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 ofblack 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.
But where? Although his past seemed to beckon him, at the moment it looked like a huge jigsaw puzzle. He was a clueless kid who had no idea where he needed to start. His home perhaps? Yes, the apartment that he had abandoned for long now. The place that was his home for years but now it just haunted him for nights at end. He would hear the screams therein, imagine people calling him, people strangling him and at the end of those nightmares, he would see those faces again, faces with eyes gazing at him, piercing his soul. He spent his nights like a homeless man avoiding those and the haunting memories. However, the pieces of his puzzle lay there in the house and he needed to piece them together.
He rubbed his face, with the manner of decisiveness, caressed the little puppy and walked his way home. With every step that he closed in, he felt weak and had the urge to stop and leave, but he needed to get this done, once and for all. Climbing the stairs, he couldn’t help notice the prying eyes on him. He knew people had questions, he needed to address his at the moment though. He unlocked the door and walked in. A strong stench filled him up and he wanted to throw up. The house needed cleaning and so did he. He tidied up the house, throwing away stale leftovers been lying for months, the old newspapers that had piled up at the doorstep, the refrigerator that was full of molds – he thought it was a miracle that the house wasn’t infested with rats.
After a quick shower, he dressed and walked to his study table. Scribbled notes, a few pictures, a few phone numbers and lot of other details from the last time he had visited. He glanced through it all. Picked a few things and placed them in his pocket and then he made a call. One ring, two rings, three rings,
“Old place, same time”
Click! The other person had hung up without saying a word and he knew that the message was received. No questions were asked. He walked out and locked his apartment, not knowing when he would visit next. It was funny how emotions played, when he arrived he didn’t want to he here, and now when he was locking the door he wanted to linger on some more. He killed the urge and made his way to the Old place.
Jimmy Boy, one of the oldest Irani restaurants of Mumbai. He took a train that was town bound, being odd hours it was not that crowded and he could enjoy his leisure activity, to observe people and build a story of their lives.
Mumbai, a city he knew which never slept. Where every person was running against life to create a better life for himself. The city that really was the bottoms up approach of life personified. A salaried person wanted his salary figure to raise from 4 to 5. A house owner wanted to move, in a bigger flat or a better place closer to town. Each one had a dream and the city quite seldom let people down, like him.
Amidst the people always running, in between the pace that the city followed, it also had an ugly and dark underbellyto it. Petty crimes of pickpocketing, snatch and run – jewelry, mobile phones, were common place and people were too busy to take a note of the same, unless the culprits’ luck was running dry. Being a port city, the business of selling smuggled goods too was always on a boom.
He started his life of crime there. Born in slums, destitution came naturally. He witnessed the crimes taking place in his surroundings itself, there was a dedicated small factory which printed pirated books that were later sold at traffic signals, the cheap replicas of branded leather goods were manufactured here and everything found a market in Mumbai. All the businesses were thriving, profits being made and all stakeholders were happy. His mother eloped, or so he was told. He then took it upon himself to fend for him and his sister, who he adored. He was on the wrong path, but the instinct for survival was greater than anything else. His job was to sell the smuggled goods roadside, yes he was caught, but the cops too had a share. And again, everyone was happy.
It was during one such raids that the hafta didn’t suffice the cops. Owing to the Naya Saab on duty, all were rounded in alongwith their goods. Unlike others, he didn’t plead, but said, “Saab, apunke upar Bhai ka hath hai” and that’s when he first met Dubey. An officer who was recently transferred to Mumbai and who rapidly wanted to make it big by striking a blow to the city’s underworld. Dubey knew he had found his scapegoat. The deal was simple, he was required to tip them of any large consignment and all his petty crimes would be absolved, in addition to the fixed amount that Dubey would give him every month – a win-win for both.
The deal worked well for many years, Dubey rised up the promotion ladder. He made a life for himself too, a small shop that sold the same smuggled good, bought an apartment, a white collar life indeed. He was able to provide all the amenities to his sister, Maya. She grew up to be a beautiful girl and like all good looking girls in the city, she aimed for the show biz. He was aware about it and was always cautious of the people she met, as a responsible elder brother.
Things with his deal changed when the consignments started sending and receiving people in them – trafficking for flesh trade. He tipped Dubey and many attempts were foiled. Until one day when he learnt Maya was missing. He knew the drill and knew where to find her. He reached the port, the container was being loaded with sedated girls and Maya was one of them. He was waiting for Dubey to make the strike as always, but didn’t happen.
He lurched forward confronting the cronies and there was chaos everywhere. He was held captive and all he remembered while being beaten up was asking the girls to run. He woke up next day in a gutter, black and blue. He had lost his sister, it was his doing. He was a part of the filthy smuggling business that had now grown into something more sinister. And since then, he was on a pursuit to nib it in the bud.
It was not long before he realised that it was the most lucrative business that had no names or faces involved. The girls were brought to the city from the poorest and remotest areas of the country, with a promise of livelihood, theirrelatives paid a sum in whole. It was not difficult to find such needy families and the business such that demand always exceeded the supply. Kidnapping too was allied.The shit was real deep, policemen, politicians, underworld gangs, everyone was involved. He had spent many years of his life finding the gory details. Made friends with drug peddlers, they were easy to fish out information from, lived in the dingy alleys where the men involved worked, he did it all that it took. And now it was time for a curtain call.
The entire past life came to him while he was seated waiting at Jimmy Boy. Dubey arrived, he had retired recently.
“The word out was you were dead” said Dubey.
“Disappointed?” he asked.
“The stealth life has done you well”
“Couldn’t have asked for more”
“It has been years Jafar. Why have you called me here?”
“Because I need a closure. I need to know why you weren’t there that night!”
“My powers were clipped that night Jafar. The guilt kills me everyday”
“Shut the fuck up you swine! You have no idea of what guilt is! I am living it every second since then!”
“It can’t be undone now. We both will have to pay for it in someway!”
“And I am going to do just that. I will see you on the other side Dubey! And if possible, try growing a spine by then!”
Dubey didn’t try stopping him. He knew it was inevitable.
Jafar now had only one door left to knock. He went to Usman Bhai. After the pleasantries, Usman Bhai said, “Iska anjaam to jaante ho na Miyan?”
Jafar just smiled and said, “Agar maut hi mukaddar hai to yahi sahi. Is dozakh ki zindagi se to behtar hi hai”
Usman bhai handed him the Colt, hugged him and said, “Allah karam karega, Khuda Hafiz”
“If you don’t hear from me for more than 24 hours, please do the needful Usman Bhai. Khuda Hafiz.” Jafar bid him goodbye by handing the notes he had pocketed to Usman Bhai.
Jafar then walked his way to the port. Khurram, the kingpin of the flesh trade business had his den there. It was Jumma, and Jafar knew he would be alone today barring his two bodyguards. He had an appointment under an alias. He was walked through the chamber and saw Khurram sitting with prayer beads in his hand.
“It amazes me to see that you are a God fearing person” Jafar said with a scorn.
Khurram smiled and said, “ Do you know why you were not frisked when you entered? Because I know who you are and why you are here”
“That is good. Every dying person needs to know why he died and at whose hands”
“And what makes you think you will be able to?”
“Because it’s God’s will”
And with that, he pulled out the Colt and fired with all his might. Khurram was hit at many places but tried to flee. Jafar was aware of his amputee leg, he hit him hard with a chair and Khurram was on the ground. Jafar walked upto him, and shot point blank. The firing alerted the guards and they fired at Jafar. Jafar fell on the floor.
The following evening, all the major news channels were running a story on the human trafficking and flesh trade scandal of Mumbai. All the big who’s who were involved, that included quite a few politicians, industrialists and police officials, even Dubey. Usman Bhai did his part.
Jafar’s body was recovered 2 days later along with Khurram’s.Jafar seemed at peace with a serene smile on his dead face. He had finally overcome his guilt and served penance. The faces now would never haunt him again.
Word Count: 2042 including 260 words of phase 1 story.
Hafta: A form of bribe paid to the cops off the illicit roadside businesses to keep them going
Naya Saab: New officer
Apun ke upar Bhai ka hath hai: I enjoy the patronage of a don
Iska anjaam jante hai na: I hope you are aware of the consequences
Agar maut hi mukaddar hai to yahi sahi. Is dozakhkizindagi se to behtar hi hai: if death is my destiny then it is many times better than the life of hell I am living
Jumma: Prayer Friday
This story is inspired by the city that the author was born and brought up in. The names used for the characters are completely fictional. The author doesn’t in any way reflect a particular section or community of the society in a bad light. While developing characters, the author has taken cues from the real-life cases and incidents she has witnessed and read about when she stayed in the city.
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Picture credits: Yogesh Pedamkar