For every small issue that came up, he would take a handful of rice from the sack kept under his table and drop it in the bowl kept next to him. In a week or so, the bowl would be full and he would shut the door of the his office and walk up the path to the temple and distribute the rice among the beggars sitting over there, and ask them to pray for the people who had helped get the rice to them. That was the only way he could hope to resolve the problems that people in the three villages came to him with — some with small pieces of paper on which they had scribbled whatever it was that was troubling, them, some with a verbal complaint that he would write down in his register. To all of them he would promise to do the best he could to resolve their complaints, and he really did do his best. Feeding the hungry and asking them to pray for these people was the most he could do, in case someone argued that it wasn’t the best.
Chandra had been transferred to this remote place because he had once spilled tea on his superior in front of his superiors without meaning to. Again, if probed, he may have admitted that he had always wanted to, but on that particular moment when he was picking up a glass from the table around which the fact-finding team from the head office had gathered, he had dropped his glass by mistake. And the man who was being questioned for irregularities saw in this a chance to deflect his anger and had him transferred to this place as the Grievance Officer of all things related to farming and government aid. But for the people of this village and those surrounding it, he came not just with a rank and responsibility, but also the curse extended by association, from the aggrieved officer who carried the stain of the tea on his white shirt, and a deeper one on his ego that he felt could never be cleaned, but only made to look less in comparison by staining the lives of others in a deeper, darker shade.
Chandra had little but recourse to prayers and he had found a way to fortify his with the prayers of a few others. And with that on his side, he continued to make notes of all the complaints that came his way.
And then one day in walked in Sarla, a little girl of around ten who had walked in from Talla Malla, the village that hung from the side of a hill, between the one that was perched on top of the same hill, and the one that was at the foot of it. Talla Malla had perfected the art of cutting levelled plateaus on the hill’s sides and stemming the flow of water from the top to grow paddy. And in this way, it was the reason why the village at the foothill got far less water than it needed, and the one at the top saw it flow past without being able to do much. But the villagers of Talla Malla were a hardy lot, toiling harder than the other two villages who had apricot trees that grew on their own and didn’t have to worry about not getting any sun, that Talla Malla never got enough of. Sarla, belonging to the toughened tribe, didn’t think twice before heading out to Chandra’s office to register her complaint. Her teacher had two months of sanctioned leaves every year, but she didn’t take a single day off. The children were not granted one, and the only thing they could hope for was for their teacher to take hers so they could be free to roam around the school grounds and hang from the frame from which it was said that a swing had once hung. But day after day, they would walk into school and past that frame and other distractions and enter the classroom where the teacher would be standing in front of the blackboard, her back to the class, and scribbling away notes from her notebook. And then she would turn, call out each child’s name, and start giving instructions to note down the important points, read their book, turn to the end of the chapter to answer the questions, and make sure that the copies were submitted before they left the school for the day so she could stay back for another hour, check the notebooks, and return the copies next day with corrections, and in time for them to go through another day of the same routine. But a different lesson.
Chandra heard her patiently, and admired the sheet of paper on which she had written her complaint in a clear, bold hand, crossing out wherever a word had been spelt wrong, and followed it with the rightly spelt word. He admired the clarity of her argument, and he also liked how she had first made a verbal complaint and then handed over the paper that detailed it out in writing. Setting the paper on the pile of other papers, he picked up a handful of rice from the sack and dropped them in the bag, letting his hand go right in, so he could see how many more complaints needed to come in before he could make that trip to the temple. Quietly, he added another fistful, hoping the children got a more earnest prayer, and also because the rains had kept many complainants away, and the deity and the poor people waiting.
Chandra was going home on his own annual leave and he wondered if he would be missed by anybody. He didn’t think he had managed to solve any single problem, though many did get resolved on their own, but those he knew were because of the prayers being answered that led to timely rainfall, or a landslide that opened up a path through the hill and cut the distance to the town by a good hour or so, or the apricot prices shooting up because the produce from the neighbouring state were destroyed by an unusual infestation. But the thing he admired most about the people he was sent to serve was that they never returned to check on the status of their complaint. If their problems were resolved, they would smile at him whenever he bumped into them in the bazaar, or if they weren’t they would still smile at him when he bumped into them in the bazaar. He would feel guilty at times, but never because they made him feel that way.
But now that he was leaving for home to visit his parents, and to try and persuade them to let him remain unmarried for another year in which he was hoping to get transferred closer to the city. He wasn’t really looking forward to the conversation, but he was definitely glad for the break he would get from the complaints, his inability to do much, and for the guilt he felt every time he was greeted by the locals for whom he hadn’t done anything to deserve the smiles and the invitations for tea at their houses and shops.
Chandra had his bag packed, and he had asked the tea seller by the roadside where the bus stopped for a brief while to ask the driver to stop a little longer if he didn’t get there in time. The only thing left to do was to buy a box of singhori, the local sweet made of milk, sugar and coconut shavings wrapped among small individual cones of a leaf that gave the sweet a distinct taste, and also the feeling of being a complete thing in itself. He had let that purchase wait till the last moment so it could be as fresh as possible. This was the only thing that he could carry home to his friends and family that could make his address seem a little exotic, an adventure. And the Fauju Halwai served the best singhoris, the shop that was on his way to the bus-stop that wasn’t much but a curve by the road that allowed passengers to wait for a while, and the tea-seller to sell them tea while they did.
He slung his bag over his shoulder, left the room he had been given over the office, turned to lock the door and walked down the steps. The sun was warm in the afternoon, and he was looking forward to the walk and the bus-ride over the first part of its journey where it dodged between the folds of the hill, pushing into the shaded corners just as the sun was beginning to feel too warm to be comfortable, and back into the sunlight, when the shade became too cool. But just as he stepped on the road outside his office, he saw a woman in her late forties standing outside his office, the doors of which were now shut and a notice displayed that let those who turned up with their grievances know that they would have to return in week’s time. He was sure no one would mind. Nothing got done in a week’s time anyway. Or even within a month, or a year. Nobody was keeping a count. But this lady just stood there, as if soaking the sun. Because many did do that. They would just stop at a spot that seemed just right. The right amount of warmth or coolness, the right flutter in the breeze. The right person who had walked from across the road. And there they would stop till something in the perfectly balanced equation changed.
But this woman wasn’t standing where for the sun, he could tell. There was a better spot a few steps ahead that allowed the sunlight through but blocked the wind that crept up from the valley below. She also wore an expression that told him that she had more on her mind than to look for an ideal spot. She seemed to be in a hurry, as much as someone in this part could be. He thought of walking away, and returning in a few days to see if she still had a reason to come back. But something about the place and its people had turned him into someone who always had time to stop and talk.
“Are you here with a complaint?”
She looked at him, smiled a pencil-thin smile and nodded, but only as much as was needed to convey her response. He waited, for more. She waited, perhaps thinking she had said enough and now it was for him to take the conversation ahead.
Finally, he did. He was hoping the sign and the closed door would together say all that was needed to be said. And he had by now known the locals to be an unhurried lot. He never expected to come across someone who was pushy, and impatient. Certainly not on a day when he was himself impatient to catch a bus.
“Could you come back in a few days? I am leaving for my hometown, and the office will remain closed till I come back. Can your complaint wait?”
He ended the sentence with a bit of a dread. For the first time since he had been transferred, he could be looking at someone who needed the problem actually resolved. He took another look at the woman, and saw shades of his math teacher in her. The same pencil-thin lip lines, the barely-there smile, the hair pulled back tight into a bun making the forehead appear bigger, deeper, and all these together lending an air of authority. For no reason, he found himself trying to remember some random math formulae, as if preparing to be quizzed at any moment.
“I know you are going away. That’s why I came.”
Chandra didn’t know if he could probe her further.It must be her resemblance to his teacher, or that fact that he was in a rush to get that packet of singhori and be on his way, but he just couldn’t. The woman may have sensed something, for she finally struck a conciliatory tone and explained further.
“Well, I knew you were going away because the peon in the school where I teach told me so. And I have come to you with a complaint that you really can’t help with.”
Well, so she really was a teacher. But she didn’t know anything, if she thought that he could help with anybody’s problems.
“But I have come to you with a request that may help. I live on the far side of hill with my mother-in-law and father-in-law. My husband is in the army and he is away most of the year. And so is my daughter, ever since she got married to a man in the city almost two years back. Since then, I have not taken a single leave from school. Though I am entitled to two months of leave.”
Chandra immediately thought of Sarla, the little girl who had come complaining about her teacher who never took leaves.
“And I haven’t taken a single leave because I would do anything to stay away from my in-laws as much as possible. You can think whatever you want to of me, but remember that I still spend every hour that I am not at school with them, And the reason I came to you is because the place I seek refuge at is a place full of children forced there against their will. And now I have reached a point where I am thinking if I desperately want to spend a few days away from them, even if I have to spend a few more hours with my in-laws. And then my peon told me you were leaving.”
She wasn’t making any sense. Little that came out of a teacher’s mouth ever did for Chandra.
“Could you please give me the keys to your office while you are away? We are both government employees. And I could sit here during the school hours, getting time off from the children and my in-laws?”
She stood waiting to see how he would react, and as a last measure, she added, “You are a Grievance Officer after all. And you can settle one complaint right now if you wished.”
Chandra reached into his bag and handed over the keys, saying, “Not one, but two.”
He smiled as he walked away. He had the sweets to pick, the bus to catch. But before that, he stopped at the Panditji the paanwaala and picked up a cigarette. A rare indulgence he allowed himself when he was happy. And as he took his first puff, he thought of Sarla, and the teacher. And he smiled again as he walked away briskly.