“Surrender” is a dark and complex depiction of the life of Dipok, a former militant who has left his organization and returned to the mainstream only to be haunted by his past. During the early nineties in Assam, thousands of militants were persuaded, convinced, forced and lured to give up arms by the Indian government. Huge sums of money were handed out to them to start new businesses. This easy money created a class of new rich in the state and it is alleged that the security forces used most of the former militants as a bulwark against the underground militants. On the other hand, most of the former militants found it extremely difficult to fit back into the society because of their past acts and the people’s discomfort in accepting them as one of their own. Anuradha Sharma Pujari, one of Assam’s most prominent fiction writers, delves deep into this problem in this short story. -Aruni Kashyap
“Deuta, why are there so many people in front of Koka’s house?”
“He passed away, Mou-ma.”
Neelkantha Barua was a good man. Though he was the head of a government department such as DRD, he had only been able to afford a small house of four bedrooms when he retired and couldn’t build it any further. Even after his retirement, he would run around volunteering for several community-building activities in the locality.
Moumon used to address Neelkantha Barua as “Koka” though he was not her grandfather. She considered him as her own grandfather. As a next door neighbor or as a neighbor who lived right front of their house, Neelkantha Barua and his wife would always exchange greetings with Moumon’s family and that was the reason Moumon’s mother Sondhya had wept when she heard that “Barua was no more.”
She told her husband Dipok, “Why don’t you sit with Moumon at home while I get back from their house? She has never seen a corpse before, and she loved him a lot… You may accompany the procession to the cremation ground.”
“Deta, what is the meaning of no more?” Moumon asked her father after a little while. She was sitting on his lap. While she asked that question, she wondered if Neelkantha Barua was sitting on the verandah in front of her house.
“No more means you won’t see him from tomorrow. Grandpa flew away to the skies.”
“Bah, so good! Koka will now be able to fly with the birds, play with the birds. Who else will be there with him, Deta? Where will Koka live?”
“At G-God’s house.” Dipok stumbled while trying to utter the word “God.” Would Moumon now ask the definition of the word “God”?
But she didn’t. Her mother must have already explained something to her about God. Maybe that’s why.
“Deta, why are the people screaming and crying? It is good to be no more after all.”
Dipok couldn’t find a proper answer for her. To distract her, he said, “Mou-ma, lets go in and play.”
Just then, Sondhya returned, wiping off tears from the end of her sari.
“O Ma! Can I also go and join Koka! Can I also fly in the sky?”
Sondhya was surprised by her strange request and suddenly an equally surprised Dipok planted a tight slap on his daughter’s cheeks. For a few seconds, Moumon remained quiet. In her lifetime of four years, her parents had never physically abused her. Sondhya snatched Moumon from Dipok’s arms and said, “I thought you had become a human, but it seems you are still an animal!” Moumon started to cry hard as soon as she reached her mother’s lap.
“Animal!” When was the last time he had heard someone call him that?
The word scratched his chest and created a deep wound on it. “Animal!” It was not just a word. It was a cruel attack, like the hooves of a thousand horses on his head. Just one word tore him apart like a whip tears away flesh, and it brought out the old Dipok. As if a corpse had suddenly come to life to wreak havoc with the dance of tandav! He let out a strange cry and chased Sondhya. “What did you say? I am an animal? Then why did you come to live with this animal? Why do you eat the food that this animal earns for you? Why do you sleep with this animal? Haramzadi!!” Filthy curses started to pop out of his mouth like popcorn while Sondhya pressed her child Moumon against her chest and ran from one room to another to protect herself. As more and more chairs were upturned and vases broken in the chase, Moumon’s screams and cries increased. Finally, when Sondhya tried to save herself by locking up in the bathroom, Dipok dragged her out of there. Moumon flew out of her arms and fell on the floor, and with a bizarre vengeance he started slapping and punching Sondhya, who continued to scream, “I will call you an animal for a hundredth time, for a thousandth time. If you were not an animal, could you hit me like this?” A lunatic bell started to ring inside Dipok’s head incessantly and he stared at her for a while like a mad man. He noticed Sondhya’s terrified eyes and they looked as if they were about to burst open from her sockets onto the floor. He held up both his hands and took one step at a time towards Sondhya like a four-legged animal about to attack and she continued to slip backwards. The image of a woman appeared in front of Dipok’s eyes. A woman who had hugged the bullet-ridden body of her husband and screamed at him, “Animals! You guys are animals! You tried to extort money from a man who couldn’t even save ten thousand rupees in his entire lifetime! How could he! You kill an honest man just because someone else gave you wrong information!” The woman had left the body and walked up to him. She had pulled the barrel of the gun towards her chest and screamed at him, “Kill me! Kill me too, you savage!” Where had this incident taken place? No, he couldn’t remember. It could have happened anywhere. The incidents all seemed same. The cities seemed the same, too. How dare an insignificant woman who stayed at home with her comfortable family life call them “savage” while they fought for the country, roamed around the forests, ate wild herbs and the roasted meat of wild animals! He had grabbed her arm and put his finger on the trigger. Suddenly, the woman collapsed on the floor, crying inconsolably. A portion of her blouse remained in his hand. How could a woman of such a high-ranking officer wear such an old, poor quality sari…
Sondhya had fallen on a table. Her sari rode up, revealing her thighs. Her blouse was torn. Her body was stained with blood. That woman’s body also had bloodstains from her husband’s bleeding body, her thighs were visible because her sari had shrunk upwards and yet, she had continued to call him “savage, savage.” He had let out a loud scream and jumped on the body of the woman and clasped her throat, choking her. Her body smelt of blood. It was a surprising smell. It was a smell that had reminded him of the smell that emerged when boars were skinned alive; the boar screams louder and louder, and the hunger increases along with that. That was the first time Dipok had the chance of touching the body of a woman like that. It was the body of a woman who was bursting with anger, terror and fear…it had the smell of a boar drenched in blood. He clutched her body very hard. He had come to his senses when he had felt the poke of a gun’s barrel on his back. His comrade had to drag him away from the spot and he heard that woman scream at his back again, “Savage! Coward!!”
“Will you call me an animal again?”
Sondhya was screaming. She pushed him away, hugged Moumon and started to howl.
* * *
Dipok came back to his senses. A warm, hot stream of blood started to leave his head slowly. What had he done? Was he trying to take revenge on Sondhya’s body because of a frustrated event from his past? Was it still alive – his old anger, the old frustrations? Who was he angry at these days? And who was he angry at in his past life? Though he had believed in the revolution, he was always very angry, unfulfilled, and often hated specific words. Such words were inscribed inside his brains, in the brains of people like him. On the other hand, he had a different set of words woven into his heart that constantly quarreled with the ones that were inscribed into his brain. That had been his last murder.
Sondhya! What had she done wrong that she had to be punished that way today! His one-time classmate, Sondhya was actually his only refuge. The reason he had surrendered and given up arms was because of the deep trust he had in Sondhya, who had even separated from her parents to marry him. Her brother Shantonu was the only one who kept in touch with her and it was this Sondhya who he had beaten up in front of his own child, Moumon; and probably even raped her? He was suddenly ashamed.
The sound of “Hori Bol! Hori Bol!” resonated through the neighborhood, announcing the start of Neelkantha Barua’s cremation procession. About an hour ago, Dipok was to join the procession. Sondhya told Moumon, “Mou-ma, join your hands. He was a really good man.”
Dipok began to cry inconsolably and started punching and slapping himself. After banging his head against the wall a couple of times, he ran towards his motorbike and in a few minutes, left the house on it.
He didn’t keep track of the time he spent on the bike, roaming around the town like a lunatic. Why did he leave his comforts to go underground? And why did he eventually surrender? What went wrong with his life's decisions? He had earned distinction in high school, leaving exams with high scores. He was a bright kid. When he was at university, he started to suspect that everything was worthless. He wanted to join the revolution and he had committed to that on the same day he had finished reading about Mao Zedong’s Long March. After that, a new life had begun which was dominated by fake names and living underground as an imposter. He had climbed insurmountable mountains to take the arms training and the boy who couldn’t even watch the killing of a pigeon or duck for meat had started to murder people without any reaction.
And then, one day, he met Sondhya. She was the only person who sheltered him without any hesitation and often told him to give up arms. She would advise him on things that he could do after surrendering arms and leaving the revolutionary life. He had liked her suggestions so much that he had started to believe in her words deeply. How long ago had he left that life, his past? And how old is this present of his? Though he had returned to the society’s mainstream, he had never received a warm welcome from any of its members. None of his neighbors would welcome him warmly. If something went wrong in that small town, the local police station would always summon him first. He also knew that probably his name would never be erased from that police register of surrendered militants. Every day, he would live within this web of suspicion. Occasionally, he would get angry with Sondhya, would want to take revenge. She would tell him, “A revolution can happen in many different ways. Why don’t you start working for the assimilation of surrendered militants into the society? What will you get by doing business with millions of rupees? Instead of that, start a cooperative; go to the village; look at the embankments and ask why they break up so soon; instead of catching pimps, ask the fathers why they sell their daughters to them for five-hundred rupees. If you prove that one can lead a clean life, everyone will respect people like you.”
Suspicion of policemen, of neighbors, of Sondhya – caught in all of these webs, he was gradually turning into a spider that was shrinking by the day.
Sondhya’s bright young brother always made fun of him, “If you wanted to surrender, why did you accept that huge sum of black money from the government?”
What would he have eaten?
“When you had taken up arms, did you guys not think that one has to work hard to earn a living? Don’t you realize the difference between a ten rupee given by someone else and the one that you've earned on your own?”
“I am working now.”
“That is not work. That is begging for pity. Why didn’t you take a loan from the government instead of selling yourself to that government? Why didn’t you start farming on the land that you have in your village?”
“Oh shut up, Shantau! If you have such revolutionary ideas, why don’t you go and join the revolution? Why are you sitting in the comfort of your home?”
“I am studying medicine and listen to me, let me tell you, I will never go and beg the health minister to transfer me from the village hospital to a comfortable city hospital. My profession will bring my revolution forward. The day I retreat, that would be my last day. I am never going to be a Shikhondi.”
This is a debate they would have often. When Dipok lost the argument, he would turn dangerous. Sondhya and Shantonu would keep their mouths shut.
Sometimes, Dipok wanted to choke his brother-in-law or Sondhya to death.
Sometimes, he felt like running over the crowd of people with his motorcycle and breaking their bones.
Was he really Shikhondi? That transgender character from The Mahabharata who was used as a shield to protect the warrior Arjun from arrows in the battlefield?
He didn’t want to die like Shikhondi. He wasn’t scared of anything in this world except the shadow of a bodiless death. Yes, he hated and was also scared of death. Often, he would wake up to sounds of someone screaming. Some nights, he would throw up after getting a strong stench of blood.
* * *
Suddenly, he felt a growling in his stomach. Was he going to throw up? No, he was extremely hungry. He stopped the motorcycle by the road and checked his pockets for cash, but despite checking all his pockets, he found only two rupees and seventy-five paisa. Why couldn’t he have carried some cash on himself? What could he buy to eat with just two rupees? He was also unsure of which part of the town he was standing in. He walked ahead a little and entered a teashop.
“Babu, what would you like to have?”
“What’s the time?”
The ten-year-old waiter stared at Dipok for a few moments before asking the time from his boss.
“What’s there to eat?”
“Puri and curry. Meat and porotha. And omelets.”
“Bring an omelet. How much is it?”
“Double omelet is five rupees and fifty paisa.”
“I don’t need double. Just get single.”
“Single is three rupees.”
“Why three rupees? It should have been two and half only.”
“Hey waiter, why are you stuck with one person! There are more people in this shop.” Dipok’s fist tightened when he heard the shop owner say that. He crushed a glass that was on the table to show his anger. Then he stood up and touched his waist. Suddenly, the owner became alert as if understanding something. He ordered the waiter, “Oi, what are you staring at? Go and bring meat and porothas for Sar!” Suddenly, he started to receive royal treatment and Dipok let out a self-satisfied smile after realizing that he still had some power. The rest of the customers looked at him with fear. A thin guy was staring at him sharply from the table opposite him. Dipok thought the guy’s face was very similar to someone he knew. Whose? Sondhya? Shantonu? Shikhondi! Shikhondi! As if that expression screamed at him! Opportunist! You guys are opportunists! Was that guy thinking those same things that Shantonu told him often? Dipok couldn’t keep staring at that boy anymore. The waiter served him a hot plate of porothas and meat. He felt hungrier because of the aroma of the warm food in front of him. Suddenly, he did something very odd. He left the food on the table, walked to the cashier’s counter, took out the cash he had and said, “Here, this is to cover the cost of the broken glass.” He didn’t wait to see their reactions. He started the motorcycle and left.
Where would he go?
Home? Yes, he would go home.
He was still hungry and yet he felt at peace. It was a really small thing, but he realized he had been weaned of little joys like that for years now. At that moment, he wanted to meet Sondhya. He sped the motorcycle towards his house.
Sondhya always reminded him, “Yes, you guys have given up arms but to understand the greatness of life, there is a long way to go. First, be a human being. It is challenging to be a revolutionary, but it is even more challenging to be a human being. The day you start respecting other human beings after assuming the role of a human being, the real revolution will start. The confidence you will gain by doing good work will help you guys…”
A police jeep stopped in front of him by producing an ugly sound.
The familiar face of a police officer revealed itself and asked him, “Where are you coming from?”
“I just went somewhere.”
“For what kind of work.”
“Just like that…”
“What do you mean just like that? Weren’t you home last night?”
“I was home. Has anything happened?”
The police officer observed him suspiciously from head to toe. “Well, you probably don’t know for sure.” The officer spoke in a mocking tone. “An hour ago, two military officers were murdered. We have been able to detect the motorcycle number. They went towards your locality. Maybe you will have to make a trip to the police station tomorrow.”
Beads of sweat appeared on Dipok’s forehead. For how long would he have to take responsibility for the deaths of people and continue to go to the police station? He hadn’t maintained a relationship with his past in the last five years and yet, he got anxious with every murder and every explosion. If he had known life would be like this, he would have never surrendered, never given up the path of violence. But in that life, could he accept the language of weapons without compunction? Could he understand the deeper repercussions of those troubles and orders that reached him? Did his conscience want to accept the strict definitions of the word “revolution”? Shikhondi, Shikhondi— It was as if Shantonu had pierced his brains with an arrow. One day, even he would die living like this and what would happen to Moumon then? What would be her father’s identity? Would Dipok Saikia receive an admirable death like Neelkantha Barua? Sweat drizzled down from his earlobes.
When he took the turn on the road, an ash colored Maruti car stopped just by him and a man walked out of it. He recognized the person. A friend from his past life. The man asked Dipok to wait and he reluctantly stopped. He told Dipok, “A motorbike is hidden at your house. It was inconvenient to ferry it around, you know. Could you please change the number-plate and abandon it somewhere?” His old friend said nothing more and left without giving Dipok a chance to speak. He stood there, as if struck by lightning. Then he slowly walked towards his house. He was very thirsty. Like a man in the middle of a desert, he swallowed hard.
As he opened the gate, he checked everything around the house carefully. The doors and windows were shut down and the motorcycle was parked by the hibiscus flower tree. He didn’t look at it for too long and just parked his own motorcycle on his regular spot. Sondhya opened the door when he rang the bell. He didn’t look at her at all and went straight to the phone. “Hello, police station?” He provided a detailed description of what had happened since the encounter with his old friend who hopped out of the Maruti car. As he spoke, she ran out of the house and checked the strange motorcycle that was parked in front of her house by the hibiscus plant and screamed, “Dipok, what did you just do?” He said nothing in reply but just walked towards the bed like a drunkard and lay down.
“The police will now come and arrest you. You really think they are going to trust you?”
“I have no other way. I am exhausted with the burden of living this life. I cannot hide this motorcycle anywhere,” he said, slowly, sounding very tired.
“But you just named all of them and even told the police where they might be hiding. Do you really think they would let you live after this?”
“Sondhya, nobody is going to let me live. One day, I left the comforts I was used to with the resolution to achieve freedom, live like a free bird and reside in the abode of my dreams, but now I live like a small, insignificant spider, hanging from a cobweb. I will never get a chance to repent like this and there is only one way of getting out of this web. I know the police won’t believe me but what can I do to be able to earn their trust? I am tired of worrying about all this.”
“What are you regretting? Didn’t you think about Moumon and me? Your responsibility for us?”
He had a faint smile on his lips. “Why are you so scared? I have no qualms with anyone. You always advise me with your wonderful, soothing words to find a new world. Were those words for real, at all?”
A few drops of tears appeared on the tips of Sondhya’s eyes.
* * *
Outside, they heard the sound of several cars stopping and a mild commotion. The sound of heavy boots reverberated throughout the household and those sounds started to become louder and move towards the room where Dipok was sleeping.
The next day, Dipok’s confession was published in huge font on the newspapers. On the basis of his confession, four militants were arrested red-handed from the house of a respected man in the town. Three days later, another piece of news was published. Small news. Former militant Dipok Saikia was killed by two unknown assassins. It is worth mentioning that on the basis of his confession…
* * *
When his body was brought back after postmortem, Mouon looked at it and asked her mother, “Ma, was Deta a good person? Should I join my hands for him?”
Anuradha Sharma Pujari is the author of ten novels, including Mereng, Hriday Ek Bigyapan and most recently, Neel Prajapati. She is also the author of four short story collections and five collections of essays. An editor of the largest Assamese weekly newspaper Sadin and the monthly literary magazine Satsori, she has won the Kumar Kishore Memorial Literary Award, from Asom Sahitya Sabha (2003).
Translator Aruni Kashyap is the author of The House With a Thousand Stories (Viking, June 2013), a novel set against the secret killings of Assam - a series of extra-judicial killings allegedly conducted by the Indian government to quell the Assamese separatist movement. Kashyap has also translated and introduced Indian author Indira Goswami‘s last work of fiction, The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar, for Zubaan Books (January, 2013).