Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Stranger

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               It was still dark outside when he creaked the door open. Quickly slipping out of the front gate, he slid into the driver's seat of his jeep. The jeep roared to a start which made Mahesh curse and hope that no one noticed his departure. His joints ached in the chill of the early hours and the wool that he wore gave him little comfort. Inconvenient as it was, he was determined to rest his curiosity before the day ended.

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               Retired cop Mahesh Acharya, was used to the disciplined life that he had lived while in active service and went about his retired days the same way, sticking to a schedule. He did not like the interruption that the untimely rain had brought into his morning jogging. Reclined on the sofa of their large living room, he was sipping his morning black tea. His wife followed only one ritual that even the rains could not hamper. She was ready to leave for the temple to offer her prayers to Lord Shiva, when the stranger had come. Gentle and superstitious by nature, she took it as some divine signal. The stranger was a young girl, no more than 10. Drenched to the core and shivering, she had begged for some food. Mahesh did not pay any attention to the girl. It was common for beggars to ask for help and the temple being a stone's throw from their house, beggars were there in plenty. The regular ones knew his temper and stayed away while the naive ones dared and got a taste of his fury.

              Nandini was unreasonably adamant to keep the girl with them. She had argued that the girl was well behaved and willing to odd jobs at their home. Mahesh saw no reason to take the girl in when they already had Rukmabai as a maid but Nandini seldom insisted on anything and when she did, it was only fair that Mahesh obliged. Grudgingly, Mahesh had agreed to see the girl and interrogate her. Nandini had stayed by her side and answered for her. It was a second nature to Mahesh, doubting and cross questioning people was what he had done for 40 years. The girl knew nothing of her background except for her name. Pratiksha. After the death of her mother, her maternal uncle had brought her to the city and left her alone at the railway station. She did not know even the name of her village. Mahesh had asked Nandini to keep an eye on the girl and not trust her blindly even though he had nothing to doubt her.

           Within days, Pratiksha had grown close to Nandini. Mahesh had to agree, the girl was indeed well behaved and did her job to the T. She never gave any reason to complain. Nandini took her more as a daughter than a maid. With arrival of Pratiksha, a void had filled in Nandini's life. She found an outlet to talk to. Mahesh loved his wife but he was not a man to make small talks or chatter without need. Their only son, Pruthvi, had stayed in hostel to not get affected by Mahesh's transfer and later gone abroad. Nandini had to fill her days with just the TV and her daily chores. Pratiksha listened to Nandini's talks and accompanied her to the markets and temple. She was like a daughter that Nandini never had.

         Pruthvi had announced that he would spend his summer vacations with them and Nandini was overjoyed. She set about making preparations to welcome him. Just two days before Pruthvi was to land, Rukmabai fell off the stairs and had to go on a holiday. Pratiksha took up her share of the work. Mahesh had to admit that it had indeed been wise to let her stay.

        She had been scrubbing the floor. Mahesh was engrossed in the newspaper. She was bent over the side table, setting the magazines in order. Mahesh had looked up from his paper and saw the tattoo to the left of her chest. He had seen that tattoo before! If only he could remember where. He had stared a bit too long. Pratiksha saw him and rushed out of the room. He went back to his paper, embarrassed.

       He did not sleep easy that night. The tattoo haunted him. The crescent moon and strange script on her chest did have some significance. He racked his brains too hard. He turned and twisted in bed. Finally when sleep came over him, a disturbing image jolted him out of it.

       How could he forget that tattoo!

        30 years ago, he had been deployed in a small village of West Bengal. The transfer was courtesy the foolish bravery of his senior which had invited a politician's wrath and the entire team was transferred to places that were never heard of. The village was predominantly a population of poor farmers and a few rich, forgotten landlords. The landlords continued to live in a sphere of illusion and the farmers were too ignorant to know that landlords had no control over them now. Broken into sects not only by caste but also by class, the village painted a sad picture of inequality. 

        Most of the time, Mahesh never went to duty. He would be busy stringing any contact that could get him out of the god-forgotten place. One afternoon, as he was solving the crossword puzzle after lunch, a man named Gyanlal came to the police station. 
    "Saheb, the son of Thakur has hurt Munni." 
    "Hurt? What happened?" He had asked. 
    "Saheb, I was tending to my field when I heard her muffled crying. When I went, Thakur's son Vijay was making his way and Munni was lying in blood." 
    "Where is she?" Mahesh was alarmed. 
    " I called the villagers and they all took her to hospital." 

       Mahesh had taken immediate action and arrested Vijay. He was about to file an FIR when the landline which had gathered dust, began to ring. It was the local leader first and then the higher ups. The pressure to set Vijay free was mounting. Mahesh knew it was a serious offence. Munni was just 6 years old and on the verge of death due to the blow on her head. He gave in to the demands in return for his transfer to a more civilized place. 
      What he didn't see coming was the ire of villagers. They were out to set the police station on fire. His immediate senior was in another district. He suggested Mahesh to arrest Gyanlal. That was the only logical option. Only Gyanlal had seen Vijay after all! 

      In the middle of the night, he had gone with a small team to arrest Gyanlal. His wife and his daughter had fallen on his feet and pleaded him to let go of Gyanlal. His wife was frail and fainted. His daughter had tugged at his pants and cried,
     "Leave my baba" she said in local dialect. A girl of only 5 she had been, wearing only a thread bare frock that hung over her thin, malnourished frame baring the green ink on her chest. The crescent moon with the script..

      He had not stayed long enough after that night. He had been transferred to Pune. He had only heard that Gyanlal's wife was called a witch in the village and Gyanlal was framed for killing Munni for a child sacrifice. 
They didn't know that Munni was raped. The medical reports were tampered as well. The guilt had been huge but Mahesh could do nothing about it. He was too selfish to let go of his comfort. 

    It puzzled Mahesh. How could Pratiksha have the same tattoo? Was it possible that Pratiksha was an offspring of Gyanlal's daughter? Did she know about it or was it pure coincidence?

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          He caught the morning flight to reach there. The village had changed over the years and boasted of a mall in the present day. Mahesh could not remember the lanes or the place. By the time he made to the police station, it was almost noon. The police station was well populated, a far cry from their handful numbers the last time he had been there.
          He met the current officer there and sought the information. The officer was confused but did not question why such a senior retired cop would want such details. He fetched the file. It was in a bad condition. The papers were brown and thin and bitten on ends by rodents. Mahesh read the file. Gyanlal had been shot while escaping. Probably an old style encounter.

         Mahesh asked in the old settlements about Gyanlal but no one knew. From an old woman, Mahesh came to know that Gyanlal's wife was ousted from the village along with her daughter. They probably went to live in the neighboring village where Gyanlal's brother-in-law lived.

        It was evening when Mahesh reached the dusty village of Midpur. He did not know why he bothered so much but he wanted to get to the depth of the situation. Somewhere deep, the guilt was making him do it. The brother-in-law was long dead and those who remained in the area were scared to talk to a stranger. After much efforts, Mahesh came to know that Gyanlal's wife had died a few months after him. His daughter had been a witch. This shocked Mahesh. It was his wife they had called a witch and then his daughter!
       "She had potions. She never grew old" an old man confided, his eyes wide with the secret.
       "Never grew old?" Mahesh raised a brow.
       "She was ten and then she never grew.. She never flowered. She never developed. She remained ten.."


       Mahesh kept running. He was panting by the time he reached the nearest police station. His mobile gave no signal since he reached Midpur. It was ten in the night. He asked to use the landline. The landline was dead. Damn! He asked for a vehicle to leave him to the airport. The officers exchanged looks and informed him that a landslide had blocked the road out of the village and would take minimum 2 days to open. Mahesh was petrified. Why did he walk to this dead end? Leaving Nandini alone with a witch!

        He reasoned that Pratiksha couldn't be a witch. She had done no harm in the eight months she had been with them. The thought that she was 35 and not 10 made Mahesh weak with fear. All these months he had seen nothing!! He kept thinking about ways to go  out of this village but nothing worked without crossing the road that was blocked. Did witches have such power?

       At the break of daylight, Mahesh was on the road with a hired car and a driver. The landslide wasn't much. Maybe 20 people could work for 3-4 hours to clear it but those 20 people were elusive. It was too lazy a village to find people to do that job. It wasn't before 10 am that he could gather 5 people with a bribe to get started.

      It was late evening by the time Mahesh could get past the road. The signal was still too low and the village had no electricity the whole day, added with the dead telephone lines! What a wretched place!!

     It dawned on him that Pruthvi was to come home. For a moment he relaxed. Nandini wasn't alone after all! He cursed his stupidity for not informing them that he was going out. They would be worried to bits. He wished he could tell them how much they meant to him. The thought of losing Nandini was too wounding. He longed to see Pruthvi. How much he wanted to be with them!

       They were a few hours away from the airport when the mobile caught signal and began buzzing. Mahesh held the phone to his ears, hoping to hear Nandini. The voice on the other end sent fresh waves of fear in his spine.

      "Saheb, the son of Thakur had hurt Munni." The child like voice said.
      Mahesh trembled.
      "Pratiksha.. I.. Let us talk when I come okay. I can explain." He fumbled for words.
      "I have waited enough. Now you will know the pain of losing a family. For no fault of theirs!"
      "Pratiksha.. No.. don't harm them.. I m telling you I can explain."
      "Sorry Saheb. They are dead. They struggled pitifully. Poor souls. Died the death of rats."
      "What? Oh God !! No.. No.. You are lying!" He cried out.
      "It is your habit to lie and make people suffer for it. You killed my baba. You killed my Ma. You made me a witch."
      "I did not do it! You witch!!! You killed my family." The driver was distracted and crashed into a tree, dying on the spot.
      Mahesh was numb and didn't feel the blood gushing out of his body.

      "I m no witch. An educated man like you should know better. The trauma and malnutrition did that to my body. It was divine blessing. I know you saw the tattoo. The tattoo of our divine goddess. The ancient spirit of my ancestors. Today they gave me justice. I hunted you for so many years. You shall not die. You shall repent each day for rest of your life and grieve for your family."

      The line was cut and Mahesh lay limp on the dashboard.

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     They put him in the special ward. He stared into space. Not responding to words or stimuli even though everything in his body functioned perfectly normal. He had become a case study. Only word he responded to was

        Tattoo
                       
                           

This time your entry must contain, ‘He/She had seen that tattoo before! If only he/she could remember where.’


       This post is a part of Write Over the Weekend, an initiative for Indian Bloggers by BlogAdda.

12 comments:

Subroto said...

Very creative use of the prompt resulting in an engrossing story.

Anita Jeyan Sandeep said...

Nice one again, Maithili !

maithili said...

Thank you Subroto

maithili said...

Thank you :)

preethi said...

Omg...that was brilliant. You keep the reader's attention till the end. A sure wow post!!!

DEE DEE said...

woooww

maithili said...

Thank you Preethi :)

maithili said...

:D Thanks

Red Handed said...

AGAIN AND AGAIN.. YOU WEAVE SOME AMAZING STORIES!! Keep them coming Maith!

maithili said...

Thank you Red :D I m happy you like the stories :D

Kalpana Solsi said...

Interestingly woven story and made a colourful read. The character Pratiksha had waited and bid her time for vendetta.Indeed a WOW post.

maithili said...

Thank you Kalpana.. Yes, not only did she plan her revenge, she also struggled a lot to come at his doors!