A callow youth in orange tee pressed the doorbell just after the mustachioed milkman left with his can. It was like choking the bell till someone showed up at the door.
“You have to come to the branch at noon today,” the guy in his early twenties delivered tersely before I could ask him anything related to identity.
“What branch and where?” I asked him with an innocent face.
“It is a call from the culture wing. The branch head wants to see you in the city office,” the youth replied seriously, almost like a threat.
The address was not required. It was the most feared address, dreadful like the bypass stretch stalked by thugs and foxes. I popped in a few almonds and jogged my recent memory. I could not recall having written anything remotely seditious. Only a couple of seductive short pieces were stored in my word processor. I decided to put it on hold in the fear of ruffling feathers and dhotis of geriatric mavericks.
The next one hour passed in anxiety. I imagined the worst was about to happen. I feared a frenzied mob stoning me to death. I feared cops towing me away to the nearest police station and slapping draconian charges. I was worried why the branch head had summoned me to the headquarters. Did he want me to write something for the party mouthpiece? Did he want me to motivate youngsters to sign up as members? Did he want me to conduct yoga sessions?
I made an attempt to seek support from friends though I knew they would serve excuses to stay aloof. None of my friends wanted to meet the branch head of the culture wing. They had important client meetings and presentations scheduled for the day. Mustering courage stemming from conviction, I made a dash to the branch office in simple ethnic wear. I clipped two pens quite prominently near my kurta buttons.
I reached the branch office on time. Portraits of freedom fighters I had not read in history occupied the walls. I was made to wait for the branch head inside his chamber. The walls were adorned with commandments to lead a purely Indian way of life, with quotes from thinkers and philosophers whose photographs or sketches were not available. Something burnt deep within, something collapsed, something rampaged, something dismantled, something purely un-Indian assailed me in that brief span of waiting, once as a figment of imagination and quickly as a reminder of a brutal past.
The wobbly chair made of wood unsettled me when I had to quickly rein in my thoughts and stand up out of fear rather than respect to greet the branch head. Conditioned to shake hands, I switched to a warm Namaste with folded hands this time for safety reasons. I sat on the edge of the seat, twitching in nervousness. I was facing an interrogation for the first time with no idea of what it was all about.
After settling down and ordering tea, he began with a few introductory warm-up queries. He asked for my full name and confirmed the complete address. I tried to keep a genial face and smiled pretty often.
The branch head was a small fry in terms of build. He was not the imposing kind. His voice was not something that would scare people. However, he could raise it to a fearsome pitch in accordance with the situation. He had nothing to suggest his merit to head the culture wing. But then, merit does not deserve merit.
The tea was served in paper cups. I could not refuse the offered cup. I slurped the syrupy, sugar-free cup and tossed it in the basket underneath the table. I waited for him to begin. He crushed the paper cup with more ferocity than the simple act required.
“Inside your drawing room, on the wall opposite the entrance door, there is a dirty picture of a naked woman.”
This factual input gave a jolt. It was beyond the realm of my imagination that the culture purist could have gathered accurate information regarding the wall of my modest abode.
He pulled out some booklets from the cabinet and asked me to read and clean up my dirty mind.
“Sir, it is a good painting bought from an art gallery,” I clarified in self-defence.
“Please do not teach me art. I was an art teacher for ten years in school,” he hollered.
“I am not arguing with you, Sir.”
“You have been asked to report here because we want you to remove it from the wall immediately. I do not think you will disobey this order from high command. You are an educated person, realise it is not part of our culture. Give a good message to society.”
“So we agree on its removal immediately,” he confirmed, giving his left ear a good, vibrant shake.
“Yes, Sir. As you say.”
“Okay then, please do it today and by tomorrow morning, we’ll get the news.”
This was another startling revelation. I could not decipher how the branch head would get information about its removal. Did he install surveillance system or some other snooping mechanism? I went home thinking about freedom and the threat looming and zooming large. Though I was lucky to escape with a mild order, with no damage to limbs and self-respect, I felt I was deprived to live free in a free country.
Reaching home, the first thing I did was to bring it down from the wall. I stood on the sofa to reach the hook. The dismantled painting was wrapped in a newspaper, tied up and dumped in the store-room.
I was thinking of how to solve the mystery behind the reportage. Find the snake in the grass. All friends of mine were liberal-minded. Such a mischief would not be their doing.
Next morning, the milkman arrived early. I opened the door. While measuring the quantity, his attention wavered. I noticed he was trying to peep inside and look for something. After he left with a loud Jai-Ram-Ji, beaming a wide smile of satisfaction, I could gather the complete truth behind the complaint lodged against me in the culture wing.