About the project :
The professor of English Literature at the famous (fictional name) University, Dr. Iqbal Manjhi, had introduced a new syllabus with minority class literature at its core. The professor had served the University for more than a decade, and in this while, built an image of himself as the messiah for equal rights and caste-free India. Always embroiled in controversy, he bravely educated his students and the society to be cautious of the ‘leaders’ rooting for a minority-free India, and was worried that giving full control to such a leadership would cause havoc in the country. On the other hand, (fictional name) party was getting stronger by the day. The leader stated on a public forum that his goal is a minority free monolithic ethnically pure India. On learning about the Dr. Manjhi’s new syllabus, the _______ party was outraged. With use of political might, the veteran Professor was expelled from the University. But Dr. Manjhi was not a quitter. His firm belief in his ideology and against the dictatorial regime of the popular party motivated him to educate the youth, and expulsion from his post did not stop him. The Professor continued taking classes at his home, giving speeches in public forums and openly condemning the policies of the _____ party. They had had enough of the opposing Professor and could not let his ideology spread any further. On the evening of 20th January, 2000, the leader ordered his people to assault the Professor. The Professor was pulled out of his house, publicly beaten, his face was blackened and made to wear a garland made of shoes. The public stood still and witnessed the horrific event. The people were already scared about standing against the powerful party. The experience was too catastrophic even for the brave Professor. He did not get any support and was expelled from the University. The Professor decided to run away and go underground, but he vowed to never stop spreading his views against the dictatorial majority appeasing ideologies.
In a library in Chennai, Gunjan is doing research on a mysterious (banned) Dalit poet who signs himself as ‘Ik Man’. His writings keep appearing from time to time even though the government tries hard to censor it. Today, there's no free media, all such literature of resistance and protest is published by the Underground Printroad (inspired by the Underground Railroad of the American civil war era).
Gunjan is egged on by Daadu, his beloved librarian uncle who provides him with all the materials required for his research on the controversial poet. Both of them still clearly remember the day when Gunjan entered his library, reached out to the reception and asked Daadu bluntly, “I want papers, books, articles or whatever available reading material is there on ‘Ik Man’.”
Daadu, an aged, experienced man, with heavy, drooping eyes, quietly stared at the restless young man standing in front of him for 2 minutes. Stroking his heavy beard gently, Daadu said, “We don’t have anything on that here.” But Gunjan was irresistible. He showed the stubborn librarian his college id card, which was proof that the young man was actually an MA scholar, and did not have any political connections. Daadu was still not entirely convinced. He carefully examined Gunjan through his experienced eyes. This boy was slightly unusual. Already in his mid-20s, he wore baggy pants, a short plain kurta and had long, wavy, untied hair. The spectacles could not hide his dark circles, making him look as if he has not slept in days. But Gunjan’s external appearance was overshadowed by his energetic eyes. It seemed as if all he cared about was the articles on ‘Ik Man’. Convincing himself, Daadu said, “Follow me.”
Daadu climbed the stairs and pulled down a heap of newspapers and magazines. Before Daadu could even get down, Gunjan was already crazily scrolling through the entire collection. The old man was fascinated by Gunjan’s excitement on a matter that seemed more or less extinct. In the current state of governance, the youth were too focused on getting a job and making a living and too scared to revolt against any sort of wrong doings. Gunjan came as a breath of fresh air, and Daadu was so impressed and emotionally motivated at this sight, that all of a sudden, he started reciting a poem, one of the many written by ‘Ik Man’. “You have the entire library to yourself, Gunjan,” said Daadu, heavily impressed and seeing a glimpse of hope, “I will help you in whatever way you can. This dissertation is important.”
Gunjan’s happiness knew no bounds. And surprisingly, more than acquiring all of Ik Man’s work for his dissertation, he was happy about finding a person like Daadu. Regular meetings with the experienced man led to more discussions on the topic of Ik Man and other political topics. Gunjan was elated to find a man who resonated his thoughts. Gunjan was highly motivated by Ik Man’s poems, and his ideologies, and was glad to receive support from Daadu. Moreover, Gunjan had lost his father at an early age, and gradually, in Daadu’s thick warm overcoat, Gunjan started finding a lot of warmth, and before he knew it, Daadu became his father figure and his library became a 2nd home.
So Gunjan, egged on by Daadu continues researching this poet's works but secretly, they both discuss his work together and talk about other general things too. Daadu started letting Gunjan stay post the closing hours of the library, and Gunjan researched while Daadu played his violin, and sang some beautiful notes.
Interestingly, Daadu has a companion- a young girl whom he calls Pyaari. Pyaari has a remarkable appearance, she wears only men's clothes two sizes too big for her. Apart from her face and hands (wrist to fingertips), no other part of her body is visible at any point of time. She never speaks, has an alarmed look on her face throughout, never seems to blink when in the presence of another person, wears woollen ear caps at all times and whenever she's walking, she keeps looking over her shoulder abruptly.
Once while Gunjan was reading, Pyaari gestured to Daadu that she wanted to go to the loo. Daadu first went and checked if the washroom is empty, and then signalling to her that she can use it now, he stands guard until she is done. Gunjan is utterly confused by this peculiar relationship between Daadu and Pyaari. All he knows is that Pyaari is not Daadu’s daughter, and that Daadu loves her more than anything else in this world. But Daadu maintains a weird silence on Pyaari. Gunjan has started knowing the old man to the extent that he can even foresee the latter’s reaction to a particular incident. But he doesn’t know anything about Daadu’s personal life, or his relation with Pyaari. Anyway, Gunjan decides to remain quiet on this matter and does not inquire much.
One day, Daadu was cleaning one cupboard in which was kept a stack of very old newspapers. Daadu had taken out those papers and kept them on the table and was dusting the cupboard. Gunjan comes and starts talking to him and casually flicks through those newspapers and a headline catches his attention-
“Tragic end of Professor’s Minority Justice dreams!!”
Gunjan is piqued, he reads the article, then goes through another newspaper of a few dates later, another headline-
“Literature Professor heckled by ______ party!”
He asks Daadu about this story. Daadu is a little startled. He recalls the Professor, named Dr. Iqbal Manjhi, as a revolutionary. But, a solitary revolutionary. “Only if the society was strong enough to stand with him, we would not be seeing this day,” said Daadu and got lost in his thoughts. Bringing him back to reality was Gunjan’s voice asking if he could keep the papers for a while. Daadu agreed.
Gunjan reads the whole coverage of the story till the point it's reported that the professor has gone missing. There were no reports of his death, and his body was never found. It was assumed that Dr. Manjhi has left the society for the good and will never return. Gunjan tries to find out more about him but can find no records whatsoever.
However, after extensively researching for 2 days, he notices something fishy. Ik Man’s first poem had come out exactly one year after the prof had gone missing. It leads Gunjan to wonder if they can be the same person! He talks to Daadu about it who also finds the link plausible but there's no conclusive evidence.
After a few more days on no substantial progress, Gunjan is disheartened. Meanwhile this poet's poem comes out in which he declares that this shall be his last poem. At a time when Gunjan had not been able to find anything on either Manjhi or Ik Man, this came as a huge blow. Daadu was also vexed at this decision. Noticing something, Gunjan laughs and says, “It is quite ironical that they printed his signature wrongly in his very last work.” Daadu takes the newspaper from Gunjan’s hand and notices that the name was printed as ‘Ik Maan’ instead of the regular ‘Ik Man’.
Gunjan's dissertation is almost at an end. He's at his home lazing around, his mom is teaching their maid's little daughter to write Hindi. Gunjan hears his mom shouting, “Arrey tera dhyaan kahan hai...har jagah Naam ko Maan likha hua hai, yahan bhi Naam ko Maan.” Gunjan isn't even paying attention but unconsciously hears this line. A moment later he's struck by an idea like a thunderbolt. He fishes in his cupboard for those old newspapers, opens the article about the professor and reads his name out loud. Then with a cry of excitement he takes the paper and runs to the library to meet Daadu.
Gunjan goes in running and directly blurts out in front of Daadu, “They're the same person!!!” Daadu's reaction shows almost childlike excitement at hearing this. He asks Gunjan how has he made this conclusion. Gunjan points out that the misprint in the last poem wasn't a misprint at all but a clever hint. “It seems after all these years in hiding, the poet finally wants himself to be discovered”, says Gunjan. “‘Ik Maan’ is just short for ‘Iqbal Maanjhi’.” Before Daadu can even react to this they hear a loud and excruciating scream, something that feels almost impossible humanly.
Daadu's face turns ashen and he practically runs towards the source of that scream. Just outside the library, a bunch of college boys were goofing around and throwing water at each other. Pyaari was passing from that place and one of them sprinkled water all over her by mistake. Hence, she'd screamed. Daadu came out and immediately understood what had happened. Pyaari ran to him and clung to him tightly. Daadu took her inside and motioned to Gunjan to leave. Gunjan was confounded, he'd never enquired about Pyaari although he'd always found her weird as he knew how protective Daadu was for her. But today was a special moment for him, he had finally taken a huge step forward in his research, and Daadu did not want to talk about it. Agitated, Gunjan went home.
However, Gunjan could not stop himself anymore. He called Daadu at night and asked him if they could meet. Daadu quietly answered, “Come to the library, and get me some whiskey.”
The quietness of the library was only adding to Gunjan’s curiosity to know about Pyaari. A few pegs down, Gunjan could not stop himself and he said, “Daadu, you have to tell me about Pyaari. Who is she? What is she to you? Why is she so important?” Daadu got up, went to the window with his glass in his hand, and started talking. “Pyaari belonged to a lower caste family, her parents were wage labourers working as masons at an upper caste’s house. She'd accompany them to work. Once she felt the urge to relieve herself desperately, and seeing that no-one was around, she used the owner's bathroom. When she came out, the owner was standing right at the door. Seeing her coming out of the loo, he couldn't believe his eyes. A lower caste had used his loo, he couldn't have imagined a worse calamity to fall on him. Enraged beyond all control, he decided to teach the scum a lesson. He grabbed Pyaari by her hair, made her stand beside him as he pissed all over the bathroom floor and having finished, pushed Pyaari down and made her grovel in his urine, keeping her down using his feet until she gave up the fight and just lay there. Her psyche drowning in his piss while her clothes soaked it to dryness and with it was parched her vitality. After some time, Pyaari got up and ran, she ran till her bones could hold her up, till she could hear her spinal cord crack against her skull, and till she could maintain her consciousness. Next thing she knew she was in a congested old room with a man looking at her. I had found her on the roadside reeking of urine and death. I knew the family she used to work for as she often came to the library to return the books. I could not stop myself from giving her shelter. And since then, I have concealed her from the outer world. We gave each other a new life. It took two months for her to narrate the horrid incident to me, and since then she rarely opens her mouth.”
“So, when the boys sprayed water on her, all those memories came rushing back with devastating vehemence to torture her,” said Daadu and dropped down on the chair. Gunjan was left aghast after listening to this tale. In his mind was blowing that ineffable wind that makes one feel destructively hollow and powerless. He couldn't utter a word. In Daadu's eyes, he saw such pain for which the whole world seemed to be responsible including himself. Daadu couldn't hold back now, he opened the deepest recesses of his heart to Gunjan. Daadu uttered an unstoppable speech of significance regarding how the lower castes had eternally been denied any experience which could be called human and how the disease casteism had, like fungus, turned our entire society, our very sensibility, rancid beyond repair...
Gunjan was too grieved to be able to say anything to Daadu just then. His head was reeling, he couldn't understand what he must say to Daadu, so he picked Daadu, dropped him home where Pyaari received him, and returned to his house.
What they didn't realise was that they were in the library and besides these two there was the security guard of the library who had come in to drink water, and somehow overheard this conversation. This man was wearing the attire and the mindset of the ruling party.
Two days later, after Pyaari had come out of her delirium, Gunjan brought his completed dissertation, which for the first time was about to contend that the sacked Professor and the feared poet were one man, for Daadu to proof read before he would submit it at the university. All his excitement about this potentially explosive project of his had evaporated. Daadu, being unable to witness his hurt demeanour, tried to cheer him up, but Gunjan didn't stay long. Daadu almost immediately started going through the dissertation. By the time he was finished, it was very late into the night. Having finished it, Daadu sat very seriously, contemplating for a long time and then took out a paper and pen and started writing a letter. The letter wasn't long but it took him longer than anything else he had ever written. He kept the letter between the pages of the dissertation and on the visible side of it wrote 'For Gunjan'. He couldn't wait for Gunjan to read it. That night, Daadu barely slept for a few hours but somehow that sleep was more peaceful than any he'd experienced in a long, long time.
Next day as Daadu was sipping his tea in the wee hours of the morning, there was a knock at the door. Daadu went to answer it, opened the door and saw two young men standing there with animalistic rage in their eyes. He recognised one of them as the one whom Pyaari worked for. He couldn't remember the name just then, Mukesh was it? Or Mukund? It mattered not, he was the first one to stab Daadu deep in his belly, then turn by turn the two tore into Daadu's body. Eleven times, fourteen, fifteen...when they stopped it was only metal rupturing a fleshy mass. Pyaari was hiding all this while. As they left, she ran to Daadu’s body, too confused what to do or whom to call. Scared, she could only think of Gunjan. She sprang to Daadu’s phone and dialled Gunjan’s number.
Gunjan, back in his house, was in a grave mood. Last few days had been so heavy that he just went and dropped down to his mother’s lap and dozed off. He was only sleeping when his phone rang. His mother turned the phone over so that her son could get some sleep.
Pyaari kept calling. She had knelt beside Daadu's deserted bed beckoning him back noiselessly with the deafening beats of her heart, as dawn broke and the moths began to gather. She got up, collected all her frugal belongings and Daadu's and packed them neatly in one bag and calmed herself. Gunjan hadn't picked up yet. She did not know what to do. She had noticed the dissertation with the letter for Gunjan, but let it lie there.
Gunjan’s sleep was broken with sunrise and he turned his phone to see more than 20 missed calls from Daadu. Surprised, he immediately called back. But he was shocked to hear Pyaari’s crying voice from the other side. He could not understand what she was saying, but the next moment, he was racing his bike on the road. His heart had turned to stone so heavy that his legs were steadily succumbing before the fiery burden. His mind was getting full of the worst thoughts. He finally reached his destination to find Pyaari waiting for him just there, with a look as calm as the silent sea. There was no trace of the ever-present fright on her face, her eyes looked heavy but with a glint of expectation-nearing-fulfilment. “Tumhare liye,” she said as she gave him the dissertation and the letter. She turned around and with steps steadier than life went to her haven, never once looking back.
Gunjan's senses had left his employment, he was stunned to the point of numbness. His beloved, his most revered Daadu lay there. Still, lifeless, bloodied, in front of him. After gaping in stupefaction, sweat in bucketloads drenching his shirt, after Pyaari or what had seemed to him more properly an apparition, finally the fluttering parchment in his hand distracted him and frantically opening the letter he read it. The second time he read it, his knees gave way against his tumor-heart which at that extended, eternity-defying moment experienced the affliction of a lifetime.
Pyaari, without knowing why, had gone straight to the terrace as if in a trance. There, looking over the parapet she saw him standing in the garden smiling his best smile and calling to her with wide open arms, she knew her Daadu would never abandon her. “Come on, my child, I've waited all night for you,” she heard Daadu say, his voice ripe with pure, pure love. Pyaari removed her ear caps with no iota of hesitation, and with a laugh-the most tender that had fallen on the universe's ears, she plunged straight into Daadu's kind arms. While a panicky crowd gathered around what was merely an amalgam of bone and muscle, Pyaari hopped and skipped merrily around her beloved Daadu, the very picture of Freedom.
“My dear Gunjan,
We've been friends for so long yet it seems it was only yesterday that you entered my library with that sparkling precocious face of yours, hell bent at getting your hands at every book that these rickety shelves contained. For some time now I've known that our friendship is one to last a lifetime. You've shared all your life stories and secrets with me. Now it's my turn. I genuinely don't know how best to put it. Let's just say that your dissertation is incomplete. I'll complete it for you. The poet who recently signed off from the world of print and who is nobody else but the hiding Dr. Iqbal Manjhi is now a very old man who lives in the old city of Chennai with a beautiful little princess, looking after an old dusty library and is best friends with a brilliant young boy whose name starts with G.
I know you're mad at me for keeping you in the dark for so, so long. Perhaps when you reach my age you'll realise that some things are best revealed at their own sweet time. You will forgive this tired old man, won't you? Come meet me tomorrow. I'll be waiting eagerly.
“Andhkaar Chaahe Laakh Ghana, Ya Samandar paar ho,
Vijay humesha wahi hua jiska, Satya Aadhar ho.”
There is no cannon,
No green gas to putrefy your lung
Save from this multi-fanged dung-
Of thread-wearing men,
With aarti-performing women
Chanting manu-scriptal homilies
Continually through centuries.
Under this rank heap
Dismembered we dwell
Knee-deep, eye-deep, soul-deep
Nothing so caustic today
As now this bloodied swell.
They have won.
Written by –
(Co-written by –
Kshitij Kumar Pandey)
Kshitij Kumar Pandey
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