“It's a small story with big bite. Fantastically terse yet deeply compassionate. I love how, in swift strokes, it captures our tragic now,” says author Janice Pariat about Sachin Ravikumar’s winning entry for Soup’s short story contest on the theme- Infectious. The story has been illustrated by Anjali Kamat.
It is fatal to look hungry. It makes people want to kick you. - George Orwell, 1933
When Vishwanath died after starving for eleven days, the village head blamed it on alcoholism. “You know the kind. Bottle in the morning, bottle in the night. No work they have!” he said to the men gathered around Vishwanath’s hut. But no one in the village of Mulkeri who knew Vishwanath believed this alcohol nonsense for one second. Everyone, from Puttamma the flower-seller to Nagaraj the tea-shop man, knew that Vishwanath could barely scrape together ten rupees for a plate of mudde, let alone buy himself a quarter of whiskey or toddy.
No. What really killed Vishwanath was a far more insidious thing, the panchayat concluded- swine flu. Two fishermen from the neighbouring town of Gokarna had caught it and died soon after. After all, Vishwanath had been going to Gokarna for the last two weeks to catch fish. The pond at Mulkeri, where he had caught fish for years, was eutrophying quickly and the last of the fish had disappeared. In weeks, the catch had gone from a dozen mackerel and clams a week, to nothing.
After some debate and consideration, the village head also came around to the swine flu theory, as though he had personally performed an autopsy. A death certificate was issued promptly, with the requisite signatures of the health officer and the registrar of births and deaths.
That afternoon, his two brothers brought Vishwanath out of the family’s little hut on a stretcher made of bamboo. A garland of jasmine buds strung together by Puttamma adorned his lifeless body. As the brothers, Rangappa and Narayana, carried the stretcher towards the burial site, they found the streets of Mulkeri deserted. At Nagaraj’s tea shop, they found a little crowd of curious villagers watching television. “Government sources tell us one Mig-21 has been downed; the pilot- sources tell us his name is Girish Rathore-has survived, but been taken by the enemy,” an agitated newsman was saying. “The entire nation is praying for his safe return. Pakistan must pay for this misadventure!”
Rangappa and Narayana forged ahead, immune to the excitement at the tea shop. They didn’t stop even when the arched signboard of Harishchandra Ghat loomed before them. The ghat was the only burial and cremation ground in Mulkeri. Instead they walked further, towards a site at the edge of the village, which was right beside a rail track. That was where their father was buried. That was where everyone from Vishwanath’s Maru Mukhri caste was buried. The last time a Maru Mukhri family had tried to have a funeral at Harishchandra Ghat, their hut had been burned down. The higher-caste men, after all, had to ensure such a flagrant sin would never happen again. No, Vishwanath would be buried near the tracks. Like his ancestors, he was untouchable even in death.
The trouble began one month ago. When Rangappa went to the ration shop at Gokarna to buy rice, he was asked to produce his Aadhaar card. “But Sir, I have my ration card right here,” he said, presenting a piece of paper laminated with old plastic. For four years, that dull green-coloured card had been stored in a rusted tin inside the family’s hut. It entitled them to rice at a life-saving rate of three rupees a kilo. The card displayed Rangappa’s name in English and Kannada, his year of birth (1967), a consumer number, and three letters prominently at the top left: B. P. L. Below Poverty Line.
“Don’t waste my time,” the ration officer scolded Rangappa. “If you have an Aadhaar, show me. Or else, move along.” Rangappa took out sixty rupees from his breast-pocket and folded his hands with respect. “Sir, I have both the money and the ration card. Everything is in order. Never before have I been asked for an Aadhaar. Just this one time, could you help me out?” The officer was unmoved.
Weeks passed, and without any food and out of a job, Vishwanath died. He’d simply stopped eating. Rangappa, Narayana and their mother, Nagamma, weren’t any healthier, barely managing one decent meal a day. The day after the funeral, Rangappa went to see Puttamma, the old lady who sold flowers. He vaguely remembered that her son was involved with some political types. Perhaps he could help Rangappa with the rations problem. Rangappa knew better than to enter the temple Puttamma sold flowers at (he liked his hut and didn’t want to see it burned down), and so he waited patiently well away from its gates. When she finally emerged, Puttamma advised Rangappa to travel to Kumta and talk to her son, Hanumantha, in person.
So the very next day Rangappa was in Kumta after a two-hour, ten-rupee bus ride. Hanumantha was part of the local Workers’ Union for Civil Rights, and always lingered at a tea shop. “Wasn’t there an Aadhaar camp just two months ago at Gokarna?” he asked Rangappa. “See, you have to get these things done in time. Otherwise who will feed your family?” Hanumantha said, tapping his belly. “Anyway, let’s see what can be done,” he said, promising to help Rangappa get an Aadhaar card. As he pulled out his phone to take down Rangappa’s number, a WhatsApp text took Hanumantha’s attention for a full minute. He then passed his phone to Rangappa to show him a video clip. The face of the captured pilot appeared. Although visibly bruised, the pilot was coolly sipping tea. “The Pakistani army have treated me very well. They’re thorough gentlemen,” he was saying. “Save Girish from the clutches of the Enemy!” read text inscribed in the video. “The tea is fantastic,” the pilot said, taking another sip.
Two weeks after Rangappa returned to Mulkeri, his mobile phone buzzed. Hanumantha was calling about an Aadhaar camp scheduled in Kumta. “This is almost a miracle. These camps hardly come here anymore,” he told him. “Be here this Sunday without fail!”
That Sunday in Kumta, a spooky green light scanned Rangappa’s iris, while another machine recorded his fingerprints after many unsuccessful jabs of his thumb. The Aadhaar work was done. “Now go back to wherever your ration shop is, scan your fingerprints, and get as much rice as you need,” Hanumantha said with a smile.
It had been days since Rangappa had had a proper meal. He felt like leaving for the ration shop at Gokarna right away. But it was already evening. And before he could catch a bus back to Mulkeri, the clouds parted and rain poured down violently, disrupting all transport. The road to Mulkeri could be blocked for as long as two days, they said. So the next morning, Rangappa began walking.
He walked on the highway, he walked through villages; he walked along rice fields, he walked around hills. The sun, resurgent after the rain, shone punishingly. Around noon, Rangappa’s legs gave in. On the side of a road, he fainted. When he came to after a good two hours, he was ravenous. Unable to find any fruit, he knocked down tamarind from a tree using a stone, and sucked the flesh clean off its seeds.
When Rangappa finally reached Mulkeri, it was well past five. The ration shop would be shut, but he vowed to walk there first thing in the morning. Inside his hut, he placed the Aadhaar papers carefully inside the rusted tin. Nagamma looked frail, but alive enough to utter a word of greeting. Narayana had passed out long ago, and lay asleep with his mouth wide open. Rangappa shooed the flies off his brother’s face and went to sleep after eating some more of the tamarind. In the morning, he awoke to find Narayana dead.
Like Vishwanath, Narayana had starved to death. By afternoon, the funeral was done and a death certificate issued. If only government worked this smoothly when people were alive! Rangappa thought. Meanwhile, the village leaders had gone into a tizzy.
A panchayat was hastily called. “Swine flu has claimed its second victim in Mulkeri,” the sarpanch began. “Two men from the Harijan quarter of the village have died. We must all be careful,” he told the village. He then took out his phone. “I have received the following information on WhatsApp,” he declared self-importantly, as though God had personally communicated a message to him. “It says here swine flu is highly infectious. If you even catch a cold or a cough, see a doctor at once.” After a pause he added: “But I also have some good news. They say Pakistan is going to free our pilot!”
Having missed the panchayat, Nagamma and Rangappa went home after Narayana’s funeral. The next morning, Rangappa trudged along to Gokarna, where a ration shop full of rice sacks awaited. The sun blazed relentlessly above, and once again he found himself close to fainting. After a long and gruelling walk, the facade of the ration shop building appeared.
As he waited in line, he saw others walk up to the counter, press their thumbs into a machine and return with a sack of grain. Carrying twenty kilos of rice back to Mulkeri would be a challenge, no doubt, Rangappa thought. But it could be done. After all, he had walked, under great physical and emotional stress, the sixty kilometres from Kumta to Mulkeri in unrelenting heat. Who else can lay claim to that achievement but him? Nothing was impossible.
When his turn finally came, he extended a weak palm to the ration officer, who stuck Rangappa’s thumb into the machine. Nothing happened for a few seconds. “Aiyo, the network is horrible here,” the man said. “I’ve been having problems all day. Come back tomorrow, will you?”
It was as though somebody had punched Rangappa in the stomach. A young man in the line, who had observed this episode, came forward. “Can’t you see how weary this man is?” he yelled at the ration officer. “Try the machine again, before dismissing the poor chap!” The officer sheepishly agreed.
“See?” the young man said to Rangappa, fishing for an acknowledgement that he was a white knight. “You need to straighten these people out once in a while. And you,” he said to Rangappa, “you need to speak up and fight back once in a while.”
As though taking this advice to heart, Rangappa said this to the young man: “Why don’t you try going hungry for a lifetime? Or having your hut burned down by higher-caste monsters? We’ll see how well you fight back after that.” The young man walked away quietly.
Rangappa then put his thumb once again on the machine and waited. “Ah yes, the network is back,” the officer said. His computer beeped and a message appeared on the screen: “Authentication Error.” So Rangappa tried again, this time wiping his hands clean on his lungi. Again, the screen said, “Authentication Error.” Rangappa stared at his hands. He had cleaned all the dirt off them, but they appeared rough and callused, and in some places the skin was peeling off. “Sorry. I can’t do anything now,” the officer told him.
It was then that Rangappa went a little mad, both with disappointment and hunger. He stepped outside the ration shop and began walking home, feeling weaker with every step. Now near Nagaraj’s tea shop, with the sun’s influence strong, Rangappa felt his eyes shutting. From inside the shop, he could hear excited voices. “Our pilot has finally returned!” someone was saying on TV.
At that point Rangappa’s legs gave in and he dropped to the ground, first on his knees and then on his face. He writhed there silently as the heat-stroke paralysed his internal organs. But nobody noticed him, for the newsreader was by now screaming: “The nation breathes a collective sigh of relief as Girish Rathore returns. His life has been saved!” But even if somebody had noticed Rangappa, they would have likely chalked up his death to swine flu. After all, it was highly infectious.