It was voting day in Rathaudi village. In the midst of external commotion and internal qualms, Manya went around completing chores. His emaciated limbs and lean chest heaved and convulsed as he unloaded a sack of grey mud from his shoulders on to the ground next to his house. As was his propensity, he mused of his routine engrossed in between his strides from his house to his fields. The booth was a considerable ways away from his humble hut at the eastern fringe of the village, where he kept his stock of cattle, namely two bullocks and two cows, and a beegha of farmland where he grew wheat. The sky was starkly barren and the wind was dead; “Even the gods rest today…” he thought as he made his back to carry a second round of mud.
At the break of day, he’d been sitting perched against his door when the milkman fancied himself a chat and came and sat next to him.
“So bhaiya…” he said as he settled in his spot. “Who are you planning to vote for, or should I say, who are you planning to vote against?” he chuckled and looked expectantly at Manya.
His expression remained still. He hadn’t planned anything, he never did. He’d probably vote for whoever sent his bus first.
“I’ve resolved to vote this swindler of a government out this time,” the milkman continued. As he did, he breathed in a cloud of air to inflate his chest, as if to expand his bodily sphere to more than it was actually worth, similar to his words. Manya was quite piqued by his ignorance. In fact, he wished for him to leave him alone.
What little awareness he has, as if it is up to his single vote to decide any side’s victory, he thought.
“I mean, enough is enough no? Saala, he promised a direct water supply to every home last time in his grand rally… This season, my children were lucky to secure a lota for business every morning.” This time, he laughed heartily.
“I don’t know, I’ll see,” Manya replied tersely when the milkman continued to stare at him. Hence, the ‘guest’ got the hint. He got up just as rapidly as he had sat down, dusted himself off and left with a sarcastically loud salaam, cycling off along the dirt road.
Secure in the knowledge that no one else would come to parade their sensibilities around early in the morning, he got to work. He did not like to dwell a lot on what other people said. But something about what the milkman had said anchored itself in his heart. He brushed dirt and grime off the bullock; the swindler… not even a lota of water. That was a bit funny, now that he thought about it. He smiled to himself. Then he frowned to himself.
He looked up at the ceiling of his shed and presently, noticed a chunk of it missing from near a nest of termites. Then he looked down at his own shabby clothes. He led the bullock back to its place and sauntered outside, as if profoundly disturbed by something. The muscles in his face felt loose. He was still out of breath from all the brushing so he decided to light a beedi, but could not find a light. As he rummaged around the only his only box of belongings, the realization of the derelict condition of his abode crept on his mind. He decided to take a walk to the village.
The village centre was, conservatively speaking, a barren affair. In no particular fashion pleasing to any sense of feng shui, the various buildings were scattered around at rather curvaceous angles, forming virtual crossroads at the right angles where they met. A school and two shops, one selling jaggery and snacks and the other, soaps and cigarettes, formed the entirety of the commercial institutions in the place.
Breathing in short, incessant breaths and walking in unsure strides, he glanced at Radhey the baniya’s house. It comprised of permanent walls, a well affixed roof and a handpump in the rear. The baniya had a reputation for sucking up to politicians, and by virtue of acting an unofficial whip for the village’s votes, he earned many a favour with both sides prior to election and the winning side, post it. Then, the sinking feeling in his heart turned to bitter excitement. As if zapped by lightning, he sprinted across the chauraha, to Madhuban the shopkeeper’s house. As he reached the shop’s front, he rested his palms on his knees to catch his breath.
“Say, Madhuban, who do fancy you’ll vote for this time? Is it that crooked crook who promised water but failed to give even a lota or…”
The old shopkeeper looked at him weird. Manya never had never been the talkative kind, always keeping to himself. Madhuban considered himself perversely dignified and took pride in his work. He too, like him, minded his own business. Hence, this sudden outburst of vociferousness took him aback.
“You shouldn’t say that out aloud. We’ve been planned to be given to the basta again,” he said, referring to the symbol of the party. As he did, something leapt in his chest. Evidently, his idea of dignity seemed to fall short when it came to this. “Radhey the baniya has bet a lot on their victory.”
“The milkman said…” Manya replied, but coming back to his senses and realising what he was doing, he stopped midway. “Actually, forget I said anything at all.”
Before the shopkeeper could respond, he turned on his heel and marched towards home. By the afternoon, although he’d gotten over his little episode, a miniscule nagging feeling tortured him as he heard the raucous clamour of the bus arriving. First there came a jeep. From the jeep jumped out three men of varying builds and complexions, all dressed in white kurtas and Nehru caps. They stretched a bit and each lit a beedi from a lighter. A tall and dark skinned one, who carried a somewhat displeased expression, glanced around from squinted eyes and saw Manya squatting outside his house. As if mechanically, his expression modified into one of patronising warmth. He pointed him out to the rest of his fellows, whispered something and they all commenced walking round towards him. Manya stood up and wiped his sweaty face with his shirt, welcoming them in a cautious yet steadfast manner. The dark skinned man spoke-
“So, all ready for the big day?”
Manya continued to stare at him.
Another one, short, stout and potbellied said “All set to make our Karanji victorious again?”
A thought floated briefly in Manya’s mind. “Why yes of course!” he said overcompensating in expressiveness. He waited a moment to check his audience. They seemed convinced.
“Why, of course,” he repeated. “Who else is there to take care of our village? The great Karan has and always will be our candidate, I mean,” he waved his arms around, signalling to his property, “…all this… all this is his blessings. Until last year, I hadn’t a penny to my own name. Now look, fertile land, a healthy cow, a permanent hut… what more could a man ask for?!”
The pitch of his voice rose with every successive word. The three men looked at each other, and seemed unfazed by this showcase. “Let’s go then, to another five years of prosperity, eh?” They all left in the same pungent grandeur that they had arrived.
Manya sighed heavily to himself as they left. His heart was beating like mad and his eyes were burning from fright. He left his work as it was and followed a few paces behind them. As they mounted back in the jeep, he folded his hands in a Namaste and bowed to them. They seemed to have failed to notice his curtness and drove off in a cloud of dust. He continued walking to where he could see the rest of the villager boarding the bus one after the other.
The bus carried them to an old grain house which had been converted into a voting booth. The outside of the structure looked like it had been painted recently. There was a considerable crowd gathered around the front entrance of the courtyard. Streamers with tiny triangular flags adorned the old building like cobwebs do a dead tree.
Manya got off the bus and was guided by a man in a grey safari suit to a queue formed in front of an old wooden desk which physically preceded the gate leading into the booth. He could see that inside the gate, there were green carpets lain out to cover each inch of the dirt floor. Amidst his sightseeing, he was practically pushed into a single line of individuals, some of whom he recognized, some of whom he didn’t, and most of them, he noticed, wore dhotis or pyjamas with a distinct lack of upper body clothing. The June sun wrought torturous rays of fire onto the earth and consequently, everybody sweat profusely. When it rains, it pours and when it doesn’t, you’d be lucky to live long enough to see it do again.
The queue grew longer behind him. The people in front crawled along lazily. As he reached the desk with two distinctive men sitting behind it, his heart began to pound once again. Radhey baniya and someone else he didn’t recognize perused a bundle of papers with small text and distorted photographs on them.
“Name?” the stranger asked, stolidly. “Manya Krishna,” he replied nervous and quivering. After checking a sheet in a register, and looking Manya up and down, he concluded, “Hmm. Soon as you enter, take a left and go into the second room you see. Get the ink on your finger, sign your thumbprint and press the basta button.”
Manya blinked at him. Then, he left the queue and started towards the main gate. As he did, he saw the milkman exiting from a wicket-gate on the side. He had a surreal expression and walked with his arms crossed and chin dug into his chest. Manya felt his heart in his throat. The room with the voting machines was intimidating to him. Not by virtue or semblance of magnanimity or modernity, but for the dejected grey walls and languished dark grey floor tiles. He could almost see his agony reflect in the peeling paint. He pressed his thumb on a pad of ink and them onto a blank sheet of paper. The lady behind the table unassumingly marked his index finger, wrote a number below his thumbprint and stacked it on a pile of similar ones. He tried to calm himself down. She noticed his unsettlement and promptly pointed him to the machine, which stood hidden behind curtains.
“Go in, press the basta button.”
Manya felt shook. He felt like throwing up. He walked slowly behind the curtains and was finally left alone. The machine looked old and rather rattled. The majority of its body was painted green and three dull, pink buttons were set along the left edge. One carried the black symbol of a schoolbag, the second one, a symbol of a toot horn and the third was empty. At this point, he was reclining into a trance. He ceased to feel the extremities of his limbs. His soaked shirt stuck to his back. He felt his soul ascend from his body and look down upon it. He pressed the button with the horn on it. The machine beeped loudly and they say it echoed somewhere where a similar machine hooked up to this one counted all votes, regardless of what button was pressed, to the schoolbag party.
He felt nothing as he exited the courtyard. He was peripherally aware of the faces staring at him form amongst the crowds. In what felt like hours, four men, none of whom he recognized, ran up to him and pinned him to the ground. One tore his shirt from his chest. One spat on his hair. Another pulled his dhoti down and proceeded to stamp on his shins. Yet another kicked his chest. As he felt his breath puncture out of his lungs, he laughed as loud as he had ever laughed in his life, and they say it echoed somewhere.
by Shikhar Tripathi