August 22, 2011
Late noon, I locked the cash-counter, informed the cook and left home for lunch. Our hotel serves lunch for many: field workers, day to day laborers and occasional visitors. I though, never take my lunch at the hotel. No matter how busy I am, I make it a point to eat at home.
Everyday, I cross the railway-gate, before the mail-train arrives. Once the gate is closed, the junction gets crowded. The train is still new for us. Even now, whenever a train passes, children run to the tracks and wave. People stop their chores, to have a good look at the passing mammoth. Spoiled brats place coins on the rail and wait in hiding, for the train to flatten it.
After lunch, I take a nap on the charpoy, under the jack-fruit tree. Inside the home, heat is unbearable. In the evening, just before the customers come for refreshments, I reach the hotel.
As I started walking along the rails, I heard the honk. I stopped at a safe distance and waited for the train to pass. Then something I saw shook my soul. Laxmi was playing on the tracks - she was deaf by birth. Presently, I saw the train entering my vision.
In my younger days, I would have raced for rescue, but I am just a shadow of my youth. Then I saw another person, Mohan, between me and the child. That gave me a huge relief. I thanked all Gods and Goddesses, for sending the savior.
“Save the child,” I shouted.
Apparently, Mohan had not seen the child, for he waved at me to repeat whatever I was shouting.
“Save the child.”
Only then he saw the child, and a look of horror came on his face. The train was alarmingly close. He took a couple of quick steps. Then he stopped. He didn’t move, instead cupped his ears in both hands, and squatted on the ground. I started running towards the child - a futile run. The train didn’t stop. It dragged the lifeless body for miles. Later I came to know that our station-master had to call the next station to stop the train. Police found the body a few hours later.
A large crowd had gathered, in the veranda of the victim’s house. I stood at a distance. Inside the house I saw my wife, Manju, consoling Laxmi’s parents. I didn’t have the courage to face them. The girl was their youngest. The elder one, a boy, has been sent to his grandparent’s house. I could not stand the wailing and mourning - I left the place after some time.
Being a witness, I was summoned to the police station. I preferred to go alone. But Manju wanted a dependable person to accompany me. Finally, I went with Sankara, my brother-in-law, who promised to take me on his bike. He owns the local gym; hence, he doesn’t have any time constraints.
At the station, I gave a detailed report of the event.
“When will you do the arrest?” I asked the inspector.
“What is your question again?” said the inspector. He was tall, dark and well built.
Not understanding the sarcasm, Sankara was about to repeat the question, when I gave a slight nudge.
“Nothing important, sir,” I said. I had never talked to this inspector, in the past; though, many a times, I had seen him racing on his bike, in front of the hotel. I had never been in a station; the unfriendly atmosphere made me uneasy.
From the station, we went to the hotel. The regulars were eagerly waiting for fresh news. Ignoring them, I went straight to the kitchen, to get updates from the cook. Our tea-boy had not returned from the vacation.
On my way out from the kitchen, I saw Mohan’s future father-in-law, retired Subba Rao, reading paper, at a corner table. Usually, he takes active participation in the debates over local politics. But today he was quiet and distant. I pulled out a chair and sank into it.
“Police will do an arrest soon,” I said. After a pause I continued, “If I were you, I wouldn’t give my daughter to an animal.”
He let out a sigh, closed the newspaper neatly, paid the bill and went out - a sad man. But all this happened before the wedding, which is good for him.
Customers at the hotel, talk only about the accident. I heard many versions of the incident: some farfetched, some creative, some so much far from truth - they were just lies. People forget that I was an eye witness. The local newspaper ran the same story for days; they didn’t have anything new to report. At last they had to change the headlines for the fear of losing circulation.
Traumatized by nightmares, I wake up at odd hours. On the fateful day, in the final moments, the child had looked straight into my eyes, or may be this is my imagination. I no more know what is real. For a couple of days, I didn’t go to the hotel. The cook took care of the business.
Constable Ranga informed me yesterday, that an arrest is no more an option. He gave me some legal jargon: Police cannot arrest a person for failing his moral responsibility or some such preposterous thing. I know the police: they just want to wash their hands off this matter.
Ranga had spread the news. The regulars at the hotel - at least a few of them - were waiting like vultures to hear my reasoning about this new development. I had no convincing answer; I shouldn’t have lied to Subba Rao in the first place. This whole thing occupied my mind as I entered the hotel.
But, then I saw something that made me lose my control: Mohan was at a corner table having his breakfast. I dashed to his table and swiped away his plate.
“How dare you enter my hotel?”
The chattering of the regulars stopped. Even the sizzling dosa-making noise from the kitchen halted.
“Get out from here,” I said.
Sankara came to me; he sensed the situation.
“Should I throw him out?” he asked. But Mohan was already on his way out.
“One of these days,” Sankara said, “I will teach him a thing or two.”
That worried me. In the past I had avoided my brother-in-law. He is impulsive. I don’t approve some of his actions during the past election. “I can handle this,” I said.
In the past I had never interacted much with Mohan. Except the few times I had gone to his home to pay my daughter’s tuition fee, there was not much interaction.
“Vasu, you are a little harsh on the lad,” said postman Inas.
“First pay the month long pending bill, then give me your preaching,” I said. That silenced him. The regulars turned away their faces.
“Mohan’s marriage has been called off.” Manju informed me at dinner. I continued eating in silence.
“People say it was your suggestion.”
“I don’t care what people say. I said whatever I thought correct.”
“Why are you getting involved in unnecessary matters?”
“I am not getting involved in anything. In fact I don’t want anything from him. Stop Pammi’s tuitions. No need to have any contacts with the beast.”
“The poor fellow has a bedridden mother...”
“I don’t care. I don’t run a charity business.”
“Think about Pammi. Her marks are not good.”
“I will find a new teacher. Where is she?”
“In her room.”
“Did she eat?”
“No. She is there since evening. She didn’t do well in a subject. Principal has warned her of not promoting to the next class, if the marks in the finals were not good. He wants 100% results in SSLC. He has a lot of pressure from the English Medium School.”
I found Pammi in her room, typing on her mobile phone. I had gone there to console her; but seeing her wasting time on the cell phone irritated me.
“Day and night you type on the phone. If only you had written so much on the exam papers, you would stand number one in the class.”
She ignored my sarcasm.
“What do you plan to do, if you lose a year?”
“Say something. I am talking to you.”
She continued typing. “Probably you want to slap me now…” she murmured.
I was just about to do that. It took a supreme effort to control myself.
“If you are not interested in study, start working in the hotel kitchen from tomorrow-”
I banged the door and came out. Last few years, I have been worrying about the opportunities she would miss because of the lack of education. I worry she will end up like me - A village life with no future.
Years ago, in a similar situation, I had told Father that I rather prefer to work in the hotel than learning useless math theorems. Father had raised a hand, a sharp blow was on way, but I had blocked his hand in mid air. I held his hand and squeezed a bit that made him wince in pain. I was young and arrogant. I told him: “In future, I want you to think before raising a hand.”
The words just came out of my mouth, they were not planned. How I regret, every moment, if only I could go back in time and erase the past. Since then, Father never raised a hand. Soon after, I joined the hotel. He neither consented nor objected: He was just indifferent. That was his stand, till the end, for pretty much everything I did.
On the death bed, he was asked if he wanted to spend his final moments with his son. He desired a talk with Sastri - his dear friend.
Long back, before I was born, Father had not come back till late night from a swim at the river. People lost hope. He returned in the wee hours. Only Sastri was waiting for him, all night at the river, for he knew his friend would come back.
Presently, Sastri was summoned for the last time; the two friends chatted about an hour in private. I was outside the room, all the time. I didn’t hear what they said. Sastri never mentioned about it; he stopped coming to the hotel after Father’s death.
I see the same indifference in my daughter’s eyes. Sometimes I wish, if only she had hated me, instead of the unconcern.
Yesterday, I saw Laxmi’s parents, at the riverbank. They had come out for fresh air, being inside the house for days. A few pedestrians stopped to exchange kind words. Life won’t be same for them. But people have already forgotten the past. I see Mohan now and then. He is free. In retrospect, there is no justice in the whole incident. Are we to keep quiet and turn a blind eye? If no one raises a voice, then how are we different from animals? My thoughts broke off, as I saw Sankara parking his bike. It was a little early for his visit.
“Pammi is still going for tuition,” he said. An uncontrollable fit seized me.
“Take me to his home.”
On the way, I didn’t say anything. My whole body shivered with rage. We parked in front of Mohan’s house.
“Stay here,” I told Sankara.
“Why don’t you let me handle it? I will solve this permanently.”
“I will ask your help when the situation goes out of my hand,” I told him.
I darted into the house and opened one of the doors - found his bedridden mother. “Is that you Vasu?” she said.
I didn’t answer. I found Mohan in the next room. There were no students. He stood up seeing me. I went straight to him.
“If I ever see my daughter in your home, I will break your legs.”
I didn’t wait for his response. While returning, Sankara threw many questions; I ignored him.
The second day, I saw Pammi - school bag on the back - at a distance, coming to the hotel. She had gone to the tuition and had been promptly sent back. I could sense this from her manner.
“We can talk this at home,” I told her before she said anything. Sankara was next to me.
“So this is what you do,” She said, eyes red, chest heaving, “You enter people’s house without permission and threaten them of breaking their legs.”
“Elders know what is good-” started Sankara.
“I am not talking to you,” she cut him off and turned towards me, “you are no different from him.” Pammi had never liked her mama. I didn’t want to create a scene in front of the customers; some of them were already throwing curious glances at us. I waited for her to leave.
“Mohan is setting your daughter against you,” Said Sankara. He was right; At least the fool had gathered that much correctly.
At dinner, an awkward silence prevailed. Pammi was sober now. The whole evening, I was brooding over whatever she said at the hotel.
“I don’t like my daughter lecturing me, at my own hotel, in the presence of customers,” I said, measuring every word. “When you run this house with your money, do whatever you like.”
She pushed away the plate and left the room.
“Pammi-” Manju called her.
“Let her go.”
I was awake till late night. Manju spent a long time in the kitchen, washing the plates; a couple of times, I heard loud noises of plates clanking - her way of showing disapproval. When she finally came to bed, she slept on the edge, farthest from me.
Since the moment Mohan entered my life, I had lost peace. Things were running out of my hand.
Though, I don’t have permit for serving alcohol in my hotel, on special occasions - like after the local elections or yearly jatra - it is allowed in moderation. Indian cricket team had won an impossible victory. After the match, a large crowd had gathered at the hotel. Drinks were served in opaque glasses to regular customers.
“I can take anyone here,” Sankara was challenging someone in the crowd. I had seen him gulping a couple of large pegs, behind the kitchen counter. Though he was tipsy, his animal strength was well known.
“Anyone here,” Sankara shouted, “I will use only one hand.”
Outside, at the bus stop, I saw Mohan; a devilish thought came to my mind. “I know a person,” I said loudly to the crowd, no one in particular, “who can challenge Sankara. I am ready to bet any amount.” I pointed Mohan. The crowd got wild. They wanted blood. Someone rushed out and dragged Mohan inside the hotel. Bets were laid. I was the only one betting against Sankara.
I walked up to him. “You wanted to take over,” I told him in undertone, “this is your chance.”
I didn’t care for money. I wanted to see the monster crushed: bloodied and begging for mercy.
Tables were pushed to the corner. The crowd made a circle leaving out the place for the contenders. Fresh liquor bottles were passed among the crowd - no more concealing the alcohol. Butler Bona noted the bets and explained the rules to the crowd: A bare fist fight, till one of the contenders fail to rise. Alarmingly composed, Mohan looked like a detached spectator - not the person whose fate was at stake.
“Do you understand the rules?” asked Bona.
“No rules,” shouted Sankara. “Mohan, I warn you. If you want to leave, do it now.” He had removed the shirt; his skin was oily; his muscles were shining in the amber light.
“Do you have any questions?” Bona asked the underdog, who remained silent. The crowd got restless; they didn’t like these formalities.
“Are you deaf?” Bona - self appointed umpire - pulled Mohan’s sleeves. On a regular day, Bona is a quiet person, but today he had had one too many pegs. “Do you have any questions deaf mother-f*#$er?” He pushed Mohan, who stood erect, not acknowledging the jostle. Mohan looked straight at me. For some reason the crowd had gone silent.
“Do you have any questions?” The question was asked the third time, impatiently.
“Can I kill him?” Mohan said, pointing Sankara.
I heard him very clearly. The words thundered in my ears. For years, sitting at the cash-counter, I have analyzed customers: Simple people, frustrated laborers, farmers waiting for rain, women no more young. I have seen all sorts of them. And now, in Mohan, I saw a man in desperation: A cornered man. On any given day, he was not a match for Sankara. But, I saw the fire in his eyes. I saw the determination. A determined man can achieve whatever he wants. I realized he would do what he said.
I went to Mohan. “Leave this place,” I said. He left without a word. The crowd booed. “Go home,” I told everyone and went inside the kitchen.
Sankara was not in a position to ride his Bike. I took the front seat, while Sankara leant on me from the backseat. We rode along the river.
A small group of devotees were coming to the river. The rhythmic chants and musical instruments occupied air. I stopped the bike in the corner, to make way for the devotees. On the old, railing less, bridge I saw the silhouette of a person. The bridge has been abandoned, since drunkard Boja fell off it to his demise 3 years ago.
“It’s Mohan,” said Sankara. “He sits there all the time.”
“I wish someone would push him off that bridge to his end.”
“I was going to do the same thing, had you not backed out.”
I gave the fool a sharp look.
“Be thankful, I saved your life.”
He gave a nervous laugh. “Let’s go from here,” he said.
I found Manju at the gate. “Pammi has not returned from school; she is not picking the phone either. Her results were announced today.” I had forgotten about the results. I tried calling her in vain. Then, I went to our neighbor and called from Ramya’s cell phone.
“Pammi where are you?”
“I am at-” she recognized my voice.
“Talk louder; what is that noise in the background?”
“I am going to a place you cannot reach,” I heard that very clearly amidst the background noise. She disconnected.
“Where is she?” Manju had joined by then. Her eyes welled up.
I left Manju with her brother and raced the bike towards the river. I had heard the chants on the cell phone; she was near the old bridge.
At the foot of the old bridge, I dropped the bike and raced towards Pammi. She had already covered half-way on the bridge.
“Pammi,” I shouted. “Wait!”
She was surprised seeing me.
“Please,” I said, “don’t do it.”
She looked at the water below. It was high tide in the river. No boats were crossing, water had a mad rush.
“I failed in the exam.”
“Don’t worry about it; next time-”
“I can never live up to your expectations…wait!” she shouted, “If you take one step forward, I will jump.”
In that moment, I realized she won’t listen to me. I had failed her. Painfully, it dawned on me that these were the final moments. When she was a child, I used to spend so much time with her. She was very much attached to me. Somewhere the bond was broken and mundane things took precedence.
“Pammi, May I talk to you for a moment?” It was Mohan. He had approached her from the other side of the bridge. “Suicide is a permanent solution for a temporary problem,” he said.
“I don’t need your lecture.”
“Think about your mother,” he said.
“This is none of your business.”
“If you jump,” said Mohan, “I will jump too.”
She looked at him, wide eyed. “Can you swim?”
“You didn’t save Laxhmi. How come you are so generous today?”
“I don’t have an option.”
“Don’t think you can talk me out of this-”
“I am not doing any such thing,” he said, “But if you jump, I will jump too. I will try my best to save you.”
“Why this sudden change?”
“I was scared.”
“I was scared at the train. I thought I would die. I froze. That incident has haunted me every night. I can’t sleep anymore. I get scary dreams. I see the child in them. By placing you here, God has given me another opportunity. I cannot leave you to kill yourself. I cannot have two deaths on my conscience. Please don’t kill yourself. Let me help you. Save me. I am begging you.”
He squatted on the bridge; covering his face, he wept uncontrollably. When Pammi placed a hand on his shoulder, he clutched it like a drowning man grasping for the last straw. He wiped off the tears from the back of his hand. “Thank you,” he said, “for saving me.”
I don’t know how long I sat on the riverbank. It was dark, when the sky broke and the rains started pouring. The water quenched the fire in me, and cleansed my soul. Mohan had not only saved my daughter, he saved me. The scales fell off my eyes. I saw things clearly: I was neither an avenger, nor a weapon of God. I am just a weak person.
The rain was not stopping; when I got up, drenched, I saw a person in all-white, standing at a distance. I don’t know how long Sastri was waiting in his umbrella. Certainly, he had been waiting for quite sometime. Not knowing what to say, I just stood in front of him. He came forward and took me under his umbrella. We walked home in silence.
Ravi Lobo - Archives:
- Everyday is a Miracle...
- Short Story : The New Tenants...
- The Long Wait
- Good News...
- A Fast Train to Virar...
- After the storm
- Mangalore days
- My Wedding and Related Incidents
- Grandpa and Grandson...
- My world
- Forgive me Father
- City by the sea
- A simple life
- Last in the boat race
- An affair to remember
- All about Life Cycle - its Faces and Phases