July 26, 2015
Lying on his back Alok was loudly snoring. Perhaps irritated by the whistling noise, his wife Malini turned on her side. Their only daughter 14-year-old Munni was in deep sleep below their bed. Midnight had passed by making way to foredawn.
It was a script of a recurring dream. The scenes had replayed in his mind for the past several years. The dreaded event had traumatized him repeatedly. He worked as security guard for a restaurant and was on night shift. It was half past three in the morning. He was unexpectedly shaken while catnapping at entrance.
Thud! Some heavy object had loudly struck a strong surface.
Alok knew that it was an accident. Alerted by the vibration, he ran towards the road. The restaurant gate was right opposite a bakery. An SUV had hit the shutter of the restaurant after climbing on to the pavement. The vehicle had ploughed people sleeping on the pavement. The sight was filled with complete horror and shock. The victims, who were caught underneath cried in pain and distress. Streams of blood oozed out.
While striding closer, Alok had seen the man alighting from the driver’s seat. Under bright streetlights, his face appeared to be familiar. He stumbled and somehow managed to stand. His body language suggested he was inebriated. His mannerisms indicated overflow of self-absorbed attitude, commonly seen in the rich and famous. Alok failed to recognize him although he looked like a known face. The person next to the driver’s seat hurriedly rushed out to help him to stay in balance. A visibly shaken man got down from the backseat and hastily punched his cellphone numbers. He stared all around in trepidation before speaking into his mobile phone.
Woken up by the uproar, workers of the bakery came out from the back door. Some joined the commotion. The rest quickly moved to help the victims. A bakery worker advanced closer to the lurching wealthy man.
"He is Sharman, the famous singer," The worker loudly declared.
"Yes, this is Sharman’s vehicle," one more employee screamed. A few others furiously surrounded the singer. His friend failed in his attempt to separate the singer from the crowd. The celebrity was hemmed in. The atmosphere turned contentious.
"He is drunk. I can smell liquor," a person mockingly commented.
"Don’t leave him. He has hit the poor and innocents." Someone was outraged.
Alok’s senses became active the moment Sharman’s name was mentioned. Sharman was truly a popular singer, heartthrob of the nation. Young and old adored him. People admired his good looks, melodious voice and stage presence. His face was commonly publicized on billboards, newspaper advertisements and TV commercials. Tabloids covered his relationships with famed women actors. He had greatest hits of albums and live shows to his credit. Crazy fans waited outside his residence to sneak a glimpse of him.
Was he the same Sharman? That too held by the crowd at an accident spot for drunken driving? Alok found it difficult to believe.
The celebrity and his friends were belligerently cornered. Victims cried for help. While the efforts continued to save bleeding victims, a car suddenly appeared and halted beside the battered bodies. A couple of blokes got down and rushed towards Sharman. They looked like his siblings. They managed to unshackle Sharman from crowd and pushed him away towards the car. Before people could question, the car had vanished from the scene. Police arrived with ambulance after a few minutes. The crane was brought to remove the victims beneath the vehicle. Police seized the SUV. Five were taken in the ambulance, whereas one of them breathed his last on the way to hospital.
The hot news on Sharman’s hit and run case came under media scanner for the next few days.
Newspapers and TV channels debated on Sharman’s desertion from accident spot after ramming his vehicle into the bakery. The singer was condemned for not helping the injured victims after mowing five pavement dwellers. The police initiated action against the celebrity. His blood samples had proven high level of alcohol content.
Alok was visibly distressed as he abruptly woke up from sleep. He sat on his bed startled by what he saw in his dream.
"What happened?" Disturbed by her husband’s reaction, Malini opened her eyes.
"Did someone knock the door? I heard some noise." His voice trembled in fear.
"You are being troubled by last twelve years of nightmare." She grumbled. "It was your decision to be the prime witness for the hit-and-run case. You made our lives harder and harder by going against the powerful and strong."
Alok remained silent. He did not have an answer. The hit-and-run accident had happened in September 2002. Now it was June 2014. The nightmare had been haunting him for the last twelve years. His only child Munni was then 2 years old and now her age was fourteen. Too many things had taken place during the period. That left them torn between idealism and realism.
He was not the only prime witness to case. Constable Inder had occupied the front passenger seat and he was then assigned to protect Sharman due to underworld threats. Up-and-coming actor Vimal had accompanied them at the backseat. One person had died and four were severely injured. Alok had agreed to be a prime witness to serve justice to poor victims. Inspector Gajendra, the cop in charge of this high-profile case, had persuaded Alok to be a key witness.
Sharman’s friend Vimal, security cop Inder and Alok’s testimonies had one common factor. All three had stated that Sharman was behind the wheel. The case had garnered attention from local and international media. Those who believed in justice hoped the celebrity singer would be punished for his act.
Alok had formed a nerve-wracking situation for himself and his family. The fight for justice against thepolitically and financially influential was not easy. Slowly and gradually, he realized the forces were too powerful. Once his role of witness for prosecution was made public, some hired thugs came after him. His doors were knocked at midnight. Assaulters terrified him by pelting stones at his house. Unknown callers threatened acid attacks. He was strictly told not to testify by miscreants.
The risk factor was high. He had exposed himself and his family to danger. As advised by Inspector Gajendra, he changed jobs, shifted locations and bought new cell phone numbers. It turned out to be short-term solutions. Transgressors managed to find his whereabouts. He was repeatedly hounded. It happened every time. The scary saga continued.
Nevertheless, Alok failed to understand the logic behind Inspector Gajendra’s motive. Despite the fact that he was a key witness, Alok was kept away from court proceedings. He did not get an opportunity to appear for trial. Meanwhile two other prime witnesses had disappeared from the scene. Sharman’s friend Vimal put an end to his promising acting career and relocated himself to United Kingdom. Thereafter he never returned.
Police Constable Inder died in 2007 due to tuberculosis with no family and friends by his side. It was reported that he too was traumatized and pressurized to withdraw from hit and run case.
In absence of two other witnesses, Alok’s testimony had become critical element to nail down the guilty. The court hearing was scheduled for tomorrow. Inspector Gajendra had advised him not to worry and assured complete police security.
Now he had taken a job as a helper in a private school. His daughter was studying in the same institution. Considering his daughter’s safety, he had willingly accepted the job, so that he could escort his daughter on her way to school and back. Soon after breakfast, they were getting ready to go to school. His cellphone began to ring. Anxiously, he looked at the unknown number.
"Hello…" Alok spoke in a weak tone as his heart raced.
"Do you remember me?" The rough voice sounded familiar. "We know your whereabouts."
"Who are you?"
"That’s not important." The caller harshly advised him. "What’s important is tomorrow’s court hearing. If you testify against Sharman, we will declare death penalty to you and your family. You will have to remember this."
The line was disconnected. Adversaries had once again unearthed his location. Danger lurked round the corner. He was exposed to vulnerability. Sweat began to bead around his forehead with breathing going heavier.
This was not the first time. He would get into labored breathing while intimidated. The threatening calls sent shivers down his spine. He felt his heart stutter and called Inspector Gajendra in panic.
"I have been trying hard to keep you away from bad guys." Gajendra took a deep breath. "At times I am helpless. There are traitors within our department."
"I am sick and tired of playing hide and seek. What about tomorrow’s court hearing? Will they allow me to appear in court? There could be an assault. I am worried." Alok’s voice sounded low.
"Don’t worry. I have a meeting with the Home Minister. We will find a way out." Inspector Gajendra assured. "By afternoon, I will meet you at the school."
Alok instructed Malini to lock and not to open the door until they return from school. While walking with his daughter, he suspiciously looked around. Enemies could be on prowl. Life had become truly stressful in his struggle to shield his family from harm. Perhaps he had committed an error of judgment.
What was the need to follow the path of truth and justice?
Inspector Gajendra arrived at 2 pm and joined him for cup of tea at the school canteen.
"I have some good news." Inspector Gajendra looked completely relaxed. "Don’t worry. Everything is going to be alright."
"What do you mean?" Alok raised his eyebrows in confusion.
"Listen to this." Inspector Gajendra theatrically whispered. "Yesterday night Sharman and his lawyer had a meeting with the Home Minister in a five star hotel. Sharman has agreed to release large funds for their party fund. The Chief Minister is aware of this. I will get my share. You too would be suitably compensated."
"Why should I be? I never asked for this." Alok opposed the idea.
"Your life has been helter-skelter for the last twelve years." Inspector Gajendra tried to persuade him. "Believe me; you are entitled for your sweat equity. You toiled enough. It is time to be paid. Nothing wrong in that."
"Remember, Sharman had run over poor people sleeping on the pavement. A homeless man was killed and four others were injured due to his drunk and rash driving. He had cowardly run away from the scene without helping the injured. Why do you want him to escape without punishment?" Alok shrugged his shoulders.
"Don’t think too much about it." Inspector Gajendra cut him short. "Accept the reward that falls into your lap."
Month of May 2015.
A couple of days back, Sessions court had sentenced Sharman for five years of rigorous imprisonment for 2002 hit and run case. However, within 48 hours the high court suspended his sentence. The celebrity singer was released after executing a cash bail. The speed in which it was done left the nation astonished. It was proved that judicial system worked better for the rich and privileged. Undeniably, it had served great advertisement for drunken driving!
The news was sensationalized and covered widely by most TV channels. Alok watched the telecast by glancing at the TV in the school reception area. He had remained the key witness to this case until 2014. In a twist of events, he had reneged on his earlier statement made before the police. He was questioned by the world when he turned into a hostile witness. Media had rightfully suspected underhand dealings. Alok had his reasons. Then he was repeatedly exposed to danger. Once the trusted cop showed his true color, Alok had felt vulnerable and too weak to fight on. Prompted by insecurity and anxiety, he had withdrawn his statement. However, he had rejected the money offer from Inspector Gajendra.
After watching the live coverage on Sharman’s hit-and-run case, Alok shakily walked towards the pantry. His conscience disturbed him. He was filled with remorse for withdrawing his statement in 2014. Guilt-ridden, he deemed himself a bigger culprit than Sharman!