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“How could he do this?” thought Subrat. “He’s such an intelligent boy.”
He looked at his watch and shook his head. It was five minutes to noon. In an hour, it would be lunch-time – and all over for Loknath.
“It’s such a shame.” Subrat grimaced in frustration. “I should’ve known better than to have wasted my energy on him. All of them are the same. Poverty is their comfort zone. They hate coming out of it.”
Seated on a dusty, dilapidated bench at the District Collector’s office at Bhawanipatna, in Odisha’s Kalahandi district, he wiped the beads of sweat on his forehead, with his handkerchief. The June mid-day temperature soared to well above forty degrees. He clicked his tongue and writhed on the bench, sandwiched between a young man and an elderly lady, who waited for their turns. He wondered whether his efforts were worth it; and dreaded that in some time, it would all go waste.
He glanced at his watch – yet again. Restless, he repeated this act every five minutes. It was quarter to twelve. The queue of applicants that snaked into a long, curved line had reduced into a short stem of five to six people. They were submitting the application forms for the Government Talent Search Examination. The top five hundred students would receive a scholarship of Rs.200 per month and state sponsored education from the ninth to the twelfth grade in special state run boarding schools. It was the last day for submitting the application forms.
“He’s not going to come.” Subrat was, now, sure that he was waiting in vain. He, almost, crumpled the form in anger. “I’m sure he’s making merry with the fifty rupees I’d given him for the bus.”
It was one o’ clock. Subrat got up from the bench. He hung his head in despair and walked out of the building into the cracked, parched ground, where he had parked his bike. He cursed Loknath once again and rode out of the premises.
Sixty kilometres away, in a primary healthcare centre in obscure Jagannathpur, fifteen-year-old Loknath held his mother’s palm with one hand and stroked it with the other. All of thirty-five, she looked more like fifty-three. Her yellow eyes popped out from above her pale, hollow cheeks. But, Loknath was relieved. She had opened her eyes after more than four hours on the edge.
The doctor checked her pulse. “She’ll be fine,” he said. “She was dehydrated. But, you brought her at the right time. Else, she’d have been in danger.”
He, then, scanned the remaining strips of tablets that he had prescribed earlier that day.
“Let her rest for four hours. You may leave when she feels better. Continue with these medicines for two more days. More important – she should eat properly.”
Loknath smirked, inadvertently, at the doctor’s last sentence. “He, surely, didn’t mean what he said,” he thought. He nodded, nevertheless – in respect and with gratitude.
That Monday morning, he was all set to go to Bhawanipatna with the hope of stepping into a better future. “But, Providence wants us to remain where we are. We aren’t allowed to dream.”
A couple of days back, on Saturday, Subrat got to know about the examination on his way to Jagannathpur. He thought about Loknath – hardworking, intelligent and ambitious. He was confident that Loknath would crack it. But, he needed to act fast. Monday was the last day for submitting the application form.
“I’ll get the form tomorrow morning from the Collector’s office and have it filled,” he told Loknath on Sunday evening, just before he left. “But you’ll need to come. They said that there are a couple of sections that you’ll need to fill by your hand – about yourself and your aspirations. Also, you’ll need to sign on the form.”
Loknath’s eyes gleamed with excitement. He sat agape, staring towards the expanse of the beige, arid farmlands that stretched into the horizon. If it happened as Subrat had made it out to be, it would be a speck of fortune peeping out of the piles of adversity that he had learnt to live with.
Rs.200 per month – it was a princely sum. “Rice at Rs.30, sugar at Rs.35, dal at Rs.100...Wow, it could cover at least two weeks of vegetables and grocery.”
His dark lips stretched into a subconscious smile and rubbed his rough, curly hair. His mother would be a little less dependent on her uncertain, daily wages. And then, he could pursue his studies without distraction. He could live his dream.
“Take this money.” Subrat’s hoarse no-nonsensical voice tore through his ruminations. “Take the 8:30AM bus to Bhawanipatna. You should reach by eleven. Don’t be late.”
Loknath took the Rs.50 note that Subrat gave him. His moist, sunken eyes looked beyond Subrat’s thick pair of glasses. They spoke a thousand words. He stood up and folded his hands, his head bowed low. “Thank you, Subrat sir.”
Subrat patted him on his back, over his old, worn shirt. A part of the orange sun hid behind the mauve sky. The other, reflected on Loknath’s face. It glowed in anticipation. He turned around and walked back home – his mind, euphoric, full of dreams, full of hope.
He set the alarm to 5AM, on a timepiece that Subrat had gifted him on his birthday. He could not sleep that night. It was yet another evening without dinner, but that was the lesser reason for his insomnia. He lay on the floor of his mud hut staring at the straw ceiling in the starry darkness. Restless, he got up thrice to check the trousers that he would wear to town the next day. The Rs.50 note was still there. He could feel it, treasured deep inside one of the pockets. He would need to make the most of this opportunity. Bleary eyed, he looked forward to the first step, which he would take the next day. It would be the genesis of a correction to the abject poverty that he was subjected to. Everything would now fall in place.
His life flashed before him – from the time he could remember. Poverty and the daily struggle to make ends meet – that was a constant. And the logical, yet violent, culmination was his father’s death, two years back. The day was etched in his memory.
Loknath’s father was a farmer. With recurring droughts and inconsistent rain year after year, his default memory of his father was that of a wrinkled, withered man, who lay coughing on his old charpoy, often intoxicated, yelling at everyone and everything. However, his energy augmented by several notches, whenever he got an opportunity to argue, sloganeer, crib or sulk. He was a specialist in these arts. At such times, he came into his own as a self-proclaimed crusader, always at the forefront of quarrels, protests and those little, insignificant agitations.
On that fateful morning, he left home for one such agitation – a protest against the takeover of land by the Government for the construction of a fertilizer factory.
“Such greedy people...they want to build their factories on our land.” These were the last words that Loknath heard him say.
Huffing, puffing and murmuring, he stormed out of their hut that morning. Loknath looked on. He was silent, wondering about the utility of their parched piece of land and the basis of his father’s emotions. His father was part of the minority who was opposed to the factory coming up. The village sarpanch had mobilised a lot of support for the factory. Jobs, a bright future and a comfortable life – these were some of the carrots that were dangled in front of the villagers for support. Most fell for them.
Even Loknath felt that the factory was a logical solution to the problems of the village. But, he did not suspect, in his weirdest dreams, that his father’s misplaced emotions would change their lives forever.
It was ten – an hour since his father had left. Usually, Loknath would be in school at that time. They had a holiday for a week, since the school was getting repaired. Such breaks were the norm. In the previous year, the school functioned for only about hundred days. With no committed teachers and a shoddy infrastructure, the current year was no different.
Brilliant at academics, Loknath was tired of these breaks. He yearned for a school such as the one in Bharatpur, about thirty-five kilometres from Jagannathpur. However, the bus fare of Rs.20 rendered that school out of his reach. He read books, which he borrowed from older boys and the small two-cupboard library adjacent to the school. He was unrelenting in his quest for knowledge.
After fifteen minutes, Loknath noticed an unprecedented throng and noise along the dusty road in front of their hut. The road meandered towards the village centre, two kilometres away. The village centre comprised the Panchayat office, and six shops that sold grocery, vegetables, medicines and stationery. A two-storey building, the tallest in the village, housed the healthcare centre. A flag-post sprung from the intersection of four roads that connected the four neighbourhoods of the village. The base of the flag-post was the village’s favourite spot for giving speeches, and launching protests and processions.
Curious, he got out of his hut. His mother and sister followed him.
“Loknath,” said Biranchi, his neighbour, a couple of years elder to him, from the adjacent hut. “There was a lathicharge by the police, on the protestors. Was your father there?” Biranchi’s round, bulging eyes looked more pronounced than ever. He knew the answer. But, the well-wisher in him asked the question, hoping for “no” as the answer, just in case...
Loknath nodded and looked at Biranchi – befuddled, his eyes moist, his heart kicking hard from inside. Biranchi’s spiky hair flew in the warm breeze. He looked down, his eyelids partially covering his large, round eyes.
“A few people were injured,” he said, almost whispering. “One person is dead.”
Loknath froze for a moment. The sound of his mother moaning shook him up. He was too stunned to act. Suddenly, his mother ran in the direction of the crowd. He caught his sobbing sister’s hand and ran behind their mother. After forty minutes, they reached the village centre. They looked around, wondering what to do next.
There was a lot of commotion – villagers running in all directions, shouting, abusing, lamenting. There were four police constables standing in one corner, under the shade of a tree.
“The injured are being treated in the healthcare centre,” said one of the villagers pointing towards the two-storey building. The mother and children ran towards it. Inside, it was horrific – grotesque scenes of the injuries and the injured, the suffocating stench of blood and antiseptic, and the heart-wrenching laments of the relatives of the injured. Loknath was numb, as he tried to recognise his father from the unattended individuals strewn around the floor, writhing in pain. Finally, he found him – bundled into one corner, covered with blood that oozed through the bandages covering a gaping injury on his head and a smaller one on his abdomen. He was semi-conscious – perhaps, in unimaginable pain. His eyes were open. It wore a peculiar, cadaverous look – one, which gave Loknath the impression that he would soon move to his peaceful, painless state.
His mother and sister broke down. He called out to one of the three doctors who attended to the score and a half of the injured patients. In around ten minutes, the doctor came, only to confirm that his father was no more.
Three people were killed in the lathicharge. The episode created tremors through the ugly, brown expanse of Jagannathpur. The villagers were agitated. It took a few weeks – and some goodies – for normalcy to return. The village was richer by a hatchback car, and a few bikes, HDTVs and refrigerators, earned by a select few – the sarpanch and some influential villagers. In a couple of months, the foundation stone for the factory was laid.
The next one and a half years were hell for Loknath and his family. His mother worked as a daily wage labourer at the factory site. With school continuing to be intermittent, Loknath often joined in adding to the family income. He felt that they were destined to live a wretched life. He saw no hope – till six months back, when he met Subrat.
Subrat was a young engineer, who worked with the State electricity board in Bhawanipatna. He volunteered with the NGO, Bharat Shiksha. Over the weekends, he took Maths and Physics classes for the students at the Jagannathpur school. A passionate teacher, he carried a kit with models, circuits and teaching tools that he used to explain concepts. His classes were full – a rarity in the remote village.
It was during these classes that Subrat met Loknath and saw immense potential in him – intelligence, ambition and the willingness to work hard. Subrat mentored Loknath – as a teacher and a friend. Loknath did not disappoint. However, other than “Subrat sir’s classes”, his school was as irregular as it always was. This was a grave impediment for the students to complete formal education and build a secure future. Even Loknath, despite his efforts and potential, was at least a year older than the average eighth grade student, due to the callousness of the school in conducting exams and doing the evaluations.
Subrat was, therefore, excited about the Government Talent Search Examination. He envisioned Loknath getting out of the rut, and into the educational mainstream. He hoped that it would be an inspiration for the other children in the village and lead to its development.
The 5AM buzz from the timepiece cut through Loknath’s train of thoughts. He was still awake, all excited about his trip to Bhawanipatna. He had practised what he intended to write as answers to the questions about himself and his aspirations. His mind also played out a study plan for the exam. He had two months. “That’ll be enough,” he thought. He was determined to make the grade.
An unusual murmur from his mother’s bed startled him up. He went towards her. It was still dark. He lit a candle and brought it towards her face. His mother shivered. Loknath felt her forehead. It burned. He sponged his mother’s head for an hour. Her condition deteriorated with each minute. Loknath was getting late. He had to make a choice.
But, did he have a choice?
All of a sudden, his mother opened her eyes. He was shocked. She wore the same look...the same cadaverous look that his father had, just before his death.
It was a Monday. The main doctor would visit the healthcare centre. It would not be until Thursday when he would come again. There was, certainly, no choice.
His sister was sleeping. He let her be and called out to a neighbour to take care of her. He carried his frail mother on his back and scurried through the narrow, bumpy road towards the village centre. Thereby, he missed that opportunity, which he yearned – one that he believed, would bring an end to their miseries.
And, at present, Loknath felt relieved that his mother had received treatment just in time. After five hours, she looked fine – still weak, but all set to walk back home.
However, he was sullen. He gathered the medicines that he bought with the Rs.50 note that Subrat had given him for the bus fare. “Providence wants us to remain where we are,” he whispered to himself, once again. “We aren’t allowed to dream.”
He was wide awake for the second night – this time in despair.
The next morning, as he sat on an old, broken bullock cart outside his hut, still cursing his luck, he saw Subrat walking towards his hut. He was ready for a mouthful from him.
“What happened? I waited for you till one. You didn’t turn up.”
Loknath apologised to Subrat. Tears rolled down his cheeks, as he recounted the events of the previous day. Subrat sighed. There was a momentary silence, but for the sound of the warm, dry gust. He, then, patted Loknath on his head.
“It’s okay, my friend,” said Subrat. “The exam of life is peppered with a number of multiple choice questions that hit us at random.”
He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “At times, you need to make the best choice among seemingly equally good or bad options. Such choices define the character of a person.”
He held Loknath’s shoulders and shook him. He wore a wry smile. “And you’ve got the answer to this question absolutely correct.”
He took out the half-filled application form and handed it over to Loknath. Loknath took the form, wondering what he would now do with it. Subrat, next, took out the newspaper of the day and pointed to a headline. Both of them beamed with joy, as Loknath read it out: “GTSE Application Deadline Extended for the Benefit of Remote Applicants”.
Loknath hugged Subrat. He looked forward to answer the next question that life would ask him.