Chitragupta was tallying the names of dead teachers and ancillary staff from various primary and upper primary schools, district-wise, for the 50 time, as he had done with the votes a few weeks earlier. He did not trust the machine to do this job too well. He had to ensure that the records were right before they were sent off to the office of the Chief Secretary and above.

The dead were waiting for their rewards, but he could not afford to get anything wrong. He had to check all records of their past deeds on earth before he assigned them a seat. The cost of every mistake would be quite high, and so he kept counting – again and again. And every time he spent a few seconds counting, a few more names were added to his unending list of lost souls. If he were to get them to queue up outside his office in Patallok, he imagined the line would reach all the way to Prayagraj.

Listen to Sudhanva Deshpande recite the poem

PHOTO • Labani Jangi

Two plus two four, 1,600 and more…

Two plus two four
Four into two eight
Eight twos are sixteen
Plus ten...
There are 1,600 and more.
If you learnt to add your anger
and subtract your fears,
learn to do the maths
and deal with bigger numbers,
you can count the bodies
stuffed in ballot boxes.
Tell me, you aren't scared of numbers.

February, March, April, May
Remember the names of the months,
the days of the weeks of utter neglect,
names of the seasons of death, tears, and grief,
names of every polling booth, every district,
every village block.
Remember the colours of classroom walls.
Remember the sound of those bricks as they fall.
Remember the sight of schools turning to rubble.
Even if our eyes burn, remember the names
of clerks, and peons, and all your class teachers –
Girish Sir, Rambhaiya
Miss. Sunita Rani
Miss. Javantri Devi
Abdul Sir, and Farida Ma'am.
Remember to keep them alive
even as they gasp and die.

To breathe is to suffer
To die is to serve
To rule is to punish
To win is to massacre
To kill is to silence
To write is to fly
To speak is to live
To live is to remember –
Girish Sir, Rambhaiya
Miss. Sunita Rani
Miss. Javantri Devi
Abdul Sir, and Farida Ma'am
To remember is to learn,
Learn the language of power
and politics at play.
Know the alphabets
of silence and anguish.
Decipher the unspoken,
Half-shattered dreams.

Someday you will know
the truth from the lies.
Someday you will know
why the teachers all died.
Why classrooms were deserted
and playgrounds were on fire.
Why schools turned crematoriums
who lit the pyres.
But you must always remember –
Girish Sir, Rambhaiya
Miss. Sunita Rani
Miss. Javantri Devi
Abdul Sir, and Farida Ma'am

Audio: Sudhanva Deshpande is an actor and director with Jana Natya Manch, and an editor with LeftWord Books.

Pratishtha Pandya

Pratishtha Pandya is a poet and a translator who works across Gujarati and English. She also writes and translates for PARI.

Other stories by Pratishtha Pandya
Painting : Labani Jangi

Labani Jangi is a 2020 PARI Fellow, and a self-taught painter based in West Bengal's Nadia district. She is working towards a PhD on labour migrations at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Kolkata.

Other stories by Labani Jangi