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Dhruba Chandra Gautam (b. 1944)

Gautam is known chiefly for the five highly accomplished novels he has published since 1969, but he has also played an important role in the development of the short story in Nepali. A prolific writer with at least sixty stories to his credit, Gautam deals almost exclusively with contemporary social issues and has developed a unique narrative style. Gautam's stories are collected in Andhyaro Dipma (On a Dark Island, 1978) and Gautamka Kehi Pratinidhi Kathaharu (Some of Gautam's Representative Stories, 1987).

The Fire (Aglagi)

The boss of our squad had a habit that caused us great tribulation. While talking, make a decision, arriving at a conclusion, or, sometimes, laughing, he would suddenly stop to await a sneeze. To smile and sneeze at the same time is difficult, and so he would yawn and twitch his nose up and down, just like an ordinary man, and in a sense make a joke of the time it was taking. Sometimes the wait would last a whole minute or even two. We did not care whether he sneezed or not; the problem for us was that he would stop like this even while we were discussing some extremely important matter, so that we had to pause in the middle of our advice. Then his face would become red and pitiable, and we would feel as if we were all assembled there to wait for the same thing—for his deliverance from his bond, for him to be put out of this misery so that the conversation could proceed.

The squad was made up of the boss, me, and Ram Prasad. Ram Prasad and I were at the same grade. I did not know Ram Prasad very well.


We'd had no way of getting to know one another before, but we became good friends during these few days. Ram Prasad often slandered the boss behind his back. We had to be out of earshot before he could do this, but we found plenty of opportunities. The boss himself did not seem inclined to socialize with us very much: he probably thought that it was more convenient and beneficial for him to maintain a certain distance from us. But on occasions we had to laugh at his weak old jokes when he did the worthy deed of obliging us with his company. This was why Ram Prasad detested him. Waiting for his sneezes was a custom Ram Prasad found particularly intolerable. Sometimes he would leave the boss waiting for his sneeze and go outside to smoke a cigarette, although there was in fact no need to go outside to smoke in that office.

The remote village we had to visit was 10 miles away from where we set out. The boss mounted a horse, but Ram Prasad had never ridden. He told me later that he was frightened of horses.

"I have a scar where a horse kicked me when I was a child," he said.

"So do you believe that every horse is going to kick you?" I asked him.

"Do you need to believe something in order to be afraid?" he replied, without even looking at me.

There was nothing I could say to that, so I walked, too, because of Ram Prasad. The journey was dull and wearisome, but Ram Prasad made full use of every chance he found to mock our boss on his horse and so the trip was not without its amusements.

A part of the village had been destroyed by a fire: that was why we were instructed to go there from the center. To look at our task, you might think that we were going to have to rush about like firemen, but actually our duty was to prove that the fire had happened, rather than to put it out. Our orders were to establish the cause of the fire, to gather evidence for it, and to give a sum of money to the most needy family. But "most needy family"—what did that mean? There was another order—from among the families affected by the fire, we were to pick out the ten poorest and give 500 to each of them.

The boss had all the money allotted to us for this act of generosity, but we had our TADA,[1] and our fervent wish was to save something from it. If you added them up, it turned out that our joint expenses came to equal the sum of money we were going to hand out.

The man who was going to lead us to the village had already been picked for us. He was from that village but not from the part that had burned down. The information he gave us about the fire was detailed


and interesting. Because his own house had not been damaged, he did not have the look of despair that would be on the faces of a family who had been badly affected. Because of this, there was one useful thing: he related events with complete objectivity, which perhaps would not have been possible in other circumstances.

As we approached the village, the fire seemed to make itself felt. Ram Prasad pointed to a bamboo grove adjoining the village and said, "Look, there's the fire." In fact, there was no fire there, but we did see burned bamboos and scorched leaves.

Next to the grove there was a pool, which was in a sense inside the village. As we came near to it, we saw that it was no longer really a pool at all. That is, there was no water, but there was plenty of mud. Actually, a little water remained in some small depressions (although the pool itself was little more than a depression), but these puddles were muddy, dirty, and shallow.

One enjoyable thing there was that Ram Prasad made fun of the boss: "It's like the boss," he said, in a satirical tone I suppose, "half dried up!" Ram Prasad made the journey pass by finishing everything he said with some rude remark about the boss. Now his insults were becoming poetic. The funny thing was that Ram Prasad went on as if he were the only educated man in the world to have passed all his exams without answering a single question on poetry.

Another thing we saw there was a number of village children sifting with their feet through the mud and dirty water. There were small children, stark naked, as well as a few young girls who had just reached the age when some modesty is required.

"What are they doing there?" we asked the villager who accompanied us.

"Fishing, sir." He had a habit of clasping his hands together when he spoke.

"Is this pool always dry like this?"

"No sir, it's been dry since the fire."

"Did the heat of the fire dry it up?" Ram Prasad's question was juvenile.

The villager laughed. "Could a pool be dried up by the heat of a fire? No, there wasn't much water in it before. They filled buckets from it to put out the fire. The fire didn't go out, but the pool's been like this ever since!"

When we reached the damaged part of the village, we discovered that the fire was still not completely out, although it had died right down. The people were no longer distraught; they were resigned by now. We realized that the fire was not out as we walked up and felt its warmth


there. The heat was coming from mounds of ash that had once been houses of straw. In some places, small huts had burned down, and their ruins had been cleared away, but black marks could still be seen measuring out squares where living homes had once stood. Quite a big house must have stood in one particular place: some scorched hardwood pillars still remained, but there was no sign of anything else. Wisps of smoke still rose from some of the mounds: the fire still smouldered inside them.

What emerged from all this was that the people had given up putting out fires and had resigned themselves to their fate. Most of them lay on string beds under the open sky or on the ground. They looked up at the sky, remembering their homes.

A baby caught hold of a nipple and sucked, let go of it and cried, then suddenly found it and began to suck again, but his mother seemed oblivious to him. Surrounded by smoke, she stared right past him. We saw children gamboling happily as they roasted fish in houses where the fire was still burning. They were evidently excited by the fire, and this was what had inspired them to sift and dig through the pool. The fire was all around us. But perhaps they were making the best use of it, tossing their catch down somewhere and then looking at it after a moment to find a ready-cooked fish.

Our boss was influenced less by all this than by the opportunity it presented for him to carry out his duty. His opinion was that duty always ranked higher than sentiment. The very next day after we arrived, he set up his task like a column in the middle of the burned-out section of the village and began to explain it to the villagers. When a large number of them had gathered, he asked, "Who are the poorest people in this quarter?"

The villagers may not have understood him, or perhaps the boss realized that he had phrased his question wrongly. It was difficult to put a very clear interpretation on it. So he clarified the question, "Who among you is extremely poor?"

Henceforth, the villagers' difficulties were reduced at a stroke, but our problems increased greatly. What happened was that seventeen people lined up in front of us. More people would certainly have come, but our boss had begun to look rather nervous . So I stood up and prevented any more of the poor from coming forward.

Meanwhile, Ram Prasad sat in silence, observing the villagers' poverty. He actually seemed quite uninterested and had even stopped slandering the boss quite so much. A brief summary of the boss's foolishness and selfishness still entered my ears, nonetheless.

Our troubles really began at this point. How were we going to share out the money? But that problem would come later. First, how were we


going to select the ten poorest families? Poverty is not some race in which first and second place can be clearly decided on the spot. All the families that surrounded us looked like worthy and presentable specimens of poverty. Compared to them, we seemed so well-off, especially me and Ram Prasad, that we felt uneasy. The boss, on the other hand, habitually lived a low-class life at the center.

The boss questioned the first man: "How will you prove that you're the poorest?"

Ram Prasad was annoyed by this. "Is poverty something that can be proved? Why don't you assess them yourself? Even some people who are comfortably off will declare themselves poor because it can't be proved!"

"What else can I do? This is the job we have to do," said the boss.

"Sir, it's ages since we ate rice," said the man.

"Then you've probably got diabetes, sugar sickness. I'm sure you eat bread, however, don't you?" This was the boss's question.

Then the second man spoke. "Master, I don't even eat bread."

"What do you eat, then?"

"Oh, sometimes this, sometimes that." The boss did not look very satisfied. He was about to ask another question when a young man spoke up, "Sir, this man owned a half bigha of land."[2]

The man with a half bigha jumped in alarm. This was a big impediment if he was to prove himself poor.

"Only until last year, master!" he said. "Last year it was all sold, and since then I've been destitute."

"But I didn't have that piece of land handed down to me by my forefathers," said the first man to the second, "so which of us is poorer?" This made the boss's dilemma even worse, not to mention the second pauper's. But he went on making it worse still as he questioned a third, then a fourth, then a fifth.... The more questions he asked, the more of a mess he got himself into. His perplexity and indecision began to show clearly in his face.

"You have to give your opinions, too, you know! Which seven families should be disqualified?" The boss looked at us, totally at a loss. He was usually arrogant when it came to making decisions, and showed more self-confidence than was needed.

"We've already cut the numbers down as far as we can," said Ram Prasad. "But then, are all the other people really less poor than these seventeen?"

"What can we do?" said the boss, "It's as if every one of them is just born poor!"


"If there's enough money," I suggested, "why don't we just share it out among all of them?"

"That's not possible," said the boss. "An order's an order. It can't be changed now. And anyway, if you're going to share it out like that, why give it to only seventeen families? You'd have to give some to everyone else, too, and then they'd only get a tiny amount each!" He began to be sarcastic.

"Right then, let's do it like this," said Ram Prasad. "Everybody's poor in this place, so you could say there's no one who isn't. In the report, let's write that we couldn't find the ten poorest families."

Now the boss became more animated. His brow furrowed, and he raised his eyebrows a couple of times. Then he asked, "What's the point of such a report?"

"It would make the country seem rich. Isn't that worth doing? If we can't find ten poor families in a village where everything's been reduced to ashes, what brilliant progress there has been! Let's not underestimate it!"

Ram Prasad was clearly teasing the boss, but the boss sat there digesting all this and said nothing.

We were sitting on a bed under a big banyan tree. The villagers were beginning to look rather fed up with queuing in the hot sunshine. Those who had been excluded were standing behind them. There were others, too, watching us and our work with curiosity.

We had not suspected that we would have to do all this pointless work just to dole out 5,000 rupees to a village or that we would have to give such thought to rules and methods. It felt as if we'd been trapped.

Then I remembered a custom. "Sir, shall I run a lottery? I could write out ten winning tickets and make all the others losers. We're down to seventeen; now we have to cut it down further. I think there's some sense in picking the ten out like this. This would be the best way."

The boss's face brightened, but Ram Prasad laughed. "So now we're going to judge poverty in a lottery, are we?"

I shut him up. "Ram Prasadji, be practical. If we don't do it like this, no one will get anything. So isn't this better? However they get it, and whoever they are, ten poor people will at least gain something."

Ram Prasad did shut up, but I wasn't sure that he was reconciled to the idea. The boss, on the other hand, looked as if he had discovered a medicine that would uproot poverty once and for all.

The tickets were prepared. Ten scraps of paper had "500" written on them; twelve more had "0." There were twelve losing tickets because the boss generously gave five more families permission to take part when he discovered the lottery method.

The boss shuffled the tickets, and he was about to throw them out


on the ground when his expression showed that a sneeze was coming. Ram Prasad grimaced, and the villagers laughed at the boss. This time the boss did not sit down to wait; straightaway he pulled a rag from his pocket, held it to his nose, and began to walk around. Then with a terrific noise that startled even the birds, he sneezed "Aaa-choo!"—and, to tell the truth, the pieces of paper fell out of his hand as he did so and were scattered all over the ground. He had intended to keep shuffling them for a little longer to heighten the suspense. But at least he had been put out of his misery quickly.

As soon as this happened, the villagers began to push and shove one another and descended upon the tickets. For a while, none of them even managed to pick one up; they were trying too hard to prevent each other, and they were too afraid of ending up with nothing. Such scenes were described in the tale of Swasthani, when men and women ran around in terror during storms or tempests.[3]

Our boss was watching with amusement. This was the first time he had ever been seen so amused, for which we had the villagers to thank. They had proved that a little humor could be produced in the boss on occasion. And it was true that the deperate expression on the villagers' faces when the tickets were released might have been considered entertaining.

Anyway, we found the ten we needed. But what was the last thing the boss did? He had begun to worry that his TADA would run out halfway home. So he decided to give each family 400 instead of 500.

"Four hundred or 500, it makes no difference to them," he said. "But if we reduce each one by 100 it will make a great difference to us. We'll get home more easily ..."

"But how will we account for the missing 1,000?" I asked him.

"Oh, they'll sign for 500, these people." Then, as we were starting out, the boss slipped 250 into each of our pockets as extra travel expenses.

On our way, Ram Prasad said, "You see our boss, how skillful he is? He even pays attention to rank when it comes to the size of a bribe! Just you watch—I'll bring this money down on his head."

As Ram Prasad was saying this to me, the sun was setting, and only a little of it could be seen. We were close to the pool again. There seemed to be more children searching for fish there now, and several older women were involved in the hunt, too. That was the only change we could see in two days. Their legs, their arms, even their faces were mud-


dy, and the mud could not dry because they were sweating. They didn't appear to have found any fish for a long time.

Our boss had already set off on his horse. For a couple of minutes we stood and stared at the pool and the setting sun.

(first published in Sangrila magazine, 1982; from Gautam 1987; also included in Samsamayik Sajha Katha 1984)


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