Sunday, April 29, 2018

Sumita Dutta writes



Dainagri: Police and government officials admit their miserable failure to dispense justice. Angry protesters, waving placards and demanding answers, have besieged the Town Hall through the week. Our elected leaders hang their heads in shame. They have no answers, only empty promises. Meanwhile, there is no relief in sight for the parents of the dead children. 

During the day, the town plods through the motions of life; at night, folks shutter their doors and windows tight and remain indoors. It hadn’t always been like this. Residents tearfully recall laughter, music and the aroma of delicious food wafting into the streets. The houses, clustered together, had had an aura of friendliness, ever ready to lend a helping hand at a low call. Well-swept narrow lanes weaved through the community. Colourful bougainvillea, fragrant jasmine, and a multitude of flowering trees blissfully shaded travellers from the scorching Indian sun. Birdcalls and shrieks of laughing children were the norm around any corner.

These days the houses seem to be huddling, almost cowering in fear. The cool shady lanes are gloomy and sinister. Flowers wither before blooming and even the leaves, the small patches of grass, are yellow and shrivelled. Birds have deserted the town completely. Cows are emaciated, producing little milk. Street dogs look starved and feral. Even the ochre sun looks jaundiced, moving across a bilious sky.

Once famed for its quaint beauty, the unsolved deaths have shrouded this town in despair. For three consecutive times in the past two months, like clockwork on new moon nights, first one little girl then two young boys, vanished from their beds. Morning always found the intact body lying inside the ruins of the deserted hospital complex.

To pacify public outrage and prevent pandemic fear, politicians are working overtime -- at their speeches. Promising instant action, they haven’t even been able to demolish the derelict hospital building. After the police investigated it high and low, desperately and fruitlessly searching for clues, orders arrived to flatten and clear the lot. The demolishers stormed in but were halted in their tracks when the ground crumbled and sank beneath the bulldozers. Geologist and surveyors, appearing at the scene, suddenly discovered evidence of seismic activity underground. They have demarcated the area as protected zone.

Cause of death remains a complete mystery. How can three perfectly healthy children’s heart suddenly stop beating? Who took them out of their homes? The police claim that the only clues existing are some earbuds -- found on the pillow of each child who died. Highly placed sources inform us that the detectives have wracked their brains until they are pulling out their own hair in great tufts. The ear-bud clue seems to lead no-where…


“Ha, at last! They’ve got back the report from the DNA testing on the earbuds,” exclaimed Laxmi, her thin body almost hidden deep under the newspaper.

“These rookie journalists! All they care for is sensationalism.” Alka shook her head at the lurid headlines on her spread. She reached for her pad and pencil, itching to draw the scene described in the newspaper article. “Well, have they got any leads?” Bold strokes appeared under her clever fingers, depicting police officers pulling out tufts of their own hair in frustration. She smirked.

“Only that the earbuds were produced from reused cotton. They are questioning all street vendors who sell earbuds!” Laxmi put away the newspaper with disgust. Her hands were soon busy with the innards of a CPU. These parallel resistors connect to those transistors, condenser here and..., she muttered. She was building a computer to help humans and ghosts communicate.

Ali was the oldest child in the room. Inordinately proud of his thick hair, he had fashioned it like Mahender Singh Dhoni’s long locks. He loved the cricketer and wouldn’t cut his hair despite all the teasing the style invited. He tidied the room, waiting...

Gopal came in with a tray piled high with finger-chips and bowls of dipping sauce. “Hot crispy fries and sauce that’s just right. Tickle your taste buds guys, dig in.” He presented the dishes with great flair and briskly took his seat. Everybody immediately brought their chairs to the table.

“Yummy, I love these.” Rotund Naveen grabbed a fistful. He was the youngest; the others fondly watched him eat first. They followed, grimly determined on their course of action. Swirling the fries in the drippy sauce, they made quick work of it and sat back ready for the next step of the ritual.

Time was ripe. The moonless night allied with a thick fog, to envelope the town in darkness. Residents slumbered as if comatose. A weird mist swirled around the watchful police and news-telecasting crews. Infrared cameras recorded them nodding off right where they stood. Not even an earthquake could have woken them.

Indicating they should join hands, Ali led the chanting. Their clasped hands resting on the table, the five children closed their eyes, concentrating on the name they had chosen. Verses flowed from cold lips; the rhythmic chanting rose and fell, echoed off white walls and ceiling then dropped to a hushed whisper. A chill spread along the room, frosting the steel surgical table where they sat. Broken panes on the medicine cabinet glazed and cracked. The tiled walls chilled, droplets of moisture bedewing them, streaming down in rivulets of tears. Silvery wetness streaked the children’s faces as they lost themselves in the power of thought. A single blue ear-bud rose from the centre of the table and wafted out through the shattered window.

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