Three Hundred Rupees
Three Hundred Rupees9 mins 247 9 mins 247
Anwar would always tell anyone who would listen that there was no justice in the world. He never found many listeners. He knew he could not expect to find too many of them in his current situation; therefore he satisfied his urge by talking to himself about the grave injustice done to him until someone came by.
He was sitting alone and mumbling to himself when his ramblings reached me during my evening stroll. My interest was piqued. I proceeded towards the source of the sound. After turning a corner, I came across Anwar, who was sitting alone, his face half in shadows, inside his jail cell.
I was an inmate of the same jail. The reasons for my being behind the bars, as I discovered later, were just as flimsy as the reasons that had put Anwar there (at least according to him). I had been in the jail for three months and this was the first time I came across him. He was one of those inmates who kept to themselves or whom others shied away from for one reason or the other. I had no such airs. He had the look of a man who had plenty to say, and me being a collector of tales, I was immediately drawn to him.
He saw me approach and was delighted. It was the time for evening stroll for the convicts. We were given one and half hours of fresh air in the morning and the same amount in the evening, and frankly the clean air was much more nutritious than the jail food. As he had found a new audience in me, Anwar suddenly felt fit for a walkabout in the jail premises.
He led me to his favourite spot through the grounds where we spent our afternoons, tilling the fields, growing vegetables. The spot was near the boundary of the jail grounds, and it had a view of a shimmering blue lake through the barbed wires. Our jail was actually an old fortress overlooking the lake, which had been re-purposed to hold people like us. Two guards were stationed near the barbed wire, and a sentry tower kept lookout.
For a few minutes, we simply sat there. It was a beautiful scene. Beyond the fence lay the whole world. There were a few scattered trees, a dirt road populated by bullock carts and a few trucks, a lot of dust and colourful people. The blue sky was being painted orange by the sinking sun. It seemed that the blue lake which was turning dark every passing minute; was alive and was communicating to us through the waves on its surface, which gently lapped against the foot of the small white marble temple on the farther shore of the lake.
All this was beyond our reach. A barbed fence a few feet high, whose thickness was not measured in distance, but by the time you were meant to spend behind it, separated us from the world. Anwar was staring at the lake intently. It was a look filled not with longing, but with familiarity. It seemed as if he was a man who was deeply acquainted with the nature of the lake, he had reached down into its depths and understood everything it had to say. He told me he was a fisherman who occasionally transported people across the river near his native place.
“You know, every son of a bitch who lives near a river is proud of his river. Maybe their river is just four feet wide, or a deceptive serpent who when season changes devours all the villages around its flow, but a river is a thing to be proud of. Despite that, mine is the best river there is in this entire world.” He said with utmost sincerity, the tone of his voice making it clear that this was the ultimate truth, and I better not debate him.
Then he told me how he ended up in this wretched jail and what for. “They sent me to jail for thirty years. All I asked for was just a few more rupees.” He looked towards the lake. Darkness was falling, but you could see a solitary boat drifting across the dark waters. Anwar followed the movement of the boat as it reached the shore of the lake, turned with a sigh towards me and launched into his tale.
He had been a prisoner for fifteen years now. He refused to speak about his family or friends. He had none. He said that where he came from, a criminal has no family, no past and no future. Life begins anew once a man becomes a criminal. It is like attaining nirvana. All the worldly ties get cut and when your jail term ends, you issue forth into the world a free man who lives in the moment.
Anwar owned a boat in his past life, a boat he was immensely proud of. He made it from the finest wood he himself had cut and collected. The fastest and most balanced boat in the whole world, Anwar assured me. Right now it languished in the place where police stored evidence, or perhaps had been claimed by someone who knew a good boat when he saw one and had connections in the right places.
“Wherever she is, I hope they are taking good care of her.” This was all Anwar had to say about its present conditions.
In this past life, he used the boat for his fishing exploits. At other times the boat ferried people across the river. The trips that Anwar really relished were the long distance hikes form one town to other town, even form one state to another, up and down the length of the river. It was not a river to be dealt with lightly. No river is, Anwar added. It was a fitting test for his navigation skills. He knew the currents, flows and moods of the river. Still every journey was a new experience which taught him something more about the river and himself.
His face lit up as he talked about the different people he had the opportunity of meeting during his travels. He had had all kinds of passengers – young, old, male, female, poor, rich, sick, wise, rich people who were poor of thought, poor people who were immensely rich of heart, brides running away before marriages, their uncles following them.
Once his entire passenger list consisted of a shepherd and four sick goats. It was an epic journey whose rousing tale Anwar was about to recount, when I reminded him of the current topic, and the paucity of time we faced. He extracted a promise that I would be back tomorrow evening and hear about that journey with the goats.
The reason he was in jail was the Indian contract act, he said. His lawyer had told him that. That was his defence in the court. He was now sure that he should not have listened to his lawyer. Had that not been his defense, Anwar would surely have gotten a lighter sentence, he added ruefully.
He usually took four hundred rupees to ferry people across the river. That season, the rains had been strong and incessant, which had flooded the river. He was sitting in his hut near the shore, when a customer came, pleading to be led across the river.
“I refused flatly. But the customer was desperate and kept on pleading. He wore down my defence steadily, and when he offered me double the usual fare, I had to say yes.”
There were no other boats in sight when Anwar pushed his boat into the water. The river had swollen to twice its size. It was raining heavily. The current was pushing and pulling the boat around. Anwar had to use all his skills to keep the boat from capsizing.
It was when the boat reached mid-stream that Anwar felt he should have asked for more money. No one else would have agreed to ferry passengers across the stream under the prevailing conditions, not even for triple the usual money. Anwar had only agreed because the customer had informed him that his wife was in the village hospital on the other side of the river and he wanted to be present for the birth of his first child.
Anwar asked the passenger for more money. He refused to pay any more money. They bargained for a few minutes, the rain getting worse throughout the discussion, and failed to reach a consensus. Finally Anwar declared he was not going to go any further. He asked the passenger to pay him for the return journey. He refused again. Anwar asked him to leave the boat.
“When you get in a bus or a bullock cart, and you refuse to pay the driver, he throws you out, and no one calls that a murder.” Anwar said. I pointed out the fact that hardly anyone drowns on the land, but he said it was the right thing to do. “I did not want to kill anyone. I simply wanted to receive fair wages for my effort and the risk taken. You cannot expect to not pay and get a free ride in my boat.”
The customer did not want to pay and therefore left the boat. Anwar steered his boat back toward the shore, battling the wild river. He was completely exhausted by that time, and slept soundly, until he was arrested the next morning.
The customer had asked around for a boat to ferry him across before coming to Anwar, and somebody in one of the nearby huts had seen the passenger leave with Anwar. Therefore when the customer did not return, the needle of suspicion turned to Anwar.
In the court, Anwar’s lawyer pleaded his case with great gusto, but the fact that Anwar and the murdered man had had a tiff in the past and the man was married to Anwar’s former lover; who had spurned Anwar to marry the guy, went against Anwar. Anwar maintained his defence that this was simply a business transaction which failed, and there were no emotions involved. This made it certain to the court that Anwar was a man without remorse and acted in cold, calculated way. They gave him the harshest sentence possible and it was carried forward through all level of courts, and Anwar lost all his appeals.
“For a few rupees more… Only three hundred rupees, to be exact” he kept repeating. The stupid things we all do, for a few more rupees, and stupid things like love.