The Keeper of Desolation

Sayari Debnath

The Keeper of Desolation

The lady walking towards me is so beautiful that she’s well worth remembering. The man with her must be as old as me.

There are so many beautiful trees in bloom lining the street that I have lost count of all their names. The lady coming towards me stops at one of the trees and wants flowers. Her male companion is telling her, Pick up the flowers that have fallen. She wants freshly plucked flowers. Not stale and wilted ones. The man overwhelms her with his reasoning until she acquiesces and picks up the flowers strewn below the trees.

I begin to laugh, so loudly that I have to turn my face away. Let me laugh first. You tell me, if I had a girlfriend— though I have a seven-year-old daughter—and she made a similar demand, would I not pluck flowers for her from the tallest branch of the tallest tree? Not just one but two? And why stop at two—the flowers here are so beautiful that, if I had a girlfriend, she would most certainly want hundreds of them. But so what? I would bring her all of them.

Is there anything I cannot do? Plucking fruits—or perhaps it was plucking flowers that I was talking of—still looks like an easy task to accomplish. Just yesterday, Chandu told me that, in Lucknow, all kinds of work were being easily allocated to those who wanted them. Work of a slightly more difficult kind.

The truth is that it was very important for the Shatabdi Express to reach Delhi from Lucknow yesterday. The overlord of the state was travelling on it with his mistress. The overlord was more or less old, and his mistress was more or less young. A pustule had sprouted on her right nostril, and they were going to Delhi to get it treated.

The Keeper of Desolation Chandan Pandey

Chandan Pandey

But what happened was, before the train could leave the platform, the headlight of the Shatabdi Express burst. At once the lady declared it a conspiracy, declared she would travel by the same train pulled by the same engine and no other, and proceeded to pout.

The broken headlight of the train and the stubbornness of the beloved prompted the government to start recruitment in a rush. There was no age limit. You only had to be capable of running. The job merely involved running in front of the train with a gas lantern on top of one’s head. Each runner would be paid ten thousand rupees per minute. Ten thousand rupees per minute!

Thousands of aspirants gathered. Witnessing everything from her compartment, the overlord’s mistress started jumping with excitement despite her painful pustule. How wonderful it will be to see so many young men running, she said, glanced at the overlord with loathing and turned her face away.

If I’d been in Lucknow and run for even two minutes, then I could get twenty thousand rupees. My goodness! Twenty thousand rupees! Enough to live on for five or six years. And even if I would have had to pay for it with an arm or a leg, I could still have kept running for half a minute more. Which meant another five thousand rupees. Oh my God! What am I thinking? Twenty-five thousand! And at one go! What are you staring at, why don’t you stop me from thinking so much? Yank my thoughts back, my brother, my friend. Run after them and catch them. I will be grateful to you. Forever and ever.

So now you know the things I’m capable of. I can pluck flowers for my lover even though I have a wife and a seven- year-old daughter. I can also run ahead of a train—just give me a chance.

If I were to get a policeman’s job, I could easily quell riots and crime—however, I am frightened to say this given the state of the police officers. For the betterment of society, I will only say, just make me a social welfare officer and see what happens.

In fact, I say, why allow riots or crimes to happen at all? To prevent riots and crimes completely in certain areas, appoint me a professor at a big university—I will teach honesty, dutifulness, et cetera, so well that no one will even remember words like ‘riot’ and ‘crime’. All I need is one chance.

Excerpted with permissson from HarperCollins India.

Date 10.05.2024