05 April 2011

A Favor

Part 1
The Revolver
I have found the revolver, yesterday. It was in the attic, at the bottom of the old almirah; God knows how long it was lying there. Back of my mind, I knew, it was somewhere in the house. But I never thought much about it till the need arose.
It belonged to my grandfather; he was a veteran. I remember, in my childhood, he used to make me sit on his lap while cleaning this revolver, and narrate war stories. One time, at the border, he had come face to face with the enemy. In a do-or-die situation, he had pulled the trigger, at the blink of an eye, thus saving himself to narrate the near death experience——to anyone interested in listening. I had heard this story several times. Over the period it had changed many versions. Eventually it became so colorful I started doubting any trace of truth in the base version itself.
To tell you the truth, these very stories put me off. Dying at the border, for questionable ideals, didn’t make much sense. Though my father never told me, it is possible these were his thoughts too; for he had traded army life with the life of a school teacher. This is the only time he went against grandfather——who was crestfallen by Father’s decision. But once I was born, he bounced back with great determination to make me an army man. Initially, I was excited about the whole idea, but over the period, as I reflected more on it, I lost interest in a future demanding sacrifice and hard life. When the time came, I informed grandfather about my unshakable stand.
“What?” he said in a shock, “what could be greater than sacrificing ones life to his country?”
A hundred better things came to my mind, and I was about to mention a couple of them; but the painful look on my Mother’s face stopped me. My silence, and later unshakable conviction, greatly hurt the old man. He lost the motive to live.
On his death bed, the old crone made one last attempt. I was summoned. “Don’t hurt him,” Mother said at the door-threshold. I went inside. From the death-bed he gave such a passionate lecture even Yama——the death God——himself, could not intervene.
He (Grandfather, not Yama) snatched my hand.
“Promise me,” he said.
I didn’t want to lie to a dying man. But my mother had placed a heavy hand on my shoulder. I could not tell the truth. I promised. Grandfather died peacefully. For years, never once I thought of grandfather, or my promise to him, or his revolver.
Then something happened that changed my life, made me search for the very revolver desperately. It all started with Dude’s visit to our village.
When I first met Dude——strangely I don’t recollect his real name——I distinctly remember, I thought he was an alien. Sitting on the outside bench of the nameless-hotel, I was reading the newspaper, while sipping morning-tea. When for some reason I looked up, I gave a start, for I had never seen a stranger person. He wore large sunglasses, a dangling camera at the neck, yellow thick chain and a shining ring on the left ear. At the front of his head a tuft stood erect, defying gravity, like that of a porcupine.
“Dude, do you have a Gym here?” he asked.
No one before had asked me this strange question: A question worthy of an alien. Many in our village are physical workers, and a few——who travel to nearby Mangalore city for work——are so busy with the city-life, there is no real need for any artificial exercise equipment.
“Dude, I asked you a question,” the stranger said.
I must tell you——with some embarrassment——that I misinterpreted, Dude being his name. Later village-elders blamed me for naming him Dude, but I distinctly remember, our postman, Inas, is the one who named him Dude.
I informed the curious stranger that ours being a small village we don’t have any such fancy establishment. That greatly hurt him——being a lover of physical fitness. He started a lecture on the immediate need of a Gym for the village of our size. The lecture broke abruptly when he saw my breakfast plate.
“What are you eating, Dude?” He feigned mock horror.
“Golibaje,” I said.
“What? Never mind. Whatever you villagers eat here.” Then he picked one from the plate, as if a lab technician carefully picking a potential specimen, “Dude,” he said, “if you eat this oily stuff, you will die before forty. I warn you!”
His concern amused me. “Have one,” I said.
He flatly denied, rambled some more on calories, and fat rich food; but, eventually succumbed to the temptation. From his school bag——that seemed like having million small pouches, each carefully designed to hold specific item——produced a perfumed paper napkin, placed a singular Golibaje on it, carefully squeezed the oil out of it and took a delicate bite.
I waited for his verdict.
“Divine!” he exclaimed, reaching for the second one, “makes worthy dying before forty. What’s it called again?”
I told him the name.
“No such thing in Mumbai. Everybody eats junk at the railway station. Did you ever visit Mumbai?”
I denied. A small synopsis on Life-in-Mumbai followed. He had come down from Mumbai on summer holidays, and was staying at the biggest bungalow in our village. The house in concern was empty, except for the old woman——Dude’s grandmother. I had seen her sitting near the window for hours.
I would have continued chatting with this stranger, had I not seen Suma walking towards the library. I excused myself, “Something important has come to my mind,” I said and took leave.
When did I first meet Suma? I don’t know——long back——may be in a past life. She was there as long back as my memory goes.
Presently, I followed her from a distance. I will only have a few minutes in the library, before she was off for her course.
She was doing a vacation course in Mangalore——on Effective Communication. Prior to the course, like the endless TV soaps, she used to write lengthy letters. I used to spend hours, reading these letters, searching for subtleties. Once she joined the course, the long letters stopped, and extremely short to-the-point letters started. In this regard, the course was effective. I would recommend it to anyone interested.
She had joined the course against her Father’s wish——who thought it was a waste of time. But she knew education was her ticket to the outside world.
I used to meet her after the class. Sometimes, we met at the beach for quiet moments. Later we would take separate buses to our village. No one knew about us, except Inas. You cannot hide anything from him. He passed my letters to Suma, and carried her replies, being our village postman it was safe. Also, I was not required to paste stamps on my letters. In return I had paid off his outstanding bills at the toddy shop. It was a convenient arrangement.
In the library, among the aisles, we acted like searching for books.
“I don’t have much time,” she said, opening a book, “How is your work?”
“Going on,” I said.
“Did they pay you?”
“No. I am still on training.”
“Why don’t you find a new job?”
“It is not easy.”
She sighed.
“Some day, I want to run away from this place.”
That was her favorite line. She would say that whenever she was desperate and helpless. She asked: “Who was with you at the hotel?”
“Some visitor from Mumbai.”
“Looks like a joker.”
“I take that as a complement,” said Dude. He had followed me to the library. His presence put us in an awkward position.
“I am sorry, that’s not what I meant…” she searched for words.
Dude ignored her and asked me, suggestively, “Is this your important business?”
I gave a nervous smile and took the opportunity to introduce them. We had a small talk. In truth, Dude talked and we listened. I noticed his arms were permanently akimbo——result of excessive exercise.
Suma had to leave. She had already looked at the library wall-clock, a couple of time. Unaware of this, Dude was praising the exotic oily stuff he had tasted at the hotel. “I keep forgetting the name, but it is too cool,” he said.
“I need to go,” she said, else she would have missed her bus.
“Where?” Dude asked bluntly; such a question, to a person starting on a journey, would have been considered inappropriate in our village. But being from Mumbai——where everything is allowed——Dude was unaware of such customs.
“City. I have a class to attend,” she said.
“Do you mind if I join you?”
She wanted to say no, but could not. She agreed reluctantly. And they were off.
At the door, the librarian said: “You come here so often, at least borrow a book every now and then.” He smiled. Our village is full of such antiques.
I used to meet Suma at the remote places, away from the curious villagers. Dude discovered us occasionally—since he was roaming all about with his camera.
“I want to open a gallery,” he said one time. And, for some time he had been collecting money to materialize his dream.
Then without any warning he clicked Suma’s picture.
“I wanted a natural pose,” he continued, “In Mumbai you can become a model. I can promote you.”
That amused her. “I am not interested,” She said.
“Dude, you gotta convince her. It’s not a bad deal,” he told me.
After Dude’s departure, she was silent and thinking.
“Once you make some money, let’s get out from here,” she said.
“Why not accept Dude’s offer?”
She looked straight in my eyes.
“He is a fool,” she said.
A sudden change of fate
I was working at a small firm in Mangalore, run by a husband-wife pair. Being a Trainee, I was not paid for initial months. The job description was vague; I was expected to do anything and everything——including running errands——everything for free! Blood suckers.
One day, the husband gave me a plastic bag. “Drop this at home, my wife is waiting for it,” he said. His wife seldom came to the office. But she was on the payroll——something to do with tax evasion.
I collected Suma outside her class, took an auto to deliver the bag.
En route, she started searching the bag.
Before I could stop her, she had found something in the bag——neatly piled crispy bank notes. I had never seen so much cash in my life.
She asked the auto driver to make an U-turn.
“What are you doing?”
“This is our chance,” she said.
“What chance?”
“To escape this place.”
“Are you——” and then I realized, all along she was serious about eloping.
“But this is not right,” I said.
“Do they not owe you money?”
“Yes but,” I glanced inside the bag, “This is a lot.”
“Don’t say a word.”
She asked the auto driver to stop.
“Why are we stopping here?”
“Don’t say anything.”
The auto driver demanded full amount for the ride. Suma tried to bargain. “Madam,” said the auto driver, “why bother about trifles when Lakshmi has suddenly blessed you with abundance?” He smiled suggestively.
The fool was listening to our conversation. She sighed, gave him whatever he was demanding, and started walking briskly. I followed her, trotting.
“Why did we get down here?”
“Do you want the auto driver to come to your home tonight, with his friends?”
I never thought in that angle. Suddenly she was in charge.
We made sure no one was following, crossed the road, and stopped another auto. The driver didn’t agree for the long ride.
“Too far, I won’t find a return customer,” he said.
“I will pay one-and-half,” I said. That didn’t lure him.
“Brother,” Suma intervened, “this is an emergency; mother has been hospitalized.”
Immediately he softened: “Why didn’t you say so in the first place?”
The driver raced with the wind, as if his own mother had been hospitalized. He was sitting on the very edge of the seat, in a precarious position, ill-suited for such a high speed. On a different occasion, I would have suggested him to sit comfortably, but now, being mother in hospital, I checked myself. An Express bus, with a conductor dangling at the rear-door, drove alarmingly close by.
“Is this your Father’s road?” shouted the conductor, showing annoyance at the auto rushing on the mid-road.
Our driver retorted something equally provocative, involving sex and conductor’s mother——challenged him for a bare fist-fight. The conductor accepted the challenge, and counter-challenged the auto driver to stop the auto instantly, to start the proposed fight, if he was a true-son of his mother. Thus they fought for some distance, eventually the bus gained speed, and they could not continue.
We stopped outside the Hospital. The auto driver didn’t take the money.
“Sister,” he said addressing Suma, “Mother no money!”
He said that in English. Everyone here, whenever possible, in their own unique way, wants to show an intense fascination for the foreign language.
We entered the Hospital and came out from the opposite end.
I was hesitant.
“I need some time,” I said.
“What for?”
“To think.”
“What is there to think? Do you want to rot here?”
“Still this is not correct,” the whole idea didn’t convince me.
“2 days,” She said, “That’s all you will get. I will keep the money. Else you will return it by midnight.”
With that we parted, took separate buses to home.
In the evening I met Dude at the hotel. I had not seen him in last few days. He showed me his pictures of Kamabala——Buffalo race. I was preoccupied with the money. I gave him a lame excuse and went home.
A surprise post card
Two days were like in hell. Finally, I decided against our plan: It was impulsive and risky. Third day Inas came looking for me.
“You have a postcard,” he said.
Which fool would send me a postcard? From the look on his face, I realized he had read the content. I was about to give him a sharp warning on other people’s privacy, but noticed familiar hand-writing.
I knew you would refuse. Experience! Life is short: opportunities don’t come everyday.
I am leaving.
No more yours,
P.S. Don’t search for me.
It took me time to digest the whole thing. Even in pain, I noticed her short direct sentences that carried subtle meaning! Inas held me, I would have collapsed otherwise.
Dude was missing too. It didn’t take me long to add one and one.
Within moments the whole village learned the news; suddenly it buzzed with life; it had waited patiently for such a colorful event. Thus far, in the absence of such an event, the villagers were bored and life was monotonous.
The cow-incident was the last big thing. Ijjam’s cow had fallen in the swamp behind our house. Its painful moaning gathered the whole village. School declared a holiday. Every next moment the cow drowned by a fraction. It was a painfully slow process. A desperate attempt——by Inas and some youngsters——to save the cow failed. People talked about it for months. After that village life was silent and dull. That had happened a year back; the village was waiting patiently for the next big thing.
And now, the whole village talked about my affair. I was wrong about villager’s ignorance. They knew about it all along. Later I met a couple of old ladies who could recite the exact words from the postcard word for word——such is the power of human memory.
As the days passed by, I became more and more restless. I had failed to know her. A desperate urge to trace the lovers occupied me all the time. I begged Dude’s grandmother for his Mumbai address. But the old crone smartly denied any knowledge of the address; she knew divulging that information would put her grandson at a great risk.
My only other hope was Inas, who refused point blank, “How dare you?” he said, “It is confidential information: property of post office. Your request is unethical.”
He was at the toddy shop, having his usual rounds.
“Is it ethical to elope with the fiancĂ©e of a friend?” I asked him.
“Don’t ask me moral questions.”
I knew this drama artist: Countless times I had escorted him home from the very toddy shop.
I came straight to the point: “I am ready to pay.”
“Careful Vasu,” he warned me. “Don’t try your tricks with me. You don’t know me.”
The situation was going out of my hand.
“How much?” he asked.
“How much money?” he smiled sheepishly.
The fool had a penchant for acting.
“50 Rs,” I said.
“Meet me here in 4 days,”
I got up, for there was nothing more to discus.
“Wait,” he said, “If you want the information immediately, it can be arranged.”
“500 Rs. and I will give you right away.”
“Do you have it with you?”
“Don’t ask stupid questions.”
I went to Mumbai, met Dude’s father——learned that Dude had been kicked out the house along with his lover. I made a futile effort of searching them. No one knew where they had gone. They had simply vanished.
One day the door-bell rang at dinner time. Father opened the door. “Someone for you,” he said from the threshold. I went in a hurry. My manager was there. Behind him two muscular men were waiting for his orders.
My mother sold some of her jewelry. Fresh rumors started; village buzzed, twice in a row, all because of me, an unprecedented achievement! Father stopped talking to me, unable to face the villagers he confined himself to the home.
Part 2
The Plan
A year has passed. I have turned a new leaf of my life——found a new job with a regular income. I don’t mingle with the village activities. Occasionally, I hear whispers and giggles; the year old incidents are still afresh in people’s memory. I keep to myself and resume my walk. The village is unforgiving.
Yesterday, while returning from office, I saw a light in the old bungalow. Old crone had died a few months back. I got curious. Behind the mammoth iron-gate I waited. After a while a man came to the window. In the dark, someone else could have difficulty recognized the man, but not me, I won’t forget that face in a million years——it was Dude.
At once, all emotions rushed back: the humiliation from the villagers; sleepless nights; Father’s silence; Mother’s indifference. My enemy was just a few feet away. In a similar situation, long back, my grandfather had pulled the trigger. I remembered grandfather: How he used to make me sit on his lap and narrate stories of courage and intrigue. I didn’t have his courage. I had failed him. And then, after so many years, for the first time, I remembered the revolver.
My plan is simple. I will announce everyone, a visit to my uncle at Bangalore. I will take the night train; but, get down after a few stations; go to the bungalow; drag Dude to the swamp at gun point; put a bullet in his head; and, dump the body in the swamp. No one will ever come to know. In a worst case, if the body was discovered, I won’t be a suspect, since everyone knows I was out.
I announced my visit to Mother. She didn’t disagree or agree——just indifferent. That’s how things stand now. My parents no more care what I do.
A favor
Parents are at the temple. The whole village is gathered there for the yearly Yakhshagana. I have stopped attending it. It all looks same to me. Starts at midnight and ends some time at dawn. No one watches the whole performance.
Someone is knocking at the door. At this time? I opened the door, and almost got a heart-attack at the sight of the person in front.
“Dude!” I said.
“Call me Rakesh,” he said.
I had forgotten his name. There is a significant change in him: No ear ring and the porcupine hair-cut. The camera is missing. Looks like he is not exercising regularly——I saw a bulge at the waist.
“May I come in?”
He came inside, before I could stop him.
My whole body shivered. What is he up to? Did he get a wind of my plan? And come up with a counter-plan? I waited for any sudden movement, when nothing came, I said: “wait here for a moment,” and ran inside. Only when I got the revolver, I felt relaxed and confident. And, with this new found confident came outside to face the monster.
“I have come to—”
“Now wait a minute Dude,” I stopped him, “you don’t get to drive all the time. It is my time now,” pointed the revolver to his chest.
“Is that a revolver?”
“Do you expect a garland? You eloped with my girl and my money——”
“What money?” He looked surprised, “She never talked about money,” but soon collected himself, “doesn’t matter anyway.”
I don’t have time for all these things.
“Just answer my questions else I will shoot.”
That brought him to his senses.
“Who else is with you?”
“I came alone.”
“Anyone knows you are here?”
I need to prepone my plan. Hundred things are moving in my head.
“I came to apologies,” he said.
“After a year?”
“Listen to me please.”
“You see a revolver and change your color. Where is she?”
“Listen to me. I will explain everything,” then he narrated the events. “Once we eloped from here, we rented a small apartment in Mumbai, for Father didn’t allow entry to home. Initial days were beautiful. Gradually she started asking about the show business opportunities.”
“You are the one who gave her ideas,” I retorted.
“I was not serious. She realized that soon. There were daily fights. One fine day, when I came home, she was gone.”
“Gone where?”
“I don’t know. I searched for her everywhere. Later I found that she had cleared the bank account. Vanished with the money I had saved for the gallery. That’s when I realized she had gone forever. Listen vasu, she was smart for both of us. I got what I had deserved. I have come to apologies. Today is the first time I feel free.”
I crashed into the near by chair.
“It was your fault. Only a fool will stay with you,” I said.
“Don’t say that Vasu. Why you want such a person in your life? She left both of us for worldly things. Twice she has done that. Is there any worth coveting such a person? Start a new life. Forget the old things. Don’t make any more mistakes.”
This was not the old Dude. But how can one forgive so easily?
“It’s all your fault,” I said. My eyes welled up. “Before you entered my life, things were so beautiful. You made my life hell. All because of you,” I cried.
Unable to face me, he looked out the window. “Don’t be so vengeful my friend,” he said, “By stealing her from you, I haven’t done anything but a favor.”

Note: If you liked this short story, you might like my other short stories as well. Click here for more. 

Note: This story was previously published on daiji.

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