Absence of Colour

Absence of Colour

The sun beats down on him as Aryak pedals the cycle systematically on the Ashoka Road in Delhi. Push. Rest. Push. Rest. He chants the Hanuman Chalisa under his breath, and mops his sweaty forehead, moving faster as he had expected the mechanized wheels would ensure he’d reach the courtroom quicker. But because his scooter has malfunctioned, he is forced to ride a cycle and is running behind schedule and he is never late. As the dome appears on the horizon, Aryak stops at the red signal. The noxious smell of the nearby sewer assails his nose and it twitches. His gaze falls on a stain on his cuff and he shakes his head. This morning he created a ruckus when a yellow smidgen had coloured his otherwise white kurta, delaying his departure. Now, it’s soiled again.

Useless scooter. Staining my clothes. Always breaking down in an emergency

He looks at the contents of the cycle basket. The diary holds the secret within its pages. Today, it will spill it all, and the burden he has been trying to offload for the past decade will lessen. 

One cannot keep the truth down for long. A decade after Babuji’s death, it’ll be out.

The truck comes from nowhere. Silently, it rams into Aryak, a stationery object, with full force. Like him, his diary flies in the air. Unlike him, his diary lands open-faced in the drainage, its spine, intact. Aryak crumbles on the edge, a few paces ahead. Red blood spurts from his body, his white kurta quickly absorbing it. People crowd around him. 

The sewer accepts the unexpected gift, enveloping it amidst its folds. The brown, foul-smelling water gushes over the pages. Sullying the white pages. Leaving its stamp on them.

Written in black ink, the words Satyameva Jayate dissolve. One black swirl at a time. Washed away in the water, losing its identity in the water. Until all that remains are the dregs of the swamp. 

Aryak raises a hand, clutching empty air as he tries to get up. Today was the day.

He spots his diary in a ditch as his eyes roll back. The white of his eyes stares into the sun. The diary is the starting point.

Cheers had broken out in the panelled room as the two leaders had inked their signatures onto the Tashkent Agreement, under the watchful eyes of Mr. Alexei Kosygin, the chairman of the USSR council. Aryak remembered releasing his breath in a whoosh. 

After the acrimonious 1966 Indo-Pak war, an amnesty was welcome.

After endless delays and countless cancellations, the diminutive Prime Minister of India, Lal Bahadur Shastri, posed with the tall, burly Md. Ayub Khan, President of Pakistan. The consequent party went on till 10.00pm, where everyone let their collective hair down. It is when PM Shastri retired to his dacha–Russian for villa, around 250 yards away from the hotel where the other ministers and journalists like him stayed, did the party finally end. 

Aryak was the junior-most journalist in the Indian press contingent, all of 25. A few scribes followed Babuji–as PM Shastri was affectionately called, to the villa. After dinner, Babuji sat with them, chatting off the record. He spoke about the treaty, and the disappointment of Indians back home about returning the Haji Peer point to Pakistan, hinting he had an ace up his sleeve. Despite repeated questions from the media, he refused to divulge the reason to return the contentious point. 

“I’ll reveal everything when we return home,” he said. An enigmatic smile lightening up his face. 

As Aryak was shutting his diary and rising from a chair, the lush carpet trapped his foot, tripping him. A sturdy pair of hands held him in his place. He looked up to find Babuji holding on to his arm.

“If the youth of our country trips, what hope do we have for the future, son?” His smile took the sting out of the words. 

Aryak was surprised and mumbled a response. 

“Don’t forget, son. Eyes on the goal will take you far. With honesty and integrity, we can march towards progress. Remember this old fool’s advice.” Saying that, he turned and entered his suite. 

Aryak started at his retreating back. Ashamed at his inability to articulate his thoughts. A fine journalist, I am.

The others never saw him alive after that exchange. 

Except for Aryak. 

Standing next to the dacha’s foyer window, Aryak saw Shastriji totter up to Ramnath, his personal servant’s room, his gait was unsteady, and he collapsed in Ramnath’s arms, coughing and gasping for air. Specks of saliva were thrown in the air, landing on his spotless kurta

A stain on our collective conscience.

Aryak was shaken when he returned to India, their trip as well as the Prime Minister’s life cut short. The days after the incident were spent in retrospection and constant ruffling through his memories. 

How could a seemingly healthy 59-year-old man, a survivor of one heart attack, die of another? Why did he walk the few paces to Ramnath’s room when Dr. Chugh was next doors? Why was the government quiet?

Questions like these haunted him, day and night, turning his face gaunt, and his eyes, haunted. Being the youngest, he tried to raise the topic often with his seniors, only to be shut down. Every time.

“At this time, an autopsy will only fuel the fires of unrest. The political fervour is at its peak now, maybe a while later, we can ask the concerned ministers.” Variations of this spiel were offered as lame attempts to answer his uncomfortable questions.

But on 12th January 1966, a mere day after his body was brought back to India, his son set ablaze Lal Bahadur’s funeral pyre. 

The questions and suspicions, supposedly burnt with his body.

To settle Aryak down, his mother decided he should get married to a suitable alliance from his neighbouring village in UP. Soon, Aryak and Shweta, the name he chose for her after their marriage in accordance to his penchant for white, started their married life in the outskirts of Delhi where Aryak worked in a Hindi newspaper, Goonj as their political reporter, still struggling with the aftermath. Many freedom fighters continued to wear white, but in Babuji, Aryak had seen the genuine reflection of the colour. All decisions taken by Babuji strayed on the side of the colour white. It was what attracted Shastriji to Aryak – he symbolised the colour and its purity to him. Them sharing a birthday–2nd October sealed the deal for him! Modelling himself after Babuji, Aryak ensured honesty and integrity were the left and right ventricles of his heart. His simple needs and take-no-bribe approach guaranteed his economic condition remained moderate–if not, skirting penury. His tolerant, yet exasperated wife, Shweta, worked as a teacher in the nearby government school and between his meagre salary and hers, they lived their life in austerity. 

He had covered the six sessions in depth where Shastriji’s death was raised on the Parliament floor. For each one of them, he had written scathing editorials that his editor promptly refined till they resembled toothless versions of themselves. The inability of the Indian media to address the issue once and for all, equally frustrated him and amazed him. 

How can they not want to know?

While travelling in a bus, Aryak gazes out of the grimy windows as Delhi flows past him. The larger roads become narrower and the speed breakers, more frequent. The quality of air changes as the foliage disappears behind the warren of the grungy houses. 

The shabbily-made speedbumps’ presence is only for commoners like us. I guess the affluent and the powerful do not want anything to interrupt them while we are expected to treacle down the roads, interruptions galore.

His reverie is broken by an altercation between the bus conductor and a passenger who requests the expected change. The conductor’s mouth rearranges itself into a smirk as he digs into his satchel and hands the man a one-rupee coin. Aryak shakes his head in disbelief.

While recounting the incident to his wife, Aryak fumes about the lack of ethics in society. “Shweta, he is a civil servant yet he spoke with no civility.”

“It’s just one-rupee,” is her distracted response as she scrubs his white kurta with lemons. The Delhi traffic has left its marks on it, smearing it with brown spots.

“It’s not the question of the amount! It’s the principle. Did you know once Babuji’s son drove their official car for fourteen kilometres? Do you know what Babuji did?” 

Shweta, her back to him, has heard the story several times, and she pantomimes him. 

“He made his wife pay seven-paisa-per-kilometre into the government kitty! That is integrity! That is honesty! Real character shines when no one is watching!”

“You are right.”. By the time she wraps up her work, Aryak is on the dilapidated bench, writing furiously in his diary. 

Aryak pens his article; his black pen moving swiftly and covering the diary with an army of words. He never uses blue-coloured ink. Today, his son’s indigo-coloured ink bottle acts as the catalyst and triggers memories of another time. 

Synaesthesia. I think it’s called.

After the photoshoot, Aryak had hung around with Babuji’s PA and his childhood friend, Sahay, whiling away time. They had chatted in the heated foyer of the dacha while smoking and sipping hot tea spiked with vodka. The winter in Tashkent was not something the Indians had ever experienced. They were joking around when few minutes past one am, their revelry was interrupted by a noise. A door opened and unsteady footsteps echoed.

Shastriji tottered the few paces up to Ramnath, his personal servant’s room. His gait was unsteady, and he collapsed in Ramnath’s arms while coughing and gasping for air. Specks of saliva were thrown in the air, landing on his spotless kurta. His face was pale, and he tried to speak.

“Call doctor sahib, Ramnath,” Babuji mustered before his head drooped forward. 

On hearing his raspy voice, Aryak ran into the suite, standing there with his mouth agape as the flurry of activity around him increased.

 

“Fetch, Dr. Chugh!” Ramnath ordered Sahay as he physically picked up the PM and ran to his bedroom. He gently laid him down on the bed while talking to him. Aryak followed him to the doorway. A feeble Babuji pointed at the upturned thermos lying on his side table. Aryak’s gaze followed the fingers. A black thermos lay on its side. Its lid, a striking contrast against the white dacha walls.

“Fetch water for Babuji!” cried out Ramnath to Sahay, who has returned after beckoning the doctor.

Shaking his head, PM Shastri raised his hand and his fingers pointed at the thermos again. Ramnath understood the unspoken command and moves towards it when he was interrupted by Dr. Chugh with his black bag swinging and the Russian doctor tearing into the room, brushing Aryak aside. Aryak watched as the doctors placed the supine Babuji in a reclining position. Dr. Chugh quickly placed his stethoscope on Shastriji’s still chest and shone a light in his unreactive eyes. Tears streaming down his eyes, he tried to maintain professional decorum while addressing the Soviet doctor.

“Trying to pump the heart. Administering the patient with intramuscular injection of mephitine sulphate.”

“No sign of heartbeat, Dr. Chugh,” the Soviet doctor responded.

Breaking down, Dr. Chugh hung his head, crying openly. “Babuji, why didn’t you give me a chance?”

“Death occurred at 1.32am.” The Russian medic said, looking at her wristwatch.

What does Dr. Chugh mean? A chance for what? Why was Babuji pointing at the thermos?

Aryak sat as close as possible to Babuji’s coffin when the staff boarded the plane bound for India. In a brief span, the PM’s body had turned blue with white patches on his skin. Throughout the flight, Aryak stared at the blue skin. Contrasting with the white wreath of lilies. Babuji’s kurta, stained with blood. The white of the cotton stuffed in his nose and his blue skin. The palette of the two colours, settled deep within Aryak. 

Blue. Red. 

Why is his skin blue? Lord Shiva’s throat turned blue when he ingested the halahal. Was Babuji poisoned? And why is there blood?

His last words will always remind me to try, and live my life by his principles. Progress towards my goal.

He wiped the stray lone tear that snaked out of red-rimmed eyes with the back of his hand. Making a vow to himself.

The thermos under consideration never accompanied PM Shastri’s body to India.

Aryak closes his diary. His outburst earlier wasn’t because to the conductor entirely. After years of protesting, the Morarji Desai Government has organized a hearing to address PM Shastri’s death. His impending testimony is common knowledge in the political circles. Almost all the surviving witnesses are being summoned. Fear marches in his heart, settling in his stomach.

Ensuring Shweta and Hari are asleep, he withdraws the pristine envelope hidden in his book. His name is scrawled on it. In blue ink. He shudders and retrieves the photograph. It shows Shweta sitting at a temple. Her eyes are closed, hands joined. A man stands behind her and he looks straight into the camera. His lips curl into a smile. He places his index finger on his lips while his other hand’s digit points at Shweta’s head. The message is obvious. 

No testimony. 

Seated on his desk, he debates. Family or truth. Which responsibility is higher? The one towards his family or the one towards his country. He clutches tufts of his hair, white as the virginal snow, pulling at them while silently screaming. He had promised to follow in Babuji’s footsteps. Stay honest to himself, but the external forces are forcing him to reconsider. 

Silence for the life of his family. He has days to decide.

What should I do, Babuji? He questions the garlanded photograph of PM Shastri on his desk.

But Babuji’s smile stays constant, and his voice, mum.

The next evening, he returns early from work. He is disillusioned with the biased outlook of the Indian media. He surprises Hari, who is fanning himself with a bamboo hand-held fan with an inaccurate Bishan Bedi’s likeness printed on it. On spotting his father, Hari hides the fan behind his back.

“What are you hiding behind your back, Hari?”

A hesitant Hari shows the fan to him.

“Where did you get it?”

Hari glances furtively at his father, not meeting his eyes, staying silent.

“Did you steal it, Hari?” Aryak strives to maintain his equilibrium, keeping his voice steady. 

Hari’s eyes fly to meet his father’s. “No, baba. I’d never steal! A man gifted it to me.”

“Who is it?”

“I don’t know his name, but he often meets me outside the school and brings gifts. Sometimes, a pen. Sometimes, a moongphali-patti.”

“What does he want in return?” 

His son’s eyes widen and he shrugs. “Nothing. He just talks to me. He asks after you and amma. If your health is okay. He was worried about you, especially after the last time you fell sick.”

“Hari, I forbid you to talk to that man!”

“He is a very nice man, baba. He gave me tickets to the zoo and said if your father is busy, I will take you. Wait, let me show them to you!” Hari rushes inside their one-room house and emerges with three blue-coloured tickets held in his hand. “See! The tickets!” He waves them under Aryak’s nose.

Aryak snatches them from Hari’s hand and examines them. The date on the tickets is the same as the date of his testimony in front of the Ram Narain committee. 

“Go, and play, outside.”

“But my tickets, baba.” Hari’s lips align in a straight line.

“I will keep them safe. Now, go.”

Hari slowly exits the room, watching his father’s face for any sign of trouble. When alone, Aryak draws a shaky breath. 

As if, using Shweta to warn me was not enough.

That night, a moody Aryak dines with family. Shweta and Hari keep sneaking looks at him, but his attention is elsewhere. After dinner, when Shweta hands him a glass of milk, she finds him staring out of the only window in the house.

“What’s troubling you?”

He looks up, surprised to find her standing there. “Just some work-related stuff. Go to sleep. I have to finish this article before I can rest.”

Shweta keeps a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it. “Ensure you close the windows. A storm is due to hit us tonight and our house leaks. Everything will get wet. Don’t forget.”

Aryak gives her a distracted nod and returns to staring at his book. Outside, the clouds, pregnant like piñatas, wait for the proverbial stick to let loose the torrents of water. The wind howls, matching the turmoil within him, notching up the fear in his heart. The departing sun hides behind the clouds. A veil of blackness spreads all around him and he rests his head on the scarred wooden table, tapping it against the edge. 

What do I do? Can I drag my innocent family into this quagmire? Is there any other way? Babuji’s death must be resolved. For so many years, I have stayed quiet due to so many reasons. I battled with the system. In my naiveté, I thought it would welcome my questions, gung-ho for answers. But instead of the white I expected, the system is flecked with grey. Tending to black. Black money. Black hearts. But now an official inquiry is due, and it’s like a second chance for me. 

But what if they harm Shweta and Hari? 

He looks at Shastriji’s picture as shadows play over him. The curtains flutter in the wind, victims of it. It all seems pointless, hopeless.

Not reaching any conclusion, his eyes close of their own accord and he sleeps.

The next morning, the crowing of the cock wakes him. Sometime in the night, the photo frame has fallen on his hand. He places it upright again, and gazes outside. The clouds have disappeared, and the dawn is yawning through. As if nothing ever happened. As if the sun wasn’t defeated yesterday. The pink skies, bereft of the mischievous clouds, hint at the answers he seeks. His mind made up, he rises from the chair, his back protesting and he stretches. Wiping the last vestige of sleep from himself.

He rummages through the cupboard, searching for the white kurta; muttering under his breath. His wife, Shweta, on hearing the pandemonium enters the room.

“What are you looking for?” she asks.

“My white kurta. Have you seen it? I cannot find it! I’m sure Hari has done something to it.”

Shweta handed him a pristine white kurta. “What’s wrong with the one you are wearing?”

He points at the kurta’s hem. Turmeric had stained it yellow. “Today is an important day. I must appear neat. Just like Babuji said, your clothes speak volumes about you.” 

“And, look what happened to your mentor, Shastriji?”

He stays mum while changing into the clean apparel. He approaches Shweta, holding her hand in his. 

“Today is the day the truth is unveiled. The day of reckoning. All my life, I have waited for this day, Shweta.”

 

She nods, patting his cheek, and retreats into the kitchen, a few paces away from their matchbox bedroom while Aryak got ready. Hearing him softly curse for the second time since morning, Shweta hurries out with the bowl of curd and a spoon to find her husband kicking the old rickety scooter in disgust. 

“It won’t start! Hari, get my cycle,” he yells. Shweta notices a black greasy smudge on his cuff, but holds her silence. Aryak carefully places the diary and the papers in the basket near the handle and perches on the cycle seat to ride off.

Arrey, have a spoon of curd! It’s for good luck,” Shweta calls out. “Listen!” Aryak looks back and waves his hand, dismissing her. 

Never call someone’s name as they are leaving, amma would say. What have I done? God, please keep my husband safe, thinks Shweta.

The truck comes from nowhere. Silently, it rams into Aryak, a stationery object, with full force. Aryak crumbles on the edge, a few paces ahead. Red blood spurts out of his body, his white kurta quickly absorbing it. The blood covering the grease stain. People crowd around him. His eyes roll back, exposing the white sclera.

All my life, I have hankered for the colour white, believing in its purity. Its ability to clarify things. I wore only white, hoping the colour’s calmness would rub off me and seep into my life. 

His breath becomes ragged.

But I have seen the other side of white. Its ability to cover things. Its ability to whitewash the truth. Its blackness. 

White is not a colour. It’s an absence of colour.

 An absence of truth. 
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Glossary:

  1. Halahal: A poison that Lord Shiva ingested when the ocean was churned by the Devas and Asuras.
  2. Moongphali-patti: A peanut-jaggery treat.
  3. Kurta: A tunic.
  4. Goonj: An echo.
  5. Hanuman Chalisa: Forty chaupals based on the Lord Hanuman.

Author’s note:

The story uses Lal Bahadur Shashtri’s death as a backdrop. India’s second Prime Minister, died in Tashkent in 1966 under very mysterious circumstances. Several prospective suspects like Indira Gandhi, KGB, and CIA are considered but it was all circumstantial. No autopsy was conducted on his body. Papers related to his death are still not in the public domain. This story has no intention to cause anyone any harm or cause any mischief.
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