Winning entry (Contest #1): Dhondhu and the Rotten Eggs
V Pattabhi Ram
Achuki is a village in Bihar where about 2000 people live. Bihar lags far behind other Indian states on socio-economic development. It is here that Dhondhu Chohan lives.
Wrinkles crease his face and make him look 20 years older. Skinny to the bones, hunched a little forward, he walks towards the ration shop. Three months ago, his employer put out a ‘no-work’ board on the site. Dhondhu’s wife worked as a maid, and her madam asked her to take six months off because of COVID. The schools weren’t working, and so his three kids had problems with lunch. Long back, a benevolent state had initiated mid-day meals for school-goers.
Two days ago, the local paper announced ration would be free, and the Panchayat is paying Rs 2000 this month to help unemployed men.
Pulling his aching body forward, the 37-year-old Dhondhu walked to the ration shop. A long queue greeted him. When he reached the head of the line, the clerk announced, “Lunch-break.” Our man decided to skip lunch because he worried he would lose his seniority in the queue. In any case, he wasn’t carrying food, as he left home early.
Ninety minutes later, the clerk returned.
Seeing Dhondhu place his card, he asked, Kitna Baar Aaoghe? How many times will you come?
A tracer bullet pierced his heart as Dhondhu realized someone had collected his ration. He argued, Mera card Mein ration ka Chapa Nahin hai. There is no ‘issued’ stamp on my ration card.
On the pretext of checking, the clerk stamped, “Issued,” and said, Dekho. He also showed a thumb impression on the register.
Too weak to begin a fight, an angry Dhondhu moved away.
Someone behind him said, Chal phut, chamar. “Go away, you chamar.”
Casteist slurs were passé. Dhondhu had grown up with it. Hurt at not getting his ration; he trekked to the Panchayat to complain.
“I want to see the Ward Member,” he told the peon and was promptly taken to the desk.
Last year, the man had met Dhondhu with a Namaste and sought his vote during ward elections. Now Dhondhu stood before him, his hands folded across his chest. “Saab, I have come here with a grievance.” He spoke in a halting voice, afraid at what might happen.
Saab spat out the paan into the nearby dustbin.
“Huzoor, they refuse my ration. I also want to collect my Rs 2000/-“
“Go to the ration shop. You are not a governor that we should send the items to you.”
“I went, Huzoor, and they say ‘somebody collected.’ The clerk showed me the register with a thumb impression affixed. It’s fake because I can sign.
“Ha, Ha, Ha.” Men in the Panchayat started laughing. “Look, the chamar can sign.”
“Yes, Sir, my daughter taught me how to put my signature.”
“What else can she teach?”
Dhondhu stayed quiet, knowing where this conversation would lead.
“Saab, please do something. Otherwise, my family will go hungry.”
“Fine. But what is in this for me?
“Sir, I voted for you.
“Alright. But what do I gain by helping you?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Sala (abusive). This chamar wants it spelled out.”
The peon pulled Dhondhu aside, Saab ko paanch sau dho. “Give Sir, Rs 500/-“
Mujhse, Nahin Hoga. “I won’t be able to do.”
“Then, forget it.”
For 90 minutes, Dhondhu sat in a corner, on his haunches, reflecting on his plight. Finally, he gave in to the rotten egg of corruption.
“Come tomorrow,” the peon said.
The next day, at noon, Dhondhu reached the Panchayat. His pajama could do with a wash, and his crumpled white shirt needed ironing. He received four crisp Rs 500 notes, and when he passed one back, a cop stepped in.
“I arrest you for bribing a government official.”
Dhondhu stood dumbstruck. The peon hissed, “Pay him Rs 200.”
Dhondhu parted with the money and left for home, leaving others laughing. ‘Rs 700 poorer, or Rs 1300 richer,’ he didn’t know.
The following morning, he collected his quota from the ration shop.
At home, when he narrated this, his wife began to cry. But his daughter, 14, sat silent for a while, and then spoke, “Baba, don’t worry.”
Ten years on, we are now in 2030. An anchor is on fire on a national television channel. “Chanda Chohan Chamar IPS rises from the margins of society, to scale the peak of meritocracy.”
A smart 24-year old sits in front of him.
Chanda tells the anchor, “My dad’s experience with ‘corruption,’ and ‘casteism,’ and his personal ‘inability to oppose these’ pushed me to IPS. I am here to cleanse the system.”
In his small home, seated before a little TV, Dhondhu Chohan felt the taste of salt, as tears of joy flowed.
V Pattabhi Ram is a Chartered Accountant, based in Chennai. This is the winning entry for Short Story Writing Contest #1
Judge’s remarks: The writer has done a wonderful of ‘show, don’t tell’. He has painted a vivid picture of the hardships Dhondhu must face due to the accident of birth and all-pervasive corruption.
One feels for the plight of the protagonist and rejoices when his daughter is able to rise above her situation. Though the story is fictional, it feels raw, and very real. Well done!
Lastly, no editing at all was required for grammar or punctuation. An editor’s dream come true!