|EDITOR'S NOTE: a few words are linked to definitions for Westerners and others who may need them.|
He was a freedom fighter in the tumultuous pre-Independence era in his teens. At eighteen he was not unfamiliar with a handgun but was not adept in its use. He accepted the revolver, unaware that it was loaded and caressed the wooden butt of the weapon.
He kept his finger lightly on the trigger. A shot rang out. The bullet hit the wall and ricocheted on to the ceiling. The shell falling with a faint thud on the floor. The chief and his associates recoiled in horror.
What if the policemen on duty on the opposite side of the lane where a marriage reception was being held, had heard the shot ring out. Their hideout would be blown. The group of seven sat still, waiting for the dreaded footsteps of the booted police on the staircase. Nothing happened. It took them a while to realize that the droning sound of the shehnai had drowned the sound of the single gunfire.
The assignment was set for the morrow. Shekhar was to go for a stroll with Debal on the river front and put a bullet in his head and roll the body into the swirling waters of the Ganges flowing past the French part of the town where the British police had to go through cumbersome protocol to deal with terrorists. He had called on Debal, two years younger than him, late in the evening, and suggested that they go for a walk early next morning. They needed to talk about the finer points of the next assignment, which involved bombing the house of the additional superintendent of police in British Chandanagore. Debal had been led to believe that the assignment was on and the chief had deliberately fabricated the assignment for further confirmation about Debal being a police informer. While many in the group were unwilling to believe that Debal was an informer the chief was convinced. And hence the plan to eliminate Debal -- a threat to the underground organization. It wasn't that some of the others hadn't tried to persuade the Chief to put off the elimination until more concrete proof was at hand. But he was not to be dissuaded. Debal had to go. It was five in the morning when Debal arrived. Shekhar had the pistol tucked into the waistband of his dhoti. He arranged his kurta over his waist and checked for tell tale signs of the bulge against the flat of his stomach. He put his arm around the younger member of the group and they walked slowly along the path shorn of grass along the river. Doubt, like small ants nibbling away, gnawed at Shekhar's mind. Could such a committed youngster barely sixteen, who had enlisted in the organization to free his motherland of the British yoke, be a traitor. His rational mind refused to believe it. But the regimentation and the disciplinary drill that he had had to go through for the last four years had taught him not to disobey the commander. He steeled himself for the task ahead and launched into the details of the plan that Debal had been informed about casually. The chief had made it clear that the little that Debal had been told had been leaked to the British police.
Could the Chief have been misled? Shekhar was not sure. He wavered. He thought of walking away and telling the commander that he was not up to performing the task. And that someone else be assigned. He closed his eyes and could visualize the taunting look in the eyes of the Chief and most of his associates. He abandoned the thought of abandoning the assignment. Why did he have to chose me? he thought.
Shekhar quickened his pace and turned around. His right hand dipped under the kurta. He whipped out the revolver and pointed it at a startled Debal. His younger associates eyes widened in horror.
Shekhar shot him in the head twice. The blood welled from the bullet holes on his forehead smearing the innocent face as Debal slumped to the ground. Shekhar closed his eyes, tucked the pistol back into the waistband of the dhoti and proceeded to roll the frail body into the Ganga. It sank with hardly a splash as the gushing muddy waters carried the body away.
India was independent. Many of Shekhar's associates had died in encounters with the police in their attempt to free the country of British rule. Some had been jailed in Kalapani. Yet others were hanged in British jails. Some like Shekhar had survived.
He had joined a Government sector undertaking -- a reward for being a freedom fighter. He had married and sired three sons. Shekhar built a house, all of three stories for the family. He had a dream not unlike any other father. A happy family. Sons well placed where he could get them married to girls from respectable families. And off course grandchildren to while away his hours in his post retirement period.
But the Lord seemed to have ordained otherwise. His sons had not lived up to his expectations. The two elder ones were moderately placed in jobs that brought no pride to him. Simply because their academic pursuits lacked effort and had not been good enough to build careers and carve a respectable niche in society. Frankly he was disillusioned with his sons. They were far too selfish, especially the two elder ones. He wasn't happy either with the wives they chose for themselves. Their lives revolving around their husbands, they had little respect and less time for their in-laws. The youngest had just graduated and was yet to get a job. He seemed the most vulnerable.
Shekhar decided he had had enough of a brood that had
brought him little happiness. It was not a decision born of impulse.
He had been brooding about it for quite a few months. And had
finally decided to sell the house he had so painstakingly built. Real
estate prices were soaring and it was boom time for promoters who
were buying land and well appointed houses for huge sums to make
astronomical profits from high rise apartments. He announced his
decision to his sons and made it abundantly clear to them that they
had to clear out and fend for themselves. He realized that they
were shaken and had taken it badly but he could not care. One thing
Shekhar was sure; he would not part with a single paisa to his sons
while he and his wife lived.
Shekhar never talked of his youth, his participation in the struggle to free the country of colonialism, either to his wife or his sons. The pre-Independence generation would never have a measure of the sacrifices "we made," he would muse. As for his wife, she had been far removed from the realities of anarchy for freedom where she had grown and blossomed. The days of the anarchist had slipped largely into oblivion. But for one incident.
Neither could he talk of the nightmares that had been haunting him of late. He would break out in cold sweat in the middle of the night, leave the bed and go up to the terrace for a breath of fresh air to try and rid his tormented mind of the scene by the river side four decades ago. The terrified look in Debal's eyes as he whipped out the pistol and pointed it between his eyes. The gunshots still rang in Shekhar's ear. Debal's blood spurting out seemed to drench his soul. The same doubt had begun to surface so many years later. Was Debal really a police informer? He had never bothered to check it out on his own but had merely followed the Chief's orders -- blindly. He had shot and killed a youngster who may have been innocent. He had no proof that Debal was guilty of the cardinal sin of betraying an anarchist organization fighting for the freedom of the country. He had only the chief's word to go by.
And what if he was wrong. Then he, Shekhar had committed the most heinous crime of killing in cold blood an innocent young man.
It was well past two in the night as he sat in the terrace, cigarette smoke spiralling into the indigo sky, wallowing in remorse for a wrong he may well have committed forty years ago. He felt a presence by his chair. His youngest son, Probal stood silently waiting for his attention.
" What are you doing here at this time of night?" Shekhar asked.
" I wanted to speak to you Baba about something I don't seem to understand."
" What is it? "
" I am hardly twenty and don't have a job. And yet you are turning me out of the house. Borda and Mejda can fend for themselves. They have jobs. Where do I go? Where do I stay? What do I eat?"
The full moon seemed to cast a weird spell. The wan moonlight lit up the terrace, dark on other days. Shekhar's eyes locked with Probal's. The fragile young face was a picture of hopelessness and despair. Fear of the unknown was writ large on his face. Shekhar felt a chill go down his spine. He had spiralled back four decades in time and could see Debal staring at him startled, terrified before the bullets shattered the back of his head.
DEFINITIONS (in order of appearance):
shehnai: a clarinet type instrument played at Indian weddings.
back to point in story
"Nightmare" is one of several short stories I have compiled and would like to publish as an anthology.