Two-and-a-half-year old Soumyajit is waiting for his father for 121 days. He believes his father who has broken his leg is in Midnapore hospital and will come home soon. He often pleads to his grandfather Bhaktipada Ghorui, 70, to tell his father when he comes home to bring some sweets.
Everyday, he pesters his grandfather and grandmother wanting to know when his father will return. Soumyajit's father Sourav Ghorui was one of the nine people who died after harmads rained bullets on them in Netai on January 7 .
Soumyajit is not the only one, as villagers of Netai are yet to come to terms with the deaths. Politicians have stopped coming, so have the hordes of mediapersons. An under-construction police camp adjacent to a makeshift one on the edge of the village is small solace for a sense of fragile security.
"You don't know? He is in hospital. He will be back," was the innocent remark of a surprised Soumyajit, when the HT team visited their house in Ghoruipara.
"We have not told him. How can we? Everyday he asks when his father will come back. We give him a date only to postpone it later. I do not know how long this charade will continue," said Bhaktipada.
Apart from flags of Trinamool and Chhatradhar Mahato, the PCAPA leader and Independent candidate, some wall graffiti and posters, there is nothing else to indicate that elections are on.
"It is like it was always. No top leaders of Bengal came here to campaign. We are busy in our fields nowadays," said Lalchand Sen, 19, a villager, standing at the makeshift carrom stand, which was erected courtesy Trinamool at the entrance of the village. The basketball set, football kits or cricket kits, which the village boasts of now, are courtesy Trinamool leaders.
Apparently, the dusty roads, rows of thatched houses, villagers busy in their chores in the afternoon resemble any village at this part of the state. But a prolonged conversation reveals the undertone of pain still fresh in the minds of people.
"I still cannot go out and work. I used to carry load in my bullock cart. But most of the business comes from Belatikri, which is just across the Kangsabati river, at the edge of our village. It is a CPI(M) area and now I cannot go there. Not after what happened here. Moreover, memories of my wife are still fresh in my mind," said Sreekanto Ghorui.
A colour TV and a small dish antenna have pride of place in Sreekanto's house. Like the rest, he received R3 lakh compensation from the government and nearly R2 lakh more from political parties. "I accepted the compensation and deposited most of the money in the bank. But will compensation bring her back? Money is always precious, but not more than life."
His daughter was also tense, but despite the tragedy, appeared for her Madhyamik examination. "I do not know what the results will be, whether I will pass or fail. My life is shattered after my mother's death. Our tears will not dry until the guilty are punished," said Sraboni.
Politics has got inevitably intertwined with the lives of people in Netai, which will go to polls in the last phase as part of the Jhargram assembly constituency. Since 1977, the seat has been a red bastion with the CPI(M) routing its opponents every time.
"We want peace and we want those responsible for the killings to be punished. Is this asking for too much? And we all know this will happen only if there is a regime change," said Bhaktimoni Ghorui, mother of Sourav Ghorui, one of the victims.
"We are not sure whether Trinamool will come to power in Jhargram. But we want a regime change. The killers are roaming in the open. They need to be punished. We have suffered a loss, no one else should go through the ordeal," said Shantanu Ghorui, son of Shyamananda Ghuroi, another victim. "There is peace here. The CRPF conducts rounds. But we do not know how long that will last if there is no change of government,"
Gathered in front of the newly erected Shahid Bedi at the centre of the village, villagers talk about their fear of a comeback attempt by armed cadres of the CPI(M) after the polls. Bullet holes in a nearby wall bear mute testimony to the tragedy. The only additions are posters of Trinamool and Chhatradhar Mahato next to the bullet marks.
Another landmark in the village centre is the two-storey house of CPI(M) leader Rathin Dandapat. It was from here that cadres rained bullets on villagers on the morning of January 7. Overnight, the village, around 160km from Kolkata and 3km from Lalgarh, made it to the headlines.
Villagers have since organised themselves in their own way. A committee has been formed to bring in peace. The villagers even allowed CPI(M) supporters to come home and settle down once again. But no red flags bearing the hammer and sickle are in sight.
The red flags stop almost immediately after Lalgarh, which was reclaimed just before the assembly elections. Netai is a subject CPI(M) leaders are willing to avoid. For them, Netai is not a factor in the coming polls, the area is considered a CPI(M) stronghold apart from the fact that Maoists have been back foot for the past year. "Netai will not affect the assembly polls. In fact, Netai will not affect our prospects in the next village. Like always, we will emerge victorious this time," said Susanta Ghosh, West Midnapore district secretariat member of CPI(M).
But for the villagers, the January incident has changed their lives forever and they pray will affect the politics in Bengal and usher in change.
The villagers had accepted all the demands of the armed camp dwellers and only protested when youths were called for armed training. "They were here for weeks. We did what they told us. We wanted to buy peace. But when they said we needed to take up arms, we said no. How can we take up guns? Now, we have got a chance. We believe in democracy. In January, we made a choice. Once again, we will make one. Now we will press the EVM button," said Shyamal Patra, a villager.