This short story became SPIXer (Most popular story) on 05 Apr 2014 and won INR 500
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice
He sits by the hot, metal chairs placed near the bus stop. The sun is harsh. Not far away, a short, muscled man attends to a sugarcane juice stall. His throat yearns as he sees iced juice sold in small plastic cups. Opposite to the juice stall, an old man sells pretty frocks. Bad memories come back to him. His collar feels tight, half from the stuffy atmosphere, half from the task he is set to do. His dagger is well hidden, tucked in the inside pocket of his kurta. He is about to commit murder.
He takes in his surroundings. The street is busy as always, with hawkers screaming at the top of their voices to sell their wares, pedestrians not giving them a second look, rushing with anxious expressions on their faces. His victim has not arrived yet. He keeps looking at the entrance to the subway across the road. Any time, now. The cacophony of voices is punctuated by sharp honks from the vehicles on the bridge above, an assortment of cars and bikes speeding away. He pats the side of his stomach, and the tell-tale hardness of the dagger’s handle gives him strength.
He taps his fingers on his thigh, a never ending beat which reverberates in his ears, long after his fingers come to rest. He hears the soft twinkle of anklets. He whips his head to find the source, hoping against hope it would be her. But the fates laugh at him. A small girl, no more than five years old walks along the footpath, her hand firmly clasped in her mother’s as she looks on curiously, fascinated by the montage of shops set up by the side of the road. He sighs softly.
‘She’s dead,’ he reminds himself. ‘And I’m going to kill the person responsible.’
His eyes move over to the subway entrance again, waiting for the man to show his face. The man they called Shaitaan. Devil, it meant. He was a large man, almost wide as he was tall. His face was bloated, with small, cruel eyes and yellow-stained teeth. He would come up the steps in a moment. His paunch stretched over his white kurta was hard to miss. He terrorized the neighbourhood, asking the shopkeepers for his daily loot and whipping them if they refused to oblige. He was usually surrounded by his army of ruffians. But not today. Today was the end of the month. He would be alone, looking for a man to beat, or a woman to bed.
His heart begins to beat faster, as his time of reckoning dawns nearer. He grips the handle of the knife harder, his palm hurting from the effort. He casts his mind around to think of something else, but only one comes to mind. The same event has been running in his mind for a week. His heart pangs as he remembers it, but his mind does not let him forget. It never will.
He picks up a small yellow frock from the collection the shopkeeper holds. The sugarcane crusher grinds slowly behind them as the seller collects its juice.
‘Think this is pretty for the baby?’ he asks his wife. She smiles at him. It seems to light up the entire street. She loves it, but pretends to examine it all the same. Her anklets jingle as she walks.
‘Oh, so you’re sure it’s a girl?’ she asks, patting her belly. She is about six months pregnant.
‘Of course I am,’ he says, laughing. ‘She’ll be as beautiful as her mother.’
She smiles again, shaking her head and laughing. ‘She is so beautiful,’ he thinks.
The shopkeeper is an old man with a weather beaten face. He wears a small smile as he chews paan, seeing the love the couple have for each other. ‘Shall I pack it then, sir?’ he asks the man.
He looks at his wife. They both love it. He is just about to nod, when a heavy hand falls on his shoulder. He turns around, and stares into the eyes of the devil himself. But the devil does not look at him. He only has eyes for the man’s wife. The devil leers at her, his eyes flashing. Heart beating wildly, he grabs his wife’s hand and tries to make his way home. But his way is blocked by three other men. One carries a thick club.
A group of six men advance towards them. Sensing danger, he turns his head and tries to catch the eye of the shopkeepers. But none return his gaze. The old frock seller retreats into his shop. The sugarcane seller bows his head, his hands limp by his sides. The devil reaches his hand and tries to touch her. Fear turns into anger and the man lunges for the devil.
He manages to grip the front of his kurta and tears part of it off, but is met with a heavy blow to the back of his head. One of the thugs has hit him with the club. His wife screams. He falls to the ground, blood gushing from the wound. His wife tries to reach for him, but they carry her away. None of the shopkeepers move a muscle. They pin her down and begin to undress her. She fights wildly, but they are too much for her. The pain in his head is agonizing, but he tries to crawl towards her. He cannot scream, but only watch as they take turns with her, a pregnant woman, her screams echoing into the night The men laugh and jeer like animals. After a few minutes, his vision thankfully goes dark. The last thing he sees is her eyes, wide open and looking so, very dead.
He wakes up in the general hospital two days later. The local inspector visits his ward, a report in his hands. He gives it to the man to read. He is shocked by what the report says. His wife’s death is being reported as a truck accident. The woman (it said) was so busy talking on the phone that she failed to notice the truck coming her way. She was declared dead on the spot, along with her unborn baby.
Rage consumes him. He grabs the inspector’s collar and demands to know what is going on. The inspector hits him across the face and puts a gun to his head.
‘Forty-one murders have been committed on that street. All by Shaitaan bhai. All in broad daylight. Not one person came forth as a witness. This is Shaitaan bhai’s area. Better sign it or end up in the same state as your wife,’ he says, his finger on the trigger, his face wearing an ugly look.
He is just a common man, not a hero. He signs the fraud report. The inspector smiles and leaves. The world seems darker. The man lies down and cries.
A sudden cease of noise brings the man back to the present. He glances down the road. The devil has arrived. A busy street has been reduced to pin-drop silence. The devil crosses the road, walking slowly. He stops at each shop, demanding a share of their meagre wages. One shopkeeper pleads with him. The devil slaps the man across his face. He pushes the glass jars of biscuits and savouries down to the ground. They shatter instantly, the ground is filled with the savouries the shopkeeper has made pain-stakingly. He weeps and tries to gather them before they are covered in dust, but the devil stomps on his fingers. The shopkeeper yelps in pain and retreats. The devil laughs maliciously.
The man stands up, his hand reaching into his pocket and pulling the dagger out. It is short and deadly. The devil walks towards the sugarcane juice stall, his eyes on the currency notes in his hand, not looking at the road. The man’s heart beats wildly in his chest, and his legs tremble badly. Still, he walks forward, his eyes seeing nothing but the fat devil in front of him. They both stop in front of the sugarcane juice stall.
The devil looks up from counting the notes and registers the man’s face. He looks surprised. For whole seconds, they do nothing but look at each other. Then he recognises him. His eyes widen.
‘You…’ he says.
The man plunges the dagger into the devil’s large stomach, driving it as deep as it would go. The devil’s eyes bulge, his hand frozen in midair. The notes slip out of his grasp and flutter down into the ground, joining the biscuits and the snacks, covered in dust and grime. The devil gulps hard, taking a couple of steps backwards, as the man pulls the knife out again.
‘You…’ he manages again. The man stabs him another time, this time through the heart. He falls heavily on his back, his face twitching. His legs jerk once…twice…. The devil is no more.
The man’s heart is still beating wildly. His hands tremble. He looks at them and sees blood. He feels faint. Like in a movie, he hears police sirens. They grow louder by the second. He staggers backward, and falls to his knees. He has just murdered a man. He would be going to jail for the rest of his life. He stares at the ground, waiting for the police to arrive.
A hand clamps his shoulder. He glances up and looks into the face of the man who sells sugarcane juice. “Get up, they will be here soon.” he says.
The man just looks at him, not understanding. The grip tightens, but the juice seller’s voice is gentler this time.
“Quickly, sahib. Up.” He grips the man’s arm and lifts him up easily. The man gets unsteadily on to his feet. He looks around. Every single shopkeeper and hawker is out on the road. Some look at him. Others look at the blinking police lights getting closer. Some look at the corpse with unbelieving eyes.
“Go,” Says the man who owns the frocks. “Fast.” He says and gives the man a small push on his back. The man is bewildered. He stands his ground, looking from one stern to face to the other. Suddenly, hands grab at him, pulling him away from the dead body, and farther up the street, away from the police jeep.
Men, women and children block him from the car’s view, and others part to make way for him. A burka clad woman grabs an earthen pot filled with water. She pulls his hands towards her and pours the water on them, washing away the blood from his hands.
“You must not stand here.” She says in a hushed whisper. He has seen enough. He turns and walks briskly, reaching the end of the street. He spots a set of stairs which lead up to the bridge above. He begins climbing them, as a voice rings out,
“This is the police,” The man recognises it as the voice of the inspector who had come to visit him in the hospital. “ Speak up, you! Who did it?” Fear is visible in every syllable of his speech. “Who?!” he yells, looking at each person.
A lone man steps forward. It is the man who sells the frocks. He folds his hands in a salute.
“Inspector sahib,” he says. “There have been forty-one murders in this very street. A case has not been filed for even a single one of them. Do you know why?” he pauses and reaches for his side table. He picks up the paan he keeps and slips it into his mouth, chewing slowly. The silence is deafening.
“Why?” asks the inspector in a quiet voice.
The man smiles, his teeth now stained red. “No witnesses, sahib. Not one. The people of this street see nothing and know nothing.” He pats his hands on his trousers, cleaning them of the areca nut pieces.
“When forty-one murders have no witnesses, why should this be any different?” he says and returns to his shop. Each and every person turns and walks into their respective shops, leaving the inspector alone in the street, with only a corpse by his side.
The man watches the scene quietly, and resumes climbing the stairs. The sun is still harsh, its rays blinding. But there is a new ray among them. The ray of justice.
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