There has been an initiation this year of a certain kind of Indian novel in English that may just acquire the moniker of ‘the New India novel’. This novel sees 2014 as a pivotal year for the country’s moral future and builds its narratives against the backdrop of a new political methodology asserting itself on individuals and social relations.
But what came before all this newness? In Kailash Wankhede’s Just Dance, translated from Hindi by Bharatbhooshan Tiwari, we have what I’m tempted to call ‘an Old-New India’ short story. It finds the pulse of a key transition phase in our recent history, one whose frustrations paved a good chunk of the path towards ‘New India’.
It is the summer of 2011. A heartbroken young man is triggered by an exchange on a reality dance show on TV. He correctly reads it as a casteist microaggression, and his sour, loveless world takes a turn towards bitterness. On the news channels, Anna’s anti-corruption movement, something that our man is deeply sceptical about, holds limelight. In the flitting between the two programs, he begins to see how mixed up everything is: the dance show is political, and the anti-corruption movement is a dance. We get the idea too: politics is soon to become reality TV. Then our man faces another set of microaggressions, and then yet another. What will be the last straw? Will he make the dance stop at least in his life? Read to find out.
— Tanuj Solanki
The Bombay Literary Magazine
She had spoken. I had heard. She had left.
The moment of her departure is still pulsing in the room. I don’t know why but there’s still the feeling that she will return, with steadied steps, trying to keep herself together. Suppressing her smile ever so slightly, eyes and head down, watching her own feet, she will sit on the chair and speak. This is what she does, and this is what she will do now. Right now I’m looking at the door. It feels like she will arrange her hair and say, ‘So the thing is…’
So the thing is that she has left. When she was leaving, I felt like requesting her to stay. But there was a strange wavering in my voice then. All I could say was, ‘Fine.’ Couldn’t say: Take care of yourself. Couldn’t say: Let me know if you need anything. At the time, I had thought that after hearing ‘Fine’ she would say something. But she didn’t utter a word. What could she have said? What did I want to hear?
I don’t know. I look at the rotating fan. I look at the closed door.
She must have left by now. The bus leaves the stand at the right time. The bus won’t be delayed. It has to reach the next city on time. But what if the bus has broken down? A faulty bus can’t leave. Instead of waiting for long at the bus stand, she will return. The door will open and she will come sit on the chair.
My thoughts are stuck in a loop around this waiting.
The room is boiling. Maintaining any sort of cool is beyond the fan. It hasn’t rained here yet, despite all the difficulties and anxieties, despite all the predictions. Harsh sunlight falls from a dutiful sun. In the fields, singed sprouts struggle to survive. The ground is parched.
News of Anna, and the Second Independence, is spread all over the papers. I feel like fanning myself with it, but then I get up.
I step out.
Tired of roaming around, I come back at night. There is this reality show on TV: auditions on foreign soil. There’s Subhash, whose ancestors had left Bengal for other shores. Sarah Khan, who is the judge, asks him, ‘Do you love someone?’
‘Yes,’ Subhash says without thinking, without wasting a second. Such a burning question and so quickly answered! How? The sound of the word ‘love’ must barely have reached the canals of his ears and pat came out his tongue’s response. Sarah Khan is amazed at this ‘Yes’. A judge who had herself married outside her caste, outside her religion, even she can’t believe that someone could so readily admit to being in love. I’m in love: to say this is considered a sin. A crime. A social crime in these times, in this country, where the norm is to love in secret and keep feelings close to the chest. Subhash, who is on stage, at a concert hall in London, is fearless in front of the crowd: ‘Yes, I am in love.’
I could not do this, not even in the privacy of my own room. And she went away.
For the sake of her understanding, Sarah Khan asks, ‘Whom do you love?’ She is visibly perplexed as I too ask on my own, ‘Yes, whom do you love, Subhash?’
Give me love and I will give you love — this slogan will sweep the whole world. The only difference is that Subhash has declared it on TV and not the radio. His affirmation has a glitter. A light. The atmosphere on the TV is full of excitement, immersed in music. There is nothing in my house but the light from the TV. The bulb isn’t burning, though something is burning inside me. Sarah Khan is confused. Subhash’s eyes, and face, and tongue are ready, and so are his feet. Ask me whatever, make me do whatever—he is fully prepared on the stage. Vaibhavi, the other judge, is also amazed.
‘So then?’ prods Sarah.
‘They are Punjabis. Her parents don’t want her to marry a dancer. They want an engineer or a dentist for son-in-law, someone who earns 50,000 dollars a month. Instead of her lover, they want to marry her off to an engineer or a dentist.’
Something breaks inside me after hearing of parents marrying their daughters to money. I get up. I don’t know if this Subhash will win his Independence. In that city of London, where he lives, where the girl lives, he seems helpless. Standing on the edge of a cliff that gapes straight at hopelessness. Seeing him there, I feel alone.
Unable to form a proper response, Sarah Khan says, ‘Things have certainly changed in our country, nobody talks like this anymore. But here, abroad? This is very surprising.’ To hide her discomfort, she runs her fingers through her hair. That may remove some knots, but it definitely leaves me in knots.
When she says ‘our country’, which place is she talking of? She might be a citizen of India, but actually, she belongs to Bollywood, which only sells dreams. In that dream world, love is pleasant, easy. Ask me how difficult love is. Listen to my story.
There is no one to listen. I am all alone, and I have to cook. I always forget it. I don’t want to remember that I have to cook. I remember that I have to ask her to. I remember her face, her words, her smile; in the mirror all I see is her reflection.
Just then I think of saluting Subhash. I look at the TV, but he isn’t there. It’s all dark suddenly. A power cut. Goes whenever. Comes whenever. It doesn’t affect me much. Now I lie down right there, eyes closed. On the floor, thinking, the coolness comforts me. Her face dances in front of my eyes.
The dancing and singing is happening on all the channels; it’s called a Reality Show. But you can’t actually call this dancing and singing, it sounds trivial. The moment you say nritya, there is a classiness, but that’s not what they’re calling it either. They write nritya, but that is not what the show is called. Whatever is taught or done in the name of nritya, people are far away from it. Nritya is from the halls of puritans, nowhere to be seen here. One can see dance though, anyone can indulge in that. Even I wish to dance. As I get up, the power comes back. I switch on the TV. But when I turn the electric stove on, the TV goes off. The heating up of the stove’s wires is not acceptable to the TV. Me cooking food in my own home is unacceptable to the TV, to the bulb. If the stove is on we will shut down, it’s a threat. Should I watch the dance or should I cook?
I knead the dough, thinking of her. Putting the tava on, I roll the rotis out, and just then voltage surges in the bulb. So now the TV can switched on too. I eventually settle on a news channel. The Supreme Court has ordered the opening of the treasury at the Padmanabhan Temple, closed for 150 years. Apparently, it has property worth 1,50,000 crores. Precious stones, ornaments, coins, and emblems made of gold and silver are being unearthed, a treasure three times the budget of the Kerala Government, three years’ worth of funds for MNREGA. The richest temple in the world. It has knocked the Tirupati Temple off its perch, the place where the superstar of the century had prayed for his son’s happy married life. Terrified, the superstar had walked, gathering all the TV-wallahs. It showed that he wanted it to be shown on TV, wanted it to be in the papers—that he fixed the maanglik anomaly in his to-be-daughter-in-law’s horoscope, that he worked to save his son’s engagement, that even though the son didn’t get the one he loved, all had been done to ensure that the one who had loved Sallu and Vivek stayed on in the arrangement.
In this terrified, terrorised society, love has become another name for fear, so instead of the news I switch to Just Dance. The girl from Romania dances to ‘Piya basanti re, kaahe sataye aaja’ and sobs while explaining the meaning of the song. Outside, her fiancé too is watching the screen with teary eyes. Vaibhavi is emotional; everyone can see her moist eyes and soft heart. My eyes are teary I am waiting and I want to sing: Kaahe sataye aaja... There’s a knock on the door. Then it turns into a hammering. I get up with the soothing thought that it is her. As soon as I open it, he steps right in.
‘What were you doing, eh? I’ve been knocking for ages,’ Premshankar whines.
The vault of my thoughts comes crashing down, and I’m buried in the debris. There is no breeze nor light, and I am still lost in her memory: How could she have come back? How could she have come back so late in the night? She wants to come but is afraid. That somebody might see her entering my place. A young woman going to someone’s house at night—the news will travel from a pair of eyes, a mouth, to this town’s loudspeakers, and every news anchor would ask, ‘The nation wants to know: where did you go and why? The nation is watching, tell us what you did inside. All eyes are on you, why are you afraid, what have you done wrong? The nation wants to know, speak up!’
And she doesn’t want to tell the nation. She is in love. How does one see those immersed in love? Premshankar slaps my back. ‘What were you doing, bey? Doing it alone or with someone?’ he snickers.
‘Shut up, just watch Just Dance,’ I say. She is still here, clouding my mind.
‘I’m bored, want to watch a movie.’ Premshankar starts looking for the remote.
‘No movie, watch Just Dance. See how even on foreign soil our compatriot wants a rich boy as a son-in-law.’
‘This is the case everywhere – who wants to be a poor man’s wife? Who would be your wife?’ he laughs in the way of blowing the ‘light’ off my face. ‘Tell me, my dear, are you poor?’
‘You tell me,’ I say, still lost in her thoughts, looking for the dal.
‘You have a fan. That means you are not poor,’ he declares.
‘But this is Chinese, it’s cheap.’
‘For the government, cheap or expensive doesn’t matter. You have a fan and a pucca house, which means you are not poor.’
‘How can that be? This place is rented.’
‘True, but you are not homeless, you don’t sleep out in the open. This means you are not poor re,’ he says, a tad sentimental.
‘Arre, a roof is necessary for shelter!’
‘The TV! This is the most expensive thing. See, whatever you do, you cannot be poor. Chal, let’s do just dance,’ he laughs and starts shaking his hips.
‘I got this on EMI, and Delhi-made that too.’ I am being swallowed by exasperation.
‘You cannot be below the poverty line,’ Premshankar says. ‘You are above poverty, riding it,’ he adds with a lewd laugh.
‘Up and down?’
‘My friend, the government doesn’t think you are poor, and people don’t consider you rich.’
‘But you just said that I am not poor and now—’
‘—Look,’ he cut me, ‘Bhabhi thinks you are poor. You don’t have a car. You don’t own a house. You don’t live in a very good colony. You don’t have a permanent job, either. The chit-fund company can fold at any time. Forget it, I will watch Just Dance… Oh! This is a repeat. Anyway, those advancing to the next round will get one crore.’
‘If I get one crore…’
‘Even then you won’t get Bhabhi,’ Premshankar guffaws, blasting my dreams. I feel awful. My face turns pale. I start looking for the knife.
As I chop onions my eyes start watering. It’s not the onions. Premshankar says while watching the TV: ‘Becoming a crorepati and marrying someone you love are two different things. Keep loving from your side. Whether she wants it or not. Whether it progresses or not. Let me tell you something – real love is one-sided. Stick to your tune. Finding dreams and staying in them. This has nothing to do with marriage. Let love be love, don’t give it any name.’ He starts humming. I am quiet. Just Dance goes on.
The anchor says that Saumitra is Bengali. Dressed as Bharat Mata, she dances to a song that goes, ‘Our Bharat Mata is shackled by terrorism, corruption, dictatorship, reservations…’ As Bharat Mata, Saumitra has unleashed a wave of patriotism. Whose Bharat Mata is this that is shackled by reservations? The question is buzzing in my mind.
As he’s watching the show Premshankar says, ‘Abe, the entire country is talking about Independence, and here you are watching Just Dance. You are a sureshot traitor.’ He laughs. As soon as the commercial break starts he switches the channel. The Second Independence, Jan Lokpal, Corruption – these are the only words to be heard on the news. The same topic and faces, regardless of the channel. As if it was an ad. Just one line, just one emotion. Like how ad agencies buy space for one line across all the channels. Like it or not, you have to watch the ad. Helplessness is the new normal. You can’t get angry now if the same ad appears everywhere. You stay silent, listen and watch – this is how it is. Stay silent and yes, if you ask a question, everybody pounces on you as if it’s a crime. When I called this campaign ‘hyperbolic’ on Facebook, something that was masterminded by someone else, with a hazy goal, many people unfriended me. No one wants to see or hear dissent.
I put the dal on the stove.
‘Look, how Kiran is dancing. She has wrapped the chunri of trust on her head… shouldn’t there be some dance in between the speeches as well?’ Premshankar says.
‘But this is simply a reality show,’ I say, searching for the cooker’s whistle.
Premshankar gets angry. ‘Yaar, isn’t everybody sick of corruption? Everyone wants the country to be corruption-free.’
‘Yes, everybody wants that but actually, nobody does, and this movement that is talking about ending corruption, all the rules and regulations for it already exist, they just need to be implemented. To ignore all that and build a new structure is like forming a ‘commission’. And you know what commissions do and how they work. Just tell me one that is doing its job with complete honesty.’
‘But opposing this movement is wrong.’
‘That which I consider to be wrong, whose methods, motives, and the self-interests of all those who have gathered are clear to me… then should I lie to myself? Why should I be corrupt with myself?’
‘You can’t see the truth. This chit-fund company you’re working for, who is it helping? Who has it always helped? You people are only concerned with your profit. The owner is minting money and who is getting duped? It’s the public. And now you are opposing this movement, you…’
‘The chit fund companies are not included in the Lokpal Bill, you know. All this is simply chatter, and yes, let me tell you, this talk of the Second Independence doesn’t appeal to me.’ The cooker whistles loudly and interrupts us.
Having come so far from home, I live alone here. I’ve been planning to quit this company for over a year, but they owe me money. They give assurances every time. Besides the attractive commission package, I’d considered the company’s big name and big projects and thought that my life would be set hereon, but even salary is scantly visible now. The owner has plastered Bharat Mata on huge billboards. And his photo with his sons and daughters-in-law, as if they’re the First Family of Nation-builders. The thought makes me want to laugh. The man had said Bharat Mata Ki Jai. Now when I see these Second Independence people, I realise that everyone talks about freedom, they’re all the same. I only think this; I don’t say it—because dissenting is now a crime.
Meanwhile, after my meandering, I return to Just Dance. Don’t know why they are showing old episodes one after the other. There’s so much time, but only Just Dance to kill it...
A shy boy comes onstage, very skinny. Judge Sarah Khan starts pulling his leg. Jayesh, he says is his name. A Non-Resident Indian, NRI – full of songs and patriotism. he shares that he is a Gujarati.
‘Vaibhavi is Gujarati too,’ Sarah Khan quips happily, making it sound like Vaibhavi is a prospective bride.
Vaibhavi too arranges her face as if she’s checking out a prospective groom. Gujaratis—it looked like it was all about a match of language and state. Then Sarah asks, ‘What are you?’ After language and state, she comes down to caste.
My ears perk up. Someone inside me is going to come out as if I myself have been asked, What is your surname?
Before I say anything Jayesh chimes, ‘Guess?’
I am stunned. A brazen Caste Identification Drive is happening. They are performing the matrimonial ads from the papers. In his impatience, Premshankar becomes the judges’ assistant. Asking someone’s surname is to fulfil the biggest condition of matrimony. Vaibhavi is preening as Sarah sheepishly asks, ‘Are you a Patel?’
‘No.’ Taking the mike in hand, he shakes his hips so that his entire body starts swaying. ‘Think again,’ he says. This Indian-origin boy is proud of everyone’s curiosity about his caste.
‘A Shah then?’ Vaibhavi asks. The boy leaps with joy, he’s been identified! His joy spreads, and both the judges are happy that a Shah has been found, a Shah. At last, his caste is finally identified. All three are happy, and so are the spectators.
Sarah realizes the fullness of her knowledge. All I can feel on the other hand is emptiness… how did they find out? There’s colour, appearance, body, clothes, so how did they decide who he was? And why was Subhash rejected by the Punjabis? Subhash’s sadness climbs into me. If Subhash were Punjabi, would the condition of earning 50,000 pounds still apply? Someone who lives abroad, who loves a person so much, even for him it was his profession that dictated who he could marry.
Love or profession? Profession leads to money, so we will choose money. But where does profession come from? Where did profession come from in our country? It comes from the Varna System, and from that comes caste.
Sarah is laughing at Jayesh’s dance moves, Vaibhavi is doubled over. This is not a dance, it’s a mishmash, and there is no rhyme or rhythm. Everyone is laughing and losing it. But I am sad… how did Vaibhavi decide that if he was not a Patel, he must be a Shah?
My village Jhapadara is twenty kilometres from the border of Gujarat. That area is filled with all our relatives for miles and miles, and there is no Patel or Shah. So how come the judges don’t know the Gujaratis that I know? Why didn’t they ask, Are you a Bhuria, a Parmar, or a Bunkar?
It is morning. Premshankar didn’t go home, and I am dreaming. That she will come and knock on the door. Then I realise that there is actual knocking at the door. It is being beaten as I get up. Who could it be so early in the morning? A tiny sliver of daylight is trickling in through the door. Even with all the lights off, it’s easy to sense daybreak. And today is Sunday when I don’t wake up before nine.
‘Who is it?’ I open the door, rubbing my eyes.
‘Chal, bhai, tell me your name,’ the man says. He has a small black bag in his hand.
I cannot understand what is going on.
‘Why?’ I am trying to comprehend how this man, holding a folio, some forms and a bag in his hand, could ask my name like that.
‘This is a caste census1, okay?’ There was anger in his voice, as if I had committed some crime. He should’ve told me this before asking my name.
He stands there watching me, stubbornly, quietly. I don’t say anything.
After a short while he goes, ‘Don’t tell me if you don’t want to. It’s not mandatory. Should I leave?’
‘I’ve offended you,’ I offer when actually he’s the one who should have said that. Why did I say it then? More than my sleep, my dream and my door being destroyed, it was his demeanour that was appalling.
‘Chalo, forget it. Tell me your name?’ His pen is ready.
‘Shanti Lal Bhuria.’
‘You must be married already?’
‘No, I’m not.’
The pen-wallah starts chuckling, hee-hee. ‘Where I come from, one already has two-three kids by this time and that’s that.’ I felt bad, that hee-hee chuckling of his.
‘Here, sign on this,’ he says.
‘What does it say? Let me see.’
‘I am a teacher, you know. I don’t write incorrect information. Why are you wasting my time?’ he replies. Finding my curiosity avoidable, he pauses for a bit and then pushes the form towards me.
‘You have written down my caste without even asking me,’ I laugh.
‘I’m a teacher, I know everything, and anyway, everybody knows that Bhurias are ST,’ he spews proudly.
‘What is this you’ve written under Religion, again without asking me?’
‘Should I make it Muslim then?’ he bristles. Asking him questions was to question his intellect.
‘The Vanvasis of Jhabua are converted Christians, anyway.’
‘Don’t you think you’re talking a bit too much? Information in a caste-based census should be filled in only after asking. You filled in everything on your own – my caste, my religion, my language…’
‘So, what is wrong then?’ The teacher was ascending the peak of his ego.
‘You’ve got it all wrong,’ I express my displeasure.
The scholarly man who thought he had filled in everything correctly, says, ‘What do you want to say in Religion then, tell me?’
‘Adivasi? Adivasi is no religion.’
‘Are you going to decide what’s a religion now? You will have to write whatever we say.’
‘There is no need for any threats here. It’s no skin off my ass, I’ll write whatever you say. There you go, now tell me, what else do you want to change?’
‘Language. It’s Bhili. Put in Bhili. Hindi is not my mother tongue.’
‘Bhili, Bhileeli, Nimari, Malvi, Marwari, they’re all Hindi only.’
‘Just write what I’m saying, and let me tell you Bhili is not Hindi.’
‘What’s the difference? Put whatever you want.’ He is in a hurry to leave. He hadn’t expected anyone to question him like this.
‘It does make a big difference, actually. You didn’t ask me about my caste, my religion, my language, or my profession. You filled in everything on your own.’
‘Should I ask the road what colour it is? What was mixed with the tar to make it? Wouldn’t that be stupid? I already know all this. I know you people are Vanvasis. You said Jhabua, Bhuria, and the rest I filled in by looking at you, listening to you. What’s wrong with that?’ This was his all-knowing pride mocking me. The survey-wallah was trying to force his incomplete, filthy knowledge onto my body and mind.
‘You assumed my religion. And you found out who I am through my surname? Do you know that in Jhabua, a sweeper’s surname is also Bhuria? The basket-weaver is Bhuria and one who wields a bow-and-arrow is also Bhuria. So how did you decide my caste then? You didn’t even ask what my language is, you just wrote Hindi. I want my language to be put down, my language is Bhili. Bhili and I am an Adivasi. Bhil. Write down Bhil,’ I said firmly, determined to clean up his filth.
He got it now. Taking his pen out, he says, ‘What do I care? Whatever the respondent says, I write. I made it quick because I didn’t want to waste time. There’s no need to get offended and none to speak like this.’ The crumbling of his knowledge is palpable on his face, in his voice. Meanwhile, I feel myself determined on my path.
‘Would you like some tea?’ I ask.
‘No, I’ve had enough already thank you, Shriman. Please just sign here after reading through.’
From his face, this man looks like a contestant on Just Dance who is miffed that his performance was not applauded. God knows how many people around me are playing or want to play Just Dance. They feel others should ask after them and praise them. They themselves won’t praise anyone. They will never speak nicely but would expect others to prostrate themselves at their feet.
Inside the house, NDTV is telling Premshankar, Anna has won, India has won! ‘Let’s celebrate,’ my friend yells. ‘Anna is going to break his fast tomorrow morning at ten,’ he tells me. ‘Star News has called it a half-victory.’ I don’t say anything. I am stuck on ‘the nation’s victory’. What kind of a game is this and why is it being played in the name of the nation? I want to ask this, but these times will not heed such questions. We won’t get answers, only what they want to say. Just assume things, like the teacher had..
People have turned into that teacher and my friend has become the TV that is dancing and making others dance. The whole world is dancing. Instead of the live telecast of this news dance, I think of Just Dance on the entertainment channel and recall that last time the show’s anchor had requested judge Vaibhavi to perform on the stage. Vaibhavi, who only makes others dance, refused, and then the anchor said: ‘The whole nation wants this. This is the public and they demand that you dance.’. Having heard the nation, Vaibhavi danced.
I sign the paper in the Sunday morning sunshine and thank the teacher. Premshankar goes home. After my bath, I start making breakfast and just then I hear a knocking on the door. Remembering her again, I smile. I stand still holding the knife I was using to chop the vegetables.
‘It’s me.’ It was clear from the voice that it was Gulab – peon, guard, domestic helper, all-rounder Gulab. ‘Seth Ji has called for you,’ Gulab says as soon as I open the door.
This man could never call the Area Manager ‘Sir’ or ‘Saheb’. For him, the Area Manager was a Seth. Seth…it makes me want to laugh, but then I ask, ‘Why?’
‘I dunno, he asked me to get you quickly, as you are. “No delay,” he said.’ Seth ji’s order quivers in his voice. Servility courses in his body. In his eyes, there is a plea to let him fulfil his master’s orders. There is also a meekness, despairing helplessness. He was stuffed with this before being sent here, and this was what he was now spilling everywhere. He can’t get a hold of himself. His body language screamed that he would carry me if he needed to. After seeing him like this, I have just a glass of water, lock the door, and set off on my motorbike with him riding pillion.
Our Area Manager’s new house, a bungalow, stands in a new colony that’s sprung up on farmland. What you would ordinarily call a road has been washed away in the rains. There’s only mud from the black soil of the farmland, and one cannot ride through. Fearful of getting caught in the mire and soiling myself, I park the bike in a corner. I spot some solid ground, take a step, but Gulab’s gaze doesn’t seem very solid to me. Indifferent to the muck, he marches forward in his plastic shoes. He has to reach early, to show Seth Ji, See, I have fulfilled your orders.
The Area Manager doesn’t even look at him. He is fussing over his mobile. Oblivious to the victorious expression on Gulab’s face, he removes the phone from his ear and moving it behind his back shouts, ‘Where is that useless Bhuria?’
His shrill voice reaches my ears. My well-wisher, one who always speaks sweetly to my face. Something breaks inside me. He reaches the door as he yells out, notices me and realizes he has messed up.
‘Arre Akash, sorry yaar for bothering you this early in the morning. I am really sorry, it was so urgent, I had no choice. You know I have no one but you,’ he says. The Area Manager is now dripping with apology and humility, trying to make me feel like he truly has nobody else but me. I am unmoved. The caress that follows a slap cannot so easily mend a broken heart.
‘Please, yaar. The car isn’t starting and I have to go somewhere urgently. You must know already: We’ve won the Second Independence. Have to celebrate. They will drink juice in Delhi and here we will drink juice too… grape juice. Chalo, quickly. Push the car, both of you. I will start the engine. Quick, I have to go, please.’ As he says all this, pleadingly and worryingly, he goes inside the house to get the car keys. It seems he is dancing too. Just dance and win a crore, win the country. Just one dance, I think and stand outside silently. Gulab is there too, his gaze buried in the ground.
‘Where is Saheb going?’ I ask him when he looks up.
‘I dunno. He was saying something about going to Kolar Dam with his friends. There’s a palty.’
My whole body goes cold. What is this? I have to push his car, so early in the morning, that too for a picnic? I cannot understand. Just then he comes back, hassled, dancing, and says, ‘You both push, I will start the car.’
‘I can drive as well. Let me start.’ As I reach for the keys, the Area Manager’s face turns white.
‘What are you saying? You push, my friend,’ he says, trying in vain to smile.
‘You can push the car. I will start.’ I am adamant. My intentions are clear. I’m in no mood to stand in the muck and get soiled. The way he had called me useless…
I see him, he’s flabbergasted. The man cannot fathom how his subordinate, his underling, a Bhuria, could speak to him like that. It was now clear to me that for him, I am an Adivasi from Jhabua, just a labourer who only labours, day and night. Who obeys everything, and who is now disobeying him.
He thinks for a while and says, ‘Forget it, Akash. You can go.’ Without meeting my eyes, he goes inside his house. He still expects me to say, It’s fine, I will push. But I don’t speak.
‘Gulab, chal bhai. How long will you stand in the muck?’ I say.
Gulab hesitates. I wave him over. He lifts one foot out of the muck.
 Probably the Socio Economic and Caste Census (SECC), 2011.
Kailash Wankhede (b.1970) burst on the Hindi literary scene around 2005 when his short stories started appearing in various journals and literary magazines of repute. He has published two collections so far – Satyapan (Aadhar Prakashan, 2013) and Sulgan (Rajkamal Prakashan, 2019). He received the prestigious literary award Hans Katha Samman in 2017 for his short story ‘Just Dance’. His short fiction has been translated into Gujarati, Marathi and Punjabi. An IAS officer with the Government of India, he is presently posted as Additional Commissioner, Urban Administration and Development, Bhopal.
Bharatbhooshan Tiwari (b.1978) is an independent writer and translator working in three languages— English, Hindi and Marathi, and actively working on adding a fourth language (Dutch) to the repertoire. He earns his living as an IT professional and lives in Amsterdam. His most recent work is “Legal Fiction” (HarperCollin India, 2021), an English translation of Chandan Pandey’s Hindi novel Vaidhanik Galp.