By Nirendra Dev
A Short Story
Editor's Note: Nirendra Narayan Dev (nirendev1 [at] gmail [dot] com), an acclaimed political journalist, is a special correspondent of The Statesman, New Delhi and author of the books Ayodhya : Battle For Peace, The Talking Guns North East India and Godhra A Journey To Mayhem. We have previously had an opportunity of talking to the author and have posted the audio recording of the interview. The author debuts as a fiction writer with this short story "The Pawns" which is based on recent real-life incidents.
The Operation ‘Freedom from Terror’ seems to have taken a decisive turn. The US-led coalition forces are set for victory following the fall of Taliban. Half-a-dozen daily newspapers lay tossed aside. It appeared a lazy morning --- the time piece moved at a lingering pace. The war has meant different things to different people. “We were opposed to American unilateralism. The US hegemony is now knocking at our doors,” screamed a communist leader in New Delhi’s famous Ajoy Bhavan even as his fellow comrades appeared reconciled to the ensuing electoral debacle in hitherto red-bastion, the state of West Bengal.
Vidyasagar was preparing to go for a walk along the beach at Mumbai’s famous Chowpaaty. Unknowingly the riot of sights and smell left him aghast momentarily. Yet, he thought that was the place he could go around. Chowpaaty in Mumbai, one-time ‘Bambai’, is the best place for a loner to feel that he is not alone!
The rise and fall of sea-waves, the mingling crowds, the resourcefulness of a faceless Mumbaikar all combine together to make a rainbow coalition. Vidyasagar was unsure, as he reflected walking towards the water, dirty water, on why he was recalled from Kabul. He had thought of a little longer innings at Afghan capital particularly after the successful battle.
The US-led forces were rejoicing the moment. The Taliban has been crushed! This was unthinkable. “But we did,” said the NATO force commander.
New Delhi had played a crucial role in the decade long struggle, especially at the fag end, the decisive period of any war. The political leadership wore a ‘smug grin’, as newspapers reported and the government of the day could show a thumb to its detractors.
“The Indian government, after years of playing the Muslim appeasement card, took a decision and stuck to help the US-led forces fight terrorism. It has been crushed,” said the Prime Minister in his national televised message. For long, his government was at the receiving end of a smear campaign for being corrupt and Hindu fundamentalist; now all seemed to have silenced. Politics always enchanted Vidyasagar.
He was in Kabul and few sensitive Afghanistan pockets like Kandahar as part of a cover up operation for the intelligence agencies. It was a tough assignment.
The Chowpaaty resembled a sprawling fun-fair; except, as he knew, that it is on 365 days a year. Nothing seemed to have changed at Chowpaaty.
The dirty stinking water seemed too familiar. “We know each other too well,” the waves seemed telling him.
He used to come to this place about five years back; when as part of another cover up operation he was deputed to work as a freelance journalist in Mumbai.
Even as he was lost in the thought of the past, the constantly shifting crowd were unmindful of his presence. The crowd here does not allow anyone to settle down. Vidyasagar thinks of making way back to his apartment. He finds a place to sit on the sand for a while --- as the chai-wala and other hawkers pass by. He does not intend to pick up anything. Chowpaaty snacks, as he recalled, were big hit once. They still might be.
Rosalin Upke used to be his permanent companion to these places. But today, he was not sure of her whereabouts. As she gone back to Konkan belt, her native place; or still around in the city?
The loneliness of the fading afternoon cast a gloomy mood over him. On a similar afternoon, a few years back, Rosalin had suggested Vidyasagar, “I wonder why you are not proposing me for the marriage”.
“Even without that, you are more with me,” he had replied – probably concealing from her that his job while allowed him to befriend a daughter of a senior civil servant, but there was a ‘ban’ for marital relationship.
“You cultivate sources ….. not relatives,” one of his bosses used to say.
Vidyasagar’s reply did not amuse Rosalin. She knew the guy is avoiding the main issue.
But it was getting late! “Doctor has already given the date ….. I cannot hide all these any longer,” she meekly told him.
A stunned silence filled the atmosphere as they were at a loss –unable to measure for the first time what lay ahead.
A number of permutations and combinations went whirling through his mind. Right from his first meeting with Rosalin, Vidyasagar knew, he was drawn to her. She too liked him. But then, why the hesitation?
Thinking about the past is no panacea to all problems. “Please have something sir,” a teenaged or even less by one year or so hawker insisted.
Vidyasagar was somewhat annoyed. Rosalin had vanished from his thought and the dirty sea water again threw in fowl smell. Just then his mobile rang!
He had to attend to the caller. The young hawker boy just could not fit in his thoughts!
‘THE COMPULSION TO BE RIGHT IS THE ENEMY OF CREATIVITY’, he saw a best seller book on sales. The title attracted him. Who bothers about the author and the content, he thought for a while and picked up the book.
My life has been a tale of lost opportunities, he again told himself walking back to his apartment.
In the night, he went out for dinner; Mumbai ishtyle! He ordered for ‘pao bhaaji’, something he relished always. Only the Mumbaikar knows the virtues of pao-bhaaji. As he licked his fingers –he thought this was his private space in the midst of thousands of others - moving around in the city of ‘functioning anarchy’.
He walked back to his room. It seemed cooler. That’s again the strangeness of Mumbai; the evenings get cooler and often pleasant.
He should not be alone tonight, Vidyasagar thought; after all Mumbai allows all that liberty. Long back, he knew that things can be arranged at half-an-hour notice.
“Well, I will try this out,” he told himself.
Vidyasagar was in a specific lane – being directed by a pimp. “Saheb, don’t forget my cut?”, the fellow said virtually dancing on his toes directing Vidyasagar to a particular floor.
When was the last time, he tried something like this? Well, a few months back in Kabul. The young Afghani damsel was pretty, modest and energetic.
“In Mumbai, girls can also sing,” the pimp chuckled yet again.
Vidyasagar knew all that.
But the sudden downpour almost spoiled his night. The girl he was going to meet, had already left her flat ‘on hire’. “Don’t worry sahib, I can take you to a better stuff,” the pimp literally prayed.
Vidyasagar was annoyed. Somewhat superstitious. It’s a jinxed night.
He thought of coming back to his room.
But he allowed the physical interest to prevail over the dictates of his mind. He agreed to the pimp’s suggestion and walked towards another by-lane.
There are certain times in life when every place gets surrounded by a radiance of romance, he thought.
“Hope I am not making a mistake …,” surprisingly an empty feeling inside the stomach made Vidyasagar feel slightly ill he crawled upstairs.
At last he walked in a cabin and was ready for the awkward meeting.
What arrested Vidyasagar’s attention was the bunch of fresh smelling red roses arranged carefully in a cheap vase. The Mumbai’s famous Gajra – of white jasmine lay around virtually inviting the desired lover in him.
Vidyasagar stared at the girl, gave a good glance and appreciated her figure. He has done these exercises many times in life.
Life seemed to have taken an u-turn and he found himself facing some moments that were gone. Rosalin Upke used to greet him with such red roses in her rented apartment. Rosalin, he always thought was his first love.
But he had ditched her due to the call of the duty. Since then he has spent many nights with one-night stranger-friend --- more of a temporary bed partner.
He had turned more stone-hearted! Literally. At least this was the phrase she used for him in her last letter.
But slowly all his thoughts seemed getting lost in a harsh environment. The ambience in the small room charged up his blood and body as he felt attracted towards his gorgeous hostess. The chiffon saree was beautifully placed over her body but betraying her deep naval even as long slender arms and neck were all bare – inviting him.
The night passed on pleasantly. Just then there was a buzz in his mobile. He jumped up from the bed. It was still a misty morning 4.45 by his watch. The girl had also woken up and taking a puff at the cigarette.
“You are a gentleman,” she remarked giving him a character certificate.
“But not everyone thinks like you….,” he said. “Why Saheb, your wife does not like you. Or she cannot satisfy you,” the damsel quizzed.
“What you have to do with all that?” he shot back.
She remained silence as if she wanted to protest for his remarks in his silence. Vidyasagar dressed up and made a call to his caller. There were few important instructions from his superiors.
Slowly the morning was dawning over Mumbai. He got ready to move out before it’s too late. Normally, he avoids making his habits of these night stays a public knowledge. His job required him to be more careful.
“You are hurrying up for your office sahib? You know, my sister Rosalin was betrayed by a gentleman like you. She thought he would marry her. But he fled, said his des-seva job and bosses would not allow him to marry?”
The remarks left Vidyasagar stunned.
He wanted to ask some questions but his voice had gone into silence.
Vidyasagar knew he was getting nervous just as those suspects arrested and put into questioning before intelligence sleuths. Still he braved through his momentary hesitation and asked her, “where is your sister now?”
“She is rotting, what else,” Vidyasagar’s one-night hostess remarked.
That put Vidyasagar into a more dilemma.
The thought of Rosalin Upke almost veiled his eyes with tears. He never imagined that one day he would be put into such a quandary.
He again asked, “rotting …. Where?”.
The lady did not reply. Vidyasagar was getting shattered more. Why is she not speaking up and telling Vidyasagar that her sister Rosalin is not Rosalin Upke he knew.
He glanced at the red roses on the table. They seemed to have lost the fragrance as well as the romantic aura of last night. Where is Rosalin Upke, he wondered yet again.
The time passed by and Vidyasagar thought it was high time for him to move out of this place.
Suddenly there was some spring in his feet and he walked away trying not to look back; not even to take a glance at his last night partner’s face. Was he scared?
What if she resembled Rosalin Upke?
So he has slept with both the sisters? Is it being decent?
Only a few hours back, the girl in the special cabin gave him a sort of character certificate – gentleman!
Do gentlemen behave like this?
In the night, he recalled his physical desire was so dominant that he properly did not care even to take a closer look at his partner’s face.
Her physique arrested his attention so much that he got lost in that, penetrating himself to the most. The smell of her sweat threw away an aroma of unknown happiness. He had massaged her body and stimulated erogenous zones and she kissed him, allowing him to penetrate he had growled in pleasure.
Just then there was a call from his superior; ordering him to try to zero in a young damsel who could be utilized for a large operation in Thane district, in the outskirts of Mumbai. “Well, I could have one soon sir…..,” he replied remembering his meeting with the previous night’s companion.
Life must go on; he thought and more so for pawns and even a patriot! like him!! In the game of chess, he knew, once the game is over, the pawns and the queen go into the same box.
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