A hero, a person who displays great courage for the greater good, can also fall. But what happens to a fallen hero? Paulami DuttaGupta’s A Thousand Unspoken Words is the unique journey of a hero who falls. The champion of the underdogs, the writer who uses the nom de plume Musafir is famous in Kolkata. His incisive criticism of the injustices around him earn him many enemies but he holds his ideals above all else. Scathing attacks at his books and a night of hide and seek from political goons leads Musafir unto a path he never liked, faraway faraway from his ideals. He runs away and chooses the comforts of money over the travails of following one’s ideals. The hero falls. But Tilottama, passionate fan's hopes don’t. When he comes back after many years, emotions, love and lust take charge and an affair brews. Will she bring back her hero? Will he rise again? Here’s a book extract from a must read book, published by Readomania, exclusively in Different Truths.
‘Wahan kaun hai tera, Musafir jaayega kaha’, the retro radio show played the SD Burman classic. Tilottama looked at her radio once and tears blurred her vision.
‘O Sachin karta this song reminds me of him.’
Tilotamma quickly wiped her eyes and turned the radio off. The day had been taxing enough. She needed to unwind, get Musafir out of her mind. How crazy could some people get? He had just written a fictional piece. How could fiction humiliate a government in power with an absolute majority? Wasn’t this a democracy? How could the supporters of a faith or political party get all insecure and burn his books? The object of Tilottama’s despair, Musafir, was a writer supposedly based out of Kolkata. He wrote books at irregular intervals, and hid behind the veil of anonymity. His pieces were mostly social commentaries and satires on the state of Bengal. They were all fictional but had come under severe criticism in the past few months. Little paperbacks in funny covers, his books were available in old, rambling, bookstores across the city. Some were also available with the book vendors on the footpaths of the city.
When the news of the pulping of Musafir’s books had reached her a couple of days ago, Tilottama hadn’t thought things would go beyond a protest or two. The people of the city wouldn’t let go of things without a sign of protest. They got agitated at trivial things like who was included in a cricket team, and burned effigies and tyres in protest. They took out processions for Vietnam and Gaza. They could protest against him; but there would also be scores who would come out for her Musafir. They did when Firaz was hounded for his paintings of Goddesses.
‘And when they come out in large numbers, these goons will realize what it feels like standing before a civil society. They just can’t stifle Musafir’, she had confidently told her friends. What she did not realize was Musafir wasn’t exactly popular with the masses. His works were mostly literary and catered to niche readers. Her admiration for him had made her assume he was more popular than he really was.
Things had happened much faster than expected and spiraled out of control. Musafir’s printing press was vandalized and set on fire. Even as she and other Musafir fans watched, his books were dumped into that raging fire; words and hopes lost. The hundred odd fans tried to put up a brave fight, sang songs of freedom and stood with placards. But nothing worked. A couple of local channels had tried to stand by them in solidarity. The protest ended as a camera was smashed by the hoodlums on the road. People started fleeing fearing more violence.
‘They would kill us if they could’, Tilottama angrily spat out. ‘We were just so outnumbered. These were organized cadres. Yes, they were. Their bosses just can’t pretend to be innocent.’
A handful of policemen stood by pretending as if nothing was happening. The printing press was in one of the dingier parts of North Kolkata. It mainly did odd jobs like printing leaflets and bills, a few little magazines etc. and would print Musafir’s books on the sly. That is where he gave shape to his voice. The place was reportedly registered in the name of a man long dead, and people were left guessing who Musafir was. Some said the owner was a refugee who was avenging years of discontent. Some said his son was murdered by members of the ruling party. Some said he was just a frustrated man using the medium to lend himself a voice. To some other the entire idea was amusing and fascinating.
Tilottama grimaced and wiped her face clean. She was cutting a very sorry picture indeed, covered in grime and tears. All she could think of was her Musafir. She fought back her tears wondering what could have happened to her hero. For the past couple of years a strong wind of incumbency was blowing and Musafir’s voice had become stronger.
Everything came under Musafir’s attack; from Dhaniajhapi to the burning of monks, the ban on English in government run schools, the apathy in the use of computers and much more. However, recently he had become vocal against all forms of religious appeasement and challenged the special religious laws. He had also set the stage against land acquisition bills, mismanaged industrialization plans and pre-election harangues. Musafir wrote as many books as possible bringing the discrepancies to light. And that is what brought about his downfall. Tilottama sat on her bed and hugged her knees to her chest and went over the events of the day. She bit back the memory of the man who had asked her to let go of her placard, but that face would just not fade. ‘What had he called himself,’ she wondered, ‘Ayushmaan. . . no Riddhimaan.’
He was a photographer! How dispassionate could he be? He had watched the carnage, merrily taken snaps and asked her to throw away her placard. If even the press did not come out in support of Musafir, then who would? Weren’t both of them fighting to make the pen immortal? Why was the media silent now; because Musafir didn’t have international backing, or corporate sponsors?
She was upset that Poltu had shamelessly praised the man. Riddhimaan and the likes of him would give importance to writers only if they had a South Block or Writers’ Building backing. ‘I wish this government goes down. They will go down. I promise you Musafir they will,’ she told herself.
The loud banging of her window pane broke her reverie. The rains had lashed Kolkata with all their fury that evening. ‘Even Mother Nature is angry. Drown the city, drown all of us. Since we have nowhere to go and hide our shame,’ Tilottama said aloud.
She continued to rant as she shut the window. She had hurt her finger in the process. Then she walked into her bedroom looking for the first aid box. As she cleaned the cut, the antiseptic made her skin burn and her thoughts drifted to Musafir. There was no way to divert her mind. Maybe reading Musafir would help, or maybe writing. Musafir always said he wrote to look for answers. Maybe she could do that too. But nothing gave her peace; maybe she was obsessed with the writer. The gag on Musafir was beginning to become a personal loss to her.
‘Ajanta says I am like Meera Bai. Maybe it is nice. To love someone you have never seen and never will! The sweet charm! This man will make me write another poem. Or make me fail in my exams. I haven’t even looked at my course books. But where is he? Is he in this city?’ she kept muttering to herself.
Her muddled head needed to be sorted out. She sat with pen and paper and tried to scribble a few lines, and then threw it away. It would be difficult to write anything. She walked up and down the room for a while and then walked into the kitchen and checked her fridge. The cook had made some dry fish curry, an absolute favourite on regular days, but Tilottama wasn’t feeling hungry. She closed the door of the fridge and decided to make some coffee instead.
Tilottama lit her cook top and wondered why she hadn’t bought a coffee-maker yet. It was so much easier to have gadgets around. On bad days such as this, gadgets were of great help. Her father had insisted she refurnish her flat. She looked around the kitchen and realized her Baba was right. This place only had basic amenities. She had moved to the city a year ago and there were chances of her staying back much longer than she had initially planned. Her hometown, Darjeeling, had little to offer in terms of jobs and opportunities.
‘And these guys still have the courage to ask for votes’, her frustration returned.
She needed a way to vent her anger and abusing the establishment seemed to be the only thing that helped. So she went on, ‘Give us our separate state, and we will show you what we can do. We will show you we can work too. Baba is right. They need us only when they need to show off our hills and tea.’ She sighed and put a large kettle full of water to boil.
A loud knock on her front door startled her. It was really irritating for her to have people knock late in the evening. So she began venting again, ‘This must be one of the boys from across the street. I agree, Vishwakarma Puja is round the corner but couldn’t they wait for the rains to stop? And these security guards are of little use. Just about anyone comes in these days. And of course what better target than the first floor flat.’
She turned off her burner and took a quick look at the mirror. No, she didn’t look presentable enough in her tee and shorts. She lived in a conservative locality and Tilottama did not have the energy for a round of lecturing from her neighbours. As she reached for her housecoat, the thumping on the door increased.
‘Insolent creatures! Wait until I open the door. I will not give you more than five rupees this time’. Fastening the belt tightly and grabbing a hairclip on her way to the corridor, Tilottama muttered an abuse. Instead of peering out of the magic eye, she opened the door and looked into the face of a stranger. A man, about thirty years of age stood before her in a wretched condition.
‘What do you want so late in the night? Where is the watchman?’ Tilottama blurted in quick succession. Then she took a closer look and yelped. What was Riddhimaan doing at her door? He didn’t look as confident as he had that morning. She noticed a trace of blood trickling down his nose. He was drenched and shivering.
‘What is wrong with you?’ she asked him.
Even as she talked, he looked over his shoulder.
‘Please let me in. They’ll kill me,’ he groaned.
Tilottama panicked. The building had a security guard. How did the man just get in? When she didn’t say anything. Riddhimaan pleaded again, ‘Please, just for half an hour. I have nowhere to go now.’ She looked at his fear stricken eyes and then heard the screeching tyre of a bike. Kindness won over reason and Tilottama gently pulled him inside and closed the door. He slumped on the ground and let out a groan.
‘Who will kill you? What have you got yourself into?’ asked a now worried Tilottama.
A little blood from his wound smeared on her marbled floor. Tilottama realized that he needed some first aid. She was about to walk into her room when she saw blood dripping from somewhere around his knee. He was bleeding profusely.
‘Did you get stabbed? Tell me? Please. I need to know. If police come knocking at my door, Baba will kill me. And I don’t want to get involved in something unpleasant.’
‘No it’s not, it’s just a cut from a piece of sharpened glass. They got me below Sukanta Setu. I tried to get away, fenced a wall and hurt myself. But don’t worry. Ah . . . It’s not deep. I . . . it takes time for blood to stop. I will not die on you.’
‘Listen, you need some medicines and a plaster. Do you want me to call the doctor?’ she asked and almost laughed out loud at herself.
Here the man was trying to hide from someone, and she was planning to call a doctor. Riddhimaan sat with a blank look and she quickly said, ‘I do not know much. But NCC has taught me to handle simple cuts. I can bandage it for you’.
Tilottama helped him limp into her room. She grabbed the first aid box she had just used. He seemed exhausted. In the next few minutes Tilottama got him a washcloth, warm water and cushions to ease his back.
‘Do you have twenty-four- hour security here? Can you close the collapsible gate please?’ he appealed in a whisper.
‘You mean they can break into my house?’
Dread filled her. What had she gotten herself into? He could not be a mere photojournalist after all. A little unsteady, she peered through her windowpanes. The two security guards were braving the rain and trying to close the community gate. She watched until she was sure they had locked it.
When she looked back she saw him struggle with his jeans. It had not only become sticky, it was soaked and heavy. He winced and tried to fold it when they heard a ruckus outside. Someone was banging on the main gate. He looked at her and she realized he was silently pleading. She stealthily opened the front door and shut the collapsible gate with trembling hands. Riddhimaan looked at her alarmed and Tilotamma reassured him.
Paulami DuttaGupta has worked as a journalist, radio artist, television analyst, and copywriter. But amongst all these, her favourite job is that of a ‘dreamer’. She is currently working on her fifth novel which will be published by Readomania. A Thousand Unspoken Words is her previous book. Her articles and short stories have been published in various anthologies and magazines. She is the screenplay writer of the National Award-winning Khasi films – Ri Homeland of Uncertainty and Onaatah-of the Earth. She believes cinema is an essential tool of social change. She is passionate about Indian politics, is a complete foodie a cinephile and a Rahul Dravid fan. Paulami has just started work on her next two films as screenplay writer.
(Contributed by Piyusha Vir, Marketing Specialist, Readomania).
Editor’s Note: Excerpted with permission from ‘A Thousand Unspoken Words’, by Paulami DuttaGupta, published by Readomania. It is reproduced as received. DT has not edited it.
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©Paulami DuttaGupta, 2016