By Srinjay Chakravarti


Raven-black thunderheads, the first clouds of the year’s monsoon, scudded across the slate-grey sky. Sipra stood on the verandah of their little cottage, looking with shining eyes at the harbingers of June rain. Their last paddy crop had failed in the summer, and this was their only hope now for a good harvest. Not that they had much land to speak of, of course – the family’s holdings had been fragmented among their grandfather’s seven sons, and their share had been rather meagre.

Just at that moment, the postman arrived with the mail. There was a letter for her elder brother, Kuber – it had come by registered post. She signed for it and ran inside their cottage with the envelope.

Dada, a letter for you!’ She gave it to him and waited expectantly.

Kuber opened the envelope, and at once his face lit up in delight. ‘It’s a call for an interview for an apprentice’s job at Jubilee Steel Works. The interview is this Monday.’

His younger sister whooped in delight. She cried out, ‘Baba, Ma! Look, Dada has got an interview call!’

Their mother had been cooking. Mrs Sardar came out of the kitchen, wiping her turmeric-smeared hands on her sari without noticing what she was doing. Her face was aglow with excitement. ‘But that’s wonderful!’ she exclaimed.

Mr Sardar, who had been lying on a charpoy, got up slowly, coughing. He said grumpily, ‘And about time, too,’ but he was secretly pleased. They could tell from his glittering eyes. His body was emaciated from the tuberculosis that was gnawing away at his vitals.

Kuber laughed. ‘Hold your horses,’ he said. ‘It’s an interview call, not a job offer – not yet.’

Sipra exclaimed, ‘Oh, I’m sure you’ll get it, Dada!’

Their mother chirped, ‘Not for nothing did we name you after the god of wealth, Kuber! You’ll see – it’ll all come true; you’ll be true to your name!’

Precision Foundry, where Kuber had worked for the past three years, had been closed six months ago and the breadwinner of the family was now without a job. It had become rather difficult for them to make ends meet, what with his father’s medical expenses and his sister’s college fees. They were on the verge of starvation, with their paltry savings having been eroded in the past few months. But now, at last, their prayers had been answered.

On Sunday morning, Kuber Sardar left for Calcutta from his village. He took the early morning train from Kajalghat and arrived at a cheap, but decent hotel near the factory.

The next morning, he was bright and early having put on a clean shirt, and trousers, and was at the factory gates well before time.

There was a queue of jobseekers at the gates and Kuber waited patiently for his turn. As he was about to go in, the watchman demanded, ‘Your identity card, please.’

Kuber produced his biometric Aadhaar card, issued by the Unique Identification Authority of India. The guard looked at it, and then at him, and snarled, ‘This isn’t the same person. Whom are you trying to impersonate?’

Kuber was mystified. ‘Of course it’s my photograph. Can’t you make that out?’

The watchman hesitated, then looked closely at his face. He shook his head. ‘No, you aren’t the same person. Can’t possibly be. This photo shows a clean-shaven man, burly, with a full head of dense, coal-black hair.’

He went on, ‘You can’t be the same person. You’ve this big scruffy beard. You’re thin and scrawny, and your head is balding…’

‘Well,’ Kuber began, ‘for one thing, I don’t have enough money to get myself a decent shave. I haven’t shaved for months, that’s why this beard.’

The watchman grunted, ‘Oh, I know all those fibs. Get your ass outta here.’

Kuber stared at him, aghast. ‘But what about my interview?’

‘No job interview! Just leave. Scram!’

Behind him, the jostling crowd of job applicants was humming with impatience.

Kuber was frantic now. He quickly rummaged in his jhola bag and dug out the interview letter. ‘But my job – this is my interview letter – you can’t do this to me…’

‘What proof is there that you’re Kuber Sardar? Who knows whether the letter was sent to you?’

The watchman was intransigent. He blew on his whistle. Two roughnecks materialised out of nowhere from inside the factory. The bouncers caught hold of Kuber in their vice-like grip. He struggled, but to no avail.

‘This man is an impostor. He is impersonating the actual applicant. Throw him out!’

They shoved him onto the dusty road, adding a punch or a kick or two in the process. Some of the people in the queue were openly laughing at him – not one lifted a finger to help.

One of them even snarled, ‘If he is an impostor, send him to jail at once. Call the cops!’

Kuber had never felt so angry and humiliated in his life. Bitter tears stung his eyes. But there was nothing he could do. He got up, dusted himself off, and started walking under the searing sun. He went back to his hotel room.

He packed his bags and checked out of the hotel. At the railway station, a thought struck him, and he went to the toilet. There he looked at his face in one of the cracked mirrors. It was true: he was unrecognisable. Earlier he’d had a thick mop of jet-black hair, but the past few months had taken their toll and he was now quite bald, with greying edges. He was in such dire straits that he did not have enough money to buy even a shaving blade. He now had a huge, bushy black beard, streaked with grey, as he had not shaved for months. And it was also true that he was now rather lean, and his cheeks were gaunt and haggard. His Aadhaar card – his only photo ID – was more than three years old. It hadn’t occurred to him to update it.

When he returned home that evening with his face grimy and his clothes dusty, Sipra – who had been eagerly awaiting his arrival – saw him open the gate. Her face fell at once. She quietly went inside the house.

Their father raised himself on his bed, coughing. ‘Well, my son, what news? Have you got the job? What did they say?’

Without saying a word, Kuber slunk to his room and lay down on his bed. Salt water seeped out of the corner of his eyes and trickled down to his bushy beard, wetting his lips with the briny taste of despair.

Total silence descended on the house, except for the harsh cacophony of the toads’ and frogs’ chorale in the night outside, and the orchestra of buzzing mosquitoes inside the rooms.



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