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Minority report

india Updated: Sep 23, 2010 23:12 IST
Uddalok Bhattacharya
Uddalok Bhattacharya
Hindustan Times
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Prasanta Lahiri (name changed) has been living just outside Delhi, in Ghaziabad, for the past nine years or so. He is unmarried, and now well past marriageable age.

Lahiri has a way of seeing himself vis-à-vis his neighbours and feels he is one of his kind. How? His bachelorhood, he thinks, makes him somewhat of an imponderable to the local community. Lahiri is sometimes curious to know what the women in the area think of him.

He speaks Hindi all right but the Bengali twang in his accent is prominent. Not being so North Indian in conduct and speech restricts his interaction with his male neighbours to just exchanges of pleasantries.

He is an agnostic, with an aversion to religion. So he does not take part in jagrans. Here too the ethnic factor comes in — a Bengali, and, therefore, a communist, and hence ‘different from us’, people perhaps say.

So far, maybe not so good, but tolerable. Now comes the dangerous bit.

Lahiri drinks. But why dangerous? The local foreign liquor outlet has patrons throughout the year except the two Navratri periods — in April and October.

But when others drink, their ‘vice’ is leavened by the fact that they’re householders, god-fearing, believers in organised religion, supporters of Ayodhya’s Ram Temple, and so on. Poor Lahiri has nothing to expiate his sin. However, at the end of the day, Lahiri would laugh over these, dismissing them all as products of his persecution complex.

Once a strange occurrence kept repeating very frequently at the house Lahiri lived in. Cough syrup bottles were turning up with remarkable regularity below the staircase (where one would expect to see vintage bicycles) on the ground floor — one at a time. Writers of thrillers or ghost stories could spin a yarn out of it, thought Lahiri, when he learnt about the matter. Those like him with a grounding in history would be reminded of the days just before the mutiny of 1857, when chapatis were found almost daily on the porch or the verandah of the homes of senior British officials.

But the dreamer in Lahiri was shot dead by the neighbour’s crass question: do you keep the bottles below the staircase? Quickly recovering, he gave a brief ‘no’.

Matters didn’t end here. Word spread that Lahiri was indeed the offender. Why? Because he drinks, and drinks anything that’s intoxicating — even cough syrup. Fine. But why does he keep the bottles below the staircase? Too many questions can be irksome for theory-mongers, particularly for those who are sure where Lord Ram was born.

Lahiri did not challenge. He thought over his imagined ‘minority status’, now threatening to acquire before him a real-life presence — Bengal provenance, bachelorhood, etc. Is he a natural suspect for this alone? And he shook with fright. What would have happened had he been in a real minority group, perhaps a Muslim?