The Rebels shall rise. A young man, dressed as a civilian, thought as he stopped by the “Great Mall” situated near the main road in the Guwahati city. He casually glanced at his watch and a wry smile flitted across his lips. The ‘minute’ and the ‘hour’ hands had joined hands symbolizing Namaste, signaling 12-o-clock midnight, welcoming a new day that would sculpt a history, greeting the cause for which he and his comrades had been planning for so long…
The main road was deserted except for a few stray dogs and sleeping beggars. Light posts casting a yellow sheen mingled with the pale moonlight. The young man scanned the tall Mall building with a morbid look in his eyes. The Mall was empty. A guard was dozing off in his seat, carefree and untroubled, oblivious to his grim fate that could befall him.
Fools come to shop here! He swore internally, now they would come to plead for mercy! Twelve hours from now, precisely, their assiduously made plan would begin to blossom into reality; their rebellion would embark on a quest the world would remember for ages…His comrades were all geared up; their wherewithal all set, reconnaissance trips were over; now the Rebels waited for their retaliation, for their revenge…
The Rebels shall rise. He murmured with fanatic determination.
“Morning…honey…” Avantika Hazarika whispered lovingly in her husband’s ear as she sat on the side of the bed.
“Hmmm…” Kailash Hazarika mumbled in sleep, pulling the pillow cozily over his face, “five minutes more…”
“You can’t miss the gym every day, Kailash,” Avantika said, caressing Kailash’s curly hairs with her fingers.
“I can miss the Gym, darling…” Kailash yawned, “But –” he suddenly jolted up, pulled a flabbergasted Avantika close to himself, wrapping his arms around her waist, “But I can’t miss you, sweetheart!” Avantika laughed merrily leaning her head against his chest and said, “Still Romantic?”
“Why shouldn’t I be?”
“I am the mother of our five-year old child, I am ageing!”
“So what? I can’t find a mention in the laws of love that romance runs away with age!” Kailash justified jovially, stealing a swift kiss from her, “You’re so beautiful…”
“I am not pretty anymore,” Avantika complained playfully. “And, stop flattering…”
“Your wish-my command; you are absolutely right! You’re not “pretty”, Fine?” Kailash teased.
Avantika punched his chest in playful annoyance as she straightened up and looked into his eyes, pouting her lips, “When I say, I’m not pretty I was expecting you to say ‘You are prettier!’”
Kailash chuckled, “Women will be women,” They shared a laugh. Avantika, feeling a sudden pang of excitement, threw her arms around Kailash and kissed him affectionately on his lips, intensely and passionately, as Kailash’s strong arms caressed her back.
“Moooommy!” a child’s voice trilled outside the room, and they broke apart. Kailash smiled, “Here comes our tiny-tot!”
“Now, get ready, hubby,” Avantika stood up, “It’ Sunday, let’s plan a day out.”
“It’s Sunday for you, not me. Office for urgent work,” Kailash said, but added hastily as Avantika looked put-off, “But I’ll be free within hours. Let’s lunch outside and then go for a drive somewhere.”
“Okay…” Avantika smiled her approval, “your mommy coming, Babu!” she called as the kid again shouted.
Avantika scooped her son into her arms and swung him to and fro. Babu giggled happily, shouting with delight. After playing with him for some minutes, she cuddled him in a cozy cot, sang a lullaby and made him sleep. Kailash had breakfasted and left for office. Avantika had already resigned as a school teacher to spend full-time with her son. Babu was in a kid-school and despite Kailash’s urging that she could work part-time, she decided to stay full-time house wife for some years to give undivided attention to their lovely child.
I’m again late for my prayers; she reprimanded herself as she entered a small temple-room beside the kitchen. Reciting the ritualistic mantras, she offered her obeisance to the deities and prayed: “O’ lord, thank you for blessing us beautifully with health, wealth and happiness. O’ lord, guide us to the good path…”
Avantika had taken a self-vow not to neglect her rituals and prayers even for one day. Well, she was a woman believing in balanced view of life: contemporary thinking blended with values of culture and tradition. Her conduciveness to religion was not a childhood trait but rather a habit she had acquired when she had faced the ‘despairing downs’ of her life. She had learned to keep up equilibrium and adopt equanimity after going through the gruelling experience she had been subjected to.
It had been six years of married life: wonderful and lucid; she couldn’t have been happier with a wholesome family she had: her husband, Kailash, a lucky charm, loving and caring; their child, Babu, bundle of love and joy; her mother, living in a close by village, a constant source of inspiration (her father had passed away in her childhood); her in-laws living nearby, supportive and understanding.
Before marriage, however, her life was a roller coaster of tragic twists and turns. Avantika’s maiden name was Das. Misery and melancholy were her companions borne out of Das family’s troubles. The reason…well, the reason was ‘someone’ of her own bloodline; who was like a diseased branch infecting a beautiful tree. No matter how hard Avantika tried to forget her beleaguered past, to forget that ‘someone’, those murky memories confronted her when she was alone, thinking or introspecting. Some wounds were hard to heal…It had been her mother’s support and, after marriage, Kailash’s sanguine temperament that helped her steer out of dark times. This was perhaps the reason of her being a teacher. Before Babu’s birth, she taught English and social science at a private school and tutored them at home. Educating the youths and guiding them the right path instilled in her a sense of purpose. She also nurtured an ambition to open her own school one day.
Forget, forgive, forget, forgive… Avantika kept reciting this mantra in her mind, as she came out of the temple room and made her way to the kitchen. Auto-suggestion really calmed her nerves. Shunning aside such thoughts, she ate a light breakfast, and decided to go outside for some window shopping in the nearby mall.
Time to wake up my little Babu! Kailash would come in the mall for lunch, will go for drive, hmmm…a refreshing Sunday…Well, Avantika kept planning the day cheerfully; completely oblivious to the fact that fate was sculpting out an altogether different day for her.
“… Three-fifty rupees, ma’am …” said the cashier boy at the Great Mall counter.
“Mommy…not this…the big one…the big one!” Babu shouted wildly, jumping and pointing at a box of chocolates.
“No, beta, I bought you enough chocolates…harmful for your teeth…” Avantika admonished, paying the bill at the counter.
The Great Mall was situated by the suburban main road close to where they lived. Avantika generally shopped here as the Mall offered attractive discounts and offers mostly on Sundays.
Avantika glanced at her watch. Five minutes to noon. She dialed to Kailash.
Kailash…” Avantika called on her cell phone, “I’m in the Great Mall. Are you coming now?”
“Now? Hmmm…I’ll be free within half an hour…” Kailash sounded uncertain, “Hey! Why don’t you come to my office? We’ll go straight to the Food-plaza –
“No, no, no…” Avantika interrupted, “I didn’t bring my ‘Scooty’ with me; left it home. You come here, pronto, let’s lunch at the newly opened restaurant-Food Corner-everyone says it’s good-
“Hmmm…Okay, madam,” Kailash agreed, “But buy me some time. Okay, bye, bye…and buy our Babu a Big chocolate! Meet you soon…” Kailash hung up his cell.
She thought to take a walk around the mall; then suddenly realized she had two bags with her and left it on a cloth shop on the third floor. She quickly took the lift to the third floor.
“I must have left a bag here, bhaiya,” she said to the shopkeeper, a middle-aged looking bloke.
“Oh yes, ma’am,” he nodded with a smile, grabbing the bag from under the table.
Avantika smiled her thanks and turned.
Several events occurred in span of few seconds: A cracking sound echoed like a whip, a loud crash as window panes shattered followed by shouts of shoppers somewhere below.
“What-” Avantika whirled around for the source of commotion. Clutching Babu’s hand, she moved closer to the railing and looked down below. Someone might have fallen. But she didn’t get it why people were running –
Then, unmistakable bursts of bullets and horrible shouts of agony resounded through the mall –
Avantika staggered backwards, her bags falling from her hand, both hands clutching her son tightly…
Bang! Bang! Run, Run! No! NO! RUN!
It was pandemonium. Suddenly, people were running amok, here and there, colliding with others as shutters began to close, even as more terrible cries clamored from below….
Mind-numbing fear clutched at Avantika’s heart as she skittered her way through the maddening crowd as her son began to cry.
“Noooooooo!” she screeched as a huge man collided with her pushing her on the ground; Babu separated from her. Shouting and crying, she managed to get up and dashed for her son lest he trampled by the stampeding people…She scooped her wailing son even as her eyes followed where most of the people were sprinting – the emergency exit.
She raced along with the crowd to the exit door…hoping against hope for it seemed the only faintest chance of escape…
The emergency door blasted off its hinges.
“KNEEL!” a barbaric voice shouted over the din. A bullet boomed.
The crowd came to an abrupt halt. Avantika found herself kneeling down with others, huddling her son close to her heart.
Five men, tall and burly, donned in black from head to foot, wearing black masks, carrying lethal rifles, stormed in from the emergency exit. Needing no introduction or preamble, the terrorists –the insurgent group – surveyed the floor. Three of them immediately hurtled of to take their positions in staircases, and the two remained there.
God, help us; God save us…Avantika began to chant in her mind, her head bowed, her chin resting on her son’s head, not daring to look up. The world seemed to turn around…everything felt like a nightmarish dream. Never had she felt such paralyzing dread that could stop her heart any second….
She, like others, indeed knew about the Insurgent Clan branding themselves as “The Rebels”, having extreme bigotry-views, demanding undue privileges, independent sovereignty from the government. For years, they had been terrorizing the State with mass murders and cold-blooded killings to achieve their fanatical motives.
And, seeing them in front of your eyes, being held as a hostage by them, knowing that they had the cruel audacity and heartlessness to snatch away your life in a nanosecond was synonymous to fear being personified.
The insurgents started snatching off everyone’s cell phones and breaking them. Then, another bullet exploded, a man somewhere near Avantika let out a terrible scream followed by death gurgle. Appalled gasps, outrageous shouts filled in the air. Avantika looked from the corner of her eyes and saw the man, the very shopkeeper who had handed her the bag with a smile, laying still, blood oozing out from his chest. They had killed him for no reason.
“SILENCE!” screamed one of the black men.
Silence; a deafening silence that preceded an ominous storm… Unable to resist, Avantika began to sob. Others around, men and women, were too wiping their eyes, unable to control. Babu began to cry.
“Who’s this bad baby, eh?” The burly looking insurgent who had killed the shopkeeper spoke, walking close to Avantika, “Stop him, you gal!”
“Yes, Yes…please d-d-don’t sh-shoot…”Avantika pleaded, clasping her palm over her son’s mouth, mumbling words to calm Babu. But as Babu stopped crying, she felt a wave of nausea and thought she would faint. Before she could regain composure, she gave away and vomited all over the floor.
“Hey, you dirty wretch!” the insurgent swore, stepping backwards. “You mess on the earth! Will kill you – ” And he raised his rifle to aim once more…
“NO! No!” Avantika pleaded, wiping her mouth, waving her hands wildly.
“Wait! Alpha…” The taller second insurgent called, walking forth, “We need hostages, Alpha,” he whispered. “Remember our chief’s orders!”
“Yeah…Yeah…the orders…I know, Beta.” the insurgent-Alpha gabbled gruffly, then said to the room loudly, “Next lucky girl to die….this!” Alpha pointed to Avantika. “Let’s see if your government loves you or not! Ha, ha!”
The insurgent-Beta announced to everyone “This girl has thirty minutes to live!”
“We are the Rebels!” The insurgent-Alpha barked, “We’ll be killing one of you every half an hour if your coward Government doesn’t fulfill our demands! Our chief has communicated our demands…” Months ago, the Rebels had an infamous, anonymous leader called ‘The Lord’. The Government carried out a secret hunt mission and succeeded in killing the Lord that proved a serious blow to the Rebels. The masterminds of the operation were two retired CID officers and two political leaders. And, now the Rebels had an unusually morbid demand. It wasn’t a demand but rather, an attempt to avenge their leader’s killing. They wanted the Government to handover these four masterminds at the Mall so that the rebel group could kill them. After their revenge, as the Alpha told, they would surrender themselves to the Government. It was a highly unconvincing and weird demand which, if not catered to, would cost the hostages their life.
Avantika lay on the floor, crying silently, her chest pressed on the hard marble, feeling her heartbeat ticking away like a clock, like a time bomb, counting the minutes she had with her; thirty minutes and the precious life would be taken away unless the Government gave in to their demands or unless God did a miracle…If only she could have listened to Kailash and left the Mall; if only she could have not forgotten her bag…
She straightened up and reached for her Babu, hugging him as tightly as she could…People around her shot her glances full of pity, sympathy and also fear. Fear because if she died, another one among them would take up her place to greet death. It was like a Death Game with everyone waiting for their turn…
She looked at the insurgent named “Beta” who had stopped the “Alpha” just in time from shooting…That insurgent-Beta had spared her thirty minutes to life, delayed her death by thirty minutes. Was this generosity? Would she be grateful? Never! The idea revolted her, repulsed her…she felt a deep loathing for them, the inhuman monsters. Who were they to decide anyone’s fate? Who were they to choose who lived or who died? The sheer injustice rankled inside her…but what way did she have? The cruelty of fate seemed to laugh at her; Kailash, her son, her family…what would happen to them?
The enormity assailed over her and she felt a wave of overwhelming helplessness…she took a deep breath, closed her eyes and began to pray…
The two insurgents patrolled the floor, often hurling insults to hostages, kicking them, cracking sardine jokes. It seemed that the all the floors were occupied; the other insurgents (around twenty of them) had taken different positions through the mall; their whispered talking seemed to suggest that their attack had become a world-wide news, and the government was still struggling to give in their demands….
The insurgent-Beta, walked many times around Avantika, often stopping and glaring at her (he wore a black mask but the eyes did the talking), she knew not why. Every time he approached, she felt a thrill of foreboding, as if he wanted nothing more than to kill her, as if he was having second thoughts of why he had spared her thirty minutes…
Ten minutes flew by, her watch told and Avantika, feeling oddly fatigued thought sardonically if only she could stop the time by stopping her watch. The Beta man walked around the floor and again made his way towards her, stopped and glared down at her. What do you want? My life? Take it, you monster…I swear to haunt you in your dreams… she thought savagely. Strangely again, the Beta man walked away –
But even as he walked away, a chunk of folded paper fell on Avantika’s lap. No one had seemed to notice this. She wondered whether it fell casually or on purpose. Picking up the chunk, she unfolded it and read (a line had been scribbled in a very hurried manner):
Don’t panic. Do as I say. Ask to go to bathroom. DO IT. Eat it.
Intrigued, she read, reread for several times as questions thronged her mind. What the hell that meant? Why the Beta Man had given this to her? Don’t panic. Go to Bathroom. Was he helping her? Was he a spy of the good side? Is that the reason he had spared her thirty minutes? Or was there a deeper conspiracy she couldn’t think of. She eyed the last two words. Eat it. The Beta Man didn’t want anyone to know he had given this piece of mystique chunk. She slowly raised her head and looked around. The hostages were sitting silently. The Alpha was peeping outside from the gaps of a closed window. And the Beta…the Beta man, in the line of her vision, was gazing at her intently as if, she felt, signaling to do what he planned for her to do.
Driven by impulse, she quickly mouthed the paper and stomached it. Not because of trust; she couldn’t have an inkling of trust on him; but because of her own safety. But now what? She sat still, her mind was racing. Don’t panic…the words revolved in her mind…DO IT…he had capitalized them as an emphasis. She again looked up and found the Beta man throwing furtive glances at her. Take the risk, Avantika, Do it, Do it! Sheer intuition was urging her even as the skeptic mind forbade her from acting.
However, after fighting with this dilemma, she made up her mind, got up and said, “I…I…excuse me…” she called out loud to the two captors; the other hostages had their apprehensive eyes upon her, “Bathroom…please…”
“Going to die, thinking to pee first? Eh?” The Alpha sneered callously.
“Please…my son too wants to go…”
The Beta whispered something to Alpha who nodded.
“Any wrong move, you won’t have time to regret!” The Alpha warned and Beta beckoned her.
Avantika, with Babu at her side, walked across the floor’s empty space and stepped into a narrow corridor, the Beta man tailing behind her, his rifle raised. They walked past a water filter, turned right, then left and stopped before the bathroom. On its right were two rooms marked as “cupboard room 1” & “cupboard room 2”.
“Who-who-are you,” Avantika stammered, turning to face the insurgent.
The Beta man, not deigning to respond, grabbed Avantika’s hand and pushed her, not into the bathroom, but into ‘cupboard room 1’. Dusty old furniture and empty cartons occupied it. Fear flooded her as he closed the door and bolted it. Dark thoughts of molestation, abuse and other horrors swirled in her mind. She shook her hand from his, grabbed Babu and backed away against the wall.
“What do you want? You-”
“Stay here!” He spoke in an urgent whisper. “Do as I say, you’ll be safe!”
“What-” Avantika interjected, rolling her eyes, very sure she had heard the last word wrong.
“Listen to me!” He nearly shouted, raising his hand, “I don’t have time. I know every nook and corner of this mall. A large sewerage flows down just behind this mall. I’ll throw off a huge table out from the window of room next to this room into the water and shoot few rounds. Understood? I’ll tell them, I threw you both, as you tried to run. It’s the only bullsh#t plan I have! There’s no other way! Understand?”
“You are saving us!” Avantika exclaimed, “You are a spy!” but then, she felt something wasn’t right, “why save only us-”
“I ain’t a spy! No more questions, you fool! Don’t you want to live- ”
“And what about those people,” Avantika retaliated. “I don’t believe you! Who are you, for heaven’s sake!?!”
The insurgent surely thought he’d had enough, for he quickly reached for his mask and took it off revealing a scarred, stubble-face, with hawk like eyes and unkempt brown hair. Avantika stared. A split second of ignorance, then a blast of recognition, her own past hit her.
“Umang!” she nearly cried before clasping her mouth with her hand.
“Shhhh! Now, stay behind the cartons, stay still!” he barked, not meeting her eyes but looking elsewhere.
“How could you…brother?!?”
“Don’t call me that!” he flared up.
“Then why saving us? Kill us! And be done! What mom and would’ve thought? They’d have died of shame!”
But Umang seemed not to listen. He pulled the mask back over his face and opened the door.
“Be ready. It’s the only thing I could do…” he said with his back to them. Avantika could discern a suppressed trace of fear and longing in his otherwise indifferent tone. And then he left, closing the door.
Judging the repercussions of what he had just said, Avantika crouched behind a large carton, with Babu at her side. They waited…
Surely enough she heard a huge splash somewhere below, outside the Mall, followed by staccato bursts of bullets. Avantika hugged her son tightly as shouts and whispers buzzed outside. What if Umang’s plan backfired? They would be killed. The insurgents were not so naïve. But then, Umang – her brother – was too an insurgent. He would convince them. As seconds turned into minutes, the outcries and uproars lapsed into silence. His plan might have worked, She thought with a modicum of relief. A small seed of hope sprouted in her heart, but vanished as quickly as it had come for an appalling thought occurred to her –
She was supposed to die at the end of thirty minutes. And now that heartless insurgent called “Alpha” would give this deadline to another hostage! She couldn’t help feeling guilty. Anguish welling inside her, she gritted her teeth and banged her hand on the floor, furious at the helpless turn of events. Never had she felt such hopelessness…she thought as sadness took her to the murky memories of her past.
The diseased branch…Umang, her younger brother’s name, coined by her grandmother, meant Hope. The middle class Das family had not known the irony of it. Extremely pampered and dotted upon by elders, Umang grew up to become as the cruel corollary of his name. Notorious as he was, his mischief got ignored in his teens. Despite, mother’s protest, he was sent to a boarding school cum hostel away from home in the hope that he would learn discipline and good manners. But that was a mistake. He was easily attracted to bad company. His mischief turned into serious misdeeds. Their father warned and reprimanded him. He was taken back home. Avantika, being an elder sister, would always try to bring him into the right track. But Umang would always rebel, trying to do things in tune with his whims, trying to make the world run his way.
As time passed, he got into college. With a delinquent tendency, Umang resorted to addictions like drugs and alcohol and often brought shame to his family. Daily quarrels with parents had become a common routine. Their father called his out-of-control son as the infected branch that was starting to infect the entire tree.
And then one day, breaking the threshold of tolerance, Umang and his gang was caught by police on charges of molesting and abusing a neighboring girl. The shocked Das family suffered public disgrace and ignominy. The dark clouds loomed over them. In fact, their father, who worked as an accountant in a reputed company, was fired off forthwith. Avantika, who was pursuing her post graduation, had to drop out from university as students and teachers demonstrated a protest.
Avantika remembered Umang being depressed by guilt and shame. She and mother used to visit him in jail. But their father would refuse to visit. As time passed, Umang got bailed from jail and thought that his father would forgive him. But, little did he know that a more severe punishment awaited him. Their father broke all relationship with him…The Hazarika family severed ties with him. His apologies fell on deaf ears. Finally, he exiled from home.
Avantika, despite Umang’s every felony, assumed a forbearing demeanor and decided to bring him back to the family and also convince their father. But, Umang had left with no whereabouts. Years passed, and their father passed away. After Avantika’s marriage, her mother too left for the heavenly abode. And, Umang…he was forgotten.
And now the truth: The truth of his brother being a terrorist unsettled her and hurt her. But what hurt her to the core of her soul was he was trying – strangely and weirdly enough – trying to save his sister. Why, she thought, why he has to show himself now and save me? He’d killed so many perhaps. Does he think, his small act of saving me will be an act of penance? The poison, even if it could save someone, would still be a poison!
A warm sensation in her hand jolted her back to present. Her palm resting against Babu’s forehead had become hot.
“Babu…” she whispered anxiously, realizing her son had gotten sick. Babu stirred in his sleep, not opening his eyes, and murmured feebly, “Water…mommy I need water…”
“Yes…Yes…your mommy will get you water, Babu.” Avantika said with angst as she caressed her son, noticing the pallor his round face had acquired.
Hoping desperately that Umang would return here to check, she waited. But Babu’s fever began to worsen as he kept moaning for water.
“Babu…your mommy will get you water…stay here…don’t move…I’ll be back…I promise.” She said to her son who merely whimpered and lay on the floor. She got up, reached for the door and pressed her ears against it trying to make out any possible sound of someone. She glanced at her watch and felt a jerk in her stomach. Nearly thirty minutes have passed. The sound of bullet could come any moment signaling the end of another innocent life! Breathing deeply and mustering all vestiges of courage she had in her inside, she opened the door ever so little (Luckily, Umang hadn’t locked it from outside) and peeped ahead from the gap. It was deserted. On the right bend ahead was the water filter, she knew. And ahead of filter after the left bend emerged the opening where other hostages were held. She was about to open the door fully –
She gasped and jumped as a bullet exploded outside. The hostage must have died, she cringed with realization. But something was wrong. Staccato bursts and bangs echoed throughout the mall. What the hell was happening? As if a war was going on. Were they killing all hostages?
“Momma…” Babu cried. Closing the door, she ran back to him, and hid them more securely behind the carton. “It’s Ok, Babu! It’s gonna be fine…don’t cry, don’t cry…” She assuaged while crying herself.
The door blasted off its hinges. Avantika clasped her hand on Babu’s mouth. Speechless and shocked, she closed her eyes, praying to the heavens, even as footsteps neared them…
“Move, you two, fast!” a male voice commanded over her. She looked up and saw a man in black uniform holding a rifle. But he wasn’t an insurgent, but commando of the Indian Army, she figured.
Relief…tremendous relief surged through her as never before!
“Help us! Please!” she pleased, getting up with Babu at her side.
“Stay behind me! Follow me!” the commando ordered, and turned. He jumped outside the door with practiced reflexivity, beckoning them with his free hand to follow, and said –
“Stay close! I’ll take you to one of the shops where every hostage is being taken for safety –
“The terrorists will –” Avantika started.
“Most of them dead! No worry! The mall’s under control! Will take you inside the shop! We’ll close it from outside!” he replied shortly, as he wove his way cautiously through the narrow corridor.
Umang! What about him? She wondered uneasily. Is he dead?
Finally, they arrived at the left turn of the corridor. The commandos had broken in and were trying to evacuate or shelter the hostages and, at the same time, subduing the insurgents. As she hurried behind the commando into the opening, she saw, aghast, bodies of hostages who weren’t lucky in the scuffle to make it to the shop. Other commandos had taken their positions near the windows, at the staircase, near the lifts, everywhere either saving hostages or hunting insurgents. Explosions and bangs were occurring somewhere below where the battle was still raging on.
“GO! Go! Run!” the commando pointed at one of the shop where the other hostages were barging in. Another commando was at the entry-door of the shop, beckoning and shouting to move inside so that he could close the shop with the shutter.
Adrenaline rushing, she held Babu’s hands and ran among others. Even as she ran, she saw on her right, a commando running inside an opposite shop, and shot rounds to an insurgent who had been hiding behind the counter-table. The insurgent retaliated, jumping out of his hiding and shooting. But the commando was faster. He ducked and dodged, and finally shot. The insurgent’s rifle fell on the ground, his mask flying off.
Avantika looked in time to see an insurgent falling, struck by the bullet; and realized that he was none other than Umang.
“Umang!” she cried in vain as the other hostages pushed her and ran past.
Everything became slow and fuzzy for Avantika. She didn’t care if she got hit or shot or trampled. She forgot that Babu was with her or that she was supposed to run inside to safety. All she knew was she was looking into her brother’s eyes as he fell onto his knees…
And, Umang’s eyes too found hers’. He had a look of supplication, of regret, of remorse, of pain, emanating from his eyes. A moment later, his eyes went blank and he toppled like a branch cut off from a tree – the diseased branch was truly and completely severed…
“Umang…” Her lips mouthed her brother’s name silently. Overwhelming numbness swept Avantika and her head spun with dizziness. She fell on the ground, unconscious…
“You fine?” Kailash asked, placing her hand on his wife’s shoulder.
Avantika who had been gazing from the window at the crescent moon above turned around and smiled her answer. Three weeks had elapsed since she got discharged from hospital after recovering from minor injuries. These weeks had been busy ones with flurry of activities – friends, family members, neighbors the media visited her. She was tired answering their questions, reliving and recounting the ordeals of what happened at the fated day, and also tired of receiving assurances, sympathies as people felt that the incident traumatized her.
But what really traumatized her was not the incident itself. The people didn’t know the real cause of her trauma for she had shared the reason only with Kailash. Nobody knew her fated meeting with her brother. The killed insurgents, as the newspapers informed, were not traced to their families but instantly cremated.
“Babu…” she asked.
“Sleeping; and you should, too. You need rest. The work is taking the toll on you,” Kailash sounded worried.
Avantika nodded. The ill-fated event of the Great Mall was indeed a trauma for her and for all others who had been there. Many lives were lost; the grief of bereavement was palpable. Avantika considered it as a God’s miracle that she and her son was alive. She questioned her conscience that whether her meeting with Umang or his unusual act to save her was God’s inexplicable scheme of plan? She knew she had no answer. But one thing she was certain that this ordeal acted as a catalyst to her awakening. Something had awakened inside her like a dormant emotion she had never felt before; she found herself more sensitive and receptive to surroundings; more definite and purposeful as if the destiny’s call was reminding her to act towards her dream.
Of late, she had started working on her project she had been planning for years: Her own school. Not only a school but also a rehab center for juvenile criminals and other underprivileged children or teenagers. Umang, despite embracing bad ways, had goodness in him. The absence of guidance, of right direction had brought his sad downfall. She would do her best so that other delinquent juveniles would not become like her brother. She along with Kailash had negotiated with other similar societies, NGO’s, other social workers for their assistance and received positive inputs from them. Finding herself equipped with a purpose helped her ease out her torment…
“Piles of work to do…” Avantika sighed. Then said, “I’ve thought out a name for the school, you know.”
“Really? What’s the name then?” Kailash urged.
Avantika turned to gaze at the moon again, fighting back tears. She took a deep breath and said firmly, “Umang.”