In our Vikram Sarabhai library which had become my second home for quite some time, the literature section is on the second floor. It’s not a big collection but large enough to sustain a PhD student who needs dozes of fiction in between. One only needs to climb a bunch of stairs to switch into the world of fiction. Many literary giants are present. They stay there all hunched together in silence beside PhD thesis and large bindings of newspapers and old datasets. Within them in a small section lies the collection of Katha Prize stories. Every year the Katha institute brings out the collection of the best translated stories from different languages in India. One good thing about a short story collection is that it’s like a T20 match, gets over in a short while. A novel on the other hand is a Test match, needs a big stretch. Our library has the collection of the Katha Prize stories over a number of years. Today at the end of the year I read the story ‘The Verdict’ by Maitrey Pushpa.
In this story the protagonist ‘Basumati’ has been elected Pirdhan (pradhan or head) of the village just as a cover for her husband Ranveer who is the Pramukh. The story is in the form of a letter Basumati is writing to her teacher narrating her experience on the post. Her husband does not approve of her taking any decision in the village matters. She is expected to take care of the daily chores at home.
Then there is Isuriya, the goat herder who speaks her mind. She has been punished for her truthfulness by Ranveer before. Basumati is well aware of this. She also knows that her victory was a consequence of village women voting for her in expectation that she would address their dismal situation. But her hands are tied and her soul is being torn apart by her inability to help them out.
One day an old woman knocks on her door. Her brother in law tries to drive the woman out but she is adamant to meet Basumati. When Basumati arrives at the door she is pleaded to take the case of her daughter. She was locked up and was not allowed to go with her husband who was on a holiday from army service. The father had denied permission as he would get money orders from his son in law only if his daughter was with him. Also the daughter had gone to the city 3 times for abortion, the reasons for which are made clear later in the story. It’s a bone chilling case. Basumati gathers strength, goes with the old woman and signs for her daughter’s release. In the night Ranveer rebukes her for doing this.
Isuriya breaks the news to Basumati in the morning wailing outside her house. Hardai, the woman who was locked by her father had committed suicide. Somebody had reversed Basumati’s decision of freeing her during the night. The guilt of suicide was placed on Hardai’s husband and the police were searching for him. The story says ‘After getting the Panchnama written, Ranveer sat in Darogaji’s jeep and they drove off in a blaze of glory.” Basumati felt "under the guise of holy matrimony, the association of a tormented bird and a powerful hunter."
The elections for the post of Pramukh were to be held and Ranveer was in the fray again. “True enough, Ranveer was extremely clever. His campaign was not based on ordinary tactics like say, sponsoring liquor. He was the kind of person who was useful in moments of crisis.” He had only one opponent. But on the day of elections, he came back dejected, shivering in fact. Basumati writes to her teacher ‘Maasav, this is nothing to write about, but I did everything I could to comfort him. I prayed I could overcome his agitation by making my mind and body one with his.” It’s only when she hears that her husband lost by one vote, she confesses “I couldn’t kill the Isuriya in me.”
Above is the simplified account of the story. Only while reading it can one grasp the intensity of the rural setting of Dariyapur described by the author. Nice read to end the year.