Saturday, July 18, 2009

The touch

He didn't move a muscle when the door slammed open. His eyes were locked in an empty gaze at the floor. The pregnant silence deafened him to the voices muttering in the background. His olfactory senses were numbed by the stench of blood and rotting flesh. He wouldn't respond to his name, her name or the baby's name. His tongue slipped out between the tenderness of his lips, twitching at times as if giving us a sign of life. His back slumped against the wall, The terror hiding in his crouched limbs was blatantly evident even to the most hardened of officers, yet his bravery in the face of ghastly violation did not fail to evoke admiration. The crow’s lines around the old Inspector’s eyes melted into compassion as he eyed the boy, the inspector opened his mouth but couldn’t speak a word.

The room was at the end of the dark long corridor, beyond the communal bathrooms and communal tap, beyond three rundown unoccupied homes. The stench didn’t hit us until we crossed the first house. We didn’t need sleuths to suggest that here was ensconced the perfect setting for an unobtrusive act of brutal disaffection. As we neared the flat, guarded by masked policemen, I felt the need to run back urgently and vomit out the lack of guts. Even seasoned officers betrayed their confident demeanor and enquired after the severity of the scene. I gathered my wits and hid behind the inspector’s shoulder as he slammed the door ajar. I wasn't prepared for this face-off. Something told me that today was different. That scared the hell out of me.

Treading the room with caution and fear, I skewed my eyes hoping to notice pieces of evidence possibly missed by cursory glances. Kali, the goddess, looked down with rage - her hair flaring with anger, her tongue spewing fire at the enemies of her devotees and scorn at friends who couldn't help them, her eyes protruding with disgust, her hands shaking with the raw instinct to avenge the losses. Suddenly, my field of vision was invaded by an image that will remain etched in my memory, even if I get struck down by Alzheimer’s disease. The little boy. I remember the boy sitting shocked in a fetal position with his head between his knees, still in disbelief. He found solace in the corner of the cold 10 by 12 feet room. The one-room house exuded the aura of raw instinct, of exceeding human passion, of the horror of neglect. The blue distemper was peeling off in large parts and the mosaic tiles uneven in their lay. The walls were now newly painted. Large bold streaks and splashes of dried dark red blood besmirched the old walls. Pieces of torn clothes were strewn on the floor, the minimal furniture in utter disarray. The foam of the torn cushions mirrored the frothing at the mouths, the blotches of spilt ink resonated with the sight of large bruises.

What had he seen? What did he know? Would he recognize the barbarians? There was no flicker of emotion on his face, just an empty stare. He didn’t blink for many minutes at a stretch, as if forcing himself to retain the memory of the incident. I wanted to touch the little boy, pat his head, hold his hand; yet I knew that nothing I said or did would reverse the chain of actions that left him orphaned and abandoned. Cherubic, button like black eyes, a soft plump nose, thin pursed lips, with thin plucky hair, in khaki shorts offset by a blue polo necked t-shirt, barefoot. Unharmed. Untouched. Untarnished. Yet the scars couldn't be missed. I could have made a nursery rhyme describing his appearance had it not been the brevity of the circumstance. Just about 3 feet tall, he couldn’t have probably seen more than five years in what was now a dastardly cruel world. Did he want to hug his mother and hide in the pleats of her sari? Did he want to tug at his sister’s hair and run all over the place? Did he want to sit by his father as he narrated stories of how the pen was mightier than the sword? What was he thinking? Was he thinking anything at all? What was to be done of him? Did he understand the gravity of the situation? Fear painted his tanned face a pale white, mortification made him a rigid frozen statue. I had been down this path before, yet I had never met someone so young and innocent there. I wanted to scream, but my throat was hurting with dryness, my voice lost to the the helplessness of deep sorrow.

This wasn’t my first assignment and won’t be my last either. Yet, there was something lecherous about it, something extraordinary. Perhaps, it was because the man lying with over twenty stab wounds was a close friend, a fearless journalist, a true patriot. Or was it because the woman, happy in her ignominy, played a silent hapless victim to the ruthlessness of her husband’s murderers? The woman who sent her husband on his mission, praying silently for his safe return, while cradling her unborn child in her womb. The elder daughter whose laugh filled the ears and hearts of all who knew her, opened the door of her life to the ones who'd close life on her forever. But weren’t similar stories played out to us before? What was it about this incident that affected us so much? I knew the answer and I think I was scared to admit it because of the futility of our endeavor to bring justice. Wasn’t he the man braved his life and went undercover to reveal the modus operandi in the slum rehabilitation scheme? Yes, he was the man, who socialized with crass and class that looted the city under the garb of rehabilitating slum dwellers. He was the one who traced the path of corruption from the lowly servant to the highest echelons of power. He knew the path ahead was full of thorns, he knew he held more than his life at stake. He’d gathered a dedicated coterie around him, but sadly, he failed to recognize the Judas. So much so for his bravery, he lost all evidence, his family and finally his life. The threats had been coming for a while. But he wasn’t among those to be daunted easily. He mentioned it casually to the Commissioner once. The next day, police in plain clothes hovered around him unobtrusively. Nothing happened for a few weeks. Then suddenly, in the Nov 26th terror attacks, the demoralized police force recalled their men from these extended services. And here we were, the morning of Nov 28th, in this room, amidst strains of news reporters belching ‘live’ coverage of the military retaliation.

… I remembered why I was here. I was here to do a job, and not allow my train of thoughts to take me away. I felt my hands shivering and feet glued to the floor. I shuddered to fetch the lenses from the case and capture the scene for posthumous justice - and posterity. As I started the mundane routine of clicking away strategic pictures, I felt vindictive adrenaline coursing through my veins. I felt the need to attack every nook and corner into the aperture of my weapon. As a crime photographer, I was supposed to observe and gather evidence bravely, dispassionately and impartially. Yet, within the walls was encapsulated a gush of violence that was breaking the walls of my emotional dam at its seams.

I had finished my job and packed my bag. Investigations had picked up a frenzied pace. Tempers were soaring, papers flying around. Phone calls were attended to in voice modules of servility. But something tickled my conscience and I decided to stay. I usually manage to maintain my equanimity. What was it then today? I stared into a distance as if looking for an answer, but I found my neck turning to the little boy. How was he forgotten in the melee? Why wasn’t he taken away? I remembered a poem from school that described how a warrior’s widow remained still in shock and cried only when an old lady place her newborn baby in her lap. What psychotherapy could I offer? I was a cynic, who always wondered how we could have the audacity to predict human behavior. Living in the world of crime only strengthened my belief and denigrated any iota of respect I’d had for humanity. Yet, I knew, I had to something.

I trudged toward the boy wondering what to say. Should I be solemn? Should I smile reassuringly? Should I just sit by him? I held out my trembling hand and touched his shoulder. I don’t know what pulse of electricity jolted him. He turned to me with piercing eyes, and a moment later, he was in my arms wailing for his mother and father. Like a dark cloud slapping another heavy dark fluff of moisture. Like a flood arising from the juxtaposition of a storm with the high tide. Like a dam broken.

Everything came to a standstill. He clutched me tightly and refused to let me go. I stroked his hair, he cried out for his father. I kissed his cheek, he yelled out for his mother. I felt helpless in my ignorance and ashamed of my hesitancy to help. Yet, I felt responsible for him. What was it that just connected us momentarily? Was it humane touch? Was it destiny or a past debt? Was it a relation that trespassed the boundaries of blood? Then I remembered something I'd heard a long time ago. "Some things in life do not follow the rules of logic. Some things in life are not meant to be within the realm of conscious understanding. Some things in life are inexplicable and are best left so". Where did those words come from, I don't know. They weren't mine, they belonged to someone I'd discredited a long time ago. Now, my karma had just boomeranged and was standing in front of me. A doubt erupted. Should I be brave enough to think aloud? Yes. Should I take him and leave him with authorities. Yes, maybe. Should I? Can I? Maybe I can. Could I be the plastic surgeon who wouldn't be able to erase the scars entirely, but could at least graft them with new memories? Will my hands have the power to soothe away the pain and gore? Will I be able to live up to the responsibility? Am I suffused with immature enthusiasm? Am I running away? Oh my God or whatever supernatural energy you are, where the hell are you now when I need you to give me the answer?

I closed my eyes for a minute. I envisaged. A vision of my future appeared, surrounded by an illuminating halo. The halo encircled me with the boy in my arms, his head resting on my shoulders. My heart was racing. The boy experienced trust and peace. I was filled with warmth and happiness. We were happy. He and I. My heart was beating to a slow peaceful rhythm. I opened my eyes and found myself standing with my head firmly on my shoulders, head held high, bursting with a sense of purpose. I looked at the little boy. Curiously, warmly. Suddenly, he meant more to me than just a colleague’s son. Suddenly he was more than just another child. Suddenly I felt wanted. I felt the presence of another in my lonely life. He lulled himself to sleep in a few minutes. The feeling was comforting. The embrace was humbling. I looked around to have a last glance at the past and to prepare myself for what lay ahead – the task of erasing painful memories and building a new life. For him, and for me. I felt a surge of blood in my heart, a sense of belonging. I took a deep breath, picked up my bag and walked out into a new world.


Abinav Kumar said...

That's meticulously written. Very, very gripping. And the reference to Mother Mary in the last para - neat!

This is just brilliant. I am going to link this through my blog in some days - for whatever it is worth.

Harini said...

hey abi,
welcome back and thanks for forcing me to write.
i personally thought this was a dark piece that i'd like to disown in the near future. seeking inspiration to complete my first story actually...
me gonna write more now. and less sap.