The police jeep arrived in the village. It kicked up dust, which besmirched the rows of white artworks drawn on the mud walls of the tiny houses. Before the whirl of dust settled, there appeared a paunchy police officer followed by his assistant, a babbling lady constable. Both paraded towards a lonely hut ignoring pools of mud and a pack of stray dogs feasting on fresh human excrement. At the dilapidated entrance to the ramshackle house, the officer winked at his assistant with a gentle shaking of his head. The lady was smart enough to decipher the body language of her boss and barged into the hut. The tin door went on clunking for some time and then wailed like an injured dog.
Inside, Fula was obstinate and implacable. Nevertheless she showed the highest degree of honour to the lady constable and maintained extreme restraint during the course of their conversation. When the lady in uniform realised that Fula was not a creature to be knuckled under, she resorted to use of force. Grabbing Fula by one of her arms, she dragged her to the entrance where the officer stood like a demon with bulging eyes and a deep black mutton chops moustache.
He slapped Fula on the face and said with a scowl, “You bitch! Why don’t you understand?”
Fula wailed in pain, as if a needle were penetrated through her flesh without shedding a drop of blood. Still, she never allowed tears to reach the surface of her eyes. She knew the hokum of expressing her emotions before two rapacious vultures. That made her dauntless and she replied resolutely, “Sir, he’s dead. My husband is dead. See, I’m a widow now.”
The bangle-less hands, raised by Fula to corroborate her words, were slapped down in the most cruel manner by the officer. “What if your husband had died? There’s a compensation of Rs two lakh for you and your children. Take the money and enjoy. Just modify the statement that your husband’s suicide was related to his extra-marital affair and not to the crop loss.” An indignant Fula, unable to evince her anger, threw a vague look at the officer and went on wringing her pallu until they disappeared.
Akshi, Fula’s husband, was a marginal farmer who had a meagre one acre of land to cultivate. He used to take patches of land on lease for paddy cultivation. This year, in search of a better fortune, Akshi took five acres of land on lease. To pay the lease amount, he had to take a loan from a private money-lender at an exorbitant rate of interest by mortgaging his house and the one acre of land he owned.
In some corner inside Akshi, he dreamt of having a good house, nice food and an educated groom for his daughter who had already attained marriageable age. Fula had warned her husband of the risky consequences. A crop failure due to an erratic monsoon or a pest attack would rob them of their house and the patch of land they owned; the name of Akshi along with his ancestors would be wiped out from the village; and their famished children in ragged clothes would be forced into mendicancy. But Akshi didn’t heed her words. He was neither confident nor diffident in his body language.
Holding Fula’s hand, he replied with a smile, “We’ll get a good crop this year. The village deity will take care.” With a distant gaze, Fula slipped her hand from Akshi’s without saying anything else. This had been a practice of hers when she didn’t know whether to corroborate her husband’s decision or persuade him for forbearance.
Akshi’s decision proved to be mere audacity as the monsoon played truant that year. It was a severe drought. Paddy plants wilted in unison as if a troupe of artistes were playing a melancholic tune in their midst. A doleful Akshi sitting in one corner of his paddy field was contemplating what had happened. There would be no harvest, so no food for his family. The moneylender would spread his tentacles like an octopus and engulf his tiny house and his small patch of land. Akshi realised how destiny is cruel to a man. “Where would my family stay? What would they eat? How can the loan be repaid?” Akshi went on musing. He felt the beating of his pounding heart and was almost in tears. “I can’t feed my family! I can’t arrange a roof over their heads! I can’t bring them happiness!”
“Then why should I live?” he asked himself. “Life is an affair which people like me are not able to carry out. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea. There are special people who fit the event, not me.” Akshi saw a bottle of pesticide for the crops lying beside him. As pests are unwanted for the crops, he had become unwanted for his family and the rest of the world. Akshi opened the bottle, closed his eyes and drank all the liquid not leaving a single drop inside. The wilted paddy plants were ready to embrace his body.
There was a hue and cry when a section of the media highlighted the incident. Stories came out in local and national dailies regarding Akshi’s suicide with the caption “Worst case of government apathy: Farmer ends life”. The government in the state drew flak from every corner — opposition parties left no stone unturned in condemning the ruling party. Bigwigs from the government came to the village and tried to cook up a story that Akshi’s suicide had no relation to the crop failure. He took the extreme step because of a “very personal reason”. When repeatedly asked by some scribes, one of the government officers with a broad face and cunning eyes explained the “very personal reason” of Akshi to be an illicit affair with his sister-in-law.
Fula never bought the claim. The media wound stories around Fula’s statements and accused the government of complicity. Then the powers that be thought of using force and police came into the scene.
The next day two policemen took Fula to the station. There sat the demon with an intimidating look as if he was ready to crush the object in front of him. A frightened look hung over her sober face. The officer, twirling his moustache, pointed to a person and asked Fula, “Do you know him?” Fula managed a curious look over to the man and shook her head. Much to her dismay, that man was observing her from toe to head with a lustful smile on his face. Fula felt humiliated as if her modesty had been outraged.
The demon asked again, “Give an answer to my question. What relationship you have with this man? “ Fula in a frightened voice replied, “I don’t know him. Who is he?” A heavy slap landed on her face.
“You dare ask a question? Bloody whore!” He again shouted after a pause, “He’s your lover, your second husband. Don’t try to pretend. I know everything. It’s you who is the cause of your husband’s suicide. He took the drastic step of ending his life as his wife was sleeping with another man. You nasty woman! You are the murderer.”
The policeman remained silent for a while, took a careful look at Fula and whispered, “Admit that the cause of suicide is his extra-marital affair and not the crop failure. It will be beneficial for you. Otherwise, I will prove you were an unfaithful wife and put you behind bars.”
Fula had no words to defend herself. She was shattered into pieces. There was a spontaneous flow of tears from her eyes —they reached her nostrils, lips and chin. She thought that life saves the cruellest for the poor.
“I’m giving you a chance”, the policeman thundered in his baritone, “Go and tell others that your husband committed suicide not because of government apathy but due to an illicit affair with another woman. If you don’t conform, the consequences are well known to you.”
At home, Fula became restless. She was caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. While she was trying to overcome the stigma left by the death of her husband, police action came as an increment to her agony. She became melancholic in the memory of Akshi. He never hurt her in 15 years of their conjugal life.
He had tried all possible means to put a smile on his wife’s face. He used to bring gajrasto decorate her hair. He would say, “Darling! I may not be rich but I am a king at heart. Please take this present. I love you.” This time she wept in her heart. There was no sound, no visible drop of tears.
At the next instance, Fula became indignant for Akshi’s decision to end his life. There are problems and constraints but there’s always a way forward. Finding a solution to the problem is living. Fula rued the fact that Akshi couldn’t understand this truth of life.
Fula made up her mind. She was determined to stand up against the police. She would go on reiterating the fact that her husband lost his life due to mental agony resulting out of government apathy and crop failure.
Two days passed. There was another piece of news. “Suicides in a row: After her husband, Fula embraces death.” Below the headline, ran another detail — “Suspected reason: Her extra-marital affair” Scandalmongers spread the gossip that Fula was a prostitute and had been running a brothel for quite some time. When her husband discovered it, he committed suicide. Fula had no other option after police caught her practicing the trade. After reading the news item, the police officer said to himself, “How fiercely she resisted! It really took me a while to strangle her.”
The tin door in the ramshackle house had been wailing for the last two days.