“What the hell does he mean, he can’t write anymore?”
It was the surreality of this crime, if one should call it that, that left Inspector Dharamdas undecided about whether to arrest the village letter-writer or not. Cussing his subordinates hadn’t made the problem go away. For the tenth time since he first heard about it, the Inspector asked,”How can Shastri stop writing? He has to write. Did I ever stop arresting?”
“Old Sitabai swears that she saw his hand stop writing in the middle of her quarterly letter to her son. It seems Shastri-ji tried dragging his forearm in vain. It was like a hairy log of lead, she said, with a pen at one end and Shastri-ji at the other.”
“She talks too much. We can’t penalise her for causing it, can we? Maybe she made him write too much and …”
“Not much, it seems, just ten lines before he …”
“Don’t you ever interrupt me, again”, Inspector Dharamdas roared and turned around to look at the keeper of the keys, “And that goes for all of you.”
Amidst guttural mumblings, the Inspector was solely tempted to arrest Shastri. Wouldn’t that solve all problems?
“What does the village headman have to say?”
“He called in the priest and the doctor to assess the situation.”
“And not me? What did those bigots have to say?”
“The priest is certain that Shastri-ji is possessed by the ghosts of lost letters and wasted ink – he does flick a lot between sentences – and a thorough exorcism is the only solution to this malady.”
“And that doctor?”
“He diagnosed it as a problem of some particularly long-worded muscle. He kept tapping Shastri-ji everywhere before he pronounced this. He recommends a special oil massage prepared according to the ancient rules of medicine.”
“So why aren’t we doing it? Why trouble me with all this drama?”
“Apparently, Shastri-ji doesn’t have the money for the treatment.”
The Inspector mulled over this for a while.
“What about a new letter-writer? Is there no one in this damn village who can write?”
“Pankaj can, but everyone says his spelling is atrocious. People don’t want his services after what he did to the Jeevandas family. He had advertised their son’s marriage profile with the word “bald” instead of “bold”. The young boy has lost a lot of hair since then.”
“Then there is nothing else to do. Fine every household, including the priest’s and doctor’s, to the amount required for Shastri’s treatment. Anyone who refuses to pay will be arrested.”
As expected, there was a lot of mayhem. A few youngsters, who had spent most of the sunny year in the shade of some nose-down bullock cart, took upon themselves to raise slogans against the poor working conditions of letter-writers in the world. Some folks claimed that they never used the letter-writer’s services and were not planning to. Most of them were arrested. When the prisons were filled, offenders were tied to a nearby banyan tree.
In the meantime, the massage and ghost-removal ritual were alternately applied to the letter-writer. Since Shastri’s hand started moving before they completed their respective ceremonies, the village headman demanded a discount. This lead to further confusion and more slogan chanting. Shastri completed Sitabai’s letter and left for the day.
In the solitude of his home, he pulled out his notebook. On a new page he wrote the date and paused. His chuckle fossilised into a lopsided grin when, beneath the date, he proudly wrote “Done. They definitely need me”.