Short Story: The Escape
By Hanish Rahane
Every day was exactly the same in the village. Well, every day is generally exactly the same everywhere… even amongst the urban dwellers of the here and now. But at least the city streets are brightly lit at night. “They make one forget the drudgery of one’s mundane existence.” Mira thought.
Mira was the guest speaker at the Police Academy’s passing out parade. Well, one could say that her speech was the reason she was there. But that wouldn’t be entirely true. The real reason may have very well been something else. Mira was beyond the musings of cause and consequence. Her past, a testament to this fact, now stared her in the face.
Mira sat with Satish, a new recruit, having dinner and asked him questions. She could not help interrogating the younger ones. But Satish was prepared for her questions. At the young age of 24, Satish had progressed further along his career than any of his peers. He was intelligent, ambitious and had a way about him that had instantly made her think, “He has what it takes.” He would certainly make a fine policeman. As Satish sat there patiently, talking to her, Mira began to see glimpses of her young self within this brave young man. It made her think about the early years of her life — in a land far from the here and now.
In Mira’s village, every day was exactly the same… Well, every day felt exactly the same. Nothing happened because the people were not used to things happening, nor had they any intention of making things happen. There were no big dreams, no ambitions, even when something big happened; it was not due to any human intervention in the workings of the universe at large, but rather a product of pure happenstance. And most of all, night time in the village was always dark. It was a time when honourable people slept and only thieves and hounds roamed the streets. But amidst this heap of dark stillness, under the dying light of the kerosene lanterns, a sixteen year old Mira’s soul had stirred impatiently. “That’s it,” she had said to herself. “I’m doing it to tonight! Yes, I am finally doing it tonight. I am running away from home.”
Mira’s father was Joseph. Joseph was a priest in Saint Mathew’s Church, the oldest church in the district and the only church in the village. Mira’s mother, Shantabai, was a housewife and was usually just referred to as ‘Bai’ in the village. The family income was meagre at best. Yet, within the wretched community they enjoyed a position of some repute… if not much. Every evening as the sun set, the men would share rickshaws up to as much distance as the day’s wages would allow, and walk rest of the way down the muddy road up to the brick-field. This was where the next day would begin.
This was also where most of the next day would be spent, in the baking of bricks, and earning the day’s salary with whatever of the bricks were sold in the brick-market in the neighbouring village.
The same story would repeat the following day, until the men returned to the brick-field after sundown. There was no point of setting a particular time as adhering to such a schedule would be impossible. The distance each of them would have to walk varied each day. If someone did not show up by 10 O clock, they would call up Raghu the rickshaw-wallah (rickshaw driver) who would carry out a voluntary sweep of the road that the missing person might have traversed, but only up to the nearest village. In any case, this was a situation best avoided as Raghu’s favour was a luxury that they could not afford. On most days however, everyone reached the brick-field safely by sundown.
Joseph the priest would go there too. All the men who considered themselves important men in the village — the policy-makers, the decision-makers — all would gather at the brick-field in the evening to hang out and get drunk on their own liquor. A liquor they made themselves. What was a legitimate brick-field during the day would turn into a country liquor bhatti (distillery) by evening.
Obviously, this setup was far from legal. But it was the most perfect crime. Which police officer would ever come looking for an illegal distillery at 10 o clock at night out in the middle of nowhere? Only the brick-makers knew the labyrinth of muddy roads inside the brick-field. It would be impossible for an outsider (even if one did make it to that place after sundown) to find his way around this maze without the help of one of these men. Then again, none of the booze was ever bottled or sold. They only made enough for their consumption. At least not at the moment and at least not to any of their knowledge. But none of them could be very certain of anything — the crude and potent liquor was like a drug. It could put a man under its spell for life. It had the power to make clever men oblivious… oblivious to obvious things…
On some occasions, Raghu the rickshaw wallah would show up and gossip about life in the nearby villages. On most occasions, Joseph would drink a few too many and give Shantabai a good thrashing for some reason or another — an act that was important in his mind to let her know that she was a horrible wife and a horrible mother. And thus, life went on in the village, each day followed by the next.
Mira detested everything and every person in this land, including Shantabai and had decided to run away from home. Only a week ago, Shantabai had caught her running away. She had grabbed her by her pony tail and whispered angrily, “You lucky little rascal. You’re lucky it was me who has caught you running away at night. If it were your father, he would kill you.”
This was later followed by a much more manipulative discourse during the course of which Shantabai begged Mira never to attempt such a feat, ever again.
“The consequences will be beyond your wildest imagination,” she had told Mira, “If Joseph finds out… oh there is no telling what that man might do when he’s drunk… He already blames me for being a bad mother. He will surely beat me. And he will beat you as soon as he finds you. And believe me, he will find you. He will find you in any corner of the world. And he will not rest until he finds you.”
“So I would never let him find out.” Bai had vouched. “I promise you Mira, if you leave this house, I will kill myself before I let that degenerate lay a finger on me again!”
“Tell me Mira, I gave you birth… now would you be so cruel as to give me death?”
Bai had insisted. She was always clever in choosing her words. But her words wielded no power today. Even older and wiser village folk were helpless before the will of celestial happenings. Happenings that were dictated by the stars and planets. These were forces much beyond their control. Shantabai knew her daughter very well. She knew that Mira would soon forget what she said and follow the path that she was destined to. Maybe, she was not destined to live with her. The stars had professed it.
The dark motionless night had quite the contrary effect on Mira. She was like a flame that shines bright in all the surrounding darkness or something similar, yet more unexplainable. She was moving… stirring constantly… in the vast surrounding stillness… It was an inspired motion — one that seemed more motive against the backdrop of surrounding stillness.
“Freedom will have to be earned,” she had decided.
“Freedom was war,” she knew.
She woke up at the stroke of midnight after having pretended to fall asleep. She packed her school bag with as much food and water as she could, snuck outside the house and started running.
Mira was gone. She had left a note for her old mother.
Mira had just finished telling Satish how her team had taken down a serial offender, a violent rapist, a child molester in a village nearby. “It all started when we got a complaint from a young girl.” She said. “I had to wait to get clearance from my bosses because it was outside our jurisdiction. But we got there in time. There was no evidence though. All the victims were ashamed and refused to speak. So we laid a trap for him. And we sat on it for days. Finally we caught him red handed. Sometimes you need a lot of patience, to solve a crime,” she told Satish.
“Madam, if you do not mind me asking,” Satish asked, “Why did you only speak about rural crimes in your speech? All the cases we study about in the academy are urban cases.”
Mira took a moment to compose herself, then finally explained. “Sure they are. I don’t doubt that. Well, those are the only ones that make the headlines… But I do not think you understand the difference between rural and urban crimes. To understand rural crimes, you need a rural upbringing. You need to understand the rural people. How they think… what motivates them… Their likes, dislikes, and their rules.”
“Their rules? What do you mean by that?” Satish enquired. “Yes their rules,” Mira explained. “You see, every village is like a creature… Like a creature that takes care of itself. It has different parts that carry out different functions. Their laws are different, their judiciary is different. And so is their way of dispensing justice…”
As Satish thought about this with a grave face, Mira’s mind once again slipped into a daydream. A faint remembrance of the day of her escape.
Inside the liquor-den, on that dark, still evening, three kerosene lanterns stayed lit. As soon as Gopal noticed this, he picked up the third lantern and threw it on the ground. It collapsed spilling all the kerosene on the sand. This was a drunken way of putting out lanterns. And having three lanterns lit was a bad omen. “Munna you fucking idiot”– enraged, Gopal grunted, “Three lights? How many times I gotta tell you, you dickhead. We don’t put three lights on. Three lights is a bad omen. Something bad always happens when there are three lights. I have a bad feeling something bad might have already happened!”
Saying so, he smacked poor Munna on his head, and momentarily returned to his crouching position. He adjusted his Nepali khukree (dagger) and ran his fingers through the 5 strands of hair that was barely a goatee. Gopal was a tough nut, and if properly motivated, he could easily kill a man with his bare hands. The khukree, however was mostly for ornamental reasons. It was worn inside his pyjamas, and a vest covered his torso.
On his left shoulder was a massive scar, a bite-mark… Everyone thought it to be a dog bite. But only Gopal knew the truth, and he had kept it hidden from everyone else for so many years. He was ashamed of admitting it to anyone. “It’s a monkey-bite,” he had once admitted to Father Joseph. It made him feel like a burden had been lifted from his chest. “But Joe I can’t tell this to anyone. They will make fun of me if they know that a little monkey bit me so badly. You can never ever tell anyone about this, or else, MY khukree will meet YOUR shoulder… and I’ll carve one of these out for you… in your flesh…”
Joseph tried to hide how terrified he was as Gopal smiled at him. Gopal was a cold blooded monster. But to everyone’s surprise, Father Joseph did not think of him as a very bad person. Some people speculated that Joe saw something in Gopal — something of value. Others laughed it off saying, “Whom will Joseph drink with if he starts alienating the real drunkards among us?” But the truth was that these men truly shared a special bond. Joseph had truly decided to give this maniac the benefit of doubt and often let him into his house late at night with his wife and young daughter around. At least he was a real man. And did not disappoint him –like his family.
Mira’s thoughts had brought her to a place in her mind that she did not like to visit. The thought of Gopal living somewhere in this labyrinth of bricks, among these make shift liquor dens made her nervous. It scared her. And she did not like feeling scared.
“I would like to ask you a question now, if that’s okay. And I would like you to be honest with me.” Mira broke Satish’s line of thought.
“Sure Madam,” Satish obliged, “I promise to be honest.”
“Why did you chose to become a policeman?”
Satish had been asked this questions numerous times in the past. “I want to make a difference,” Satish said. “But that’s not all. I want to be like you.”
Mira was surprised by this admission. “Why do you wish to be like me?” Mira asked
“I have always admired your work, your huge contribution in taking down the ‘Alcohol Mafia’, as the news called them. I would have never thought that this business ran so deep. Raju right? If I’m not mistaken… The rickshaw- driver… who they called the King of counterfeit alcohol?” “Raghu,” Mira interrupted. “His name was Raghu.” Momentarily, all the old memories came flooding back to her. Once again, her mind jumped the physicality of space and time and brought her face to face with her younger self — on the night of her escape.
Mira ran, on that dark night, as if she had just discovered that she had legs. And boy, were her legs strong. The adrenaline kept her going. Within a few minutes, she was at the intersection. The intersection bore the name of the village and signified the ending of the village borders. In another few minutes, she left the village signpost behind her and now ran furiously along the muddy road. There was no tar here.
Pointy stones jutted out of the kutcha (unpaved) road. It made it difficult for Mira to pick up much pace. She could not risk an injury. Very soon, Mira let all the known landmarks behind. Two rickshaw stops, two tin shops that would open early the next day, the diner named ‘Salman Lunch Home’ that served hearty breakfasts at economy rates, Suleiman’s chicken and mutton butcher shop that was infested with flies all day and all night, and finally reached the brick-field. She could almost hear the ruckus that the men were making inside the makeshift liquor-den, out on the street. She could not hear Joseph. He usually assumed the role of the quiet and respected padre during such congregations. But Mira knew that anyone could do what he did for them, that anyone with the slightest bit of conscience would be considered among them to be a saint. These people were savages.
Mira had once sneaked out in the night and seen a drunken man put an entire rusted iron knife through another man’s leg, only because the other man had called this man’s son a faggot. “You just wait and see the girl he marries, my son will bring home the prettiest girl from the next village,” the stabber had said standing triumphantly over the injured man. There were more lewd comments from the others like, “Oh wouldn’t we like to see that” and “All girls from that village are whores” and other such stuff, while Joseph calmly tried to stop the thigh from bleeding by making a makeshift tourniquet.
Mira’s initial instinct called out for her to get off the road immediately, and take shelter in the bushes. She would then slowly pass by unnoticed from the far side of the road, such that even if the men did hear any hustle in the bushes, the lazy drunken men would rule it out as a passing animal. But soon Mira realised all this effort was unnecessary. These belligerent men couldn’t hear anything or anyone other than their own voices. They were just not capable of it.
Dinner time was over and Mira’s conversation with Satish had gone long enough. She liked him. She liked his curious mind. Maybe it wasn’t just a chance occurrence that she had sat at the dinner table with her biggest admirer. Maybe he had orchestrated this meeting since the very beginning. Or maybe she had been thrown into this encounter by someone else, by a higher power perhaps — by a God who wanted good people to meet good mentors. That was a kind of God she could believe in. A god that wished for all his people to succeed.
With time running out, she got ready to get up and leave, knowing that she would meet him again at some later point in life. Maybe he would be at a much higher rank then. Maybe even higher than her. She realised she had one more thing to say to him. “So you really did chose this career to make a difference huh!”
Mira did not quite know what to say. But she knew she had to say it. The words had not crystallised in her mind just yet. So she went on as she would with any criminal interrogation. Trusting her unconscious mind to magically find the words when the time was right…
“Yes I do,” Satish said. “I was being honest Madam. When you asked me this question before! And everyone else who has asked me this, I have always given them the same answer.”
“I believe you.” Mira replied. ”You want to know why I got into this profession?” She asked him.
“Why is that?” he enquired.
“I just needed to get away from home,” she said.
Satish could not believe what he had just heard. But Mira was sure her words would shock him. Only in this professional relationship could one be so honest and forthright with one’s colleagues. She had sealed the fate of their relationship – permanently — with these words. From that moment, she was his mentor, and him, her mentee. He must have understood this, she liked to believe, because he responded by saying to her, “To be honest Madam, so did I. I too felt like I just… had to run away from home!”
Mira had left behind a note that night. To her old mother.
“Mom, I know you will probably want to commit suicide after you read this. I also know what you might think will come out of your death — that I will come back running to you and the old man, when the news of your death finally finds me. I know you have thought about all this. But please trust me when I say this mother — I will not come back — even if you kill yourself. I can assure you that. No, I promise you that. Your sacrifice would be in vain, old woman. Instead, there are many useful things that you can do whilst still alive. I can think of one ay the top of my mind. You can try to keep the news of my disappearance under the wraps till tomorrow. This will give me a head start on my journey. Or else, do whatever you can to keep the townspeople from finding out about it. Especially Raghu. He could find me very easily. His rickshaw is fast and he has friends everywhere.
Ps. If someone must die as a result of my treachery, I would rather it be Father. I would rather that you stay alive.”
It was late. Two hours on the road had made Mira weary. Finally, in the cloud of dust, the town’s bus-stop appeared and Mira felt relieved. This was her last point of escape. There would be no going back from here. As soon as she stopped and held the cold metal grill on the bus stop, she was glad she made it this far. She also realised for the first time that she had been crying for some time.
But she had no recollection of it.
The only thing that remained was the dried out tear-mark on her face. She rubbed it off violently with her sleeve and sat down on the cold metal bench — waiting for the next bus…
Hanish Rahane is a marine engineer by profession. He enjoys reading and writing short stories and wishes to write his first novel soon.
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