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“Where are you Ritesh? All of us have been waiting for you since long. You had promised to take all of us for dinner tonight, hadn’t you?”
“Yes darling I had. Have I ever broken any of the promises I have ever made?”
“But you told you would be back by 6pm. It’s already 7 and there’s still no sight of you. Is everything ok?”
“Yes jaan. There was a lot of work at the office and that’s why I got late. I promise to make up to you. I am already at the station and the train would be here any moment. Once in, it’s just a matter of half an hour.”
“Come fast my love. I am getting worried.”
“Don’t worry darling. The train’s here now. I will have to hang up because of the extreme rush at this hour.”
“I will be waiting.”
“Just close your eyes and I will be there.”
It had been eight years since we got married but even today we waited with bated breath for each other. Her light brown eyes still had so much depth that I could lose myself the way I was lost years back. With the coming of Aaryan and Sulekha, our relationship had become much stronger. There was a meaning for us to live as the entire house reverberated with their laughter and happiness.
Despite my insistence, Rati had left her job to concentrate on raising the kids. She always said –
“Ritesh! Don’t you dare advise me to send our kids to the nearby crèche. My work is not more important than raising them and giving them the right values.”
She always wanted to be a hands-on mother. Being independent and strong willed, all her decisions became that much easier.
After a crazy day when my project manager kept breathing down my neck like a slave driver, I was seeking some sense of calm. But the train was the last place where one could find it.
It was crowded more than usual today. With drums beating incessantly and people dancing and singing, it seemed as though a celebration was on. After much asking, I realised that people were still celebrating India’s World Cup win few days back. That win had brought the country closer like never before.
Just as I was about to join their group –
A loud bang shook the train. The noise was so deafening that for a moment or two I couldn’t hear anything. Once I did come to my senses, I looked up to see the entire compartment. A strong smell of gunpowder filled the air. There was no roof to speak off as the bang seemed to have ripped through the entire compartment leaving a trail of magnanimous destruction in its path.
Bodies lay strewn in between scattered debris and pieces of metal. Some lost their limbs, some suffered such horrible burns that they couldn’t be identified while others were covered in blood. As time went by the cries of help couldn’t be heard anymore. Life was at a premium.
Only a few minutes back I was eagerly looking forward to spend the evening with my family. Only a few minutes back, the entire compartment was filled with people who were happy and celebrating. But now it was such an uneasy calm.
Only the shooting pain that passed through my nerves made me drive my mind away from all that was.
“You are supposed to come to the police station with us right away.” Hearing the police officer scream, I got up from my slumber.
I looked around to find myself in a hospital ward all covered in plaster. Since the time I can remember, I loathed the smell of the chemicals, the sheets, the entire surroundings in a hospital. But here I was without any fault of mine.
What time it was? Who had brought me here? What had happened in the train? What happened to the people who were there along with me? Were they alive? I tried my best to speak out but words were conspicuous by their absence.
“Sir! He has a few injuries and we need to keep him in the hospital for the night. We can’t let you take him anywhere.” The doctor wasn’t willing to take a risk.
“I don’t care doc. You get a team of doctors along to give him all the medical attention he requires. But we need to take him to the police station right now.” He was tall. He was muscular. He looked every bit the most intimidating officer around; ones you would never mess with.
“Why don’t we go for a movie tomorrow; and probably dinner after that? What say people?”
“Ritesh! Don’t you know that the kids have to go to school day after? And moreover they have to finish lots of homework.”
“Don’t worry Rati. I am sure they will finish it and be ready. Won’t you kids?” I looked at Aaryan and Sulekha expectantly.
“Yes daddy!” They replied in unison.
“Daddy! You haven’t still got the toys you promised us a month ago.” Sulekha was dismayed at me not fulfilling my promise.
“Oh! I am so sorry. I will get them tomorrow for sure..”
“Spoil them. Spoil them more. You have pampered them so much.”
“Relax Rati. Don’t get so tensed and worried. They are just kids. I am sure they will grow up to be good human beings.”
Lost in thoughts about my family, I entered a police station for the first time in my life.
I hadn’t ever committed a crime. I had filled all my taxes in time. My parents would swear by the fact that I had never wished bad for anyone let alone my enemies. So why had I been arrested?
On arrival I was immediately thrown into a dinghy 6X8 feet cell which wore a dark and depressing look. There were creatures of all kinds wriggling on the floor which seemingly hadn’t been cleaned for months. The walls which had cracks all over had turned magenta with the betel leaf being spat by the prison inmates.
As I looked around, there were many eyes staring at me. Some of them had ruffled hair and torn clothes while a few others looked young and well – to – do. They were also those who looked intimidating and heavily built reminding me of hardcore criminals
“I am so happy we can finally rest in peace having caught this guy.”
“No man. The real game starts now. He’s a mass murderer; a killer on the loose. A terrorist like him can get no mercy at all.”
“Ram! Get all the details from this son-of-a-bitch! Make him suffer. Thrash him. Beat him up. Do what you have to. But you just have the night to get all the details. He is a prize catch and we need to get going on this fast! The CM is on my head and this is the best chance you have to get that elusive bravery award you have been craving for.”
“Yes sir. I am on it right away.” With sharp chiselled features and a physique to boot, Ram could land a role in any of themasala cop flicks that Bollywood was famous for. But then this was reality and he had to make it count!
Terrorist? They think am I terrorist? Was it a terrorist attack? What’s going on? How can I be responsible? I don’t even know anything related to all this? I have never held a gun in my life let alone think of killing anyone.
“Ritesh! Do you realise that he has taken all the credit for the hard work you have put in on this module? Why can’t you say anything to him? I am sure he’s taking advantage of your silence?” Rati knew the hardwork I put in for the simplest of jobs.
“Don’t worry love. The project manager knows who has worked hard and who has hardly worked. I am sure he will keep that point in mind while preparing the quarterly appraisal report.”
“Why do you do this darling? Why do you let people play around with you? There was another guy who copied one of your ideas and projected it as his own in front of the delivery manager; and now this. Why do you let people take advantage of you?” She was getting highly irritated.
“I don’t let that happen darling. It’s just that I don’t want to fight with anyone. I am sure when you are good to people, they will be good to you.”
“It’s not an idealistic world Ritesh. You have to make sure that your efforts are recognized. I can’t see people taking your good nature for granted.”
“Which terror group do you belong to? Al Qaeda, Lashkar-e-Toiba, Indian Mujahideen, which one?”
If there was anything which could be the closest to hell, it would be this. If there was anything which one would dread in life, it would be this. If there was anything one would pray that even his enemies don’t get to face, it would be this.
He didn’t care that I had survived a terrorist attack. He didn’t care that I was badly bruised and lying covered in plaster in the hospital ward. He didn’t care whether I lived or died. All he did care was about hitting my head against the walls and kicking and shoving me with his shoes like a football.
“I don’t know what you are talking about officer. I am a simple man working with an IT services company.” It took all my inner resolve and strength to utter a few words.
“Hahaha! I have gone through this many times before. You guys think we are fools, aren’t we? You bastards get a job in a corporate house and then think you can plan all your anti – national activities?
Angry at my lack of response, he got a few more of his men to put my body on a huge block of ice. And then one by one each one of them whipped me with their belts till the time they could exhaust all their energies.
“Whose your leader? Who gives you the arms and ammunition to conduct such strikes? Who finances your operations?”
“What leader? What operations? I have a family in this city and I was going back to them after work. Can I make one call?” I begged them to relent.
“Call? Hahaha! Hey guys! Look at him. He wants to make a call. What do we look like to you? You plan your attacks and kill hundreds. And then one god damn politician comes and bails you out; or even better when one of your partners in crime hijacks planes asking for your release.”
“But I want to call my family. Look at the number and address here. If you don’t believe me, you can call them yourself.” Ignoring my cries, they went on.
“Who supplies you these tiffin boxes? Where did you get the RDX from?” I was shocked to see him holding the tiffin box Rati gave me food in everyday.”
“That’s the box my wife packs food for me in. What RDX are you talking about?”
“You son-of-a-bitch. You get bombs in these tiffin boxes and blow up a god damn train. And then you talk about getting food in this box. You better tell me all you got; otherwise you are going to regret this for your life.”
“I don’t know anything about any bomb. Please believe me. I am innocent.” My repeated cries fell on deaf years.
They hung me upside down and started to remove the remaining embers of my life. After a while, everything around ceased to exist. It was as though I had become numb to all the pain inflicted upon me.
“Daddy! The rides in this park are so amazing. We should come here more often.” Sulekha seemed to be having a lot of fun.”
“Yeah we should keep coming here dad. This way I can always make fun of her as she’s so scared to go to the roller coasters.” Aaryan and Sulekha were always ready to fight tooth and nail.
“Why do both of you keep fighting? We will come here again since both of you love this place. But if she doesn’t like the roller coasters, why do you want to force her?” I looked at my daughter ever so lovingly. She really looked like a small, little cute angel.
“No daddy. It’s fun fighting with her.” And he gave a devilish laugh.
And she started to cry like a baby whose toy had been taken away.
“Awww! My princess, don’t cry. He’s troubling you right? I will not let him do that ever again. My baby will have a chocolate?”
“Yes daddy.” She smiled at me ever so cutely; a smile which made my world.
It seemed as though even the officers had thrown in the towel. They would have thought that it would have been a cakewalk to make me confess to some statement they had written on a piece of paper. But it took all my inner strength from giving in.
“Hey you! Yes I am talking to you only. Get up!!”
I looked up to see one of the constables standing next to my head.
“You are free now.”
The first rays of sunshine had lit up the dark cellar where I was thrown for the night. As I looked at myself, I was surprised I could live to see another day. With all the wounds and blood, I looked like a dead man.
As I walked past the officers, I could hear many of them speaking in hushed tones.
“How the hell could you arrest someone without even checking his credentials?”
“But sir we found that tiffin boxes similar to his and had been used in a number of earlier attacks as well. And he has even accepted that it was his. Moreover we were under pressure from the CM too.”
“You can’t torture anyone on the basis of a single piece of evidence. Do you know that you can be put into jail for this? The media has already reached our doorstep.
Mohan! Come along with me. We need to make a plan on what should go out to the media.” The man who seemed to be the police commissioner was yelling on top of his voice.
I really didn’t have any semblance of energy to protest against the injustice meted out to me. It was as though, life had been snuffed out of my soul in a whiff. Where were the doctors who had been promised for my care? I couldn’t see a single one.
“Hey don’t let him leave until further notice.” The commissioner ordered the constable. And so I was back to where I began.
Only a day had passed since I last spoke to Rati. Only a day had passed since I had seen my children. Only last evening I had met many of my good friends at work. But at this moment it seemed ages ago. The last night had changed my life forever.
I lay in the cellar in pain, in helplessness and despair as life seemed to be counting its final minutes.