Rao got into the lift and pressed the button for floor housing the hospital’s Intensive Care Unit.
The young man had signed on with a national-level magazine, and he had been given his first assignment: to write a story based on an interview with a contract-labourer from Orissa who had been arrested for murder. Five days ago, in front of 20 people, Balsab had killed a bank guard. In the ensuing scuffle, Balsab had been attacked by the on-lookers, and so badly had he been assaulted that he sustained grievous injuries to his skull and kidneys, necessitating ICU admission. He had been spiraling in and out of consciousness since but was now coherent. As soon as he was fit to travel, a police team would arrive to take him away.
This story had been Rao’s suggestion, citing a ‘human interest’ angle, but he had a feeling the editor had not been too pleased about the idea: some labourer stuck in a hospital and whose future looked like a life in prison? Who would want to read a story about that?
Asking at the nurse station, he found the location of the ICU. The policeman on duty outside the ICU did not look happy to see a reporter. It required all of Rao’s skills of persuasion to be allowed inside the sterile environs to see the prisoner.
Once inside the cold room, Rao went to the bed. It was the bed nearest the main doors, probably so the cop could keep an eye from time to time. He found a metal stool and placed it quietly at the side of the bed. On it was the labourer. He was staring up at the ceiling. His eyes were motionless, even lifeless, thought Rao. His face was gaunt and covered with white bristles. Rao was surprised: Balsab certainly didn’t look the rough type. He shook his head. It just went to show that one could never tell…
Rao caught sight of the policeman peering through the glass window at him. The cop had said that Balsab had not uttered a single word since regaining consciousness, not even to the nursing staff. He leaned forward, careful not to get too close to the prisoner. “Balsab, I am a reporter from a magazine. I am here to hear and tell the world your side of the story.” There was no reaction. “I want to hear from you directly what happened on that day. The others have all told their stories. Only your version remains to be heard.”
To his surprise, the other made no move, not even a sign to indicate that he had heard the reporter’s words. Rao shook his head. “I don’t understand why you are keeping silent on this issue. It is a very serious matter. A man has died, at your hands. In a few days when you are well enough, the police will take you away. For what you did, do you think you will receive gentle treatment at their hands? Your only chance at escaping a harsh penalty is for you to talk, to tell the entire chain of events that lead to the guard’s death. It might be the only chance you get.”
This made Balsab turn his head somewhat. “What makes you think I want to escape my punishment? For what I did, I deserve to die – nothing less.”
His words stunned Rao. Whatever he had expected, it was certainly not this: a direct, unconditional admission of guilt. He found himself also taken aback by the man’s lack of anger when he spoke; his attitude appeared almost resigned. Rao was suddenly curious to know more.
“Still, I want to know what happened.” Rao spoke gently. “You have spoken to no one since you recovered. What would it hurt if you told me the whole story, why you feel you had to take another man’s life. Do this, if not for yourself, so that I can tell the story and so that it can never happen again.”
Perhaps that persuaded Balsab and he began to tell his tale. He had a wife, eight months pregnant. She kept house for him while he worked at a construction site. From Orissa, they had no relatives and they had come here only six months prior. A week back, his wife developed a high fever. He rushed her to the ‘big hospital’ where she was admitted. Her condition was bad and costly medicines were needed. Balsab didn’t have the money to buy them, so he took what valuables he had to his employer, for an advance against his salary. In return, he pledged his valuables. The employer, named Patel, gave him a self-check as he had no ready cash. Balsab rushed to the bank with the check for two thousand rupees. When he reached the cash counter, he was in for a shock: Patel’s bank account didn’t have enough balance to cover the check.
Balsab didn’t know what to do. He had to buy the drugs without delay. As he hesitated, the cashier told him to move on as other customers were waiting in the queue behind him. In desperation, Balsab thrust the check at her and begged her to call Patel. She refused and told him to leave. Looking through the glass panel, Balsab could see bundles of currency notes stacked up several levels high. He was filled with a sense of helplessness. All that money so close by and he needed just a bit of it…
He went around the counter, his intention to explain about his wife’s medical condition. The cashier saw him coming and when he put a hand on the door to her cabin, she must have assumed the worst. She jumped to her feet and shouted for help.
The branch security guard was seated hear the entrance when he heard the employee’s shout. His lathi was propped against the doorway and he grabbed it and ran to intercept Balsab. When he reached the cabin, the labourer was already halfway in, gesticulating with his hands as he tried to reason with the cashier.
He began hitting the labourer from behind. The blows were hard, intended to maim rather than intimidate. Balsab lost control completely; the rage that had been building at his predicament roared up like a beast and he swiveled on the elderly guard and felled him with one thrust. Before he realized what was happening, he had pounced on the figure on the floor and strangled him with only his hands. Then he was attacked by the staff of the bank. He remembered only the punches and the kicks, raining down all over him, striking his unprotected face, abdomen and his chest.
And he had only just recovered consciousness, thought Rao grimly. If his wife’s condition had been as bad as he had described in his story, then Balsab must have assumed the worst: that without the medicines, both mother and unborn child were now dead. It was no wonder then that he had spoken to no one after regaining consciousness, and that he now looked and behaved as though he had lost all will to live.
When Rao stepped out of the ICU, he was deep in thought. The labourer had said his wife had been admitted at the ‘big hospital’ and there was only one ‘big hospital’ in the entire state and this was it.
His enquiries directed him to the general medicine ward where he found that the wife had died two days ago. An autopsy had been done and the bodies of the wife and of the unborn infant were now in the morgue.
The reporter debated on what to do next. His credentials had opened a lot of doors so far. Why not try one more? He got into his car and drove to the police station. He was there inside ten minutes and in the next ten he had the address he was after.
It was almost noon when he stopped at the residence of Patel, the employer of Balsab. He knocked and showed his credentials to the weary-looking man who answered the door of the small apartment. “Why?” asked Rao, quietly. “Why did you give him a check you knew would not be honoured?”
But it was not Patel who answered. It was his wife who had come silently behind him. “it was a mistake on our part. On my part.” She murmured and the look on her face was one of pain. The husband put his arm around her. “The trinkets that Balsab gave us as collateral were worth only a few hundred. He needed at least a thousand rupees for the medicines. But when I heard of his wife’s plight, I urged my husband to write a check for a larger amount.” Tears ran down her cheeks. “We never realized the account didn’t have that amount.” Her husband drew her close. “It was only meant as an act of kindness…”
After that Rao went straight to his editor and when he had finished speaking, his editor stared at him for a long while. Finally he said: “what do you want to do?” Rao told him. The editor thought about it for a whole minute and then he nodded in agreement. “Fine. If you can come up with a feature running three thousand words and supporting photographs, I’ll see if it’s good enough to run as our lead story this week.”
The issue hit the streets five days later and as word spread, copies were lapped up. Within days, the magazine went in for a second print run, going on to sell more copies than they had in the last ten months combined. The story spellbound the public. Rao had woven a tale with incredible narrative prowess, using photos of the dead guard, the labourer in the ICU, and a photograph of Balsab and his wife that he had found in the belongings with the police. Rao had presented only the facts, leaving the readers to draw their own conclusions. But from the response of the public it was clear the story had generated enormous sympathy for Balsab.
Within days the story was picked up by local papers and the national press. Offers poured in for Rao from magazines whose editors had been impressed by his skills. The phones at the magazine office rang non-stop, mostly enquiries about Balsab’s condition and fate. One was from an anonymous caller. He said: “I was at the branch when it happened. I saw how viciously the guard reacted and how he beat him, but there was no time then but to think anything but that Balsab was guilty. But now after reading your story, I am saddened beyond words. I could never have imagined…” two prominent lawyers came forward announcing their readiness to fight Balsab’s case in court.
Alongside the cover story was a related feature about the murdered guard. Rao had dug into his past ad found he had a murky history. A bachelor, he had been dishonorably discharged from the Army for violent behavior, and later found employment with a security outfit looking for retired armed forces personnel. From bank staff – some of whom became very forthcoming when they heard the story of the labourer from Rao – the reporter learned that even at the branch where he worked, the guard was sometimes considered more a menace than a safeguard. He had occasionally reported for duty smelling of spirits and once had almost come to blows with a customer over some minor matter.
Twelve days after Rao first met the labourer, Balsab died in the ICU.
He was cremated along with his wife and unborn son a day later. The entire staff of the magazine was there at the site. A few of the well-wishers stopped to thank Rao for bringing out the truth. A lady went up to Rao, her eyes red. She was the cashier the day of the incident. “I’m so, so sorry. If I had not shouted, none of this would have happened…”
They watched her leave, weighed down with a load from which she might never fully recover. “What a waste!” sighed Rao, shaking his head. “Four lives gone – all because of a stupid misunderstanding.”
The editor shrugged. “Be an optimist, Rao. Think of what your story did: it united our public like very few things recently have managed to do. It helped bring out our common humanity. I’m an eternal pessimist – but after seeing the manner in which our public responded to this incident, I may have to reconsider that position. I had no idea that people still remembered how to care for strangers.” From the corner of his eye he saw the hint of a smile on Rao’s face. Something struck him then. “You specifically wanted this assignment. Why?”
Rao lowered his eyes. “I come from a poor family. My parents were farmers in a village you probably never heard of. They worked hours you would not have thought humanly possible, to give me a future that they could only have dreamt about for themselves.” His eyes were glistening now. “When I was in college, my father was hit by a car. Because he was just an old villager he was ignored and when he was finally taken to casualty, no one was ready to donate blood, possibly because no one thought it would be worth the effort for someone from the lowest possible rungs of society.” He looked up at the last of the smoke on the pyre. “I only wanted to reach out.”