Ahmad paid the money, picked up the bouquets and hopped onto the bike. Rajan zoomed off towards their favorite place. The place where they had met as complete strangers.
It was a day to celebrate with the loved ones. They lay in wait.
Six months ago
A pre-summer sun glared from the skies. Warm, dust laden winds were a harbinger of the hot, torturous days ahead. Dry, naked hills seemed to mock the gaunt man, hobbling on the cobbled path.
Throat completely dry and parched, he slumped on the nearest bench under the Laburnum tree. It was bereft of any blossoms. Like his desolate life. He was stuck in an abyss. Was there any hope left? Backing up against the wooden bench, he shut his eyes to block the harsh sun. But could he shut his eyes to the fact that his life was a gargantuan failure?
‘Water?’ someone offered.
As he opened his eyes, a pair of brown eyes stared at him.
The man in a pristine white shirt pushed a water bottle towards him. ‘Drink’, he almost ordered.
He took a swig and thanked him.
‘I am Ahmad. And you?’ The stranger’s kindness had made him more affable than he had been feeling a few minutes ago.
‘Rajan.’ He was not inclined to reveal more than that.
Both of them sat there, each lost in their own thoughts. The eeriness of the cemetery behind them united them in a bond of silent understanding. A police car whizzed past, breaking their reverie.
‘Can I drop you somewhere?’ Rajan asked, gesturing towards his bike parked nearby. ‘Or you are waiting for someone?’
‘Waiting for someone?’ Ahmad let out a low, derisive laugh. ‘Someone is waiting for me to join them. There.’ he nodded towards the cemetery.
‘What do you mean? You lost a loved one recently? What had happened?’ Rajan’s impeccable professional skills rose to the fore dutifully. He eyed Ahmad’s forlorn face, trying to read something more than he was telling.
‘They killed everyone I loved. My wife. My friend and mentor. And I couldn’t do anything. I was busy fighting another battle. They are buried here. And I am going to be buried forever under a lifetime of guilt and remorse…’ his voice trailed off. Too choked with memories of a painful past-not so distant, Ahmad hung his head down once again.
Rajan hugged him on an impulse and patted his back to calm him down. He waited for Ahmad to regain his composure. He could smell some horrific revelations in his story. His hunch had never been wrong. All other work could wait for a couple of hours, he decided.
‘Tell me everything. I am a good listener,’ he prodded Ahmad again.
‘Alright. Let me share it all. If nothing else, it will help unburden my sense of guilt.’ He looked up at Rajan with hope. He nodded his assent.
‘I am from a nearby town and used to work as a photojournalist for a newspaper. Environment and crime were my favorite topics.’ Rajan’s empathetic demeanor soothed his distraught senses and he continued. ‘Monstrous stone crushers devoured hills. Sand mafia denuded a long stretch of river banks. The ecology of the area was undergoing massive changes due to deforestation. Moreover, denudation of river beds was resulting in frequent flooding of the entire area. It tore my heart to see my flourishing, green land being devastated like this.
‘Didn’t anyone lodge a police complaint?’ Rajan interrupted Ahmad.
‘They did. But you know how the system works, right? Money exchanges hands and every complaint is swept under the carpet. Yet, the concerned citizens filed RTI applications to seek information if the crusher units had the necessary permits. They launched protest marches, lodged complaints with the district and state administrations but nothing could deter these criminals.
Then the editor asked me to prepare a detailed report on them and I did, with ample photo evidence. My ceaseless reporting highlighted the illegal, criminal activities and many TV news channels also covered it a few times. But you know how TRP drives reporting. The channels soon moved on to more attractive and lucrative news. And the ‘system’…we know how it spreads its fangs around people like us, don’t we?’
Ahmad got up and started pacing in agitation.
‘Yes, I know the system inside out!’ Rajan grimaced, ‘Who would know it better than me. I paid the price for being the man I am! For defying the system.’ He muttered under the breath.
Rajan did not seem to have heard him. He continued to walk back and forth.
‘The hoodlums pestered me to align with them, offered huge sums too but I was determined to bust their saga of wrongdoings. My coverage of their illegal activities compelled the authorities to begin investigations. But it did not go down well with the criminals who were exploiting our natural resources for their greed. When I started receiving overt and covert threats, I decided to shift my family elsewhere. But I continued my work even incognito.’
Ahmad stopped to have another mouthful of water. The sun was relentless and killing. He sat down beside Rajan, thankful for the shady tree.
‘I understand Ahmad, how difficult it must have been for you to continue the work even in the face of threats to you and your people. Tell me more, I want to know the whole story now. May be I can help ease your pain in some way.’ Rajan spoke plainly but his assertive voice held promise. His own pain was forgotten for some time
‘They continued to hound me, Rajan. Anonymous callers threatened my wife and the owner of the newspaper. The gundas wanted me off their masters’ trail at any cost. But I persisted, much to their annoyance.
They approached my editor, Prateek sir to contain me. When he also refused to follow their orders, some masked men shot him from point blank range. The brutal attack left him grievously wounded, just a few meters from his home.
Am I surprised that there were no eyewitnesses, despite it being a crowded area? No man! Just like Gandhiji’s three famous monkeys everyone shut their mouth, eyes and ears to the gruesome murder committed right in front of them. Cowards!’ He spat in disgust.
Rajan listened in rapt attention. He didn’t want to interrupt Ahmad.
‘When police investigations didn’t reach any conclusion about the murderers of Prateek sir, my family and friends grew worried.’ Ahmad continued after a brief sigh. ‘They started advising me to quit the work for my own safety. But I was determined to take what I had started to its logical conclusion, for Prateek sir and for the people of my town. I was confident my family was safe in the village I had moved them to but that turned out to be my biggest foolishness.’ His eyes clouded once again.
‘The murderers traced my calls. It took just one bullet for my beloved wife to…’
Ahmad broke down and wept bitterly. Rajan held his heaving frame firmly, his brows knitted in deep thought. So his guess about Ahmad’s life was correct. Such a selfless man and yet so much suffering he had to endure, for no fault of his. Could he help mitigate his pain and sadness? Surely there was a way?
As Ahmad’s sobs subsided slowly, Rajan stood up and held out a hand to him. ‘Come, I will take you home. And then we will plan how we can get even with those criminals.’
‘You will help me? But how? And why?’ A ray of hope lit up Ahmad’s eyes, still wet with tears. ‘I was so lost in my own pain that I didn’t ask anything about you. Who are you? Can something be done even now?’ He babbled with a sudden gust of excitement.
‘So many questions!’ Rajan smiled. ‘I will tell you everything about myself but let’s first get to a cooler place. You already look like a baked potato so before the hot sun burns us to cinders and sends us packing to the cemetery here, we must escape.’ His lame joke might diffuse the tension, he hoped.
Ahmad took Rajan to his home. Over tall glasses of lemonade, he asked Rajan what had brought him to the cemetery. It was his turn to unburden himself.
Rajan had secured a job as an Inspector with the Income Tax department after years of struggle. Just like Ahmad he was also an honest and conscientious officer, committed to his duty.
‘When my honesty and dedication started obstructing the seniors’ nefarious activities, I was implicated in false cases of extortion and blackmailing. Three months ago, I was suspended from my job. Another victim of the vile system I am,’ he spoke angrily, through clenched teeth.
‘Calm down, man! Remember what you told me a while ago?’ Ahmad handed him a glass of water.
‘I know Ahmad, but it’s so frustrating when you are accused and punished without any fault! To their credit, a few officers sympathized with me and tried to argue my case with the higher authorities but once the case reached the courts, they also abandoned me. Since then I have been inundated with case files, appeals, rejoinders, dates and more dates…
I have run away from everything, Ahmad. There’s no hope for justice now. I had struggled so hard for this job; it was my dream job you know and now everything is lost. I am doomed…doomed completely.’ He laughed but his mirthless eyes reflected profound grief and desolation.
A sense of disenchantment had engulfed him making him abandon his job, home, family, friends. He had set out on a journey through the villages and towns. Anything that took his mind away from the depressing thoughts.
But he had not yet given up on life. He wished to resume work on his Ph.D thesis about the lesser known but important places from India’s freedom struggle. It was in this connection that he was visiting the cemetery where he chanced to see a distraught Ahmad, sitting on the bench. This chance encounter made Rajan realize how insignificant his own problems were.
Joined by a common purpose of seeking justice, Ahmad and Rajan got down to work. Armed with a bagful of documents and photos that Ahmad had collected during his investigation, they began to chalk out their future course of action. They had to proceed with caution, one criminal at a time.
As an experienced income tax officer, it was natural for Rajan to scan their target’s income details first. Though he had covered his tracks carefully, yet Rajan’s trained eye could see through the deception in the documents.
‘I can’t do anything officially since I am suspended right now’, he told Ahmad. ‘So you will have to set your informers on the trail while I tap my trusted senior officers for help.’
What seemed to tilt things in their favor was a tiny news about a rift between the don and officials in collusion with him. They had fallen out over some pending gratification. Rajan kept passing each new information to the higher officials. Within a few weeks he was able to win over the confidence of his seniors and receive the nod to go ahead.
The day they received reliable information about the hidden wealth of the mafia don, Rajan immediately called up his boss. Within a few hours, several teams began raiding his houses and offices across towns and cities. His relatives, friends, employees and even servants were not spared. Raids continued for many hours.
‘Search every single nook and corner. Turn the cupboards and boxes inside out. Scan every document file.’ The senior officers ordered their men. But to their utter shock and disappointment, not even a paisa of unaccounted money was found anywhere.
‘You found what your bosses sent you scurrying here for? Go tell them they won’t get a paisa even if they send Sherlock Holmes here!’ The man was apparently fond of reading detective novels. His mocking grin singed the morale of the already disheartened investigating teams.
The don laughed heartily as the caravan of cars sped away.
An hour later
How could it happen? The intel was credible. Ahmad and Rajan scratched their heads. His information had always been correct. Ahmad called his informer once again. They had to know.
A few minutes later
A phone call alerted the officers. The teams were asked to turn back.
‘Did your men look under the carpet in the living room?’ the informer had questioned Ahmad back. The secret basement had its entry right under the carpet where the women sat.
They had plonked down on the carpet in the living room. The raiding team permitted them to go and have food but they refused. ‘We won’t go anywhere otherwise you would accuse us of hiding things.’ They smirked. The family matriarch also sniggered at the officials and called them names for troubling her son without any proof.
The ploy had worked. Then.
A day later
‘Please don’t do this to me. It’s my hard earned money. You don’t have a right over this. Can’t we settle this, sir? How dare you! I will report you to the minister.’ The don was seen begging and threatening the income tax officials alternately. TV channels played the videos on the loop.
The entire booty had been unearthed, literally from the earth. Cash, jewelry, gold and diamonds worth 300 crores were confiscated from the don’s possession. He was arrested for tax evasion and his family members for colluding with him. Penalty worth crores was slapped on him.
Two months later
The murder cases of Ahmad’s wife and his newspaper editor were reopened for investigation.
The courts took cognizance of the documents and photos submitted by Ahmad and investigating authorities. They ordered immediate closure of all stone crushing units in the state. Police chased the sand mafia who were trying to flee to another state and arrested them too.
‘Set up a special investigating team to look into the environmental degradation and fix responsibility within two months’, the court ordered the police.
The enquiries against Rajan fast tracked and soon the court cleared him of all charges. He was reinstated to his previous position within a few weeks.
Six months later
Hundreds of volunteers joined hands for restoration of the ravaged ecology. Ahmad and Rajan flashed the victory sign as they planted saplings at the foot of the barren hill.
The moment of vindication couldn’t have been more soul satisfying. Now it was time to break the joyous news to their loved ones who lay in wait. In their graves.
Photo By: Alexander Andrews
This is a guest entry for ArttrA-3 – A Game of Writers, co-sponsored by Diners Club International.
Check out the event guidelines here: https://artoonsinn.com/arttra-3-guide-artoonsinn/
Follow Room8 for more updates of the event: https://www.facebook.com/groups/WritersAndReadersRoom/