A Rare Gesture
A Rare Gesture
The winter morning was chilling. People stirred lazily under the blankets.
Akbar woke up with the azam from the local mosque as usual. He finished his morning routine quickly. As he was putting on his khaki dress, his wife, Noorunnisa Begum brought him tea.
Even as he was sipping the tea, she told him slowly, “Ammijan’s medicines exhausted since two days. She has been suffering a lot with constant bouts of coughing and breathlessness. The frequency increased in the absence of the medicines. I feel pity for her. I also feel guilty at not being able to provide her with the medicines. I am afraid she may not be able to withstand any longer, especially due to the severe winter this year, unless she takes the medicines regularly. Please try to get the medicines at least today...somehow”.
The taste of the tea turned bitter in Akbar’s mouth. He meekly nodded.
Ammijan was his mother. She was well over 60. She had been suffering from acute asthma since long. Earlier she was frequently visiting the Government Hospital for treatment with no relief. Unable to bear the sight of his mother’s suffering, Akbar took her to a Homeopath a few months ago. The old woman appeared to feel better after taking the medicines prescribed by him. So she had been continuing the same since then.
Akbar’s father was a pavement-seller of petty things. He died 10 years ago.
Akbar, who was 35, was an auto-rickshaw driver. He got the vehicle on a rental basis from its owner. Even though he worked hard from early morning to late night, his earnings were hardly sufficient even to pay for the vehicle.
Noorunnisa Begum was 5 years younger to her husband. The couple was married for 10 years now, and had 4 children. The first two off-springs were girls, aged 8 and 6, and the third one was a boy of 4 years. The fourth child that was born a year ago was again a girl.
Noorunnisa Begum wanted to undergo the family planning operation after the second child was born, but her mother-in-law did not allow it. Same was the case even after the birth of the boy. The old lady disapproved family planning saying that it was against Islam. However, after the birth of the fourth child, Noorunnisa Begum underwent the vasectomy operation secretly, of course with the consent of her husband.
It had become difficult for Akbar to maintain his large family with his meagre earnings. The owner of the auto raised the rentals every year, besides the constant rise in petrol prices. The operational costs too increased while finding passengers became difficult, especially with the advent of the MMTS train services and plying of the shared autos everywhere in the city. He too tried to get into the mode of ‘shared autos’ without success. For, it was literally controlled by certain vested interests assuming the proportions of a mafia.
The auto rental was to be paid every day to its owner. Otherwise, he would abuse Akbar in filthy language and seize the vehicle, even if one rupee was found short.
The only silver lining in the life of Akbar was Noorunnisa Begum. It was his luck to have such an understanding and cooperative wife, who managed the family as efficiently as possible within the means. Akbar was aware that but for her, his life would have been more miserable.
“The rice and wheat too are exhausted. I could manage yesterday with the small quantity of broken rice by making ganji and giving it to Ammijan and the children. If she does not eat chapati, Ammijan would not get the stamina to withstand her asthmatic attacks,” said Noorunnisa Begum, taking the empty tea mug from her husband. She felt sorry that she had to bother him with the household problems early in the morning when he was venturing out for the day, upsetting him. All the same, she could not help it. For the sake of her old, sick mother-in-law and the small kids.
Akbar looked at his wife thoughtfully...Very fair, slim and tall, Noorunnisa Begum was a beautiful woman. He fell for her beauty instantly, and it was love at first sight for him, when he saw her at a function at some relatives’ house. He told his parents about his interest in her, and in turn, they spoke to her parents.
Her father was a tailor and Noorunnisa Begum was the eldest of 6 children – 4 of them being girls. The family had a hand-to-mouth existence like that of Akbar’s family.
Akbar, though not very handsome, was known to be a good boy, and was learning motor-driving at the time. Moreover, Akbar’s all the 3 elder sisters were already married and living their own lives. So, Noorunnisa Begum’s parents had no qualms about him and readily agreed to the match. Akbar was on cloud-9 for getting a beautiful wife, to the envy of his friends and relatives.
Now, after a decade of their marriage and with 4 close pregnancies and the poverty, all her beauty got eclipsed. Even her attractive physique had been reduced to be scraggy. The twinkle in her eyes too paled. She became weak. Yet, the enticing smile on her lips never faded. It was that very smile that had been enthusing Akbar to move on, amidst the odds. Sometimes he would feel sorry for her.
Noorunnisa Begum looked at her husband and asked him with a smile, “Why are you staring at me, man, as if you are seeing me for the first time?”
He shook his head and said slowly, “I shall try to get the provisions for cooking lunch”.
“And do not forget the medicines,” she reminded him.
As she combed his hair, as did always, he tried to kiss and tickle her playfully as if to change her moods.
Her cheeks became rosy with shyness. “Even after fathering four children, you are still playful!” she admonished him mocking anger.
“Yes dear. Don’t forget that it is this playfulness that has got you four cute kids,” he smiled mischievously.
“Be sharam!” she hit him lightly on his back with the comb.
‘I wish I could get enough savaaris today,’ Akbar prayed in his mind as he walked out.
Noorunnisa Begum stood at the door step watching her husband start the auto and speeding away, after waving to her. She waved back and watched him till he was out of sight. Thereafter she heaved a sigh and went inside.
It was half past noon. The school bus of the Little Angels Public School stopped by the side of a busy main road carrying the students of the LKG and UKG. Parents, who were waiting there for the school bus to arrive, started collecting their wards even as they alighted from the bus. The tiny tots’ faces lit up on seeing their parents and they ran towards them.
That day Lalitha was a little late to reach the place. Her four year-old daughter, Nandini, got down from the bus and looked for her mother. She was perplexed at not finding her there. Not knowing why her mother was not already there, she looked around, even as her friends bid her ‘bye’ and started leaving with their parents.
After a few minutes, Nandini’s face lit up as she saw her mother coming on the other side of the road. She called out, ‘Mummy!’ excitedly and ran towards her, across the road unmindful of the traffic.
Bewildered, Lalitha shouted at her daughter not to come and to stay where she was. But the girl did not stop.
As the little girl started running suddenly on the road, vehicles from both the sides screeched to a halt. Akbar was going that way with the passengers in his auto. He too saw the little one running across. He tried to apply the sudden brake to avoid her. But, as the fate would have it, the brakes failed with the result the vehicle hit the girl, bringing her under the wheels. It all happened at the fraction of a second, stunning everyone around.
Little Nandini died on the spot due to serious head injuries.
Lalitha was shell-shocked at the sight and fainted.
Yadagiri was a small-time realtor. Lalitha was his wife. Nanidini, their only child, was born after 10 years of their marriage. Nandini was a fair, cute girl. The couple would treat her with great love and affection. They wanted to provide her with good education and always dreamt of making her a medical doctor.
Now, their dreams got shattered. The death was so sudden. Lalitha could not forget the sight of her dear daughter dying before her very eyes in such a ghastly manner. No one could console her. Yadagiri was, however, trying his best to maintain his composure. The couple was unable to believe that their beloved daughter was no more. It was too much for them to bear the irreparable loss.
Akbar would normally go home for lunch around mid day, unless of course, he went to a far off place taking savaari.
Noorunnisa Begum was waiting for her husband since 9 o’clock in the morning. She expected him to bring some wheat or rice and provisions for cooking lunch. But he did not turn up even by 2 p.m.
Either he could not earn enough money or he had taken a savaari to a distant place, Noorunnisa Begum thought. So she had been waiting for him patiently, hoping she would be able to cook something to feed the hungry mouths. The old woman and the children too eagerly awaited Akbar.
It was then that the news reached the family. The news of the accident...of the death of a little girl...and of the consequent arrest of Akbar.
Noorunnisaa Begum collapsed even as the old woman started wailing. The children got frightened, and they too started crying.
It was common for the driver of the vehicle that caused the accident to flee from the spot instantly – to escape the wrath of the people around. But, Akbar did not run away. He was shell-shocked at the unexpected mishap, and tried to revive the child with first aid. However, people caught hold of him and thrashed him thoroughly before handing him over to the police.
Noorunnisa Begum visited her husband at the police lock-up. She was heart-broken at the sight of her severely-bruised husband. “Hey, Allah! What have you done to him? Does he deserve this? How could people be so cruel and merciless?” she cried.
Akbar tried to console her. “You are only seeing my external wounds, Noor! But my heart bleeds at the thought of a little girl dying because me,” he said with a trembling and choking voice. The pain was writ large on his face.
Akbar was charged by the police under section 304 (A) IPC – culpable homicide not amounting to murder – causing death due to negligence by rash driving. His case came up for hearing before the Court of Law.
Noorunnisa Begum could not engage a lawyer to bail out her husband. She went to the Court taking her mother-in-law and the kids, with an agitated mind, on the day of the hearing.
Yadagiri and his wife, Lalitha, too arrived at the Court. While entering the court hall, the couple looked at Akbar’s family, as someone pointed it out to them. The family presented a pathetic picture of grief and hunger. Worry writ large on the faces of Noorunnisa Begum and her mother-in-law. Pricked by the thought that it was the family of the person who was responsible for the death of their beloved daughter, Yadagiri and Lalitha glared at the women.
The din in the Court Hall died down as the Judge arrived and took his seat.
A weak and dishevelled Akbar was presented before the Hon. Judge, and put in the dock.
Noorunnisa Begum huddled herself in a corner of the Hall with the other members of her family. Unable to bear the painful sight of her husband, she wept silently. The children saw their father and tried to call out, ‘Abbajan...!’ with excitement. But the mother suppressed their voices by covering their mouths with both hands. The puzzled and frightened kids embraced her tightly.
At the instance of the Hon. Judge, the Assistant Public Prosecutor (APP) presented the case against the accused in detail. The Judge as also the audience in the Hall heard him in rapt silence. The Judge made notes every now and then. At the end, concluding the prosecution’s case, the APP emphasised that it was due to the rah and negligent driving by the accused, that the life of a tiny tot - a budding flower - who was the only child of her parents, born after 10 years of the marriage, was snuffed out so abruptly and cruelly...and prayed to the Hon. Court to award severest of the punishments to the accused, under sections 304(A), 279, 336 and 337 of the IPC, so that it served as a deterrent to the likes of him.
Hearing that, the shaken, old woman – Akbar’s mother – cried out loudly, “Please do not punish my son, Huzur! He is a good man. These small kids will become orphans if my son is sent to jail. We will all die of hunger as he is the sole bread-winner of the family”.
“Order! Order!” The Judge, hitting the hammer on the table, ordered the old woman to be sent out of the Court Hall.
After Akbar’s mother was taken out, the Judge asked the accused if he had anything to submit in the matter.
Even before Akbar could clear his throat, Lalitha stood up suddenly and urged the Judge to allow her to speak first.
Learning that she was the grief-stricken mother of the victim of the accident, the Judge obliged her, as a special case, and permitted her to go to the witness box and to make her submissions.
Lalitha walked to the witness box slowly and said with a quiet voice – “Your Honour! The accused was not responsible for the death of my little daughter, as the Prosecution has alleged.”
There was a pin-drop silence in the Hall as everyone including the Judge and the APP were taken aback at her statement. Even her husband, Yadagiri, was perplexed at his wife’s unexpected stance, and his mouth got wide open with awe.
“Could you elaborate your statement, Lady?” the Judge asked Lalitha.
“Yes, Your Honour! On that fateful day, I was a little late to pick up my daughter from the school bus at the place of occurrence. On seeing me coming on the other side of the road, my daughter ran across the road through the busy traffic. I tried to stop her in vain. She suddenly ran across the road unmindful of the vehicular traffic on both sides. On seeing the child, vehicles on both sides stopped abruptly. The accused too applied sudden brake to his vehicle on noticing the child. Unfortunately the brakes failed. He tried to swerve the vehicle to avoid hitting the girl. But, as the fate would have it, my daughter herself went and dashed against his auto-rickshaw, and came under its wheels. As a result she was grievously injured and died on the spot,” narrated Lalitha dispassionately, to the stunned audience.
“Therefore, Your Honour! It was not the fault of the accused, and surely, he was not responsible for the death of my daughter. That was the reason why he did not flee from the scene, as is the case usually with those causing accidents. On the other hand, he showed a lot of concern for the injured child and tried to help save her”.
Lalitha stopped for a moment seemingly trying to compose herself, and continued – “Your Honour! I do not want an innocent person to be punished. That is why I have ventured to come before you to humbly submit the facts”.
The APP was quite stunned at the turn of the case. Not willing to lose it, he sought the permission of the Court to cross-examine Lalitha. The Judge accorded permission.
Lalitha could bravely withstand the aggressive cross-examination by the APP, and answered all his queries calmly and to the satisfaction of the Judge.
Since the principal, direct witness of the case – the victim’s mother herself - had absolved the accused of the guilt, the Judge had no option but to dismiss the criminal case against Akbar, and order for setting him free unconditionally.
As Lalitha walked out of the Court Hall, amidst the commotion, Noorunnisa Begum approached her with her children, and expressed her gratitude with folded hands. Lalitha eyed her for a moment, pressed her hand gently and reassuringly, and moved away. She could hear the blessings mumbled by the old women from behind.
The couple walked silently to their car. Once they were inside the vehicle, Yadagiri confronted his wife exasperatingly – “I fail to understand, Lalitha, how you could bail out that bloody fellow who had killed our only child”.
Lalitha answered him calmly – “Sure, we have lost our beloved child. But can we get her back by punishing the poor man? Or, will we be able to overcome our grief by sending him to jail? On the other hand, his family would be in the street, if he goes to jail. I could not withstand the sight of the family – with his mother, wife and the small kids engulfed by worry, hunger, and fright besides insecurity writ large on their faces. Failure of the brakes of the vehicle due to sudden application was certainly not the fault of the man, who tried his best to avert the accident. If Nandini died, it was nothing but destiny. Our beloved’s death should not be a cause for ruining of a poor family...That is why I gave that statement to the Court”. She broke down.
Yadagiri was nonplussed. He could see the logic and sentiment in his wife’s thinking. Whether it was right or wrong, a poor family with small kids should not become destitute on account of Nandini!
He heaved a sigh. “I think you are right, Lalitha! It did not occur to me at all. Hats off to your noble heart!” he said wiping her tears off, and embraced her affectionately.