|Apr/May 2005 fiction|
The Customs officer's eyes narrowed as he scanned Anil's passport.
He looked up at Anil. "This your photo?"
"Yes," said Anil, meeting the man's gaze unflinchingly.
Inside, his heart was palpitating.
He should have left the laptop behind, he thought. All his friends had assured him that customs at Indian airports would be ludicrously easy to waltz through. But he had had his doubts right from the beginning.
What if customs demanded to search his belongings? He could resist, of course. He could claim that he was the nephew of a minister, whose wrath he would bring down upon their heads if they messed with him. What would he do if they called his bluff? He didn't know. What he did know was that stowed away in his luggage were a laptop, a stereo system, and a DVD player, all still pristine in their original packaging. Taken together, they put him over the allowed limit on the value of items that he could carry into India without paying customs duty.
The customs officer started going through the passport slowly. His lips moved silently as he perused each page. What he was looking for was not clear, since most of the pages were empty. After carefully scrutinizing each page, he licked his forefinger and used it to separate the page from its neighbor.
Reaching the last page, he stopped. His lips stopped moving, and Anil saw his eyes widen slightly. A folded twenty dollar note was neatly lodged there, secured to the back cover of the passport by a strip of thick adhesive tape.
The officer looked up at Anil again. "Yours?" he said.
"Oh, that's not mine," said Anil. "I don't know how it got there." Though he had practiced his words at least a dozen times, they still sounded ridiculous to his ears.
The officer carefully extracted the note, unfolded it, and examined it closely. Seemingly satisfied with the veracity of Anil's account, he refolded the note and placed it into his shirt pocket.
He closed Anil's passport. "Everything seems to be in order," he said. "You may go now, Mr. Srivastava."
"Thanks," said Anil. He picked up his suitcases and started towards the exit.
"Mr. Srivastava!" the officer called out behind him.
What could it be now, Anil thought wearily. Did the man want more money? Sighing, he turned around.
"Your passport," the officer held it out. "Welcome to India, Mr. Srivastava."
Anil nodded, took the passport from the officer's outstretched hand, and walked out through the airport doors.
There were roughly five hundred people outside the airport building at three in the morning. This was smaller than the usual number, since there was only one arriving flight.
The crowd was constantly pulsating and moving. It was a living, breathing entity, comprised of a number of small welcome parties. Each contingent constantly jostled and pushed the others, striving to secure a vantage point from where they could get to their passenger quickly upon sighting him.
The darkness was punctuated by small pools of white light cast by halogen lamps mounted on the airport building. It was bitterly cold, and the ill-clad men—they were mostly men, for women wisely stayed away from the close quarters of such a crowd—fought silently and fiercely to get closer to a light source, so they could bask in the scant warmth it afforded.
A dozen sadhus occupied what was indisputably the prime position in the crowd. Though much of their bodies were exposed to the elements, they seemed immune to the cold. With their ash-smeared faces, meager saffron robes, long hair, and tridents, they commanded instant respect from even the most unruly elements in the crowd. Despite the painful lack of space for everyone else, the sadhus stood unhindered and unjostled.
One of the sadhus carried a large sign. It read: "Welcome, Jai Maharaj." Two other sadhus carried large garlands of roses and jasmine.
A man pushed himself to the front of the crowd. "Bless me, baba!" he cried, prostrating himself full-length in front of the sadhus. They gave their benediction by touching him on the head with their tridents. He got to his feet and stationed himself next to them.
"Saala line-jumper!" shouted someone from the back of the crowd. The devotee turned and smiled innocently at the heckler. A number of faces glowered back at him, and there were dire mutterings in the crowd, but nobody dared make an overt move against one who was—at least in theory—under the protection of the sadhus.
Two constables patrolled the perimeter, trying to prod the amorphous mass into some semblance of a shape. Whenever the crowd got too close, the constables would move in, using their steel-tipped wooden rods strategically on the bodies of people at the front of the crowd, to hurt but not to wound.
As Anil watched, the crowd made another surge towards the entrance. The constables moved in swinging. There was about a minute of confusion, punctuated with yells of pain as the lathis found their targets. Then the crowd retreated.
Anil took advantage of the momentary lull to plunge into the crowd. He needed to get past it to the parking lot behind, where he knew Abhinav Uncle and Asha Aunty would be.
Conditioned by hours of defending their territory from encroachers, the front-liners initially fiercely resisted Anil's attempts to clear a way through them. However, others slightly further back noticed the mixup. "Aray bhai, he's a passenger! Give way!" they shouted.
Slowly and grudgingly, a path cleared in front of Anil. It took him five minutes, but he finally passed through the crowd.
He spotted them almost immediately. They were standing at the edge of the small parking lot.
"Uncle! Aunty!" Anil called out, waving furiously. As he awkwardly half-ran, half-walked towards them, he saw them more clearly, and his heart sank. He had last seen them three years ago. Each of those three years seemed to have weighed like a decade on them.
Abhinav was tall, bespectacled, and slightly rumpled, just like he had been when he had last said goodbye to Anil at the airport. But his face had grown jowly, with bags of skin hanging below his eyes and chin. His physique was no longer trim—he had a noticeable paunch and his shoulders were stooped, as if he were having problems supporting his weight.
Asha was wearing a dark silk sari and gold earrings. But her impeccable outfit could not hide the failty in her already slight frame or the dark circles under her eyes.
Asha hugged Anil tightly and wordlessly. After she let go, Abhinav gave Anil an awkward hug and shook his hand gruffly. Then Asha enveloped Anil again. Anil felt dampness where her cheek rested on his jacket.
"Why are you carrying your suitcases, Anil?" said Abhinav. "Why not get a cart? They are free at the airport, you know."
"Some fellow commandeered all the carts near the baggage claim area," said Anil. "He was renting them out for five hundred rupees apiece, and I didn't want to pay him. These suitcases are fairly light anyway." He hefted one up and down to prove his point.
"I hope someone reports that rascal to the police," said Abhinav. "I'm glad you didn't pay him. The corruption in this country is beyond belief."
Remembering his recent incident with the customs official, Anil colored slightly.
"Your Uncle is Mahatma Gandhi reincarnated," said Asha. "Far too idealistic to run a family. It was his idealism that caused the college to—"
"Why do you have to start all that now?" interrupted Abhinav. "The poor boy is tired and hungry. He's been on a plane all day. Let him get some sleep, eat some home-cooked food. There's time enough to discuss all that later." He attempted to lift one of the suitcases, but Anil gently took it from him.
"Abhinav, act your age, don't behave like you're twenty," Asha rebuked him. To Anil, she said, "His bad back keeps worsening because he keeps ignoring it."
"Whatever you say, Memsahib." He bowed to her. "Your wish is my command."
She shrugged her shoulders to indicate she had heard it all before, but her indulgent smile signaled otherwise. Seeing the twinkle in her eyes, Anil felt relieved—they might be weighed down with worries, but at least the playful banter had not vanished.
Abhinav and Anil's father had been close friends and had both taught at the same college. Anil had never known his parents. When he was two years old, a routing glitch had led to two trains colliding head-on with each other, resulting in five hundred dead passengers, Anil's parents amongst them. Abhinav and Asha, childless despite their best efforts, had adopted Anil and poured all their love into him. Anil had wanted to call them Daddy and Mummy instead of Uncle and Aunty, but Asha had refused, saying it would be disrespectful to his parents' memories. Anil reluctantly acquiesced, though he thought his parents would have approved whole-heartedly.
Anil sat in the back seat as Abhinav drove them home from the airport. Around them, the city dozed fitfully. In another hour, tens of thousands of bleary-eyed office workers from the suburbs would converge on it to signal the start of another day.
Asha turned around. "So, Anil beta, tell us about the U.S. Have you made new friends?"
"What your Aunty really wants to know is if you have a girlfriend stashed away in the U.S.," said Abhinav.
"Now you don't start giving him any ideas." Asha looked at him disapprovingly.
"He's a young man of twenty-five. He doesn't need me to give him ideas," Abhinav said. He winked at Anil in the rearview mirror.
"Ok, baba, I agree," she said. "We need to get him married. Then we can—"
"Aunty, wait a minute!" Anil interrupted her. "Marriage? You're not serious, are you?" He was taken aback by the sudden change in subject. He had been looking forward to resting, sleeping, and eating home-cooked food; instead, he seemed to be walking into a carefully planned ambush.
"What's wrong with that?" she retorted, and he saw she was serious. "All your friends are married and settled. This is the perfect time. God only knows when you'll come to India next. Four weeks is enough time to choose a suitable girl and perform the ceremony."
"Just because my friends jump into a well, should I jump in with them?" Anil's tone was sharp with barely-concealed irritation.
Asha recoiled as if he had physically struck her. She drew herself up archly, fiddled with her hair, adjusted her sari, and centered the bindi on her forehead. Finally, having run out of things to do, she sat silently in her seat, staring straight ahead.
"Asha, can't you see he is tired?" Abhinav scolded her. "He barely steps off the plane, and you start with all this unnecessary chatter, getting him all worked up." He turned around and smiled at Anil in the back seat. "Don't mind your Aunty, you know how she gets." Anil gave him a weak smile.
Silence descended upon the car once again, covering them like a musty blanket.
The first streaks of sun were visible in the sky when they reached home. Abhinav tried to cajole Anil to eat, but Anil just wanted to sleep. His old room had been cleaned up and his bed had been made. He sank into it gratefully and reveled in its familiarity. You can always come back home, he thought as he slipped into a dreamless sleep.
Anil spent most of the next two days letting his biological clock catch up with the time zone difference between India and the US. He woke up only for lunch and dinner, which he consumed blearily before heading back to the bedroom into the inviting embrace of slumber.
On the third day, he finally joined Asha and Abhinav for breakfast, a hearty meal of potato parathas and yogurt. Asha fussed over Anil, pushing extra parathas onto his plate and ladling yoghurt over them. She had thawed since the night they drove back from the airport—she was incapable of remaining angry at Anil for long. After breakfast, Abhinav drove off. "Exams at the college—need to grade test papers," he said when Anil asked him why he was leaving so early.
Lunch was a simple affair of lentils, rice and pickle. "Eat, eat, it's all light food, won't do you any harm," said Asha, spooning more lentils on Anil's plate over his protestations.
Anil helped Asha clean up after the meal. "Aunty, what did you mean at the airport?" he asked, carrying the rice container into the kitchen. "When you said Uncle's idealism had led to something at the college?"
Asha hesitated. "I don't want to worry you needlessly," she finally said.
"You can tell me, Aunty. It'll lighten the load."
Slowly, haltingly, the whole story came out.
A new Deputy Superintendent of Police, Rathod, had been posted in their town a year ago. His daughter began attending Government College (she started midway through the college semester, so there must have been political machinations involved in her admission, Asha hinted darkly) with Abhinav as her Chemistry professor.
When Abhinav first met the girl, he was surprised that she had even passed the high school board exams. As the semester progressed, his apprehensions were justified—she was completely uninterested in studies, her attendance record was dismal, and she didn't bother to even turn in—much less complete—the class assignments. Abhinav wrote to her father the DSP, but never heard back. When she failed the mid-term exams in every subject, including Chemistry, Abhinav was certain that she would fail the final exams and would have to repeat the college year.
The week before the final exams, Abhinav received a message requesting his presence at the DSP's house to discuss his daughter's performance. When Abhinav refused, the DSP came to their house, accompanied by a retinue of police jeeps, cars and motorcycles. His subordinates waited outside.
He was a gracious guest, complimenting Asha on the Ganesha sculpture in the living room. But when Abhinav sat down on the couch across from him, the DSP came straight to the point. He wanted, he expected his daughter to pass the final exam, and he was willing to pay Abhinav handsomely to ensure this happened.
Abhinav took a deep breath, and then, in his calmest and most polite voice, asked the DSP to leave the house before he lost his temper. When the DSP asked him to reconsider, Abhinav clenched his fists and slowly repeated his earlier request. The DSP regretfully shook his head. "What use is all your book knowledge when you act like a fool in matters of the world?" he said. "Your actions are going to hurt nobody but you. The offer is still on the table." Still shaking his head, he walked out of the house.
The DSP's daughter passed every subject except Chemistry. When Abhinav asked the other Professors how she could have passed any subject at all, he was met with a shamefaced look followed by a silence that revealed more than words could have.
The Principal allowed the girl to proceed to the next year. When Abhinav protested, the Principal told him that a failing grade in one subject was not enough reason to keep her back and spoil her career. He sat in the Principal's Office, stunned at how easily the rules, enforced rigidly for the ordinary person, were being broken for people in power. At that instant, his frustration boiled and came to a head. Saying that he was thinking of filing a complaint with the state education authorities, he walked out on the Principal.
He received a termination notice from the College that night. The official reason was willful insubordination.
At first, he moped around the house all day, not eating, not showering, not going out for days on end. He put on weight and oscillated between self-pity and rage. When Asha could not take it any more, she confronted him, questioning his masculinity and his ability to provide for his family. Shamed by his wife, he embarked upon a job search. However, the number of local jobs available for Chemistry Professors was limited; coupled with college administrators' reluctance to hire someone perceived as a bad apple, this meant that interviews were few and far between. He had been jobless for six months now. He had an interview today that he was hopeful about, and he had left early to prepare for it at the local library.
After Asha finished her narrative, there was silence for a while.
Then Anil spoke. "Why didn't you tell me all this earlier, Aunty?"
"What could you have done, hah? You were ten thousand miles away. We have to fight our own battles. Your Uncle has still not learnt his lesson. He thinks he can make a difference. He keeps butting heads with those in authority. The poor man doesn't realize that those in power will tolerate a fly as long as it is merely irritating. Once it crosses the line and becomes annoying, they will crush it swiftly and mercilessly."
"I still wish you could have told me, Aunty," said Anil. "I would have come back and helped you."
"If you want to help me, please get married. We'll find a good girl for you."
Her words jolted Anil. Not again, he thought.
"Find a girl, Aunty? Where will you find one? They are not sold in stores, you know. Maybe they are, and I just don't know about it. Why don't you go out and pick one up today? Maybe you can use your bargaining skills, get two for the price of one while you're at it."
Seeing her reaction at his jibe, he hastily backpedaled.
"I'm not ready for marriage yet. Let's wait two or three more years. After that, I'll willingly come to you and ask you to find a girl for me."
She was relentless. "Think about us, Anil. We're getting old, your Uncle no longer has a job. We have nothing to look forward to besides a daughter-in-law and grandchildren. Just do it for us, please?"
Anil found her plea disconcerting. It caused him to lash back.
"What's the need for me then? Just pick someone and marry her yourself!"
He averted his eyes from the hurt that crossed her face. She went into the kitchen, and he heard the faucet being turned on.
"Never mind," he said loudly, so she could hear. He walked to his room and lay on his bed, looking at the ceiling. He had never given serious thought to marriage. And now, if Uncle and Aunty had their way, he would be married in a few weeks. It all seemed too fast, too soon.
On the other hand, it wasn't so bad, a part of him argued. It wasn't as if he had to say yes to the first girl they introduced him to. He could appease Uncle and Aunty by agreeing in principle to the concept of marriage, without agreeing to a specific timeframe. He could find a thousand reasons to defer, delay and otherwise reject any girls they tried to get him to marry. That might be the best solution. Otherwise, he would just cause more pain to Uncle and Aunty, and hadn't they already suffered their fair share?
The matter resolved in his mind, he drifted off to sleep.
When he woke up, it was early evening. He stepped into the living room, blinking as the tube light's glare hit his eyes. Abhinav was reading the newspaper and sipping a cup of tea, while Asha was nowhere to be seen. A plate of sweet-and-sour Krackjack biscuits rested on the coffee table.
"Hello, Uncle," said Anil, sitting down and grabbing a couple of Krackjacks.
Abhinav put down the newspaper he had been reading, removed his glasses, and moved to the sofa next to Anil. "Anil beta, your Aunty told me about the chat you two had this afternoon. I'm very sorry we kept it from you."
"Uncle, please don't apologize," said Anil, feeling profoundly embarrassed. "How did your interview go today?"
"Oh, same old story," Abhinav replied. He sounded resigned. "Everything went great, till they asked me why I left my previous job. Once they heard my story, they couldn't wait for me to leave."
"I'm sorry, Uncle," said Anil. "It's their loss."
"I've decided I'm going to follow the teachings of the Gita. I'll keep persevering and let everything else take care of itself. By the way, Anil, when are you going to persevere towards your marriage?"
"Uncle, don't tell me you agree with Aunty!"
"Anil, let's look at this logically," said Abhinav, removing his glasses and putting the paper down. "This is the right time for your wedding."
"Come on, Uncle, you know that's not true. I'll be back next year—that'll be a much better time."
"You saw how weak your Aunty has gotten," said Abhinav, abandoning logic. "She's so worried about you that she can't eat, she can't sleep, she just gets weaker and weaker. Come on, Anil, just say yes, and we'll do the needful."
It took an effort for Anil to get it out, but he did. "Yes," he mumbled.
"Are you serious?" Abhinav could hardly believe his ears. Asha and he had been prepared for an arduous war of attrition.
Anil nodded silently.
"Asha, where are you?" shouted Abhinav.
Asha hurried in from the front patio, where she had been gossiping with Mrs. Gupta, the next door neighbor.
"What is it? Did you burn the milk again?"
When Abhinav told her, she was speechless for a moment. Then she rushed out the door, pausing only to grab her bag. "Going to temple," she said breathlessly when Abhinav asked her where she was off to.
A smidgen of worry entered Anil's mind about what he might have triggered.
That night, Asha revealed that they had already selected a girl that they thought he should meet.
"So you've been planning this all along?" said Anil.
"Of course, beta," said Asha matter-of-factly. "These things don't happen in a week. Don't worry—Sarita is from our caste and comes from a good family. Her father's sister is a close friend of your Uncle's cousin. Oh, and she looks very nice in a sari. You'll see when you meet her.
"She will adjust to the US easily. You'll really like her, beta. Of course," she hastily added, seeing the look on Anil's face. "It's your choice. If you don't like her, just say no, and we'll line up girls from here to the next block."
"Looks like you have it all figured out," said Anil.
"Do you want to see Sarita's photo?" asked Asha. "I'll get it out."
"No, Aunty, don't bother," said Anil. "I'll meet her in person." He did not want to do anything that might weaken his resolve to say no.
That night, Asha packed an assortment of sweets—laddoos, jalebis, gulab-jamuns, barfis—to take with them. When Anil looked at her quizzically, she was defensive. "We're going to meet their family for the first time," she said. "Of course we can't go empty-handed."
They set out early next morning. "Why wait?" Asha said. "She is eager to meet Anil, too." The girl's family lived seventy kilometers away. She was getting an MBA at a local college. "So what if it's not a top college, it's still the same degree," Asha said. "With her qualifications, she can easily find a job in the US."
To get to the highway, they had to pass through Bhagat Market. A narrow lane led them through the heart of it. The smells of the market permeated the car through the rolled-down windows. It was a unique odor, equal parts vegetable, animal and human, that was simultaneously invigorating and intoxicating. As Anil inhaled the long-forgotten smells, he was consumed with nostalgia. A half-smile crept across his face.
Watching Anil in the rear-view mirror, Abhinav said, "Look Asha, a ray of sunshine!" Abhinav and Anil's eyes met in the mirror, and they smiled at each other. Abhinav looked happier and less haggard than at any time during the past few days, and for that, Anil was grateful.
At that instant, a man walked out in front of the car.
"Abhinav, watch out!" Asha cried.
Abhinav stomped hard on the brakes, but he was not fast enough for the close confines of the market. They heard a dull thud followed by a sickening crunch. The man was flung to the side, even as the car still kept moving.
"Don't stop! Keep going!" Asha screamed. "It's not your fault!"
For a moment, Abhinav wavered, and Asha thought he would follow her advice. Then he sighed, his shoulders drooped, and he brought the car to a shuddering halt. She choked down the half-rebuke that had sprung to her lips, grimacing as she did so. As always, Abhinav, your principles got the better of you, her expression said.
Abhinav got out of the car and started back towards the spot of the accident. He did not speak or look back at either Asha or Anil. After some hesitation, they followed him.
A crowd had started gathering around the body in the center of the road.
"Can't someone see he is seriously hurt? Call the ambulance!"
"No doctor can help him now. The unfortunate fellow is gone from this world!"
"Are you blind? Can't you see his hand moving? There's still hope!"
"You must have left your glasses at home. There is no life in him, not unless his ghost has come back to possess his body!"
Abhinav pushed his way through. Seeing the inert form, he gasped and fell to his knees. Someone in the crowd recognized him.
"Aray, look it's the babu from the car!"
"Anyone else would have run away. He is a brave man to come back."
"Brave and foolish."
Coming up from behind Abhinav, Asha and Anil found him in the same kneeling position, rocking from side to side. He seemed to have shriveled and shrunk, in an instant becoming a fraction of the man he had been. They knelt down next to him. Anil's heart sank when he looked at the body. The head was crushed in and surrounded by a pool of blood. Flies had already started buzzing around it.
The crowd was watching Abhinav closely, and they inferred from his behavior that the victim was dead. Their reaction immediately changed from grudging praise to anger.
"Saala murderer! You killed him!"
"Call the police!"
"Let's teach him a lesson first! These babus drive as if they own the road. Our lives are worthless to them!"
"You're right brother. He'll bribe the police and go free. Who will answer to this dead man's wife and children?"
"Search his pockets, take his watch, take his wallet. At least it will be a payment for his family!"
Asha started crying.
"Brother, I beg you. Please leave my husband alone. It was not his fault. The man jumped in front of the car, didn't you see that?"
"Sister, we saw a crime being committed, and a car hitting a man. Someone must pay."
Anil noticed that the crowd had suddenly gone quiet. The cause of this silence was a constable, who had appeared at the scene as if by magic.
Constable Ramchand had been lounging at a nearby tea-stall when the accident happened. A veteran of such incidents, he had automatically assumed that it was a professional victim trying to extort money from an unwary driver. So he waited for the aggrieved party to vociferously proclaim the extent of their injuries, for the driver to apologize profusely, for the crowd to force the driver to make restitution proportionate to the nature of the injuries, and for everyone to finally disperse, giving him the opportunity to step in and collect his share of the proceeds.
As he sipped his cardamom-flavored tea, he kept his ears open for the tell-tale sounds that would help him monitor which act of the little drama was being played out. But this time, the sequence of events seemed to be different. Try as he could, his ears could not discern the screams of pain emanating from the injured man.
After a few minutes, he got concerned enough to walk up to the scene. As he got closer, he glimpsed the body and the three figures squatting around it. He groaned inwardly as he diagnosed the situation. Real accidents were always messy.
"What happened?" he asked, pushing aside people as he walked to the center of the crowd. People saw his uniform and got out of the way.
"Constable Sahib, this babu hit this poor man, and now they are trying to pretend they are innocent."
"We did not hit him on purpose!" Anil shouted. "He jumped in front of the car."
"No, Constable Sahib, don't believe them, they—"
"Shut up, all of you!" Ramchand yelled. The crowd grew silent.
"Who saw this accident take place? Stay back, we need you as witnesses. Everyone else, this is not a mela. Stop your shameless staring as if it was a country fair! Get lost, all of you!"
The call for witnesses made the crowd lose all interest in the proceedings. Only an idiot would subject himself to the legal system, to the endless calls for appearances at the police station and the court. Within five minutes, Ramchand was left standing alone with Abhinav, Anil, Asha and the body on the street.
He called the ambulance and took their statements. The older man—apparently a former Professor at Government College—seemed to be in some sort of a daze. However, the woman and the younger man were reasonably coherent. From their accounts, it seemed like the victim had flung himself in front of the car. Classic suicide case, Ramchand thought. Poor bastard probably could not come up with the dowry for his daughter's marriage or the tuition for his son's college education.
He was going to book them for a normal hit-and-run, when he suddenly remembered a speech by Sahib two weeks ago. Sahib had said then that as policemen, their primary concern should be the common man. The police had gotten a bad name by letting the rich and the famous go scot-free. To clear themselves of this stigma, they needed to not take it easy on rich and powerful people; if anything, they should be stricter with them. Ramchand knew that Sahib had political ambitions, and of course the best way to endear oneself to voters was to be an advocate of the common man.
This, Ramchand felt, was a golden opportunity to prove to the Sahib that he, Ramchand, was following through on Sahib's exhortations. After all, a Professor at Government College, former or not, had to be well-off; Ramchand knew the tuition fees these Professors charged. He took out his cellphone and dialed Sahib's home number. He had assiduously noted it down when Sahib had given it out at the end of his talk, encouraging every member of the force to call him if they needed anything at all.
Sahib answered the phone himself. Ramchand quickly introduced himself and explained the situation. He listened attentively to the instructions issuing from the other end, then said "Yes, Sahib" and turned the phone off.
He turned to Anil. "Come on, get your Uncle and Aunty in my jeep. We're going to Sahib's house."
"Who's Sahib?" asked Anil.
"Sahib is the big boss," laughed Ramchand. "Come on, you'll see."
"What about this man?" asked Anil, pointing to the body. A couple of stray dogs seemed to be eyeing it with a mixture of greed and caution.
"Don't worry, nothing can be done for him now. The ambulance will pick him up and take him to the mortuary."
"What about our car?"
"What are you worried about, your car or your Uncle? Now come on, Sahib doesn't like to be kept waiting."
Fifteen minutes later, the jeep drove up to a gated mansion. Ramchand pressed redial on his cellphone. "Sahib, I'm here, outside the gates," he said. "Yes, sir." He turned the phone off and said to Anil, "They are opening the gates for us."
A minute later, the gates opened and they drove in. As they pulled up to the driveway, a large black car pulled away, heading towards the gate. The car was an Ambassador, beloved by politicians and government bureaucrats. It was flanked by machinegun-toting guards on motorcycles.
A short compact man stood at the entrance of the house, seeing off the departing car. He had close-cropped hair and carried himself like a boxer. His otherwise regular features stood out in sharp contrast to his nose, which was broken down the middle and seemed to have been clumsily put back together.
Ramchand turned off the ignition. As Anil turned to help Asha get out of the jeep, he saw that she had gone pale. Her eyes were wide, and she seemed to have stopped breathing.
"Aunty, what is it? Are you okay?"
"DSP Rathod," she whispered. "That man—he is the DSP whose daughter..."
Blinding realization hit Anil. I should have known, he thought. He felt sick to his stomach.
Meanwhile, DSP Rathod waited for them, his hands crossed in front of him. A slight smile had appeared on his lips as he regarded them at close range.
"Sahib, I'm Constable Ramchand. This is the man," Ramchand pointed towards Abhinav. Rathod nodded, then waved his hand in a dismissive gesture. Ramchand hesitated for a moment.
"Constable, when I say go, I mean go. If I ever need your opinion, I'll let you know," said Rathod. His voice was soft, but the tone brooked no argument. "You've done well, and I'll make sure you're rewarded. Now go get some tea from the maid in the kitchen. I'll call you when I need you."
"Yes Sahib," Ramchand saluted and went into the house. Though torn with curiosity to find out what would transpire, he knew that crossing Rathod would be a career-limiting move.
"So, Abhinav Sharma, we meet again," said Rathod. "And this time you are the one at my house begging. When the Constable gave me your name, I wanted him to bring you here just so I could hear you beg, just so I could say to you what you told me that day. You remember the words, don't you?"
Abhinav did not respond.
"Now leave my house before I lose my temper," Rathod said, lingering on each word long enough to savor the taste of victory.
"It wasn't his fault, Mr. Rathod!" Anil said. "The man committed suicide. We just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."
"Did I speak to you?" Rathod said. "Keep your mouth shut and speak when you are spoken to." Then, to Abhinav, "I'm going to ensure that you go to jail for a long time."
Abhinav still did not reply. He stood looking at Rathod with a vacuous expression on his face. He's gone into shock, thought Anil.
"It was an accident!" Asha shouted. "What do you have against us? Just because my husband stuck to his principles and failed your idiot daughter, you want to pursue your vendetta?"
Ignoring her, he looked at Abhinav again. "In this town, people like you have always been able to commit crimes and get away with it. Now that I am here, I intend to give the public what they have been hungry for for so long—justice. Do you know who was leaving as you arrived? Hardev Kishan, our town's legislator. Together we will fight for the common man, against people like you."
"Is this about politics? Are you trying to make my husband a victim of your political agenda?" Asha's voice sounded muffled through her tears. Anil put his arms around her, trying to offer some semblance of comfort. He felt angry and confused, his thoughts disjointed. There must be something he could do.
"Watch your tongue, Madam," Rathod said. "First you call my daughter names, now you accuse me. Just because I'm showing you respect doesn't mean I will sit here listening to your accusations. A few years inside a jail cell will do your husband's attitude a lot of good."
"DSP Rathod, may I speak with you in private?" said Anil. A sudden idea had crept into his mind.
Rathod considered this request. "I don't see any harm in that," he finally said. "Make it quick—I am late for an appointment."
"Aunty, please take care of Uncle," said Anil. "Everything will be all right. I promise." He hugged them tightly. Asha clung to him fiercely and desperately, but Abhinav was passive and wooden, his hug peremptory and short. Anil was deeply concerned about him, but he needed to clear his mind if he was to extricate them from this situation.
Rathod and Anil stepped into the antechamber.
"What do you want, boy?" asked Rathod.
Anil had been formulating the words in his mind. The method he had used with the customs officer would not work here. With Rathod, he needed to be direct. This was no time to be coy. "How much?" he said.
"What?" said Rathod. "What did you just say?"
"I said, how much? I work in the US, and I can pay whatever it takes to satisfy you." Anil repeated. "How much will it take to let my Uncle go?"
"Your uncle kills a man, and you think you can bribe me!" Rathod smiled. "You think you can just walk in here from the US and buy me with your dollars?"
"Every man has a price," Anil said. "What's yours?" It sounded to him like a line from a Hindi movie. But sometimes, he thought, lines from Hindi movies were the only way to go, especially when your life was shaping up like a Hindi movie.
"Why do you insult me like this?" Rathod asked. "I can buy and sell you ten times over. The next time you try to offer someone money, make sure you actually can follow through with it." He contemplated Anil for a few seconds. "You know what, maybe I should throw you in jail together with your Uncle for trying to bribe a public official. That'll teach you your true place."
"Please, DSP Rathod." Anil felt desperate and powerless at the same time. He felt as if he was slipping down a long deep abyss.
"What was that?"
"Please, Sir, there must be something you can do for my Uncle," Anil said. "He's a decent, honest man. He's never done anything illegal, has never violated a single law in his life. Even a day in jail would kill him and my Aunty."
"He should have thought of that before he hit the man," said Rathod. "There's nothing I can—" He stopped suddenly, regarding Anil as if seeing him for the first time.
"Where do you work again?"
The acrid fumes emanating from the sacred fire stung Anil's eyes and made them water. The three priests—a head priest and two initiates—were bare-chested and clad only in white silk dhotis. They sat cross-legged around the fire, chanting mantras in sonorous voices and pouring a steady stream of offerings—wood, flowers, perfumed oils, grains, resins, yogurt, milk, sugar, honey—into the fire, to be consumed and digested by Agni, the fire god.
Anil shot a sideways glance at the woman who would soon become his wife. She sat with her head bowed and her face obscured by the veil of her richly embroidered silk sari, so that he could see only her profile. Her hands and feet were covered with intricate henna patterns, and she wore enough gold jewelry to feed a small village.
The assemblage at the wedding hall was comprised of around fifty people, a tiny number by Indian standards. Most attendees were friends and relatives of the bride, and a number of theories were circulating among them as to why the groom's party were so conspicuously absent at such an auspicious occasion. A handful of shehnai and harmonium players sat on an elevated platform, playing wedding music that was loud enough to drown the background audience hum, yet soft enough to render audible the chants of the priests.
Abhinav and Asha sat behind Anil. Asha was steady and composed, though Anil had observed her stealthily wiping away tears before the ceremony. Abhinav, on the other hand, looked like a man at the end of his tether. His kurta was partly unbuttoned, showing a patch of white chest hair. His hair was uncombed and unruly, and he appeared to not have shaved. He sat like a zombie, unmoving and expressionless. From time to time, the head priest asked Abhinav to repeat a shloka after him; he did so in a flat, inflectionless voice.
It's not your fault, Uncle, Anil thought desperately. Please don't blame yourself. It'll be okay. It'll work out.
The head priest produced a gold chain with an amulet at its end. "Beta, tie this mangalsutra around her neck," he said, handing it to Anil.
The audience tensed expectantly, waiting for the payoff. The music rose to a crescendo.
Anil's bride-to-be leaned towards him. As he turned to perform the final ritual that would make her his wife, he caught the eye of his future father-in-law sitting behind her.
DSP Rathod smiled back at him.