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. In time.
The images seemed like a figment of his imagination, but his heart knew that those faces belonged somewhere in his past. A past which was painted red with the blood of innocents. How many had he killed over the years, he failed to remember. The numbers didn’t matter, what did was the moral compass of his conscience which had been nagging him since last evening.
December 1992, Bombay
The sounds of Allah-hu- Akbar was all around the city. Destruction and violence had bared their jaws and were masticating entire areas of the city of dreams. The city smelt of petrol, burnt plastic, metal, all mingled with the smell of burning flesh. Smog had engulfed the city, probably, to avoid God the pain of looking at the degeneration of the human species; in his name.
But for Munna all this mayhem was like a big party. His teen adrenaline and testosterone, along with the anger he felt towards the city, for being insensitive towards homeless and poor orphans like him, were reasons enough to participate in the vandalism. This was an opportunity to give back some of the hate the city had bestowed him with.
Initially, he joined the riots for the fun of it. A gang of people were torching a BEST bus and he too picked up the fire-filled glass bottle and threw it, aiming for the petrol tank. His throw met it’s target and the bus went up in an explosion. The high of seeing the metal melt away, the rush at being able to vent out his anger; drove him to join those people in their future rampages. Not to mention, the money they offered him. None though, had asked him his religion. That, he was violent without remorse was enough for them to grant him access in their gang.
Religion for him was like marriage. Committment to one would result in the inability to flirt with the others. His proclivity for any religion depended on the gains from them. To sleep on the pavement outside a mosque he became a Muslim, to beg in front of the temple he was a Hindu. But the God of none of these religions had given him the solace of family. He had no affinity towards any of them and thus he felt no religious trappings when he threw those bottled torches to scorch the homes of either Hindus or Muslims.
From the age of five, when his parents were killed in mob violence in the narrow, claustrophobic lanes of Dharavi, in front of his eyes, Munna had understood that violence had the power to tear someone’s world. It had the power to change someone’s destiny and this power was what he wanted for himself too.
“Chacha,” Raghu’s voice broke his reverie. “We had been looking for you throughout last night. Where had you been? We checked all our regular addas and you were nowhere to be found. Is everything all right? You look disheveled!”
“Nothing. I think age has started to catch up with me. I can’t guzzle alcohol like earlier. I guess in my inebriated state I might have slept on the bench in this lane.”
“Let’s take you home then. We have loads of work to do. Ministerji’s PA had called. He needs a small group of boys sent for creating havoc in his own rally, just enough for him to gather some media eyeballs. I wanted your opinion on whom to send.”
“Hmmmm…it’s not a major job, just send anyone.” he dismissed Raghu with a wave of his hand. His mind seemed to be in a contemplative mood. He didn’t want any further discussion.
Raghu looked at Munna with a suspicion that comes from having known a person and his idiosyncracies long enough; to understand that something had shifted within this person.
“Aren’t you coming home? The drizzle will turn into a downpour soon.”
“No. I would like to sit here for sometime. You carry on, I will be home by lunch.” The more he thought the more the faces seem to become clear. The lines on his face became more prominent with the strain on his mind.
“Raghu..” he called out as an afterthought. “Take this puppy home. He seems like a stray but has been following me from last evening. He seems to have taken a liking to me.”
Raghu’s eyebrows shot up in shock. Chacha had always been known to be unemotional, practical, someone who shot a bullet without blinking his eye, whose hands did not shiver even once while burning his own neighborhood; when the builder had wanted the land for his ambitious mall project.
Raghu had been with Chacha from early 2002 when Chacha was recruiting young men for the massacre in Gujarat. Raghu was not the violent kind but he was shrewd. He couldn’t be sent in the field, but he was good in administration and so he had stuck with Munna Chacha as his Man Friday.
March 2002, Vadodara
The city was different. So were the slogans. This time the screams from the burning houses were accompanied on the outside by chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’. Besides that, nothing much had changed in a decade. The common man remained holed up whereas goons employed by political parties and religious hoodlums were creating havoc all across the city and state.
Munna had moved from being a nameless, faceless rioter to a leader of a small gang, supplying men to bigger gangs for their felonies or to anybody who wanted some hooligans to rough things up. The Godhra riots had been his big ticket to success. The communal riots were bigger this time, the entire state was up in flames and the freedom granted to them to conduct any misdemeanor, meant his boys had gotten a little fun too.
He was not actively participating this time, though the adrenaline rush of it all beckoned him often. But the last decade had seen him spent time in jail occasionally and if caught this time, he would be thrown in for a longer term and that risk; he wasn’t willing to take.
From the confines and safety of his car, he would however monitor everything. The torching, the rapes, the killings, the massacres. It was while witnessing one such massacre that he saw two pairs of young eyes, looking in his direction, not at the mother who was being tortured and raped or their house which was up in fire. Those innocent, accusing eyes bore through him, and in them he saw for the first time; the beast that he had become. This revelation should have made him guilty, but instead it fueled his aspirations more. He loved the despondency in those eyes, it reminded him of his own, the reason why he wanted the power. Never to feel like those kids again.
Present day, 2019
Yes!!! Those eyes. They belonged to those faces in his dreams. But why after so many years? What games was his mind playing with him? Was his conscience raising it’s head? Guilt?
Laughter sounded in his head.
He got up from the tea stall and made his way back home. He had made his decision.
“Raghu, I have changed my mind. Send Bunty to me. He will be going to the rally along with the others. I need to brief him about the plan I have in my mind. Ministerji won’t be happy if we send someone ignorant. After all he is our Mai-baap. Without him, we would all be in jail.”
A relieved look flashed on Raghu’s face. This was the man he knew, a confident personality, someone who knew his mind.
Later in the day:
“Chachaaaa… chachaa..We are in a big soup,” Raghu’s shocked, worried voice came to him before his puny frame entered the TV room.
“Oh!! you are already watching the news. So you are aware that Ministerji has been assassinated by a gun shot. Seems like the job of opposition and one of our rival gangs. But our boys were also in the crowd. What if someone suspects us?”
Munna got up from the couch, the stray dog in his arms. Fiddling with his ears, he turned to Raghu and said in a calm, cold voice. A smile forming on his lips. “Don’t worry. Our boys are well protected. We have a much powerful hand blessing us now.”
“I don’t understand.” Incomprehension was writ all over Raghu’s face.
“Of course, you don’t. I had meant it as a surprise for you. After all it’s a good news for you too. A promotion. You will now be the PA to the new minister.” Munna said, as he laughed at the still confused face of Raghu.
“Yesterday evening, the party-head called me at his residence. He was worried that Ministerji was in talks with the opposition and could change parties in exchange for a cabinet position. And you know how much Ministerji was revered in this state. If he would have joined the opposition the entire vote bank would have shifted in their favor. He was not willing to accept the same terms in our party, apparently opposition promised him a secret deal too.
What option the party-head was left with? He asked me if I wanted to contest elections from Ministerji’s constituency. They were willing to give me a ticket, on one condition. After all, you prove your loyalty through betrayal.
With Ministerji gone, and the fear people have of me, we will be the new rulers of this state.” He laughed maniacally.
Raghu was still in shock.
Munna looked in the puppy’s eyes. He was reminded of the images in his dreams. They had come to him in a state of dilemma, when for once, guilt and loyalty had wriggled their way in his mind. But he now knew clearly what those meant.
They were reminders to him of the helplessness of the powerless; not the awakening of his conscience. The beast that he was, the moral guilt of killing an elder-brother like figure could never decide his destiny. Power was his ultimate goal.
The stray dog was now a metaphor of this one moment. It had entered along with the guilt and it would now leave with the power. Munna kept the dog down and shot at it point blank.
Allah-hu-Akbar : an Islamic phrase meaning God is the greatest
BEST bus :Brihanmumbai Electric Supply and Transport, a public body providing public transport in Mumbai
Chacha : Hindi term for Uncle, respectfully used for an elder.
Addas: A place of gathering of people.
Jai Shri Ram : Hail Shri Ram, a Hindu greeting and slogan used in many festivities.
Mai-Baap: Literal transalation Mother- father, but used for anyone who helps someone and provides various benefits from time to time. Also used for master.
PA: personal assistant
You prove loyalty through betrayal – Roman Markin in ‘The Tsar of Love and Techno’ by Anthony Marra
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Photo by Omer Youseif