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Rahul Sankunni



Rahul Sankunni




9 mins 554 9 mins 554

 It was early summer that Raju , back from jail two years ago, decided to resume his abandoned profession; he was a thief and had promised the jailor he would lead a clean life, once out. The jailor sensed the truth in his declaration. Raju had never tried to break jail though he had a couple of opportunities, one of which was actually a test by the authorities. They had made all arrangements to catch him if he ventured to break . Raju seemed in no hurry to leave jail and even appeared to plan for a permanent stay there. To other inmates he was an authority on jails; he had lived in five other jails and knew all the prison officers, staff and prisoners from close quarters.

The present jailor was worried Raju began to expound a new theory:

Jail was the best place for orphans to be in. 

      Now, this was a dangerous thought to be planted in the minds of prisoners, most of whom happened to be orphans.

 The jailor recommended early release for Raju which was accepted. The authorities were aware of the situation and didn't like any prisoner to consider jail as his ancestral home. They, however, made the jailor obtain a promise from Raju he would never return. It was already obvious to them that Raju was a man of words and was more truthful than ordinary people, including prison officials. So obtaining his word mattered. Raju was initially reluctant to give this promise. It was not easy. Where would he go if he didn't get work? Who would look after him should he fall sick?

         He finally gave in, annoyed by the jailor's unrelenting sermons. Things were going good in the first few years of release. He got cook's job in a hotel and was getting regular food and regular money till misfortune struck in the form of lockdown. The hotel was closed and Raju was again in the street. Starvation which lasted more than a week enervated Raju and he wondered what to do other than going to his ' ancestral home.' He had run out of options. Breaking the promise given did pain him and wounded his pride. But there were no alternatives - only jail, or death by starvation. He reluctantly chose the former and thought about the mischief to be done, which would take him once again to the ' ancestral home.' 

       Raju decided to break into some house and set out by midnight. He spotted an old but big house. There were no other houses nearby. Hunger was gnawing him. He decided to find some way into the kitchen first, fill the stomach and then look for valuables. Breaking into houses was child's play . Raju climbed a neem tree which stood close to the house and started removing the roof tiles cautiously. He peeped into the house and moonlight helped him learn he was right above an ill furnished kitchen. Raju wriggled down through the space between planks , threw himself down and landed adroitly without causing the least noise. Hungry but vigilant, he raised the lid of a vessel and found mushed tapioca inside. In no time he was gulping tapioca. Hardly had he taken two -three mouthfuls than he heard footsteps. 

          The footsteps were weak, unsteady. Into the kitchen tottered a tiny old woman. Moonlight fell on her through the just created gap in the roof.

Raju pondered for a moment about gagging the old woman should she see him. But he decided against it. His purpose was getting back to prison only. For it, breaking into the house would suffice. He brought a smile on the face and stood right in front of the woman. He didn't want her to be scared and faint. He only wanted her to raise an alarm and the other inmates to rush in ; he would tell them with folded hands he was hungry and needed food, they might thrash him which he would bear. Other people also would, of course, come in and quiz him further. In the end he was sure to be taken to police station, then to magistrate and finally to his ' ancestral home.' He would have to disappoint his jailor who, even, might completely lose faith in man's power to reform.

         The woman looked at Raju but didn't budge. 

Raju said:' Pardon me. I was... I was... I was hungry.'

The woman didn't move but kept staring blankly at Raju. Then she mumbled something and turned around. She began to speak in a very low tone. Raju, already baffled, strained to make out what she was saying. It was then he received the shock of his life. She was speaking about his first stealing attempt, forty years ago in a distant town; how his friends challenged him to rob a diamond seller of his jewels and prove his courage and how he landed in jail for the first time.

   Raju was flabbergasted. The old woman was in somnambulism and was telling his life story. She didn't say like 'you did that and then it happened.' She was telling like ' Raju shouldn't have done that and his friends were cruel in challenging him.'

 Leaving Raju wonderstruck, the woman ended her somnambulism, lay down on the floor and was snoring in a few minutes. Undecided as what to do and devoured by amazement , Raju opened the front door of the house and walked off.

              Raju got up late next day and began wondering if the previous night's incident was true or a dream. His head was clearer in the morning and he plunged into an analysis. What if it was just a coincidence? After all he was not the only Raju in the whole world and he needed not be the only Raju lured into stealing by friends. Perhaps the woman's own son or brother might be a Raju. Our Raju had enough rationalism in him to soar above strange coincidences that life occasionally threw up. His disbelief in the supernatural was time tested. He had stolen idols from two temples and silver cross from three churches in his decades-long burglary profession, but no special calamity had befallen him. He was an orphan beggar in childhood and an orphan thief in middle age, basically nothing has changed in spite of misadventures in places of worship.

                 Next afternoon found Raju getting ready to go to the old woman 's house again. He wanted to meet the strange woman again and know the truth about her. In an hour he was there and his heart began to beat faster than usual. Inwardly, he rebuked himself to feel uncomfortable in anticipation of a frail old woman. The woman was standing at the gate. She greeted the stranger with a smile and enquired what he wanted. Raju enquired if she needed any services. She replied in the negative. At that Raju said he could till the land , clean the house and even cook. The woman smilingly waived him off. The ordinariness of her behaviour confirmed to Raju that he had read too much into the previous night 's incidents. It was all coincidental, he assured himself and walked away. He was some distance away when the woman called him back. When he returned the woman was little bit sober. She looked into his eyes for some time and said:

' Some rogue broke into my house yesterday. In the process he has displaced the roof tiles. Can you put them back properly?

Without saying anything Raju went to the backside of the house, climbed the neem tree and sitting on its branch started putting back the tiles. By the time he finished the work he understood his folly. How could he know where the tiles had been removed !

          But the old woman didn't spot the inexplicability of Raju's behaviour. Instead she thanked him smilingly and gave a ten rupee note. Back in the verandah of the tea shop where he stayed Raju reasoned to himself. That the woman behaved normally while awake didn't rule out her extraordinariness as a sleeper or dreamer. He needed to study her in the somnambulist phase. And he was hungry. And he needed cooked tapioca. So he went out by the time the clocks in village chimed twelve. 

              He entered the house the same way as day before, jumping on to the neem tree, removing the roof tiles and following the moonlight into the floor of kitchen with a thud. This time he felt a certain belongingness in the kitchen and instantly spotted the old woman in the trance- like condition in the tiny hall adjacent to the kitchen, mumbling something. He rushed to her and listened.

             This time he was on guard and was not trumped when the woman spoke about an incident in his childhood which he had sort of forgotten. 

' Raju was foolish to have stepped on to that slippery rock. He fell into the river and sunk to the bottom. Just as he was feeling death, someone lifted him up. It was the local barber who had come for bath.'

Now, there was no room for disbelief. He certainly was rescued by the local barber and he had joined him as apprentice. The woman went on :' Not all children are lucky like Raju. All eight are now dying. Their boat is sinking.'

Raju couldn't make out head or tail but morning brought the import of the old woman's statement. Raju heard two villagers animatedly discussing an incident. A boat carrying school children capsized in a river.

' Where was the need for boating in the midnight! All the eight children died, ' one of them said looking at Raju.

       Raju began to suspect the concreteness of the world. He wondered about the woman also. Who is she? Why does she see such dreams? And most importantly, why should she dream about his matters !

Somewhere in his heart he felt the old woman 's dreams would reveal to him something of paramount importance to him and for the world. He decided to go to her a last time. 

Raju waited for two weeks before going again. On the night he went, he found the neem tree cut down. The woman had obviously understood that it had a fascination for the thief who was frequenting her house. He walked around the house to find a way into the house. It was indeed a dilapidated house. If he jumped and held on to one of the logs, probably it would give way. The thought disturbed Raju. He found a window which was partially open. Raju picked up a pole lying nearby, inserted it through the window and opened the door from outside.

Expectedly, the woman was in somnambulism. She was speaking about things Raju had no idea about.

She paused and disconnectedly resumed :

 ' Raju was fond of the tailor's girl but he didn't tell anyone. The girl too loved him but didn't tell anyone, including Raju. And they parted. But the girl didn't stop thinking about Raju.'

 Something moved in our thief 's heart and he wept. Thoughts of the only bright experience in life came flooding into his mind, though in the most forbidden setting, a house he had broken into . Raju wept again and again till he felt purged.

He wanted to know about the tailor's daughter.

         'Died, ' said the sleep walking woman as if answering his thought. Raju, rather than getting shocked, strangely felt a calm enter his heart. The woman's talk got disconnected from his life into what seemed things to come for the world- an earthquake somewhere, a flood annihilation... of humanity, life on earth, the total universe burning , condensing to point , a prolonged reign of nothingness etc, etc- but Raju didn't care. He moved to the door and slowly walked away. A smile that hovered around his lips was telling about a peace that had passed all understanding. 


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