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Sridhar Venkatasubramanian



Sridhar Venkatasubramanian




12 mins 35.3K 12 mins 35.3K

I was shaking from head to toe,  violently. But it was not fear that was making me tremble. Rather, it was the joy of having achieved the impossible.

Standing on the doorstep of my house, I looked at the retreating backs of the fleeing mob that only a few minutes ago had come charging, determined to wipe out my  family. Between the violent crowd of about twenty people, armed with sickles, axes, flaming torches, sticks and knives, and my family, was only I, a lone person armed with just a scythe. I was like a man possessed, baying loudly and ready to take on the mob, before going down myself. But, I was astonishA ed when the mob, after taking one look at me, beat a hasty retreat, even before my scythe could taste a single drop of blood.   

I stood there transfixed, with the setting sun casting a crimson shadow on my body and the scythe, the colour of blood. To a passerby, I must have looked like a brave warrior king from some ancient civilization who had won many battles in his life, standing there defiantly brandishing my humble scythe like a blazing sword. 

At that moment I felt as if I were in a glorious dream.  But I was sure that I would be rudely awakened to the harsh realities of life.

Such a morose thought was quite natural, I thought, as the incidents of the past flashed before my eyes.

Right from early childhood I had been a coward. Even though I was never involved in any fight, I was always afraid that some attacker was lurking in every corner, out to get at me.  I used to tremble with fear if somebody raised so much as a finger threateningly at me. 

I was a child when my father left our village in our native land and came to this foreign country taking us with him, in search of a livelihood. A lot of people from our village had left before us and settled in this foreign land and were doing well. When we arrived, we were accepted in the ghetto where our people had set up their homes. The work was tough, but at least there were enough opportunities available and my father was able to bring enough money to feed the family two square meals a day.

The natives did not like us very much. But they needed our skills and labour which were cheap. We, as foreigners,  were a  silent and hardworking lot, whereas the local labourers were acrimonious and lazy.

Right from the beginning, I could not adjust myself to life in the new place. The other kids of the ghetto, though belonging to my native land, turned out to be a tough lot  and were not averse to skirmishes with the local kids.

I hardly ventured out of my house for fear of being bullied not only by the local lads but also by the boys of the ghetto. To be fair, I was never really the target of any bullying but the thought of being bullied made me shrivel up inside.. Slowly, over the years I realized that I was suffering from a condition commonly known as omniphobia, fear of everything.

At the end of each month, a gang of local bullies would come knocking on  every door in the ghetto, demanding ‘protection’ money. Everybody paid up without a fuss, so as not to face the wrath of the local toughies.

My father was not a man of great physical strength but I observed that he was a man of great strength of character. Though he too had to part with the much resented protection money, he never gave in without a fight. He used to argue with the toughies over the payment, in their tongue. The bullies used to shout and make threats but something in his upright stand kept them from meting out any physical retribution.

I remember vividly an incident when I was just thirteen years old. A gang of locals, different from the usual ones, knocked on our door one night, demanding money. My father refused to pay them saying that he had already paid his share. The goons started shouting expletives and created a huge ruckus. All this while our neighbours stood as mute spectators. Only my mother stood beside him bravely and with her broken knowledge of the foreign tongue supported my father in his fight. I started crying and began to  plead with my father to pay up.

My father did not relent. The goons left after threatening that they would be waiting outside the ghetto, when he went to work the next day. My father told them that they need not wait for the next day, as he would be coming out in a short while to go on his night shift. I was very scared for him but strangely enough, nothing untoward happened and he returned home safely the next morning after completing his night shift.

But this incident did not help me in overcoming my constant fear. I continued to dread whenever there was a knock on the door, especially when my father was not around.

Years rolled by and I somehow managed to complete my studies. I also managed to find a decent job in a reputed company. The pay was not great but we were able to live comfortably, when compared to our early years.

In the ghetto, one by one, my neighbours started leaving for greener pastures. Only a few from our native land remained . But I never had the courage to go out and face a new life with  its challenges. I preferred to remain in the same surroundings and cling to the safe job I had.

My father now was no longer strong enough to do much strenuous physical work and so remained at home. I told him not to worry about finances as my pay was more than enough for the all of us.

I was now middle-aged and married. But still I felt a trepidation, whenever the goons came demanding money. Their methods of extracting money had become more refined now. They started calling these extortions contributions for some social cause, development work, charity, etc.. But in actual fact, they were still the same old thugs and I could always sense my fear building up whenever I had to face them. 

I also resorted to various tactics so that my wife did not see what a coward I was. The thugs usually came on their rounds sometime between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. After making their collections they used to go to the local bar that opened at 9 p.m. At the end of every month, when it was time for them to pay us all a visit,  I used to return home well after 10 p.m., on the pretext of doing overtime work at the office. This was only to avoid facing these thugs. Craven that I was, I made my father face them.

But once, when I returned from office very late, my father told me that this time he had had a serious altercation with the ruffians regarding the contribution. It seemed that they were not happy with the usual amount and were bent upon extracting more. My father had stood his ground. He told me that they left without taking the offered amount. On hearing this, my heart started pounding.  I had a quick meal and slunk off to bed immediately, to find a cowardly solace between the covers.

At around 11 p.m., when everybody was fast asleep, I heard a knock on the door. I tiptoed to the door and looked through the eyehole. I was relieved to see it was only the neighbour’s teenaged boy. I opened the door. He said that somebody was waiting for me outside the compound. I went out with him to see what this was all about. My heart gave a painful lurch  when I saw about five of the thugs waiting outside. One of them approached me. I could see that he was drunk. He told me in a gruff voice that if I did not pay up, I would have to face severe consequences. Seeing my ashen face, one of the others took me to one side and told me in a soothing voice but with an undertone of menace that I need not worry if I paid up the amount demanded. But if I did not, he would not be able to control his partner who had threatened me just now.  His partner apparently had committed several murders too and therefore a seasoned criminal who would stop at nothing. My throat was dry but I managed to blurt out that I would have their money ready the next day. Then, I  beat a hasty retreat into the safety of my home. As I was walking up the steps, trying not to hurry, I saw my father sitting on the top step. He seemed to be in great pain and he was breathing with difficulty. Then he suddenly threw up and collapsed. I gently carried him back to bed and immediately called the family physician, who examined him and said that his blood pressure was very high. . He prescribed some medicines and asked me to ensure that my father got complete rest, in peace and quiet.

Next morning my father called me to his side. He was still very weak. He said that he had followed me last night and witnessed all that had happened. Tears came into his eyes when he said that he now had no strength to stand by my side and that I would have to now pick up the courage to face the world, for the sake of the family.

But this was something easier said than done. However, I managed to strike a truce with the thugs, with the help of a friendly mediator who delivered the money to them at regular intervals. Though I had to cough up more money, there were no more of the dreaded knocks on the door.

Several years went by.  My father had passed away. We were now living in an upscale neighbourhood that predominantly consisted of the local population. But being mostly a posh locality there was no fear of gangs or crime incidents, like at the ghetto. The locals were snobs, but that did not bother me. My mother, my  wife and I kept to ourselves. But being still under the influence of omniphobia, I was always restless with the fear that some unknown danger was lurking around the corner.

Then one day I heard the news that there were skirmishes at the border, between the soldiers of my native land and the country where I was living. The skirmishes took an ugly turn due to the conflict taking on a religious colour. There were rumours that the locals were hunting down foreigners like us, who belonged to a different religion. However, I felt we would be safe as our residence was in a rich locality.

But one afternoon, while I was having my Sunday nap, I heard a loud banging on the door. I  found my neighbour standing outside, looking terribly agitated. He told me incoherent in his fear, that some local gangs from a nearby slum had got wind of our living here and were planning to attack us. He beseeched us to immediately leave the place and find sanctuary elsewhere. He then quickly ran into his house and shut the door. 

My mother and wife who had overheard our conversation were practically shaking with fear. But I did not know what to do as I knew of no place where we could hide. Like a sleepwalker I went inside and started barricading the front door with some heavy furniture. Then we huddled in the  bedroom and peered through a gap in the heavy curtains.

After some minutes, which felt like years, I saw a horde of people at the end of the road coming directly toward my house. In the setting sun we could see that they were carrying all sorts  of weapons and that they meant serious harm. As they drew near we could hear their hysterical religious chants too.

Seeing this, my elderly mother fainted and sank to the floor. My wife became hysterical and started shouting in my ears, pleading with me to save us all from the bloodthirsty mob. I suddenly felt a stab of pain in my chest and saw a bright light in front of my eyes. I was helpless seeing my family breaking down in the face of this impending attack when it was my duty to console and protect them.

Then something suddenly snapped in me. In a fit of pent up anger at my own cowardice I shoved my wife, who was clinging to me, aside and went into my mother’s room. Resting in the corner was my father’s scythe that he had used when he was a labourer and which we had preserved in his memory.

I balanced the scythe in my right hand and with the left pushed over the furniture before me that I had barricaded the entrance with and flung open the door. I did not know what superhuman energy had possessed me. But strangely I felt no fear. Standing on the doorstep, I shouted and gesticulated angrily at the approaching crowd, brandishing the scythe high in the air violently. To my utter surprise the fanatics took one look at me and stopped in their tracks. However, I continued with my war cry and rushed towards them, the scythe waving in the air, with the intention to take on as many as I could and drive them back. That is when they turned tail and fled without looking back.

I could not believe the scene in front of me. I was trembling, triumphant in my easily won victory, my years of cowardice erased. Then I remembered my mother and my wife, and rushed inside to tell them what had happened and to reassure them that they had nothing more to fear.

As I neared the bedroom I heard the loud wailing of both my mother and wife from inside. They were crying out my name. May be, I thought, it was out of fear for me. I opened the door slowly, to tell them that their worries were over and how singlehandedly I had made the fanatics take to their heels.

When I entered the room, I saw them both huddled in a corner and crying and whimpering in fear. I called out to them gently and they turned in my direction. I expected them to come rushing towards me with cries of joy and pride. But instead I saw them looking at me in a frightened manner, with something like horror and disbelief on their faces. I could not understand why they should look at me so. Then I thought that may be in their abject fear and also seeing the scythe in my hand, they mistook me to be one of the horde. I went near them, speaking softly but I could see that they were recoiling away from me.

With a sigh, I dropped the menacing scythe and went near to calm them. At that moment something on the other side of the bed caught my eye. I went nearer to have a closer look.

Lying there with face twisted and eyes sightless, was my lifeless body.

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