Hammer & Sickle

Eugene Datta

2022

Introduction

Eugene Datta’s story has a simple premise. Tripti, a young Bengali woman, sets out at night to meet her lover Bikash. The setting is 1970s Kolkata, the locus and decade when the Indian State was first inconvenienced by a Maoist rebellion, the Naxalbari movement. The 1970s and 1980s were decades in which middle-class Bengali intellectuals, who’d read too many books by angry young Europeans, goaded the poor into violence, their absurd excuse being that the poor didn’t deserve to be poor. Bikash is one such chap. In between murdering enemies of the people and narrowly escaping getting murdered by said enemies, he secretly meets with Tripti. Secrecy is as necessary for Bikash as oxygen is for plants. Tripti only learnt his full name on their eleventh meeting.

Despite the contemporary setting, in terms of Sanskrit rhetoric, Tripti fits one of the eight prescribed types of heroines (aṣṭanāyikā). She is what the ancients would’ve called an “abhisārikā”, the “one who goes forth”. The abhisārikā is not necessarily a courtesan, condemned to the market, nor is she necessarily a housewife, confined to the home. The abhisārikā exists in transit, forever in motion between beginnings and ends. The abhisārikā is always on her way to a secret tryst with her love. The meeting itself is usually something of an anticlimax.

When the circumstances of a climactic event is foregrounded over the event, the story often acquires a surrealist overtone. We see this, for example, in Christine Montalbetti’s Western, where a gunfight is imminent. It remains imminent, as the story loses its way in the thicket of circumstances: the ants crawling over the cowboy’s boots, the minute description of a porch, the distance traveled and yet to be traveled. For me, Eugene Datta’s story has this interesting surreal quality. What does Tripti think she’s doing? Why and how did Bikash and Tripti fall in love? Why do they remain in love? Good questions. Vital questions. Datta, however, chooses to talk about about Parthopratim Ganguly, the murdered civil engineering professor whom Tripti had met at the house of Amala Sen, “the headmistress of Krishna Mohan Girls’ High School where Tripti taught physics and chemistry to class seven students”. Meanwhile, Tripti continues to move towards her meeting.

There are plants able to bloom in the cracks of concrete blocks, poke through silenced tank guns, and vote nature back to power after an apocalypse. Botanists call them “lycophytes”. Here then is a lycophytic love story, recommended for your attention.

— Anil Menon
The Bombay Literary Magazine

Hammer & Sickle

Tripti waited anxiously for the sun to set. She’d put on a sari Bikash liked to see her in. A hand-woven cotton Tangail with grey body and pale-blue borders. She’d washed, starched, and ironed it herself for today’s visit. She was going to see him where she’d never seen him before.

They’d known each other for almost a year, but most of their meetings until then had been either in one of the narrow, poorly lit alleys of the neighbourhood or on the roof of a big, dilapidated house that belonged to one of her colleagues. Tripti would find pieces of paper slipped under her door with messages like “Lamp post no. 6, eight-15,” or “3rd lane, green door, seven-30,” or “Roof, six-30”—locations on their private map; only they knew where these places were. Sometimes, he would knock on the door and step in for a few minutes, but mostly to let her know when and where they could meet next.

Tripti paced the rooms, glancing at her watch now and then. When her legs tired, she sat down on the edge of her bed and fanned herself with the day’s newspaper, or stood in front of the mirror wiping her sweat-soaked face. For the last few days, the heat had been so intense it felt like a gummy, suffocating mass trapping everything inside it. There were newspaper reports of unprecedented water and power shortages caused by high temperatures across most of the state. ‘No respite from the heat in sight’ read one headline.

Next to that was a report Tripti avoided looking at. She’d read it so many times since morning that she’d learned it by heart, every single sentence of it. The civil engineering professor from Jadavpur University who’d been missing since last week was now feared dead. The Naxals were blamed. Tripti had met the man only a month ago at Mrs. Sen’s house. Amala Sen, the headmistress of Krishna Mohan Girls’ High School where Tripti taught physics and chemistry to class seven students. His name was Parthopratim Ganguly. He’d been talking heatedly to Mr. Sen about politics and at one point said, “The Naxals are a nuisance. A menace to civil society. And the sooner we can get rid of them the better.”

“How can you say that about people who are trying to ensure a better future for all?” Tripti had countered. “Including those who have nothing. Especially for them!”

“A better future for the poor by slaughtering professors and police constables, right?” he’d sneered at her. “That’s how they’re trying to ensure collective welfare, is that right, madam?”

“No, it is not! And what about the police? What are they doing?”

“Tit for tat! They don’t have a choice. Of course, they’re breaking the rules of engagement. It’s obvious. They’re dragging people out of their homes at night, shooting at sight, and using the most inhuman means of torture to extract information. They’re even killing people in custody. Of course, it’s not right. And if Charu Majumdar’s gangs go on doing what they’re doing in the name of revolution, class struggle, police violence will only get worse. I can assure you. And you can’t blame the authorities. There’s no other way to stop this nightmare of pipe guns and hand bombs!”

According to the report, undisclosed sources had confirmed that the Naxals, who had regarded Parthopratim Ganguly as an ideological enemy, were behind his disappearance.

It was almost six by Tripti’s watch when the heat finally eased a little. The sun was about to set. With another look in the mirror, hastily dabbing her face with the edge of her sari, she set out.

The sweetshop, one of the grocery stores, the pan-and-cigarette stand and the two tailoring shops were open, and so was the modest chamber of the homeopathic doctor. There were people on the street, but not nearly as many as one would have expected at that hour. A hot, tarry smell rose from the parts of the road where the asphalt still held the gravel together. The sweetshop owner, the panwallah and the grocer had sprinkled water in front of their shops to keep the dust from flying. The smell rising from those patches of dampness reminded Tripti of the scent of the year’s first rain.

Walking past the closed shutters of the jewellery shop, the owner of which had been killed by the Naxals because he’d been a police informer, she thought about the ghastly night she’d spent in her sister’s house earlier in the summer. They were about to start eating dinner when they heard desperate, hair-raising cries coming from the fields behind the government quarters on Golf Club Road. “I didn’t do anything please…let me go…I don’t know them…please don’t…please—” Pfitt! Pfitt! Sharp, echoless gunshots had silenced the voice, as Tripti, her sister and her eight-year-old son sat huddled in one room, barely breathing. Later in the night, they’d heard more howling voices and more gunshots. There was no telling who was killing whom. It could have been the police shooting suspected Naxals, or it could have been the Naxals assassinating ‘class enemies.’

“It’s not right, it’s not right!” Tripti had said to Bikash the next time they met. They were in an empty, dimly-lit lane behind the closed glass factory. “What you’re doing is not right. I may not understand politics, but revolution cannot be only about killing people!” “Stop!” Bikash had hissed, gripping her shoulders with both hands and shaking her so hard her back thudded against the wall behind her. She’d never seen him get so angry before. “Five of our comrades were killed on the golf course last week. It was them that you’d heard begging for their lives. So please, shut up!”

Coming up to the hyacinth-choked pond, where they said the jeweller’s body had been found, she slipped into an alley on her left. There were fewer people on this narrow, unpaved lane, which wound through a residential area full of old trees, mostly neem, mango, rose apple, guava, and palm, and ancient, dilapidated houses. Open earth drains with black algae-thickened water on both sides of the lane gave off a pungent rotten-sweet odour. Grass and weeds sprouted randomly along their soft, soggy edges. An uneven bed of broken bricks lay where the path dipped near a puddle rimmed with wild arums between the fences of two relatively new houses. The fetid stench was stronger here. Trying to quicken her step to avoid the smell, she stumbled on a jutting brick-edge and was surprised her foot wasn’t hurt. The sandal, too, was intact.

The muffled sound of a news bulletin reached Tripti’s ears; it was coming out of a hut made of bamboo splits and tin. It stood a few feet behind a sparse, badly neglected hedge. The windows were shut, and apart from the radio, there was nothing to suggest there was anyone inside. Who would keep their windows closed at this hour, she thought, wondering if it was another hideout for Bikash and his comrades. Or one for their rivals, or police informers. The inertness of the air around the hut seemed to have a purpose and a will, and ominous eyes.

Tripti turned hers back to the road. It was empty, and then, suddenly, at a little distance ahead, a young boy came running out of a gate followed by an older girl. Giggling breathlessly, they ran a few yards down the lane, one trailing the other, and disappeared behind a rickety fence on the other side. The little ripple of their panting laughter and running feet sank back into the stillness as quickly as it had surfaced. Tripti’s thoughts went back to the hut she’d just passed. Imagining the heat trapped under that tin roof, she became aware of how profusely she’d been sweating. The gluey moisture clung to her arms like a pair of long, close-fitted, transparent sleeves. Picking up the edge of her sari she dabbed her cheeks and throat, the nape of her neck, and the sides of her forehead, and then pressed it against her palms and forearms. The armpits and the back of her blouse were sopping wet.

Darkness, clotted wisps of the approaching night, had started to collect like flotsam among the middle and lower branches of the big mango and neem trees. Above their upper boughs and the straggling palm fronds, the sky was a frayed patchwork of electric orange-blue. The sound of a few conch shells bellowed pensively in the jellylike charcoal-green dome of warm, stagnant air, as Tripti shuffled along, holding her pace at an inconspicuous level between a leisurely stroll and a purposeful march.

She’d been begging Bikash for a long time to let her come to his hideout. “Just once,” she would plead, “and I won’t stay long.” But he would shake his head and say, “Not safe for you. Or for me and my boys. And you won’t know anything more about me if you see me there.” But that was hardly the reason why she’d wanted to come. She’d already known the man well enough. There was nothing she didn’t know that a trip to his hideout was going to reveal. She’d just been anxious to see the place, the four walls and the roof that sheltered him, to find out for herself if the place was really safe for him. That was all.

It was on his eleventh visit that he’d finally disclosed his name to Tripti. Until then every time he knocked on the door and she asked, “Who is it?” he’d reply with a gentle “Me”. Tripti, of course, would know who it was; that voice was unmistakable. The deep, unhurried sound it generated had the solidity of a mountain. It was so dense it seemed almost visible, occupying an expanse of physical space in front of her, a space that felt like it could shelter her forever. Me. Bikash Ganguly. A small man, though, scrawny and bearded, with lips gone dark from years of smoking, and hair that always looked like everything else the man wore— unkempt.

The nervous excitement grew in intensity and her heart started to beat faster as she approached the high boundary wall of the old mansion that had been turned into a mental asylum. At the farthest end of the wall, where the lane crossed another, a boy on a bicycle would wait by a lamp post. He would show her the way, riding his bicycle ahead of her, and then he would get off the cycle in front of a house, pretending to check the tires, and would ride away before she could catch up.

In a few minutes, Tripti was where the boy had stopped to check his cycle. It was not the house he’d faced, but the one he had his back to. A most unremarkable building with a courtyard choked with a mix of many trees, and a pink burst of bougainvillea atop a wide gate of unpainted, rusting steel at the end of a long, chest-high brick wall with shards of glass embedded all along its cement-topped ridge. It was on the extreme left-hand corner of the plot, and one of the pillars that held the gate, the one on her right as she stood facing it, had a tiny wooden letterbox nailed to it. It hung askew without any number or name that she could see. The place was flanked on one side by a small brick-plinth outline of a house littered with garbage, grass, and shrubs, partly covering a mound of sand in the middle, and, on the other, by a fenced-in plot overrun with dense thickets and wild vines.

Apart from the routine noise of crows returning to their evening roosts, the occasional barking of a dog, the sound of a radio, a crying child, a conch shell or a bell, Tripti couldn’t hear anything. The taut silence that surrounded the house reminded her of that bamboo-and-tin hut with closed windows. She paused for a few moments, hesitating, not daring to look in any direction to see if she was being watched. Then, as she started to open the gate, tentatively, almost fearfully, a disconcerting thought crossed her mind: what if it’s a trap? Like the one they’d laid for Sandhya Banik, a girl Tripti used to know. Her mutilated body had been found in an abandoned house in Garia. They said she’d been lured into that place by the false prospect of meeting her friend, an active Naxal cadre like Bikash.

There was movement at the far end of the bow-shaped pathway where it met the building. A sudden stir in the stillness—a flash of white, dull-white, persistent patches of it, through the dark filigree of foliage. It followed the arc of the passage, with a gentle rise and fall, in her direction. Tripti froze, with a hand resting on the gate’s blistery steel.

“Come.” Bikash stood, apathetic, unsmiling, at the bend of the path, in full view. In a crumpled off-white khadi Punjabi, sleeves pushed up to his elbows, dirty green pants and blue rubber slippers; Tripti had rarely seen him wear anything else. “Come in,” he said again in a hushed voice, with a slight nod, then turned and started to walk back.

With a mixture of shy apprehension and a mysterious, bone-chilling fear, Tripti followed, slowly at first, and then quickened her step to catch up to him as they got close to the house. Climbing the steps to the verandah she drew level and walked alongside him. The entrance to the house was at one end of a U-shaped corridor, hiding it behind the courtyard’s greenery. Rooms with closed doors lined the passage. At the foot of one door, which was slightly ajar, flies were whining above what in that half-light looked like thick pools of some kind of liquid. “What is this?” she whispered.

“Nothing,” Bikash promptly replied, throwing a quick brooding glance back at the entrance. He pulled the door shut and bolted it, and then said, “Fish blood. The boys forgot to clean up.” Without another word, he led Tripti to a room at the other end of the corridor.

It was a small room without a window, filled with the smell of biri and something Tripti couldn’t quite place. The ceiling was low, with a hook in the middle, presumably meant for a fan but there was none. Its edges and corners were blotched with thin fog-patches of cobwebs; in the one just above her head, she could see a dead spider. A single naked lamp hung from above the doorframe. At one end of the room Tripti noticed a closed door, which looked new, purpose-built, and smaller than usual. Next to it, against the wall, was an ordinary wooden cot with a thin, badly stained mattress rolled up on it, and newspapers, books, and grocery bags underneath. She thought, so this is where he sleeps! A table with two chairs, and a rickety bookcase crammed with books and propaganda material—bundles of handbills, small posters, paper flags—stood at the other end of the room. And at the foot of the bookcase, a thick sheaf of newspaper-size posters lay on the floor, covered partly by a loose roll of red cotton banners.

“Sit,” Bikash said, closing the door. He went around the small table to sit on the chair on the other side. “Tea?” A black-and-white picture of Mao Tse-Tung hung on the unpainted wall behind him, and next to it was a calendar with dates marked in red.

“No,” Tripti said. “Isn’t that Charu Majumdar?” She was looking at a booklet lying on the table party manifesto produced on a shoestring. The picture on the cover was half-hidden under a paperweight of chipped green glass.

“Yes.” He lit a biri and leaned back in his chair. He puffed thoughtfully for a few moments. Then, exhaling a slow jet of smoke, he said, with a fine grey plume still coming out of his mouth in small bursts, “Was it difficult?”

“What?” Her mind was on the paperweight; she was wondering what its role could be in a room without either windows or a fan.

“Coming here.”

“No, no.” Tripti shook her head, and for the first time since arrival looked squarely at his face. “It wasn’t difficult. Not at all.” She smiled reassuringly. “I know the area. Not every lane and by-lane, of course. Like you.” She paused, expecting him to say something. “But I have an idea,” she continued a moment later. “A distant relative of mine, an old aunt, used to live here. Not exactly here, but close by. Not far from the big mansion.”

“The asylum.”

“Right. The corner where I met your boy. But in the opposite direction.”

Bikash nodded, and then picking up the matchbox from the table he relit the biri which had gone out

“But finding the house…without him —” Footfalls in the corridor distracted Tripti; she shook her head absently for a brief moment and then lowering her voice added, “I couldn’t have found it.”

“No name, no number.” A thin smile crossed his face, unmoved by the sound of activity outside—doors opening and closing, something being dragged along the floor, hushed voices.

“And it doesn’t look very different from other houses in this lane!”

But inside, it was a different world. A world ruled by the hammer and sickle—CPI (ML), red flag, revolution! It was a world about changing things, about getting rid of whatever came in the way of change, or whoever—politicians, policemen, landlords, teachers. Tripti thought about the missing professor: The Naxals are a nuisance. A menace to civil society. She wondered if Bikash had read the news. If she were to mention it, it would be hard to hide the fact that she’d met the man. She hadn’t told him anything about that evening at Mrs. Sen’s house.

Tripti stared at him—his thin, inscrutable face. There was a calmness in his large eyes that often sent shivers down her spine. Nothing seemed to ruffle that, not even when he talked about the most gruesome things; the slaughter of his comrades or the brutality he suffered at the hands of the police. She remembered his recounting of the Beniapukur Police Station episode— “the toughest endurance test so far,” as he’d put it, but while he talked about it, there was nothing in his appearance to suggest that that indeed was the case. They’d bent his fingers backwards, breaking two in his right hand and one in his left, and stuck needles under his nails. He’d been hung upside down and thrashed until he fainted, bleeding. He’d given Tripti those details as placidly as he would have talked about a trip to the local bazaar. “If they find me one more time, they won’t bother putting me in lock-up,” he’d said with petrifying nonchalance. “They’ll just finish me off.”

Those fingers! “Can I see your hand?” Tripti reached across the table.

“Don’t tell me you’re into palmistry.” Bikash dropped his biri in an earthen teacup-turned ashtray and held out his right hand.

“I’m not,” she said. “The other one too.” Long, sturdy fingers for a small man, except those three, which with their knotted inscription of pain looked thin and weak. Tripti let his palms rest on one of hers, and with the other gently stroked the broken fingers. She lifted them to her face and inhaled their intoxicating aroma—a mixture of biri, old books and Boroline (Boroline because he’d cut one of his knuckles, she discovered). She filled her lungs as fully as she could with that smell, which reminded her, on that sweltering summer evening, of burning winter leaves, and faraway places.

“Tripti,” Bikash said, retrieving one of his hands. “Listen. We need to wrap up.” “What? Why?”

“It’s not a good day. I couldn’t send a message in time asking you not to come. But it’s not a good day.”

“Why?”

He smiled. “You don’t need to know that. But you should go.”

She raised his other hand, which she still had in her grip, back to her face, clutching it ever more tightly.

He rose from his chair, and came and stood next to hers, putting his free hand on the back of her head. “Some other time, Tripti. I will let you know.”

The roll of her long, oil-quenched hair came undone. “Five minutes, please?” she pleaded, lifting her face from his palm. A schoolteacher in a Naxal’s den, kissing a hand that certainly killed, and would likely kill again. But she didn’t care.

Bikash’s face glistened in the airless heat as he stared down at her.

Tripti, still holding his hand, pressed it against her sweaty, heaving breasts, and with all her might tugged at the shoulder of his Punjabi, not caring if the cloth tore, to pull his face down to hers. The only thing that could stop her then, as it had countless times before, was fear, the insufferable fear of consequence, but that, for the first time in her life, to her amazement, she’d triumphed over completely for a few heart-racing moments. She dragged him to his bed and forced him down on the rolled-up mattress with a boldness and strength she’d never thought she possessed.

“Whoever discovers the who of me will find out the who of you,” he whispered as she stood adjusting her sari a few minutes later. They could hear hushed voices outside. “And the why, and the where.” He paused and smiled. “A Latin American poet said that. Maybe about two people just like us.”

Tripti stepped closer to him, trying to throw her arms around his neck, but he stepped back, holding out a hand. “No! You have to leave now. Please!”

 

The door was open when she walked past it on her way out of the house. Despite a strange foreboding, she couldn’t resist a quick glance, but couldn’t see anything inside the unlit room. A salty smell had replaced the swarm of flies. A cycle-van was standing in the courtyard, in the open space, to the right of the steps coming down from the verandah. Walking past the cart, she saw, in the light that came out of a part of the house, a heap of damp gunnysacks.

“Stop!” An intimidating voice startled Tripti. “Who are you?” A tall man loomed in the passage behind the parapet, coming closer. He wasn’t more than seven or eight feet away, but she couldn’t see the face clearly.

“It’s OK, let her go,” someone else said from some other part of the house. It wasn’t Bikash.

With fearful hesitation, she turned to resume her walk, expecting to hear something else, or see someone, or to be stopped again. But when nothing happened in the next few seconds, and she was close to where the path curved, about to be hidden behind the bank of ghostly foliage, she started to walk at a normal pace.

Once outside, she closed the gate behind her without any noise, putting the latch back down as softly as she could. Then, not throwing a single glance backwards, she hurried home, wondering how many people in that house knew her, and knew that she was there. But neither that nor the fact that Bikash never noticed her sari, seemed to matter.

“Whoever discovers the who of me…” she muttered under her breath.

Contributor

Eugene Datta

Eugene Datta’s writing has appeared in publications such as the ‘Far Eastern Economic Review’, ‘Outlook India’, ‘Specchio della Stampa’, ‘The New Verse News’, ‘Persimmon: Asian Literature, Arts and Culture’, ‘The Richmond Review’, the ‘Quarterly Literary Review Singapore’, ‘Passages – Pro Helvetica’, and ‘Poetry Salzburg’. Born in Calcutta, he lives in Aachen, Germany.

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