Death of a Clerk by Tulsi Charan Bisht

Manohar Pandit died on a mild autumn afternoon, on the eighteenth of November at three pm. His body, covered by a white cloth, was laid out on the small verandah of his apartment in a Central Government employees’ residential colony in South Delhi. His wife wept sitting close to his body. His two daughters sitting by her side, also wept, though intermittently. Chunnu, the only son, who was just seven years old, cried for some time then disappeared to the back lane where his friends were playing marbles. The neighbours and acquaintances that had gathered were sad and sombre.


‘This is not the way to die. He still had fourteen years to retire from government service,’ someone in the crowd remarked.


‘Yes, two daughters to marry and a son to raise. So many responsibilities … now all have fallen on Indu Bhabhi,’ another intervened.


‘God give her courage and strength.’


Manohar’s wife was in her mid-forties and just about five feet in height. Years of physical inactivity had added considerably to her weight. The three parts of her body seemed connected to one another at the waist and the neck like train compartments, giving her walk the rhythmic movements that earned her the nickname, Matku. She loved to put rouge on her cheeks and wear bright red lipstick. On her shopping sprees to various bazaars one of her favourite activities was to renew the supply of these items. On her last foray, despite Manohar’s warning that he was going to die soon and as a widow she would not be able to use them, she had laughed and brought home a robust supply. Thinking of them, now sitting unused in her steel almirah added to the grief that shook her body.


Manohar knew he was going to die. ‘I will die by mid-November. I am still working to predict the exact date and time,’ he would tell people who asked him about his wellbeing. People laughed, taking it for another of his whims and as he started preparing for his death, a few said that he was turning senile and suggested he sought treatment.


Manohar was an upper division clerk or more respectfully a Bare Babu, in the Postal Department of the Government of India. For twenty-two years, since he joined the department, he had been running to and fro between his residence and office, dealing with household affairs and official files with equal dexterity and dedication. But the grind of daily life did not dampen his creative zeal.

He was going to make a book, the best book ever, from the mesmerising world of letters in the post office. When bag after jute bag marked ‘Postal Department’ were emptied in heaps, Manohar was transported. These heaps of letters were little volcanoes, sparking with anger, love, hate, desire, sex, intrigue and sorrow. And what variety – written by so many different minds, in so many different situations, in so many different moods. If he could select just a handful, enough to put in his book, it would have every conceivable thing a reader might look for. And he would become the best-known author.


At times, when the staff dealing with letters went for long tea or lunch breaks, Manohar approached the letters, touched them, thought about possessing them, was even tempted to take away a handful. But, somewhere deep inside, a flicker of conscience would stop him and he would return to his seat, to the files that held so little interest for him. If only he were a postman, he thought, he might be able to undertake his project, as he would have access to all the letters that remained unclaimed.


His zeal had him looking for other ways to collect the letters. In the big hall that he shared with department employees, a number of posters hung on the discoloured walls. These posters were one of the ways government departments tried to present themselves ethically and aesthetically. One such poster said ‘Charity Begins at Home’. It caught Manohar’s eye and gave him a lead.


He waited for the weekend and on a fine Saturday morning, while Matku was putting on rouge and lipstick, his two daughters were oiling their hair, and Chunnu, his nose running furiously, was watching grown-up boys fly kites, he declared that he was going to clean the two-room tenement. Matku looked at him apprehensively but apparently thought that even though the idea was driven by his fancy it was a good one, and continued with her maquillage. Manohar took this for tacit approval and started cleaning the house. By Sunday evening, though he was left exhausted and the house looked much neater, the book project had hardly moved ahead.


He could salvage only four letters and a couple of wedding invitation cards – some of them folded into paper aeroplane shape by Chunnu. Of the four letters, two were written by Matku. During more than two decades of their matrimonial togetherness, Matku had been away only twice – both times to her parent’s village, just a couple of hours journey from Delhi. Written in her thick hand, both the letters read exactly the same – four lines reporting her arrival at her parent’s house and the date on which she would return. The other two letters were also written by a single person – a distant relative of Manohar – in both cases explaining the difficulties of finding employment and asking for Manohar’s help. He looked despairingly at that hard-earned booty and reproached himself for the lack of variety and emotion in his life.    


Yet he was determined to realise his book project. The logical extension of ‘Charity begins at Home’ he thought would be ‘It spreads to the Neighbourhood’. And Manohar started scheming about how to extend his reach to the houses around and make away with their old letters. It was an area of rich cultural mix. But he did not interact much with his neighbours, and even if he could visit some of the houses, it was almost impossible to get hold of their old letters. The only possible way he could imagine doing so was to use Chunnu’s friends, so he lured them with lollipops to get the job done.


However, after just a few days, the mothers of the two boys from whom he had got his first supplies were waiting on their respective balconies. As they saw him entering his house, they started attacking him with ‘chitthi chor’. Manohar, pale and shaking, went straight inside and lay down on his wooden cot. Matku was preparing tea on a noisy kerosene stove and did not hear the initial outburst. But when she came with the teacup and found her husband lying on his cot and heard her household being accused, she threw a long, searching glance at him and went straight to the verandah. Arms akimbo, she matched the shouting neighbours word for word, gesture for gesture. Following ancient rules of warfare, as night fell and the warring parties’ voices turned hoarse, the battle ended for the day. Triumphant, Matku returned to her husband who was still lying on the cot and asked for an explanation. However, she failed to understand and warned her husband that if he continued with his antics she would have to call a witch doctor. Then she asked for the letters that he had collected and giving them to Chunnu ordered him to ‘throw the letters on the neighbours’ faces’.


The incident gave a pause to Manohar’s creative activities. Though he still dreamt about his grandiose projects, he stopped sharing them with others, much less practicing them. Now, his ideas would have to be his secret treasures till the moment was right to make them public.


Raised in the lanes of Old Delhi, he was the fifth of seven siblings. His father was a halwaai, running a small sweetmeat shop in one of the narrow lanes. From his early childhood, Manohar was booed as a dhillu, someone with slow reflexes. Out on escapades to steal guavas or lychees from nearby gardens, he would be the one caught by gardeners. While others would jump over the wall and disappear in the lanes, he would meekly stand by the wall and get thrashed. Or he would get a beating from the shopkeepers as his pals broke their electric bulbs with pebbles. At home also he would get caught and get smacked by the wooden spoon that his father used for stirring boiling milk to make sweets.


But Manohar knew that the slowness of his reactions was not congenital. His inability to jump over the garden walls or to run fast like his friends was the result of his ill-fitting, handed-down pants that kept falling off. From early childhood he had a roly-poly physique, but he knew he had an agile brain. And his ability to keep passing his school exams was a proof of it. While none of his siblings could go beyond the sixth standard, he made it to the twelfth standard. Though all through his schooling he passed in the third division, he never failed. People complemented Manohar’s father and though his father had no concern about his children’s education, felt proud and on such occasions gave Manohar a handful of sweetmeats.


Manohar had done well in his postal department job too. He had been promoted to the rank of the upper division clerk and it was certain that he would retire as a section officer. He had a good work record and was never reprimanded by his superiors. This confirmed his resolve that he could do outstanding things.


One of the few luxuries in Manohar’s life was his daily visit to Jagdish’s Paan and Cigarette Stall, a small, wooden structure at the entrance of the colony. Every evening after his chai, Manohar would go the stall and purchase two paans and two Charminars. He would stand by the stall and share daily gossip with Jagdish, and take the second paan and cigarette back for an after-dinner indulgence.


Jagdish was a runaway from a village in eastern Utter Pradesh and his stall had a modest business within the locality. Loud film music blared from the stall most of the time. Apart from being the handiest shopkeeper to the residential area, Jagdish was also a hub of local gossip. Dealing with a number of customers, he deftly passed information from one to another, his paan-juice stained lips always smiling. Jagdish’s ability to handle information so naturally was a great attraction for Manohar and he secretly envied him.


It was during one of these daily visits to Jagdish’s stall that Manohar found the grand fantasy that ultimately led to his untimely and self-prophesied demise. It was a July evening and the first rain of monsoon had washed the dusty sky of Delhi. Manohar took a shower on his return from his office and after his chai, he put on his loose cotton pyjama and a half–sleeved bush shirt and went to Jagdish’s stall. The rain had made the air humid and a thin streak of sweat trickled down his neck as he stood by the stall puffing on his cigarette, listening to Jagdish’s new stories. Suddenly he heard a shrill voice shouting ‘Sita Ram’ so close to his ear that he jumped in surprise. Jagdish laughed and indicated a parrot in a cage that was hanging by his stall. One of Jagdish’s friends was going to his village and wanted someone to look after his bird until he returned. Its red beak reminded Manohar of Matku’s lipstick painted lips.


‘How amazing that these birds can copy the human voice.’ he said to Jagdish who nodded his head. Manohar looked back at the parrot, which shrieked twice more.

‘Birds, also, have language of their own’ said Jagdish, who had finished with the customer and had turned back to Manohar.


‘What do you mean?’


‘Yes, they talk amongst themselves.’


‘How do you know this?’


‘Because I know a sadhu who is a master of bird language.’ Jagdish said.


‘What? A master of bird language!’




‘Where, in your village?’


‘No, no, here in Delhi, in Mahrauli.’


Manohar thought for long time that night. Birds fly from one house to another, from one locality to the next and they must know all the gossip, all the stories. If only he could learn bird language he would have access to so much information and his book project could materialise. For the next two days and nights a new scheme simmered in his head until he got the address of the sadhu from Jagdish.


Soon Manohar was on a new mission – learning bird language. He converted a shorthand pad into a notebook in which he wrote down his lessons. During these sessions, he could be seen sitting reverentially and taking notes as the sadhu explained the nuances of bird language between puffs of hashish supplied by Manohar as a token fee. These sessions were followed by practicals and Manohar wandered in search of different species of birds. But birds were rare in his area, which ebbed and flowed with human voices and other commotions. The only bird species that frequented the locality was the crow and there was nothing of interest in its ominous croaking. Nor did the area around his office offer many possibilities. Though leafy trees surrounded the area, pigeons ruled supreme there and these birds spent most of the time copulating openly on the windowsills. Manohar decided that their talk must be too obscene to be followed.


The only alternative was the shrinking green patches of Delhi. So on weekends, after finishing his domestic chores, he wandered into these oases. Matku did not mind his disappearance as long as he did his household duties. She even liked the idea of him following his whims out of the house and out of the neighbourhood. During these visits he would be seen standing under the trees, the notebook and a ballpoint pen in his hands, taking notes. So intently did he look upwards into the branches that by evening his neck would be sore. Matku though weary of her husband’s fancies, was a devout wife and often massaged his aching neck with warm oil.


But as the weeks passed by, Matku began to grow suspicious of her husband’s weekly disappearances and one Saturday in early October, she decided to put an end to it. That day, Manohar ventured away from his South Delhi home to the Ridge near Delhi University. He found so many chirping birds that he felt his long journey was fruitful. He did not even worry about the sneaky couples who found his activities more interesting than their own romantic adventures. And as the evening turned dense and he had filled quite a few pages, he heard a soulful twittering. Manohar's hand stopped writing. He looked up into the trees but could see nothing in the falling darkness. The sickle of the moon had appeared in the sky and a silence had fallen over the Ridge. Manohar, however, had heard the message loud and clear, ‘Manohar Pandit, you are going to die by mid-November.’ And he wrote the message in his notebook.    
When he returned home, Matku was waiting in the veranda, ready to take up the cudgel. But when she saw a pale and tired Manohar, she went straight to the kitchen and prepared a steaming cup of chai. Manohar lay down on his cot, the twitter ringing in his ears. When Matku returned after half an hour and saw him still lying on the cot, the cup of chai untouched, she said firmly, ‘No more of your useless wandering from tomorrow. You will remain at home.’


‘But, I have to go tomorrow. I have to discuss something very important.’ Manohar said, raising himself from the bed.


‘No, you are not going anywhere. No more discussions. Did you see your face? Why is it so pale?’


Manohar rubbed his hand over his face, looked at his wife and haltingly said, ‘I am going to die by mid-November.’


Matku’s eyes twinkled and she burst into laughter. But then she steadied herself and asked, ‘You haven’t taken to smoking bhang? Have you?’


‘No. I am serious.’


‘Well, I am not bothered about your whims, but you are not going out of the house except for work.’


Manohar knew his wife’s resolve was as solid as her dwarfish frame and only after much pleading she agreed to his going out for one day, but she also extracted a promise that he would remain in the house afterwards.


The next day, his meeting with the sadhu was inconclusive. The sadhu sucked on cigarettes filled with hashish as Manohar narrated his experience. For a long time the sadhu remained silent, but finally told Manohar that he might have misinterpreted what he heard. ‘But I heard the message very clear,’ Manohar insisted. The sadhu fell silent again, smoked a few more cigarettes and said that life and death were maya or illusion, that he should not worry, and closed his blood-shot eyes. Manohar sat by the sadhu’s feet, hoping that he would open his eyes, but after a long wait, got up and left for home.


On weekends Manohar remained inside the house. A change had come over him – most of the time he spent with Chunnu sitting on his knees. He would call his daughters and advise them to look after their mother and help her run the household. He started preparing the accounts of his savings, including his Provident Fund, Postal Saving Certificates and other small deposits. He asked his colleagues in the accounts section to calculate how much pension Matku would receive after his death. He still visited the paan shop in the evening but his heart was no longer in earthly gossip. When people asked him how he was, he simply answered, ‘preparing for the final journey’. People laughed. Chunnu, especially, complained as his friends frequently teased him that his father had gone mad. Matku castigated her husband a couple of times but turned quiet thinking that with time this fancy would be overtaken by something else.


Manohar, however, still held a secret desire to predict the exact date and time of his demise, and prove that his ideas were not mere whims, that if he was not caught in the grind of life he would have realised some of his grandiose projects. Now, with death approaching, all he could think of was making an exact prediction about his death. But since he was no longer allowed to wander, even that possibility looked remote. It seemed inevitable to him that he would die in an uneventful way.


As November, approached Manohar became quieter. And as the fifteenth passed, he became restless. Was it to turn into another farce, he wondered, looking at the shorthand pad where he had noted the message. Though no one said a thing, he felt people smiling at him, their eyes questioning him. He stopped going out with his colleagues and ate his lunch at his desk. He had lost his interest in the postal department files and all those years of dedicated service suddenly appeared useless to him.


On eighteenth November, Manohar had finished his lunch and was staring at the shorthand notepad. His section officer suddenly appeared from his cabin and asked for a file that Manohar hadn’t yet finished. After lecturing Manohar how good and punctual he used to be at his work and how he had now become a laughing stock, and advising him to pull himself up, the officer asked him to complete the file by three pm.


Manohar started working on the file, his head submerged in reference books. At least he should not be treated as incompetent, he thought. As he finished the file and closed it to take it to the section officer he noticed a strange light flashing next to his window where on the sill the pigeons often made merry. A tiny bird of all conceivable colours sat there glistening in the afternoon sun. Manohar looked at it, mesmerised. The bird twittered. Yes, that was the voice that had told about him dying in November. He listened intently. The bird twittered again and that was it, ‘November eighteenth, three pm’. Manohar wrote it down in his shorthand pad. When he lifted his head to look back at the window, the bird had flown and was now sitting on a tree outside. Drawn by some power, Manohar came out of the office. The bird was still on the tree and as he stood under it, the bird fluttered its colourful wings and flew, this time across the road. Manohar followed, his eyes fixed on the bird. In a moment, he was in the middle of the crowded road and as the nearby clock of the tower struck three, a heavily laden truck passed over Manohar, plastering his body on the freshly tarred road.


‘Let’s prepare the body for the crematorium before it gets too late,’ someone in the crowd said.


‘We should get some marigold garlands,’ another suggested.


‘Yes, yes, he had such a strong vision – he could predict the exact date and time of his death. We must decorate the body properly, like that of a saint,’ a third voice said.


As the people began the preparations, somewhere in the vicinity a bird twittered softly, and clutching to her heart the shorthand pad that was lying next to Manohar’s body, Matku burst into tears again.


Tulsi Charan Bisht has a PhD in anthropology and works with the Asian Development Bank in Manila, Philippines. He has published in international academic journals and edited books. His short stories have been published in the online literary magazine Muse India. He is working on a novel that deals with the idea of 'slowness'.