‘Silent Night’ by VandanaKumari Jena

Short story selected for the 2013 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

The Collectors Conference was over at last.  As the valedictory session ended, she heaved a sigh of relief. It had been difficult for her to keep her eyes open during the closing session. She wondered if it was the enervating heat, or the richness of the lunch which was responsible for her near somnolent state. She remembered the lunch she had taken in the Shiv temple in Koraput. She had sat cross-legged on the floor with all her colleagues and protested mildly as ladleful of rice, dal,aloobaigantarkari, ghantatarkari, chutney, papad was served again and again, till she had wanted to curl up and sleep on the chatai itself.  Slowly, she walked out of the large hall where the Conference was being held. She smiled as she saw the cars lined up outside the portico. Many of the Collectors had planned to leave for their districts straight from the conference venue itself. She smiled as she saw Abhay’s wife, her one year old baby in her arms, frantically looking for him. Further away, Vineet’s wife, six months pregnant, was leaning by the car door, awaiting his arrival. For a moment, she felt something tug at her heart.  All her colleagues had someone waiting for their return but there was no one waiting for her. An emotion, somewhat akin to self pity began to engulf her. Then she shrugged her shoulders and smiled. Everyone knew that she was married to her job. She could not imagine being just a housewife like Abhay’s wife, with her life being just an eternal wait for her husband.  She knew that if she juggled a job and household, she would be able to do justice to none. And in addition, she was a perfectionist.   She slid into her car and returned to the Circuit House as she needed to rest. She had an eight hour drive before her the next day.

When she arrived at the Circuit House, she slumped into an arm chair. But even the air conditioner in the room could not make her shed her listlessness. She decided to have a bath. “I must enjoy this old bath tub one last time,” she thought as she entered it and let the warm water soak into her and draw out every vestige of tiredness from within her. Feeling refreshed, she stepped out of the bath; her long hair coiled on top of her head, and vigorously rubbed herself with the over sized towel which hung on the rail.

“The towel is meant for someone who is at least six feet two,” she laughed to herself, “someone like Abhay or Vineet and not for someone like me who is a diminutive 5 feet 2 inches in height.”

After her bath, she wore a cotton salwarkameez and suddenly the years rolled away from her. She looked and felt as though she was still in her teens. She looked at her watch. It was just seven pm.  But she knew that she was the lone occupant of the Circuit House. All her other batch mates had been housed in the PWD (Public Works Department) Guest house. She was the only privileged one in the Circuit House because she was a woman. This time she would have preferred company. Evenings could be very lonely.  No one knew that better than her.

The lights went out suddenly and the room was plunged into darkness. “Power cut?’ she wondered, her eyebrows puckered.  “No,” she thought, shaking her head, “probably a fuse had blown.”  She remembered watching the T.V. News at the same time the last evening. She looked out of the window.  She could see the street lights. Suddenly she felt an urge to feel the night air. “After my bath I don’t want to get soaked in this heat,” she thought as she picked up her flashlight,  opened the door and walked out.

The doorman saluted her smartly as she stepped out of the Circuit House gate and out into the street. She felt the wind blow onto her face.  The monsoon was about to break. And about time too, she thought. It had been so hot and humid during the day. She began to walk slowly along the road. The road was deserted except for a car parked at the far end of the road. The driver had put up its bonnet and had bent his head down. “Engine trouble,” she ruminated. She knew nothing about cars, she laughed to herself. She knew nothing about most things mechanical. She walked slowly on the road, and then her eyes became riveted on the driver. He was oblivious to her presence, so engrossed was he in sucking out petrol and filling it in a jerry can. Suddenly, he lifted his head.

A sort of rage began to build within her. A rage that began as a constriction within her chest, and then began squeezing her ribcage. If she didn’t know it better she would have said that she was about to have a heart attack. She was scrupulously honest. Honesty was the badge she flashed around before everyone. She hated corruption. And yet her driver, her own driver Karan was pilfering petrol from her official car. The rage which was constricting her suddenly erupted. She knew what she had to do.

“Karan, just wait till we return to the district,” she said, anger making her voice rise. He looked at her for a long time. He was guilty and yet there was something bold and brash about him. He seemed almost insolent when he said, “I am sorry Madam.” He spoke the words as though they had no meaning and as though he was rendering the apology simply because under the circumstances, the form had to be maintained.  There was not even an iota of guilt on his face, she fumed although she knew that even a heartfelt apology would not have mollified her.

“Come back to the Circuit House immediately,” she said and without waiting for a reply she began walking back. She could see the lights burning inside the Circuit House. “Thank God, the lights are back,” she thought, “it would have been difficult to pack in the dark.”

Once she reached the Circuit House she ordered a quick dinner and rang up her subordinate in the  District  Collectorate.

“I plan to suspend my driver,” she said tersely, “please have the order ready in the morning.”  “Sir, Madam,” spluttered the voice at the other end, “Please do not travel at night, it is already too late.” “I am not afraid of the dark,” she retorted.

An hour later she left Koraput by road. The driver started the car and almost as a reflex action switched on the car stereo. Her favourite song, “AaBhiJaa…AaBhiJaa,”  by Lucky Ali  began playing. Normally, she enjoyed the music. But today she was in no mood for relaxation. “Stop it,” she shouted, and the driver turned around in surprise on hearing the rage in her voice. He switched off the music immediately.

As she leaned against the backrest she realized that her back had begun to ache. She could feel sharp needles of pain stabbing her back. “Long hours of traveling by car on bumpy roads have taken toll,” the doctor had diagnosed when she had visited him. She shrugged her shoulders in resignation. It couldn’t be helped.  The doctor had advised bed rest but for her work came first. She opened the car window and saw the star studded sky.

“The stars glitter like diamonds in a jewel case,” she thought and then smiled as she realized how prosaic her simile was. “I am no poetess,” she shrugged to herself, “I am a bureaucrat.”  She continued to look out of the window. She had never traveled on the ghat road in the dark. It was a different kind of experience. The moon seemed to glide across the sky.  The moonlight seemed to have wrought magic in the air. She felt the tension ease a little.  Suddenly the car came to a halt. “Madam torch hai?” Karan asked. She reluctantly handed him the flashlight she always carried with herself in anticipation of an emergency.

“The car is too hot,” he said, coming back to the window, “I need some water for the car.” “Come on, didn’t you carry any?” she asked. ”You were in such a hurry Madam,” he said quietly, “I simply forgot.”

Karan then picked up the empty jerry can and went in search of water. Where would he find water in the dark?’ she wondered. She had no idea at all. This was not a well traversed road. This was not her district either.  She had come here only to attend the Collector’s Conference. What madness had possessed her to undertake this journey at night? What madness indeed?

She recalled with dismay that the PWG had attacked a post near Raigarh, not far away from where she was stranded. Her junior colleague had warned her not to travel at night but she had not listened to him.  She never did listen to anyone. She was bold, confident, brash and headstrong. Now she added a new word to the list- “Foolhardy.”

Suddenly the skies opened up. She looked up at the sky in surprise. She had never been able to get accustomed to the monsoon in Odisha. The lightning zigzagged crazily across the sky. The thunder rolled and rumbled loudly. Water began to gush out in torrents. She saw the rain splash hard against the windowpanes and splatter nosily on the car roof. Where there was silence a moment ago now there was mayhem. She shrugged to herself and then shivered slightly.  Earlier the monsoon to her had meant just a few showers of rain in July, which was over even before she found time to take out her synthetic sarees from her steel trunk. Suddenly, the downpour seemed threatening. The monsoon she had longed for had arrived with a vengeance:she thought as she saw a pair of eyes shining behind a bush. What sort of an animal was it? She thought with a shudder. A leopard?A bear?A wolf? She could feel the hair rise at the nape of her neck. She felt goose pimples all over.

Then, at a distance, she saw someone walking towards the car. For the first time in her life she felt afraid, extremely vulnerable. She was not just an officer. She was also a woman. The words began to hammer in her mind. A young woman at that. And who knew better than her about the crimes against women? The one thing she longed for now was the warmth of her own bed and the security guard at the gate to ensure her safety and security. Why had she decided to return at night? She thought, cursing herself. To hell with the petrol.  Who bothered about the theft of a few litres of petrol?

And then she saw him more clearly as he walked towards the car. Karan’s shirt was beginning to cling to his back. He looked at her and began to smile. She had never really noticed how wolfish his smile was.  Then he walked towards her side of the car. She saw the look in his eyes and knew what he wanted. She saw the muscles rippling beneath his chest.  Looking at him she guessed that his chest was rock hard. And then he opened, not the front door near the driver’s seat but the door next to hers. She stiffened in her seat, closed her eyes and started chanting mantras soundlessly. “If he dares to touch me,” she thought, “I shall kill him.”

“What can I do?” she thought to herself, keenly aware of her own vulnerability. Could she resist a man who was over six feet tall? All he had to do was to pinion her down on the seat with one hand and take her. Her shouts would be of no avail for no one would hear her.  There was no one  on the road. And there were no vehicles nearby.

Rape. It was only a word she had heard. Now she was going to be a victim. “Not if I can help it,” she thought to herself as he opened the door. “What do you want?” she shouted at him, her voice hoarse. “Nothing Madam,” he said, looking surprised at hearing her scream, “I want to take my towel and clothes which I have kept underneath the front seat.” So saying he dunked his head and brought out the shirt and pant rolled in a towel and beneath a tree, his back towards her, he took off his shirt and began to dry himself with a towel. She noticed, to her surprise, that the rain had stopped.  In the moonlight night she saw his torso, with the muscles rippling, as he scrubbed it vigorously with a towel. She was unable to draw away her gaze from his body. At last she turned away, disgusted at her own behavior.

Minutes later, he was dressed and back in the car. This time when he switched on the stereo she said nothing.

It was six am in the morning when they reached Ganjam. At ten o’clock she was back in office.  Her instructions to her subordinate had been carried out meticulously. The suspension order of Karan was inside a file marked, “Most urgent.” She looked at it for a minute. “This was what I wanted, wasn’t it?” she thought to herself. Just then Karan entered the room. “Madam,” he said, folding his hand and looking chastised, “Please give me one more chance. I have three small children to look after.” A minute later, the insolent grin was back on his face.

She saw his receding back and suddenly felt very tired. This was not the first time he had done it, she knew and this would not be the last. But suddenly, she did not care anymore. For a moment she relived the nightmare of the night before when her imagination had taken wings and filled her with dread.  She was glad to be alive and safe.  She took out the suspension order and tore it to shreds.

 

Glossary

AaBhiJaa-Lyrics of a song.

AlooBaigantarkari-Potato  eggplant curry

Chatai– mat

Ganjam-district of Odisha

Ghantatarkari– mixed vegetable preparation

Ghat– a difficult passage over a mountain

Koraput-district of Odisha

PWG- People’s War Group.(An Extremist Group.)

Raigarh-district of Odisha

salwarkameez- an ethnic dress with salwar being  long pajama type trousers and kameez being a long shirt or tunic.

Torch hai-? Do you have a torch?

About the author:

VandanaKumari Jena is an IAS officer by profession and a writer by inclination. Currently she is Principal Adviser, Planning Commission,New Delhi. She has published over 250 middles in leading newspapers. Her short stories have appeared in over fifteen anthologies,  including  “Black White and Various Shades of Brown,”  “India Smiles,” and “Blogprint” published by Penguin India and the Chicken Soup for the India Soul Series.  Her novel “The Dance of Death,” was published in  2008 by HarAnand Publications. She can be contacted at vandana.jena(at)gmail(dot)com

 

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