struggle’ to take over parts of the town, to lay claim to new avenues of trade, must be allowed to continue unimpeded. The five controllers struggle. And five more of the pablic1 get killed. Support from the local police station is not to be taken for granted since that is dependent on various other factors. One of the determining factors is the will of the two political parties; which controller is currently the champion of which party? Since all five of them provide paybacks to the thana, the police do not really believe in controlling the controllers.

A lot had been written about this, a lot of muck had been raked up, but to no avail. The only good that came out of it once was when the magistrate and the police superintendent were both transferred out of the area soon after the arrest of a mastaan.

The thana-babu is unperturbed. He is a rare thana-babu indeed, one who, despite being repeatedly gheraoed by the angry pablic, just sits there unconcerned, doesn’t turn a hair.

The reason: ‘Jyotisharnab’2 Bhola-babu. The thana building and the lock-up collapsed four times—each time within three to five months of its renewed construction—yet the same contractor, protégé to a certain political leader, kept getting the job. The fifth time, just before resuming work, the contractor’s patron (the certain political leader) forgot his advanced years and duodenal ulcer, gorged on huge helpings of hilsas from the Ganga and tiger prawns from the saltwater marshes (the dishes prepared with generous portions of chillies, both whole and ground to a paste), all at the contractor’s expense, and then died of a duodenal disorder in the sweltering heat of a Jaishtha3 afternoon.

His death left in the lurch not only his wife, sons, daughters, sons-in-law, daughters-in-law, brothers-in-law (on his side of the family), more brothers-in-law (on the wife’s side of the family), hundreds of relatives, both near and distant but many others too who found themselves suddenly rudderless.

Those who had set sail, secure with him at the helm, now found themselves abandoned in mid-ocean. With no sight of land. Such as his protégé, the contractor. What would he do now, without his mentor? The new leader belonged to a rival faction in the party, nursed a grouse against him.

The contractor believed in revolution, and in Bhola-babu. Bhola-babu lent a compassionate ear to his tales of woes. Then he said, Look here! Then, your Jupiter was in the ascendant. Your patron too was alive. You could do as you pleased. But now . . .

I’ll die!

No, Nityahari, you won’t. You got the contract four times, for the same building. You were paid in full each time. Built yourself five houses, bought four Matador cars. You won’t die.

But I couldn’t make it to the finals!

You could have. Why did you stuff that dyspeptic old bag full of hilsas and prawns, that too on a hot summer afternoon? If you’d fed him with thankuni4-leaf shukto5 and magur6 curry instead, you’d have been able to build the thana ten times over.

What now?

Your stars are unfavourable. Hear me? I’ll take care of that. But this time the job must be honestly done. Convince yourself that you’re working for the public. You want to line your pockets, I know. But don’t forget where you come from. The land of Bagha Jatin, Ashananda Dhenki,7 Gobinda Pal (the recently-deceased leader). All sons of this district. Don’t forget . . .

I won’t.

This time I’ll prepare the horoscope of the thana. Work must begin bang on time, right at the auspicious moment. If you goof this one up, that’s the end of you in town.

Work began as per Bhola-babu’s instructions. For the first time, the best bricks. The best sand, the best cement, genuine raw materials were used. A long horoscope of the thana was prepared. Reading it through, thana-babu said, I get whatever you’ve written about the newborn, but what’s this munchati-jeebanancha-gangajaley8 bit.


How can the thana be wiped out this way? Submerged in the Ganges? The river’s 16 miles off to the west.

Don’t speak like a non-believer! thundered Jyotisharnab, the great astrologer. This new thana will last two hundred years. In that time the river will have shifted to this side, did you know that? Mother Ganga has so long been flowing westward. The future will see her flowing eastward. Didn’t you see in 1978 how the thana was submerged in the floodwaters of the Ganga? It was not written that it should be destroyed then, hence it has survived.

But now . . .

Now Jupiter will remain in the ascendant.

That horoscope lies safe in the custody of the thana-babu, carefully preserved like the time capsule. Thus, whether it be the public, the newspapers or the magistrate, the thana-babu remains unperturbed, unafraid.

At present, inexplicably enough, the thana is lending its support to the controller Germany. When the newspapers in Calcutta report, ‘No Peace in this Town!’, ‘Town in the Grip of Gangsters’, thana-babu is hurt by the words.

He wants peace too. It’s only those five mastaans who harass the public so.

Selling a house? Where’s our share?

Buying a house? Where’s our share?

Selling land? Where’s our share?

Buying land? Where’s our share?

Selling goods in the market? Where’s our share?

A fixed commission from every shopkeeper every day.

A few bombs your way should you write about us in the local dailies.

Marrying off your daughter? Where’s our share?

Collecting your pension money? Where’s our share?

Organized a protest against bulu philms9 being shown in town? Get bombed.

Beaten up Ryanda for raping your sister? Eat bullets.

Not one but if four hundred ‘20-point programmes’10 are run by only five people, how can there be any hope of peace in the life of the public? The five hundredth birth anniversary of the divine ‘P’em-er Thakur’11 and still no peace prevails in this district!

All because of those five who rule the land.

Thana-babu understands the plight of the pablic. Thus, he is trying his utmost to see to it that the five are reduced to one. He himself does not have the power to unite them. So Thana-babu’s efforts are directed by either human or divine agency.

To make sure that Germany rules alone.

Let Germany snuff out Sachcha, Baba, Bota, Paolan. Then thana-babu will personally announce that some ‘anti-socials’ or ‘extremists’ have been removed. (Those were thana-babu’s Orders.)

Oh for that auspicious day, to see Germany reigning supreme. Finally, some peace for the pablic. Only one target, how can five people each want a share?

But no one understands his logic. Not even Malati, an elderly prostitute in the line.

Having served in the line for many years, Malati has now taken to serving the people. More specifically, serving each customer who walks through her doors. This girl’s okay. Not that one. She’s infected. And other such pearls of wisdom. But thana-babu fails to convince even Malati of his strategy for a peaceful town.

Malati asks him, Why? Why let only Germany rule, and why get rid of the rest? Why not let them all rot in hell? And I don’t understand all that talk of one portion shared between five people. If you’re so concerned about the pablic, then why burden them with even one of those five? Let everyone live their own lives.

You don’t understand.

I understand perfectly well. Pona-babu sold his land, and those five grabbed the commission. It’s unfair. Wrong. Besides, do your words hold true for everyone?


This line’s no good any more. Illegal trade’s sprouting up everywhere. Never mind that. Doesn’t a whore share her one piece with not only five but countless more?

Thana-babu says, How do I explain! She sells the same thing five times, and gets paid each time. But here, the pablic has to cough up money five times over for the same thing.


Never read Economics, did you!

Read Kamikhheytantra,12Master–Chhatri Katha, Grihasth-er Totka, Kamini Kaaman Daagey13 . . . isn’t that enough!

Oh yes, quite enough!

Look here! I’m not one of your upstart whores. My family’s been in the line for generations. I’m a woman of honour. No matter what you say, I don’t think it’s a good idea to knock off the others for Germany’s sake. Germany’s a coward. Useless without his gang. Don’t rely on him. I care about the thana, depend on it, so I’m trying to knock some sense into you.

Malati’s real income these days comes from hooch, receiving and distributing. She passes on information to the thana as and when necessary. Despite this, thana-babu cannot accept Malati’s orders to ‘let them all rot in hell’. He is a slave to his Orders. His Orders are, ‘Up, up Germany. Give him a political colour.’

But what colour can he paint him? No one wants Germany. Orders are easily issued, but not so easy to execute.

Malati says, I can’t stand Germany, babu. Said so to his face.


Because of that Phulbanu . . . Wasn’t Hamid’s own child but he got her off the streets, looked after her. He’d practice throwing daggers, she’d stand there, watching. Before you know it she’s thirteen. She’s pretty. So many times I’d said to Hamid, She’s not safe in this hellish town. Give her to me. I’ll fix her with a bandha-babu, a regular. She’ll be safe, you’ll get your money. But would Hamid listen? Kept saying, She’s my jaan.14 I’ll arrange her shaadi15 . . . Then Germany grabbed her . . .

It had been to the thana that Hamid had come running, carrying the body of Phulbanu, the little girl who’d been raped and then murdered. Despite knowing that Germany was the culprit, thana-babu arrested a rickshaw-puller instead and set him up for trial. There has still been no trial. He is still a prisoner.

Hamid went away, where? Then again, he’s returned a while back, a boy called Nelo with him.

Not just once! So many little girls . . .

Forget it!

It is true that Germany is a coward. His clout, stemming entirely from the thana’s support. Why can’t he just wipe out Sachcha, Baba, Bota and Paolan? The thana’s behind him, after all.

No, no! Their gang members will carve me up.

Even with me on your side?

They’ll skip off across the bodar.16 Then?

No, thana-babu is finding it difficult to up Germany. He is trying his best. But he just cannot find a suitable colour from the political paintbox to paint Germany with.

Which colour to choose? Which shade to whitewash with?

The town’s hardly got enough colours either. The prevailing red has grown murky, a mix of many colours. The Opposition colours too have curdled into a strange shade, what with every other colour being stirred into its own. That leaves him with just red, bright red.

But thana-babu’s guts aren’t tough enough for that. Although every killing, every action—of inter-gang warfare, of area-occupation struggle—between Germany, Baba, Bota, Sachcha and Paolan (different from Paloan, operating across the border), is uniformly passed off by thana-babu in his report as ‘inter-party clashes among anti-social extremists’.

And the Calcutta journalists rip his report to shreds, lay bare the actual picture.

The situation’s intolerable, intolerable!

Not for thana-babu. But for the pablic.

But the most distressing news for the thana is the formation of a citizens’ committee in the town, one that has united the people despite their individual political leanings and party affiliations.

The death—by mass lynching—sentence passed on Ryanda and Bota is no less distressing.

Something similar happened just a few days ago.

When two of Germany’s followers, Gola and Kaan (thana-babu fails to understand why he is called Kaan, because one of his kaans, or ears, is missing) tried in retaliation to bomb the house of Akhil-babu, the elderly leader of the citizens’ committee, they were (i) caught by the pablic, (ii) thrashed to within an inch of their lives, (iii) a sackful of fresh bombs was dumped into the tank and destroyed (what a waste!), and (iv) the followers of all the political parties along with the common people deposited the two of them at the thana. And then left, with a warning in thana-babu’s direction. Let them out and it’ll be your turn next.

Jyotisharnab, the great astrologer, is also not in town. Away at Amarnath, then a stop at Hardwar, and then back home. At his devotees’ expense. Many contractors have become his devotees, now. He’s careful, however, never to stuff himself full of rich food at their expense. Travels on his pilgrimages in air-conditioned First Class compartments. Also travels frequently to New Delhi—the supreme pilgrimage spot. Has established his son there. Visits him now and then, keeps an eye on how he’s faring. Astrologers are currently very much in demand in New Delhi, both among the ruling and the Opposition parties. Jyotisharnab predicts, Get a hundred or so Bengali astrologers and that’s it. Work’s done. But astrologers of that state are paid no attention, yet another instance of the ‘Centre’s conspiracy against the State’.

He has a second son. Supplies contracted labour. Doesn’t know astrology.

There is thus no one here now to tell thana-babu how long the rapidly increasing influence of the citizens’ committee will last.

Listening to the successive explosions issuing from the direction of the cinema hall tonight, thana-babu can tell that it is Germany’s action.17

But against whom? Who lives there?

The news arrives the next morning. But not at the thana.

A huge procession had been organized, carrying the bodies of a peanut-vendor and two rickshaw-pullers who were killed last night for taking part in a peace campaign. The slogans were extremely upsetting.

Bring down anti-social terrorism, bring it down!

Notorious gangsters Germany, Baba, Sachcha and Paolan—arrest them, arrest them!

Who threw the bombs yesterday?

Taja, Chhyanda and Keshtokali!

Who’s their leader?

Police’s goonda Germany!

Bring down the rule of terror, bring it down!

Bring down the thana inspector, bring him down!

Compensation to the families of the dead! Compensation to the families of Amar Das, Dilip Das and Shahjahan!

The protest march circles the small town a few times. Then congregates in front of the thana where the bodies are laid down and a meeting is held. Thana-babu is petrified. Should he hurl tear gas or fire bullets? At the meeting, which is being addressed by Akhil-babu and Gopen-babu of the ruling party, Subodh-babu and Chandra-babu of the Opposition, two college principals, five headmasters–headmistresses and three doctors?

Thana-babu steps outside. No choice but to yield to circumstance.

Akhil-babu is middle-aged, dyspeptic, but still respected as an honest man. Extremely short of temper.

He snaps, Step forward.

Thana-babu steps forward.

We’ll take a deputation to Krishnanagar. Organize a press conference in Calcutta.

Of course you will.

You must immediately arrest Taja, Chhyanda and Keshtokali. Immediately.

They threw the bombs?

No, I did!

Gopen-babu speaks up, I’ve seen them. I was in the neighbourhood, visiting my daughter. I saw them, looked through the window-slats.

Rajat the youth leader says, If the thana doesn’t take action, the people of this town will.

Akhil-babu adds, Instead of a death every other day, let’s wipe them out once and for all. Lay down our lives.

Chandra-babu says, We’ve sent a written report to Calcutta, understand?

Subodh-babu is a trader, a veteran theatre actor as well. He used to act once upon a time, played Chanakya, Durgadas, Chandrashekhar, many other roles. Even now when he speaks, it’s as though he is struggling to remember the lines. Pauses, often. His voice, loud, strident.

He says, We, ten leading citizens of this town, and ninety other well-known names are submitting to you a signed memorandum demanding their arrest. Copies have been sent to Writers’18 and the newspapers. We want immediate action.

Ultimately, thana-babu has no choice but to embark on a campaign of his own. Keshtokali has disappeared (discovered the next day, stuffed under a clump of yam shrubs. In all probability, the bomb had exploded while still clutched in his hand). Taja and Chhyanda (Ryanda’s brother) do not resist arrest. The tempo’s not good, times are bad. It’s safer inside the lock-up. They both bid farewell to Germany. We’re copping out, guru! 19 Even Paolan gives his men better p’otection.20

Public pressure forces the police to conduct further raids. Some are dead, some are rushing to cross the border, some are nabbed. Baba, Sachcha and Paolan have probably escaped to Calcutta on the night bus or truck.

Akhil-babu says, Beat them up. Make them spill the beans, who’s hiding where.

Germany smoulders helplessly in rage and humiliation. Akhil-babu must be removed. He’s the one egging on the rest of the committee.

Meanwhile, the citizens’ committee, successful in moving the police to act, walk through the town, their loudspeakers issuing a call for an emergency meeting. Tomorrow is Sunday. We are meeting at ten in the morning. Come to Subhash Park. Come one, come all. Nothing to fear. Gauribari has shown us the way. Anantapur will not lag behind.21

Germany is grim. His toadies have gone underground. He is a marked man. It will be difficult for him to enter Akhil-babu’s house. Besides, the committee has also formed vigilant squads. They patrol the streets at night.

Malati says, There’s no use worrying.

Let’s see.

Malati’s hooch supplier, Pakhi, was once an action-master in Lalgola. But alas, these days, God looks after good folks no more! Once, after a dacoity near the border, drunk on vast quantities of booze, he climbed atop an abandoned rail wagon, stretched out his arms, shouting, I can fly! I can fly! and then leapt into the air.

The result was a hundred different hassles all at once. Arrested as a criminal and simultaneously admitted into hospital with broken arms and legs. In the hospital, his right hand was amputated, his right leg stayed crippled.

Pakhi had been an expert knifer. Now he is handicapped, disabled. He moans continually, If only I could use my arm today . . .

He tells Germany, This is not a job for bombs or rifles. It’s a knife-job. Just a throw of the knife, that’s all. If I still had that right arm . . .

An annoyed Malati says, Shut up. Delivered the goods, got your money, now get lost. The van won’t wait for you, I hope you know that.

He leaves. Malati and Germany. Malati offers Germany his commission. He waves it aside.

No need.

You won’t take it now?

I won’t take it at all, this time.


I’ve got a job for you.

What job?

Do you know where Hamid stays?

I know.

He’ll have to come, once.


Yes, I’ll talk to him.

Talk . . . to him . . . ?

Tell him that I’m quitting town. I want to give him . . . give him some money.

Malati, her head bent low as she slices betel-nuts. Why should he come? He’s scared of you.

That’s why he’ll come. If he wants to stay in town . . .

Where should he come?

Why, my place?

He won’t have the guts.

But I’m alone now.

Even then.

Then, behind the lumber-stack.

Which one?

In the cremation ground.


Go now.

I’ll go tomorrow. I’m night-blind, didn’t you know?

Tomorrow night, at nine.

Malati says she’ll go.

He comes to the market every morning.

I’ll go, I’ve just said so.

Germany leaves, brandishing his revolver. Malati thinks, Has Germany forgotten about Phulbanu? Why is he looking for Hamid? Does he want to use him to . . . Akhil-babu . . . No! Malati won’t think. What good can thinking do?

Malati’s night-blindness or lack thereof depends purely upon her instincts of self-preservation. If she must meet Hamid, it’s best done now. In the daytime, there’ll be people, she’ll be spotted. There’ll be witnesses. If Akhil-babu is . . . will Malati be able to escape, then?

She grabs a torch, steps out.

The streets are deserted. A few cops. Malati’s is a familiar face. Only she can walk the streets at this hour. The pablic know the faces of her customers. And her. Just an old hooch-dealing whore. The thana and the mastaans get cuts, commissions. The rickshaw-pullers have recently started saying, Mashi, don’t give them anything.

Let others stop. Then I will too.

Why don’t you lead the way?

No mister! The thana-and-mastaans, like fish-and-curry. These arrests’re just for show. If I knew that the town was truly cleansed . . .

His abortive flight and its various fallouts later, Pakhi has now turned to philosophy. He has advised Malati before leaving, See everything, do nothing. Don’t be swept off your feet. The Kaliyugamahatma tells us that mastaans are essential in this day and age. They who wipe out one bunch of gangsters are the ones who install another. You vote, send your representative. If he dies, does his seat stay empty? When the wife dies, the husband marries; when the husband dies, the wife marries. If there’s no mastaan, if there’s no controller, who will look after all this? The thana will go into mourning!

Malati has thus become the repository of the town’s news. News that will result in another corpse is not conveyed to the thana. After all, she’s not an upstart whore! One in a long tradition of whores. A woman of honour. Malati’s heard how her grandmother had once sheltered swadeshi-babus22 on the run and at the same time, flirted with the darogas who were their pursuers.

Malati will inform Hamid, Hamid will obey Germany’s orders, she can see it all so clearly. Phulbanu! What of one Phulbanu, dead or alive, Hamid! She’s dead, but you’re still alive! Phulbanus die, Germanys live on.

Gravel along the railway tracks, the shrubs reeking of shit. Malati enters Hamid’s jhopri.

Hamid listens, listens to everything. Nelo’s asleep. Malati does not explain the job. Hamid just keeps nodding his head.

Go back, mashi. I’ll go tomorrow.

Go. You know . . .

I know.

Malati leaves. Hamid sits there. How his pulse races, how his blood surges in excitement!

Thana-babu has said, on the sly, Get Germany’s p’otection. Or I’ll drive you out of town under the Vagrancy Act.

Yes, babu.

Forget the past.

Yes, babu.

Good you’ve brought along a boy now. A boy, eh? No one will notice him.

Yes, babu.

What else can you do? The likes of you, earning a bit or two, all have to seek p’otection. Be it the snake-charmer, or the monkey-man. Times are bad.

Hamid remembers it all. Everything is Germany’s. When will Germany, like that genie of Baghdad, reach up to the skies and extort p’otection money from the sun, moon and stars? When will he burrow into the earth and ask the fields of grain for p’otection money? Will no one ever be able to resist him?

The next day there is a mass rally at Subhash Park. Among the speakers, it is Akhil-babu who snarls the most. Subodh-babu and a headmaster speak in softer tones. They all say the same thing. The police and the administration have failed to suppress the terror of the mastaans. Appeals, petitions, deputations, thana-gheraos, all in vain. See, our citizens’ committee. Irrespective of party affiliations, we are all united. It’s our problem. We’ll have to solve it.

Yesterday’s events have been reported faithfully if not entirely in most of the newspapers. Our movement shall continue as long the mastaan-raj reigns.

Rajat, Panu, Chanchal, Shanto, Somesh (targets now, due to sudden cracks appearing in their political loyalties) also add their bits. We must be brave. You, the people, you are the citizens’ committee. If those whose lives are endangered do not step forward . . .

The air thick with slogans, shouted over and over again.

No more extorting from the poor!

No more molesting women!

For all killings–clashes–conflicts over the last two years, we want an independent inquiry, we want justice!

Notorious goondas Germany, Baba, Sachcha and Paolan—we want them arrested, we want them tried!

The thana’s role to be investigated! Suitable steps taken against it!

The struggle of the citizens’ committee continues today, continues tomorrow!

Germany hears it all. It’s a small town. A loudspeaker blares even at the mouth of his lane. No sounds from the cinema hall either. There’s a two-day strike in protest of day-before-yesterday’s bomb blasts. Germany lies in bed, listens. Go on, keep going. I’ll begin with Akhil-babu. Once he’s bumped off (a ruling party man) the other old bastards will lose their nerve. A bit of mayhem in town. Then my chamchas23 will return. This time Germany’ll bring Kamal from Siliguri. Kamal will use his sten to polish off Paolan and the others, then disappear.

He’ll take money! So what! Even Hamid will have to be given money. It would have been good if I could use Hamid always.

Paolan himself and his chamchas are experts with the chaku, the knife. Germany has no such talent in his gang. If Hamid stayed with him, he could at least be trained. You’re my man, Hamid!

Germany has been placed on the earth solely to think of himself. He does not think of others. Phulbanu had been just a little girl, just like many others. Twelve to thirteen, young, unmarked and whole. So hard to find a body, fleshy, yet chaste! Malati has promised him one if she ever finds it.

Such pleasure in the rape, and such pleasure in the kill. Germany will never be able to explain the ecstasy of it all.

The cremation ground. The lumber-stack. Behind the lumber-stack, the paddy-field. This is Germany’s elaka, his territory. He is safe.

Germany leans against the banyan tree.

Hamid is silent.

No one will suspect you. You can enter the neighbourhood. The old man sits on the porch every day.


I’ll manage a load-shedding.24


I’ll post bail.


You used to fling daggers. And knives?

I use knives now. It’s all the same, depends on the throw . . .

Finish the job. Get paid.

Five hundred now. Five hundred after.

Hamid stares at him. Germany has no regrets about Phul-jaan. No fear about summoning Hamid. He’s Germany. His will be done.

Will you do it?

Of course.

Here’s the money.

Give me money, give me money, Germany! Some day you’ll be alone, Hamid will be waiting, watching. It is with this hope that Hamid has returned to town. The citizens’ committee has given him that chance.

Just Akhil-babu?

For the moment. Later, there’s Subodh-babu      . . . Rajat . . .

The money!


Germany takes a step forward, Hamid suddenly moves backward.

What was that, slithering, that way? Quick, shine your torch.

Germany brings out his torch. Hamid moves back a little further. A professional knifer requires a measured distance.


Germany looks up.

A flash in the darkness. The unerring point of the long knife pierces Germany’s throat, pins him to the tree. The second knife is aimed at the heart. The torch drops to the ground. Germany-babu! For this one moment I’ve been throwing knives for so long, shown off my skill, practised spring-knives on the board, for so long.

Hamid runs home.

Once in town, he slows down. Walks normally. He goes to his jhopri.

Nelo’s dozing, the rice cooked.

Hamid says, Let’s go, Nelo.

Where, ustad?

Just come with me.

The rice?

The dogs’ll eat it. Fold the board.

Hamid and Nelo start walking along the highway. Reach the next stop. Not for Calcutta. Board a truck for Dalkhola. Get off at Siliguri. Head towards North Bengal. Or Malda, then Bangladesh.

The truck will stop. People have been leaving Anantapur, disappearing for a while. The trucks know. The trucks stop.

Hamid gets on the truck. Looks up at the sky. No, the sky today is the real sky. Not blotted out by some genie’s head. Nelo doses. Hamid holds him in his arms. We’ll eat somewhere on the way, Nelo. Then lose ourselves in the sea of humanity.

He tells Nelo, You’ll have to learn the game.

Nelo sleeps.

The next morning the town reels, as though struck by lightning. Germany killed in his own territory, his money untouched! A spring-knife job. How they crowd before the thana to have a look at the body! Malati comes too, expresses shock before the others, asks, Who killed him?

Thana-babu’s head, struck by load-shedding. Darkness. Paolan and the others will hear the news, come back to town. The chaku was their speciality. Nab them? But what are the Orders, his Orders?

Whom to arrest? What colour to choose, what colour to paint them with?

Crackers and fireworks go off in town, celebrations, crowds thronging the streets.

The truck carries Germany to the morgue.

Thana-babu waits for Orders. Baba, Paolan, Sachcha, who will fill the gap?

Whom to arrest? The poor are leaving the town every day, day after day.

Thana-babu waits, keeps waiting for Orders.

Malati gives him a bottle of good hooch today. Must be sad. Here, have a drink.

Who did it, Malati?

Don’t know. But people’re saying you’ve got it done, because of the citizens’ committee. Now you’re playing dumb.

Thana-babu sits, load-shedding in his head. Only the Orders will turn the lights back on.



Malati says, tenderly, Have a drink.

Thana-babu has a drink. The pablic thinks he’s done it? Because of the citizens’ committee?

Transfer? Punishment posting? The town is rejoicing at the end of the mastaan-raj. The end of the mastaan-raj? Thana-babu bursts into tears.

The end of his present, his future, dark. There will be no forgiveness. He has failed to save Germany.

Malati says, Dry your tears. Have a drink..