Monday, July 1, 2013

The Man Who Stared

On the 6:00 am train to the capital, there were four men seated near the door in a second-class compartment. For nearly an hour, till the boy from the pantry served breakfast, those strangers read their different papers, maintained distance and silence.
During breakfast, one of them pointed at the headline on another’s paper and said, ‘Trust the government to screw up that one too.’
The owner of the paper nodded and replied, ‘They are very good at that, screwing us, aren’t they?’
The man sitting next to the owner of the paper joined in, ‘Oh yes, and we pay them tax to do that.’    
The two men who spoke first nodded in agreement. Those three looked at the fourth man in their midst. That man remained hidden behind his paper. At regular intervals, his right hand reached out to a bottle of water next to him. He never raised it to his mouth. He did not even open it. He kept on handling it like a talisman. That repetitive action, along with his aloof stance, seemed to irritate the other three.
The owner of the paper addressed his new comrades-in-arms, ‘Recently, I had to meet a tax commissioner. The commissioner’s office was grand, large flat panel TV on the wall, plush seats, what- not, definitely not what I expected in a government office. We paid for that, didn’t we? The officer glanced at my petition and then stared at me, just stared at me. I said something, well, someone had to say something, and so I said something. The officer kept staring, just staring, till I left. It was creepy. Well, one month later, I got a letter telling me ‘that the case was discussed… failed to establish… genuine financial hardship… petition is rejected’. Now, how was the case ‘discussed’? That idiot did not even talk. And if I had known earlier, I would have said something about my ‘genuine financial hardship’. But how do I establish that, I am sure I can, but how? Should I beg in front of that office? How should I have known that they won’t give me what’s due to me unless I establish that? Anyway, I am sure I said something, about that I am sure, well I can’t be sure, can I, when the officer just kept on staring… creepy it was.’
Midway through that narrative, the fourth man lowered his paper and listened intently, staring at the speaker with unblinking eyes.
The other two expressed their agreement and encouraged the speaker with grave grunts, during and at the end of the discourse.
The first man then decided that it was his turn, ‘My experience was similar. I have been there once, in those blasted tax offices. And I can assure you, I will go back only if they drag me there. In those days, I was living on a measly research stipend. Then, after my course, I got a position abroad. And some clever fool advised me to get a no dues certificate from the tax office. He told me that I could be stopped at the airport if I did not have that. So, the stupid fool I am, I went there. I lost count of the number of peons, secretaries and officials I met. It was like going through a mesh with an endless series of toll gates. And guess what… they just stared, like you said, not a word… not even thanks for the bribe I gave each one. I don’t know much I paid to get that certificate declaring that I have zero tax dues because I don’t earn enough. But I didn’t mind that, even though I spent all my savings there, if only they said something and just stopped staring blankly.’
His two companions nodded, pondered deeply and responded with wise nothings. The fourth man listened and, stared. The other three turned to him but he did not even offer a word. He stood up and walked to the door. He stood there for a while with his back towards the three. He turned around to face the three friends when the third man started his account.
The third man said, ‘I went to pay the land tax last month. I first went on a Friday morning, about eleven. There were two people ahead of me. The office was empty. We waited patiently. After a while, an officer strolled in and took his seat. We told him that we want to pay tax. He told us that they don’t take tax payments on Friday morning. So, the next week, I went on a Thursday morning. I had not checked if Thursday mornings were fine with them and so I prayed a lot that they would take my money on a Thursday morning. Again, there were two or three people ahead of me. This time, there were three officers, two men and a lady, seated at their tables. And another man stood near their desks. We asked the officers if they would accept our tax payments. One of them pointed at an empty table and replied that the person concerned was not yet in his seat. The two male officers talked to each other. The lady yawned and yawned, doing nothing else. The one standing kept on standing. He listened to the officers’ discussion. Once in a while, he looked at us. After half an hour, we asked if the officer not yet in his seat was expected soon. ‘Soon,’ one of the seated officers replied. The lady yawned more. Then, after a while, the standing man took his seat. He accepted our tax payments. When I left, the lady was still yawning. Is that what they call surreal?’
‘My blood boils whenever I remember that commissioner…’ the second man said angrily.
The first man responded, equally perturbed, ‘Oh yes, if I catch one of those staring guys outside, I will beat him to pulp, oh yes, I will do that, I am sure.’
The third man said, ‘Any day, any time, count me in. If only I had one of them here, now, I will throw him out of this train.’
 The three men looked at the fourth man. He was still staring at them, still silent. He stood near the open door.   


  1. Loved this one very much.. it talks about the Democracy and the current situation in the country.. there is a twisty suspense about the fourth person and his silence.. and that final open ended situation thrown in the end..!

    1. Thanks a ton, KP... wonderful to see your comments here!

      This one is definitely about the current situation in this country.

      As for the fourth person :-))) he could be an innocent one...well, we do take out our frustrations on totally unrelated entities, don't we? :-)))

      Many Thx once again