by Tanima Das
I wake up with a jolt as the bulky jeep screeches to a stop. Bhuto gestures at me to wait while he hurries out, slamming the door shut. I yawn, and try to stretch out my arms, but grimace to grab my shoulder instead. A sharp shooting pain is knotting up in my neck. Cursing Bhuto for choosing the bumpiest of all roads, I try to massage out the discomfort.
Bhuto is back soon with hot tea in a clay pot accompanied by toasted bread and questionable butter on a steel plate. He smiles at me revealing his stained buck-teeth. A stench from his unwashed mouth fills the air inside the jeep. I pass him a gum and proceed to get out.
“It’s not safe, babu,” protests Bhuto and extends his hands to block my way.
“Shut up,” I say and slap away his arms.
I sit down on a tree stub to have my breakfast while Bhuto, with his huge frame, tries to block me from view. Two men are visible at the eatery across the street but their worried faces seem to be enveloped by whatever issues fate has chosen to hurl at them. But Bhuto imagines that they might want to keep an eye on me.
The food would have tasted good actually, had it not been for the scratchy, fake moustache that Bhuto has pasted onto my upper lip. I look angrily at Bhuto. He looks back at me with devotion.
“How much longer?” I ask after placing the empty plate down.
“Two hours, at the most,” he promises as he opens the door of the jeep for me. I peel off the moustache, hand it to Bhuto and enter the jeep.
He tries to object but stops when I pull down my oversized cap to cover the most of my face. He seems to be more bothered than me about concealing my identity. But honestly, I also do not wish to be recognised or photographed in this part of the country.
Bhuto runs to return the plate to the shopkeeper. He comes back quickly after paying the bill and gets behind the wheel.
Soon the jeep roars ahead over the rugged terrain and I drift back into the past instinctively.
Bhuto was only five when I had rescued him from his native village. His father had left after selling his unwed mother to an oil baron located in the middle east. Hapless Bhuto was at the mercy of the villagers when I took him under my wings. I stationed him at the safe house I owned in Ratanpur. In due course of time, he grew up to be a fiercely faithful henchman. When he seemed to be ready, I handed over the charge of the safe house to Bhuto. I was giving him the gift of freedom and power. But the wastrel still cried his eyes out when I drove out of Ratanpur for the last time. He knew I would not bother to keep in touch. It would be too risky. That was more than two decades ago.
And, in the last week, when I was recuperating in the deepest emotional abyss of my life, Bhuto decided to call me and urge me to meet him. I was about to disconnect the call when he said that it was about Hiya. Immediately I prodded him for more information. But he insisted that the phone lines might be tapped and it would be dangerous for him to divulge more. So, I had to meet Bhuto again.
Hiya is my daughter, whose charred remains I had cremated last month. She had gone on an excursion with her friends from college. The cursed bus had toppled off the road, catching fire and killing all the children.
My vision hazes when I think of her and I quietly wipe away the accumulating tears. If Bhuto sees me crying he will begin a litany of insufferable consolations. I look out and try to marvel at the beauty of nature, instead.
Tall trees with scanty leaves whizz past our jeep. The red soil starts to look alive as the glow of the morning sun begins to brighten. The place is notably warmer than I remember it to be. The trees are fewer too. I wonder if there is truly a correlation between the two. My idle thoughts and the simple scenery could have combined to form a neutral experience for me but my memories would not leave me alone. They are rushing in incessantly to meddle with my present.
I used to come here often along these same roads. My wife Pramila had no idea about my dealings in Ratanpur. She has always been the typical good wife, dutiful and silent, just the way I had wanted her to be. She happily bore me four wonderful sons, never questioned my decisions and accepted my sovereignty over her body. In return, I loved her dearly. That is why I had to visit the safe house to satiate most of my carnal fetishes. They were too disgraceful to do with Pramila.
When my wife was pregnant with our fifth child Hiya I decided to let her have the baby even after we found out the gender. The trend of flaunting daughters was on the rise among the powerful. Having a daughter could boost my public image.
I was quite shocked when Hiya was born. She had inherited my facial features and her mother’s porcelain complexion. Looking at her beautiful face I realized that I too had the potential to qualify as a handsome man; it was just my pitch dark skin that had stood in the way for all these years. Since then my baby girl took up a place in my heart that I had never known to exist.
Incidentally, it was soon after Hiya’s birth that I had distanced myself from the operations of the safe house in Ratanpur. Earlier, I used the safe house sometimes to hold secret meetings with my guests from the business world. Countless deals were sealed there which went on to pave the way to my steady rise. The meetings would usually be followed by a night of debauchery and merry-making. But with political ambitions in sight, I needed to be more discreet.
My new connections chose to hold conferences at other safer places. And with the generous growth in my net worth, aspiring models were more than willing to take care of my sexual needs. I had simply outgrown the amenities of the safe house. However, I could not just dispose off the women who entertained there. Also, there were clients who had grown into the habit of visiting the place. That is when I promoted Bhuto to manage the safe house and cut the Ratanpur episode off from my life.
And now, here I am, travelling with Bhuto to Ratanpur, praying desperately to see my only daughter saved by some miracle. But, as I travel deeper into the hinterlands, my hopes begin to dwindle alarmingly. There are things far more sinister than death itself, that could have befallen Hiya. I can no longer push away that menacing trail of thought. I clutch my hair with both my hands and feel like tearing them all out.
“Stop the jeep,” I growl.
Startled, Bhuto thumps down on the accelerator and I almost get thrown out of the seat. I yell curses at him.
Bhuto tries to calm me down.
“What exactly has happened to Hiya? Is she dead or alive? What did you do to her?” I ask him fast. “I can’t wait any longer. Tell me now.”
“Babu, I only tried to help her,” Bhuto says. With his six footer frame of all muscles, the idiot still trembles at my yells.
“We are very close to the safe house now.”
He points his thick and calloused finger at what seems to be a dead end. In a flash, I remember the illusion that hid the safe house from clear view. I nod and try to pacify my racing heart. The jeep rolls on at a slower pace for a while, before turning right sharply to get into an unseen alley. The jeep twists its way for another minute to lead to a clearing. Right in the middle of it is the safe house. It looks bigger somehow. Bhuto has gotten it painted in absurd shades of red and blue. But I have no time to give him the earful he deserves. I run wildly to get inside.
All the windows on the wall facing me are open and I begin to peek in through them one by one. It is through the third window that I spot her. She is sitting with her back to the window. Her head is drooping towards the front, covered by her cupped hands. Is she crying? Two raw, red wounds sprawl across the fair skin on her exposed back.
Scenes from the past begin to flash back rapidly, of me and others disrobing the unwilling girls, to reveal their firm, young bodies.
My blood begins to boil as I see Hiya seated there. I turn around and find Bhuto right behind me. I slap him hard on the cheek. It probably did not hurt him one bit but he takes a step back.
“After all that I have done for you,” I say. “You couldn’t even protect my only daughter?”
I take two steps ahead and push Bhuto hard on the chest with my hands. He starts to chatter something in defence. I have no wish to listen to his explanations. I start to punch him recklessly.
This is when Hiya and the other inmates run out to investigate the source of the commotion.
“Baba,” exclaims Hiya. “I can’t believe you kept all this a secret for so many years.”
My daughter is now standing in front of me. She is alive. But she looks weak, drained. I shudder as I think of the possibilities that she had to endure in the last few weeks.
Meanwhile, sensing the distraction, Bhuto has moved a few feet away from me. The clown knows that he is stronger than me and yet makes a big show of being afraid.
I glare at him.
“Baba, stop being angry with Bhuto,” urges Hiya. “From now on, I accept him as my dearest brother. You should happily accept that too.”
I feel like someone has punched my guts out. Bhuto has chosen to betray my faith in the worst possible way.
Yes, I had sired him a long time ago. Yes, I had sold his mother off. But I did repent my actions. I made sure that he got a comfortable life with sufficient power.
I was the one to give Bhuto a life. And today he is trying to take mine away.
I guess he has put in a lot of effort to trace his father. When it turned out to be me, he got greedy. I slip my hand into my right pocket and place my fingers firmly around my pistol. He needs to learn one final lesson.
“You shouldn’t have revealed my shady past to my daughter,” I mutter. “It doesn’t matter that I fathered you. You’ll always be the son of a whore.”
Before I can take out the gun and shoot Bhuto, Hiya lets out a piercing scream. She always does that to get my attention.
“Baba?” she sounds hurt. “What’s going on here?”
“Babu…babu — ” Bhuto stammers.
I notice that it sounds very similar to “baba”. It fills me with disgust.
“Tell me all that you know,” Hiya commands Bhuto.
Scared, I observe his countenance. It looks all muddled. Did I just leak my own secret? Did he not find things out?
“I only know that my father pushed my mother into prostitution,” he mumbles as he stares hard at the ground. “And then he abandoned me.”
“Don’t talk to Bhuto,” I warn my daughter. “He runs a covert racquet that deals with human trafficking, drugs and what-nots!”
“No, baba,” she speaks firmly. “He runs a facility where he puts up the people he saves. When our bus caught on fire, I was thrown out through a broken window. And I lay on the ground for hours, unconscious. My back was badly burnt and there were bruises all over me. Some local goons on finding me had decided to quietly sell me off at a port. That’s where Bhuto appeared like a messiah and intervened. He brought me to this shelter and put me under care.”
“It’s not a shelter,” I shout out. “It’s a brothel.”
“No, it isn’t.”
This time it is the inmates replying in chorus. Some begin to narrate tales of how they have been saved by Bhuto to be rehabilitated.
I turn towards Bhuto. In my pocket, my fore-finger is still placed on the trigger. Bhuto is looking away.
“And, what were you talking about, baba?” asks Hiya. “What shady past? Are you really his father? Tell me the truth!”
Her voice is now laced with acid. I have no answer to her questions.
“He meant that he has always been like a father to me,” says Bhuto in a small voice. “And, in the past, he had helped me to escape from the police by erasing my criminal records. Maybe, babu thinks I am still the same man.”
Hiya looks relieved with the explanation.
“Baba, you’re being really rude to Bhuto,” she preaches to me. “He is a saviour now, forget the past.”
I keep staring at Bhuto who refuses to look me in the eye.
“Bhuto?” I ask, my voice much softer. “So this place is no longer what it used to be?”
“Nothing is no longer what it used to be,” replies Bhuto. When he finally looks up his gaze has changed. The devotion that I have been so used to is suddenly gone.
Come on, go ahead and hug him. Tell him that you are proud. Tell him that you are sorry.
My conscience screams out to me.
I know I cannot do that. Why can I not? Why is there a weight heaving down on my bosom? I do not know.
Maybe, my maker has all the answers.
So, I wrench out the pistol, lodge the nozzle between my teeth and pull the trigger.
Tanima Das is a software engineer by profession. Writing is her oldest hobby and she finds time for it even by cutting back on sleep. Her stories have been published frequently in the noted Indian magazine, Woman’s Era. She also was the first runner-up in last year’s Times of India Write India contest (for author Twinkle Khanna). This year I turned out to be the second runner-up for British author Clare Mackintosh’s prompt in the same contest.