I had shut myself in my room for more than five hours now. I was unable to take the moans and wails of my family. I was tired of the endless commiserations from strangers, friends and foes. About half a dozen folks from the local police department were stationed permanently near my house now. The police chief, who had visited us a few hours ago, had unpretentiously told me “This is what happens to people who act against their own country and society”. Such cold comments at times of extreme despair undoubtedly left a scar in my mind. The piercing stare of the police chief, which accompanied the statement, clearly proved that this was a well thought out warning. A warning meant to convey that if I were to stray in my path, I will also meet the same fate as my beloved elder brother, who was shot dead the previous day in a police encounter. My mind was oscillating between the grief of losing my brother and fear of what the future holds for me.
The funeral was scheduled later in the day. Unable to get the demons out of my head, I knew that I had no choice but to wait out the moments that would unfold for the next few hours and days. As I was momentarily drifting off to sleep, my wife entered the room and nudged me awake. “You will have to come now. You cannot stay here forever. We have to get through this”. I unwillingly lifted myself up and followed her to the living room downstairs. I broke down yet again seeing the life-less form of my brother. I never imagined that all the bonding, fun, angst, quarrels, emotions and love would come to an end in such a cruel manner. As I wept and mourned, a pair of hands held my shoulders firmly. I looked up to see the elderly religious priest staring into my eyes. This was the same man who had been part of every occasion that demanded the presence of someone like him. He gently whispered “We have to start the final ceremonies now. Stay strong. Your brother’s death will not go wasted”. I was delirious and did not make much of his statement then. Instead I set about following his instructions in preparation for the final journey of my brother.
The final few hours were much more difficult than I had imagined; both for me and for the rest of my family. How I wished to be anywhere but here. The wails of my mother, my widowed sister-in-law and her two children would have moved even the most hardest of people. Here they were, suddenly orphaned by fate’s sleight of hand and staring into an unknown future. Even though I performed all the rites that were instructed to me, I really did not know what was going on around me. Once the painfully long procedure came to an end, I returned home and locked myself yet again in my room.
What I thought was the end of an unpleasant event, in reality was the beginning of many miseries to come. The police hounded us for many weeks thereafter. Having lost my father also in a similar manner, I feared that our family will be branded as pariahs very soon. During one of the interrogations with the chief, he nonchalantly exclaimed “What is it with your family. You father died like this. Your brother instead learning from it followed in the same path and met a similar fate. Are you and your children also going to go down this same path?” What he said about my father was true indeed. I was rather young then. When we were living in abject poverty, it was a strange coincidence to me that he went away to some far off land in search of work, and with it our lives took a slightly better turn. Though, I had to ignore the barbs from certain people who alleged that my father was doing the devils work. After living away from us for a good five years, my father finally returned home in a body bag, after being shot by the police. With such an unpleasant family history, we were easy picking for everyone.
I lived with a sense of foreboding every day. There were half-a-dozen mouths to feed at home. My meagre wages, earned as a cab driver, were insufficient now. I had to report to the police station every day, which in turn affected my work. In less than two months, unsurprisingly my employer fired me without any notice or reason or severance. I could not land a job anywhere else considering the background of my family and the recent events. Everyday thereafter was a struggle. We were now eating into our savings and just about making ends meet. We lived in the constant fear of how long could we sustain this.
On one such day, I returned home yet again failing to land any job. Seeing my wife waiting outside, I sensed something was amiss. As I entered the house she briefly whispered “Ask him not to come to our house again”. I could not make out what she meant. Once inside the house I saw the priest seated along with one another person whom I had not seen before. I now realized whom my wife was referring to, but I still could not understand why she told me that. I could not muster any words to greet the priest. He however stood up, greeted me and told me that God will not let me and my family down. “I heard that all was not well with you folks and so I took it upon myself to come and help you. Unlike others, I cannot stay blind to your troubles. Here take this for now, just don’t refuse it”. Saying this, he handed over an envelope of money. I doubted if he was exploiting our vulnerable situation. However much I refused to take the money, he just would not listen. “Look at the women and children. Don’t be selfish. Take it for them and tend to their needs”. He left the envelope on the teapoy and started to leave, along with his companion, who just observed everything and never a spoke a word. As he was leaving, he looked into my eyes and said “Be proud of your father and brother. Don’t let their sacrifices go in vain”. This was the moment. It had to be now. I asked him to wait. I walked up to the teapoy, picked up the envelope, gave it back to him and said “Leave us alone. Don’t come to our house again. Let us face our destiny”. He left, but not without saying “You are making a mistake. But I will be there when you need me”.
It was a sombre evening thereafter. Nobody spoke to each other at home that evening. I doubt if any of us slept as well that night. Well into the night, as I was lying on my bed, my wife broke the silence. “Please don’t let him take you. We need you. I need you”. And with that she broke into tears and cried inconsolably for a while. I knew the reason for her anguish. I was worried myself. It was this same guy who had persuaded my father to do what was never his calling. After my father’s death, he again used the circumstances to convince my brother to heed his calls. It was clear that I was being targeted now. I feared for myself and for everyone else in my family. The fear stemmed from the fact that our circumstances would not change and hence I was gullible to being led by him.
It took just a few months for the situation to get worse. The elders in the house were forced to eat only one meal a day, saving enough for the children. The ladies tried but were denied jobs and help of all kind. I could only manage to earn a bit on certain days doing some odd errands. Our savings had also run out by now. It is at this time of extreme anguish that the priest and his cohort again came home. It was not hard to notice that the house was sparsely furnished now, since some of it had to be sold off to help meet our daily needs. The priest without any invitation to speak went into a lengthy diatribe about how poorly we are being treated in our own country. He mentioned that my family and I were not the only ones facing such situations. “Unless we help ourselves, stay united and fight this, we will always be taken for granted. And we need men like you to take this fight further and show that we are not cowards”. With that he went onto give various examples of people who had sacrificed their lives towards this cause. He never missed mentioning that my father and my brother were heroes in this microcosm. When I could not take it any longer, I asked him “What is it that you want from me?” The priest looked at his companion, who took the cue and spoke “We understand what you and your family are going through. Look around and realize that we are the only ones to offer you help. Take this money for your immediate needs. Join us in our movement. We assure you that you will find purpose and meaning in it. Pack yourself some clothes and be prepared to travel. We will come here tomorrow morning to pick you up”.
With that the two of them left, leaving me and my family to spend the night, which seemed longer than what it actually was. Nobody spoke during the ensuing hours for the fear and anxiety of what could happen next. The money given to us was substantial enough for a comfortable living for another year at least. And hence it was the dilemma of getting rid of the current misery versus the guilt ridden future. Sadly for me, nobody at home offered any words of advice to get me out of my quandary. They had left it to me to decide and were ready to stand by my decision. Even my wife never spoke a word, but left it to me to interpret her silence and sobs. As I sat alone ruminating about my life, the past and the present flashed across my mind multiple times. A decade ago, we had our struggles, but we were living and sprightly. With the decisions which my father and brother had taken, of course our struggles were alleviated, but we were not living, rather we were only alive. And it was unmistakable, that although the past few months had been a nightmare for all of us, we never carried any feeling of guilt. The feeling of living in hope was much better than the feeling of living in fear. However not being able to provide for the family did take a heavy toll on me. Forget any luxury, I could not provide the family with the basic necessities and amenities. This hand-to-mouth living could not continue forever and something or someone had to give in. And what the priest said was true; there was no one who came forward to help us in the past few months.
I never slept that night. In the early hours of the morning, I carefully chose some clothes and other belongings and packed them into a battered backpack. None of the ladies had slept as well. Seeing me packing, they still did not say a word, but only wept profusely. Just before the first appearance of light, a vehicle approached our house. Both the priest and his companion walked into our house. Seeing my backpack, the priest walked towards me and said “You have rightly chosen your destiny. You will not regret it my son. Let us go now. We have a long travel ahead of us”.
I handed the backpack to the priest. And I also handed him the money that he had given us the previous evening. He was nonplussed by what I had just done and stared blankly at me. I spoke without any emotion. “We have not touched your money. Please take it with you. The backpack contains every single remnant of my father and brother in this house. Take them also along with you”. Albeit shocked, he understood my decision. I stopped him before he started speaking and said “I believe in my country and its people more than I believe you. We may never come out of this situation, but I would rather renounce you and everything associated with you, than go down the path that you will lead me to. Let us retain only the good memories of my father and brother, and nothing else. I do not want to repeat another such incident in my home. Now leave us and leave us for good. Don’t ever come into our lives again.” Quickly recovering from the shock, the priest and his companion were about to speak. That is when my mother intervened “Did you not hear him? Can you not leave us alone?” With that they left and I think they left us for good. No sooner did they leave that my mother and wife rushed and hugged me and cried inconsolably. Their tears said it all. We were prepared to continue on this new found journey, however difficult it might be.
Through the day, although there was very little to eat and nothing much to do, there was an unmistakable buzz at home and everyone had a spring in their stride. I went out for a couple of hours to land some work, but returned home without any success. Towards dusk we were all seated on the floor of our impoverished living room. The mood was jocular even though we had nothing to eat for dinner that evening. That is when we heard the sound of a vehicle reach our home. I stepped out to see that the police chief had come along with a couple of constables. He walked into the house. I had a knot in my stomach. The ladies and children huddled together at one of the corners in the house. The chief looked around the house for a few seconds before staring down upon me. He spoke after what looked like eternity to me “I will get straight to the point. I need some help at the station to keep it clean and tidy. Do you want to take the job?” I was lost for words and could only manage to nod my head in consent, as I cupped it in my arms and wept silently. He tapped me on my shoulder a couple of times and asked me to report to work the next day.
We have only one story. All novels, all poetry, are built on the never-ending contest in ourselves of good and evil.
- John Steinbeck