This story is selected as Editor’s Choice
The Pebble, round and smooth, waits expectantly.
The Pond, serene and tranquil, smiles nonchalantly.
The Ripple, crafty and inimical, hides slyly.
And then …
The pebble begins to plummet.
Satyanarayana replaced the receiver on the cradle and waited.
Quarter of an hour later Kartik entered the house with a bagful of groceries.
“I received a call from Rajan,” Satyanarayana said matter-of-factly to his son. Rajan was the owner of the store from where their family purchased groceries for over a decade.
Kartik placed the bag on the dining table and stood in front of his father obediently.
“He said you created quite a scene at the store.”
Kartik remained silent.
“Well, do you have an explanation?”
Kartik spoke politely and with respect, “His worker was cheating a customer at the weighing scales. I complained to Rajan but he supported his worker. There was an argument.”
“How does it concern you?”
“You made your purchase. Your job was finished. You should have returned.”
“You shouldn’t have interfered in someone else’s affairs. Now, Rajan has threatened to stop giving credit to us.”
“Dad, if he is cheating one, he is cheating others, including us.”
“Listen, Kartik, with great difficulty I could convince Rajan to continue our credit account. I am telling you for the last time. Stop interfering in matters that do not concern you.”
Kartik was speaking to an empty room.
Keertana was hurrying towards the bus stand in the evening after her college. It was past six o’clock.
Silence engulfed the house.
“Are you the self-appointed messiah of the oppressed?” Satyanarayana shouted.
“Never said that, dad.” There was a tinge of defiance in Kartik’s reply.
“See his nerve! You have pampered and spoilt him, Kamu.” Satyanarayana turned his ire towards his helpless wife, Kameswari, who kept quiet, as usual.
“Dad, you have an issue with me. Why do you attack mom?”
“Can’t you guys discuss anything peacefully like normal persons?” Keertana tried to intervene between her father and her brother.
“He always gets into some trouble or the other. This time it has gone to the police…”
Kartik interrupted his father.
“Dad, what happened was, Altaf refused to let one of Virender’s friends copy from his answer paper. Virender and his friends were bullying and thrashing Altaf in the college playground. Virender thinks he is a big leader. I just couldn’t silently pass by as if nothing happened. I intervened. There were arguments, which led to blows. Someone called the police.”
Kartik’s lips were swollen. The surgeon at the hospital had to put two stitches on the gash on Kartik’s cheek. There were other blue-black injuries on the face and stomach.
“Is all this required? How were you connected with what was happening to that boy? Why do you always get involved in matters that do not concern you?” Satyanarayana was screaming.
“Dad, an innocent fellow was being beaten up in front of my eyes and you ask how I am concerned!”
“Daily, dozens of such incidents occur. Can you stop them all?”
“What will happen to the world if everyone thinks like that, dad? Tell me, what you would do if it was I in place of Altaf.”
“That argument is irrelevant, Karti. We cannot change the world or the way it is. The boy, Virender, whom you beat up, is the only son of a business tycoon with powerful political connections. You tell me, what you will do if they target you, your mother, your sister, or me. It can have serious repercussions, son.”
“Dad, if everybody thinks like you, the society will collapse. These are not isolated incidents. They don’t affect only the victim. In the end, they affect the entire society. Apathy can have serious repercussions, too.”
“With great difficulty, the police inspector let you go. I was virtually on my knees, begging for mercy.”
The argument raged for a few hours and ended without achieving any result.
Keertana was waiting at the bus stand with a couple of her friends when she saw a black coloured SUV glide fast towards the bus stand.
“You are incorrigible, Kartik,” Satyanarayana shouted at his son.
Kartik remained silent. His clothes were torn and dirt stained. His cheeks were swollen, lips were gashed, and face was all flushed.
“What is it today, Karti?” Kameswari asked gently while cleaning the blood from his face with her pallu.
“Go on, pamper him and spoil him.” The father was all angry sarcasm.
“Keerti, take him inside and apply Dettol.”
Keertana virtually dragged her defiant brother to his room.
“Why can’t you be gentle and understanding with him? What is it today?” Kameswari asked her husband.
“He got into a brawl with some ruffians, who were teasing a girl in the bus. As usual, our hero poked his nose where he had no business.”
“Was he wrong?”
“It is not a question of right or wrong, Kamu, but a question of practicality and survival. We cannot survive if we interfere in matters that do not concern us.”
“What if it happened to us and people pass by, without lifting a finger to help?”
“That’s my point, Kamu. When we are in trouble, nobody will help us.”
Satyanarayana and Kameswari were startled to hear their son speak suddenly.
“That’s my point, too, dad. We are all living like islands. If only we stand up to these ills, it could become a better place to live in. It is a symbiotic society, dad, we help others, others help us. ”
Keertana was startled when the SUV halted beside her. The rear hatch door of the vehicle burst open and…
“It’s your turn now! What has become of you and your brother? Your father is right. You shouldn’t meddle in matters that don’t concern you.” Kameswari was livid with Keertana.
“Mom, no need to get worked up.” Keertana tried to placate her mother.
“Listen to her! She slaps a boy on the road and it is no matter to get worked up!”
“She did the right thing, mom,” Kartik came to the support of his sister.
“Slapping a boy…she’s a girl, for God’s sake…”
“He was unashamedly teasing girls, with vulgar language and obscene gestures. Someone had to teach him a lesson,” Keertana defended herself.
“Does that someone have to be you?”
The clash between ideology and pragmatism proved to be an exercise in futility, yet again.
… three men jumped out and dragged Keertana inside the idling vehicle. The SUV sped away, while the others watched in shock.
Kartik lifted the receiver of the landline and said, “Hello.”
He listened to the person at the other end for fifteen minutes. When he replaced the receiver on its cradle, his face was pallid.
“Who was it, Kartik?” Satyanarayana and Kameswari asked their son anxiously.
“It was Police Inspector Salim. We must go to the General Hospital immediately.”
Alarmed, both of them asked in unison, “What happened?”
Kartik was silent for a few moments.
“It is about Keerti…”
Inspector Salim’s face bore a sombre expression while he spoke.
“… I am sorry for your loss … Eyewitness accounts … We believe that at least four men are involved … Around 6 p.m. … She was standing at the bus stand … With a few of her friends … A black coloured SUV halted beside her … Three men came out from the rear side … They dragged her into the vehicle and drove away … Fourth man drove the SUV … two hours later … Her body was found on the footpath a few kilometres away … ”
“Was…was…was she…?” Kameswari could not complete the question.
Sub-Inspector Nancy answered, “The autopsy will reveal the details, but all the signs indicate a gang rape and strangulation. With the help of the eyewitnesses, we are trying to prepare sketches of the four men. We will leave no stone unturned in our investigation. Once again, we are very sorry for your loss.”
After two days …
While the press, TV channels, and women’s fora were shouting themselves hoarse, the police did not make any headway in the case, not that they failed in collecting evidence but that the eyewitnesses, after initial cooperation, reneged.
Satyanarayana and Kartik dragged their feet back to their home.
“What happened, Karti? What do the police say? Have they arrested anyone?” Kameswari inquired.
Satyanarayana sat silently in the sofa with his eyes shut.
Kartik shook his head as he replied his anxious mother. “No, mom, they haven’t arrested anyone.”
“Why? They said there were some eyewitnesses.”
“There are two classmates of Keerti, who witnessed the entire crime, Naina and Razia. They say that one of the abductors is Virender, but they have now refused to get involved. Off the record the police are saying that they may have received threatening calls.”
Kameswari started weeping silently.
A few moments later, she said to her husband, “Can’t we appeal to the parents of the two girls? They may relent and allow their daughters to help.”
“Yeah, I’ll do that. Karti, do you have the addresses of the two girls?”
‘We are extremely sorry about your daughter, Mr. Satyanarayana, but we cannot get involved. It is a question of our own daughter’s safety, you see. We are helpless and please don’t come back again asking for our help.’
The reply of Naina’s father was still echoing in his ears even as he rang the doorbell of Razia’s house.
Half-an-hour’s discussion, beseeching, pleading, and begging did not have even an iota of effect on Mr. Sultan Ahmad, Razia’s father. An utterly disappointed and despondent Satyanarayana got up to leave. At the door, he halted, turned and addressed Sultan Ahmad for the last time.
“My son, Kartik, is right, Mr. Ahmad. I was living like an island, unconnected and unconcerned about others. All that I wanted was the safety of my family. Little did I realise that my family and I are inextricably interwoven in the fabric of our society. We are but a droplet, a speck of a large pond called the society. A pebble dropped at any spot of the pond creates ripples that reach all corners of the pond, not just that particular spot. I adamantly refused to come to the help of needy people on the pretext that it didn’t concern me. I always reprimanded, no, cursed my son. I was wrong. I realised it only now, when I am affected. You are committing the same mistake as I did.” He paused. “I am sorry I took so much of your valuable time.”
With its doors shut and all the lights switched off, the study was dark and dismal. Satyanarayana was sitting in a reclining chair in his study, stretching his feet on a small footstool. He was lost in deep thought and silent solitude.
The landline rang shrilly. Satyanarayana got up and went into the drawing room.
Kameswari was lying on the sofa, weeping silently, holding Keertana’s photograph in her hands.
“Hello, Satyanarayana speaking.”
“Inspector Salim here. Can you come to the police station, Mr. Satyanarayana?”
“Of what use is it Inspector? My daughter will not get justice…” Inspector Salim interrupted him.
“Sir, I have no time for this. There has been a development. I need you to come to the police station immediately. Thanks.”
Satyanarayana and Kartik entered the police station, which was abuzz with activity. They rushed into the small chamber of Inspector Salim. In addition to him, there were Sub-Inspector Nancy, the official Writer of the station and two more people in the chamber. It took a few moments for the father-son duo to recognise the two strangers.
Sultan Ahmad and Razia!
“Inspector, you wanted me to come immediately. What is the matter?”
“This is the matter, Mr. Satyanarayana. I believe you’ve met Mr. Ahmad and Ms. Razia.”
“Huh … yes,” Satyanarayana said hesitantly.
“Ms. Razia has consented to depose as the eyewitness in the case. She has already given her statement.”
Satyanarayana’s jaw dropped an inch. He looked at Razia and Sultan Ahmad alternately. Suddenly, he realised that Kartik was hugging him and weeping openly.
Sultan Ahmad said to his daughter, “Tell him in your own words, dear.”
Everybody stared expectantly at a tearful Razia.
“Uncle, I am sorry for what happened when you came to our house. Keerti was like a sister to me. That such a thing happened to her is unthinkable. I can’t believe that I’ll see her no more. Virender frequently visits our college and teases girls with foul language and obscene gestures. We complained to the principal, who reported the matter to the police on several occasions but no action was taken. I guess his father is a big shot. After you left, I seriously discussed the matter with papa. As you know, he was dead against my getting involved in the case. I am glad I could convince him in the end.” Razia looked fondly at her father.
Sultan Ahmad put an arm across Satyanarayana’s shoulders and said, “I owe you an apology, sir. I guess I behaved like a frightened parent, whereas I should have behaved like a socially responsible citizen. I am afraid all of us are concerned for the safety of our children and, out of that concern, forget the fact that it could be our own children someday. The arguments with my daughter could not convince the father in me. What clinched her argument was her simple question, in fact, two questions. She asked me, ‘Papa, what would you have done if it was me whom Virender abducted?’ and then she went on to ask, ‘When we finally depart from this world, what will we say to Allah?’ I had no answers. I realised the great sin I was about to commit. I called Inspector Salim and informed him of our decision.”
Satyanarayana listened to the father and daughter speechlessly. He hugged Sultan Ahmad and wept like a child.
“Thank you, Mr. Ahmad and Ms. Razia. I don’t know what else to say.” Satyanarayana paused. “I owe an apology, too, Mr. Ahmad, to my son.”
He kissed Kartik on the forehead and hugged him.
“Your daughter will have justice, now, Mr. Satyanarayana,” said Inspector Salim.
After awarding death sentence to Virender and life imprisonment to his three associates, Judge Gonsalves made a special mention of Razia as an obiter dictum.
“ … This court heartily commends the exceptional courage displayed by Ms. Razia in coming forward to depose before the court. This court wishes every member of our society would exhibit the same degree of social consciousness, righteousness, and sense of responsibility and recommends to the State Government to reward Ms. Razia suitably … ”
Satyanarayana knelt beside the man, who lay on the road, knocked down by a speeding car. The man was barely conscious.
“Sir, I’m taking you to the hospital. Stay with me, don’t give up, stay with me.”
An onlooker offered free counsel to Satyanarayana, “What are you doing, sir? This is a hit-and-run case. The man could die. It will be a police case. You’ll be in trouble. It doesn’t concern you.”
Satyanarayana glowered at him and hailed a passing autorickshaw. With the help of the autorickshaw driver, he loaded the injured man in the vehicle and got into the vehicle himself.
With the injured man’s head in his lap he shouted, “General Hospital, quick.”
Someone else … somewhere else … to someone else …
“Don’t get involved in matters that do not concern you…”
The universal escapist axiom reverberates in space.
By Shyam Sundar Bulusu