Chased in Turn

— Aju Mukhopadhyay

A number of squirrels used to come often to their garden and play among trees, jumping from branch to branch. They ran on the parapets of their building chasing one an other two, three or more at a time. Sometimes they ate guava and some flowers of their choice. They did not eat one fruit at a time but would complete eating at different sittings or over the days, even moving from one fruit to the other at different sittings, often keeping some fruits half-eaten or quarter-finished. Manish did not bother about their coming, playing and eating. How many fruits could they eat? A small share of their horticultural products only, but he did not approve their habit of eating a portion of an unripe fruit and leaving it as such, to be wasted. When some of them entered his room and took out a rose and a marigold flower from a bunch in the vase, drenching their path around it and eating and scattering portions of the flowers here and there on the floor, in the windowsill until they left, keeping enough proof that they came and stole the flowers, he chased them away with playfulness and touch of affection.

Manish’s friends, Rafique and Salim had been trying to train a few of their friends for some days, asking them to be very hard and unaffected in their feeling and thinking. They were taken to the dales and woods, to the lonely valleys and river banks nearby but sometimes long away from their homes, on their motorbikes.

Manish was delighted to be with nature. He was happy to move with the group, though he did not at first understand the purpose of their training. He was told later that they were taken to such places as a prelude to their shooting practices. They had asked them to kill some animals in order to self-prepare themselves for some bigger job. They had cited the example of many revolutionaries and said that many successful present-day-politicians had committed murders ruthlessly either by their own hands or through the mercenaries. They said that no scruple should stand on their way, if they wished to be successful in life. They selected Idris, Saida, Loban and Manish the four of them from a Municipal school.

They should look at life resolutely, they were told. Examples of teenagers of other countries were cited who committed murders bravely to achieve their ends. They needed to have absolute courage, it was said. They only shine who are ruthless, devoid of nonsense sympathies, they were told with sardonic smile.

One day a squirrel was very near him and was pecking at something on the ground while casting a fleeting glance here and there, putting something into its mouth with two small hands. It did everything but was always alert as if attack may come from any corner, at any time. Yes, they were to be like the animals, always alert to repulse any attack, for life is never safe and secure, they were taught.

The animal did not notice his presence as he was hiding behind a big tree, purposely. He knew the squirrel and liked its nimbleness but presently he looked at it with vengeance. Yes, you should have anger and hatred enough, even causelessly, if you wish to kill and go forward. He became merciless and threw a stone at it with force. The animal was almost covered by the big stone hurled at it.

Coming near to it, he saw that the body of the animal twitched a few times and then stilled. There was some blood in its pelvic area and on its tiny mouth, still oozing. No one was near. He quickly buried the body under the earth and levelled it as it was before. Immediately there was a feeling of success in him. It would help him scale further heights, he thought with some pride. No one was near, no one would know. The squirrel had gone down forever.

But closing the eyes at the usual hours he could not sleep. Not even a wink at night. He was changing sides in his bed constantly with a feeling of remorse, a feeling of love betrayed. His troubled thoughts turned to the other direction. Suddenly he remembered Sashi meeting him in a field long after she left their town only for a while to whisper a very urgent warning. He shuddered recalling that a suicide bomber is always destined to die in action; must he or she die when refusing to perform. Death inevitably awaits such a person, usually a teenager or youth.

Once she appeared in a field. He remembered Sashi, a girl of their locality, who became Nafisa after marriage with a handsome boy, Ali, who used to frequent them, morning and evening, as Sashi was in love with him. She defied her parents and one day eloped with him, without a trace, leaving no clue even for the police.

Horror struck him as she whispered to him that Ali had betrayed her and that she did not have a trace of him, that she was being trained as a suicide bomber in a distant valley. Manish could easily recognise her, a few years older than him, even when her body was black-covered, remembering her beautiful boyish innocent face through her remarkable illusory brownish eyes. Her eyes had a strange glint in them with an image of warning and death for seconds.

As Salim came near she distanced, whether with a laugh or anger he could not make out. Salim looked at her and it seemed that she shuddered, as far as he could remember. Salim gave red apples to each of them including to Sashi. But she fled in full speed and they, the friends, began eating as Salim encouraged them to enjoy the apples.

They felt a bit mesmerised by the wicked personality of Salim and Rafique. Manish admitted to himself a kind of adventure, hope and don’t-care-ness was taking away their humanity. Looking towards her, he was surprised that she could run so fast and yet Salim looking at her smiled, as if where could she go!

Whatever be the reasons of my action, the victim was absolutely innocent,” Manish realised. “All this is unnecessary violence. No good would come out of such activities”, he judged. With this realisation his heart and perhaps deeper parts than the heart were getting soothed, as if someone was giving him solace, hope and courage to come out of the whole net. The name of Budddha flashed in his heart. And he became courageous, feeling to atone for the killing of an innocent squirrel. Somehow he spent the night. When he woke up his body was still aching. The hot night resulted in his sweating profusely keeping a mark on the bed sheet where his back rested.

The realisation and the silent resolution taking shape in him to get himself rid of the group created a friction and unpleasant feeling in him as it pricked him in some other way as to how to activate his ideas, how to come out of their grip for he was realising that it would not be easy and all of them would mark him as coward. True that so far they were friends but knowing the position of Sashi he became scared. On the whole, it was quite some disquiet tension in him. Something was hammering in him, a resolution, but a fearful thought too was pulling him back. ‘A man is known by the company he keeps with,’ he suddenly remembered and decided never to rejoin the group in spite of the risk, whatever it is.

He decided to miss his school for a few days to avoid them, to remain alone at whatever cost. He vowed to himself not to repeat the act of killing any innocent living being again. ‘Never!’ he promised aloud.

And it was a coincidence that he saw at that moment the faces of Idris and Salim passing by his window. Idris called him by gesture and he immediately came out. There he saw Salim picking up a big piece of brickbat from the road and trying to throw it at a dog running at some speed. He ran after Salim as he was chasing the dog now to make sure that his brick would hit the animal.

While Salim did not think that he might in turn be chased by anybody, he jumped upon Salim before he could release the brickbat which fell down from his hand. And he bit Salim’s hand like a ferocious dog, baring his fangs like it, he felt. Before the three of them could realise what is going to happen, the dog fled at the turn of the road.

His father, returning from the market, stood face to face with them. Salim’s hand was bleeding. His face was down as if he could not comprehend how it might have happened. And by now, as the four were standing, some ten or twelve curious people from different directions seemed to be on their way towards this gathering. Manish felt guilty again of biting Salim. His head too was down. Suddeny he realised that his action was spontaneous like a dog’s if attacked by an enemy. Both Salim and he were thoughtful while the curious people were coming closer to them. Suddenly another thought crossed his mind that his action was spontaneous against the wrong doers. Yes, he would resist their action and must defend his position. As some were coming closer to them, the three boys looked at each other as if for a joint action. While Idris and Salim suddenly ran very fast he stood his ground to face the people and his father.

“What happened Manish?” His father asked, “Why they ran? I have never seen the two boys. Loban, known to us so long, also ran with them. And why the other one is bleeding?” Before he answered some men came near and it became clear that all of them were men of the locality. “Why Manish, what happened?” one of them asked. His father was still waiting for a reply.

Manish stood still for some time realising that Loban too was there whom he did notice. There must have been some purpose behind all of their coming, he thought and answered slowly, “They are wicked boys. One was running to kill Kele with a big stone. I stopped him and seeing him ferocious I could not resist myself to bite his hand.”
“Why quarrelling for that? It is not befitting for you to bite your friend!”

All looked at the speaker and found that he was the retired police inspector of their locality. “Hello Dada, how are you? I didn’t see you for some days.”I’m alright but tell Manish not to hobnob too closely with them. One of them I know, may be the other too. They live quite at a distance and one who’s almost a stranger was called to the police station once. He doesn’t have a good reputation. I wonder how Manish . . . . “Sorry uncle”, Manish said, “I knew him only a few days ago. I didn’t know him to be so wicked. I promise that I’ll never mix up with him.”
“I know Idris, who’s your class mate. His father is a pious man.”

While they were talking the gathering did not feel interest in their talk and were dispersing one after the other while talking among them that the boys quarrelled among themselves. “Okay, I am now going, come one day to my house. I have some talks that have been gathering dust for some time, and your sis-in-law was also enquiring about you.”

The father seemed to take hints from his call, nodding assent, telling, “O, sure. I shall come anytime, Dada”. Manish walked by the side of his father without a word but seemed thoughtful and resolute. The Police turned right on the way to his home and father and son continued on their way. After a few steps more Manish unexpectedly turned to his father and said, “I shall tell you everything.” And he took the vegetable bag from his father’s hand and continued like an obedient son.

About the Author
Aju Mukhopadhyay, a bilingual award winning poet, author and critic, writes fictions and essays too. He has authored 32 books and received several poetry awards from India and USA besides other honours. Recently he has received Albert Camus Centenary Writing Award, 2013 from Canada / Cyprus.

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