The old man woke up with a start. He looked around groggily and squinted as his eyes settled on the cloudy sky above. A droplet of rain landed on his forehead. He brushed it off and sat up. The little puppy that had been sleeping beside him on the stone bench sat up too. The inclement weather had driven most of the people back home and apart from a few stray dogs, a couple of cab drivers and some pedestrians, the lane was largely empty. He ran a hand through his unkempt hair, rose, stumbled and then steadying himself, began to walk towards the little tea shop at the end of the lane. The puppy followed him. It knew that a treat was in store.
He sat on the little stool outside the tea stall while the puppy settled at his feet.
“Will pay tomorrow,” he grunted as the young boy, who worked at the stall handed him a cup of black tea and two biscuits.
The boy nodded and held out a biscuit to the puppy.
“Here, take these too,” the old man dropped the two biscuits on the ground, much to the delight of the puppy.
He sipped his tea noisily and stared into the distance. He wasn’t sure what had woken him up. It wasn’t the drizzle of rain. It was something else. Perhaps it was a dream. Hazy images of faces came flooding into his mind. Had he really seen those faces in his dream? He shook his head restlessly. Perhaps he needed to go back.
He got back on his feet unsteadily, the puppy following his every move. He remembered all the times recently that he had spent on the bench, the puppy his only companion. The tea stall was a regular feature too in his life nowadays. As soon as the thought crossed his mind, his eyes turned moist and his throat choked. He held back his tears and cleared his throat gruffly. He tried not to think about such things now.
The rain was picking up a little now and there was no shelter near the bench. Best to head home, he thought to himself. But home brought to mind another image. An image that he would rather forget. Suddenly drained of all energy, he sat down on the bench with a thud. Thoughts crowded his mind and try as he might, they wouldn’t go away. Meanwhile the puppy started tugging his trousers and he picked it up distractedly. The memories just wouldn’t stop.
He remembered the masked men, the dingy room, the smells and the odours, and his…He stopped. No, it couldn’t be! Had he really witnessed that? He could hold back the tears no longer. They came in waves and he sat dejectedly, sobbing and crying like a man who had lost everything. How long he went on, he didn’t know. Till there was no more left. Spent, he sat back and tried to piece all the events of the previous night together.
He recalled heading to the den in the early evening. How he had gotten drawn into this web of deceit and money, he didn’t remember. But the first time he had stepped through its doors a year ago, he had felt like his life was truly about to change. And changed it had. Only it was not what he had envisioned. With money in his pockets all the time, he had started thinking he was invincible. The simple Gopal, auto rickshaw driver was now looked upto by everyone around. They recognized his new-found status and usually friends and acquaintances alike came knocking on his door asking for help in the form of money.
His wife had never been the one to ask many questions, but she used to get upset whenever he handed a wad of bills to his teenage son, Akash. She always kept telling him to pull back and not spoil him by giving him so much money or buying him the latest gadgets, like a new mobile phone, laptop etc. Ignoring her, he continued on in his ways and started staying away from home and his wife’s nagging. The bench and the puppy had become his regular companions and the boy at the tea stall knew him by face. If only he had heeded his wife’s words. None of this would have happened.
Try as he might, he couldn’t forget last night. As he had walked into the den, he saw his friends huddled in a corner with drinks in hand. He joined in the conversation where the alcohol flowed and talks revolved around the new consignment received. It was supposed to be the authentic stuff, clearly top rated! In the retail market, it would sell for a big price and they all were meant to walk away with cool profits in their pockets. All his friends there were working class, they had accidentally discovered this easy route. On their own, they were struggling to make ends meet. This was their shortcut in life and they were busy making the most of it.
Suddenly, there was a commotion in the adjacent room. Knowing it would be young kids upto no good after getting high on drugs, Gopal strolled into the room just to take a look. He smelt the musty odour in this room, the smell of death lurking nearby. He noticed that the beefy, masked security guards had rounded up a few boys who had nicked some stuff and were refusing to pay for it. In their field, every penny counted and he knew that the boys would get into trouble if they didn’t pay up. As he thought about it, he smiled and knew that he really didn’t care. What did it matter if these kids lived or died? Eventually they had made their choice, it was only a matter of time.
As he was leaving the room, his attention was drawn to a lanky boy sitting in the corner with a girl. There was something about his stance that drew Gopal’s eye towards him. They were huddled in a corner near the pillar and were too engrossed amongst themselves to notice him. As he went a little closer, Gopal was shocked that the boy was none other than Akash! For the first time, he felt the earth slide beneath his feet.
Before he realised what he was doing, he was pulling up Akash by the collar and started smacking him. Akash retaliated and was hitting him back, when he realised that it was his father! The shock showed on his face too.
The security guards came up to them and pulled them apart. One of his friends too came in hearing the commotion and told him, “Gopal, why are you beating this boy? He is a good customer of ours, pays on time and doesn’t cause any trouble. Let him be. Don’t cause trouble unnecessarily.”
Gopal was livid. But before he could reply back, came another shocked voice, “Dad? Customer? Dad, have you been running this place? Is this how you have been earning so much money?”
Gopal was numb. He didn’t know what to say. Nothing made sense to him at that moment. With a sudden cry and a thud, he watched his son slowly crash onto the floor and pass out.
Distraught, Gopal looked around for help. When none was forthcoming, without wasting another moment, Gopal carried his son out in his arms. He shoved him into his auto and drove like a madman to the nearest hospital. He begged and pleaded with the doctor to save his son. The doctor was non-committal, he only said he would try his best.
His wife came rushing when informed and he didn’t know what to say. He felt like an outsider in his own story. Finally towards midnight, the doctor said that his son was out of danger but would need to be under observation for the next forty eight hours. His wife decided to stay back at the hospital and asked him to go home and get some rest. But home was the one place he couldn’t return to. Driving around, he finally crashed out on the bench near the tea stall and woke up groggy and washed out in the morning.
He still didn’t know how he would face his wife and son. He knew there were questions that needed to be answered, but he still needed to figure them out. He had failed his family, he realized that. He had been so blinded by money and power, that he forgot that he was a father first. These were innocent youth that they were targeting. What were they giving them in return? Sickness? Death? The more he thought about it, the more guilty he became. He knew he had to clean up his act, but he didn’t know how. But whatever the cost, he was ready. He owed that much to his wife and his son. He would make amends. With this new resolve in mind, Gopal walked ahead with the puppy following suit at his feet.
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