Halogen

Water, water, every where, And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, every where, Nor any drop to drink.

– Samuel Taylor Coleridge


‘Surely, I’ll be back by seven. We’ll have dinner together’ the man said on the call. He was stuck in traffic – unavoidable during the office hours. Something had caused an anarchy on-road, but he was the least bothered. He had enough time in his hands and neither did he have any conferences to attend. Business was easy for him that day – he could be late to the office, if he wished.

 

‘Hope to see you in black… long time indeed’ he said, mischievously lowering down his voice. He then smiled.

 

‘Of course honey. I remember that…’ he said after a pause. He was interrupted.

 

‘Ah no worry. We’ll be fine… yes, first time in daddy’s office’ he laughed.

 

He disconnected the call and looked out for the situation outside. None of the vehicles had moved an inch. He checked the time and then turned on the music.

 

*   *   *

Shri waited for a minute to see if he could get a rickshaw, but there were none around. The rickshaw stand, at a distance, seemed deserted. It was nine minutes to eleven in that cold winter night in Calcutta. He began to walk.

He had been walking for the past fifteen minutes. Urgency caused him to hurry. There was someone waiting for him; someone was critical and was desperately in need of his presence. He, however, was helpless. As he walked down the street, as fast as he could, he put his hand into his back pocket. His wallet was missing – he realized again. He was finding it difficult to believe that someone had indeed picked it up. The job was accomplished with such an expertise that he did not even remember where he could have possibly lost it. So, he checked repeatedly to make sure he was not mistaking.

He had just withdrawn a thousand rupees before rushing out of his office for home when he had got a call. The day had been a difficult one for him. His car had gone for servicing, and so, he had no other choice but to take the hectic public conveyance for that day. He had reached his office, half an hour later than usual.

He had thought that he would hire a cab on the way back home, but ‘Time’, at moments, can be frustrating. Unable to find a taxi anywhere nearby, he had to take a bus, which arrived there pretty soon. And then, when he asked the helper, for the fare he would have to pay, he realized that he was on the wrong route. He requested him to signal the driver, so that he could step down. The driver grumbled as he applied the brakes on that massive vehicle.

There was something, which made him restless. As he kept walking endlessly, he saw an open shop. He crossed the road carefully looking around, although there was not even a single motored vehicle, which could be spotted anywhere on that lonesome street. He went inside. Two men sat there, busy on the computer terminal. He knocked on the glass.

‘Hi. Actually I am in a serious problem. I have lost my wallet and along with that, all my essentials’ he said.

The men looked at him, without any reaction.

‘My daughter is severely ill. I need to get these medicines as soon as possible. I need your help. Can you just have a look at this?’ he asked showing them the prescription.

‘But we are not allowed to give out medicines like that’ the older man replied.

‘Please try to understand. It is not going to cost much. It will be something around three fifty… two tablets. I promise I will pay you back tomorrow itself. Or if you want, you can keep this watch of mine in case you don’t have much trust in me’ he pleaded.

‘We’re extremely sorry, but that’s not the way. We have to maintain our accounts as well’ the man replied back. He was rude.

Crisis. Shri soon realized it was not worth arguing with him. He would have to get the money somehow. There was no other pharmacy on the way, as far as he remembered. The one nearer to his home was closed due to some unknown reason, his wife had informed him. Hospitals were too far for his wife to manage all alone. ‘To hell with my car’ he thought.

There was a sudden ring on his blackberry. His wife called. He could feel the wetness in his eyes as he looked at her name on the display. He did not receive the call. It got disconnected after sometime. She then called again. He wiped his eyes and took the call this time.

‘Where are you?’ she asked. He could feel her voice shivering.

‘I… I’m… I’m buying the medicines’ he said trying to sound normal.

‘Does it take that long? Huh? You’re still lying… lying to me…’ she cried out loud, unable to control herself anymore. ‘My daughter will die tonight… you hear that? She will die. You freak! And you’re lying… lying over your daughter’s death…’ she paused. ‘Where are you? You got to tell me, where the hell are you? Still sleeping around with that…’

‘Keep shut!’ he screamed before she could finish. She stopped speaking. The silence of the night reigned all around, unhindered. ‘I am not lying. I am getting the medicines, do you get that! She won’t die… she won’t, as long as I’m alive. I’ll be back soon’ he said.

There was no reply from the other side. She continued to cry.

The call was disconnected.

*   *   *

The man tapped on the steering with his forefingers. He liked the music. He then gunned the engine and drove just a few inches, before coming to a stop again. He looked out, trying to see as far as he could. He saw an ambulance and a few men in the white uniform of Calcutta Police. They were far away. An accident, he guessed.

 

He took out his new leather wallet, which his wife had bought for him just a week before. He looked into it for a business card and then put it back into his pocket. But, something caused him to pull it out again.

*   *   *

 

The day was tough for him as always. He had waked up at five in the morning and had readied his four-wheeled cart with fresh vegetables from the nearby wholesale market. It was usually the time when the first train arrived. The orange glow of the halogen, which burned through the night at the top of the lamppost, was the only one to welcome him, morning after morning, when the sun slept.

A day used to earn him enough for his minimal existence. He could hardly save some, which he used to take back home, every month end. He owned a small piece of land in Midnapore, which sustained his wife, his old mother and his two children who spent their entire day, toiling on the field to get something out of it. Life was not fun, for them.

His third child was born three days back. It was a girl. Although it was not desirable for his family to bear a girl child, but being a father, he was craving to see the infant – his baby. He had always craved for a daughter, but he never could justify his want, regarding their penurious livelihood. But when she was finally there in his life, he was the probably the happiest man on earth.

But God has his own rule – a poor looks good when he is sad. So, it did not go well with Him when He saw a street hawker happy with his life. That morning, when one of his fellow hawkers came back from his village, God dealt him the final blow. The infant was terribly ill. A severe infection had caught hold of her. The village doctor had asked for a serum to be injected into that delicate body to prevent her death. It was not rurally available. It had to be brought from the city – Calcutta.

He was decided to leave the very next day by the afternoon train. He would have to get the medicine first. But even before that, he would have to spend another winter night on the cart, under the streetlight – painful it was for him, after a long tiring day.

He collected whatever he had saved for the last few days and counted it several times. It was just enough to get the medicine. He put the money in his pocket and took out a bottle of desi, which he had bought that morning. As he gulped down the liquid, he felt the warmth down his throat into his stomach. It was so comfortable for him.

He slept on his cart. For the next few hours, he would be relieved of his life.

*   *   *

‘A week ago…’ he whispered to himself, closing his eyes as he touched it with his finger.

 

The car behind him came and crashed on his. He looked back. The driver of the other car lifted his hand in apology. He did not react further.

 

*   *   *

 

As Shri walked, the helplessness began to grip him more terribly. Every passing second, with no action on his part, meant a father showing his own daughter, the way that led to a painful death. Every passing moment meant his wife losing whatever remaining trust she had still retained for him in her heart. Every passing moment meant his losing the very purpose of his life. As he walked, unable to find any way out, he was at war – at war with his greatest enemy, time.

He crossed the tramway and took the footpath on the other side of the road. As he walked, he looked at the streetlights, which glowed, lightening, probably, the darkest night of his life.

Something caused Shri to stop. He turned back in a sudden surprise. A man was lying, beside a cart, on the road. The streetlight produced a shadow of the cart, which veiled half of his body with only the upper part visible. Shri went closer. The man was drunk – he realized soon. He went and sat beside him.

‘Hello! Wake up… you fell down’ he said, patting on his hand.

There was no reply. He repeated again, but that too went unheeded. The man opened one of his eyes slightly and saw a shadow, standing over him, blocking the bright halogen, which glowed far above him. He could not see his face. He could just see a dark outline of his head and his shoulder. He closed his eyes again, not even being able to resist.

Shri thought of leaving, but then he did not. He thought of helping the man, at least by lifting him back on the cart. As he tried to move him, something fell down the pocket of the man’s shirt. Shri did not notice it first, but then when he did, soon after, he sat there, unmoved. He picked up one of the numerous pieces of paper, which had fallen down and looked at it. It was a ten-rupee currency note. He looked at it again in surprise. He looked down on the road. There were so many of them lying all around the half dead man. He picked up one, then another, then another, and as he continued, he felt as if all the wealth, which existed on earth, had belonged to that one poor hawker on the city street that night.

His thoughts raced, but he could not have stopped himself anymore. Logic was beyond the scope of his brain at that moment. What he could now see and feel was the beautiful face of his kid, who was crying in pain, waiting for her father to get her life back for her. He collected the ten rupee notes, one after another, and then counted them, and as he did, he looked around, in fear, to check if someone was seeing him. He lost the count in the middle, and had to restart it all over again. While he counted, he felt a painful guilt within himself, which he could never have explained, not even to his own self, but at that moment of time, the life of his daughter mattered to him the most – even more than his very own existence.

He finished counting. It was three hundred and eighty. He took three ten-rupee notes and put them back, very carefully, into the poor man’s pocket. There was a piece of dirty white paper, which had fallen along with the money. He unfolded it. There was something written on it in English – just one single word. He tried to comprehend, but could not. He folded the piece of paper and put it back into the drunken man’s pocket.

He ran – ran for his life – ran towards the same way he had come from, while the hawker still lay there, unconscious in the intoxication.

Someone was lost.

*   *   *

The man stepped out of the car. It was difficult for him to sit inside, stuck in one position for that long. He looked around. He knew the place well.

 

There was one more person standing there, smoking a cigarette outside his car. He looked in. He had his wife and two children sitting inside the car. He approached him.

 

‘What’s the issue out there?’ he asked. The man looked at him.

 

*   *   *

 

As Shri was about to leave hurriedly, the man inside the medicine store gave him a call from behind.

‘You gave me ten rupees extra’ he said returning him a spoiled ten-rupee note. Shri stood there in shock. He did not want any of that money back.

‘But it was three fifty, I counted it’ he replied back. There was a fear in his voice.

‘No, it was three sixty, ten rupees extra’ the man said again.

Shri went and took the money. He then left. As he walked, he looked at the note. It was wet. He touched it with his fingers. He could feel the daylong hard work and the amount of effort that the poor had put into, to earn himself the currency.

His heart let out a horrendous cry of despair.

*   *   *

‘Not much idea, but what I saw and I heard, it’s like this…’ the man finished smoking and began to speak as he let the smoke out through his nose.

 

*   *   *

 

Imraan was on his way back home one night. He was happy. He was getting married, a week later. The lady, whom he had always loved so much, was finally stepping into his life forever. Life was ecstatic for him.

While he walked through the night, in the best of his moods, he remembered the first night he had spent with her – wonderful it was. He smiled. The coldness of the night made him shiver, but the thoughts were warming for his heart.

He saw something strange. He had always seen him, lying on the cart on that lonely road at night, but then, that night he looked very odd. What he could see was the man, hanging from the cart, just about to fall on the road. He had always felt bad for him. He used to see him, every time he crossed the place, selling vegetables on the road the entire day under the lamp post, screaming at the peak of his voice to attract his customers, and then at night he used to be on the cart, sleeping. His cart and his old knife were his only possessions, he had always thought. As he began to move towards him, the man fell down the cart. Imraan ran for helping him. He went closer and looked at his face, made visible by the orange halogen, glowing bright through the fog in the night.

Imraan could see numerous ten rupee notes strewn all around him. Those were the poor’s only possessions, which he had earned after countless number of hours under the sun, and numerous nights in the cold under the same halogen.

‘Hello brother, may I help you?’ asked he. There was no reply. Imraan went a bit closer. The man smelled of liquor.

‘Bro, you fell down. Look at your money, someone will steal it away’ he said again, but there was no reply from his side. Imraan looked at his face. A drop of tear went rolling down his right eye, which still remained closed. He felt pathetic for him.

Imraan began to collect the currency notes. There were many of them. After he had picked them up, holding them with both of his hands, he went back to the half dead man and sat beside him.

‘Here’s your money. Take it’ he said.

The man slightly opened his eyes. He saw a shadow, standing before his eyes, guarding the bright glow of the halogen under which he had always slept so peacefully. He could not see his face. He could just see a dark outline of his head and his shoulder.

*   *   *

‘What?’ he exclaimed.

 

He locked his car and went hurriedly through the gaps between the vehicles, which stood in rows, waiting for the blockage to be over.

 

When he reached the front, he saw the police in white uniform all around, photographers, an ambulance waiting for its victim. As he moved through the crowd, he saw something that left him stunned. Horror. A man lay dead on the cart, brutally stabbed on the neck. The blood had already dried. The road remained strewn with dirty ten-rupee notes all around. He then saw someone. A chill went down his spine.

 

The hawker sat there beside the cart, his eyes lost in some thought, unknown to the world around him – a sense of pride, a disgusting satisfaction, and a terrible agony prevailed on his face.

 

An empty bottle lay on the road, the lid missing. The lamppost stood unmoved. A crow sat on the top, sad.

 

He felt sick. His blackberry beeped suddenly. It had received a message. He did not even bother to read it. He was terrified of being guilty. He began to sweat. Tears came to his eyes. One life had cost another, he thought, but he did not know, how wrong he was.

 

The halogen slept in the broad daylight – silent as always. The halogen – sole witness to the truth, which the world would never know.


*  *  *

 

Advertisements

About this entry