Shweta screamed. Rajwanti pushed her daughter inside the room and locked it. She was shaking and screaming herself when she grabbed the sheet lying outside and started beating out the fire … with little success. Her neighbors rushed in with buckets of water.. the smell of burning flesh mixed with kerosene pervading the air. And then Amidst the chaos there came a cry- an animal cry of pain , of extreme agony.
Manoj died of 70% burns in the hospital two days later but not before giving a dying declaration that his Mother In law Rajwanti had set him ablaze.
Rajwanti was arrested and sent to judicial custody. There was only one eye witness who could save Rajwanti, the washer man’s son who was with him- who had brought him home from the theka. (local wine shop) But he disappeared mysteriously the next day….. One poor family was now on the brink of destruction….
There was fire everywhere.
Fire . Cold fire. The fire not burning him but…. He was standing amidst the fire…. he woke up with a start.
A nightmare. He has been having these nightmares… since last four years. Since the day he saw his mother being dragged away by the police… Shweta was already up busy tinkering in the kitchen . She had joined a private company as a receptionist trying to meet both ends meet and also the legal expenses. He did nothing… at least not yet. Nothing that paid him a pay cheque. Everyday was just a search …not for a job but the person ,only person, who could bring his mother back .Today he had to meet someone important. A tracer who would give him the information of the whereabouts of the eyewitness. The witness who would tell him what had happened that day. Shweta told him nothing. His mother told him it was an accident..The police told him it was a murder. Shweta’s in laws accused of a conspiracy… But he still knew nothing …
Shweta hardly spoke to her brother other than the bare minimum .She could not bear to meet his gaze, the guilt tore her apart. After all it was due to her that they were in this predicament.
“Are you coming to meet mother today?” She asked him from the door.
She already knew the answer but still paused by the door to hear a faint ‘No‘ from him. She shut the door carefully after her while calling out to him, “The paratha is in casserole”
There was no answer from him. She reached jail quite in time. She was listed third. The moment her mom came in she clutched the window and started weeping.
“There there”! Rajwanti whispered. “Why do you always waste 10 minutes of the thirty minute mulaqat time…”(meeting time)
“Mummy, I can’t continue this way anymore ! All my fault. If only I had listened to you. It is becoming difficult to go on like this. Ajay hardly speaks to me..I can’t face his accusing eyes…anymore.”
“Hush! Be quiet. It is fate and nothing else . You are not to blame my dear…I am fine. Don’t worry about me… And Did you meet the lawyer? What is he saying about the re appeal?”
“He wants the witness and he is trying to negotiate with my.in laws if ..possible….He is also re examining the medical aspect of the MLC. .and test reports..actually Manoj was drunk that night..”
“Oh! ..Does that help us?”
“Maybe we can pin it as suicide …or accident…”
Kallu was waiting for him in the tea stall. He grinned at Ajay showing his tobacco stained teeth.
“So?” Ajay asked him
“Did you get it?”Kallu whispered conspiratorially…
Ajay touched the bottle bulging out from his jacket pocket. Kalu was slightly disappointed at the size. It was a quarter.
“The Dhobi is still in touch with him. They get a money order every month”.
“Did you find out why he ran away?”
“The same thing. Police case… Murder…. Did not want to get involved as they are migrants…”
“So where is he?”
“Did not tell me…”
Despair clouded Ajay’s face.
“But I can find it out.. You will have to wait and I will need 1000Rs plus a full.”
“ How ?” Ajay asked suspiciously?
“The post office.”
“How long will it take?”
“It is 26th today. By 7th when the money order comes”.
He was only 15 yrs old when that incident occurred… to change their lives… may be irreversibly . He was out with his friends when someone gave him the news of the mishap at home. He rushed home to find the police already taking shweta’s husband Manoj on an ambulance. Shweta was hysterical. His mother was pacifying Shweta’s in laws. The neighbors were having a field day watching everything. Two days later his mother was taken away… His mother just told him that Shweta had come home after a tiff with her husband . Not unusual. Lately the frequency of their quarrels had increased. Two hours later he had come and stared creating a scene by abusing Shweta, and his mother in law. Rajwanti tried to intervene when he came close to hitting her daughter. But Manoj suddenly took out a bottle of kerosene and poured it on himself, threatening to set himself on fire, the lighter in his hand, if Rajwanti did not hand Shweta over to him. That was when Rajwanti became busy in pacifying her sobbing daughter inside the house, when suddenly both noticed a sudden glow outside the window. And Shweta screamed…But Shweta told him nothing. Manoj had given the statement that his mother had set him on fire. Will a dying man lie? What had happened actually?
It was the 5th of the month. Shweta stared at nothing in particular.
“I may be late in coming back.” He muttered and left banging the door behind him.
Ajay never discussed what he did when he stayed outdoors. They had grown apart when she had married Manoj much against her family’s wishes. Her father had passed away when they were both very young. Her mother had managed somehow with her job. A peon’s job and two rooms which they had let out. But she had tried her best to educate them. Her mother was right then. Shweta had not foreseen the problems of marrying Manoj. Initially everything was fine but dreams shattered. He was a good for nothing, a handsome good for nothing wasting his time and money on booze. He started beating her up off and on. Her in laws were mute spectators. He had known that Rajwanti had initially been against their marriage and the bitterness had remained spilling out off and on when he got drunk. That day she had come back home never to return. She had had enough. He had started accusing her of infidelity too. He did not care for her anymore but he did not want to leave her either. Because he did not want her to be happy too. And once she was free what if she found happiness…so he had come…
Kallu happily counted the money. Ten notes of 100. “Tell me, where do you get your money?”
“ None of your business.”He growled menacingly For a nineteen year old he looked qiute mature, well built, dark brooding yes, quite menacing.
“So he is not that far away. ..In Rishikesh… What does he do there.?”
“Tourist guide,”Kallu replied.
He went to a pay phone and called up his sister. “I will be back tomorrow night or maybe day after”. He did not give her an explanation nor did she ask for one..
“You are going to Rishikesh?” Kallu asked leaning against the wall He nodded and walked away mingling with the evening crowd.
He recognized him the moment he saw him. Arun, the Dhobi’s son. He was standing at the taxi stand with the other guides peering expectantly at the people alighting from the bus.
The moment Ajay saw him there all happy and eager, hale and hearty he was charged by an anger so strong , it threatened to overpower his senses totally. There his family was suffering for this man’s cowardice and here he was leaning casually and waiting for tourists.
He just rushed at him, grabbed his collar , “Why you...?” and punched him in his face with all the hatred in his heart . He fell on to the road before he could realize what him. Ajay was simply unstoppable and rained blows on him.. Arun recognized him the moment he saw his face amidst the blows. His opponent was simply too much for him. Maybe he was disoriented or it was the pain. And then he just gasped.,
“So what wrong did I do, if I killed him? He is better off dead.. !!!”
Ajay froze. The hold on Arun slackened. “ What did you say?” Ajay whispered.
Both of them were seated in a corner of a tea stall. Blood was still oozing from the cut on his chin and Arun kept on wiping it away with a dirty handkerchief.
“Why did you hit me with such force if you really had not realized the truth.?”
Ajay maintained a stony silence. After a pause he just said, “Out with your story!”
Arun sniffed and wiped away the blood again. “I loved your sister.”
Ajay still sat silently.
“That bastard was treating her like dirt. … I found him totally drunk at the theka. That evening He asked me to accompany to your place as he was not being able to walk properly. He was very abusive that day. Your mother tried to cool down things but Manoj was simply….My temper was rising to see your sister weeping inconsolably. Then Manoj threatened to set himself ablaze. Your mother had gone inside with shweta. There was no one outside… Manoj was so drunk he was completely unaware of what was going around him. I saw my chance and then I discreetly lighted a match and threw at him. There was so much of kerosene…it just lighted up.”
“What’s my family’s role in it? ..Do they know? Shweta?”
“No!” he replied. “They think it was an accident”.
“And Manoj? Why did he say so?”
“He did not remember maybe or realize. So he just pointed it to the person he hated most. “
“And you and she?”
“Nothing. Nothing…She never knew.”
Ajay felt a strange feeling of relief … after four years
“Ok get up! We are going back”
“what? Do you think I am so crazy?You want me to go back and just appear before the police and say-.. you see you have the wrong person. Well actually I did it.Ha ha ha Buster, you don’t have any proof against me and I will keep on denying it to the last of my days. And if necessary will say that your mother did it. That i was running cos I was scared of my life. So forget that idea.”
“Why I will kill you ..you”
“Wait! I didn’t say I won’t help you…Sit down.” Ajay sat down reluctantly.
“See, there is no proof of what I did. Years will be lost in just proving this fact…or may be you will never..So lets make a deal. Forget today’s incident.. I will go and give the statement that he accidently lighted the lighter he was holding when he tried to threaten your sister. Your mother gets out. I remain free. Everybody is happy. Don’t go into the crime and punishment thing. This is your one shot at survival. So think about it.. I will explain that I ran away as I was afraid of being involved in this case..and all. They are used to this type of reactions from us poor fry. So …think about it…”
Ajay stared at him with hatred in his eyes…This was the person that had brought ruin to his family…Arun was walking slowly alongside him.
This was the person who had given up the battle of life at a crucial moment…They turned towards the somewhat official looking place.
This was the man that made him lose his teenage years. And now he was still unrepentant for everything. Still smug that nothing can go wrong for him now… if only he knew!The audacity of the thought – a bargain. ???
Rajwanti was released from jail after she was acquitted . The return of the only, witness had reversed the case completely. Ajay joined as a waiter in a Restaurant. Shweta continued her job as a receptionist. Arun opened a dry cleaning and laundry joint. Rajwanti is trying to regain her old job. People were picking up the pieces , trying to forget the heart, the magazines that part of their life.That chapter was closed .