She was plucking stars, silently, from a mysterious sky and arranging them just the way she liked. Two little stars near the sun, two golden ones near the moon and all the rest in a straight focused line. Her eyes glanced furtively at the arrangement of her cosmos and she quickly plucked out all the stars from the dark firmament and threw them in the little cardboard box, lying next to the window. And the entire room plunged in a stream of endless darkness again, leaving her in the throes of a storm raging inside her mind. Night hung in spaces behind the curtains and lurked in corners waiting to spring a surprise. Nothing could defeat its victorious designs. The string of blue and gold electric lights would be better off in the veranda, she thought, making way through the darkened alley that led to the tiny open space outside, clutching the box with a deathly grip, as if it held all the cures to soothe her troubled mind. The dazzling rhododendrons were dancing in the evening breeze, singing songs of freedom, laughing at her captivity. The trees swayed in perfect tune and harmony with the gentle wind that rushed in and out of the unkempt grassy compound. Silence hung in every nook and corner, almost as vigilant and cautious as the keeper of a graveyard. So much so that every little sound made it uncomfortable.
Would it be wise to display the lights? Would it be wise to proclaim to the conniving world that she held a happy secret in her mind? Her slim fingers curled around the glassy surface of the lights and caressed them hesitatingly. No, it would not be right. It could awaken the entire world that slept unconsciously, unaware of her existence, oblivious to her screams. But that was not what she wanted, not at that moment, most definitely. The shrill cry of the sharp resounding bell that screamed through the corridors of hell brought her back to reality. She quickly slid the box under the old wooden bookcase that stood dispassionately in a corner of the fungus-invested veranda. A light drizzle had started and the heady fragrance of the parched earth penetrated her thirsty soul. She took a deep breath, letting it touch her senses. Her heart pounded like that of a caged bird, anticipating the much awaited hour of freedom. The continuous ringing of the bell made her look nervously at the clock. It was almost time. Was it him? Her blood froze in her veins, as she looked at the familiar face outside. He was the last person, she had expected at that hour. He appeared livid and the vein close to his temple pulsated with a volcanic intensity. Her frail fingers struggled to lift the latch and before she could open the door his desperate hands pounded it fiercely and he rushed inside.
“You idiot, can’t you sense any urgency.” He snapped looking at her venomously. “Now hurry up, the cops will be here any minute and try to look like a good wife, not the tramp you really are!” He hissed, hurling a string of abuses at her.
The walls started closing in on her again, burying her alive. The loud cry of sirens wailed outside and she knew it won’t be long before they would be there. It would not be long before she would once again be entrapped in the quagmire of a filthy life. It won’t be long before she would lose track of the single forbidden dream, that had entered her life quite secretively.
“Are you listening to me?” He asked contemptuously.
“I am not your wife!” she retorted stubbornly.
He was taken aback by the sudden revolt in her voice. He looked at her disbelievingly. She shook like a leaf in a storm, but the light in her eyes was unmistakable. He had to hold back the urge to slap her across the face, but that would be like killing a golden sparrow in its gilded cage. Till the time the deal was struck, he had to make sure she stayed safe: untouched, unharmed and away from leering eyes.
“Ok, you are not,” he said desperately attempting to quell whatever was lurking behind the cold eyes. He was running against time. His voice fell to a gentle pleading whisper. “I was just asking you to pretend.”
The sirens had come closer and she heard the footsteps hustling on the little muddy path that led to the cottage. She peered out of the window. She smiled. The cold bitter truth of the real world lingered in that ominous smile. They were the same, except one. He seemed different and she had never seen him earlier. But she knew they were all the same, beneath their skin, their ugliness was all the same. The footsteps halted outside the door and a furious knock interrupted whatever thoughts that might have been rushing through her mind at supersonic speed. He rushed towards the backyard and scampered out of the thorny bushes that led to the highway, where she presumed he might find a truck that would deliver him to safety. But what about her deliverance! She did not even know where she was! She opened the door and the uniformed men pushed past her to the interior of the villa, as if they knew everything beforehand. They did not meet her eyes, afraid that in the mirror they would see the truth in their guise.
“Who are you?” The different looking man asked, running his eyes over her frame, in a guarded manner.
She looked at him suspiciously. He stared back at her, surprised by her remarkable beauty. His eyes quickly scanned her youthful, lithe and supple body. She was like a gazelle. Her watchful blue eyes remained fixed on his face: unflinching, unafraid. The girl was spirited, he had to admit! The constables took a cursory look around the house and snapped to attention. They came and stood close to him, awaiting further orders.
“He is not there. Nobody else is there.” One of them supplied, his eyes flitting from the girl to his superior.
“So, where is he?” he finally asked, his eyes looking into her cold dispassionate ones.
“I don’t know.” She said looking at the thorny bushes from where he had escaped just a few minutes ago. His eyes followed her gaze and rested back on her enigmatic face.
“She won’t tell us, like this,” he sighed, winking at the constables. “I’ll have to resort to other means.” He said, his hands unbuckling the leather belt and sliding it out from the waist. The constables smiled wickedly, a knowing grin spreading across their faces. “You people wait outside. This won’t take long.”
The officer saw them retreat willingly to the shady tree in a corner of the garden. Pandu had taken out a beedi. He lit it and burst into livid laughter that echoed everywhere.
“Can we have some music?” he asked, making himself comfortable on the easy chair. “It will set the mood.”
She nodded her head, noticing that his voice was far too loud than was needed in the humble confines of the room. She disappeared into the shady confines of the kitchen. A loud raunchy number from a Bollywood movie blared to life.
“Now that’s nice,” he said.
She almost jumped out of her skin in surprise. He was standing right behind her.
“Something to drink perhaps?” he suggested looking out of the window. One of the constables stared back at him and he immediately placed a hand on her shoulder. The constable looked away. He knew what was on his mind!
“Yes”, she murmured, quickly moving away from him and pointed to a little cabinet.
His eyes did not leave hers even for a second as he opened the cabinet, took out a bottle and placed it on the table with a loud thud. Before she could have realized what was happening, she saw him kick at the door next to the cabinet with all the force that he could muster. He removed the pistol from its holster and swung inside. The little boy rushed outside, into the arms of the girl who now stood shaking, totally stunned by the suddenness of the turn of events. He hauled the man sitting in a corner and kicked him in his stomach and continued punching him till he begged and pleaded for it to end. She stared at the man. His voice boomed from the interiors as he shouted from inside. The constables came scrambling, totally bewildered, their minds desperately trying to connect what could have happened inside.
“Pandu! Shinde!”, he said angrily. “Tie this man to that pillar. We have some talking to do.”
The girl clutched the little boy close to her, his head buried in her waist as he sobbed deliriously. She did not want him to vanish with another cruel stroke of fate, yet again.
“You have nothing to fear.” The officer said, looking into her stormy eyes. “Nothing to fear at all.”
It had all happened too swiftly for her to really know what was happening. He escorted her out of the dark and dismal confines. The sun shone brightly and it stung her eyes. Her little brother held her hand tightly, afraid that if he let it go this time, he would never see her again.
“So where can I leave you?” The man in uniform asked, looking at the two children, trying his best not to think of his own daughter as he observed the girl.
“I....,” she mumbled helplessly, wondering what to say, trying to find the words that would not complicate everything. Should she divulge the details of the young man who had promised her love and freedom? The questions stormed her confused mind.
The Mumbai skyline was overcast and dark, grey clouds threatened a torrential downpour. Unsteady, uncertain, unsure of which way they were headed, the clouds rumbled and raged furiously, descending on the populace with every second. Her dark eyes flitted from the sky to the man who had been her saviour. He repeated the question and in that moment her eyes caught a glimpse of a young man seated in the police van. His handcuffed hands were evidence enough, for her to see his true colours. She was neither shocked nor surprised. Life had gradually unfolded and revealed its mysterious ways to her in more ways than one. She felt free of unwanted shackles and as her spirits soared with the boisterous sea-gulls that circled the unfathomable Arabian sea, she knew the world waited for her, with folded hands, on its knees. And she was ready for it.
© Jaspreet Mann, The Little Lama & other stories. India Ink (2018)
(Dedicated to young girls who become victims of sex trade in Mumbai. Dedicated to men who are real heroes and rescue them. )
Pic courtesy: Art by Joonas (Cry Girl, Black and White Art, Acrylic Painting)