That River Man
That River Man16 mins 18.4K 16 mins 18.4K
THAT RIVER MAN
27th January, 4:30 AM- It was a freezing morning on the banks of river Yamuna near New Delhi. It had been unusually cold for this time of the year. Winter usually starts receding by the fag end of January. The sun was atleast 3 hours away from making its much required entry and the fog had enveloped the entire place. Even if someone was standing right in front of you, they would be impossible to spot. Unless ofcourse they planted a kiss on your cheeks.
That’s precisely what happened with Khurshid. A young girl who looked like a teenager had bumped into him a moment ago. Now that they were so close to each other, he saw that she was shivering. Well, trembling is a better word actually. She was wearing a cardigan and jeans. He asked her who she was and what was she doing at this time alone near the banks. It was so cold that even if the girl wanted to speak something her lips won’t part and her mouth was all dry. Her chapped lips indicated that she was out in the cold for atleast 2 hours now.
“People and their questions!” growled Ishita as she brushed passed Khurshid and started walking briskly towards the bank. Khurshid shouted “Sister, don’t go that side, there are crocodiles at this time”. A simple lie. But it had its effect. Ishita slowed down. “Crocodiles?” thought Ishita. Sure she wanted to kill herself. She had resolved to take that extreme step after her boyfriend of 3 years Mohit had broken up with her and went to town with the news. But the thought of Crocodiles crunching her bones in their razor sharp teeth did a lot to decelerate her resolve to drown that January morning.
She was not entirely convinced. Being a bright student all her life and topping every exam in school, she had good general knowledge. She had never heard of crocodiles out in the open in Delhi except maybe in the zoo. The other thing which she had not thought of was what if this guy attempted to rape her. Then she remembered, she had a pepper spray can in her purse. She took it out and walked towards Khurshid.
Ishita, 21, was the only daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Ashok Gangwani. She was brought up in a strict environment by her mom who was a school principal and her dad who was a branch manager at a leading bank. She was a school topper and had little time for anything other than books. She had even secured admission at SRCC one of the most prestigious colleges in Delhi University. It all changed 3 years back when she met Mohit. He seemed so much like her. She had heard stories of how opposites attract but in this case it was birds of same feather flocking together. Mohit was also very studious and they started spending a lot of time together preparing for college exams and that’s when they became really close. When she went out to watch ‘3 Idiots’ with Mohit and 3 other friends, it was the first time that she had watched a movie in the theatre without her parents or relatives. It was a liberating experience. Popcorn led to condom and now that Mohit had slept with her, he was no more interested than he was in his old school uniform. She was broken. All her life she had done what her parents asked her to do. And she always succeeded. One thing she did of her own volition and it had ended disastrously. She trusted him too early and now not only had he broken up with her, the news was public on Facebook. She had decided to end her life after she saw that post yesterday- “Dumped my girlfriend today who was clingier than a locust on a sunflower. So Happy Republic Day to all and a Happy Independence Day to me :)"
Khurshid had already seen Ishita take out the spray can. He calmly drew the shawl around his nose just leaving his eyes open. Anyways he thought that the thick rimmed spectacles that he wore should come in handy in case she did go ahead with the plan. This had happened once to him earlier and he had tears coming out of eyes for 2 days straight. He recognised the powerful device in Ishita’s hands very well.
Khurshid, a 34 year migrant from neighbouring state Uttar Pradesh, owned a small tea shop 500 meters from the bank. He had gone to relieve himself that morning when Ishita bumped into him. 5 AM was the usual time for the ablutions but the excessively cold night had triggered the internal alarm early. His routine was set. Get up by 5 AM, freshen up, and then ride 3kms on his bicycle to get fresh milk to make teas all day. He was a widower. His wife had died during child birth leaving a dead child and the world behind. He didn’t want to marry again. Sure he longed for companionship at nights but then the river spoke to him. All day long he didn’t have to worry about companionship as people of myriad professions walked up for a cup of tea bitching about their bosses, their wives or their servants. A lot of them were those who had come to disperse the ashes of the deceased into the river and yet found time to rant about the minor disturbances in their lives to this stranger tea-wallah. He had learned the art of engaging his customers in a conversation as they stayed longer and even ordered rusk while they were at it. Winters were very good for business as people drank tea several times in a day. The past few years he had saved enough to buy a bicycle and could cover the 3 kms distance to the buffalo stable in less than 15 minutes. Earlier it used to be a drag walking all that distance and carrying the heavy load of milk in the stainless steel vessel in his hand. Now he could smartly tie the vessel on the carrier and pedal back in 15 minutes. Along with physical benefits, it also had economic benefits. The faster turnaround time meant that he could now open shop half an hour early and do more business.
Life was looking up if not good. It was his gift of gab which had helped him save two people earlier from taking their lives in the river and he saw that there was another task at hand with Ishita walking with a spray can towards him. He called out “Sister, please keep the bottle away, I will not hurt you”. His voice was soothing and calm. This helped Ishita calm down a bit too. “Are there really crocodiles near the bank?” squeaked her meekly voice. “Why do you want to go that side anyway?” enquired Khurshid. “That is none of your business, just answer my question” an increasingly assertive Ishita shot back. He looked Ishita from top to bottom. Trying to commit suicide when she is concerned about the cold, carrying her handbag and scared of a make-believe crocodile story, no ways she is doing anything. She is just scared and I need to calm her down before I talk to her thought Khurshid and started walking back towards his hut. “Wait, where are you going?” asked Ishita. “To get you some tea, it will bring some warmth” said Khurshid. There was strange warmth in his voice but Ishita was defiant. “But I don’t want your stupid tea, I have come here to do something important, just tell me which side of the river is free of crocodiles” fumed Ishita. “A cup of tea would do you no harm, anyways you will be able to see clearly if there are any crocodiles in another half hour when the sun comes out” said the tea-wallah.
She was sitting on a stone slab outside his hut and was sobbing. It was 6 AM and slowly the traffic had started increasing on the main road near his hut. It was uncontrollable wailing initially when he had started talking to her after handing a cup of tea. The nearby vendors didn’t bother the crying noise as they were accustomed to people screaming their lungs out as they bid adieu to their near and dear ones in the river. He had managed to avert another disaster. He saw her flag down an auto. People just need someone to talk to thought Khurshid. “Why didn’t she think of speaking to her parents? I am sure they would have understood “thought Khurshid.
3 out of 3 successes. Khurshid felt good. He was increasingly becoming good at it. All three times it had happened by chance. The first one Mrs. Jha, a 35 year old mother of two wanted to commit suicide because her husband beat her up daily. Khurshid had talked to her and urged her to lodge a police complaint rather and make that bastard husband of her suffer. He had spoken to her about the plight of her children if she was gone. Even though he was poor, he caught up on the news regularly and always believed that system was just, all it required was a persistent effort. He didn’t know what happened to her afterwards but he had managed to save her from taking her life that day.
The second one was a lot tougher. It was a young boy named Ajeet, who had lost both his hands in a motorbike accident. He was a star athlete who had nothing to look forward in life thereafter. Another thing which Khurshid was very good at was to keep newspaper clippings of any inspirational stories that he read. He re-read them at nights and that gave him the ability to talk intelligent stuff with his customers the next day. He had taken Ajeet through a stack of them that summer night and he too had cried his eyes out after reading about the double amputee who had participated in Olympics racing, thanked Khurshid and left. Just like Ishita. They are all jittery. They are not sure of their lives. All they need is to someone to talk to and unburden the grief.
Khurshid took out his bicycle and sped towards the buffalo stable. He had to turn down the few early birds who had come to his stall since he was yet to get fresh milk and the only cup that he left from previous night for himself had been consumed by Ishita. Poor girl thought Khurshid, what is with kids and love affairs these days. They won’t trust their own parents but would jump at trusting a testosterone charged adolescent. He was late, all this not for profit work was a hit on his business but he didn’t mind. He whistled and paddled and was back at his stall in 25 minutes and set-up the shop for the day. The neighbouring shop owners were completely unaware of Khurshid’s feats and were jealous of him for becoming richer by the day. First it was a bicycle and then it was charpoy. While they continued to sell non-descript oils and trinkets and sleeping on the floor of their huts with their large families. One of them Lakhan was so jealous that he had knocked down the boiling milk from the stove on a couple of occasions when Khurshid was behind the stall cleaning the utensils. Khurshid had gone enquiring as to how that happened to Lakhan as his shop was the closest and he fabricated stories of cats jumping onto the vessel to mini earthquakes! Anyways Khurshid was more careful now and washed the utensils keeping an eye on the milk vessel at all times.
4,5,6,7 came and went. Khurshid managed to talk every single one of them out of their morose plans. It was autumn now but the place was still humid even at 10 in the night. He had gone down to the bank to wash his clothes and have a quick bath before he went back to his hut. It was then that he spotted a big black bag floating some 20 meters from the bank. He knew the river well; it didn’t start to get deep atleast 50 meters from the bank. He dropped the clothes, broke a branch from the tree where people hang all sorts of threads and started walking towards the bag. He prodded the river bed to check for loose soil lest he gets washed away. With the thick branch he tried pulling the bag towards him but it was too heavy. He had to move in closer. He then grabbed the part of the bag which was tied in a knot and pulled it towards him and started walking back towards the bank. With great effort he managed to pull the entire bag out of the river. He opened the bag and his mouth went agape. This was no suicide, someone had been killed and their body dumped in the river. He quickly tied the knot back on the big black bag and ran back to his hut.
Usually after 10 PM all the people around the shop area go back to their houses in the basti or some like Lakhan stay with their families. Lakhan had stepped out of his hut to smoke a beedi and decided to take a walk near the river. After walking some 400 meters towards the river bank he spotted Khurshid doing something with a big black bag. He wanted to call out but decided against it and hid behind the tree with multi coloured threads. Let me see what this rascal is upto so late in the night. He saw Khurshid leave the bag as is, pick up his clothes and run all the way back to his hut. “Saala, what’s the rush? Let me go and see what’s with that bag” Lakhan said to himself. After Khurshid was out of sight, he walked towards the bag. It smelled very bad. Clearly the knot which Khurshid had tried to tie in haste had come undone and Lakhan could see the dead man inside. His face went white with horror as he dropped his beedi and run back up to his hut.
Next morning the police were swarming around the place like ants on spilled honey. Khurshid was an intelligent man; he had shut his shop because he knew that with so many policemen around, his entire days milk supply will just get over giving them free tea. So he decided to finish some other chores and come again after a few hours to open shop. He took out his bicycle since it needed repair and was about to paddle when a hand pulled him down from the bicycle. A scruffy looking policeman kicked him in the shin. “Running away after the murder, eh?” the policeman said. When he was rubbing his shin and looked up to answer, he saw Lakhan standing next to the policeman and pointing towards him. “This is the guy sahib, I swear I saw him with the bag”, Lakhan was saying animatedly continuing to point towards Khurshid. Another rotund policeman picked Khurshid up by his collar and whacked one slap across his face. Then second and then a third to add to the impact. Khurshid was stunned. Before he knew it, he was taken away in the police jeep. It was the first time he was sitting in a four wheeler but what bad timing to have this experience for the first time.
Nothing came out of the interrogation and neither could the police find any money or valuables after trashing Khurshid’s hut. They were taking him to his cell when he heard a familiar voice. “Khurshid ji what happened?” a bewildered Ishita asked. After that momentous night when she tried to kill herself, she had become the leader of a local NGO helping out domestic maids fighting their case. She had come to the police station regarding the arrest of one such maid when she spotted Khurshid. “Ishita beta they have caught me for no fault of mine and they suspect me of murder while I don’t even know that man”, spoke Khurshid between sobs and gasps of air. It took Ishita 3 hours of arguing with the inspector that he can’t hold a person without any proof that the inspector relented.
“Take his thumb impression and let him go for now” growled the inspector. Khurshid wanted to say that he can read and write but decided against it. “I will come after you, I cannot find out now why you killed that man, but I will find out surely. And then you better have a pretty good explanation” said the Inspector. Khurshid trudged his way back to the hut, his clothes torn and his ego bruised. He wanted to tell the inspector about the seven people’s lives that he had saved. He was not a murderer. He was a life saver. But how could he prove. Just like they could not find any proof of him killing that man, they could not find any proof of him saving anyone either. It took him 4 hours to reach back to his hut after asking for directions some 100 times. He had never come out so far. The police had left long back taking the body with them and his hut was trashed. It’s not that he had too many possessions but the newspaper clippings soaked in milk added to the sense of chaos which the hut would have gone through. He lied down in the charpoy as he was dead tired and wanted to rest for a while. His customers would have to wait another few hours because he could not muster enough strength to cycle 3 kms to get more milk.
It was dark when he woke up. “God how long have I been sleeping?” Khurshid said as he pressed his forehead which was throbbing with pain. He walked out of the hut for some fresh air. He could hear the police sirens in distance. Was he dreaming or did the experience today made him paranoid. He talked to himself. “Nothing can happen to you. You know you haven’t killed that man. So no need to worry”, he tried to convince himself. Anyways police had searched the hut and had found nothing to suspect any wrong-doing. The sirens seemed to be getting closer; he could hear them more clearly. He went upto the river and washed his face. The water seemed heavenly and calmed him down a bit. He filled a bucket and started walking up towards his hut. He had reached halfway when he saw Lakhan standing with a bunch of policeman and pointing towards him.
Khurshid dropped the bucket of water and ran towards the river. His mind went blank. He could not think of anything but jump into the water. He did not know how to swim; and given that his body had taken severe beating today he could barely hold his breath for longer than 20 seconds. But he knew that water is not deep till 50 meters so he thought of just hiding himself there for a little while till the police call off the search.
The next day his dead body was fished out of the river by Lakhan and other shopkeepers. When the investigating officer came, Lakhan told him that last night a few policemen had come. They wanted to meet Khurshid because his “lady friend” had put something against the police on “computer” and they had come to tell him that he was not under any police investigation as they had found no proof. But then suddenly he jumped into the river, they tried to go after him but the river is really deep and furious at night. They thought he had gone there for a swim or something. “And now we find him dead the next morning. If only Khurshid had spoken to anyone of us”, wondered Lakhan.