The Circle of Retribution

Swallow it done, It’s just a jagged little pill.

Wasim shaded his eyes as he stepped out into the street. The sun shone with a pale, cold yellow light. A haze lingered in the air, mingled with the smoke of burning incense and particles of dust, lending reality to the characterless, colourless, tauntingly clear, perfect sky. There was a surreal quality to the atmosphere. The world seemed poised to make a sudden, unanticipated turn in an entirely unforeseen direction, as though weary of its hitherto uneventful existence. Nervously, Wasim looked back at his house—in reality, little more than a dilapidated little shack. He stared fixedly at the door, contemplating once more the plan he intended to execute today. The cracked door, painted a sickly grey, leered back at him. From within he could distinctly hear the faint moans of his wife as she tossed restlessly on a coir cot, virtually the only piece of furniture in the house. A few cockroaches crept out from beneath the door.

Eyeing them malevolently, Wasim made a move as if to kill them; they fled, frightened. If only all our troubles were cockroaches, he reflected, stepping into the tiny alley which like a toxic stream bore its filth down to the river and thence, to the sea. And indeed, Chawri Bazar looked more like a sea today than ever. Crazed, tempest-ridden waves of people seemed to break upon the walls of Jama Masjid. It was the final week of the month of Ramzan and time for the afternoon namaaz. Hearing the cry of the muezzin, he moved hurriedly to the front of the crowd, though he had no intention of going to the mosque this day. That avenue he had explored and found empty.

The thought brought back his memory of rushing to the mosque, a day that seemed a lifetime ago, to pray feverishly until his knees felt as though they were about to crumble against the cold, hard unforgiving marble, until he had almost fainted, swaying as he kneeled; his body racked with silent, dry sobs, each one at once an exclamation of pain, a howl of rage and a desperate plea. He had screamed with hatred at his irresponsive, complacent god who, having wound his cosmic clock, had now settled down for a quiet afternoon nap, basking in the sheer brilliance of his creation. He read a passage from the Koran, an exhortation to the faithless to believe in the power of the Almighty. His mind seemed instantly purged of the thoughts that cluttered it. He felt calm. There was no way the universe could let him down in this most tragic way. Something, somewhere, he was certain, was accountable to him and was obliged to make things better. Everything was bound to be all right sooner or later…he was being tested, he reasoned. And this was the limit of his endurance. The punishment would now end. Things had become as bad as they could possibly become, short of a total catastrophe. They could only get better. Each valley is followed by a peak—that’s the law of the world…

Seized by a fit of optimism, he rushed home, crying in relief, confident that he would return home to find his wife miraculously cured. He felt light, lighter than air. An unseasonable drizzle cooled his body as he ran home, conscious of a sense of exhilaration.

He had returned to find his wife considerably worse off than before. A group of neighbours, and the local hakim surrounded the cot. His son sat quietly sobbing in a corner. Taking the hakim to a side, he had heard his dreadful prognosis. She would be fortunate to survive the night.

That night, Wasim lay in the courtyard, his son fast asleep against his body, staring up at the night sky. The immeasurable remoteness of the rest of creation struck him for the first time, with a staggering force. The stars twinkled warmly, falsely, in the blue-black sky. His unseeing eyes stared blankly up, penetrating the grey clouds which shrouded the moon. His body felt as though it had been pinned down to the ground. He felt impotent, inadequate. In his mind, he rapidly scrolled through the few options that remained to him. The whole problem was that he needed money. He couldn’t hope to get a job. After having been sacked by his contractor, he had tried for nearly a year and had virtually given up. He might ask the moneylender for another loan…but he was certain he would be refused. His thoughts grew progressively bleaker. Suicide. A strong voice in his head revolted against the idea. Besides, he had a child to take care of… Gradually, by a process of simple elimination, he had come to his last option. But he couldn’t…what would his father, a respected maulvi, have said? And yet he could think of no other way out.

Sub-Inspector Mukesh Chand leaned against his motorbike, balefully eyeing the couple canoodling under the shade of a nearby peepul tree as they waited for their lassis to be served to them. The dhaba owner gestured agitatedly at his waiter, a 10-year old in a tattered pair of shorts. A short, dark emaciated young man with sunken eyes, wearing a skull-cap lurked nearby, greedily taking in the sight. Mukesh made a mental note to keep an eye on the fellow—he seemed fishy—and heaved his portly frame onto his bike, angrily stroking his short bristly mustache. The reason for his irritation which had plagued him ever since his wife had announced the news over breakfast was the impending visit of his brother-in-law. In the opinion of Sub-Inspector Mukesh Chand, the law was not doing its job. Had he been in power, the festival of Rakhi would have been the first thing to go. The prospect of escorting his wife’s snobbish older brother through the urine-soaked alleys which led to the tenement where they lived in a one-roomed apartment without a fridge or a cooler or a toilet that did not regurgitate every now and then or even a T.V. mortified him. His dismay manifested itself in the form of an almost animal ferociousness.

Brutally, he chomped down on his biri and puffed away at it, intermittently glaring at passersby. Maybe he’d catch a criminal today—he’d have something to distract his brother-in-law’s attention from the usual tales of urban squalor his wife would humiliatingly narrate to him over the dinner table as he, Mukesh, would silently stare at the slowly rotating blades of the ceiling-fan, willing it to fall and crush his wife, and her obnoxious brother to boot.

Wasim for it was he, stood transfixed by the sight of the couple under the peepul tree. His gaze had latched itself onto the shiny gold bracelet that adorned the woman’s wrist, its yellowness blazing in the unbearably bright light of the afternoon. Worth at least a few thousand, Wasim reckoned, crouching down. Perhaps enough to get his wife the treatment she needed.

`Arjun adjusted his panama hat and ordered a chaat as he looked vacantly into the distance. Jama Masjid was a magnificent sight, he reflected. It was a great pity he couldn’t go in—apparently visitors weren’t permitted during the afternoon namaaz. He glanced at his watch. One thirty. Time for the second lecture of the day, then. Not that he’d be attending it. He’d had just about enough of Professor Hirani’s heat-stroke induced ramblings about Lord Acton and Laski and their respective views on the nature of true liberty. As far as he could see, the whole bloody educational system seemed hell-bent on convincing you that you were little more than a cell in the mighty organism that was society, governed by that inexorable machine in which he was but a cog, that omniscient body of a select few who alone knew how to rule and who deserved to rule. Democracy is a sham, he proclaimed silently to his audience, a lone rickshaw-wallah who sat indolently picking his nose. And this notion of sacrificing oneself, indeed one’s very identity to that of the nameless faceless rabble in whose name the state supposedly rules, positively ludicrous. The interests of the individual are subjugated to the great and magnificent purposes of the state, vague ideals of which we know little save that they are magnificent and great. Why, oh why, couldn’t they see the loud voice in his head raged, that a political institution, any political institution was no more than a façade, a thin veneer, a screen to hide the obscene, vulgar truth—the enslavement of the individual to the whims of those who sought power and dominion. The natural sovereignty of man, he bellowed, must not be compromised upon!

An individual ought to be free to lead his own life, liberated from the whips of law and order, emancipated from the bonds of social responsibility, norms and expectation, to follow his own path, achieve his destiny! And when he’d tried to explain his views to Hirani, he’d been ridiculed and told to be quiet.

Oh, shush. Your views are archaic. No individual can possibly exist in isolation from society. Indeed, the individual cannot be considered as a concept in the abstract. An individual exists and derives his identity from society, his context. To set oneself apart from society would be to set oneself against it, and face its awful wrath. To fight against the system is futile. If everybody today were like Arjun, preached that hateful blinded lecturer, we’d be living in caves. Society is what feeds us, through its organized arm, the state, puts clothes on our ungrateful backs, wipes our ungrateful bottoms, and doesn’t demand a pie in return. Except taxes, of course. Yup, yup. Unconditional love, that’s what the state’s all about. And next, no doubt, we’ll learn about how the state is really a representation of God, created to establish His Law on earth, sacred and inviolable. And the government was a body of His Chosen Ones, flawless for they are guided by the Almighty, of immaculate births, of course and never to be questioned.

Just as Professor Hirani was never to be questioned. What irked him most was that it was forbidden to challenge the wisdom of those in authority—be they the lofty masters of the nation’s destiny or shrunken lecturers in mouldy overcoats. A bunch of sanctimonious self righteous prigs, that’s all they are. Like that policeman there. Look at him, staring officiously at that couple, furrowing his brow, stroking his mustache( if you could call it that, it looked more as though a rat had sought refuge under that enormous nose), no doubt wondering what he ought to do about it, as a representative of the Law. His mind ticking, trying to figure out under what offence he could book them, ranted Arjun.

Offending public sensibilities perhaps. Or violating the unwritten codes of simple decency, transmitted through the ages from the earliest times when Neanderthals dragged their mates into caves to conduct their business rather than unashamedly displaying it to a voyeuristic public( ah, our glorious ancient traditions!). Or maybe, disturbing his afternoon nap…

Wasim crouched lower, deadening his mind to the pangs of conscience. It was not his fault. Fate had dealt him a bad hand. He was only playing his cards. He hesitated, still not persuaded by the logic. Then he thought of his wife and his resolve strengthened. Unconsciously setting his jaw, he continued to stare fixedly at the bracelet. All that he had to do, he told himself, was ensure her attention was diverted—not that that would be too hard. The amorous lad was keeping her plenty busy. But what if she raised a cry? There was that beefy chap very near her, the fellow with the Panama hat who looked as though he was grappling with problems of great consequence, no doubt silently making decisions that would change the world. All the while contemplating whether he should gift his girlfriend a car for her birthday or maybe just a nice set of jewellery. While some of us have to scrabble for what the rich choose to cast away, live the life of filthy rats, just to survive…

Stop it. You have to focus. All right then, this is how I’ll do it. Shuffle past her as the boy brings them their food. Slip the bracelet off her wrist. And then quietly walk away. His legs longed to run before he could be found out, but he knew it would attract too much attention. His brittle concentration was shattered by a cry from the main entrance to the mosque. “Oy, Wasim! Hurry up, or you’ll be late for namaaz!” It was his cousin Mansoor. Wasim spun around at shouted a reply that became indistinguishable in the babble of the crowd.

Sub-Inspector Mukesh Chand glowered at Mansoor, his gaze pursuing the group that headed into the mosque. Bunch of bloody Muslims. Should have driven them into the sea ages ago. They had to be made to realize that this is the land of the Hindus. They ought to convert or be prepared to live as second-class citizens. His eyes returned to where Wasim stood, composing himself. There’s another one. A thief like the rest of them of them. He longed to catch the little slime committing a crime. He might quite easily steal something. After all, it was almost a national pastime with Muslims. A wallet, for instance. Or the shiny bracelet on that girl’s wrist. And before he could make one move, Sub-Inspector Mukesh Chand would be there. He pictured the girl thanking him tearfully. How fortunate you were there, Inspector sahib. Whatever would we have done without you? Mukesh swelled with self-importance.

It was all perfectly possible of course; he tried to reason, attempting to chase away that sinking feeling which often accompanied his little daydreams. These fellows were always nicking something. And the Muslim certainly couldn’t see him where he was standing. But he couldn’t let that cold wave of self-derision wash over him now, undermining his confidence. Not while he was on the job. He blew his mustache up with a little snort and fondled it lovingly. Not while Sub-Inspector Mukesh Chand was on the job. No, sir!

Wasim walked up from his observation post and strolled up to the dhaba with exaggerated nonchalance. He paused briefly to glance at the chap with the panama hat and intimidated, retreated a few steps. He then proceeded up to the peepul tree and waited for a diversion. As the waiter boy came up to them bearing a tray, Wasim’s heart began to beat wildly. His breath seemed caught somewhere near his tonsils and

his throat was dry. His eyes suddenly and inexplicably began to well up with tears. As the boy handed them the lassis, Sub-Inspector Mukesh Chand slowly advanced, comprehending it all.

Wasim told himself much later that he’d walked away slowly, just as he’d planned. Really slowly, a voice emanating from his hazy, distorted memory insisted. How then had the cop found him out? And where, to start with, had he sprung from in the first place? All he could remember was a powerful hand upon his shoulder and somebody’s unpleasant breath on his face. The next thing he remembered was being struck violently over the head with something heavy as he struggled to break free from Mukesh Chand’s grip. Mukesh was exultant. This is it. Finally, a break. Get off me, the rat shouted, spitting in his face. I didn’t do anything, he yelled, gripping the bracelet tightly.

The saliva dripped into his eyes. Mukesh felt violated. The dull rage that had possessed him as he had witnessed Wasim stealing the bracelet now exploded into a full-blown, visceral fury, provoked partly by the blatant lie. He heard a distant rushing noise in his ears and charged…

Arjun’s silent tirade was interrupted by a rich stream of invective issuing from the lips of the policeman who had only moments before brushed past him. He watched, transfixed with horror as the cop grabbed the head of a diminutive figure in the crowd and slammed his fist into the man’s face, repeatedly, slowly and deliberately. Drops of blood trickled down his victim’s forehead. Mukesh exhilarated by the sight was now spurred by a primeval instinct to wrench a suitcase from the hand of a bystander and bring it down with a resounding thud on Wasim’s head. He then proceeded to grind his face into the grimy street, gripping him by his hair.

Arjun silently speculated the cause of such an attack. Oddly enough, a crowd had not collected around the scene. People walked faster, their heads held rigidly, determined to ignore the sight of the little dark man being pounded into the road. He’s obviously in the grip of a strong emotion. Maybe he’s even unaware of what he’s doing…Mukesh seized Wasim by his hair and pulled him up, as though displaying his handiwork to an admiring mob. A small piece of stone that had lodged itself in Wasim’s eye fell out. His face was barely recognizable. I ought to step in, Arjun decided, impulsively.

But why? Arjun hesitated. I don’t know the wretched chap. And besides, I’m liable to get injured myself. No sense risking my life for an absolute stranger. Society deems those who act in such situations heroes, he reminded himself. Everyone receives at least one opportunity in their lifetimes to be a hero. This could be mine.

A sharp voice now piped up in his ear. Society! Don’t tell me you’re afraid of how they will judge you? Surely not. And if they declare you a coward, what of it? You’re not accountable to any man or principle. This is true liberty.

But I need to protest. This isn’t about principles, he argued. Or even fear of being branded a poltroon. It’s about mutual security. This is police brutality, nothing less. To choose not to act would be as good as to permit it to survive and flourish. To afford it the opportunity to turn on me. What goes around comes around, you know.

Not if you’re not a part of the circle. Set yourself outside the system and you will remain unaffected. Attempt to interfere, and then it’s bound to hurt, eventually. I can’t

see how any of it concerns you in any case. You do not need anything from society. Your identity is not defined by the opinions of others. You are independent of society. You are an individual. You are destined for higher and greater things.

But I have to act.

Don’t be ridiculous. Do you really think you can stop that cop now? He’s obviously lost it.

I don’t have to physically stop him, you know. I could just report this. That wouldn’t be directly interfering, after all. It wouldn’t come back to me then, would it? And it would meet the need adequately…I could…

The malicious little voice sniggered…go on, then. Be a hero. I dare you.

Arjun hesitated.

A shrill peal of laughter exploded in his head like a water-balloon that had been filled beyond its capacity. Laughter gushed out and filled his head until he was afraid it might pour out from his ears. There was a sea of laughter now. The waves broke upon him with tremendous force, washing over him, leaving him cold and drenched. Ah, that was a good one, said the voice, still chortling but obviously trying to master its mirth. You are not responsible for the consequences, you idiot. Nobody in their right minds could expect you to have done anything. This is your life. Do not throw it away. The voice was stronger now, and louder. Arjun found himself being led away by the logic of the argument…

Mukesh, despite being submerged by layers of adrenaline, heard the buzzing of a swarm of people immediately behind him quite distinctly. The mosque had begun to disgorge a whole horde of devout Muslims. The afternoon namaaz was evidently over, he observed silently as his frothing mouth spewed profanities. He was almost distractedly punching Wasim in the stomach as he heard an agitated cry from the crowd that was slowly making its way back from Jama Masjid.

“Wasim? Wasim!” It was Mansoor. Enraged by the scene that unfolded before him as he stood before the main entrance of the mosque, he now ran frantically to the head of the group, followed by a substantial section of the crowd. A small percentage of the multitude that thronged the area, which had earlier watched Wasim being brutalized without reacting, now joined the little charge.

Mukesh would persuade himself later that he had not wet his pants when he saw the mob rushing at him. But even he could not forget his cries for mercy as the pitiless mob vent its collective, inhuman fury upon him, striking him with anything and everything that it could lay its hands on. Fear was the predominant element in those cries, although it was not altogether unmixed with a sense of dismayed outrage. Arjun fled from the scene, obeying a subconscious primal command, pausing only to stare one last time at Mukesh, drawn to the policeman by a perverse curiosity. Wrenching himself away, he dashed down to the Metro station in Chawri Bazaar, conscious of the policeman’s gaze on his back, boring through it.

The last thing Mukesh heard was a distant rushing noise as he abandoned his body to the tumult about him.

Arjun yawned, and fixed himself a cup of coffee. Was it morning already? He stared at his wrist blankly and then remembered he’d lost it at Chandni Chowk the previous day. Chandni Chowk…yesterday…why, of course. He seized the newspaper

and scanned it for a report of the incident he’d witnessed the previous afternoon. He had been surprised not to find any coverage of it on the news channels at night. They

had been running a feature on the premiere of a new movie. He glanced at the first few pages and then relaxed. The knot that had formed in his stomach now loosened.

He chuckled to himself weakly. To think I had thought I could have saved him. But what happened to him, I wonder? Yet another incident of police brutality that goes unreported, unnoticed in this concrete jungle where… he considered firing off a letter to the editor but then recalled his own role in the proceedings. Not that there was anything cowardly or reprehensible about it, of course. Why, anyone in his position would have done the same… And then he saw it.

The headline read, “Another Case of Mob Justice”. He read it through, recognizing it as an account of yesterday’s happenings only by the references to Chandni Chowk and the photograph of the cop, but only just. Mukesh Singh’s face was hideously disfigured. Apparently some inspired character had thrown acid at his face. The report dealt exclusively with how the enthusiastic mob had nearly done the cop in. There was, however, no mention of what had happened to Wasim.

He thought whimsically of what his friends at college would say if they’d known he’d been on the spot, witnessed the action first hand…and then he came to the last paragraph.

‘While Sub-Inspector Mukesh Chand was unable to identify his assailants, he appears to remember one of them quite distinctly, although his words were incoherent. “ A boy…panama hat…backpack…ran…away. Then I…” It seems likely that the boy with the panama hat was the chief instigator. The police are presently attempting to trace him by a library card which was found at the site. The accused has been identified as a Political Science student at Fanthome College, one Arjun Tripathi.’

Sujit Thomas