Translated from Malayalam by Murali J. Nair.
They locked up the house and left at six in the morning. If they could reach the main road before seven they could catch the first bus to Solapur. They wanted to get to Pune before noon. That was what Gopal had them agree to do. For lunch on the way, Shobhi had packed some chapatis and subzi. To prepare those items, she had woken up at four in the morning. She was condemned to listen to the abuses hurled at her by Chandamayi for getting up late. Chandamayi would not understand Shobhi’s sickness or her need to take medications. With an angry face, she would keep on scolding Shobhi with words such as “lazy bum” and “daughter of that stray bitch”.
“You have taken the mobile phone, right?” Though she had asked it several times before, Shobhi repeated the question to Hanumanta as they were crossing the dried-up canal in the middle of the fields.
“Yes,” he replied, running his hand over his pocket.
“Be careful!” said Shobhi. “The bus is filled with pickpockets from Barshi. You know how much it costs.”
“I know. I will be careful with it. I won’t fall asleep,” Hanumanta promised, clutching his pocket.
They had to wait for the bus under the tree on which bats were practising sleeping yoga. People were already crowding for their morning tea at Ram Bapu’s dhaba across the road. Though they prayed not to be seen by anyone known to them, they were spotted by Lakhu Bappa, who wandered around to tell people’s fortune by having his parrot pick the card.
“Where are you two headed to so early in the morning?” he shouted at them.
“To Solapur, to buy some clothes.” That was the lie that came to Hanumanta’s mind instantaneously.
“To buy clothes? In these bad times? Did you hit the lottery? Or did someone help you with their undeclared money?”
Hanumanta did not have to reply because the bus arrived, raising a haze of dust, and stopped between them, blocking the view.
The morning bus was not crowded. Both of them got seats. Hanumanta sat gazing outside. It was misty. The mist hung above the drought-hit fields like a blanket of fear. These were the fields where wheat and lentils grew once upon a time. The fields where Hanumanta and Shobhi had worked throughout the year. The fields that had brought them fun and laughter and happiness. Hanumanta sighed at the drought that had scorched those happy days.
“You will fall sick, cover yourself.” Shobhi gave Hanumanta her shawl.
“No, I have covered my ears.” Hanumanta pulled his head-garb down enough to cover his ears.
As the bus picked up speed and the wind grew stronger, Hanumanta held the mobile phone close to his chest as if it were a piece of paper that might fly away.
“It is turned off, right?” Shobhi asked again, to confirm. “Do not drain its battery.”
Their house did not have electricity. Even the neighbouring houses did not. They recharged the phone at Prahlad’s barber shop, in the village market far from their house, where it cost ten rupees. Shobhi knew the value of the distance she had to walk for charging the phone.
Gopal had given them this phone when he visited the last time.
“You can pay for it in instalments,” Gopal had told them. “When I see the common people like you stepping into the new age, the dream of digital India seems not too far.”
“But I don’t know how to take pictures, Gopalji,” Hanumanta expressed his helplessness.
“Oh Hanumanta, you know how to ride a bicycle, how to drive a tractor, how to operate the water pump to irrigate the farms, and how to work the thresher. Then what is there with a mobile phone? I will make you a master in this in two hours. You wait and see.”
He was right. Hanumanta was able to learn all the tricks faster than he anticipated. It was that mobile phone that rested in his pocket like a baby bird who had grown enough to fly.
In Solapur, they had to wait a long time for the next bus. Some of the buses headed to Pune were expensive air-conditioned ones whose ticket fare they could not afford. As he heard the amount they charged, Hanumanta thought with regret that he should have come alone.
“How was that possible? Didn’t Patil say that he wanted to see me too? It is okay. On our way back, we will have enough money in our pockets instead of this mobile phone. Then we can ride the air-conditioned bus,” Shobhi consoled Hanumanta.
Eventually they got a regular bus. A bus that ran really slow, stopping at all points.
“Would Jani have eaten anything? Or that old lady would eat her head,” Shobhi worried while she was on the bus.
“Mother is angry only with you. She likes Jani,” Hanumanta consoled her, holding her hands.
Shobhi was not at all in favour of leaving their daughter with Chandamayi. But they had no alternative. There was no guarantee that they would return today, and even if they did, they didn’t know how late in the night would it be. So Hanumanta was forced to leave Jani with his mother, who lived four tenements away from them.
Chandamayi was angry with them ever since the day he brought Shobhi home as his bride.
Shobhi’s mother was a sweeper at the Chapalgaon village market where Hanumanta went to buy seeds and to sell his produce. Shobhi used to come with her mother to help her clean the market. Hanumanta had met her there and liked her. But his mother Chandmayi had issues with Shobhi, “the stray bitch who cleaned the market and who belonged to a caste lower than ours.”
“Who on this earth is lower than us in caste?” Hanumanta used to ask his mother.
“Oh you brainless idiot, there are fifteen sub-castes in our own caste, and she belongs to the lowest of them all. We will lose all respect if you married her,” she would say, crying.
But Hanumanta paid no attention to his mother’s objections. He married Shobhi. Though he moved out from the house, had two children, and several years had gone by, his mother’s misgivings did not go away. It was with that mother that they had to leave Jani now. Shobhi was in agony because of that.
“Oh Hanumanta, why are you leaving your daughter with her grandmother?” asked Bheemsha the stone-mason, who was playing with children by the side of the street. “Are both of you planning to commit suicide, or something like that?”
“Not any time soon, Bheemsha,” Shobhi retorted. “When the time comes, we will let you know. You should definitely bring the television crew then.”
“If the drought continues like this, it wouldn’t be too long for anyone to do that,” Bheemsha muttered to himself.
They could not reach Pune at the time agreed upon. Hanumanta switched on the mobile phone and called Gopal. Gopal scolded them for being late.
“You expected Patil saab to wait for two lowly animals all day? It is not in vain that Chandamayi scolds you as people who slept until the sun shone into their asses. No wonder you people can never make it in life.”
Gopal went on scolding them like that. Hanumanta kept his mouth shut. Gopal hung up the phone saying that he would come and get them.
After a little while Gopal came to the bus stop and brought them to Patil’s shop in a rickshaw. Patil was a young man below thirty. But he had the arrogance of a forty-year-old, cunningness of a fifty-year-old, and maturity of a sixty-year-old.
“Patil saab, these are the people I told you about.” Gopal introduced them.
“Go upstairs and wait for me, I will come and see you,” Patil said in a grave tone, sending them to the terrace upstairs.
They were ravenously hungry. Shobhi opened the packed lunch and they shared the chapatis and subzi.
“Let me see,” Gopal said after he brought water for them to drink, and extended his hand to Hanumanta for the mobile phone.
“No Gopalji, we are shy,” Hanumanta clutched his pocket tightly.
“No, brother, if someone from our village saw it, it would be disgraceful to us,” Shobhi supported her husband. “That is why we came all this way to Pune. Otherwise we could have sold it somewhere in Solapur.” Though Gopal felt like laughing at her ignorance, his face did not betray it.
“What is there to feel shy in front me, Hanumanta?” Gopal asked. “Don’t I have to see it if I have to try and get you a few extra rupees from Patil saab when he comes here and sees it?”
On hearing the question, Hanumanta’s hold on his pocket loosened. Hesitatingly, he handed over the mobile phone to Gopal. Shobhi lowered her face to the chapatis that she was eating.
It happened in an evening three months ago. Hanumanta was sitting at Ram Bappu’s dhaaba, smoking. Gopal, who came and sat near him, opened his mobile phone and secretly showed him some pictures. Gopal was the son of Chandulal, who was the lone policeman in the village. Gopal was the most educated person in the village. He was running some big business in Pune. He always smelled of tobacco. He visited the village only occasionally. He would stay at his house for a few days and return. It was one of those visits.
Hanumanta was flabbergasted to see those pictures. He had heard such pictures existed but never had seen one before. Then Gopal showed him some videos on the mobile phone.
“Where do you get these from, Gopalji,” Hanumanta asked, opening his mouth in awe.
“These are available in plenty on the internet,” Gopal said. “But people have lost interest in these white women. Now people like the pictures of village folks like us. Do you know how much money is there in this? For just a picture, one could earn as much money as he would make in a life-time working in a farm. I am here to help those who want to make money. But they should have the willingness to do it.” Gopal finished his thought as if he weren’t addressing anyone in particular.
Hanumanta got up and walked away silently, as if he had not heard what Gopal said.
Hanumanta did not sleep that night. Shobhi thought that he was sleepless because they had quarrelled in the evening over the lack of money to buy vegetables. She knew that even a small argument was enough to drain her husband’s strength. So she placed her head on his chest, apologizing and pacifying him. At that time, Hanumanta told to her about the pictures and videos that he had seen on Gopal’s mobile phone, and also about the large amounts of money that was waiting for the villagers who were willing to capture such pictures and videos. Shobhi also could not sleep that night.
That weekend, when Gopal was waiting for his bus to Pune, Hanumanta asked him, “Could you get a camera phone for me?”
Shobhi was beautiful, Gopal thought as he looked into Hanumanta’s eyes with a sly smile. Hanumanta lowered his face. As he put his hand into the pocket to give him the money, Gopal said calmly, “You can pay me later.”
“This is super! Patil saab will like these very much, for sure!” Gopal said excitedly after he saw the pictures and videos on the mobile, and eyeing Shobhi through the corner of his eyes. She covered her head and body with her sari more tightly.
A little later, Patil saab came in. Hanumanta and Shobhi got up and greeted him with folded hands.
“Are you the actors?” he asked.
Hanumanta shook his head affirmatively, though he was not sure what the question meant.
Patil parted Shobhi’s sari from her head and peered at her, head to foot.
“Hm, the features are not bad. Passing grades can be given, right?” he asked Gopal in hushed tones, as if he were a judge at a beauty pageant.
“Yes,” Gopal agreed.
“I asked you to come in person to ensure that the people in the video are genuine,” Patil saab said, to no one in particular. “There are some deceitful people who bring stuff shot by cameras hidden in other people’s bedrooms. If there are legal issues, we would be the ones getting caught because we upload the videos. Anyway, let me see your piece.”
Hanumanta handed over the phone to Patil saab, with all the humility he could muster.
“Did they shoot with this one, Gopal? There won’t be any clarity. People want HD now. At least 10 megapixels is a must. Otherwise, they would not take it.”
Hanumanta could not understand what he was saying. But he guessed, horrified, that something was wrong.
Patil saab opened the picture gallery on the phone and started viewing the pictures and videos.
“See, I told you, Gopal, these pictures have no clarity. Looks like they were shot in a dark cave. Did you see this, this old man on top gasping like a bike-riding bear in a circus? Maybe if we give these to some comedy channels, they might take it. Looks like they were shot by someone who was terrified by the act. See how the camera is shaking.”
Patil saab went on making such comments as he saw the pictures and videos.
“Look, Gopal, this woman is staring at the camera repeatedly. They are doing this of their free will, in this day and age, so does it have to look like it was shot with a hidden camera? Oh, what is this dirty scar on her tummy? It looks like someone had attacked her with a sword! Do you think any decent men would enjoy watching such videos, you rat?”
Patil saab looked at Hanumanta scornfully. Hanumanta lowered his head.
“That scar is the result of selling my kidney,” Shobhi said. “Three years ago, an agent took us there, promising three lakh rupees. But they sent us away giving only thirty thousand. Our son Shambhu had cancer. We tried to save him with that money. But it did not work. We lost the kidney, we lost the money, and we lost our son. This dirty scar remained.”
She covered her face with her hands, and started sobbing. “Our debts from his treatment are mounting manifold, Patil saab! How can we repay the debts in these times of drought? We did not enjoy making these pictures, saab.”
Hanumantha started crying too. But Patil saab did not budge.
“No, you take it with you. These days, we can easily get plentiful bathroom selfies shot by beautiful city girls.”
Patil saab left, angrily.
“Gopalji, please help us,” Hanumanta hurried to Gopal and fell on his feet.
“Patil saab’s question was right, who shot these videos? If you had told me, I would have come and shot them nicely. All the pictures and videos are bad. But let me talk to him one more time.”
Gopal followed Patil saab who was on his way down.
“We should give them something, they have come all this way,” he said.
Patil saab winked at him. “The pieces are superb. You get the mobile somehow and give them some pittance. I will take care of you properly.”
Patil saab laughed. Gopal joined him in the laughter.
“Patil did not like them at all, he said he did not want them,” Gopal told Hanumanta. “You give me my mobile back. You don’t need to pay me anything for it. After all you came this far, I will get you the bus fare from Patil saab. That is all I can do.”
Gopal took the mobile phone and started on his way down. Hanumanta and Shobhi accompanied him, wiping their tears away.
“Gopalji, the pictures on the phone,” Hanumanta asked, in an unsure tone.
“Don’t worry about them, I will delete them.”
They trusted Gopal.
When they reached downstairs, Patil saab handed five soiled hundred-rupee notes to Hanumanta.
“I am giving you this because Gopal insisted,” he said. “Now here is another mobile phone which has much better clarity. What we need are not the pictures of you donkeys who look like drought-hit farmland. Aren’t there young girls in your neighbouring huts? Capture them secretly with this camera. I will give you enough to pay off your debts.”
Hanumanta took the phone and put it in his pocket, without saying a word.
They got a bus for the return trip without delay. During that journey, as Hanumanta sat looking at the dark, parched farms, it was his daughter Jani’s face that came into his mind repeatedly. Each time it happened, his eyes filled up with tears. So did Shobhi’s.