Shine The Light

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Three Days of Sunshine

I leaned back on the seat and watched from the window of my first class compartment as the Satyagrah Express pulled out of New Delhi station a few minutes short of five thirty. It was hot and dusty in Delhi that May afternoon and I was headed for Moradabad, a small town that would be equally hot and dusty right now but ought to be a wee bit less hot by the time I got there. The ride was four hours long according to the time table. So I expected be able to get to my host’s house for dinner, say by about ten.

Giving the boring gang of fellow passengers in the compartment a quick once over I gave myself up to a Robert Ludlum, pausing only at wayside stations to swing down to the platform, get myself a cup of tea and whatever snacks happened to be within easy striking distance from my bogie and finish my cigarette standing at the door as the train pulled out again. The taste of chai with samosas or pakodas on railway platforms gives me a special feeling of warmth that is difficult to describe. No matter what time of day or night it is, no matter what part of India it is, no matter whether you’re buying at a shop or off one of those aluminum box-contraptions slung from a hawker’s shoulder, the food at Indian railway platforms is simple fare, but always piping hot and almost always delicious. The trick is not to buy at the department-run refreshment rooms where the food is usually cold and lumpy, the tea tepid, unless there is no other option. That special taste of platform food has remained the same for as long as I can remember. Some things never change and the world is a better place because of that.

I had come to Delhi to present the report of a consultancy project I had been given charge of by the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, where I was a post-doctoral research fellow in the department of Operations Research. This diversion to Moradabad was the result of a fervent plea that Keshu-kaka (uncle) made the moment I mentioned that I was going to be in Delhi. I had happened to mention this when I had called him up casually some weeks ago and he had not let me hang up without accepting the invite. Keshu-kaka was a close family friend. During my childhood, every summer he along with Radha-kaki and their son Santosh would make a pilgrimage to Allahabad and I had taken a liking to the old man. His son and I used to play cricket and marbles and stuff through the long hot summer days, though our lives had kind of drifted apart now. A couple of times our family had stopped over at their little house too. The last time I had seen Keshu-kaka was some eight years ago. Since my work in Delhi wound up on a Friday, I could spend the weekend at Moradabad.

The world had moved on, rushing pell-mell into the twenty-first century, but for this little household tucked away in a small town of northern India, time had stood still.

At Moradabad station I haggled the price of the auto-rickshaw ride to Keshu-kaka’s house more as a matter of form than one of need. I had no clue how much the fare ought to be from the station, so I merely pitched for sixty percent of whatever the rickshaw driver said and we settled for something in between. The three-wheeler negotiated narrow lanes – we entered a bazaar street with most of the shops having downed their rolling shutters for the day long ago. When we were halfway down the street the lights in the entire locality went out, but power cuts are too frequent in India to really be worth comment. Aided by the glow of the starlit sky and a faint glow from surrounding localities we continued, tossing and bumping among the potholes. We emerged into a well-lit street – power still flowed here. A movie-hall had just let its crowd out and bunches of people shoved past us going in all directions. Abruptly the auto-rickshaw turned around a large cow sitting propped against a roadside milk booth and entered a lane. We halted in front of a two storied bungalow. A little further down the lane reached a dead end. The ground floor of the house and the little garden around it were in utter darkness but the lights were on upstairs. At the sound of the auto stopping a young lad came out on the balcony and checked me out. He yelled into the house that chacha – uncle – had arrived. He remained staring down at me as I paid the driver off and I could feel his critical examination of my get-up and army-style rucksack, in that way so typical of a small-town boy looking at a city-slicker.

“I knew these trains will always be late so we have all had our dinner. Come and go wash your hands and feet,” my aunt said, standing with one hand on her hip at the kitchen doorway as I walked in, for all the world as if I had last seen her just the day before and not years ago. “Put your bag in that room,” she indicated a door off to one side as I tried to orient myself to the small eight-by-ten living room and the people in it. My aunt dominated the scene, a hulking figure with thick black hair and heavy eyebrows, clad in a silk sari even at this late hour and wearing a near full complement of jewelry – diamond earrings, heavy gold bangles and ornate mangalsutra. I obeyed her order, feeling faintly apologetic. The clock on the wall showed ten minutes past ten. It hadn’t been the fault of the Indian Railways which for once had deposited me in Moradabad on time – the auto-rickshaw had taken a long time to travel three tortuous kilometers, but I didn’t argue the point with her. In my experience nobody argued with Radha-kaki and got away with the last word.

The bathroom was down a narrow passage that ran past the kitchen and another room that was unlit but had its door open. I got a start as I passed it when I saw a little white creature dart about in the semi-darkness. The hair on the back of my neck rose as the thing came near the door and peered up at me through bulging slit eyes. It was barely human – something like a white-skinned pygmy with a deformed head – swaying on two feet and grinning vacantly at me. Then I remembered. My mother had told me that they had taken on the care of some distant relative’s mentally challenged son for a small monthly payment. This boy’s parents had abandoned him to my aunt’s care – and moved away to another city. Keshu kaka had never held a steady job in his life – so I guess the money was a welcome addition to the family’s income. Santosh had some indeterminate job in a government department.

It hadn’t always been like this. Back in the nineteen-fifties, Kesari Nandan Sharma – Keshu-kaka to me – had been one of the first graduate engineers from the massive north Indian region then known as the United Provinces. He had won a President’s medal and a scholarship to Leeds University for a six-month post-graduate diploma in highway engineering. The world had been at the feet of this young man who I had seen, staring with self-conscious dignity in a three-piece suit from group photographs of his student days – the only dark-skinned figure among his English classmates. Other photographs showed a robust, zestful young man – cycling through Wales, hiking in the Scottish highlands, rowing with friends down the Thames – full of adventure and fun. Returning to India, he had simmered for a couple of years in a government job before he got the opportunity to join in the re-building of Malaysia. Me and my brothers used to listen to our father in awe as he told us hair-raising stories of how Keshu-kaka had fought bloodthirsty tribals, wild animals and tropical epidemics to blast highways through impenetrable jungle and aid the cause of civilization. We had once been shown his Colt Peacemaker .45 caliber six-gun – an unforgettable experience for boys anywhere in the world. It had an extra-long barrel and we could barely hold it steady with outstretched hands when pointing it. Many were the imaginary tigers lunging in the air that I had killed in my daydreams with that magnificent weapon. The young adventurer was said to have killed two panthers, several crocodiles and countless snakes in the Malay jungles with that gun. It has a hallowed place in the temples of my mind. He had more important achievements to his name – he had overseen the construction hundreds of miles of top quality highway – but those things only assumed importance for me after I had become mature enough to appreciate them. In three years, the adventurous young Sharma had built up a tidy fortune and won a lucrative contract to repeat his feats in the Congo for an American multi-national company. On his way there he stopped over in India to get married.

He went nowhere after his wedding.

His newly acquired wife put paid to his global ambitions and yoked him to home and hearth in Moradabad. The man who had tamed rampaging mobs deep in tropical jungles with his trusty Colt Peacemaker, who had created lifelines for many towns and villages in Malaysia, who had the world at his feet and a small fortune in the bank, couldn’t raise a finger against a girl ten years his junior and who already sported the steely glint in the eye that even I had come to know pretty well. It had not been in an obedient son’s place to question the match arranged by his parents; and it was not in young Radha’s scheme of things to live anywhere but in Moradabad – most certainly not in equatorial Africa. Her family had good contacts locally and it had not been too difficult to wangle a cooking gas agency for Keshu-kaka. So he turned businessman and wrecked the franchise in no time at all. Then he bought a newspaper distribution agency and blew that opportunity in two years. Finally scraping together all he had from his earlier savings, his wife got him a license to run a government ration shop. The shop was as much a financial disaster as the earlier ventures were. As the years rolled by it had become harder for him to break out. He had lost contact with his old profession and by the time I got to know him, his family treated him as a merely titular head and his wife reigned unchallenged.

Today I saw him in such a state – a meek and obedient figure wearing a simple white khadi kurta and dhoti. He had murmured a quick word of welcome and had then subsided to his place amongst the sparse furniture. His rheumatism allowed for very little movement anyway and his opinion was not sought on any subject. What I saw now was a melancholy figurehead, tolerated merely out of deference to age by the rest of the household. I dreaded the prospects of staying cooped up for two whole days with this shadow of a man. His voice over the phone last week when I had called to confirm my travel plans for this trip had been tremulous in its excitement.

“So good of you to visit an old man, Nayan-beta," he had said pathetically, “It’s been so long since I’ve had intelligent conversation. Somehow I feel the need very strongly now. Please don’t change your plan.” I had wondered if the old man wasn’t feeling a premonition. He was past seventy after all, though I hadn’t heard of anything seriously wrong with him except for a touch of rheumatism.

Washed and cleaned I returned to the living room. A formica-topped folding table against one wall had been laid for me. There was a folding chair for me to sit on. I knew the family ate sitting on the floor but my status as city-slicker apparently entitled me to this special treatment. The food was great and I ate with gusto.

“We are all going to Delhi tomorrow morning,” Radha-kaki announced suddenly. “Me, Santosh, Aparna and Chhotu. We have some business to attend to. Your Keshu-kaka will keep you company until we return on Sunday evening.”

I glanced at the old man, who was perched on a settee. He was staring intently at the floor.

“Don’t look at him, he is always lost in his own world,” my aunt cut in disparagingly. “Whatever we have it is because of our tireless sacrifices,” she continued, indicating her son and his wife. Keshu-kaka seemed oblivious to this taunt. She continued, “We are starting a small business exporting brass items from here. Santosh has a good friend in Delhi who is willing to help us out and through him we are hoping to get some good orders. I will manage the business from here so that I can keep an eye on the house and your kakaji.”

Yet another venture – it seemed as if Radha-kaki had not learnt her lesson but I held my tongue and continued eating. Everyone sat or stood as they were, staring at me as I ate. Conversation was restricted to polite enquiries about my folks and equally polite replies from me. I surveyed the room. It had a glass-enclosed showcase containing a motley collection of brass figurines, a wooden set of the three wise monkeys with coconut-fibre hats, a rather beautiful and elaborately detailed sailing boat inside a bottle (this was probably a relic from the good old Malaysia days), some photographs of the family and a Barbie doll in a bright pink mini-skirt. The mandatory Geetopadesha done in relief on a brass plate hung on one wall and a calendar, compliments of some German engineering firm and featuring panoramic views of the Swiss Alps, hung on another. The walls had chipped and the wire mesh on the window was intended to keep the mosquitoes out but it had gaping holes and one corner had been bent. A bright red phone stood on a shaky little table by the window with a dustcover made of once-white crochet lace.

Santosh had grown into a thin, surly chap with his mother’s surly eyebrows and pouting lips. He was standing, arms folded across his chest, in the doorway leading to what appeared to be his bedroom. His boy probably shared the room with his parents. The battery-powered clock on the wall showed a quarter to eleven when I finished my meal.

It being well past their normal bedtime, the table was cleared, a mattress rolled out on the floor for me and the lights put out in next to no time. I lay awake reading for a while to help me regain my equanimity, and round about midnight I switched off the light and composed myself for sleep.

A few minutes later I became conscious of a strange scuffling sound behind me. I felt a prickling sensation on the back of my neck and turned around. The retarded boy was standing over me in the semi-darkness, staring at me with a huge grin. As soon as I turned around he gave a little start and scrambled back into his room. I heard him moving about there but he didn’t bother me again that night.

The next morning they were all up well before dawn and by six thirty the travellers had packed up and left. Radha-kaki drilled out detailed instructions at her husband who kept nodding his head obediently. Santosh’s wife cooked enough vegetables and daal to last the three of us for two days and stowed them away in the fridge.

“Your kakaji knows how to feed the boy,” my aunt told me. “Don’t worry, you will be alright and the two of you can chat all day long without anybody to disturb you but the milkman. And he will come only in the morning tomorrow,” she ended with a snort. I nodded politely and they were off.

The moment their auto-rickshaw rounded the corner into the main road the old man turned into a new person, starting up an excited patter. He reminded me of an invalid who, after a long period of illness, regains enough strength to make conversation and ends up talking too much. We made ourselves round after round of tea and he talked animatedly of the political situation, philosophy, cricket, Hollywood, classical Indian music and practically everything else under the sun. I made a few contributions here and there but he needed no stimulus to keep the flow going. I had never seen him so alive before. He rushed on from one subject to another like a racy mountain stream, like a man who had very little time left to catch up with the whole wide world.

As if reading my mind he said, “Yes, Nayan-beta, I am trying to talk of everything, exhaust every subject in the short time that I have. I hope you will humour me. They will be back tomorrow and then God alone knows when I will get a chance to talk to anyone intelligently again in this life. After all, I will be seventy five within three months and the call from upstairs is going to come any day now.”

“Arrey, come on, kakaji, don’t talk that way. You are hale and hearty and much fitter than many men ten years younger than you. By the way,” I said, trying to change the subject, “the paper hasn’t come today, I think.”

“Hah, the paper! It hasn’t come for the last ten years! You know why? Because your kaki thinks that is unnecessary waste of money. Did you hear her talk yesterday? All that we have is because of the great Radha-kaki! If you ask me we could have had wealth, fame and servants – everything her heart desired, if only I had not been stupid enough to listen to her more than forty years ago.”

There, he had said it, not I. I had stayed away from any allusion, even indirect, of their financial circumstances, of the chances they had lost during their long and boring life. Now he had brought it up. And all of a sudden, it was as if a dam was creaking, ready to burst before my very eyes. The memories seeped back, the little anecdotes came trickling out, then burst forth in a flood as he opened up about his life in England and in Malaysia and regaled me with countless stories. He spoke impeccable English and his turn of phrase picked up from fifties England was catchy and quaintly amusing. I had no need to say much – he kept me entertained all the time. Lunchtime came and we ate after feeding the retarded boy in the back room. We went out on to the balcony and I lighted a cigarette. He asked me shyly if he could have one too. When I hesitated he begged me not to deny him this pleasure – he had not smoked for twenty years and promised not to return to the habit after these two days were over. I watched, my heart heavy with pity, as this once powerful man who had been reduced to this state by a narrow-minded and insular wife regained some of his spirit. He was almost hopping with delight as he dragged deep on the cigarette. Then he said, “Let’s have some beer!”

Again I hesitated and he cried out in alarm, “Don’t tell me you don’t drink, Nayan! A strong young chap like you – I won’t believe it ---- good!” he said, when I smiled and shrugged my shoulders, “there is a liquor shop on the main road, just around the corner.” So I went out into the afternoon sun and walked the hundred yards to the end of the street. The shop was not far from there and I asked for six bottles of chilled Kingfisher. There was a Hindi newspaper lying on the counter and banner headlines talked of an incident last night in the city involving a man and a girl from opposite communities. It seemed to have sparked tempers and fights had broken out in two localities late at night. One of the customers at the counter announced in general that there could be more trouble that day because the local MP had rushed into town from Lucknow to give vent to his displeasure at the goings on last night. He was howling for the man’s arrest and piling all sorts of pressure on the cops.

I spent a few minutes scanning the front page for more details before picking up my purchase. As I walked back I saw a little group scurrying off into a side lane. I surveyed the street. Most shops were closed and there were few people about. It was afternoon and only natural that all doors and windows were shut against the heat and dust. Yet I sensed an eerie flavour in the air and felt an apprehension clawing at my bones. I walked back a bit more quickly. As I reached the house I examined the cul-de-sac. The lane, which started about hundred yards behind me, carried on in a straight line for another fifty before ending at a fifteen-foot high wall. Small two- and three-storey houses, very similar to each other, lined it on both sides. There were neither shops nor offices nor, what was more important today, any places of worship. It meant that we needed to keep a watchful eye out in only one direction.

It was still hot outside, every sensible soul was somewhere out of the sun. We drew the curtains to cool the room down and hit the beer sitting in the small front room. I felt the cool fluid make an icy stream from my throat down to my stomach and collect there. It was divine. Keshu-kaka was stretched out on the settee, his eyes were closed and a smile played upon his lips.

“You know, this reminds me of a sweltering hot summer day in the Penang delta. The boys with me had until that day thought of beer as a sissy’s drink. That day was too hot for us to care about reputation – and revelation came. In the evening we piled up all the bottles – we had finished two crates between four of us – into a pyramid and hailed the birth of a new saviour!” He chuckled at the memory and glanced over at me, his eyes dancing with a new light. “You remember when you were a small boy you tried to lift my Peacemaker and couldn’t, eh? You want to try now?”

I was overawed. “It’s here? It’s been with you all these years? Wow, yes! I’d love to see it again.”

He laughed at the childlike eagerness in my voice. Slowly hoisting himself up, his rheumatic joints complaining at the effort, he stood up from his chair and went into the bedroom, beckoning me to follow. He opened a large wooden cupboard and drew out a key that dangled from his neck. Stooping low, he turned it in the keyhole of a drawer. Inside the drawer was a box about a foot and a half long, made of dark tan leather, worn with use and shining. There was also a box of ammunition and, at the bottom of the drawer, a couple of slim folders containing papers. There was nothing else. He sat down on the bed and opened the leather box. There, its blue steel glinting dully, nestling in a specially made compartment lined with royal purple velvet, was an example of one of the most famous handguns in history. Colt Peacemaker .45 bore – the very name inspired awe. The barrel was eight inches long. Other compartments contained the tools required for cleaning the revolver. He lifted the heavy gun out gently, cocked the hammer back and spun the empty cylinders with practiced ease. They whirred smoothly with a sibilant whisper. Aiming it at the door, he squeezed the trigger until the hammer fell back with a sharp click.

His chuckle brought me back to earth. I had been staring with wide-eyed reverence at the whole performance.

“You have kept her in mint condition, kaka!”

“Get me another beer and I’ll let you handle this beauty.” He guffawed, “you boys are all the same – show you a gun and your jaw hangs out.” I went to get the bottle.

Taking the gun in my hand I hefted it. The muscles in my arms twitched at the memory of that day long ago. But this time I the mother-of-pearl-handled beauty nestled snug in my palm. I swung the barrel up smoothly and cocked the hammer. Parting the curtains slightly with the gun’s muzzle, I took aim at a lamppost outside. The world looked magnificently under my control when seen down the length of that barrel and I felt myself reaching into eternity. He had kept the gun oiled and in perfect working condition for forty years. I asked when he had last fired it – he told me he tested it a few times every year on a police range nearby – and that it continued to fire as true as ever. When we had had enough of admiring it he put it back reverentially. He asked me to take out the folders in the drawer and we went through the contents one by one. They were old documents – his engineering degree, his Leeds diploma, the Malaysian appointment letter, the contract in the Congo, letters of praise and appreciation from his bosses and various government functionaries.

“Kesari Nandan Sharma was an exemplary professional and sharp as they come,” he reminisced, “I remember the time when he had to negotiate land rights with a particularly ornery village community in the mountains fifty miles east of Sungai Siput. He told them that he would get special sanction to blast a tunnel through a ridge. That would cut a six-hour trip into town over rough country to a mere two hours on a smooth road if they agreed to hand over the land he was asking for – at a fair price to the farmers, of course. Then he radioed his company saying that it was only if they blasted the tunnel that there was any hope of finishing the road within the deadline. That meant they had to send an extra fifty thousand dollars post-haste to a bunch of tribals nobody had seen, trusting the word of one man – an Indian at that, who was unreachable, out in the jungle. The company was caught in a dilemma – it knew that he was the only man in the entire territory who could get the job done in such a short time. It agreed and he rushed the paper-work through in two days flat before any body could change their mind. In the end both sides were so grateful that they would gladly have showered him with gold. But all he wanted was to see a great road built – he was that kind of a man.”

I was so engrossed in listening to these tales that it was only after an hour or so that I realized that he was talking of himself in the third person and in the past tense. He noticed my quizzical expression and smiled sadly, “K N Sharma’s soul lies in that drawer, Nayan-beta. He was killed in a marital battle forty years ago.” I couldn’t think of anything to say by way of consolation.

We finished off all the beer, sprawled comfortably in the living room, drifting lazily from one topic to another. There was some commotion in the lane outside and I went to take a look. Sunlight was still strong and there was another hour or so to go before dusk. My watch showed a quarter to seven. A bunch of twelve or so panic-stricken fugitives, including a pair of middle-aged men, a few burqa-clad women and maybe half a dozen children, were rushing down the lane from the main street past the house, crying in alarm to each other. Kakaji appeared on the verandah and took in the scene at once. The trouble had started.

“Oy, stupid people, you have made a mistake!” he called to them, “there is no way out of this lane from this side. You are trapped!” We looked towards the main road and could hear the muted roar of a crowd approaching the mouth of the lane. Within seconds the place was going to witness a bloodbath. The frightened souls below wailed aloud as they realized the truth in kakaji’s words. No doors were open for them and quivering, they huddled in plain sight, like sitting ducks. There were three adolescent girls among them and it was the girls’ fate that the men were most concerned about, pushing them behind the older women and children, arranging them out of sight, hoping they would escape notice. It was pathetic to watch this futile act. Somebody needed to act fast if carnage below our verandah was to be prevented.

“Nayan, get down to the street at once and stand in front of the house. Now! I will join you in two minutes!” Kakaji’s voice held a new tone of command and his shove was firm. I dashed for the stairs and came scrambling out of the gate at the same moment that a crowd of more than twenty bloodthirsty young men came pouring into the lane from both right and left. They were all waving arms in the air – most carried long staves and a few were even brandishing swords. My blind dash out of the gate had carried me into the middle of the lane and I stood my ground, arms akimbo, trying to look a lot braver than I felt. I stared hard at the mob which, having come a few yards into the lane, halted abruptly to consider the situation. Three powerfully built figures in the front had the unmistakable look of street-side goondas – these were the ringleaders, deputed to carry out the work of the political bosses organizing the riot.

“Oy, chokra, get out of the way. Do you want to get thrashed?” one of them yelled. But my feet were frozen to the spot – it must have appeared to the mob that I was either very brave or very, very stupid. Either way, they could plainly see their targets cowering just behind me and began to advance menacingly. My mind now began to work and I realized that I catapulted myself into the middle of deadly physical danger.

A long minute went by and I began to feel completely exposed, stranded in the middle of that deathly quiet lane. The mob was moving closer and my shirt was slowly soaking in the cold sweat of my fear. Finally kakaji came hobbling out to join me in the middle of the lane. The breeze picked at his dhoti, and it flapped about around his legs. Seeing his familiar figure, the mob came to an uncertain halt again, now about eighty yards away from us. He walked forward a few steps, leaning heavily on a cane in his left hand. His right hand hung down his side as he struggled forward. All the time he was squinting through the fading sunlight at the mob, his head craned forward. I kept up with him uncertainly, muscles tensed for a quick dive to the ground. I was unarmed, there was nothing else I could do if things started. Then, with a satisfied grunt, he stopped.

The ringleaders had taken a few steps by themselves before they realised that their followers had halted so they halted too, unsure. I sensed that they were getting nervous. I’m sure some of them recognized kakaji. The hot wind continued blowing all around us, picking little swirls of dust and playing around with them.

The old man let the moment hang for a minute before calling out in Hindi. He was leaning on the cane but his voice boomed out like an army parade commander’s, reverberating against the walls of the houses in the narrow lane.

“Shankar Singh, is that you out there? What are you doing here, with these thugs, my son? Ashwini, you also? Where is the honour in chasing defenseless women and children?” Raising his cane he indicated the ringleaders heading the mob. “Who are these three people? They are strangers here. I have never seen them before. Oy, what business brings you here?”

Enraged by this assault on their authority, one of the thugs cried out, “Out of the way, old man! There is no place for stupid fools like you here. Get out of our way or you will get hurt!” He waved a cycle chain in his fist and the other two waved their weapons in turn. My heart was thumping hard but I stood my ground. The crowd was getting restive. I spotted one youth start to slip off to the rear.

“See, Shankar has realized he is doing wrong.” With a start I realized that the old man had addressed me in a quiet aside. “The next one minute will be crucial. Hold on, don’t make a move.” Then he raised his voice again, “Don’t come into my mohalla and threaten me, you loafers! Get out of here, you are poisoning the minds of our boys.”

“Enough! We have talked long enough! We have warned you!” the leader screamed, dropping his cycle-chain and pulling out a revolver from his pocket. “Move aside, old man, we have no quarrel with you – only with those Muslim dogs behind you. We will kill them all! We will throw all Muslims out of India!”

He had expected the old man to cringe and turn tail at the sight of the gun. Instead, kakaji’s right arm swung into sight with the Colt Peacemaker in all its awe-inspiring glory pointed rock-steady at the thug’s face. He planted his feet in a side-on stance and waited. The sight of that gun unnerved more members of the mob and the men at its edges began stepping quietly back. Seeing the initiative slipping out of their hands, the other two thugs dipped into their pockets and brought out pistols of their own.

It was now three against one. My tongue was stuck to the roof of my mouth. I tried to swallow but couldn’t. The tension was so great that the smallest move from anyone could set the guns off.

Dimly I remembered reading somewhere that the Peacemaker’s heavy caliber bullet, fired from an extra-long barrel, could make an inch-sized hole in a man’s chest at over ninety yards. That gave it a tremendous advantage over almost any other handgun. Seventy yards separated us from the three thugs. Their guns were most probably locally made pistols and would not be effective at this range. So kakaji had carefully estimated the situation, then! But was the old man’s aim still as true as it was in the old days back in the Malaysian jungles? That had been forty years ago! Had the memories evoked all day – the beer we had drunk all afternoon, gone to his head? Was he overestimating his powers now? Both of us could end up lying dead on the street in this gunfight – blown away in seconds. At this thought sweat broke out again all over my face but I was too scared to move, lest I set a nervous trigger off. One sudden move and it would all be over.

It was very still.

The ringleaders turned their heads slowly to and fro, looking over their shoulders to see whether the mob was still behind them. It was considerably thinner now. The foremost among the goons had his pistol trained straight at Keshu-kaka. I flicked my eyes sideways at him. He was standing as erect and unyielding as before, the arm holding the Peacemaker as straight and rigid as before. Only his loose clothes flapped about in the breeze.

Then a clock tower somewhere began to strike seven. Everyone in that lane was intent on the gong. The three thugs drew themselves up and squared their shoulders. This was it. The point of no return had come. At the seventh stroke three pistols fired as one. A microsecond later, kakaji’s revolver let out a deep, rolling thunderclap of sound that seemed to last for a very long time. It didn’t look as if he had moved a muscle. The three ringleaders lay flat on their backs. Somehow I knew that there was no need to check – they would be dead, shot through their heads. We were still standing, untouched.

Kakaji was intent on loading the empty chambers with rounds from his pocket. After that he took up his position again and bellowed, “Anybody else wants to challenge me? If you want to attack these people,” he waved the cane behind him, “you will first have to kill me.”

His towering presence filled that small lane completely.

The mob was melting away rapidly now, leaving the three bodies lying there on the ground. The moment of danger had passed.

And then something strange happened. The two youths he had addressed by name came down the lane towards us, dropping their sticks on the way. Reaching us they fell at his feet and, with broken voices, begged his forgiveness. Looking past them, I saw many youths hanging around near the entrance to the lane, waiting to see what happened. Kakaji turned, handed the still smoking Colt to me and held out his arms to the youngsters. Sobbing, they fell into his embrace while he gently absolved them of their brief and misguided, but luckily ineffective, moment of weakness.

Moradabad continued to be rocked by the riots for another three days. There was no way I cold have caught my train that Sunday. I didn’t want to either because what I was witness to was a transformation that was beautiful to behold. I wouldn’t have missed it for anything in the world.

Kakaji swung the whole mohalla into action, building a haven for persecuted victims from all over the city – and from both warring communities. No refugee, regardless of religion, was to be refused entry – on that point he rode roughshod over all objections. To him it didn’t matter which community sought shelter from the murderous mobs – he provided protection to all who needed it. Directing the young bloods of the locality with military precision, assuming command with the confidence of a seasoned general, he built barricades and defenses, blocking off the two ends of the main road and of all the lanes leading off from it within an hour of the shoot-out. He had the bodies of the three thugs pitched unceremoniously in a heap outside the barricaded area. They lay there unattended for a whole day until someone came to get them. He set up a command post at the mouth of his lane under a temporary lean-to. Informed that the local corporator, a member of the political party behind the riots had come home momentarily, he sent his young recruits to drag him, frightened out of his wits, into his presence. He was given the task, on pain of death, to ensure electric power to all the houses in the mohalla but not to the streetlights, so that illumination at night was under the residents’ control.

No officials were allowed into the temporary fortress. The only outsiders who entered were the refugees. The cinema house I had passed on the first night was converted into a makeshift refugee camp. A team had been deputed to register all individuals who sought shelter there – name, age, gender, father’s or spouse’s name and address were carefully catalogued.

For three days kakaji ruled the locality with an iron hand, ensuring that all residents collaborated in creating a safe shelter for anybody desiring it, commandeering and dispensing essential supplies to the refugees, no questions asked. He had dozens of volunteers to do his bidding – objectors had politely been asked to shut up or leave the locality.

For three days, Kesari Nandan Sharma lived again.

By Monday evening the city was quiet. The riots were over. And the family returned.

Radha-kaki bustled in and took over without losing a moment. “Look at the dirt on the floor! I know it hasn’t been swept for three days. What else should I have expected from your kakaji? I hope you took proper care of him during the trouble.

“Did you take your medicines properly?” she asked, turning to him. “And did you feed the boy? I don’t want anything to happen to him and then we will lose the only roof above our heads that I have been able to manage after years of struggle.”

Kakaji had lapsed into dumbstruck silence in the face of this torrent. Seeing his helplessness, she clucked her tongue in exasperation and railed on, “Oh, look at my fate! I have to see to everything myself. Aparna, go see how that boy is. Has he had his bath or not for three days, I wonder?”

I slipped out as soon as I could to go to the station and book a ticket to Bangalore. When I returned, she was giving the old man a hell of a scolding. I could make out the words through the closed front door as I mounted the stairs, she was shouting so loudly in her enraged state.

“What possessed you to go out like that in the middle of all the rioting? Who asked you to put all of us in danger like that? And your own nephew,” she co-opted me into the dressing down as I walked in. The old man was seated on the settee, staring down at his feet. “What sin did Nayan commit that he must also risk his life for your adventure?

“Do you think you are still a young, irresponsible bachelor in Malaysia? Have you forgotten your responsibility towards your own wife and son and his family? Even now I am not sure when some goonda will walk into our very home to take revenge on all of us. Have you given any thought to that? If you want to act like this why don’t you go back to Malaysia and spare us all this torture? Hey bhagwan, may you destroy that evil spirit that took possession of my husband for the past three days. Hai, hai, what sins did I commit in my previous life to deserve a fate like this!” So saying Radha-kaki beat her forehead vigorously with her palm and stormed out to the kitchen.

After dinner Santosh and I stood on the balcony smoking our cigarettes.

“Damn that bloody old man,” he said viciously. “I don’t know if we can continue staying in this house after what he’s done. If not the troublemakers, the police will come and harass us. Another six months and my flat would have been allotted and we could say goodbye to this bloody house and life would have been set. That bloody old man has spoiled the whole thing now.”

“That old man’s highway engineering career was cut short, otherwise all this would never have been necessary,” I replied gently.

“I don’t know about all that foreign education bullshit,” he replied dismissively. “Anyway he had many chances to make a comfortable living right here in Moradabad itself. He only threw it all away. Couldn’t even manage a small bloody gas agency, what highways are you talking about?”

“Hey, Santosh, I think you’re being unfair to the old man. Look, some people have business sense and some don’t. And business has never been in our family’s blood, you know that.”

“Then why the bloody hell did he not go for it – this foreign career everybody keeps talking about? I have never seen him pay any bills, I have seen only bloody debts all my life. So what right does he have to call himself my father?”

The sense of shame and anger at a father who had let his boy down was clearly written on his contorted face. From an early age, Santosh had only seen kakaji trying unsuccessfully to lift his family out of a grinding struggle to make ends meet. This had gone on for far too many years – nothing could change his attitude, and I knew that his father’s heroic achievements of the last three days counted for nothing in his eyes.

That night I lay awake in the darkness, unable to get to sleep. Suddenly the hairs on the back of my neck stood up. I heard the soft scuffling sound behind me. I turned over on to my back and saw him, the retarded boy, with his slit eyes and vacant grin, shuffling from one foot to the other at the entrance to the passage. But he wasn’t looking at me tonight – he was looking over me at the doorway to the main bedroom.

The old man was standing there, a mute, ghostly figure in the semi-darkness, staring vacantly back at the boy.

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