This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
“I mustn’t get caught…” the hooded man thought as he entered a narrow, dark alley bordered on both side by houses and many trees. The pale light of the crescent moon filtering through canopy of trees guided him. Gusts of biting cold wind whistled through the night; the trees swayed, the leaves rustled, the shadows danced.
A shiver ran down the man’s spine not because of cold, no, for he had endured much frostier conditions than before, but because of a sudden surge of fear, of trepidation and of thrill that preceded the act of perpetration, the act of crime…he continued walking barefoot stealthily until he reached the dead end of the alley.
Before him, stood an old house with a large iron gate, bordered by walls fenced with spikes. Reconnaissance trips had acquainted him that the owners – a man and wife – had recently acquired it and renovation was under process. They didn’t have any pet dogs as guards. A servant lived with them but had gone home for some days. Naturally, the house was vulnerable, exposed to flaws and faults appealing to any intruder…
And so, equipped with the facts, he moved to the corner of the house where he knew a portion that was unfenced. With unerring skill, he climbed the wall and jumped over with ease.
“Happiness is only for the Rich!” he murmured to himself, as he moved around the house. He viewed the world as a split, like a great rift, polarizing the humanity in two races: The Rich and the Wretch! He loathed the former for they were the ones causing the imbalance; an infestation harming the later. Over the years, a deep rooted belief took hold of him that a sheer injustice prevailed in the society and it was fundamentally right to rob the Rich, to strike a balance. Never had he felt guilty in any of the thefts he had done. His lived by the sole conviction: If the Rich don’t give, then grab!
No lights, no lamps but only moonlight to guide him, he crept on the back of the house and found the window, he already knew, with no sills and whose panes were half broken. The Rich were really reckless. They haven’t repaired the window. Luck for the Wretch! He thought. Thrusting his hand inside the gap, he opened the latch and noiselessly opened the window.
“…must not get caught…” he murmured as he landed in the room which turned out to be a kitchen. Tightening the loose hood around his body, he took out a small torch and a sack. He scanned the kitchen with hungry eyes and within a minute of scavenging, a small grinder, and valuable looking kitchen gadgets occupied his bag.
Driven by greed for a big fish, he tiptoed inside an open room next to the kitchen. It was a makeshift temple-room with pictures of multi-handed deities all over the wall. His heart leaped as he eyed the jackpot: fat gold, silver coins lying on the altar and a gold necklace worn by a deity were sparkling in the dim torch light. God is helping me, eh? He thought with a glee, pocketing the coins.
Happiness is money-made, he thought, creeping out of the temple-room and deciding to explore more into the house – a Treasure Hunt. Now, he was in the living room. A clock ticked ominously somewhere. Flashing the torchlight, he looked around: a TV affixed on a wall, a showcase displaying worthless items, decorative pots, a laptop lying on a stool at a far corner – That Laptop! Would buy me a few thousands! He thought excitedly, trotting off silently towards it…
A crashing sound echoed in the night…
“What the –” he exclaimed. In his hurry, his sack had collided with a bookshelf knocking the china-pot above it on the floor. Pulse quickening, he put off the torchlight and hurtled on towards the kitchen –
“Who’s there!?!” A voice called from a nearby room and dread clutched at his heart. Run, Run! He urged himself.
In his haste, he bumped into the sofa and toppled. A door somewhere blasted open followed by taps of urgent footsteps. Lights suddenly lighted up the living room…
“Thief, thief, thief!” a male voice shrieked as the thief scrambled to his feet.
Get the hell out of here, the thief swore sprinting for the kitchen…
Something hit him hard on his head and his knees buckled. Instinctively, he dropped the sack, took out the knife from his belt and spun around…a silhouetted glimpse of a man. But the man had already hurled a thick book at him – the thief dodged. Next, the thief found himself being rammed on to the ground by the man. As both wrestled like wolves, the thief got a split-second glimpse of the man’s face and despite the scuffle, despite the urgency and desperation of the moment, something familiar flashed in the thief’s mind, he knew not why…
Bang! A bullet’s sound exploded.
“Stop! Or I’ll shoot!” a female voice trilled somewhere.
“NO!” the thief shouted his plea, giving up and standing up to look. The man had gotten up too.
A plump looking woman sat on a wheelchair, her trembling hands holding a shotgun pointed threateningly at the thief. She looked nervy, on the verge of fainting.
The man quickly moved over to the woman’s side, took the shot gun from her hand and pointed it at the thief.
“Manas, are you fine?” the woman asked urgently.
“Yeah…thanks, you acted timely, Meena,” Manas panted, sweat beading his brow and then said spitefully to the thief, “A rat in a trap! A slight move, I’ll blow up your head! Drop your knife!” the man warned, pointing the gun threateningly.
Curse my fate! The thief sworn under his breath, his mind numb with fear. Now how would he escape? There was no chance. The man had a gun. So, he did what he was told.
“Just call the police, will you?” Manas said to Meena, not taking his eyes off the thief, “My phone is in the bedroom!”
The lady wheeled around with difficulty and scuttled off on her wheelchair.
“Let me g-g-go! I b-beg you!” the thief stammered, his body shaking and his heart banging against his ribs at the name of police. He had never been caught.
“Quiet you thieving scoundrel!” Manas ranted.
The Rich had overpowered the Wretch – The thief’s game was up, the jail awaited him…
They both stared into each other’s eyes. The man named Manas was tall, lanky and middle-aged with receding hairline. His spidery long fingers holding the gun looked gnarled and bony. Dark, sunken eyes blinked behind his round spectacles perched on his bulbous nose. His pallid face wrinkled as he scowled. A small, round callus just below his chapped lips made his features eerily menacing. Overall, he had an unhealthy appearance of a sad, gloomy person… something vaguely familiar stirred in the thief’s mind as he eyed that fleshy callus…
Manas remained vigilant, holding his shot gun firmly lest the thief made any move. The thief’s hood had fallen revealing his tousled, unkempt hair. Fear shone in his hawk like beady eyes. A flesh like white strip of burned skin across his chin oddly contrasted his swarthy, black complexion…Manas eyed the burned skin…it looked eerily familiar…
As was the wont, fate played its own game. Something happened – Manas’s look of contempt, the thief’s look of fear both gave away into wide-eyed surprise, as a sudden flash of recognition; a blast from the past hit them –
“Am-Am-Aman Das!” Manas croaked in a shocked voice, staggering backwards, the gun shaking.
“Manas Deb!” the thief named Aman exclaimed in equally startled tone.
“What –what- I-Aman – you, how could you, after so many years—
“I-I -” Aman stammered, lost for words as overwhelming guilt and shame gripped him.
“Meena!” Manas called out loud, “Wait don’t- don’t call the police! Later!”
“What? What’s the matter? The line is engaged. Did he run away? Are you okay?” Meena sounded anxious.
“No! Yes – I mean – Wait! Don’t call the police! Let – let me deal!”
The lady called Meena hurriedly re-emerged on her wheelchair from the bedroom. A tensed silence followed.
The doorbell rang. They all jumped.
“Mr. Deb, Manas…” A group of people, the neighbors, called out loud from outside, certainly woken up by the bullet’s sound.
“Meena…tell them any story…tell them it was a huge snake!” Manas improvised immediately.
“But Manas!” Meena protested, surprised at her husband’s sudden defence for the thief.
“Meena…go…don’t you get it? I know this person…Now go…” he pressed as the doorbell rang again.
Meena shaking her head, wheeled her chair round corner of the room. Aman, terrified and confused, heard the gate opening followed by urgent whisperings of persons, then the gate closed and Meena came back.
“Told them it was a snake…” Meena said.
“What-have-you-become?” whispered Manas, each syllable freighted with disbelief. He lowered the gun. “Aman…after so long…”
“So he’s Aman…” Meena said eyeing the thief with a mixture of incredulity and anger, “Manas, you used to say Aman was your long lost friend….he’s a thief!”
Aman simply stared, blank and disoriented; vestiges of old memories bubbled up in his mind taking him many years back…Born to a poor family of labour class, he, Aman, was the only child to his parents. Desolation and despair lingered over his family like dark clouds. In fact, Aman remembered having spent many nights in hunger without any provisions for food or water. His mother worked as a maid in numerous houses and his father worked as a gardener to a royal family – the Deb Family – in Guwahati whose connections extended to Government and high authorities. In his childhood, Aman used to accompany his father to the royal house. It was then when he had met Manas who was born in that royal family.
Well, children are always above the façade of caste and creed. While his father nurtured the garden, Aman and Manas would nurture their budding friendship. As days passed by, their friendship deepened on. Soon Manas started going to school while Aman, whose father could not afford for the studies, wished wistfully for the same. However, Manas, out of pure heart for his friend, convinced his parents to secure a place for Aman in the school.
And so began the golden days for Aman. He was happy, his parents grateful for their masters for bearing the cost of Aman’s studies. As time flew by, both passed their matriculation with flying colors, both got enrolled in higher secondary, and both were still the best friends. In fact, for the Deb family, Aman was as good as their second son. Aman’s parents now earned well: his father had become a royal gardener as well as a personal guard to the royal family; his mother no longer a maid but had opened her own tailoring shop. The winds of good change had begun to blow about the Das family…
But then, an ill boding wind blew off the flame of happiness. A theft took place in the royal family; the thieves heist large amount cash, jewels and valuables from the house. Two of the security guards were missing right after the event. The police were called, enquiry was initiated, search conducted and the guards were finally caught. The law was blind. The guards bribed the police in charge for their share in the loot. They blamed the royal gardener for his involvement. Aman’s father wasn’t afraid. Why he should be? He was honest, faithful; the most trusted servant of Mr. Deb who would of course be on his loyal servant’s side in any adversity. But adversity brought the true colors out. Despite the absence of evidences, Aman’s father was questioned, threatened by the corrupt police officials and even tortured to give a wrong confession. Mr. Deb did not extend any help to his trusted servant, but gave all discretion to the police. The gardener was sentenced to jail for a year, fired from the royal house. Aman was thrown out of the school. The thread between the two friends had broken.
After Aman’s father’s release from jail, the Das family had abandoned their place in Guwahati and moved on in their native village nearby the city. Depression had taken toll over Aman’s father and his health deteriorated on. He could not bear the burden of such sheer injustice; he could not carry the false stigma of a thief. The Deb family had not believed him. It was almost like a betrayal. Unable to withstand the emotional turmoil, he succumbed to the arms of death – he died of heart attack. And Aman, just a teenager, had been left as the only bread earner.
Years went by, Aman now worked as a peon in a company in the city; he had married a local village girl on his mother’s constant pressure. Aman constantly looked for a different job to support his family but couldn’t find a decent job. A year after marriage, his mother breathed her last and Aman became the father of a daughter. The family’s expenses increased, the tension doubled up. Aman’s and his wife’s incomes were meager and that too was squandered by Aman on liquors and cigarettes. Aman used to come home at night, totally drunken. Needless to say, the husband and the wife quarrelled and fought. Aman couldn’t see a way out their misery. No matter how hard he toiled to make the ends meet but at the end of the day, he always found himself at the end of his hopes. Marred by failures, cursed by the grinding poverty, he took the path which his father had never sought to take, the path for which his father had been falsely blamed…Aman Das had become a thief committing petty thefts at the depth of the nights, robbing the houses in the urban area.
“You aren’t the Aman I knew…” Manas’s voice seemed to come from a distance and brought Aman back to present. He looked into his old friend’s face which registered a mixture of anger and sadness, and all of a sudden, a surge of anger, of injustice surged inside him like lava –
“Look what I have been molded into!” Aman retaliated, “Yes, I ain’t the one you knew nor you’re the one I knew once! Look how the cruelty of time shaped me! I carry the burden of a thief…I am the son of a thief who was honest, most loyal; the thief who never even dreamt of stealing a petal of flower of a garden! Bah! And look how the world paid him. How you people, your Rich father paid him for his service, branding him as thief, a robber!”
Manas made a sudden movement like a twitch, his lips tethering on the verge to shout back or shoot but something stopped him; He had an air of unease about him. He lowered the hand which held the gun.
“Why delay, my friend?!” Aman mocked derisively, waving his hands as if to welcome “Shoot me, kill me and be done with it! Bah! The police, the law makers will praise you for wiping of a stain on earth! C’mon shoot!”
Manas’s chest rose and fell rapidly as he was panting hard, sweat beading his brow. He looked as if he was lost in thought, his eyes unfocussed.
Aman didn’t understand what Manas was pondering about. All he felt was cold hatred and revenge churning inside him. He knew he couldn’t do anything against a gun. But he would hurt Manas with all the vindictive words; make him realize the wrongness of the Deb’s family’s deeds. He didn’t care if he got caught or killed. He opened his mouth to speak but –
“You don’t understand…” Manas spoke, his voice shook with a hint of plea. “You never got the true picture. Did you? It’s not your fault nor anyone’s…I am…I am sorry…”
Aman was stunned. Why Manas was acting like this. Why was he begging? The Rich begging the Poor! He would have liked him to retaliate back or shoot.
Then Meena, who had been listening silently, turned slightly and gripped Manas’s free hand.
“Tell him what you ought to have told him years before,” Meena said softly to Manas. “He has the right to know…”
“What’s this all about?” Aman said brusquely, not getting the picture. “Tell me what? What?” He urged, his heart beating fast with an air of anticipation as if something more was about to unveil.
Manas sighed, “My father realized this, Aman. My father realized that your father was not a thief! He realized and regretted afterwards… ”
Numbness overtook Aman. He did not want to believe what he was hearing.
“About two years after the theft took place,” Manas resumed, “the truth came out. The police officer involved was somehow caught…I don’t remember exactly…may be my dad got some insider information, but yes, the truth certainly came out; that police officer was caught, questioned and jailed, the robbed valuables also recovered. Knowing the truth, my parents were filled with remorse, genuine remorse, Aman. My father wanted to make the wrong right. We all tried to find you. My father tried very hard to find you, believe me, Aman. But you’ve all left your place. No whereabouts, no clues. And it’s not that we gave up. No, but another adversity arose. Dad had been suffering from numerous ailments. One night a brain Hemorrhage struck him. He went into coma for months before…before he left us….
Aman kept listening painstakingly, absorbing the truth that had been veiled from him for so long. Despite the anger, he felt sorrier for Mr. Deb who indeed had been a fatherly figure, no matter what his faults and flaws were.
Manas resumed, “I moved here in Guwahati and moved on with life. We all do. Don’t we? Time may heal the pains of one’s body but cannot heal the pains of one’s heart. I never forgot you completely. There are times when I still recall my past, thinking about you, about my friend who was honest, true from heart, caring; of happy memories we shared, of how you made a hand-made painting of me on my birthday, thinking where you might be, and, of course thinking about the grudge you must be harboring against us, of how would I muster the courage to tell the hidden truth if we happen to meet…and here we are, meeting in the most unlikely of circumstances.”
Though Aman knew that the truth did not matter anymore as so many years have passed, yet, he felt relieved in knowing that the criminals had been caught, Mr. Deb and his family had realized that the gardener, Aman’s father, had not been a thief.
“Needless to say, your parents and you suffered, I don’t deny,” Manas said earnestly, “Perhaps because of us or; it’s true, that your father Mr. Das was truly a genuine and honest person; we all realized this…but-but I don’t understand, Aman,” Manas looked at him curiously and sounded disappointed, “why have you chosen the wrong path? Everyone has their share of troubles. Choosing the wrong way does us no good. I have least expected of you to become like this, Aman. What your father would have thought? His son – a thief…”
Manas’s words unsettled Aman. His father had been so honest, carrying a self respect despite carrying the false stigma of a thief. And he, Aman, a thief, a real thief. Guilt gnawed inside him along with a sense of defensiveness. What Manas said might be right? But Manas didn’t have any inkling of an idea about the sufferings he and his poor family had endured. What other way did he have?
“I’m the only bread earner of my family!” Aman reacted defensively, “You- you standing there –with all the riches – you don’t have any idea how pitiable we are! My family- my wife, my daughter – are no better than rats; spending days, nights without any bite of food, any drop to drink, living like scum! What other way do I have? You can’t think –
“Poor, pitiable, deprived? Eh?” Manas interjected pointing a finger at him, “You say I don’t have any idea how you live? You think we are rich and as happy as Gods! You think what only matters in this world is money? Look at her, my wife, Meena,” Manas pointed, “She’s paralyzed from waist to bottom, suffering from Paraplegic Paralysis…despite every world class treatment, despite spending my riches, her condition is worsening…and even if that’s not enough for you then listen… ” Manas voice shook with pain and his eyes burned with tears, “Do you know where are our child is?” Manas asked, his voice freighted with heartbreaking longing and despair, “Do you know…”
“Manas…” Meena warned, taking his hand and squeezing it with supplication.
“He needs to know how rich we are!” Manas protested, then taking a deep breath, spoke, “We had a beautiful boy, Mridul, who –who – ” Manas choked. Aman thought he knew what was coming.
“ – who – who died at the age of two! A hole in his heart; doctors couldn’t save him, our money couldn’t save him…” Manas voice trailed away as tears streamed from his eyes and he looked away, lost in thought…
Aman felt his anger abating away only to be replaced by the mixture of embarrassment and pity. He opened his mouth to speak, to console, but no words came out as if he had seemingly lost the ability to express sympathy for others. He realized he had been so engrossed in his own troubles that he was blind to others’ grief. He had always thought of his troubles as enormous curse of fate. How foolish he had been! Hearing Manas’s plight and tragedy, his own difficulty somehow seemed small, unimportant…
“And yet you claim you are poor,” Manas continued, taking off his glasses and wiping off his eyes with his hands. “You have a wife and a child to look after. You have a family, whole and beautiful. Money is just a matter of time. You have a reason to work hard and earn. The reason is your family. Yes, your family! And, I – despite all the possessions and properties, I am alone, my family shattered, we cannot beget any child, I do not have reason to work toward, to live…and yet you say I am Rich?”
Aman had no answer. He had viewed his family as a burden, weighing down upon him, crushing him like a curse. But Manas’s words seemed etch a different perspective, an outlook he had been hitherto blinded to. For the first time, Aman felt his family was a pedestal supporting his own weight, the base upon which he stood; no matter how dark the times would be, the pedestal, his family would indeed the reason for his livelihood, for his happiness.
He thought about his wife – no matter how much they quarreled, how much he beat her or insulted her; she still remained at his side, supportive, loving, like a thread knitting the beads of family. He thought about his child, the beautiful, adorable daughter – wonderful, full of life, a bundle of joy, deserving every sort of love. How could he regard them as a burden? They couldn’t be. He was woefully wrong.
“Manas always talked highly of you Aman,” Meena broke the silence, “He holds you in high esteem,” she hesitated for a moment then said, “Wait, let me bring something,” she went off inside a room and within a minute came back, holding an old frame of a photograph and showed. Aman stepped forwards for a better view. He couldn’t believe. His eyes must be deceiving him. But it was real. An overwhelming sense of awe and nostalgia rushed inside him…
It was the handmade sketch of Manas that Aman had so lovingly drawn and gifted to him on his birthday nearly thirty years back. My best buddy was scribbled below the photo. To see this photo, that had stood the test of time, that had been so carefully preserved by Manas as a testimony to their friendship was much more than any treasure Aman could think of. Aman felt disarmed. A void, an emptiness which he had felt throughout his life seemed to fill in like a flower blooming into its beautiful wholeness…
Tears rolled from Aman’s eyes but he did not fight them back; he let them flow, his head bowed, unable to look up.
Manas slowly walked towards Aman and placed his hand cautiously on his shoulder.
“Let us forget the past, Aman,” Manas said in a low voice, “The past always haunts us and hold us back…throw off your anger, your bitter memories and cherish what you have. Become the person I always thought of you to become. I believe, Aman, I really do believe it’s not a coincidence that we met; take that as a good sign of fate…perhaps the destiny wanted us to meet like this for our own good.”
Aman looked up. Both friends gazed into each other’s eyes, trying look beyond the façade of differences, trying to re-knit the thread that had broken, and then without meaning to, without any preamble, both friends found themselves in an embrace, crying into each other’s arms, like lost brothers reunited, the inexpressible warmth of belongingness flowing within their hearts for each of them had found their lost treasure, their friendship; Meena, too, crying silently and beaming…
“I am sorry. Forgive me for thieving…I shouldn’t have…how foolish I am…I deserve to be jailed…” Aman said, taking out from his sack the gold coins, the necklace and other valuables that he had stolen and putting them on the table.
“We are all thieves, Aman,” Manas said, “Some rob money, some harm others and steal their joy, sometimes even life has a cruel sense of humor stealing our loved ones. Isn’t it? And sometimes, we steal our own happiness by our own deeds…” Manas picked the coins and the necklace from the table “You take these,” Manas offered them back into Aman’s hands.
“No, no, no…I can’t…I promise I won’t be doing any thefts. You’ve opened my eyes,”
“Take these, please, you need them…”
“No, I can’t…I must go,”
“Now there you are!” Manas joked, “You don’t mind robbing but you do mind when I am giving these on my own,”
Aman grinned shiftily, “Yeah, pretty good reason for not lying to my wife! I can tell her you gave these to me. Not that she would believe me!”
Manas chuckled, “Take it –
“I ain’t taking these…” Aman said firmly, “And I promise you, my friend, I’ll work hard and earn. You take care of her,” he nodded to Meena,
Manas patted Aman appreciatively.
“Now, I must go…” Aman said turning towards the kitchen from where he had broken into, but Manas raised his hand, “Not from there,” he said, “You might have come from the wrong path, but you’ll use the right one now!” Manas then led Aman to the exit door and opened it.
“Thank you,” Aman nodded, “And speaking of the right path, you better have your kitchen window repaired. You know, every thief can’t turn as your old friend!”
Manas and Meena laughed.
“Goodbye, Manas…will meet you soon enough, I promise.” Aman said solemnly.
“Goodbye…Aman,” Manas said. Meena nodded, smiling.
Aman, with a last glance at them, turned his back and walked away. He did not look back. Feeling oddly relieved and cheerful, he gazed up. The sky above had turned into pleasant, pearly silver with a patch of rosy red where the sun was about to rise. A group of birds on a nearby tree unfurled their wings and took off in the air, into the limitless sky, towards the rising sun, chirruping merrily, greeting the beginning of dawn, of morning, of a new journey…