A Few News Items


When the Chief Minister’s helicopter had reached cruising altitude, dwarfing the buildings of the city below, he sighed deeply and relaxed, closing his eyes. Then he opened his eyes and looked about, inspecting the cabin.

His fellow travelers stared back at him anxiously. The Revenue Minister, seated next to him, leaned over and asked him softly, “How are you feeling?”

“Great! As always!”

They’d left the city and were passing over greenery-filled suburbs, and he felt refreshed by their clean and pleasant breezes, despite the fact that the cabin was sealed. He’d said, “Great!” but he was feeling even better than that.

The helicopter made an arc and changed course. Outside was the clear, blue sky and the fresh, clean sunshine of early autumn. Below were the many shades of dense greenery–yellow-tinted, pale green, dark green, and even greenish black. This was an unbroken expanse of mango groves for which the entire region was known. Passing over it was always an invigorating experience for the Chief Minister which gave him a sense of ownership, despite the fact that he wasn’t their owner. He took a deep sigh of satisfaction, felt for his seat belt, and leaned closer to the window.

The sting from the event that had taken place three hours before was now fading away.

There were four people besides him in the cabin–the Minister of Agriculture, the Revenue Minister, the Relief Commissioner, and the Deputy Inspector General; these were among his favorite officers. All were silent. The Chief Minister was silent as well, though his eyes darted about with interest. When his eyes rested on the Minister of Agriculture, he felt he ought to speak.

“I’m not prepared to consider this simply a coincidence or an accident,” he said. “There should be an inquiry.”

“Who will carry it out?

“The CBI.”

“And what about what I just said to the press?”

In the press conference, the Chief Minister had said, “Please don’t say the canopy broke and fell on top of me in today’s rally. In the coming election God will send me an avalanche of votes and my roof will collapse! This is a sign of that.”

The agricultural minister thought for a moment, then he said, “Then our own CID. Order a secret investigation. But there should be an investigation.”

“They invite me to their own rally. They cry out slogans by my side. They welcome me publicly. They announce their support for me. And then it happens; a portion of the canopy suddenly collapses. A hullabaloo breaks out. But nobody’s really wounded. If we launch an investigation over such an insignificant matter, won’t they think we consider them traitors or plotters?”

“Sir, I said, a secret investigation.”

“Nothing is secret nowadays,” said the Revenue Minister.

The Relief Commissioner began to gaze out the window. None of this was meant for his ears.

The Minister of Agriculture was undeterred. “It’s definitely someone’s conspiracy,” he said. “Half the canopy suddenly collapsed, and on your side of the stage, too. How can something like that happen by itself? Has that ever happened?”

“Never,” said the Chief Inspector of Police, offering a word of support to the Minister of Agriculture.

“For my part,” said the Chief Minister firmly, “there’s no need for any investigation. It was their rally. Their canopy broke and fell over. If they want to do an investigation themselves, then that’s another matter.”

“That will happen too,” said the Minister of Agriculture. “Their representatives will meet with you tomorrow.”

There was silence for a few moments. There was less glare from the sunlight now. “The clouds are coming,” said the Chief Minister.

He was still thinking about the afternoon’s rally.

The legislative assembly elections were drawing near. Because of this, there were rallies for all different castes and sub-castes every third or four day in the capital nowadays. This had been one such rally–for the Prajapati Samaj.

The governing party encouraged these rallies to firm up votes from all different castes. The style and agenda of every single rally was almost the same. In every rally, an outcry would be raised against centuries of exploitation of their caste, “At last we have awakened!” they would announce; then they’d drag their heroes, their martyrs and their saints from the dark caves of history and myth, propose building memorials and statues to them, and demand public holidays on their birthdays. All these aspirations were appropriate; the only mistake was that they were going to be exploited in an inappropriate manner.

Every rally had a predictable program: the Chief Minister would be called to the stage, where he’d be publicly presented with an honor.

This honor usually would come in the form of a welcome played on a variety of folk instruments, such as the conch, bell, gong, bugle, tambourine, etc., amidst cries of “Zindabad! Zindabad!”; then a crown of gold or silver would be placed on his head, or in the absence of that, a large turban; then he’d have a sword or a mace placed in his hand, and then a speech would be given in his praise. After that, they would listen to his speech.

In his speech, the Chief Minister, would tell the tale of the glorious history of that caste, then he’d promise to turn some ruin, hill, or pond into a memorial to one of their great heroes, then he’d nominate an intersection or park where a statue would be erected to one of said heroes, then he’d promise several lakhs (or nowadays, crores) of rupees in aid for all this, then, promising to solve the daily problems of that caste after winning the election, he would gather up the crown, the turban, the mace, the sword, the bow and arrow—whatever he’d been given—and go on his way.

In today’s rally, he’d only been crowned with a turban; then he was handed a mace, and presented with an artistic jug in accordance with the ancient vocation of the Prajapati Samaj. In his speech he took care of pretty much all the Prajapati Samaj’s problems lickety-split. You need good clay to make good pots and to fulfill this need, he hammered his right hand up and down and declared that starting from today, right now, it will be the responsibility of the District Magistrate to supply excellent clay to every member of the caste, and that strict orders would be issued by three o’clock today.

Just then the canopy over his head began to collapse. One section even fell on his shoulder. But thankfully he was pulled out quickly. Those who were directly under the canopy were also spared, more or less.

The truth was that the day had been inauspicious from the start. That morning he’d held a public audience until eleven o’clock; that is, he’d played the role of Emperor Jehangir amongst his petitioners, but without the bell, on the lawn of his bungalow. An elderly freedom fighter had unexpectedly emerged from the crowd. He flung dozens of uncivilized curses at him in a half-crazed manner and kept calling him a blowhard.

“Take him over there and give him something to eat and drink; he’s our elder, we should show him respect,” he had said, of course, but it called to mind a few undignified scuffles from his youth, in his days as a hotheaded young politician, when he’d often played the hero. He felt displeased.

After this, the second inauspicious incident to occur was the one in which he had dispatched the journalists with his flippant remark about an avalanche of votes.

Now he had flown two hundred kilometers outside the city and he was finally feeling free. Knowing that inside the helicopter, the earth was beneath his feet and the sky was just above his head gave him a sense of satisfaction. The sunlight had begun to sparkle again and even the knowledge that he was making this journey in order to see the destruction of a horrifying flood caused him no discomfort. That sight was about to unfold before him in just a few minutes.

“Sir…over here…to the left,” said the Relief Commissioner, “…the flooding…the right bank of the river…but…who knows, the banks have disappeared…now we’re above the river…over there…terrible condition…twenty-four or twenty-five villages have been completely destroyed…forty dead….”

Those were the only words he heard; they rattled about in his ears, but in reality his eyes, ears, heart, his whole consciousness, had become focused on one single sensation, that of being subsumed in the sight unfolding down below.

At first glance all that was visible outside his window was the vast expanse of water concealing within its stillness a silent capacity for destruction. But it didn’t take him long to understand that the water wasn’t actually still, it moved at an alarming pace, which one could guess at by looking at the hundreds of mismatched objects flowing and tumbling along at a great speed with the current—logs, truncated, twisted branches of trees, grass and plants, thatch; perching birds, wriggling worms (which must have been snakes), animal carcasses and goodness knew what else! Like the swiftly moving pictures on a film reel, they came from one side, then disappeared on the other as he watched. No villages could be seen in this entire brutal expanse of water, but for a long way off, one could make out the shoots of grasses and leaves, half-drowned trees and flocks of birds on the submerged river banks. A row of black trees was visible on the horizon, but they were very far away—so far, that, like the horizon, it seemed as though they could never be reached.

Suddenly, a bit ahead, just as they passed over the river, they saw a thicket of trees that stood in the still water. Nearby, one could see the crumbling remains of some mud walls. These must have been huts. There, a broken plastic bucket bobbed about on the surface of the water with the wind. He wanted to ask where the inhabitants of the huts had gone. But he got his answer before he had a chance to ask.

From their trunks, the trees looked like they were submerged in four or five feet of water. He noticed something moving in the branches and then he saw there were people on the upper branches, waving their arms and screaming. He asked the pilot to circumnavigate the grove and asked, “Did you see that? There are several families hanging from the trees; there are women and children too.”

“Yes,” said the Revenue Minister, “this is one of the dangers of the flood. People get stuck in the trees trying to save their lives.”

“We need to ask why they haven’t been gotten out of there yet.”

“An army boat must be on its way to save them. All the same, we’ll see to it once we get down.”

“What must they be doing for food and drink?”

“Food packets have been dropped from helicopters for two days now.”

“It’s very dangerous for them to be hanging from trees.”

“Very!” said the Deputy Inspector General. “There are snakes floating by in the floodwaters too, and they take shelter in the trees as well.”

The Revenue Minister turned to stare at him, as though he was being criticized for his lack of organization, and said, “But you can take care of them yourself. This is not the specialty of my department.”

“All the same.…” said the Chief Minister.

“In fifteen minutes we’ll be at the Collectorate. As soon as we arrive we’ll deal with those people.”

In twelve minutes, they landed at the compound of the Collectorate. A large audience awaited him in the neighboring field. People leapt toward them as soon as they saw the helicopter, but they were stopped in their tracks thanks to the alacrity of the police. The Chief Minister was first supposed to attend a meeting of local politicians and officers at the Collectorate where he would examine the state of the flood and the relief efforts, and after that he was to give a speech to the people. Trusting more in his own imagination and talent for speechifying than getting updates about the situation on the ground, he changed the plan.

“First I must address the people,” he said.

He walked quickly toward the field.

“That family we saw hanging in the trees on the way…” began the Minister of Agriculture.

“I’ve told the collector,” said the Revenue Minister. “An army motor boat is on its way to get them.”

“There must be hundreds of families like that,” said the Minister of Agriculture.

“Not hundreds, thousands,” said the Relief Minister. “No need to minimize the actual destruction.”

“True!” said the Minister of Agriculture, looking away.

In his thirty-five minute speech, the Chief Minister had waved the magic wand of government over absolutely everything–the region’s most horrifying flood of the century; the destruction of thousands of acres of crops; the deaths of countless men and beasts; the devastation of hundreds of settlements; the criticism of his opponents and the protests of flood victims! As always, his speech was so spectacular everyone in the crowd felt their stomachs had been filled with choice victuals, that they were clad in spotless new clothes; all hearts were soothed with waves of inspiration and joy; the audience soared through the sky on magic carpets to palaces built that very moment where their shattered huts had once stood. The crowd went wild, shouting “Zindabad! Zindabad!” and didn’t even notice that the Chief Minster had departed for his closed-door meeting with the local leaders and officers.

His very first words were: “You did hear all the things I announced, didn’t you?”

The Relief Commissioner and the Collector at once took notebooks from their pockets. He motioned for the Relief Commissioner to read aloud. Reading out the many promises for relief and development, he hesitated in one spot.

“Keep reading, keep reading,” said the Chief Minister.

“The first installment of six crores of rupees for flood relief…” the Relief Commissioner hesitated; he glanced helplessly toward the Collector. The Collector said in everyone’s hearing, “Or was it twenty-six crores?”

“What sort of discrepancy is this?” asked the Chief Minister. “I announced twenty-six crores. What did you note down? Six crores?”

“I wasn’t able to hear properly because of all the noise. That’s why…” said the Relief Commissioner.

“He must have been mistaken,” said the Revenue Minister in support of his officer, “because the figure of six crores came up first.”

“I know,” said the Chief Minister, looking toward the local member of the State Assembly, “But that decision was made in an air-conditioned room in the capital; this decision was made after seeing the devastation of this district; it was made now, just now. Twenty-six crores right away, the rest according to need.”

It was just a business meeting behind closed doors, but all the same, three local legislators clapped.

The Relief Commissioner continued: “Approval of an immediate seventy-five lakh rupees for the repair of the Milsa dam.”

“Yes!” the Chief Minister said to the Collector. “The Milsa Dam! Just now someone said it’s being repaired twenty-four hours a day.”

“Yes, sir!”

“Twenty-four hours? Round the clock?”

“Yes, sir!” now it was the Chief Engineer who replied. He added that sandbags had been put in place where the dam was broken for now; hundreds had already been placed there. “The permanent repair will begin when the water level goes down,” he explained.

“Great,” said the Chief Minister, casting an eye at the clock, “Let’s take a look at your dam as well. The meeting should be over in ten minutes.”

It was now less than one hour before sunset.

“The road to the dam is in very poor condition…” said the Chief Engineer.

“Well, how do you get there?”

“Sir, I get there by jeep, as best I can.”

“Wonderful, I’ll get there by jeep as best I can as well,” he said to everyone. “Not everyone needs to go. Two jeeps at the most…”

There were three jeeps in all: his in the middle, some officials in the jeep up ahead, the security guard’s jeep in the rear. Very slowly they made their way along the four-and-a-half kilometer journey.

The jeep was slowly inching along, avoiding potholes and dangerous ruts. The young Collector had taken on the work of driving himself. The Chief Minister silently watched his skillful driving for some time; then he said, “You should have told the Chief Secretary your problem, or told me directly. Why drag the Prime Minister’s office into the middle of this?”

“Forgive me, sir! But it was my wife’s fault. I had no idea; she was in Delhi, and…”

The Chief Minister knew that the Collector’s wife taught in some branch of Delhi Public School; that she showed promise and was becoming quite well known in society as an artist; and that she also had political aspirations. She’d been eager for some time to see her husband posted to the central government in Delhi. Now she’d been successful in having him transferred to Delhi; the order for his transfer had already been made.

“You can hand over your duties at the end of this week,” said the Chief Minister.

The Collector continued to drive the jeep silently, his attention ostensibly focused on a rut in the middle of the road caused by the sinking of the dam. After driving along the edge for a while, the road seemed clear up a bit. Then he said, “Sir, I want to go to Delhi, there’s no doubt about that. But how can I leave this district in this condition when I’ve served here for two and a half years? I want to stay here until the relief efforts have been completed. But of course, whatever you command.”

The Relief Commissioner and the Deputy Inspector General sitting in the back of the jeep both looked up at once and smiled at one another. The golden figure of twenty-six followed by seven zeroes sparkling in a row danced before their eyes. They both knew that since the Chief Minister had announced that first relief installment in the public meeting, the figure had been glittering before the eyes of the Collector, sometimes with the multi-hued luster of a rainbow, sometimes with the ultimate sparkle of solid gold. His need to serve the people would now detain him here for many months, even if that meant the cancellation of his transfer to Delhi.

“That’s fine,” said the Chief Minister.

Then silence. They were witnessing for the first time the terror of the flood up close, not just from the height of the helicopter, as they drove along the ridge of the dam, the vast expanse of water stretching out to both sides.

After they had driven some distance, the Collector wanted to say some things about the natural sights and geography of the place, but he felt that the Chief Minister was particularly quiet. He fell silent. Two motorboats appeared in the river to the left, some distance away, their faint buzzing echoing all the way to the dam. The Collector wanted to attract the Chief Minister’s attention to them, but he couldn’t muster the courage to break the concentration with which he stared at the sheer horror of the flood waters.

It seemed as though a prehistoric beast, miles long, was completely submerged in the water; only its rough tail rose above the surface–the rugged road along the dam. The tail might rise at any moment, wag from side to side, and then suddenly disappear into the water again.

Up ahead, the dam road suddenly became a bit wider, perhaps some room had been made for parking cars and turning around. Some attractive trees had been planted to one side there, all that remained of which were a few thick branches and the trunks; the rest had all been snatched away by the lashing winds and rain. The first crack in the dam was about one hundred meters on, where a stream about three meters wide had broken through. That might have been even wider, but it had been stopped by “round the clock” labor.

The Chief Minister walked slowly from there toward the broken dam without saying a word. Four or five people walked behind him. The Chief Engineer’s false claim of “round the clock” repairs had now been exposed. He and the Collector walked at the very rear of the group. The road across the dam was a lifeline for the region. Nonetheless, the Chief Minister now saw that whatever had happened there before, there were certainly no repairs taking place now. Actually, before the dam had broken, and until it broke, great efforts had been made to stop the water with sandbags; but now, since the water level on both sides was more or less equal, and the flow of water from the river to the other side had stopped, the repair work had stopped too; they were just waiting for the water level to go down.

The Chief Minister stood quietly at the edge of the broken dam. Before him lay the boundless expanse of water which the dam on the other side of the break continued to divide for some distance. To one side, far off, was the hazy black row of trees on the horizon, and to the other, the black and red clouds of sunset that arrested the seemingly boundless expanse of water.

The Chief Engineer and the Collector had reached him and awaited an explosion of anger and an announcement of punishment. Mustering a bit of courage, the Chief Engineer opened his mouth to clarify himself regarding the repair of the dam, “Sir…” he said.

The Chief Minister silenced him with a gesture; with only a gesture, he signaled for him to move away. When he’d walked far away, the Collector followed suit. Understanding his intentions now, more people moved back as well. He remained there alone to gaze upon the melancholic sight of the flood.

Now the morning’s public audience was far behind him, his flippant remark about the collapsing canopy, even the announcements made one hour before at the public meeting; even any desire to punish careless officers–nothing was left of those moments. Instead, all he saw was the still, hazy shadow of whatever he’d left behind half a century ago in the dusty lanes of a poor, destitute village, to come away to the outside world, which seemed to hover just above surface of the water.

Who knows how long he remained standing there alone. The sun had already set, but it would still be some time before darkness fell. The Revenue Minister walked slowly and noiselessly up behind him and said, “Let’s go back, sir.”

He stared back at him blankly.

“Where?” he asked.


Shrilal Shukla

Shrilal Shukla (1925-2011) was an acclaimed Hindi writer noted for his satire. A lifelong civil servant, many of his works reflect his deep involvement in government bureaucracy and his detailed knowledge of village life in north India. Most noted for his epic novel Raag Darbari, in which he lampoons the notion that India’s villages are a utopian refuge for the pure of heart, he wrote over twenty-five books, including novels, collections of short stories, and satirical essays.

Daisy Rockwell

Daisy Rockwell is a writer, painter, and translator living in Vermont. She holds a PhD in Hindi literature from the University of Chicago, and her translations of Hindi author Upendranath Ashk’s novel Falling Walls (2015), and short story collection, Hats and Doctors (2013), are published by Penguin Classics, India. She has published numerous short story translations, a novel of her own, Taste (Foxhead: 2014), and The Little Book of Terror (Foxhead: 2012), a collection of her paintings and essays on America’s War on Terror.

Copyright (c) Estate of Shrilal Shukla, 2003. English translation copyright (c) Daisy Rockwell, 2016.