This story is by Shamma Toppo and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It was a dark alley and there was the loud noise of someone being mercilessly thrashed.
A sharp quivering voice became louder, ‘Run Chandu…… run….. Get out of here!’ ‘Don’t look back! ’
‘Help me Chamru… don’t leave me!’
The thumping sound of his heart drummed louder and so did his breath…
A lean-looking man got up, gasping for air, his forehead sweating. His dream felt so real a few minutes back. He thanked his stars for being alive, muttering God’s name as he cosied up under a blanket in a dingy and space crunched house.
‘Chamru did you have an unpleasant dream again?’ asked his wife.
‘Oh, come to sleep now.’
‘Tomorrow I have to stay late at Bibi’s house. They have guests from abroad this coming weekend, I need to clean their house.’
‘There are many things to do tomorrow, it’s Radha’s first day of school. You have been seeing these dreams ever since I have known you. Hope I don’t appear as a chudail (a witch) chasing after you.’
Chamru and his wife laughed as they snuggled beneath a lint covered chequered blanket. A blanket they had received as a roadside donation campaign from their locality’s business owner last winter.
Chamru was from a tiny village in an obscure part of India. Rebel of sorts and born at a disadvantage, he had moved to Delhi. Shortly after he arrived in search of a living, he found Shanti and became a rickshaw puller.
The following day began, as usual. Chamru waited for his customers at the corner of a busy street next to Lajpat Nagar Market. It was a place where he made his livelihood, riding through the by lanes of South Delhi. The busy market bustled with varied sizes and shapes of customers. A magnificent looking sweet shop had colourful placards at its entrance and customers thronged the place. The tanginess of lemon being rubbed on roasted corn filled the marketplace breeze.
Chamru leaned on the passenger seat of his red-hued cycle rickshaw. He noticed his fellow rickshaw puller, Sampath, cleaning away his rickshaw frantically.
‘How are you, Sampath?’ Chamru asked
Sampath did not reply and continued rubbing his sea-green rickshaw with a tattered piece of rag. He was a young lad who had just begun his livelihood as a rickshaw puller. Younger than Chamru, feisty in his demeanour, Sampath always attracted more customers.
After a momentary pause, Sampath asked Chamru – ‘Are you going to come tonight to the spot?’
Chamru hesitated, as if swallowing his dread, murmured in a soft stuffed voice. ‘Not tonight, I have to feed my kids, I cannot waste money. Nine months I tried my luck in this game of cards, but luck has always been far away.’
Sampath bobbed his head with a disdainful smirk. ‘You will always stay a month-end bankrupt,’.
Chamru looked away, seething with anger for the mocking. He leisured to play cards with his fellow rickshaw pullers, losing money. With savings only for food, he remained a month-end bankrupt.
Sampath said further, ‘Well Chamru, I too will not be playing the game as I am in a hurry. I have to take my wife and children to the railway station as I am sending them off to our village back. I cannot afford to have them here.’
Chamru’s heart sank when he heard this. He could never think of returning to his village. He was running away from that place. Rickshaw pulling was never his first choice. He had dreamt of ploughing the land with his father, staring at the starlit sky on hot summer nights.
But destiny has its telling.
It was a scorching day and Chamru decided that instead of retiring home early he spent one hour extra, just in case he might get the customers on this heated night.
It was past 11:00 PM, Chamru reclined lazily on the iron rimmed rickshaw.
The bustle of the market had subsided, and Chamru had waited long. As he got ready to pedal his way home, he saw a potbellied man approaching him. Chamru sighted a customer and manoeuvred his rickshaw towards the man. The customer instructed Chamru to take him to a nearby shopping mall.
Chamru had moved a few meters away after he left his customer at the Mall when he heard a shrieking voice from the direction where he had dropped his last passenger. As he turned his head towards the noise, to his horror he saw two masked muggers standing in a posture to attack a man – his last customer.
He hurriedly turned towards the spot.
As soon as he reached, he pulled a wooden cudgel from underneath the passenger seat. Chamru charged at the goons. ‘Back Off! Leave him!’
The attacking goon brandished a knife and shouted. ‘Move away, you fool! Otherwise, two bodies would be here instead of one.’
Chamru did not back away. Sweat trickled down his toned arms. He positioned himself to face his attacker. He swerved the cudgel, and it struck one of the two goons. The mugger fell backwards with a painful squeal.
Suddenly the other mugger attacked, and the knife slashed Chamru’s arm.
“Ah, you rascal!” Chamru cried in pain.
He mustered his courage and strength and attacked the muggers, hitting their legs with his might.
The goons could not face the fierce attack, and they ran away from the scene.
Chamru laid on the concrete floor and whimpered in pain.
Shaken by the event, the businessman tried expressing his gratitude by helping Chamru with cash, but he refused to accept the money.
It bewildered the businessman. He saw a glint in Chamru’s eyes. Though puzzled, he did not push Chamru to accept the handout.
It was almost 1:00 AM, Chamru’s wife Shanti stood at the doorway of her dimly lit shack. A woman of fewer words, she was a part-time housemaid who had fallen for Chamru’s dark yet toned body. Chamru had not returned home yet, and with dread, she looked towards the alley.
As soon as Chamru’s shadowy figure emerged and he approached closer, Shanti angrily asked. ‘What have you been doing? Do you know how worried I was?’
Chamru brushed her aside. He limped his way inside the shack in silence. Ignored by her husband, Shanti seethed with anger and grabbed his sweaty arm.
That’s when she saw blood oozing out from the wound on his arm. She shrieked.‘Oh my God! What happened! How did you get hurt?’
Shanti held Chamru’s arm and made him sit on the bare floor and applied the antiseptic wash.
Still, in disbelief, she asked,
‘Does it hurt much?’ ‘What happened?’
Even before Shanti completed her questions, Chamru held her hand. Tears streamed down his cheeks. ‘I had run away from my village and I came to Delhi. I was a coward all these years, and I am doomed by guilt.’
Shanti squinched up her face in a look that left no doubt of her shock. ‘What guilt?!’
Chamru avoided Shanti’s eyes as he stammered, ‘Chandu and I grew together, we were dear friends. Our bond was closer than the actual brothers,’
Gasping for breath, he continued. ‘One day we went to a nearby village to enjoy the local fair.’
‘It was a summery night, so we had overstayed at the fair. While returning, it had become dark. Chandu took a shortcut that passed through a cornfield to the village road. I complied with him, even though my gut was telling otherwise.’
‘There had been recent cases of men being looted and murdered at the nearby spot.’
‘Destiny had its plans. The local thieves ambushed us.’
‘Instead of protecting my friend, I ran for my life. He kept shouting for help and I never looked back. The next day the news of a lifeless body hanging from the tree near a cornfield spread like a wildfire in the village. When I came to the scene, it was Chandu’s body.’
‘I had deserted my friend at the mercy of local thugs and I ran away. I was a coward then and will stay for life till I die.’ He wiped his tears on his dusky cheeks.
‘I will never forgive myself for betraying my friend and neither will the people from my village,’ ‘I can never return to my village, Shanti!’
He continued in his weepy voice. ‘But today, I felt the history was repeating itself in a distinct form and I fought hard,’. ‘I saved the Sahib,’
‘I am no coward Shanti, forgive me if I have been one.’
Shanti embraced Chamru as they both wept, huddled together.
The physical pain of the wound and the ordeal was inconsequential tonight for Chamru. He confessed to the burden he had carried over the years that which would stay with him till his end.