Tapas was conceived in the year post offices downsized their workforce by half and their efficiency almost entirely, and most of the old workers who got up in the morning and dusted their heads and brushed their moustache and wore the semi khaki uniforms that identified them as postal workers, were handed over a little money as compensation and pension, and bade goodbye without much ado. Mr. Das, the oldest worker in the office, who had selflessly stamped and divided letters into bunches according to their routes of distribution for 43 odd years, 45 actually, because his father had been an understanding man and birth certificates were written on whims more than facts when he was born, had seen an odd number of events being written about and written to through his years of service. He had seen the huge loads of letters that made their ways through the office when Indira Gandhi was shot and killed, giving rise to a riot wherein countless Sikhs in and around Delhi, and probably the whole country were slaughtered. Back then, he had almost memorised the houses which had sons posted in Punjab and Delhi, while anxious letters prowled around the courtyards of Neturia demanding knowledge of their well-being. The riot might have been directed at a certain community, but the fear spread through everyone’s hearts. In all these years, Mr. Das had acquired an acute sense of predicting what the letter carried, purely by the smell of the envelope it came in. Those who knew him, believed this to be true, and even if the predictions weren’t always true, everyone believed the hands of the writer imparted the envelope with emotions that the paper and the glue and the stamps imbibed in themselves, and revealed only to Mr. Das.Mr. Das could tell which envelope smelt of rosewater and fried pepper and carried invitations to a wedding feast, which envelope carried in itself monthly letters written by a lonely wife to her army jawan husband from how musty and salty it smelt, like the sea, which letter was a love letter from the guy who bunked college to catch poetry reading sessions at Barasat to the girl who bunked school every time a letter arrived, and spent the evening feeling the warmth of paper against her cheeks, because the love letter would smell of wanting and craving, sometimes bitter like blood, sometimes salty like kisses or wet groins. The day Mr. Das rode his cycle away from the rusted gates of the post office and peddled faster the further he went so that his head would betray his heart by turning around at the last moment to catch a glimpse of the whitewashed asbestos roofed building with the red letterbox standing like a big welcoming futon at the entrance, the office smelt of ghee and coal smoke and unpolished rice, and he knew it was a funeral, of his professional life, and that if the jawan wrote letters back to his wife, or Indira Gandhi came back to life and her chair, there’d be no one to caress letters and whisper to them the overwhelming responsibility that fragile foolscap carried. When Mr. Das cried that day, it was for all those letters, who he felt, he had orphaned somehow.
Upon turning 26, Tapas finally grew a full moustache, bushy and firm, and discovered he had the starting of baldness tucked around his temples, which he devoted another half hour everyday to carefully conceal. He also found a job at the panchayat office for his village as record keeper of development projects that the government undertook, and on learning her son could move some money time to time from the official records to his own account without getting caught, his mother decided it was finally time to find a wife for her son. Meera was pretty by local standards, but her sharp tongue kept her from getting married to a suitable young man of Radhanath’s liking. She was short, but fair, and although she had a curved nose like that of a parakeet, she had soft, full lips. She also had a reputation of being easy to please, and the rumours about the exact number of men who had placated her affection by buying her gifts or taking to the village fair, kept growing with every village fair. And so, a month later Meera arrived with Tapas in a rented ambassador, clad in a beautiful wedding Benarasi and still teary eyed from her vidaai. Tapas had seen her sobbing all the way to his house, and precisely at the moment the ambassador entered the village, he placed his hand softly on her shoulder and whispered, It’s okay Meera, once you fit in with my parents and their affections, you won’t miss your parents anymore. Meera turned around to look at his face, and with a scowl that shook the edges of her eyes and squeezed new tear drops onto her cheeks, she hissed, fuck your parents, and your hideous moustache.
Amongst people abandoning their ancestral houses for a one room slum on the outskirts of the nearby cities in the quest of a proper job, and a few families which through their constant struggle and better luck, made the transcendence from lower classes to the struggling middle class, even reached close enough to the upper middle class, a decade and a half passed unnoticed in the village and life of Mr. Das.Tapas had long been thrown out of his job at the panchayat office after his attempts to move money was exposed and severely penalised. Although Mr. Das used the last shred of money from his fixed deposit to return the amount his son had misplaced, the ordeal made sure Tapas would never be employed again. In his desperation, Tapas pawned his mother’s savings as well, trying to open a biscuit factory in his courtyard. Two months later, the manufactured biscuits had caught a bad batch of fungi; the whole family had fallen sick repeatedly from eating nothing but biscuits, and the factory had eventually shut down completely. With no savings at hand and packets full of mouldy biscuits littering their kitchen, Meera had finally decided to take things into her on hands. Tapas never knew how she accomplished all of what she did, and neither did he care, but by the end of next year, Meera was a member of the panchayat samiti, a teacher as the local primary school, and sold fake gold jewellery in her evenings to most of the women in the neighbouring villages, more specifically, their husbands. Mr. Das knew. He could smell the guilt, the touch of strangers, the displeasure of violating looks and touch, the desperation of a woman clutching at straws to stay alive, and above all, stronger than all emotions, a terrible smell of hatred for Tapas and everything around her, emanating from her nostrils every time she brushed against him carelessly on her way to work. Mr. Das kept quiet. As his protruding tumour kept increasing, disfiguring the entire left side of his face, his sense of smell increased in accuracy and efficiency, to the point where his other sense compensated by weakening themselves. Over a few panicked mornings, Mr. Das realised he could no longer hear properly. His eyesight had weakened terribly, and often, words didn’t form in his mind at all.
All he could do was smell. All day long, Mr. Das sniffed at things and people, till Mr. Das became Crazy Das on the villagers’ tongues. Mr. Das heard none of it. Neither did he see. But he smelt death on his wife’s rasping voice when she asked for water every evening. He smelt loneliness in the slivers of soaps his son washed clothes with, and he knew the loneliness had taken away all but the urge to live as a free man for one last day in the soul of his son. In Meera, he smelt the hatred turning into a bottomless cauldron of pity, and some mornings, he smelt the romance of another man on her shampooed hair. And every time he smelt his own fingernails, Mr. Das could feel his orphaned letters calling back to him, and he could feel the wish to live long enough to see Meera abandon this house of dead people and start anew somewhere else. He knew she’d have a son, and he knew although he wouldn’t be the child’s grandfather, he’d love the child like his own. And most of all, Mr. Das smelt the jawan whose letters to his wife skipped mountains and deserts to keep hope alive, and Indira Gandhi smiling in her saree, as love letters covered the world like a heap of freshly fallen snow.