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Dahan - A Short Story

He was running as fast as he could. Jumping over heaps of trash, potholes and small walls. He was getting farther away from his pursuer but also from the mass of people around him. And just when he thought he had lost him and turns a corner, a fist smashes into him, knocking the wind out of him and splaying him on the ground. He coughs and grunts as he tries to get back on his feet. But a kick to his ribs sends him into a fetal position. And then he hears laughter. A maniacal sound. A pronouncement of sadistic glee. He is grabbed by the collar of his faded shirt and finds himself looking into the gleaming eyes of his assailant.

They were both breathing heavily as they looked at each other. The wisps of hot breath quickly disappearing into the city's polluted air. His captor spits and barks at him "Give it to me". It was always like this. Durga knew about his payday and made sure he got most of it. Granted it was not much, but it helped his mom bring food to the table. His little brothers depended on it. But such entreaties would not move Durga from being a brute. He was an animal. No strike that. Saying so would be rude to animals. He was a demon. Yes, that's what he was. Sauntering around the neighborhood. Picking on the weak to pay for his booze and women. He was big too. Feeding on the earnings of others had done well for him. Durga was at least a head taller than him. Fighting back was not an option. Durga reaches into  his pocket and grabs the crumpled notes. "Agle hafte phir huh?" he says as he winks and drops him to the ground.

He limps back home, beaten. What hurt more than the physical pain was the thought of seeing his siblings faces when he would tell them that there was no money today. It was close to festival season and they were hoping for treats. He seethes in rage and punches a nearby wall. This had to stop. Why was no one standing up to Durga? But then he remembered the stories he had heard floating around. About how deft Durga was with his switchblade. A few scars on the faces of people in his neighborhood was proof enough. And served as deterrence from any foolish bravery. With the patronage of the local politician, Durga seemed unstoppable. He leans back against a wall and catches his breath. What can I do? he thinks as he wipes away his tears from his dirt streaked face.

"Arrey Raghu" he hears his name being called. It was Saleem chacha hailing him over. He talked a lot, that Saleem chacha. But today, the distraction would help. He ambles over and sits down on a stone bench outside Saleem chacha's shop. The fire was burning hot in the smithy and chacha seemed to be working on a broken plow. He was good at fixing things. And he often fixed things for others for free. Having lived there for long, he had seen a lot. Between all the hammering chacha asks him if he's okay. He knows. He's heard the stories too. But he's too old to do anything about it. "Sab teek hai chacha" he says and looks away. "Lo, thoda paani lo" chacha says as he sits beside him. He gulps the water as chacha rambles on about what he's  heard lately. Then he tells him "You know, it's twenty five years today since I retired from the military. Oh what a time that was! I wonder where my comrades are. Mostly dead I presume." He chuckles.  "But Surya is still around I am sure. He was a scrappy one that chap. Never gave up on anything". Chacha looks at him square in the face as he says the last sentence. He knows what chacha is trying to do. Like it will do any good. He smiles nodding. Indulging chacha, he thanks him for the water and prepares to leave.

As he heads out, chacha calls "Listen, your mom was asking about a cooking knife and I think she could use this one that I forged out of the scrap metal I have lying around". He goes into the shop, rummages around a bit and comes out with a plastic bag. "I hope she likes it" chacha says. "Shukriya chacha" he says as he takes the bag and leaves. "Khuda hafeez beta", he hears chacha say in the background. He looks back and waves at him.

He makes his way home, dreading the thought of disappointing his brothers. Mom would understand. She knew he tried hard. Thanks to chacha, at least he had something for her. He opens the bag and takes out the knife. You couldn't really tell it was made from scrap. The sharp edge gleamed in the twilight. Chacha was good at what he did. He puts knife back in the bag. But he stops and his eyes widen in surprise.

He's almost home and he hears "bhaiya, bhaiya!" and finds himself surrounded by his little siblings. He can't help but smile. It even makes the pain go away momentarily.

One look and his mom knows. "Tu theek hai beta?" she asks as she runs her calloused hands gently over his face. He nods and gives her the knife. "It's for you". "Arrey wah!" she says as she runs her finger over the blade. "Haath mooh dholey, khaana leke aati hoon" she tells him with a big smile.

After supper he lies down on the charpoy grimacing in pain as his body reminds him of his misfortunes. His brothers come running to him asking him to play with them. But he shooes them away saying "kal". Slowly, as he relaxes, the look on his face changes to one of anger and fierce determination.

------

It's been a week and he heads out to work clutching his lunch sack in his hand. The bruises have mostly healed and he feels good. It's payday and he hopes Durga does not find him today. But that would mean someone else would have to pay. He shrugs off the thought and looks forward to the weekend's festivities.

At lunch he sits away from the others. Deep in thought as he chews the few pieces of bread. He has to take a different way back home he realizes. They would get a little extra today because of the festival and was determined to hang on to every paisa. The kids could have a great time at the fair tonight. The alternate route through the thicket of trees seemed the best bet. Not comfortable, but it was better than being handed a beating.

He hangs around the construction site while everyone heads home. When he sees them at a distance, he walks towards the trees. He feels good thinking of the fun time he will have with this brothers at the fair. He even begins to hum a tune. It's a little hard waking through the bushes. The setting sun and the trees do not provide much light. He is right in the middle of the woods when he hears that laugh. He freezes in horror when he looks ahead and sees Durga waiting for him. "Miss me?" he asks, grinning. This was not just about money. Durga really enjoyed tormenting him and must have been observing him at the site. "Please, not today Durga. It's a feast day. I need this money" He says. "So do I. So do I. It's my feast too" Durga replies as he comes closer with an outstretched hand.

He tries to back away in the hopes of running away. But Durga expects that. He swings his hand and catches him square on the face. The pain is blinding and he stumbles back and falls on some bushes. "I need to teach you a lesson so that you never try this again" Durga says as he slowly walks towards him flicking open his switchblade. What should have evoked fear seems to have calmed him. Things seem to move in slow motion. It had to come to this. In the distance, he could hear the fireworks boom as people began the celebrations. He matches Durga's gaze and slowly reaches into his lunch bag. A sudden bang and surprise registers on Durga's face as he clutches at this throat. Durga falls to his knees with a gurgling sound and topples over. Durga tries to focus on him one last time as the light fades from his eyes.

He comes rushing out of the woods and heads towards the fair where he would meet his brothers. He reaches just in time to see flaming arrows being shot at the huge effigies of Raavan and his cohorts. In the light of burning effigies, he spots his family. "Jai Shree Ram" he chants with the others as he runs and hugs the people he loves more than anything else in the world.

As the last rays of the sun hit the tops of the trees in the wood, they shed light on a small hole in the tree and something metallic glints. Many years later, when the trees are felled for new buildings, a worker would find something shiny on the ground. As he bends to pick it up, he would find etched on the object the words "Presented to Saleem Abdul Fayaz for your exemplary service in the Indian Army".

Dahan - A Short Story