Sub-Collector, Pollachi — Part II


In front of him in the office is a large, eight-foot tall, framed map of the Pollachi subdivision. On the wall to his left there is a laminated picture of the present chief minister for the state of Tamil Nadu. Compared to the unwieldy map, this picture seems much smaller and easier to contend with — perhaps intentionally kept that way to keep up with the frequent changes of regime. There is no air conditioning in his office. A swivel fan oscillates back and forth, making the calendar scratch a shiny, metallic arc along its trajectory on the wall. There is a sense that nothing has changed in this office over the years. An English sub-collector might have worked under very similar conditions some sixty years ago. There is no money in the state government’s budget for a computer for the sub-collector. He is provided with a bulky, black telephone, but he doesn’t answer the phone when it rings. All the calls are automatically transferred to Sundarajan after the first ring and are directed back to him only if the personal secretary feels it is important for the sub-collector to take the call.

– Sir, Ganesan, Pollachi tahsildar, is online. There has been a suicide. He wants to talk to you.
– OK put him through.
He picks up the receiver just as the phone starts to ring.
– Hello, Namaskaram Ganesan.
– Good morning, sir. A teenage girl here has committed suicide.
– Is any harassment involved? What is the matter? he says in a tone that betrays uneasiness.
– I don’t know the exact details, sir. But I believe it is not a dowry death. I will be going to the scene immediately.
– Have the police been informed? I have not received the F.I.R yet.
– Yes, sir. They want to take the body for post mortem as soon as possible. A police constable is on his way to your house with the F.I.R.
– OK, I will be there, he says and hangs up the phone. He presses the bell under his desk, signaling Sundarajan to come to his room.
– Yes, sir?
– Can you ask Appu to get the jeep? I need to leave immediately to attend to this suicide case.

It seems as though both the driver and the sub-collector are familiar with this routine because they chitchat about trivial things during the ride. The death is in Sethumadai, a tribal village where the standard of living is much lower compared to the rest of the district. It is a long drive through some narrow, poorly maintained stretches and the bumpiness gets worse as the jeep approaches the thatched hut where the girl’s body is lying on a cot, out in the open. Squatting around the cot are the close relatives of the girl who are wailing loudly, as they sway from side to side. The police jeep, Ganesan’s vehicle and an ambulance are parked across the hut, on the other side of the road. A few constables and officials from the tahsildar’s office, who are standing lazily and sipping cups of tea, assume serious posture as they see the sub-collector’s jeep approaching.

– What happened? What have you found out? The sub-collector asks Ganesan, as he gets out of the jeep.
– Sir, apparently the girl was having severe stomachache. She could not bear the pain and has consumed poison.
– Had she been to a doctor? Is there some evidence that she was getting some treatment?
– Sir, in the tribal area they prefer to go to the medicine man. The police inspector has talked to this man and confirmed it.

The police inspector approaches the sub-collector as he is discussing the incident with Ganesan.

– Good morning, sir. I am Senthil Kumar, the police inspector for Sethumadai.
– Good morning. Ganesan tells me the girl was having stomachache.
– Yes, sir. She had been complaining about the pain. It seems like a case of appendicitis.
– Are there any medical records?
– No, sir. She never went to the hospital. The tribal medicine man was treating her.
– Can we get him here? I would like to talk to him, he says turning to Ganesan.

As the sub-collector approached the hut, an unshaven, bare-chested man comes forward to greet him.

– Are you the girl’s father? he asks the man.
– Yes, aiyah.
– Can you tell me what happened to your daughter?
– Aiyah, she has been complaining about stomachache for nearly a week. In the last two days it got worse and she could not take it any more, he tells the sub-collector as his voice starts to falter and a small pool of tears moisten his eyes.
– Did you take her to the hospital when she was complaining about the pain? he asks the father.
– No aiyah.
– Why not?
– Sadayan, our local doctor, was treating her. She got all her potions and herbs from him. It got better for a while but later the pain became unbearable for her.
– Do you see what that has done to your daughter? This is the third time I am coming here and I hear the same story every time. The government has built hospitals and equipped them with qualified doctors just so it can help people like you. Why do you keep going to people who are treating with potions and herbs? The girl’s father seems confused by the anger in sub-collector’s tone. He hesitates a while before replying.
– Aiyah, we have always sought treatment from him. He has been giving us medical help for a long time.
– Then why did your daughter take poison instead of the medicines? the sub-collector queries back, barely concealing his anger. The man becomes silent. A short while later Ganesan returns with an old man who is dressed in a lungi and has a towel hanging around his neck.
– Sir, here is the tribal doctor who treated the girl.
– What is your name, the sub-collector asks the man.
– Sadayan, aiyah.
– Were you treating the girl who is lying here? The inspector translates sub-collector’s questions in the local dialect so that the man can understand.
– Yes aiyah. I was giving her the medicines to cure for the stomachache.
– What did you give her? – I gave her a powder made from a local herb to be had with honey.
– Do you have any certificate authorizing you to practice medicine? Sadayan stares blankly at the inspector for some time before answering the question.
– No aiyah.
– Do you know that it is illegal to practice medicine without proper qualification? You can be put in jail for that. Sadayan is silent, intimidated by what the sub-collector tells him.

At this point, he steps away from the hut and signals to both Ganesan and Senthil Kumar to follow him. As they huddle together, the sub-collector tells the inspector that this seems like a suicide, and that there is nothing to suggest that the girl had been ill-treated. Nevertheless, he wants him to take Sadayan to the station and scare him enough so that he would refer any future patients to a proper doctor, and not try to treat them himself. Senthil Kumar agrees to the proposal. He gets him to sign the papers authorizing a post-mortem of the body. Both the inspector and the tahsildar stand in attention, as the sub-collector’s jeep is the first to leave the scene. The girl’s body is loaded in the ambulance; the inspector asks Sadayan to get into his jeep, and soon all the official vehicles are gone. The girl’s father stares vacantly in the direction of departed vehicles even as the relatives weep loudly, beating their chests and swaying from side to side

– It is hard to believe that we are having people commit suicide because of stomachache, he tell Appu as they pull out of Sethumadai.
– This very common in the tribal areas, aiyah.
– But we are in the twenty-first century and this should not be happening in this day and age. I don’t understand why people are not able to let go of their old systems, even when it kills! If the damn medicine man is not able to cure you then you go to a proper doctor, not commit suicide.

When the sub-collector returns to his bungalow, he does not enter through the main entrance. He instructs Thangaraj to open the back door so that he can get to bathroom without walking through all the rooms in the house. The sub-collector is a Brahmin, and he believes that visiting a scene of death makes him impure, and walking through the house will contaminate all the rooms. He has to cleanse himself before he can get back to his normal activities. Thangaraj places a bucket outside the bathroom and takes it away as soon as the sub-collector disrobes and deposits his clothes in it. The clothes are sent away to a dhobi and he will wear them again only after it has been laundered. He offers a prayer in the puja room after his bath and sits down to have his lunch.

Thangaraj has laid the table for the sub-collector and the visitor. It is an elaborate meal: sambar with green peppers, avial, plantain curry, roasted potatoes, appalam, tomato rasam, carrot payasam, cabbage vadai, cucumber pachadi and plain white rice. It seems as though the sub-collector has given him some specific instructions on the serving etiquette for he fills the plates with rice and sambar and then leaves the room, closing the door behind him, so as to give his aiyah the privacy that he will need. With an impeccable sense of timing, he drops in between courses, filling the plate with additional servings of rice and leaving the room with empty dishes, without ever distracting the sub-collector or the visitor from the conversations that they are having.

Despite Thangaraj’s best efforts to make the lunch enjoyable, the sounds of soft conversation and gentle metallic clinks are interrupted by a loud thud and a shattering noise from a tile that falls from the ceiling. The sub-collector lets out a loud shriek that makes Thangaraj abandon his carefully cultivated manners and come barging into the dining room.
– What happened, aiyah? he asks.
– A tile fell from the ceiling! It fell barely two feet from where I was sitting. If it had fallen on me, it could have killed me, the sub-collector tells him in an agitated tone.
– You continue with your lunch, aiyah. I will clean this up later, he says. He then collects all the debris in a corner and leaves the room.

But the sub-collector is shaken up and not able to concentrate on the lunch or the conversation. He excuses himself, washes his hands, and calls the assistant engineer at the Public Works department to come to the bungalow immediately. Within half an hour a middle-aged man arrives in a Hero Honda motorcycle. He is smartly dressed in corduroy pants, full sleeve, checked shirt and burgundy colored leather shoes. He parks the motorcycle, removes his sunglasses and puts them in his front pocket before walking up to the sub-collector.

– Good afternoon, sir.
– Namaskaram, Mr. Jayachandran. A tile fell from the ceiling just some time back, when I was having lunch. It nearly killed me.
– Let me take a look, sir.

Both of them walk into the dining room and the engineer looks up at the area from which the tile had fallen. He then picks up a piece of the broken tile from the debris and inspects it.

– Sir, it looks like the wooden beams that are supporting the tiles are starting to rot. If you look at the paint on the beams, it has completely peeled off. I think there is water seeping through from the roof.
– So what can we do to fix it?
– There are two options, sir. We can relay the roof completely or we can put a false ceiling to catch these tiles when the fall.
– OK, can you send me a report on the options detailing the cost and time for each of them and I will discuss with the collector for funding.
– I will do that and have it to you in the next two days, sir.
As they are discussing the options and the cost for repair, Appu pulls up in the jeep to drive the sub-collector back to his office. The engineer stays back and continues to examine the debris.

– See, the tiles themselves are intact. It is the beam that is starting to rot, he says, showing the broken pieces to the visitor.
– It is a serious safety issue. If the whole beam gives way then the entire ceiling could come down.
– I had given a report after surveying the house some two years ago, sir. But nobody seems to care. By the way, I am Jayachandran, the assistant engineer for Pollachi sub-division, he says, extending his hand.

The visitor introduces himself as the sub-collector’s brother.

– The sub-collector told me that you live in the States.
– Yes, in the state of Michigan.
– My sister lives in Cleveland, in the state of Ohio. She got married and went there fifteen years back.
– Is it?
– Actually, I, too, had the opportunity to go to the States. I got an admission to University of Texas at Austin. But I did not go because I wanted to take care of my parents. But now I regret that decision. I should have finished my higher studies and come back. I would have had a much better job.
– Why do you say that?
– Well, take this bungalow, sir. I make all the recommendations, and there is no money to do anything. Look at those tennis courts, sir. Some seven years back I planned and laid the entire thing, but because of disuse it is completely destroyed. Look at those shrubs and weeds growing in there. How can I be proud of my work? When there is no money to build anything new and no money to maintain things in good repair, there is no incentive to do anything.
– Why is there no money?
– Corruption, sir. Now, I am not saying anything about our sir. He is a straightforward man. But the money gets eaten up at the higher levels. By the time the ministers take their cut and give money to the collector, there is nothing left. Do you think the sub-collector will be able to get any money for this problem? It is highly unlikely. Now, he has asked me for a report. I will do my part, but nothing will come out of it.

The engineer suddenly realizes that he has said too much and makes an abrupt move to leave.

– Sir, please keep this conversation to yourself. I don’t want the sub-collector to know about this, he tells his brother.
– You don’t have to worry about that.
– It was nice talking to you, sir.
– Same here.

The sub-collector is in a happy mood that evening when he returns to his bungalow. He has attended the felicitation function of a student who has cleared the civil services exam. Mohandas Gandhi, an agricultural engineering student from Udumalpet, had secured the fifty-third rank at the national level. His father worked as a surveyor for the revenue department. After dinner, when the sub-collector is chatting with his brother, he is all praise for the young lad.

– Mohandas Gandhi! What a fitting name for a person who has chosen to work for the administrative services, he tells his brother.
– It is indeed a great achievement.
– To achieve that high a rank one requires a single-minded determination. You know, these days people only talk about how much money one makes at work. Everyone wants to be an engineer, go abroad and earn in dollars. Or be in the IT industry and earn in lakhs. But one has to have a completely different perspective to think about public service. Think about all the poor people who came to my office asking for help this morning. These people are struggling for their daily livelihood. It is my job to take care of them. The rich can bribe the officials and get their work done. The poor come to me. I have to be there for them. In fact, I advised this young lad the same thing. Make a difference in the lives of the poor.
– How did he respond to that?
– Well, he has been a poor person all his life. He knows what is expected of him. You know, when your goal is to be rich, you want to make enough money so you can retire early. But for a person who has chosen public service, there is no retirement. Public service is a never-ending job. Today, hundreds of students approached me asking for advice. They wanted to know what it took to become an IAS officer. Can you imagine that? They have a burning desire in them to get to this thankless post!
– What was your advice?
– I told them that they have to work very hard and be passionate about public service. If they are after money, then this is the wrong thing to aspire for. There is no money in this job, only room for people who are willing to help others. And there should be a great sense of urgency in them. There is no room for doubt, pessimism or cynicism.

It is nearly ten at night when Thangaraj approaches the sub-collector in the verandah.

– Is there anything else you need, aiyah?
– Nothing for now. But my brother and I will be leaving for Munnar tomorrow, so the breakfast needs to be ready by seven.
– I will have the breakfast by seven, aiyah.
– I will see you early in the morning then.
– Good night, aiyah.
– Good night.

Just as Thangaraj starts to leave for his quarters, the sub-collector asks him to wait and disappears into the house. When he returns he has a large square box in his hands.

– They gave me a cake at the function today. My brother and I had a piece each. Can you give this to your son. I know he really likes cakes.
– Thanks a lot, aiyah.

The sub-collector then turns toward his brother and tells him that it is time to retire to bed as they have an early start the next day. Both of them go inside, close the door and switch off the lights and go to sleep. Soon there is pitch darkness in the bungalow, and all one can hear is the sharp, chirping sound of crickets.

January 2006

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