Excerpt: Nautanki Diaries by Dominic Franks – books excerpts

237pp, 295 rupees; Rupa publications

Soon I started to get hungry. I warned Nautanki to drive at full speed in the afternoon. Naveen offered a freshly bottled Nati Coli. Don’t you have 40 km to go? If you’re planning on betting 120 a day, don’t you need power? He pushed. But the big problem with a chicken slaughtered and cooked on the farm is the time spent on the operation; an hour of waiting, most of the meal (grinding a chicken between three people was not easy) and another half hour to relax while the chicken is digested. It was still two hours and 40 kilometers, but I remembered Navin’s stamped face last night.

The chicken was ordered; Navin was very happy to invite us to observe the massacre. A group of four people took part in the catch. One of them, who hunted our food like the others, caught my attention because he had a soft, stiff hand next to him. His hand remained motionless during the walk and waved a little, although his left hand didn’t let him swing too much. Out of medical curiosity I made a note to examine the teeth later. The bird is trapped, it’s time to kill him. Naveen himself had been welcomed into Dhaba’s kitchen to supervise the cooking – presumably to give instructions. The television was set to what the crew wanted to see. I laid down on a spitz.

When I was done, I invited a man with a steady hand. After all, it wasn’t a false hand, it wasn’t even a prosthesis; the darkness of the limb and its relative immobility made me think so. The skin was tight and tight on a swollen hand, which hardened by degrees. The skin shone in a disturbing way, in some places it was flaking, it was cold to the touch. Where the man’s sleeve came off his shirt, a piece of dirty gauze tied his broken wrist so the broken bones couldn’t slip off. It’s a stupid, unscientific way to stabilize you, making you permanently disabled.

The man sat there, his right hand resting on his thigh, the palm of his hand pointing upwards, supporting the left hand. He moved his fingers slowly, gently and curiously like an experimental cyborg that tested a robotic arm in a science fiction film. The hand moved, but not at the wrist – it moved above the wrist, but only fragmentarily and with the left hand. One more move and the man will scream in pain. It was already a dead hand, or maybe a dying hand. I didn’t know that. I’ve strayed too far from the major medical banks to be able to say anything. I listened to him, shocked by his ignorance, his naivety, his reliability.

Here’s his story: Two months ago he drove a scooter on the highway at eight o’clock in the morning when the Maruti 800 tried to pass him. The side mirror of the car circled him when he passed it. He wasn’t going fast, about 20 miles an hour. He didn’t even fall off his bicycle; when he came home he had a terrible pain in his wrist and couldn’t move his hand. He went to a local doctor who applied an ointment from jadhiboui purchases on his broken wrist. Luckily, it wasn’t an open fracture. The doctor then boiled two eggs and tied them to a broken wrist; the treatment ended with placing the broken ends of the bones and fastening them with a black wire that was supposedly sacred. When the man came back after a month, the quack told him everything was okay, gave him another Jedi-Butiya and asked him to come back after a month – the broken bones were still healed. I asked the man, while we were studying in medical school, how much he had improved when the improvement was measured on a scale of rupees. He said: Ten pais. It was the prototype of a sad story that should certainly be repeated in the villages of our country, because the Indian health system is porous and poor.

Author Dominique Franks
Suman Kumar

As kind and determined as I tried, I told the man to go to the hospital. He needed surgery, he had to be admitted for a week, maybe two weeks; but it was the only way to save his hand. The man sat expressionless; the only time his face shone of emotion was when I told him that if he left his hand there, as useless as wet wood, it was an expression I had taken from a visitor of the public hospital where I was interned.

I looked him in the face and knew he wouldn’t take my advice. He stopped watching TV, got lost in his mind. When I repeated the advice, he looked at me with the same empty look and asked: Where does the money come from? Then, as an idea, he added… It’s gonna be okay. Everything’s gonna be okay. His blind faith drove him crazy, while poverty made him stubborn and powerless. He left to go back to work, his strong, broken arm hung like dead weight next to him.

I was surprised to see how he learned (in two months) the life of a penguin. I thought of the pain he must have felt when the village quack took another break. I had to ask him how he dealt with it. But the man went back to the kitchen to make a living mixing curry with his left hand. Throughout the conversation, he was not angry at the man whose car cut him off, nor at the charlatan of the village who had rendered his hand unusable, nor at the government hospitals where the poor feared that the car had been hijacked. He’s stopped. It was his destiny.

Achiu said he was going to shoot me on a bird hunt. I walked around a bit (and laughed myself out) and imagined I was Stallone in Rocky II and tried to get back in shape. I was aware that I was wearing the T-shirt that Gopikhand had given me. Achiu was much more worried. This is an orthodox Brahmin family who did everything by the book. If my parents find out I eat boiled and sliced chicken, they may never talk to me again, he said.

I’m setting a good pace. The quality of the road was heterogeneous – all signs and markings had disappeared, the road had been beaten in some places, in others it had potholes; the rain hit it to the gravel, the elements intensified the weather bruising and the poor execution. I followed the road closely, I concentrated, I felt anxious, I listened to the vehicles coming from behind, I observed and waited, maybe they could force me off the road. We drove on a two-lane road without a central reservation and trucks and busses tried to overtake us while Naveen drove at the same speed as I did (which couldn’t be higher than 20 km/h). I was irritated when the trucks had to follow him because the oncoming traffic was stable. They stopped beeping at the speed we were going. We’ve been driving this racket for a while. It gave me a lot of pleasure, because driving at high speed in noisy traffic requires passionate concentration.

Read more: Like leaves thrown to the wind

When I was a child, I didn’t sleep at night when we looked out the windscreens of the buses, the road that went under the plundering lights. We always reserved the front seats because they had more legroom and my dad’s double knee surgery didn’t hurt him much. I think I’m a bus driver and I try to make the turns before they happen. I was always surprised when the road made a turn without me seeing it beforehand, and I watched with admiration how close the buses were to the oncoming traffic without losing speed, passing all the bends with the same carelessness.

Now I drive with the same people that I have covered my eyes with the same carelessness, and when I honk the horn, I don’t dictate the speed, but let them wait their turn, because the roads are so bad that I don’t want to impede my progress by driving on the side of the road. One of the toughest challenges of cycling is to pass a constantly tickling stretch of road – joint pain, muscle fibers trembling like torn ropes, arms clenching tighter, fingers whiter, shoulders clenched together as the road seems to take an endless series of blows that crush skin and muscles. I was surprised that Shikaari made the same trip 28 years ago. I only had a few bad stretches: his whole trip had to be the same as this one – every 2000 km. I had to go to Dudgaon in two hours; it was a suitable destination for a decent evening session.