Translated Fiction: The Medal

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Assamese short story The Medal

Translated from Assamese by Ranjita Biswas.

To be honest, Rameswar had never seriously thought of getting a medal. It was Inspector Indra Dutta who had first mentioned it. On the day Rameswar returned from the hospital, Dutta had hugged him, throwing ranks to the wind, and had declared, “You’ve not only saved my life, you’ve added glory to our department.  I am sure that you’ll get the President’s medal for bravery.”

At that moment, the prospect of such an honour was the farthest from Rameswar’s mind. He was preoccupied with thoughts of his amputated leg and how he could live a normal life from now on. 

Fortunately, he did not have to wait too long. The colleagues came forward to help him. They collected money from among themselves to pay for a ‘Jaipur foot’ which made it possible for him to walk almost normally. Besides, they also offered him a job which involved not too much running around. Rameswar, however, did not like the idea of such a staid job and resigned from his post. The department allowed him to take premature retirement with all the benefits. Frankly, money was not too much of a problem for Rameswar. He was a bachelor and his father had also left behind enough property to see him through. 

Rameswar had joined the police force for considerations other than the monthly pay packet. His father was a well-known teacher in the village school. Unfortunately, his son did not inherit his cleverness. Rameswar could not even pass the School Final exam. So at the age of sixteen he ran away to register his name with the police force. He was good at his work and soon reached the rank of havildar. Unfortunately, at the age of 37 he was already back home sans one leg. 

Though he had left the village long ago, Rameswar had kept up his connection with the people in the village. Whenever he was home on leave, he made it a point to visit them and took part in whatever community work was going on during that period. This made Rameswar havildar a popular figure in the village. So they genuinely grieved for his loss though they also felt proud of his courage. Soon Rameswar became a hero in their eyes.

As Dutta had mentioned about the medal in front of his well-wishers who had flocked in to convey their sympathies, the word spread throughout the area.

It was true. Rameswar richly deserved such an honour. He had single-handedly overpowered Lankeswar, the dacoit everybody feared, at the Katia bridge. For the last few years, Lanke and his gang had been terrorizing the whole neighborhood; even the policemen were awed by his legend.

The bridge was about a few kilometers away from Rameswar’s village. Devoid of any habitation, and skirted by a thick jungle, the place was to be avoided even during daytime. It was an ideal spot for the gang to hide. Despite their best efforts, the police did not have any idea where Lankeswar had set up his base. Then they got a tip-off about his hideout and Indra Dutta was assigned to lead the team of the ‘Operation Lankeswar.’ Dutta did not take the campaign too seriously. He did not bother to take along a big contingent to gherao the area as should have been done in such circumstances. A newly appointed assistant and few sepoys were all he had to accompany him. 

Rameswar had joined the police force for considerations other than the monthly pay packet. His father was a well-known teacher in the village school. Unfortunately, his son did not inherit his cleverness. Rameswar could not even pass the School Final exam. So at the age of sixteen he ran away to register his name with the police force. He was good at his work and soon reached the rank of havildar. Unfortunately, at the age of 37 he was already back home sans one leg. 

On arrival, Dutta sent the policemen in search of the gang and he himself waited in the jeep enjoying a cigarette. Hardly had the subordinates left, when the huge figure of Lankeswar with a machete loomed over Dutta. He dragged Dutta to the ground, ensconced himself on top of the cowering inspector and shouted at the top of his voice, challenging the sepoys to save their boss. Dutta’s cry for help was in vain. The policemen hid behind a boulder while one ran to inform the thana.

Perhaps Dutta’s prayer was heard by his God because at the very moment when he was about to be beheaded, Rameswar appeared on the scene. He was home on leave. And that day he was in the area looking for his lost cow. He did not hesitate when he saw Dutta’s predicament. He jumped on the dacoit. Both fought fiercely to gain an upper hand. In the melee Rameswar received a blow from the machete on his knee. Still he held onto Lankeswar and was able to snatch the weapon and throw it away. Only then the cowering policemen came to  Dutta’s rescue. Lankeswar was arrested. Rameswar was awash in blood. Though he was sent to the hospital immediately, the doctor could not save his leg. 

Soon, Rameswar and his about- to-be –received medal became the talk of the town in the whole mouza. Some of the curious even asked him if he had already received the medal. Or, whether  it was made of gold or silver. But all agreed that it was less important what metal it was made of; the very honour was worth more than a lakh of rupees. 

But six months had passed and there was no news of the medal. In between Dutta came once and gave Rameswar a packet with two thousand rupees . The head of the police department had given it as a token of appreciation. At that time Rameswar had asked Dutta rather hesitantly, “Sir, people go on asking about the medal though it’s not so important to me. Can you please tell me when….?” 

“Oh, you’ll be informed in due time. If necessary, I’ll come personally to let you know.” Dutta assured him.

Another year passed. By now Rameswar had almost forgotten about the medal and he was busy too. He took active interest in everything in the village- from building a new road to organising the night- surveillance team. People consulted him on every decision to be made affecting the community. 

One day, as Rameswar and the villagers were sitting in the namghar to decide on a new gaon-burha as old Ratan had expired suddenly, young Dhaneswar, who studied in the city college, saw them and joined in and piped in,” Uncle, aren’t you going to the city to receive the medal?’

It was news indeed. Dhaneswar was bombarded with questions. He informed them that an elaborate function was being planned at the Judges’ Field in Guwahati. There was going to be a parade with mounted police and the Governor was going to inaugurate the function to give away the medals. 

“Why, I don’t know anything about it!” exclaimed Rameswar.

“Oh! How can they inform everybody? They have advertised in the paper that due to shortage of time the awardees could not be informed individually but they should be present at the function. You must go too, uncle!” 

Rameswar hesitated. But the villagers pressed him to go. Old Dharma pundit,  well-respected in the village, went a step further and proposed Rameswar’s name for the gaon-burha’s honorary post. “When he would lead out a procession at village meets with his bright medal shining, people would know that our leader is not just anybody; he is a son of a tiger,” the pundit exulted. 

On the day Rameswar set out for the city, the villagers accompanied him to the station to wish him bon voyage. They had already decided that on his return, he would be led to the village in a procession accompanied by drums and cymbals.

On arrival at the Judges’ Field, Rameswar  saw that Dharmeswar was right. The decorations surpassed anything he had ever seen. The officers were already seated. Curious onlookers thronged outside the field. He went to the enclosure meant for the awardees.

Rameswar looked around. He saw Indra Dutta on the dais. The three stars shining from his lapel told him that Dutta had been promoted to a DSP. He thought of going up to congratulate him but felt shy in front of so many people. Besides, he was wearing his old uniform. Though he had retired, he thought he should wear it while receiving the medal. But now he found those who had retired were wearing plain clothes. It made him feel awkward.  However, he felt happy and admitted to himself that the decision to come at the villagers’ behest was the right one. 

The Governor arrived. Soon, the medal-giving ceremony began. Each awardee was introduced with a short citation. Indra Dutta got a medal too for his bravery at the Katia bridge.

Rameswar looked around. He saw Indra Dutta on the dais. The three stars shining from his lapel told him that Dutta had been promoted to a DSP. He thought of going up to congratulate him but felt shy in front of so many people. Besides, he was wearing his old uniform. Though he had retired, he thought he should wear it while receiving the medal. But now he found those who had retired were wearing plain clothes. It made him feel awkward.

At last, the names of retired awardees were announced one by one. Rameswar’s mind strayed as he imagined himself among his admirers back home. Suddenly, he saw the Governor leaving the dais. But they didn’t announce his name! The people were leaving too. Rameswar was the only one sitting there. He panicked…how would he go home without the medal? They were going to be at the station!

He saw Dutta was still around. Slowly he walked up to him and called , “Sir!” Dutta whirled around. His face showed utter surprise as he saw Rameswar in mufti. 

“Sir! You said I’d get a medal for the Katia Bridge incident,” he reproached. 

Dutta turned crimson. His eyes sneaked to the medal on his own uniform. He replied hesitantly, “Well, remember the two thousand rupees I gave you? But for it, you’d have surely got the medal. They can’t reward you for the same incident twice, you know!”

Rameswar felt as if Dutta had slapped him. He was not ready for this betrayal. He felt his uniform ready to slip away from his body; the artificial leg seemed heavier too. Dutta could not bear his dumb-founded look for long. He slunk away.

For a long time, Rameswar stood alone in the empty field. The image of the medal on Dutta’s lapel seemed to taunt him. He looked at the high dome of the nearby High Court building and started walking absent-mindedly. After some time, he realized that he was walking in the opposite direction of the railway station. 

He turned to retract his steps. Then he saw the shop which catered to the personnel in the police force. He himself had bought ribbons etc. for his boss from this shop in the past. Perhaps he could buy a ribbon to decorate his uniform. At least it was better than going empty-handed 

He approached the salesman and asked “Could I get a ribbon, please?” 

“Of course,” the salesman answered. “I even have a few old medals… not the President’s medal though. Those are given in special functions. I have a few Purbi stars.”

“Okay, I’ll take the star,” Rameswar said.

He looked at himself in the mirror.  He trembled a little. He was going to lie to his beloved people. Then he remembered Dutta and pushed away the thought. He must return with a medal.

As he walked towards the station, he could hear the beat of drums and the sound of cymbals. Preoccupied, he was unaware that a viper had entered his soul through some unseen hole.

The End

Notes:

Namghar- temple

Gaon-burha- the head of a village 

Image courtesy: Thespaceink & Bikram Roy

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